Emmy spotlight: Debra Messing’s quietly powerful performance in ‘Will & Grace’s’ #MeToo episode cannot be forgotten

In December, Debra Messing earned a Golden Globe nomination for “Will & Grace,” which came as a minor surprise since she was only in ninth place in our predictions. But anyone who saw last season — and one episode in particular — knows she deserved that nomination and would be incredibly worthy of an Emmy bid as well. That episode in question is “Grace’s Secret,” which aired in November and was written by Suzanne Martin. You may have heard by now that it was Grace’s #MeToo episode, but what makes it extraordinary is how ordinary everything is about it, anchored by Messing’s subtle, powerful performance.

It even starts off innocuously with Grace (Messing) dreading the hours-long car ride with her father Martin (Robert Klein) to Schenectady to visit her mother’s grave, while Will (Eric McCormack) and Karen (Megan Mullally) compete in a “Jack-off” to become Jack’s (Sean Hayes) best man back at home. Martin also wants to visit the grave of his BFF Harry, which Grace is not really on board with. In retrospect, we obviously know why (or you could’ve figured it out if you saw the episode title), but in the moment, you could read it as Grace not wanting to spend a second longer with her curmudgeonly old man on a long road trip.

This sets up their lunch stop at a diner (watch above), where Martin calls the waitress, Patty (Martha Kelly), “sweetheart,” irking Grace even more and prompting Martin to complain about how everyone’s “so sensitive” these days. Harry comes up again, with Martin revealing that he had gotten Grace a job working for his pal one summer and he can’t believe she never apologized for stealing money from Harry. She reminds him that she had told him the whole summer that Harry was “creepy,” which Martin dismisses with “he was flirty guy” and “it was a different time” excuses, even asking if Harry had “pat you on the tushy,” as if that’s even remotely OK.

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Fed up, Grace gets up to leave, putting on her jacket, until Martin stops her dead in her tracks when he suggests she may be “misremembering.” Grace had spent this entire time avoiding this conversation, but she’s now determined to address this. “No, no! I remember! I remember every single thing that happened that day!” she says with a tone so stern Martin is the one who now doesn’t want to talk about it. “No, we’re talking,” she informs him, taking off her jacket, sitting back down and matter-of-factly recounting that day in excruciating detail with the assurance, strength and anger of someone finally reclaiming her voice.

“He closed the blinds. He pushed me up against the wall. I tried to scream, but he told me ‘Quiet.’ Then he started kissing me and touching me. And then he pulled down my pants, put his fingers up…” Grace says before an increasingly uneasy Martin cuts her off with “Stop!” “I was 15,” she reminds him. They sit in silence until Patty returns to send us to commercial by breaking the terrible news to the two that they’re out of shrimp salad. “I know,” she says, seeing their despondence, “I’m disappointed too.” Which, honestly, was the best way to break that tension.

Messing is remarkable throughout this whole scene with everything she does and doesn’t do. The entire reveal sort of sneaks up on you, thanks to her astutely calibrated fury. She never overplays Grace’s anger, but you could always sense it burning up inside her. When Martin questions Grace’s memory, Messing’s whole tone, posture and being change in this instance. Again, it’s underplayed. There are no hysterics or tears or screaming or even swelling music that you might expect when sitcoms go heavy in a Very Special Episode, but her subtle shifts and straightforward retelling of her assault cut deeper, and feel more raw and true to life than any melodramatics would have.

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As does Grace’s explanation for how she’s kept this secret for so long: “You just kinda split yourself into two people: the person it happened to and the one who gets through the day. And then you grow up, and your life gets bigger, and that stuff gets smaller.” It sounds like a casual explanation, but it’s devastating in its verisimilitude. People don’t live in sitcoms, where characters talk things out and reach some emotional catharsis in 22 minutes. In real life, survivors work their entire lives to find ways to move on with their secret forever lurking underneath, unbeknownst to the world.

Messing is equally moving later on in the episode when she reveals, to viewers only, that her mother Bobbi (the late Debbie Reynolds) was the only person she had told about the assault, telling her mother’s grave that Martin handled it better than Bobbi had predicted, and she feels better now that she’s told him and he’s apologized. And in another departure from your standard Very Special Episode, the installment ends without the other three finding out Grace’s secret. She returns home and only shares that the trip “was a lot of things, but it was good, really good” before asking about their brunch. Messing’s quiet restraint and loaded delivery harken back to what she had just told her dad. She got through the day, and life goes on.

A five-time Emmy nominee for “Will & Grace,” Messing won Best Comedy Actress in 2003, making the sitcom the third show whose entire regular cast all won Emmys. While Messing didn’t make the cut for the revival last year, the show received five nominations, including two in acting for Mullally and guest star Molly Shannon, and won for editing and cinematography, so it’s still on voters’ radar. “Grace’s Secret” aired a while ago, but let’s hope voters remember every single thing about that episode and Messing’s performance.

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