“Triggered”: A “Conners” Television Episode About Violence In Real Life

On the March 2, 2022 episode, “Triggered,” (season 4, episode 14) of The Connersthe family waits nervously for news of Emilio’s and Beverly Rose’s safety after they hear about a shooting at the local mall not far away. The shooter escapes into their neighborhood and police tell everyone to shelter in place. When Mary hears about the situation, she announces that they should block the front door and that she will get the checklist her school has given her to prepare for active shooter situations. Dan, the father and grandfather of the family, announces that if Mary wants to take charge–if that makes her feel more in control–then they should let her do that.

The Conners hear helicopters overhead and watch the local news, which is broadcasting as law enforcement engage a search for the suspect. The family discover that the suspect is James McNulty, a young man they know fairly well. In the past, he delivered their newspaper, and young Mary knows him from school.

Law enforcement engages him in a shootout, which the tv station unfortunately broadcasts live, and Dan pulls Mary into his arms to protect her from what he believes will happen next. He is correct. The police kill McNulty on air. Subsequently, Emilio and Beverly Rose return to the house and the family reunites safely.

The rest of the episode explores each character’s reaction to what they have experienced. Dan is upset because he believes he was unable to protect his family. Becky has trouble coming to terms with allowing her daughter to leave the house without her. Mary doesn’t want to leave the house and return to school because she doesn’t feel physically safe, even though she has participated in school safety drills. Darlene tries to find some psychological counseling for her and discovers that the school district provides one psychologist for a student population of 1500. Harris, Darlene’s daughter, believes that ultimately the problem is guns, and takes Dan’s gun to the police station to trade it in through the city of Lanford’s buy-back program. She gives Dan the cash she received. Dan is furious, of course. He points out that she carried out her self-righteous act without asking for his permission to trade in his weapon. She acknowledges that he has a point and agrees to make up the difference between what the buy-back program provided for the value of the gun and its original cost. Each character except Beverly Rose attempts to deal with the aftereffects of the onscreen killing in a different and ineffective way, although a way that linked to his or her beliefs about violence and politics.

Becky finally agrees to allow her daughter to attend a birthday party for a friend, understanding that she can’t protect Beverly Rose from the world. The family moves on, although each member of the Conner clan carries some scars, except for Beverly Rose, who seems to have escaped the horror. She demands to go to the party, and assists her mother and the rest of her family in moving on.

“Triggered” presents layers of meaning throughout the episode. To begin with, the title of the episode makes reference both to the literal action of the suspect’s gun and the police officers’ weapons in response to his, and to the reactions of the show’s characters as they watch the violence unfold on their television screen. It “triggers” them: it causes them trauma.

What is particularly interesting about this episode is that nowhere does the show depict any violence. Unlike dramas such as Law & Order that show actual violence and then the victims’, police, witnesses’, and suspects’ reactions to it, even in less than graphic detail, or comedies such as Mike & Molly or Night Court that usually depict violence in more humorous ways, this episode of The Connors presents only the reactions of the main characters. It forces us to imagine the violence through the characters’ words and our own thoughts. We put ourselves in their places. What is important about “Triggered” is not that it offers a solution to the gun violence problem in the United States. Of course it doesn’t. Instead, it presents us with realistic views of the problem and the recognition that solutions are not simple. The writers and Conners star Lecy Goranson note that a fan suggested that the show feature the gun violence epidemic and its effects on American society. Said Goranson, in an interview with Deadline:

She told me she knew who I was and had been watching the show forever and that she’s a high school teacher in Elgin. She suggested we write about gun violence, something they were experiencing locally. Since then, the gun and violence issue has grown worse and is an epidemic all over the country. 

As Alfred Hitchcock said, “I believe in putting the horror in the minds of the audience, and not necessarily on the screen.” The episode “Triggered” does that. While it ends with a sense of purpose as well as the acknowledgement that life goes on, it also reminds us that in spite of that ending, the horror continues in the background, and could emerge to find us at any time.