I Think About This a Lot: The Golden Girls Plotline Where Rose Is Addicted to Pills

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Remember Rose’s pill addiction? Photo-Illustration: Jeni Zhen; Photo: NBC/Getty Images

I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.

“Do we really need to talk about this?” she asks, sitting cross-legged, shoes brushing against the arms of the same chair she sat in when she first moved into this office my freshman year of high school, but probably different from the chair she sat in when I first met her in seventh grade.

“I just want answers. I just need to know why this is happening,” I tell her.

“Okay. Well, in my professional opinion: for whatever reason, Golden Girls fills some sort of emotional need. Emotional, but maybe not, you know, the most cognitive programming.”

It’s the second week my therapist has told me, no excuses, to stop watching Golden Girls at all hours.

“Just turn it off. Or don’t turn it on. Why is this so hard?”

All sitcoms feel like salves to me, but there’s something particularly soothing about Golden Girls. It’s the third month of my daily routine of coming home from work each night, turning on Golden Girls, and letting it autoplay until bedtime. When it’s time for bed, I pause the current episode, click out of the player, and decide which episode to fall asleep to. It’s important to change seasons for bedtime the way it’s important to acknowledge milestones, celebrate birthdays, and grieve deaths. (Also the reason I couldn’t last in Los Angeles: no change of seasons.) Your waking hours should be scored by episodes that aired a few years before the ones you fall asleep to, so your physical body and unconscious mind understand that time progresses and actions have consequences. Your body knows. Your soul can tell.

I was first obsessed with the show as a child before I returned, like all do in their 27th year, to the dangerous and fertile land of things that are probably very pertinent to my traumas and issues. The show centers around four Miami Beach transplants of a certain age: three widows, one divorcee. Their antics range around but often center on getting married — everyone on the show gets engaged at least once — or discovering something from the past, reconciling past loves, current confusions, ever-present femininity. Endless antics!

But because they’re all in their golden years, the stories play differently than other sitcoms. They don’t get stuck in the common trope of the woman being an overbearing wet blanket, arms crossed and holding back the leading man from all the fun. Women are allowed to be funny, smart, scared, and quixotic. They live together because they can’t afford otherwise, and their friendship is so sacred because the other option is dying alone. The show revels in both raunch and darkness, wrapping it up with quirky yet ruthless one-liners, and tops it off with canned laughter.

During my daily ritual of watching Golden Girls until I fell asleep, one episode in particular became the object of my obsession. During the fourth season, Rose Nylund (played by Betty White) casually reveals she’s been addicted to pills for decades. Uh … what? Surprise! It slips out when Rose can’t find a bottle of pills, and Sophia admits that she was looking for the oregano when she accidentally knocked a bottle into the sink. The girls get suspicious when Rose’s mood swings back to goofy and pleasant when only the day before she had a temper tantrum and yelled, at a visiting character, “It’ll only take a second to knock you on your keister, buddy. Now what’s it gonna be?” This aggression is unheard of from Rose, and when she glosses over the fight, Dorothy and Blanche connect her erratic mood with the loss of her pills.

The girls press her about details until Rose reveals her pills are actually painkillers prescribed when she wrenched her back after “an old farming injury,” because “after 17 years of pulling a plow, poor old Bessie was worn out” and Rose got hurt pulling the plow … 30 years ago. Dorothy and Blanche doubt that her doctor wanted her to be on the pills for so long, so Rose takes them up on the challenge of quitting cold turkey.

Rose lasts a few hours before they catch her trying to break edge. Because Golden Girls anchors itself around scenes of older women eating cheesecake in the middle of the night, Rose keeps her pills in the kitchen cupboard instead of in her bedroom or bathroom like a normal person. She promises to “start stopping tomorrow” because tonight is “the anniversary of the death of my beloved cat, Fluffy.” Dorothy calls bullshit: “Rose, you have never had cats, you’re allergic.”

“Okay, it’s the anniversary of the death of my beloved brother, Fluffy.”

“You’re gonna have to do better than that, Rose.”

Sophia chimes in: “Aw, give her some credit. The woman’s never told a lie in her life, nobody does it great the first time.” (The scene is also a great example of how Sophia, a Sicilian immigrant from Brooklyn, always carries her straw purse, even when she’s just going to the kitchen in her bathrobe.)

The girls help her make it through the night by keeping her company, eating cake and playing St. Olaf’s bootleg version of Monopoly. But Rose isn’t cured after one night, and Dorothy walks in on her taking a pill. She demands Rose hand it over, but then realizes: “This is Fred Flintstone. His nose is dissolved, but it’s definitely Fred Flintstone.” Even though Rose is just taking her vitamins, she admits that she gave in and fell off the wagon last night. Dorothy begs Rose to let her call a recovery center, but Rose refuses, and says, “I think the first step is for me to make that call,” as she heroically crosses the kitchen, looks Dorothy in the eye, and picks up the phone.

And then Rose is cured! Well, not exactly, but kind of. The show jumps 30 days into the future as the girls welcome Rose back from the hospital. Rose explains to the girls, “Oh, I’ll never be cured. But I know now I can live without drugs my whole life one day at a time” before going on a tangent about her weird hometown. And everything is back to normal. “Same old Rose,” the girls tell each other as Rose drones on about St. Olaf’s chickens. But … wasn’t her old self … addicted to drugs?

So, if we buy this story line and treat it as canon, Rose has been addicted to drugs for the past 30 years, including each and every day she’s lived in Blanche’s house. In the beginning of the episode, it’s clear that it’s very stressful for Rose to go even one or two days without her pills, so they have to have been ever-present in her life. This means that every single scene in every single previous episode is altered with the knowledge that she could have been high as a kite. Everything we know to be true about Rose could be a total lie.

“High Anxiety” becomes the uncanny valley of sitcom PSAs. In this episode, the more they try to treat Rose’s problem realistically, the more absurd and novel it becomes. It’s like if the notorious Saved by the Bell Jessie Spano pills scene was recast with senior citizens, which sounds like the mutterings of young stoners zoning out in front of another rerun. But — as far as I can tell? — it was real.

I Think About This a Lot: Golden Girls’ Pill Addiction Plot