I Think About This a Lot: When Kimberly Shaw Ripped Off Her Wig on Melrose Place

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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.

Indisputable fact: The best moment in TV history occurred on April 27, 1994. It takes place during the last two minutes of an episode called “The Bitch Is Back,” at the latter end of Melrose Place’s second season.

The scene starts with a pretty redheaded woman (Dr. Kimberly Shaw, played by Marcia Cross) standing in front of a bathroom mirror. She’s just had hot beach-house sex, but you can tell her head hurts too much to enjoy any postcoital bliss. She rubs her temples, musses her beautiful hair, and takes a bunch of pills. Then she reaches to the side of her face and tears away, ripping off something that we soon understand to be a wig, revealing a Frankenstein-esque scar that runs the length of her nearly bald head. Anyone who was watching Fox that night was shrieking, I promise.

At a time when VCRs were still around, I had a collection of tapes of my favorite shows that I would watch over and over again until they became a part of who I was, embedded in my memory even now. The Kimberly-pulling-off-her-wig scene is the only one that makes me gasp every single time I see it — even when I rewatched the episode to prepare for this essay.

Kimberly looks otherworldly in that moment, and for just a few seconds it feels like the show has cracked wide open and it could go anywhere. She could pull off her hair and then her face and then her skin and organs and her entire body to eventually reveal an angry inhuman creature within. What if, while the first season of The X-Files was originally airing, it turned out that Darren Star soap operas were the ones with the aliens?

Alas, no aliens. But when Dr. Kimberly Shaw pulled off that wig, Melrose Place officially shed its theme of wholesome life lessons about young adulthood that had characterized its first season, and devolved into pure dramatic insanity. At the time, I delighted in how bonkers the show — especially Kimberly — was becoming. It was confirmed: the titular “Bitch” of the episode was back from the dead. And if something was decidedly off about her, well, we all knew the popular proverb: Bitches be crazy.

Melrose Place had been teasing Kimberly’s return for a while. Back in November 1993, she had supposedly been killed in a drunk-driving accident by her fiancé, Dr. Michael Mancini, the series’ most despicable villain. Michael was a manipulator extraordinaire who moved through women like they were a pair of dirty scrubs after three shifts in a row in the OR. To say that by April of the next year Michael had already moved on would be an understatement — Michael was newly married to his first wife’s sister, whom he’d already tried to kill (if you haven’t seen the show, I cannot begin to start explaining all of this here). A champion gaslighter, Michael is the kind of man who’d proudly go out of his way to make a woman feel like she was losing her mind.

But suddenly Michael begins to see Kimberly everywhere “like in a Stephen King novel.” She’s set up to be an ephemeral ghostlike figure, maybe even some manifestation of Michael’s guilty conscience. But Michael has no conscience and Kimberly is not a beautiful ghost. The Kimberly who Michael knew is in fact dead, and this new version is something else entirely.

Her wounds are physical and, prior to peak-HBO normalizing graphic violence, they’re so visceral and raw that I had to scream when I first saw them. When she takes off the wig she looks sick, and withered, and angry — she’s the shell of the person she was ,and Michael is responsible. He has dehumanized her, but she’ll keep up her façade. She’ll reunite with Michael and sleep with him at his beach house and keep popping pills and biding her time until she can seek her ultimate revenge.

I watched Melrose Place long before I learned that women are much more likely to be called “crazy” than men are, and that one in four women have been abused by an intimate partner. I certainly had no idea what “vagina dentata” meant and yet, something inside of me thrilled at the idea that Kimberly had transformed — that she was weak but she would grow stronger. Even then, in the back of my mind, I was rooting for justice.

It’s only upon revisiting the show that I realize why Kimberly’s gruesome scar continues to haunt me: This woman who had almost died due to her fiancé’s recklessness was made out to be the nutcase, and I didn’t question that characterization at all. I delighted in her transformation from responsible doctor with a weakness for shitty men to deranged lunatic out for vengeance. It would not occur to me until years later that Kimberly’s revenge plot — while perhaps a little extravagant for the benefit of what would become the premiere nighttime soap opera — was a more sane reaction to her circumstances than I’d given her credit for. Watching today, Kimberly’s anger feels righteous and well earned.

Dr. Kimberly Shaw is now the patron saint of “crazy” ex-girlfriends everywhere, the women who are mistreated and discarded and then dismissed as lunatics when they have every right to be mad as hell.

I Think About Kimberly Shaw Ripping Off Her Wig a Lot