This post contains spoilers for One Day at a Time Season 2.
Death scares on TV series can feel manipulative or gimmicky—but every now and again, a character’s trip to the hospital can yield beautiful moments of insight. That is the case with One Day at a Time’s Season 2 finale, which puts the show’s most beloved character, Lydia (Rita Moreno), in peril. After a fight with her daughter Penelope (Justina Machado), Lydia is found collapsed on the bathroom floor. When her family takes her to the hospital, they discover she’s had a stroke, and all they can do is wait for her to wake up. One by one, each family member expresses what Lydia has meant to them—and, in turn, reveals something about themselves. Finally, Lydia is seen between two realms, dancing with her late husband Berto (Tony Plana). But in the end, when Berto asks, “So, mi amor, is it time?” Lydia chooses life—simply saying, to rapturous applause, “Not yet.”
When the studio audience first saw the scene, Moreno says, they were taken aback. “Here's what's wonderful about how involved the audience has gotten with this familia,” she tells V.F. “When they see Tony Plana, the ghost of Tony Plana come into the hospital room, the entire audience, we had to do it again. The entire audience went, ‘No!’”
To be sure, the episode is a nail-biter,—and Plana’s presence seems to indicate that Lydia is going to cross over. Still, Moreno and Plana were “astonished” by the response; the director even had to instruct the audience not to be so vocal in their dismay. Once the audience saw the entire scene, however, they applauded and cheered—a response that indicated to Moreno that Lydia “is loved, and that makes me so happy.”
Moreno’s departure from the series would be devastating for several reasons, not least because it would deprive her various loved ones of closure. Her sickness allows each member of her family to express a new side of themselves: as Lydia lies unconscious, her grandson Alex (Marcel Ruiz)—an unshakable adolescent charmer—paints her nails and gossips about church. Her older grandchild ,Elena (Isabella Gomez), recalls how supportive Lydia was when she came out, then tearfully berates herself for forgetting how to speak Spanish: “I screwed myself. Because I lost my Spanish, I lost my connection to you.” And then there’s Penelope’s monologue—a simultaneously hilarious and gut-wrenching performance from Machado. It starts off angry: “I know you like to have the last word, but this is dramatic even for you.” Soon, however, it morphs into a tearful plea from a daughter who is not ready yet to lose her mother.
Machado calls this installment her favorite episode, and not just because of her own moment in the spotlight: “Oh my God, isn't that a freaking great monologue, girl? But everybody has a hell of a monologue. . . And that’s the thing. What I love about that piece, it’s like, it’s seamless. It’s really like a one-act play, that episode.”
Each actor, Machado sats, only filmed their scenes once or twice, “and that was it.” Moreno, who calls Machado the best acting partner she’s ever had, adds, “I love when we fight.”
Beyond the fight, this episode also closes a chapter in Lydia’s life that she’s been reluctant to put behind her. Most of One Day at a Time’s first season centers on preparations for Elena’s quinceañera. This season’s structure is a bit looser, but the most consistent story is Lydia’s decision to finally become an American citizen—partially owing to the newly fraught political landscape. She and Berto had planned on doing this years ago—but halted when they realized they would have to renounce their Cuban citizenship first. “We could not bring ourselves to do it. Cuba is home. Home, home. . . Becoming an American citizen would be like giving up,” Lydia explains in the season’s fourth episode, “Roots.”
Lydia’s stroke, just a few episodes later, comes right after she’s passed her citizenship test, and just before her swearing-in ceremony. Her decision not to cross over just yet is more than a decision to live—it’s also a decision to let go of her past, of both Berto and Cuba. Who knows? Maybe in her next chapter, Stephen Tobolowsky’s hopelessly smitten Dr. Leslie Berkowitz will even stand a chance with her. (Probably not, but hey, hope springs eternal.) As Moreno puts it, the writers on this series “sure know how to write twisty endings.” But this is more than a well-executed twist—it’s also a meaningful ending, and a doorway to boundless potential.
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Laura BradleyLaura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com. She was formerly an editorial assistant at Slate and lives in Brooklyn.