The decision to cast soap fan favorite Roger Howarth as serial killing artist Robert “Franco” Frank has polarized fans for years. Through three writing regimes, the character’s past has been retconned and revisited with little satisfactory result. Five years later, GH embarked on its darkest visit to Franco’s past yet, by revealing his character was sexually abused as a child. For some, this is the series’ latest attempt to force acceptance for polarizing character by making him a victim. I have a different take on it, one that closes the book on a project current co-head writer Shelly Altman started with previous co-head writer Jean Passanante three years prior.
It was my November op-ed that really opened my eyes to the work being done to the Franco character to address what should have been years prior. Jean Passanante and Shelly Altman became co-head writers in October 2015 and embarked on a journey of reset, repair and realign. It’s no secret Franco’s reintroduction to the canvas by then-head writer Ron Carlivati was messy. Unable to utilize One Life to Live character Todd Manning because of the Prospect Park lawsuit, Howarth was given a character like Todd without any of the nuanced characterization. Franco’s return was riddled with ill-conceived retcons that trivialized his victims’ trauma, lazily capitalized on actor pairing by shoehorning a Franco/Carly romance. Mistakes were made, which is bound to happen when a short-term character created to serve one purpose – create mayhem – is reimagined as a long-term character, and GH’s new writers had to do so something. Thus, began what I’m referring to as the “Reconciliation of Franco: Journey through a Killer’s Psyche”.
Franco began questioning his purpose in life, set about by then-girlfriend Nina’s desire for children. Franco knew he didn’t want to be a father, worried his darkness would be passed onto his kid. This led to irreconcilable differences and ultimately the collapse of his relationship with Nina, and the beginning of his journey to finding himself. It wasn’t perfect, but Passanante and Altman were steady in their task of turning Franco into a fully-fledged character. He was no longer written as an off-brand, diet version of Todd Manning, and doing so led to doubling down on explaining who Franco was and who he was becoming. A new career as an art therapist, which saw him help an emotionally traumatized child he saw parts of himself in, opened the door to something he could have never foreseen – happiness. Because of Jake Webber, he was able to form a friendship and later a romance with his mother Elizabeth Webber.
Elizabeth changed Franco’s life for the better. She made him want to be a better person, but he didn’t know how. He had to learn, and part of learning meant atoning for his actions. It wasn’t until Franco fell in love with Elizabeth, and learned of her surviving sexual assault, that he faced the reality and depths of the trauma he inflicted on Sam Morgan in 2011 – when he (then-James Franco) stalked, drugged and sexually assaulted her on her honeymoon with Jason. His apologies until then were hollow – blaming the tumor for his depravity. The 2013 retcon – he didn’t rape Sam, he just allowed her and Jason to believe he did – glossed that he still violated Sam in the drugging and undressing of her person, nor did it address the psychological trauma inflicted. Franco believed he and Tom Baker were nothing alike, but he realized they were more alike than he wanted to admit.
Months later, an existential crisis would once again lead to Franco revisiting his past. Can he truly be happy and start a life with Elizabeth if he can’t reconcile who he was with who he was becoming? Now back in the art world and lawsuits from his civil cases settled, Franco needed to know if the tumor truly caused his misdeeds or if he was truly evil. He couldn’t be the man who loved Elizabeth and her children if he was, and his obsession with revisiting his past would lead to the final breakthrough. It was messy, inconsistent and continued through yet another creative change (enter Shelly Altman and Chris Van Etten as head writers), but it was the continuation of a journey that began two years prior. For months Franco was haunted by a memory of pushing Drew Cain (Jason’s twin brother and briefly Franco’s adopted brother) down stairs as a child. He let this memory nearly destroy his relationship with Elizabeth, as he was keeping yet another secret from her. Franco wanted to be good, not just for Elizabeth and her boys, but for himself. And he didn’t believe he could if he was capable of that.
The introduction of Jim Harvey, a man who once dated Betsy Frank, would be the final piece of the puzzle. Unsettled by his arrival, Franco began searching for more answers, seeking out help from those around him to uncover the mysteries deep within his subconscious. With the help of Dr. Kevin Collins, Franco began exploring the concepts of good and bad, right and wrong, and how it related to his childhood. As it became increasingly clear Jim was hiding something, he escalated his attacks on Franco – leaving him to die in the earthquake, trying to turn Drew with the knowledge of Franco pushing him down the stairs, and later attempting to bury both Drew and Franco alive in a construction project. Finally, with support from Elizabeth and Kevin, Franco increased and therapy and had a breakthrough.
We now know that yes, Franco did push Drew down the stairs, but it was to protect Drew, to get him away so “Uncle Jim” couldn’t hurt him the way he was hurting Franco. Franco confronted Jim (after Jim’s failed attempt to kidnap Elizabeth and Jake) and forced him to admit what he did. Franco had every intention of murdering Jim, but Franco opted not to after thinking about Elizabeth. Would he have been justified in doing so? Absolutely. In a circular moment, Franco had a choice and made the one that wouldn’t make him a murderer.
I touched on this briefly in the newest episode of TV Source Magazine’s Week in Soaps podcast. I understand the fan criticisms who feel this is yet another attempt to “redeem” the character and that Franco is getting to confront his abuser in a way his victims weren’t allowed to do with him. That’s valid. But here’s the thing though — the character is already viable in the eyes of creative, executives and the network. It’s viable in the eyes of the focus groups who like Howarth and enjoy the pairing with Elizabeth. They’re not writing stories to change the minds of people who hate Franco. The Franco hate has been noted, and they’ve moved on. I’ve been vocal about my issues, but I’m not going to hold this creative team accountable for the failures of their predecessors.
Let me say this — Franco being a victim of sexual abuse does not in any way excuse his prior actions. It does not in any way explain his prior actions. It does not in any way provide redemption. It’s on us as fans, and my peers in the media, to not set that narrative and hold creative accountable for ensuring they don’t attempt it. Franco did what he did, he hurt who he hurt and character-wise, he’ll always have to live with that. For the people who hate Franco, nothing the show does, other than writing him out and killing him off will satisfy. But for those who chose to (grudgingly or not) accept canon, and look at things different, this serves as the final chapter — the bookend to Franco’s reconstruction.
You are not defined by your past trauma. Yes, it’s a part of you, but you don’t have to let it control you. It’s a struggle, it won’t be easy, but it’s possible. I know because it’s something I deal with every day as a survivor of sexual assault and abuse. This is not how I would have hoped to see this sensitive, topical issue addressed, nor is Franco the character I would have chosen as a vehicle to tell this story. There is no such thing as a perfect victim. And Franco — with his history of questionable, sociopathic and predatory behavior, certainly doesn’t fit that label.
Where does Franco go from here? I sincerely hope GH has moved past The Makings of a Serial Killer and onto Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through. I would like to see Franco continue therapy with Kevin as he embraces Scott Baldwin, Elizabeth and her children as his present and future. With the plot driven storytelling out of the way, focus more on how these characters move onto the next chapter in their lives. General Hospital is at it’s best when focusing on the heart.
I didn’t write this to change your mind, I didn’t write this to defend the misdeeds of a controversial character. I think I wrote it for myself if I’m being honest. It’s hard to adequately express a viewpoint in 280 characters on social media, and a subject like this deserved more than a tweet.
Anyone affected by sexual assault, whether it happened to you or someone you care about, can find support on the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. You can also visit online.rainn.org to receive support via confidential online chat.