Warning: This article contains spoilers for the "On the Road Again" episode of Brothers & Sisters.
The death of Robert McCallister (Rob Lowe) in Sunday night’s season finale of Brothers & Sisters may have been one of the worst-kept secrets in television history.
But the same episode, "On the Road Again," contained another a pivotal plot-twist that caught many viewers by complete surprise.
Uncle Saul, played by Ron Rifkin, is HIV-positive.
He joins an extremely small number of gay characters on scripted American television who have ever been identified as HIV-positive. The last such character, at least in such a high-profile TV project, may have been the character of Vince Taylor (Anthony Azizi) on the 2005-2006 series Commander-in-Chief.
Other regular gay or bisexual HIV-positive characters in TV history include Lee Campbell on The Best Years (a Canadian import that aired on The N in 2007), and several characters on the Showtime series Queer as Folk.
Television’s highest profile regular HIV-positive characters ever were probably Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben) on E.R. and Robert Caldwell (Mark Harmon) on St. Elsewhere. Speedy, also known as Mia Dearden, is an HIV-positive superhero introduced on the latest season of Smallville (in a cameo).
Still, these characters, like most HIV-positive characters on TV to date, are heterosexual — perhaps reflecting the entertainment industry’s ambivalence toward HIV/AIDS and their reluctance to reinforce the mistaken notion that AIDS is a "gay" disease.
But by repeatedly promoting the well-intentioned idea that you don’t have to be gay to get HIV/AIDS, Hollywood has reinforced another misperception: that most cases of HIV infection in the U.S. were not among gay and bisexual men when, in fact, they were (and still are).
In last night’s Brothers & Sisters episode, Saul is contacted by an old friend (and one-time romantic interest) via Facebook. When Kevin and Scotty casually point out from the friend’s profile that he’s been living with AIDS for many years, it leads Saul to admit that he’s never actually been tested for the virus that causes AIDS.
Saul admits that, decades earlier, he had had a series of random, unprotected sexual encounters that resulted because of widespread ignorance about the facts of HIV/AIDS and his own deeply internalized shame.
After much prompting by the Walker family, Saul finally agrees to get tested. At the testing center, he learns that it is possible to carry the virus for many years without showing symptoms of the disease (and that HIV-infection rates are currently rising among the elderly thanks to sexual enhancement drugs).
Later, after phoning in to get the results of his test (something not allowed in most testing centers), Saul tells the family that he is fine, that he has tested negative.
But the family is later involved in a car crash at the end of the episode — an accident that ends up taking Robert McCallister’s life. Saul is injured as well and is bleeding, but when Kevin approaches to help him, he says, "Don’t touch me! You can’t."
In other words, he has lied about the results of his test. He is HIV-positive, and his blood is infectious.
Currently, gay and bisexual men make up half of all HIV infections in the U.S. and slightly more than half of new infections, according to the CDC.
Estimates of the number of gay men currently living with HIV range from ten percent to forty percent in certain cities. A 2010 study of gay men in Washington D.C. found that 14% of gay men in that city are HIV-positive.
Sunday night’s Brothers & Sisters plot-twist, coming in the last episode of the season, gives the show an opportunity to deal with an issue that has been ignored by mainstream television for far too long: HIV infection among gay and bisexual men, particularly among the elderly.
It also gives the show a chance to do something interesting with Ron Rifkin, a talented actor who has been given little to do on the show to date, despite the revelation that he is gay early in the second season.
According to Hollywood Reporter, the show has been renewed for a fifth season.