‘General Hospital’ ripped out our hearts and stomped them into mash

This week, ABC’s “General Hospital” killed off Franco Baldwin (Roger Howarth).

The character was divisive to many viewers.

The actor? Beloved by viewers for the uncommon authenticity, humor, and intelligence he brought to every scene.

Franco’s tragic death at the hands of easily the most hated villain in the show’s history was heightened by stirring direction and storytelling and breathtaking performances from everyone involved.

In the March 10th episode, his grieving widow Elizabeth (the always sublime Rebecca Herbst) tried to quell her impossible grief long enough to talk to the police and to get home to her boys.

Her oldest son Cam (William Lipton) left a tender voicemail for Franco as EMTs finished covering the body and removed it from the crime scene.

Franco’s father Scott (veteran Kin Shriner) raged against the unfairness of losing a child.

“Why is there not a law? There should be a law that says a kid does not die before his parents.”

Cam was working on his homework when he heard the door and assumed it was his mother finally home.

And standing there, smiling, was Franco.

Wait. What?

Franco was there with an important message. He asked Cam to remember one thing: “You changed the world. You changed me…. You made me believe that I could be a better person. And for awhile, I think I was.”

The two hugged, and Franco just as quickly departed.

Cam awoke with a start.

His mother broke the sad news to him that Franco had died, and if you weren’t bawling here, you might want to head to the ER to get your heart shocked with those paddles. This was brutal, raw television.

Cam cycled through denial to horror to overwhelming anguish.

“I should have been there! I should have been there!” he sobbed in his mother’s arms.

Watch for yourself:

Just hand out the Emmys to all involved in this heartbreaking arc.

Franco has been trending since on Twitter. In an unexpected move, perhaps prompted by ABC correctly gauging the popularity of the actor, the typically press-shy Howarth told “Soap Opera Digest” that he’s only going on hiatus and will back on “General Hospital” at some point. (Probably May sweeps, if I had to guess.)

“I’m really excited,” he said. “I have great faith in the people who think of these things. I’ve been in good hands so far.”

But who will he be playing?

The show has taken great pains to show us that Franco is truly and really dead. Cam found Franco’s body in the hospital morgue on Thursday’s episode.

Will Howarth return in his iconic role of Todd Manning? Or someone new?

Whatever happens, the events this week are sure to impact the show – and its loyal fans – for some time to come.