Black-ish transformed last night’s iconic Trump episode, “Lemons,” into a play-by-play rundown of the country’s emotions and passions on and after election night, and as usual the points made were comedically poignant and often brilliant. But I’m still grappling with how the episode ended.
The show continues to be a cultural touchstone with low-key excellent, relatable episodes that often slide under the radar in a prestige landscape. The writers are fearless with their contentiousness, covering themes under an evergreen umbrella of ongoing debates (i.e. spanking, Atheism, kids on social media) in an effort to be a communal reflection of the black experience. Like the show’s handling of police brutality and Black Lives Matter last season, this one was the rare urgent family TV episode about a real current event. In fact, the realest.
“What happens when the winners and the losers are supposed to be on the same team?” Dre wonders this in his opening monologue as the family watches the election results on TV, fittingly to the soundtrack of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” In an episode that takes place two months after the election, each character is made to be a familiar reflection of yourself or someone you know. Through them, the show was able to recreate not just a moment in history but a feeling.
Though Jack, the youngest, is briefly depicted as the naive idealist who sees things half-full, Diane’s perspective is largely absent as they focus on the adults and older kids. Distraught, Bow goes through a charitable purge and wears her advocacy on her sleeves in the form of UNICEP flip-flops and Habitat for Humanity sweatpants. She also continually urges Zoey to be more visibly active. Instead, Zoey speaks through small meaningful acts; in this case, making lemonade for her school’s Healing Rally. “Our values don’t disappear just because our side lost one election,” Zoey tells Bow. “And in the next one, me and my friends will be voting.” Hope! Cool. Junior, on the other hand, has a rude woke awakening when grandpa teaches him the depth of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech beyond what’s taught in schools.
The toughest and funniest scenes play out in Dre’s workplace, which is where many Americans no doubt felt the bulk of heaviness because of how cold and divided a workplace can be. This is where Dre’s boss Mr. Stevens describes Mitt Romney, a unicorn in comparison to Donald Trump, as “a beautiful, coif-haired tax genius made in a president factory,” and where Hillary is described as “the Ben Carson of white women.” The team writes on a whiteboard to figure out “Whose fault is this?” with arguments including black voters didn’t turn out for Hillary Clinton as they did for Barack Obama, and white women are to blame. Daphne, played by Wanda Sykes, says at one point, “Lucy, as a resident white woman, if there was ever a cue for you to talk, it would be now. Why didn’t your sisters turn out for Hillary?” They find out that Lucy is a Trump voter.
It’s clear throughout the episode that the writers want to paint a distasteful picture of Trump and stress that the country made a mistake in electing him but that we have to deal with this mess. We see it in the show’s skillful manifestations of different psyches. In the most intense and necessary scene, Dre’s boss accuses him of being apathetic and Dre proceeds with a speech about his personal history with America. These are the moments where Black-ish shines, in showing how Dre’s emotions build and erupt to the point that he no longer cares about being perceived as an angry black man in a work environment.
“You don’t think I care about this country? I love this country, even though at times it doesn’t love me back. For my whole life, my parents, my grandparents, me, for most black people this system has never worked for us. But we still play ball, tried to do our best to live by the rules even though we knew they would never work out in our favor,” Dre says. “I’m used to things not going my way. I’m sorry that you’re not and it’s blowing your mind. So excuse me if I get a little offended, because I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains.”
There is perhaps no way to end an episode of a family show than with a message of hope (and I feel like that’s a repetitive point made about almost every controversial Black-ish episode). But I hate that this great episode had to end with Dre giving Trump’s supporters even a grain of a benefit of the doubt, even if it happened in a way that didn’t completely absolve Trump voters. I will never understand a person who voted for Trump and Dre says he may not either: “Do I understand what anybody in their right mind could have seen in Trump? But maybe that’s why we lost.” Dre chooses to focus on unity (because family TV has to focus on The Message) and says he doesn’t believe it’s possible that most of Trump’s supporters were “nuts” or “racist.” Maybe not, but the point is they were destructively complacent.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the ending was disappointing like our real-life one. Black-ish is notable for finding eloquent pathways to diplomatic resolutions either way, aware that the truth is a debris of complexity that’s difficult to articulate. There’s no doubt that “Lemons” was classic television that managed to capture a snapshot of America in an ugly moment.