It had to be done. After episodes like "Hope" and even the lower stakes (but still topical) "40 Acres and a Vote," Black-ish had to touch on the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. It would ring false if it didn't acknowledge the new order save for a few barbs here and there, and if there's one thing Black-ish is all about, it's keeping it real. Even when the president-elect thinks the very concept of the title — which is sufficiently explained in the pilot episode, — is offensive in the first place.
Unfortunately, keeping it real isn't always the most pleasant way to go about things, and even though Black-ish approaches Wednesday's episode titled "Lemons" in the best way possible in terms of simultaneously continuing to function as a comedy, a family comedy and a work of art with meaning, it doesn't make things easier.
But of course, the Kenya Barris-written and directed episode doesn't expect things to be easy. One minute, the show is making the audience happy that Dre's former co-worker Lucy is back after a wrongful termination and now has the power she always deserved via a lawsuit. The next minute, it turns out this hero in her own story is a white woman who voted for Donald Trump, since, in her mind, "Hillary Clinton is the Ben Carson of white women."
The episode storyline is packed, which is why Ruby, Jack and Diane's parts of the episode are essentially a one-and-done scene. Ruby already had her Trump moment in the sun episodes ago with the realization that despite her black womanhood, her ideals line up more with Republicans, but Jack and Diane's absence is an understandable choice and definitely the best one. "Hope" had to deal with the Johnsons explaining the concepts of a world of violence to the youngest members of the family, but considering all that needs to be unpacked in this scenario — and the episode itself still maintains that it barely even scratches the surface of the election — there's just not enough time to do it. And the cutesiness of Jack and Diane (even with Diane's precociousness scaling more toward the side of sociopathy) just won't belong here, especially with all the frustrations. A quick beat reminding us that Ruby's delusional, Diane's scary and Jack is somehow getting dumber are all we need.
Plus, a plot focusing heavily on those three characters would most likely be all about them looking for some sort of conflict or trouble, and that's not the bread and butter of this week's plots — even when Junior has his brief dance with becoming a Black Panther-esque freedom fighter.
"Lemons" is all about somehow maintaining a sense of law and order while also keeping it real. Rainbow wants Zoey to get angry and active, but that's a want stemming from a fear that she herself hasn't been active enough. Junior wants to get woke, but it's up to Pops' guidance for him to know how to channel that. And Dre, of all people, wants to keep things moving in the places he can control (like at work), to keep from letting the weight of the world crush him — or even worse, have him snap back.
To ultimately say the United States is exactly the same post-election would be so unlike Black-ish, and the episode does a great job highlighting the anger from all angles, the frustration and even the isolation that can exist on similar sides. Truly, the Dre storyline captures all of these feelings the most, especially as it does the brunt of the work when it comes to the actual discussion of how the election could end up the way it did.
But the Junior storyline has claim to be the stealth highlight of the episode. Having a white male student (and then predominantly white class) tell a female teacher from Spain she's going to be deported isn't even a little funny, even when the actual joke that follows (with Junior confirming she will probably be deported soon because of bureaucracy... not that the kids chanting knew that) lands. Especially when the reality of such a situation is even worse, as post-election news stories have reported that the teachers are telling students they'll be deported.
So Pops having genuine history knowledge and alerting Junior to the full version of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech (which is more of a battle cry than Junior had ever been taught to know), as well as the full versions of the Constitution and the "Star-Spangled Banner," is already a win against ignorance, even before it becomes a cautionary tale on what to do when you become "too woke."
The storyline is a win for Junior in this episode, and given his classmates' absolutely hateful behavior and the much-acknowledged fact that he's in a predominantly white school, he needs the lessons he gets here. He's a good and smart kid, and Black-ish is really good about making sure that sort of character is regularly seen. Even Zoey, who appears to be frighteningly disconnected and disaffected in the aftermath of the election, makes a statement in making lemonade out of "love," something that has and should not have any political agenda. Plus, as Zoey points out, neither she nor her siblings are old enough to vote, but they certainly have a sense of civic pride that can allow for a better form of optimism than Jack's misguided "glass half full" — when the glass is actually completely empty... and also a bowl — approach.
After episodes upon episodes of building up how much of a cartoon Stevens and Lido is — especially compared to the rest of Black-ish — "Lemons" finally says it, and somehow uses that to point out nearly every single bullet point in conversation about the election. Pretty sneaky, sis. And while it's expected going into this episode that Dre's co-workers will have many things to say about the election, the fact that even Dre's caricature-esque villain of a boss Mr. Stevens didn't even vote for Trump instantly flips perspectives. The only two people in the Stevens and Lido circle who voted for Trump are Lucy and Stevens' terrifying son Connor, who really only have the color of their skin in common. So as the inner circle tries to figure out "who to blame" for the election, the usual Black-ish approach to things is shifted by Dre's lack of participation.
Dre often gets ranked at the bottom of the Johnson pile because his overzealousness and tunnel vision can mostly be more frustrating than entertaining: It's expected, and it's typically tired. With Anthony Anderson, the instinct is for him to play it big, even though a straight man Dre in this bizarre world (which is often the case when he's at work) or even a Dre who tries to rein in his own crazy tends to lead to some of the best stuff for this character.
Here, it's a restrained Dre who sees what this election has done to the world — to his home, to his neighborhood, to his work, to his kids' school — and just wants a distraction from this. Anderson has developed such a schtick that it's easy to overlook that he's got a lot more in his acting tank than just the excitable Dre. Here, it's in Dre's silent rage at work and the fact that as much as he wants to distract himself from this reality, he just can't. While Junior's storyline is a stealth highlight of the episode, Dre's eventual reaction to Mr. Stevens' bold, rather tone-deaf question ("Why do you not care about what's happening to our country?") to him is the definitive moment of the episode:
"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, had to live in neighborhoods that you wouldn't drive through, send our kids to schools with books so beat up you couldn't read them, work jobs that you wouldn't consider in your nightmares. Black people wake up every day believing our lives are gonna change even though everything around us says it's not. Truth be told, you ask most black people and they tell you no matter who won the election, they don't expect the hood to get better. But they still voted because that's what you're supposed to do. You think I'm not sad that Hillary didn't win? That I'm not terrified about what Trump's about to do? 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. I love this country as much — if not more — than you do. And don't you ever forget that."
It's powerful, and it hurts so much, and it's Black-ish knocking things out of the park, yet again.
And while, by this point in Black-ish, it should be expected that the show is going to tackle these issues, there are probably some viewers who were also trying to use this show as a distraction and found themselves disappointed that this episode didn't provide one. To that, think about how Black-ish isn't afraid to talk about the issues, and while popular culture is certainly an escapism, that doesn't mean it should shy away from doing such things.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade; in the case of Black-ish, it's doing so artistically. Dre and Black-ish's conclusion calls for people from all sides to come together, and even maintains that a vote for Trump doesn't necessarily make someone sexist, racist, crazy or stupid. It's more of a reasonable glass-half-full concept than what young Jack brings up earlier in the episode, even if it doesn't go deeper into the fact that it's more than a little hard to "come together" with those people who actually are actively sexist, racist, etc. (Come on, there's already a lot unpacked in this 20-plus minutes of network television.) But there's ultimately still room for conversation — even if it's just in the form of art — and that's what Black-ish is and shall always be about.