Black-ish Recap: Happy Birthday, Black Jesus

Marsai Martin as Diane, Yara Shahidi as Zoey, Jenifer Lewis as Ruby, Marcus Scribner as Junior, and Miles Brown as Jack. Photo: Ron Batzdorff/ABC
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It's nice to see Pops again. He's been missing for a while, and his Fred Sanfordlike insults to Dre are always good for a few chuckles. In this episode, Black-ish starts trying to fill the hole that Charlie left behind. Now that he's gone — and the show's winter hiatus looms — Dre's new boss Daphne seems to be stepping into his spot.

"Stuff" begins with a holiday crisis. Pops decides to take over the Johnson Christmas because Dre has spoiled it. He took a beautiful family tradition, and turned it into crap. Pops and Mama Ruby think Dre and his family are wrong to focus on stuff for Christmas. (Hence the title of the episode.) After Jack and Diane complain about the number of presents under the tree, Dre realizes his parents may be right. Pops puts all of their presents in the trunk of his car, then announces that each member of the family will get only one gift. Bow tries to shoehorn volunteering into his lesson, but everyone shoots her down.

Of course, the kids are upset by these changes, so they start plotting to get their Christmas presents back. There should be little doubt that Diane runs this operation, suggesting that they each work their strengths to make Dre and Bow cave: Zoey and Jack will be kind, Diane will be helpful, and Junior will simply disappear.

Diane is a clear standout, but it's worth noting how much stronger the Johnson kids have been as a unit this far into the season. Black-ish gives each child an opportunity for a solo story line, but it's often the weakest part of the show — these story lines aren't bad, just not as strong as everything else. When the kids work together — like on Halloween or to help Charlie woo an ex — it makes for some good laughs.

At work, Dre's co-workers don't understand his family's one-gift Christmas. Mr. Stevens likens it to a fear campaign: First create a panic, then offer a solution. Daphne takes a shot at anti-vaccinators before launching into an awkward, melancholy lament about how her recent divorce means she'll be alone for the holidays. Dre invites her to Christmas dinner, but she shoots him down, refusing to accept pity.

Back at home, the kids' plan is working. Zoey and Jack are building gingerbread houses together. Diane is completing chores. Junior is tucked away under his bed. Dre and Bow are so impressed, they almost give in — until Pops stops them. In private, Dre and Bow continue to doubt what they're doing. Dre doesn't want his kids to have a bad holiday, like the ones he remembers from his childhood. After he reminisces about how his father refused to buy him a pair of clay-colored Riedell skates, Dre and Bow decide to sneak a bigger Christmas to the kids.

Christmas Eve dinner consists of Church's chicken, and suddenly, it's all too much for Dre. He lashes out at his father, and says he's proud to be able to provide for his family. Everyone goes upstairs to the huge closet in Dre and Bow's room for Secret Christmas. Bow doesn't think Dre is in the best state of mind to give out presents, but he tosses gifts to the kids, who appear ungrateful for what they've received. After they complain and crack snarky jokes, Dre is disappointed that he stood up for them. They proved Pops right. He goes back downstairs to admit defeat. As fathers, Dre says to Pops, they're supposed to give their children more than what they have — but that doesn't always work out for the best.

On Christmas Day, Daphne shows up after getting a second invitation from Bow, but she's surprised at how dour everyone seems. Mama Ruby prepares a birthday cake for Black Jesus, and sings to him: "… for He's a jolly good Savior, whom nobody can renounce." Daphne can't hang, so she leaves to get Chinese food with Lucy from work. It's clear that Black-ish wants to work Daphne into the fiber of the show, but the loss of Deon Cole's Charlie still stings. (We miss you, Charlie!) Wanda Sykes works well as Daphne, and I don't have any issues with her character, but scenes like that feel too forced. Daphne may need a bit more elbow grease before she manages to work her way into Dre's family life.

Pops admits to Dre that he's never liked Church's chicken. He couldn't provide more for his family, so he had to pretend that what he could provide was the best stuff out there. Pops and Dre both realize they're overcompensating. As a spirit of compromise hangs in the air between them, Pops gives Dre his long-awaited rollerskates and the kids apologize, promising to be more grateful for what Dre does for them year-round.

It's not often we get to see Laurence Fishburne be flat-out funny, and on Black-ish, he brings such tenderness to Pops's old-school masculinity. When confronted with more emotion and affection than he's used to seeing, Pops may drop his head, but he doesn't stop the outpouring of love between Dre and his children. Though Pops can have a hard time understanding the new-monied traditions Dre wants to create for his family, he understands and respects why his son does so. The intergenerational lessons between the Johnson family are some of the best gifts that Black-ish gives its audience — and just in time too, since this is the show's last episode before the winter hiatus. Dre, Bow, and the rest of the Johnson family will return in early January.