In “Meaningful Survival,” Lady Mae finally gets a little more to do as she manipulates deacons and Bishop Greenleaf to get what she wants. Lynn Whitfield makes Greenleaf crackle with energy, which will surely keep the show interesting even as it bulks up with another storyline.
At Excellence, the school Kerissa runs as headmistress, standardized test scores are lagging, so she demands her instructors teach to the test. Excessive standardized testing is a major issue in schools, especially for those in urban communities. If students don’t perform well on these tests, budgets and teachers are cut. Without money to pay for good teachers and supplies, how can administrators improve test scores? By teaching to the test and not preparing students for larger, real-world applications. And if that doesn’t work, the remaining options are even more grim: Schools shut down, students must move to other schools, overcrowding happens, and myriad issues spiral from there.
Isabel, Noah’s fiancée, is a teacher at Excellence and struggles with the biases and conflicts of standardized testing. She tells Noah she wants to leave Memphis and escape the web of the Greenleaf family. She reminds Noah of his dream of moving to Colorado to become a ski and/or mountain guide, which sounds an awful lot like Fitz and Olivia’s dream of moving to Vermont to make jam on Scandal. Noah’s not ready to leave yet. Isabel accuses him of wanting to stay near Grace, but he insists that’s not it. Sure, Noah.
Standardized testing and its effects on black students is an important subject, even though Greenleaf is already filled to the brim with story threads to follow. Getting this glimpse into life at Excellence helps make Kerissa more human. It fills out her character so that we see she’s more than just a nagging wife. She cares about her work and her students. The way she snaps at Isabel shows she’s letting her marital issues with Jacob affect her elsewhere.
Jacob, in a sloppy move, accidentally texts Kerissa when he meant to text Alexa. At dinner, Kerissa interrupts the family’s praise reports at dinner just as Kevin is about to announce Charity is carrying twins, and tells the whole family that Jacob is cheating on her. Bishop Greenleaf eventually fires Alexa and suspends Jacob from any church leadership role for the next 90 days. He replaces him with Grace, which finally gets Jacob and Kerissa on the same page. Jacob tells Kerissa she was right about Grace taking over. Getting rid of Grace will be the first thing this married couple has worked together to accomplish in a long time.
Grace is supposed to be the show’s lead character, but her problems are often the least remarkable. (The only exception? When she’s plotting Uncle Mac’s downfall.) This week, Grace is learning how to balance her secular wisdom against the rules of Christianity and the church hierarchy. She’s trying to help parents deal with the constant health issues of their son, Joshua, who was born 25 weeks premature. He’s now a small boy, but he’s been plagued by health problems, including frequent surgeries. His father resents Bishop Greenleaf for using trite prayers to suggest that Joshua’s suffering is part of God’s plan.
Grace and Bishop Greenleaf go to the hospital to offer more prayer, but she warns him not to give false hope. At first he’s resistant, wanting to provide comfort, but he soon realizes that he cannot guarantee that God plans to heal Joshua. Later, he tells Grace he should’ve listened to her about more things, including calling the police on Uncle Mac when Grace first told him about Faith. Bishop is willing to listen to Grace now. He admits everything would be better now if he had listened to her back then. After she accepts his offer of replacing Jacob in various leadership roles — but not preaching — Grace tells him she’s going to start a group for sexual-assault survivors.
Will Greenleaf show these sessions with survivors? Is Grace qualified to run this kind of group? Rape and sexual assault are sensitive subjects that should be handled with care, respect, and nuance. Will Greenleaf, with all of its prime-time soapy goodness, be able to manage that? It’s hard to tell. I appreciate the show’s willingness to depict the long-term effects of sexual assault and the silence around it, but with so much of television drawing from the well of sexual violence, it’s not easy to know if the audience will want to subject themselves to that.
As Grace gains favor with her father, her mother continues to see her as some kind of disease. Lady Mae literally calls her a plague while meeting with former deacon Connie Sykes, who walked out during Bishop’s Back the Blue sermon/publicity stunt. Lady Mae tries to convince Deacon Sykes to return because she needs order. Since Grace’s return, everything has been upside down. Deacon Sykes isn’t persuaded, so Lady Mae turns her charms to Fred Williams, another deacon board member. She is as sweet as the sugar she tempts Deacon Williams with, practically batting her lashes at him as she pretends to take his advice about not purchasing a new jet. When Bishop Greenleaf sees through her manipulation, he finally goes to see Deacon Sykes himself. She agrees to return to the church, but only after Bishop promises to mount a small plaque commemorating Kenny Collins, the young man killed by police officer David Nelson.
While Lady Mae worked both deacons, I was hoping to learn more about what lies beneath her slick, sweet exterior. We’ve seen everyone’s secrets, more or less — including a shot of Kevin searching through a faux Grindr app, looking at sweaty, shirtless men as he’s curled up with his pregnant wife. As Lady Mae charmed the deacons, I expected her to seduce one or both of them. When Whitfield is onscreen, you have to track her every move. She’s mesmerizing. And there must be something more to Lady Mae’s dislike of her own child, Grace. Now that Alexa is gone, Lady Mae will take over her old office, moving her and Grace onto a collision course. Greenleaf has finally laid the groundwork to watch mother and daughter clash. And hopefully, that means more chances to see Lady Mae, period.