Fresh Off the Boat
Fresh Off the Boat is at its best when the focus is on the family. Well into its third season, the show has considered the inner workings of the Huang family quite a lot, but “Sisters Without Subtext” illustrates just how much territory has yet to be explored. This episode focuses on a relationship that hits particularly close to home: that of Jessica and her older sister Connie, locked in eternal competition in the way that only sisters can be.
Jealousy rears its ugly head, but it’s clear from the way Jessica and Connie’s fight plays out that it’s always simmering below the surface. And although the neat and tidy resolution of Jessica’s jealousy feels a little too tidy for me, the limitations of the form can’t be ignored. A half-hour network sitcom can’t pack a lifetime’s worth of deeply felt resentment and complicated family strife into a single episode. It’s a testament to this show’s strength that despite the quick one-and-done nature of the ending, I was still moved. Sisterhood is a complicated union that forces people to become de facto emergency contacts, by dint of family and blood. Jessica and Connie’s relationship is my new favorite. Let’s get into it.
A series of postcards, sent to Jessica from Connie from a variety of exotic locales — Ithaca, Indiana, and Athens, Georgia — kicks off the action. Connie is finally getting her act together and going back to college. Here is the inception of the heady mixture of jealousy, resentment, and self-disappointment that powers the rest of the episode. At first, Jessica’s proud of Connie, though it is very clearly a false pride. Yes, it’s great that Connie can go back to school. Of course Jessica wishes she could further her education, but kids, family, and becoming a real-estate tycoon in the greater Orlando area take up an awful lot of time. Good for Connie, getting her life together! Beauty school isn’t real school, anyway. Maybe Connie’s trying to be more like Jessica!
Connie is naturally very wary of her sister’s sincerity, and she has every single right to be. But, as per the subtitles that underscore every conversation, Jessica’s actually being sincere. She’s proud of her sister for going to college, so of course she’ll accompany her on some campus visits. I don’t care if her sincerity is genuine, though. I know the way sisters work. Emotions run hot, triggered by the littlest things.
The car ride, scored by their shared love of the music from The Color Purple goes well, but the careful truce Jessica has built with herself and her own best intentions collapses immediately upon arrival at the Orlando School of Art and Design. There are long-haired men in natural-fiber button-downs roaming in packs, carrying “thin briefcases” that are actually portfolios for their art. The dean of students uses devil sticks. There’s at least one white person with dreadlocks. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare and Jessica is rightfully aghast. Connie isn’t going to school to study business administration or marketing or to get her MBA. She wants to go to art school, a dream fueled by an afternoon spent sitting in front of “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” (the painting, not the movie) and eating a hot dog. She started painting, figured out she was good at it, and here we are, standing on the campus of a fictional art school, as Jessica practically vibrates with suppressed rage.
Back at the house, Louis interprets his wife’s silence as happiness, but anyone who’s been watching the show for more than three minutes will understand the truth. It’s actually a deep cup of judgment that is about to runneth over, a facade for what will be a huge showdown that will eventually make me cry.
Jessica furiously works in an attempt to stave off whatever storm is brewing deep within. She cracks when Connie asks for scrap fabric for a collage, they get into a big fight, and Connie storms off. Louis carefully pokes the bear, not knowing what he’s in for, but ready to handle it just the same. Art school is a waste of money! It’s not a career. Jessica works hard because that’s what you’re supposed to do: work to make money to make something of yourself. The freak-out feels a bit outsize, even for her, and all is revealed when she takes Louis to the garage and reveals her secret — a cache of hilariously awful figurative paintings, including one titled “Timothy that looks at Rebecca,” which will haunt my dreams for years to come.
The final showdown happens when Connie gets back from her exploratory fabric-finding mission. She didn’t know about Jessica’s paintings or the fact that Jessica loved art way before Connie did. Like all younger sisters do, Connie rightfully clocks Jessica for being jealous, but that’s where she’s wrong. Jessica grew up and realized that adulthood is about more than just painting and art. It’s about family, survival, and exceptionalism. Art is a luxury that Jessica would never allow herself to have. Who has time to pursue passions? Passions don’t make money.
The only person in this world who can bring Jessica to her senses is Louis. He does a pretty good job of it when he comes upon his wife melodramatically standing over her paintings, which are stuffed in a trash can, ready to set fire to her dreams. Aside from the fact that art isn’t her strong suit, painting is a hobby. Hobbies are not something Jessica understands: She sees no reason why anyone would partake in an activity that doesn’t make money or serve some other practical use. This is second-generation immigrant guilt — feeling like you need to be more than enough, practical to a fault, and dogged in your conquest to succeed. Hobbies are useless because they don’t serve a purpose other than to the self. Jessica and Louis don’t have to work like their parents did, though. They’re in a better place. They’ve sacrificed. It’s okay to make time for self-care, though I’m pretty sure if Jessica knew about self-care, she’d hate it.
And so the reconciliation occurs like we knew it would, with Jessica singing “Miss Celie’s Blues” to her sister, making amends through song, as the subtitles that are so necessary for their life together spell out their genuine apologies.
A large part of me wishes that the children were not in this episode, but I’m sure contractually, they have to be, so here goes: Marvin and Honey watch them for the day. They take them to a retirement home that Marvin’s checking out because … hey, he’s old! Honey learns to face her mortality earlier than she planned, and the boys spend a lot of time previewing what their twilight years could possibly hold: dinner at 4 p.m. and a pudding bar. I didn’t need to see any of this and would’ve loved the extra screen time for the real story here, but once again, contracts, right?
We end on a happy note (when has this show ever ended on a sad note?), as Jessica settles in to her studio in the garage. She gets an hour to paint while Louis handles the lunches, waters the plants, and yells at Eddie. Self-care is real, Jessica! Embrace it while you can.