“What Lies Beneath” isn’t the most daring episode of Black-ish, and it’s probably not the palate cleanser a lot of people were looking for after last week’s guest appearance from Chris Brown. But it is an episode that shows how far Black-ish has come with its full-scale rehabilitation of Dre, who once had the dubious distinction of being both the protagonist and the most irritating character. Black-ish has a smaller margin for error when it isn’t tackling a hot-button issue or cultural nuance, but that margin has grown wider because, frankly, Dre is a lot less of a dick than he once was.
Raven-Symoné returns to Black-ish as Rhonda, Dre’s lesbian younger sister. One of Dre’s most obnoxious moments came in season one’s “Elephant in the Room,” the episode when Rhonda shows up with her mechanic girlfriend and grapples with if and how to come out to Ruby. Dre, as he was prone to doing in those days, made Rhonda’s struggle all about himself and wound up essentially coming out for Rhonda rather than letting her do it when she was ready. Dre’s behavior was childish and petty, and too often Black-ish was a show that worked in spite of Dre rather than because of him.
In “Beneath,” Dre is practically a different person. He stumbles upon Pops listening to E-40 and is delighted to see him, a sentiment the audience can no doubt relate to given Laurence Fishburne’s intermittent appearances. Dre’s excitement crumbles when he finds out Pops is enjoying some private hangout time with Rhonda; Dre didn’t even realize she was in town. This is the rare situation in which a season-one-Dre temper tantrum would be completely reasonable. No one wants to know their younger sibling is Dad’s favorite child, and Rhonda and Pops are totally unapologetic about having a special bond that Dre can’t tap into.
But the newly mature Dre doesn’t melt down, he just hangs out with Ruby, someone who actually appreciates his company. As it turns out, Dre is only handling Pops’s rejection so well because he thinks Ruby is the virtuous parent and Pops is the villain. “Why do you always stick up for him?” says Dre after Pops asks to borrow money yet again. Rhonda says they both chose sides as children, and not because either parent was “the good one.” To prove her case, Rhonda casually drops the bombshell that Ruby had an affair with Dre’s high-school gym teacher.
Here’s another opportunity for Dre to freak out and call Ruby on the carpet for betraying him or embarrassing him or whatever other overdramatic reaction he might have had in the old days. And Dre does, in fact, offer Ruby the “opportunity” to apologize to him for sleeping with his teacher, an opportunity she promptly rejects. Dre sees Ruby as a black angel Christmas-tree topper come to life, and while she enjoys being seen that way, she doesn’t have any responsibility to behave in line with his unrealistic expectations of her. The episode ends with Dre sobbing quietly in bed next to Bow, again choosing the proper venue for his emotional outburst. Our little Dre is all grown up.
So too is Zoey, who gets forced to take Junior along with her to a party that turns out to be unsupervised and stocked with hunch punch and THC-dusted potato chips. The scheme is Rainbow’s way of keeping tabs on the too-cool-for-school Zoey, who later ends up being returned home in the back of a squad car. Bow leaps to conclusions, especially when she finds Junior sprawled in his bed in the throes of a serious potato-chip high. Luckily Junior is still coherent enough to explain that Zoey was actually taking care of him when the other partygoers were trying to take advantage of him.
In an unusual change of pace, most of the laughs come from a paper-thin C-plot featuring Jack and Diane as they realize Bow’s pregnancy brain means no one is paying attention to any mischief they might make. The twins cut a path of destruction through the house, much of it right under Bow’s nose, and director Beth McCarthy-Miller has a lot of fun shooting their Adventures in Babysitting–style stunts. Usually a plot that separates the twins from the rest of the cast isn’t going to win the episode, but perhaps that’s appropriate for a Black-ish episode all about how family can surprise you sometimes.