Dear White People
Is journalism the right profession for Lionel? Though observant, he’s way too docile to follow in the footsteps of gruff newspapermen like Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko. Their daily beat would have eaten him for breakfast, then picked its teeth with his nerdy-trendy glasses. Lionel is not comfortable in his own skin, though there are moments when a bit of the fighting spirit possesses his body and bullies him into fending for himself. While he is competent enough to keep his editor Silvio from firing him, his pieces tend to have the adverse effect of what he intended. Plus, he’s simply too meek to deal with uncooperative subjects.
But journalism is the profession Lionel has chosen for himself. “Ever the introvert, Lionel gravitated toward journalism, which allowed him to speak volumes without saying actual words,” our narrator tells us. “Chapter VIII” is all about Lionel’s journalistic endeavors, including the one that blew apart Gabe’s relationship with Sam. The episode also documents an alcohol-filled bonding session between Lionel and the straight object of his affection, Troy Fairbanks. As these two underaged college students sneak into an off-campus bar, Dear White People becomes an adventure in heteronormative hang sessions.
Before that night of fun can begin, Lionel must deal with the two banes of his journalistic existence: Silvio and the comments section. The latter is depicted as two preppy-ish white guys standing behind Lionel while reading his screen. They aren’t the only figments of Lionel’s imagination we’ll be privy to in this episode. His conscience, his Jiminy Cricket if you will, takes the guise of Silvio. “Lionel’s life had become an endless comments section,” we’re told, and Silvio Cricket is his one and only lifestyle troll. This makes sense, actually, as Silvio is the ideal representation of the two tenets of Lionel’s self-identity: He’s a competent journalist and a confident gay man. As Lionel lurches toward both of these achievements, Silvio Cricket is there to mock him at every turn, tossing out “judgement-filled non sequiturs.”
Back in the real world, Silvio is discussing Lionel’s latest article, titled “#BlackMindsGather,” and the trial by fire Gabe endured at the end of “Chapter VII.” Silvio likes the article, but he correctly points out, “It would have been great to get a quote or two from Gabe.” “Gabe didn’t want to talk to me,” Lionel explains. “Make him talk! Do your job!” Silvio replies. As Lionel continues to provide excuses, Silvio says, “Gurl, it is too early in the week for an existential meltdown!”
“I’M A MAN!” Lionel yells with as much bass in his voice as his 145-pound frame can muster.
Affecting his best imitation of Kathy Bates in Misery, Silvio asks, “Well, what do you wanna do, Mister Man?” Mister Man wants to write a piece on his roommate, Troy, and how he, like Reggie, is a victim of a racist system. Silvio shoots Lionel enough shade to gain permanent residence in the Beyhive. “Troy is a legacy kid and student body president. How is he a victim?” he asks. “Let me write the piece and I’ll show you,” Lionel says.
Instead, Silvio gives the assignment to Lionel’s fellow writer, Brooke. You may remember Brooke from “Chapter II,” where she dismantled Lionel’s front-page article on the blackface party. Brooke is Lionel’s nemesis, an ambitious young woman who barely gets any sleep and is clearly on something like speed or cocaine. With her round face and glasses, she resembles Lionel’s bigger, smarter, and meaner older sister. She’ll be more objective on the Troy piece because, unlike Lionel, she’d never sniff a pair of Troy’s drawers.
“Research?” Silvio Cricket asks as he catches Lionel home alone with a face full of the aforementioned underwear. “You should be out finding somebody to sniff YOUR manties!” Lionel takes his conscience’s advice and pulls up the Bonr app on his phone. (Bonr is like Grindr, but with a better-looking user interface.) The horny guys on Bonr are intimidatingly pretty, way too self-absorbed, and into things you ain’t never heard of before. “Who says romance is dead?” Lionel asks.
Suddenly, Troy barges in on Lionel’s Bonr session. “It’s been a long day,” he says, “and you’re the only one who can give me what I need.” No, this isn’t Lionel’s imagination. Troy is really there and he was not misquoted. Unfortunately, what he needs is a partner for Nintendo. Troy plays Super Mario the way my Mom used to play Duck Hunt when I was a kid: He curses up a storm at every mistake.
Troy provides an explanation for his outbursts: “Straight guys are encouraged to never express the range of full emotion, causing it all to be bottled up inside, only to be expressed by sports.” This is why sports are such a big deal on college campuses like Winchester. Tomorrow is the Griffin Week Parade, which celebrates the university’s sucky football team and the departed Thane Lockwood.
Lionel is supposed to cover this parade, but he convinces Troy to be the subject of his piece instead. So when Brooke shows up and tries to do her job, her competition lights a fire under Lionel’s ass. Dragging Troy away, he lies about Brooke’s intentions. “I can still hear you!” Brooke says. She’ll have her revenge later, though — it turns out that the parade housed a bigger story for Brooke than the one Lionel gets out of Troy.
Meanwhile, Lionel stumbles upon the biggest scoop yet for us viewers. Looking through a hole in a bush, he sees Reggie and Sam. “Look,” Sam says, “I got caught up last night.” “I’m still caught up!” Reggie says. Now we know for sure that Reggie and Sam smashed.
The couple’s blinding lust may have been the reason for the printing mishap on Sam’s protest posters: “I can’t breath?” It’s a nice bit of revenge for Troy, whose speech had just been mocked by Sam. It’s also a source of amusement for Kurt, who shows up to remind Troy that he’s still got that sex video from “Chapter III.”
Seeing Kurt, Lionel, Reggie, Sam, and Troy interact in this scene, I realized these characters are very self-aware of what they represent. They know they’re types. A strange comfort comes with playing such expected roles, and that familiarity provides a sense of purpose on campus. The entire enterprise is like that old Looney Tunes cartoon where the wolf and the sheepdog are punching a clock and getting paid for the roles nature has them play.
At the off-campus bar where Troy and Lionel bond as bros, A.J., the very out gay bartender tells Lionel he was Troy’s freshman roommate. That would explain why Troy didn’t recoil from Lionel’s admission of his gayness. A.J. swears he knows Lionel from somewhere. Turns out Lionel has his own Bonr profile, one so tame he couldn’t even get a playdate at Romper Room with it. “I wanna put you in my pocket, you’re so adorbz!” A.J. tells him.
As the liquor flows, Lionel and Troy swap stories about their parents. Lionel was the product of an adulterous relationship, so he never knew his father. Troy feels suffocated by his father’s strict plans for him. “My father hasn’t said happy birthday to me in three years,” he tells Lionel. Troy also reveals that his mother left when he was young. “I understand why,” Troy says.
Liquor is a helluva social lubricant. When A.J. spins Thelma Houston’s disco jam “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,” Lionel hits the floor and dances like nobody’s watching. It also seems that liquor has loosened Troy’s heterosexuality. He invites Lionel into the men’s room for what looks like a sexual encounter. “By the urinals, how classy!” Silvio Cricket says. “I didn’t say stop!” But Troy wants Lionel’s penis not for pleasure, but for piss. “My dad makes me take drug tests,” he says, holding up a specimen cup. Lionel fills it.
After the bar closes, Lionel and Troy break into Silvio’s office to drink his 25-year old Scotch. Silvio suddenly appears, but this time, he’s the real thing. “What are you doing?!” he asks, busting the duo before they can open the bottle. When Troy runs out to puke, Silvio offers some brutal advice. “He’s straight,” he tells Lionel. “He’ll always be straight. You know that, right?” DeRon Horton’s reaction in this scene is a fascinating mix of denial and petulance.
Back at the room, Troy invites Lionel to watch TV with him. Before he joins Troy, he finishes his article and sends it to Silvio. The article violates every rule of the bro code — not to mention reporting ethics — revealing things about Troy that were told in confidence. But journalism is telling someone else’s truth, and Lionel has finally become comfortable with that. As he lays next to a sleeping Troy, Lionel looks at us like the confident, contented man he so badly wants to be.