The second season of Queen Sugar sees the series digging deeper into what made its debut such a blistering work of art — its trenchant exploration of the thorny politics, kinship, and excellence of what it means to be black in America today — while also being one of the most expertly framed and breathtakingly shot series on TV. There are certain moments, like when Nova flirts with a new love interest toward the end of “What Do I Care For Morning,” that are so gorgeous they deserve to be printed and framed. But balancing the various constraints of this series needs a steady hand. After all, Queen Sugar isn’t only about politics. At its core, the show is about the wondrous and prickly nature of family itself.
At first glance, “What Do I Care For Morning” seems a bit scattershot as if the various constraints of the series force it into too many directions. Each of the Bordelon siblings are wrestling with personal dramas and interpersonal conflicts: Nova finds herself at a symposium in Atlanta discussing mass incarceration, Charley continues to fight with Davis over custody of Micah, Ralph Angel tries to manage the farm as new threats emerge, all while Charley undermines his ability to make the hard decisions. But upon closer examination, these narratives weave a tale about the desire to heal in the face of how black bodies are considered disposable by society. It’s an incisive portrait of the ways this pain reverberates through families.
This theme crystallized for me watching Nova at the Atlanta symposium. Although I find Nova a fascinating character, actress Rutina Wesley has the unfortunate task of handling a lot of heady, political dialogue that lacks the subtlety Queen Sugar cultivates elsewhere. The dialogue works here because it isn’t just a vehicle to get a point across about the politics and racism that shapes black lives. (Even though I agree with Nova’s politics, you’ve got to admit her dialogue veers toward the heavy-handed.) Part of this is thanks to her newly introduced, soon-to-be love interest, Dr. Robert Dubois (Alimi Ballard), an epidemiologist who is on the panel. The two may share an end goal, but their approaches are vastly different. Robert looks at the bigger picture and bristles when Nova condemns mass incarceration as a form of “genocide.” She believes he’s simplifying certain issues and perhaps putting the weight on black people to rise above when it isn’t that simple.
“Who does society say is disposable?” Nova asks, unafraid to attack Robert’s points head-on. Watching their rapport, it doesn’t come across as combative but lively. It’s like political talk as foreplay. This dynamic only becomes more apparent as Robert trips over his words in obvious awe of Nova and calls her work “beautiful.” The next day, they share a few more moments together, conversing at a coffee shop and along a long stroll. Nova leaves Atlanta obviously smitten with Robert in ways she hasn’t been with any of her paramours since Calvin. That undoubtedly means we’ll see him again.
Queen Sugar is a swooningly romantic series. Its intimacy is what sets it apart from other shows, so it shouldn’t surprise that Nova isn’t the only Bordelon to find luck in the romance department this week. Violet and Hollywood are officially back together; the episode even opens on them post-coital in a hotel. They indulge each other with long dips in hot tubs, wine coolers, good food, and a lot of sex. It’s an obvious ploy to stave off the reality that Hollywood will have to return to the rig. Unfortunately, that moment comes sooner than they hoped when Hollywood gets a call notifying him he only has 48 hours before he needs to go back to work. So, he makes a startling suggestion to Violet: He’ll temporarily leave his job in order to return to St. Josephine with her. It’s a stunning reversal, given it’s usually women who must give up something crucial to let love flourish in pop culture. It’s a heartening gesture that cements the dedication between these two, even though Violet seems apprehensive about such a dramatic shift.
As much as I enjoyed the more romantic narratives of the episode, I found myself most struck by the issues Ralph Angel and Charley are mired in. Ralph Angel is undoubtedly dedicated to honoring his father’s legacy and taking great care of the sugar cane. But there is a brashness to him that suggests Charley’s overprotective stance isn’t exactly out of place — even if it isn’t fair. This comes into focus when Blue finds a drone buzzing overhead on the field until it crashes. Ralph Angel is passionate and has good instincts in some respects, but he isn’t as cunning as necessary to address the biggest obstacles in the way of Bordelon success: Sam Landry, Jacob Boudreaux, and the white establishment that prospers by keeping black progress in check. Like Ralph Angel, the moment I saw that drone surveilling the land, I knew who was behind it. Like Ralph Angel, I too would have marched right down to Jacob’s office guided by anger, hoping he’d make a mistake that would justify sucker punching him. But as infuriating as he is, Jacob happens to be right about one thing: Ralph Angel knocking him out is an easy way to ensure he’ll land back in prison and not have the opportunity to do what his father hoped he could. Nevertheless, given that Jacob slyly threatens Blue by mentioning he shouldn’t be wandering the field alone — an obvious tell to how closely the Bordelon property is being watched — I have to commend Ralph Angel for not going further.
Watching Jacob and Ralph Angel interact brought to mind black-American history in regards to farming. “According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the number of black farmers has increased 12 percent since 2007, but black farmers still make up less than two percent of our nation’s farmers as a whole. To compare, in 1920, black farmers represented about 14 percent of the country’s farmers,” Madeline Thomas wrote for Grist in 2015. Men like Sam Landry and Jacob Boudreaux are flesh and blood emblems of a systemic problem. In America, Land holds a lot of power and value — financially, generationally, spiritually. The Bordelons fierce desire to tend the sugar cane and find success with the land their father left them is about more than money or power. It’s about reclaiming a destiny that was stolen by slavery, Jim Crow, and the wounds that linger due to this history. I think this is why I am always in awe of Charley. Even though she’s in such a vulnerable place due to Davis’ continued attempts to undermine her (and Micah’s desire to spend time with his father), she knows how to steel herself against the world. She’s a fascinating contradiction.
After Ralph Angel tells Charley about the drone, I braced myself for a showdown. The tension becomes even more heightened when Ralph Angel discovers a group of hooded men stealing sugar cane from the farm in the dead of night. With a gun in hand, he surprises them. They drive off in the distance before one man can get into the truck, but when Ralph Angel rips the man’s mask off, it isn’t who he expects. It’s Henry Lee (Terence Rosemore), a black farmer who is in such a desperate state he agreed to spy on the Bordelons and steal sugar cane for Sam.
When Ralph Angel and Charley storm down to Jacob’s office as a united front, I worried their emotions may get the best of them. But the writers behind Queen Sugar are too intelligent for such histrionics. Instead, Charley cuts down Sam and Jacob with that trademark glare of hers. She isn’t afraid to confront them “in the light of day,” she remarks, cackling when they try to frighten her. It’s a mistake to underestimate a woman as tenacious as Charley. She may have agreed to Davis’ desire for shared custody and chose to finally support Ralph Angel’s desire to do what he pleases with his share of the land so he can get a loan, but she isn’t soft. Charley just knows how to choose her battles and understands how important familial unity is right now. A reckoning is coming, but for now, the Bordelons and their kinfolk can focus on the more painful task of healing.