How do we heal? This is the question at the heart of “Caroling Dusk,” the fifth episode of Queen Sugar’s second season. Time can be a cruel mistress. It doesn’t heal every wound completely. So what should people do when emotional scars linger even after the obvious signs of past calamities do not? The Bordelon siblings and those in their orbit are experiencing a multitude of issues including deep-seated loneliness, the bone-shaking fear in the wake of a young black man’s unjust arrest, the death of loved ones, and the end of important romantic relationships. It’s sometimes difficult to parse out the emotionally complexity of Queen Sugar, a series in which every gesture and every frame carries tremendous weight, but this episode gives us a surprising focal point: the juxtaposition of Charley and Darla as they both try to rebuild their lives.
Queen Sugar ended last week on Darla’s mournful face after she was cruelly (although arguably justly) fired for skipping work to be by Ralph Angel’s side at the farm. Now she’s navigating a landscape in which finding new work is difficult. The gaps in her résumé underscore her history of addiction. Pressure from Ralph Angel is also at an all-time high. “You don’t have to do this all by yourself,” he says after proposing that she live with him and Blue. Ralph Angel wants the white-picket-fence fantasy with Darla. He doesn’t completely understand why she’s so attached to her own independence when she can lean on him for support. Even before Darla met with her sponsor, the underpinnings of her reasons against moving in with Ralph Angel made perfect sense to me: Depending on others for strength opens her up to a complacency that could lead to a relapse. But also I think a part of Darla doesn’t believe she deserves love, kindness, and such a comforting sense of family, given how many people she hurt during the throes of her addiction.
Later, when Darla gets back to the home, she finds Blue tearing up his room looking for his beloved doll Kenya while a frantic Ralph Angel searches by his side. The moment Darla crouched on the floor and heard what happened, a ripple in her facial expression confirmed what I feared: She threw the doll away. In that same tentative voice that marks most of her conversations, she tries to explain to Ralph Angel as his anger bubbles to the surface. “What am I going to do with sorry?!” Ralph Angel asks when she tries to apologize. This leads Ralph Angel on a futile quest, digging through the trash of the gas station where Darla thinks she threw away Kenya. This leads to a curious scene: Just as Ralph Angel is completely undone by having to dig through trash in order to find his son’s worn, beloved doll, a cop car rolls up.
Ralph Angel is able to avoid a parole violation and a return to prison because one of the officers, a black man, is an old friend. They end up talking about their past and present. It’s a touching scene, as the police officer thanks Ralph Angel for defending him from school bullies who realized he was gay even before he fully did. This is the second time Ralph Angel just skirts a parole violation. The threat of Ralph Angel going back to prison has loomed over the entire series. Would the show ever push his story back in that direction, given that he’s finally working toward a long-held desire to get his life in order? Is this commentary on the post-prison struggles of convicts and the ways black men’s lives are curtailed in our society?
When Ralph Angel returns home (without Kenya), it isn’t surprising he quickly reconnects with Darla. She opens up to him, admitting that she believed Blue only held onto Kenya so fiercely as a salve for her absence during the worst times of her addiction. Since she’s back, why does he care so deeply for this doll? Ralph Angel tries to console Darla, reminding her that Kenya is just a doll and has no bearing on her place in Blue’s life. It’s almost as if Darla can’t fully hear Ralph Angel, though. She’s still beating herself up for one mistake after another. “The one thing I know I’m good at is being his mother,” she admits. It’s the kind of moment that leaves a deep bruise.
Still, the scene that most affected me concerns Darla approaching Charley for help finding a job. Charley and Darla are a study in contrasts, which actresses Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Bianca Lawson display beautifully. While Charley is forthright and direct in her gaze, Darla is furtive, her eyes downcast, her voice sometimes just a whisper. She tries to convince Charley that despite the huge gaps in her résumé, she’s a worthwhile worker. Charley openly critiques Darla’s work experience, but her interest is piqued when she notices the prestigious companies she interned at several years ago. Darla explains, somewhat opaquely, that was thanks to her family. When Charley asks why Darla doesn’t go to them for help, she all but says she’s been disowned. “Sometimes things can get lost in translation and spiral,” Charley says, trying to encourage Darla to contact her family. The intensity of this scene is almost jarring. What begins as a simple request for help dovetails into a dramatic display of Darla’s familial wounds. It’s a triumph: The close-ups, fine acting, and warm lighting make me hope to see Charley and Darla interact more. That shouldn’t be too difficult, since by the end of the episode Charley offers Darla a position as her assistant at the mill’s office — which, given the look on Ralph Angel’s face, means things are about to get even more complicated.
Before all of that happens, though, “Caroling Dusk” opens with Charley in therapy. A tense smile spreads across her face as she calls Micah, who uses Nova’s Habitat for Humanity project as an excuse to skip the session. Charley is defensive when the therapist turns the focus to her life, navigating difficult questions about her mother and “generational patterns” with a practiced smile and subtle PR speak. At one point, she does touch on her tense dynamic with her mother — ”She wanted me to be perfect,” she reveals — but even this admission elides the heart of the matter.
While Charley deals with the therapist, Micah is enjoying his time with Nova and the surprising return of Dr. Robert Dubois. I’m glad Robert is back so soon, even if Nova is reticent to fully give in to their mutual attraction. (Until the end of the episode, that is, when she takes a step toward the romance.) Micah’s decision to help out Nova is also notable for the presence of Davis coming to pick him up.
Let’s talk about Davis for a moment. When he shows up at the Habitat for Humanity event, Nova gives him a look that could chill a man to the bone. I was struck by Davis’s curious expression when Micah said “our people” while praising Robert’s work within and for the black community. Let’s be honest, Davis is coddled by his wealth. He doesn’t think about personal and institutional ramifications of racism with much depth, which makes his use of Habitat for Humanity as a PR opportunity all the more disingenuous.
It also wasn’t lost on me the way Davis cast lustful eyes toward Tamar Judith (Margot Bingham), a pop star supporting Habitat for Humanity. That she returns his gaze means she’ll be back soon enough. But is anyone interested in Davis finding a new romantic relationship? Even seeing him open up to Micah during their one-on-one basketball game wasn’t enough for me to see him as anything other than opportunistic and selfish.
On the other side, it seems Charley’s most obvious option for comfort would be Remy — despite their tense conversation in last week’s episode about the dynamics of black success and upward mobility — but instead, she turns to Nova. So far this this season, Nova feels a bit disconnected from her siblings. Her story lines revolving around New Orleans and activism within that city are certainly moving, but as a result, her interactions with Charley and Ralph Angel don’t get as much focus as they deserve, since she isn’t as involved with the farm. Watching Charley and Nova joke, open up, and truly talk to each other again was beautiful to witness. Even though Charley does not share Nova’s spirituality or interest in rootwork, the delicate ritual they enact seems like an important exercise for her. As the therapy scenes demonstrate, Charley is so focused on her goals, she rarely takes a moment to slow down and process everything she’s been through. When will she acknowledge the wounds she’s afraid to scrutinize in the light? Underneath her refined aesthetics and obvious ambition, who does Charley want to be?