Queen Sugar Recap: Making History

Queen Sugar

Line of Our Elders
Season 2 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: OWN

The dinner table is not just a physical place, but a cultural touchstone. It’s an emotional nexus that resonates at a different frequency for every family. For some, it represents a bond that holds blood relatives together. But it can also be a cudgel, excavating wounds that reverberate through generations. Throughout Queen Sugar, the Bordelons have had both tense and heartfelt conversations at their dinner table. So even when things feel frayed between this family, they find a way to come together. In some respects, this is a beautiful portrait of how black families thrive by leaning on one another and the importance of community. Lately, however, I have found that the issues between the Bordelon siblings need to simmer more than they’ve been allowed to.

These characters are navigating a myriad of fraught dynamics, yet because of the threats that come from outside the home — police brutality, Sam Landry, racial strife — the issues that exist between them tend to be neatly solved or brushed into the background by episode’s end. This creates a tinge of dishonesty. So much drama is left unexplored among the siblings that Queen Sugar can feel a bit toothless in some respects. The woes between them often lack permanence. Perhaps the filmmakers behind the series feel the bonds between the Bordelons are inviolable. Some harsh words and emotional skirmishes may happen, but nothing that would ever cause lasting damage.

I expected to see the same thing in this week’s episode as the Bordelons came to the dinner table after events that put them, particularly Charley, through an emotional gauntlet. But “Line of Our Elders” surprised me by ending mid-fight, at a moment when bitter insults still lingered in the air and nothing was solved after a series of revelations came to light. Most important, these revelations disrupt what Charley has fiercely cultivated just as she needs it most: her perfect image.

The opening of the mill and the fanfare around it is the lynch pin to this episode. The image that Charley projects of the endlessly strong, beautiful, polished black woman is crucial to the success of her mill. It’s fascinating to watch people’s reaction to that image — particularly Darla, who is overwhelmed by her new responsibilities as an assistant. After she spills coffee on herself, Charley allows Darla to go into the barracks that she’s converted into an apartment of sorts to pick something else to wear. After all, it isn’t just Charley’s flawless image that’s important to the mill, but also that of her family and the people who work for her. Darla quietly marvels at Charley’s clothes. At one point, she takes her hair down and places a delicate black dress against her body, admiring herself in the mirror. Ralph Angel bristles when he later sees Darla in the dress. “You’re working for her and now you’re wearing her clothes,” he says. He softens moments later and compliments Darla, but it’s clear he has issues with the way she admires Charley.

Whether someone finds Charley’s presentation of herself inauthentic or enviable, it is undeniable that the pursuit of perfection can be a sort of armor for black women. In the New York Times, Jenna Wortham highlights how Beyoncé’s calculated online and public selves protect her in a way that also applies to Charley: “The Beyoncé we follow seems to live and breathe, and provokes a real emotional reaction. It’s an illusion that feels intimate and real, a hologram self for us to interact with that, in theory, provides the actual Beyoncé space to exist away from our prying eyes.” But perfection has its limits, especially for someone as burdened with expectations as Charley. As is repeated throughout the episode, she’s the first black woman to own a mill in the state of Louisiana. This isn’t just about her, but also the community she represents; she’s carrying on Ernest Bordelon’s legacy. One of the most trenchant aspects of this burden strikes at the heart of Charley’s image when she has to handle a reporter, Ben Harrison (Josh Ventura), who’s sent to cover the opening of the mill. What Charley hopes will be a celebratory piece that adheres to her party line about her father’s legacy quickly becomes something far more dangerous as Ben sees beyond the image Charley projects.

Charley and Ben’s relationship starts off somewhat antagonistically, considering she expected a different journalist who had profiled Davis for Esquire. When Ben pleads his case, Charley responds with only a curt “okay.” Ben’s questions are exceedingly direct: “In L.A. you had it all […] is this enough?” he asks at one point. He refers to her move to rural Louisiana as an attempt to flee the glittering landscape of Los Angeles. He mentions Davis’s sexual-assault case within moments of turning on his recorder. He needles her about her family dynamic and why Davis isn’t present, despite the opening of the mill being so monumental. As the interview continues over the course of the day, Charley counters every probing question with approachable albeit hollow PR speak, repeatedly mentioning her father and the idea of carrying forward his legacy. Charley knows how to play the game. But beneath her signature tense smile, we see obvious signs that she’s angry.

Even with Ben’s nagging presence, Charley is able to pull off the ribbon-cutting and speech portion of the mill opening beautifully. “We honor you by creating a place that treats you fairly,” she says to the farmers in the audience. It’s an obvious dig at the Landrys and all-white mills elsewhere that undermine the work of black farmers. Charley’s success is short-lived, however, when the alarm at the mill goes off because the machines have been overloaded with cane. Remy reminds her that this sort of “choke” isn’t cause for alarm; it’s just the growing pains of a new mill. But failure, even one as minor as this, is not an option for Charley. Despite Remy’s assurances, Charley spirals into a complete breakdown. In her beautiful suit, she pushes a worker away and starts clawing out the cane pulp herself. She’s furious and feral. It takes Nova holding her back for Charley to calm down. “Everything’s supposed to be perfect … for daddy,” Charley cries. To make matters worse, Ben witnesses part of this breakdown before Darla can turn him away.

Although I definitely believe Charley’s dedication to her father’s legacy is genuine — especially in light of her guilt about not seeing him when he called her before he died — there is much more going on under the surface. At the core of Charley’s story, I see a woman who wanted to gain control of her life in a way separate from her husband, which makes it all the more difficult when Charley is eventually forced to make a bargain with Ben. If he does the story on the mill’s opening the way Charley desires, she’ll give him an exclusive about her divorce with Davis. Ben can’t help but smile when he hears this. I also don’t think he’s surprised, since he seemed to pick up on the chemistry between Remy and Charley when they gave him a tour of the mill.

Charley was probably hoping to get a moment to breathe after having to deal with Ben and the mill opening, but the family dinner at the end of the episode instead creates new wounds and reveals old ones. When Ralph Angel first refused to say grace at the dinner table, I realized something was about to go down. He relents once Nova nudges him to do so, and then talks about being thankful and Ernest’s desire to see him be “a better man.” But he stops midway through the prayer to finally reveal the letter Ernest wrote that acts as a supplement to his will — the letter that says Ernest meant to leave the entire farm to Ralph Angel. Charley and Nova are both furious. “I uprooted my life, my son … because of a lie?” Charley asks.

The revelations don’t stop there. Nova reveals her discovery that Ernest was a janitor in his final years and kept it hidden out of shame that he wasn’t able to continue farming, something she learned because of a paycheck found in the study. Tears fall. Angry insults fly. I was particularly struck when Ralph Angel told Nova, “You fighting for every brother in prison but your own.” How do you come back from an accusation like that? Even though Violet stops Nova from storming out of the house, it’s hard to see how they’ll be able to mend their issues anytime soon. The Bordelons have always felt like a real family in regards to how fiercely they love and protect each other, but this episode marks the first time their disagreements feel both bracing and honest. “Line of Our Elders” is a reminder that resentment can fester worst among those we care for most.

Queen Sugar Recap: Making History