Queen Sugar Recap: Father Neglect

Queen Sugar

Live in the All Along
Season 2 Episode 12
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: OWN

Some men always look good on paper. They’re attractive, intelligent, and ambitious. But when values intersect with real-world dilemmas and tangled family history, things can get complicated and force assured romance to fall apart. With regard to Queen Sugar, the relationship between Nova and Robert always had an expiration date. Yes, they make sense together given their shared activism and interest in bettering the black community, but there were signs their values did not align from the very beginning. His willingness to use outright racist white men to further his own causes, her fierce interest in remaining a part of New Orleans’s neglected communities like the lower Ninth Ward, and her carefree nature reveal that they were too different to work together.

Nova eventually blamed her inability to commit on fear and how her mother’s past influenced her own approach to romance. But I had a suspicion that Nova was forcing herself to make this relationship work because she felt she should want a man like Robert. “Live in the All Along” considers various threads in the lives of the Bordelons — Charley’s ongoing issues with Sam Landry, Ralph Angel and Darla planning their wedding — but it is Nova’s internal life that takes focus.

Things first seem to be going well between Nova and Robert as they wait in the green room before their TV appearance. They seem to be a united front with their talking points finely tuned and their energy at an all-time high. Robert even gives Nova a black-pearl necklace as a gift before they go on air. But something changes when they’re in front of the camera. Whatever united front they have dissipates after Nova blames “father neglect” — a terminology she coined to address the white patriarchal structures that “habitually devalue black life” — for the issues in New Orleans’s poorest communities and the potential Zika outbreak. Robert isn’t convinced, calling her use of the term “hysterical.” Hysterical is an insult that when lobbed at a woman is a tactic to undermine. It suggests you lack the intellect and sanity to deserve a voice that should be heard. “Cute soundbites like ‘father neglect’ don’t clarify,” Robert counters, “they confuse.”

Nova is not the kind of dame who backs down from such criticism, and so she immediately goes on the attack, turning their staid conversation into a fiery debate. After their appearance, Robert admits he flipped the script in order to get them trending. It worked, but the cost was high: Nova is rightfully pissed off and uncomfortable that Robert would make such claims without consulting her first, choosing internet chatter over respect for her. “You’ve just trivialized how I’m trying to help the people in my community. I don’t want you around any of us,” Nova says. It’s an intriguing choice of words that nods to how Nova doesn’t see Robert as fully a part of her life.

When Nova expresses her displeasure to Charley about the incident and how she didn’t want Robert coming back with her to New Orleans, she gets advice she wasn’t expecting. “I thought it was good TV,” Charley says. Yes, their brief battle of wits made for good TV since most people won’t tune in to simply see them agree and spout rhetoric, no matter how important the message. But Nova doesn’t value trending on Twitter or being the face of a movement. She’s interested in the hard work of helping her community that often doesn’t get recognition. When Robert later shows up at the festival trying to make amends, it isn’t surprising that Nova breaks up with him.

The breakup scene between Nova and Robert is expertly shot. The way they speak about their lives makes it clear they are on different paths. Both actors are marvelous as well. The problem, however, is that the scene doesn’t feel fully earned. The relationship between Robert and Nova gave me whiplash with its many changes, which had less to do with Nova’s approach to romance and more to do with an inability to decide how the relationship should play out. But even though I felt the scene wasn’t fully earned, it was still a complex portrait of the ways women often have to play second fiddle to whatever desires men may have. “I shouldn’t have to disappear into you to make this work,” Nova says after listening to Robert extol how they could be the face of a movement and that she should aim for a bigger national stage. These aren’t things she’s interested in, but instead what Robert wants to mold her into. When he tells her, “I know what you could be,” it doesn’t seem like a point of admiration. It sounds like a vague insult, as if her interest in New Orleans is too small-scale for the kind of activism and fame he seeks. “I think you’re a very good man. But you’re no good for me,” Nova finally admits.

While Nova is mired in romantic fallout, Charley’s biggest issue this week is unsurprisingly work-related. Sam Landry uses his influence in the community to steal her venue for the Brown Sugar Queen Festival and undermine her attempts to find a new one. Davis gives Charley the suggestion that she downsize the event. Even though everyone is happy with the festival, which occurs at her mill, she’s deeply disappointed. “Look around. Landry won,” she tells Remy and Nova. Charley judges herself by the yardsticks of perfection and success that men like Landry have set. It’s something that Nova is very aware of, given how she notes that Charley hasn’t changed despite being a very different woman than who she was when she first came back to St. Josephine.

Charley’s story line is richest when focusing on how she and Davis are awkwardly negotiating life after divorce. Notice her tense reaction to the pop star that Davis was able to get to perform at the festival? What about her decision to kiss Remy in front of everyone at the festival, which felt both genuine and a way to tell Davis she has moved on? It doesn’t seem like Davis has done the same. Perhaps his upcoming surgery has him feeling wistful. When Davis goes to Charley’s office after the festival, he is wearing his regret and sorrow as boldly as the shirt that bears his team’s name. He apologizes, genuinely. He also notes that the pop star Tamar isn’t “a big deal.” But for Charley, Remy has become a crucial part of her life. Although Davis seems open to the idea of rekindling romance with Charley, she knows that isn’t wise.

The scenes between Davis and Charley have some of the most tender moments of “Live in the All Along.” It’s in Charley’s relationships that the Queen Sugar writers show how deftly they can craft the contradictory and exhilarating terrain of modern love. Watching Charley’s arc puts into further relief the way Nova’s story line has been mishandled. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rutina Wesley in the role. I also feel Nova has the tricky hurdle of having to speak to modern concerns of black resistance in ways that are heavy on rhetoric but light on emotional impact. Since the show curiously nixed Calvin and any meaningful mention of him after the events of the first season finale, Nova’s romantic life has simply lacked the emotional impact necessary for me to get fully invested. Perhaps one reason why Nova and Robert’s relationship felt so unstable was because the writers didn’t quite know what they wanted to say beyond offering commentary on black political resistance.

Surprisingly, Ralph Angel and Darla’s relationship is going well. They’re even making decisions about their wedding. Darla originally just wanted to go down to a courthouse to get things done, but she comes around to Ralph Angel’s desire for a wedding involving family because she finally hears back from her mother. With Darla’s parents coming, I wonder if she’ll be able to handle such a fraught encounter. Ralph Angel is great when life goes smoothly, but when he faces emotional expectations, he grows cold and withdrawn in ways that deeply hurt Darla. Can he really be there for her when she needs him most? As each of the Bordelon siblings enter new phases in their lives, it is clear that their old habits may very well be lurking under the surface of the progress they’ve made.

Other Notes

• I loved Nova’s outfit during her TV appearance.

• It isn’t surprising that Keke won the Brown Sugar Queen title, since she’s the only nominated woman whom the show has focused on and she’s dating Micah.

• Instead of a true good-bye for Lorna, the episode opens on a one-sided phone conversation between her and Charley. I hope she’s on the show again soon. I find their dynamic fascinating.

Queen Sugar Recap: Father Neglect