Anthony Anderson as Dre, Tracee Ellis Ross as Bow, Marsai Martin as Diane, Yara Shahidi as Zoey, Miles Brown as Jack, Marcus Scribner as Junior.
This week, Dre and Bow dive into a boatload of assumptions that lead to some much-needed laughs. “Sink or Swim” almost seems dead in the water, too, until Ruby arrives to save it. (Okay, okay. I’ll put away all the puns.)
Janine is back, and I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed Nicole Sullivan’s casually racist neighbor until I saw Dre suspiciously watching her. Turns out, Janine has been having pool parties on the weekends without inviting the Johnsons. Dre immediately thinks there’s a racially motivated reason behind the oversight, but Bow and his co-workers dismiss the notion.
During the historical-lesson montage at the start of the episode, Dre traces America’s history of segregated pools. He calls Dorothy Dandridge the Beyoncé of her time, reminding us that hotels would drain swimming pools to keep Dandridge out. The montage is set to “Runnin’” by California hip-hop group Pharcyde, which has quite a relevant hook: “Can’t keep running away.” When combined with the images of “Whites Only” pools, it’s clear that there’s no escape from America’s history of racism.
Dre thinks Janine hasn’t invited the Johnsons to her pool parties because she doesn’t think black people can swim, a stereotype aggravated by lack of pool access. However, Bow points out Dre can’t swim. At work, Mr. Stevens assumes Dre can’t swim because of so-called “scientific” evidence that blacks have denser bones and will sink. Daphne and Josh suggest Janine hasn’t invited Dre because she doesn’t like him. They proceed to list all the reasons why he’s unlikable: He’s loud, he wears too much cologne, and he thinks everything is a race issue.
Still unconvinced, Dre confronts Janine, who is a little freaked out to see a black man at her door at night. She admits she didn’t extend an invitation because she didn’t think Dre liked her. Dre assures her that the email she accidentally received from him — the one with the subject line “I don’t like Janine” — was out of context. Both agree to overlook their misunderstandings, and the Johnsons prepare for Janine’s next pool party.
Before we get to the actual party, though, a few other story lines build up — and unfortunately, the transitions between them aren’t very smooth.
Bow doesn’t want to attend the pool party because she doesn’t want to deal with the School Mom Mafia. These women try to get Bow to commit to activities like yoga and aerial silks, which are all scheduled when she works. She resents their leisurely lifestyle and doesn’t think they’re good role models. Meanwhile, she’s upset to learn about Junior and Zoey’s latest schemes: Zoey uses the boys in her class to crowdfund the purchase of a Chanel backpack, and Junior gives money to girls so they’ll be nice to him. Bow wants them to earn rewards, not buy them, and thinks the women in the School Mom Mafia are the epitome of trophy wives.
It’s a little hard to watch Bow cast judgment on other women; she’s usually more open-minded. I pushed through my confusion, though, when Ruby takes Jack and Diane to their respective Boy and Girl Rovers meetings. As we quickly see, the twins don’t like being pushed into gender-normative roles: Jack wants to learn how to cook, and Diane wants to learn how to make knots. Nevertheless, Ruby insists, “Boys need to be boys and girls need to be girls.”
So, the episode has an awful lot to juggle. We have Dre’s attempt to combat stereotypes, Bow’s resentment of women who don’t work, Zoey and Junior taking advantage of others, and the twins stuck in a dance with Ruby about gender roles. By this point, I had a hard time believing that everything would come together before the pool party, but I was willing to hang on.
Jack makes a casserole for the party, but to keep Ruby calm, he claims that Diane made it. Unfortunately, Diane runs away with this idea as more people praise the dish. (Bonus points for the subtle execution of the “white people love green-bean casserole” joke.) Dre bravely gets in the pool, but soon faces a problem: Janine has removed the ladder, and he can’t hold on to the wall anymore.
Meanwhile, Bow is sneering at Blair, the leader of the School Mom Mafia, because she’s feeding shrimp to her husband. Junior and Zoey remark that Blair looks good and happy, but Bow insists she can’t be fulfilled. The two older kids point out that Bow doesn’t look as happy as Blair, which sets Bow on a wine-drinking binge. Now drunk, she mocks Blair to her face. Blair smoothly lets Bow know that she’s a neurosurgeon who makes time for her family. Other things that are important to her, too. Blair then goes full Real Housewife, telling Bow to worry about her own marriage instead. When Bow weakly counters that her marriage is fine, Blair retorts, “Your husband is drowning.”
Sure enough, Dre is splashing around, calling on Black Jesus to save him. Diane immediately dives in and rescues her father. Bow is amazed, and asks how Diane knew what to do. Diane admits that she and Jack have been going to each other’s Rover sessions … just as Ruby barges her way into the party. (Her mother’s intuition warned her that Dre needed help.) When Ruby learns that Jack has been cooking and Diane has rescued Dre, she begins praying and exorcising demons to make everything right in the world.
All of which is to say, I’m glad I waited for the episode’s big payoff. Dre’s “drowning” scene and Ruby’s helicopter Christian mom routine had me laughing out loud.
And of course, Bow’s assumptions about the women in her neighborhood backfire in a major way. Blair has a difficult job, yet still manages to make time for her children, her husband, her friends, and most importantly, herself. I can’t help but wonder if this is a commentary on the “having it all” myth — is Black-ish actually suggesting that it’s possible? I hope the show examines why Bow doesn’t think that’s true. It’s time we get to see Bow beyond her roles as wife, mother, and doctor.
For now, Junior and Zoey calm Bow’s fears and let her know she’s a good role model — especially since she stays married to a man who just had to be carried out of a pool party on a child’s stretcher. After the party, Blair uploads video footage of Dre’s incident, and it’s almost immediately remixed into something that resembles the “Bed Intruder” viral hit from years ago. The remix airs during the final credits of “Sink of Swim,” and it’s quite catchy.
Ultimately, “Sink or Swim” reminds me of issues the show had during its first season. When the children aren’t working together, the story lines become too frayed. This episode was a cluttered mess for too long, only to be quickly tidied in the last seven minutes. Ruby’s antics gave me the laughs I was missing, but I’m still left confused by Bow’s insecurities about other women. Perhaps Black-ish is preparing us for more character growth. Based on the strength of the rest of the second season, I don’t mind waiting to see what comes next.