At what point do you have to admit that you’ve grown apart from an old friend and cut ties? This decision is always rough, but it turns out that a ten-year prison stint makes it a bit easier for Jerrod — though reaching this conclusion involves some regression, some cocaine, and a whole lot of familiar Carmichael debate.
In “Ex-Con,” Jerrod’s old friend Shawn shows up out of the blue after being released from prison. Jerrod is quick to point out that Shawn isn’t a violent criminal; though he was sentenced to 13 years for dealing drugs, he was released early for good behavior. At first, Maxine is a bit hesitant about the whole situation because she doesn’t know Shawn. Once Cynthia and Joe show up to take the oppositional opinion against Jerrod, she reverts back to her usual do-gooder self, who believes that Shawn can, and will, change as long as he has the right support. That support comes in the form of Maxine agreeing with Jerrod that Shawn should crash at their apartment rather than in a halfway house where everyone looks like a Batman villain.
Both Cynthia and Joe aren’t keen on the idea, as they’ve always been wary of Shawn and his influence on their son. We learn a few things about Shawn as the episode goes on — he stole from the collection plate at church, he “borrowed” (i.e., stole) Joe’s car without asking — and although it’s nothing that’s super dangerous or harmful to those around him, it’s still reasonable why these parents would be concerned about their child hanging out with him. Of course, Cynthia and Joe would probably have the same “Shawn can’t change” opinion if he were a stranger released from prison, but having him be one of Jerrod’s good friends helps to give the Carmichael parents a personal stake in the conversation, which brings the debate home to the living room.
Despite Jerrod’s impassioned defense of Shawn, it’s not long before the two of them regress into old, questionable behavior. Just minutes after Shawn’s arrival, they head out for breakfast and don’t arrive back until the next morning, both drunk. Jerrod’s not exactly a charming drunk in his conversation with Maxine as he tries to explain that Shawn needed to blow off some steam and have fun after ten years behind bars. (This scene was actually a little painful to watch, instead of just cringe-y.) He also reveals that Shawn got into a fight — ahem: a scuffle, dust-up, scrum — on his first night out. What’s worse is that the fight was only over a guy stepping on Jerrod’s Jordans. Maxine reminds Jerrod that what Shawn does in his first two weeks is “critical to his success,” but her advice doesn’t seem to sink in.
What does get Jerrod’s attention is waking up to find both Maxine and Shawn missing, and neither of them answering their phones. The inclusion of Maxine is important because it wouldn’t make sense for Jerrod to wake up and do a 180 on his opinion of Shawn, but it’s logical — and understandable — that Jerrod begins to worry once he thinks the woman he loves might be in danger. From day one, it’s been a joke that Maxine is a sheltered, not street-smart character (see: last week, when no one believed that she once got followed in a store; Maxine eventually admitted it was because she was with Nekeisha) and this characterization smartly comes into play in “Ex-Con.” One of the reasons why Jerrod is so worried is because he knows Maxine has never been in a situation like this. Jerrod’s reaction also makes clear that he knows Shawn hasn’t changed; if he truly believed that Shawn were different, then he wouldn’t be so concerned about Maxine. Maybe Jerrod was just in denial about his friend, maybe he didn’t want to admit what he knew was true, or maybe he just hoped against hope that he was wrong and Shawn had wised up.
Maxine and Shawn do arrive back safe and sound, but Jerrod isn’t stupid. He doesn’t believe Shawn’s story about checking out a job lead, and Shawn casually admits that he asked Maxine for the ride so he could sell cocaine to someone. Shawn’s defense is that he can’t get a good job because he’s a felon (his only option: work at McDonald’s to save up enough money to buy a crappy car that will allow him to more easily get to work at McDonald’s), so he has to keep slinging drugs. If there’s one big fault with “Ex-Con,” it’s that the episode doesn’t devote enough time to exploring this aspect of post-prison life, especially as it pertains to black men. It’s a subject that could be rife with topical conversations: How can a black man recently freed from jail thrive in society when most opportunities are yanked away the second anyone learns that he was incarcerated? How does one prepare for life outside of prison? Why do so many people fail to change, then end up right back where they started? (And, yes, the tag reveals that Shawn is back in prison for dealing.) The Carmichael Show doesn’t have enough time to provide a nuanced discussion about this subject — honestly, no sitcom can really hash out all of the problems and questions involved — so it concerns itself with something else that’s important.
That something else is Jerrod realizing that it’s time to finally grow out of his friendship with Shawn. Outside of the prison/rehabilitation aspect, “Ex-Con” also considers when it’s appropriate to cut toxic people out of your life. In a nice touch, Jerrod comes to this realization through his fear and worry for Maxine. Those few hours she was missing were enough to make Jerrod know that he never wants her — or the rest of his family — to be in danger. If that means cutting out harmful people, then so be it.