The premiere of Greenleaf gave OWN its best-ever ratings, which is understandable because it serves a long-starved audience. It’s already clear that the show will be a great summer soap and in “The Baptism,” we get to see more of that soapy goodness in Lynn Whitfield’s performance as Lady Mae Greenleaf. Her poised, calculating coldness might even rival Diahann Carroll’s iconic work as Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty. Good thing, too: Seeing Lady Mae throw delicious southern shade makes up for the episode’s rather predictable moments.
“The Baptism” begins as Mavis’ police officer friend gives her the folder on Uncle Mac’s latest teenage victim, Danielle Turner. It’s clear from the police report that he ignored Danielle’s pleas to stop and forced himself on her. Mavis hands it off to Grace, telling her she’s been given a second chance to do the right thing. Mavis accurately calls Mac’s crime a rape, which is a pleasant surprise. Too often, people dance around the term or want to call it something less ugly. Grace eventually tries to visit Danielle, but her mother is far from welcoming — later, shes calls Mac to complain about him reneging on whatever deal they had. Mac assures the mother that he’ll handle Grace, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll approach her with good Christian kindness. A violent man like that, with so much power and influence, is dangerous.
In the meantime, Bishop James welcomes Grace back into Calvary Fellowship with her own office. She will be part of the Response Ministry, meaning she’s the first person people will see when they want to join various programs and auxiliaries in the church. Grace is still getting her sea legs when she has a meeting with Betty Wilcox, a member of the Bishop’s Roundtable, an exclusive club for congregants who give $10,000 or more beyond their tithes. Mrs. Wilcox is the type of southern woman who wouldn’t let butter melt her in mouth. She wants her granddaughter baptized and doesn’t appreciate Grace asking questions about the baby’s parents. To avoid any confrontation, Grace performs the baptism, with her father’s encouragement and her mother’s warning. Grace welcomes baby Erika into the family of God, solidifying her return to her own family and all of its drama.
Unfortunately, Greenleaf is trying to juggle too many storylines in the early going. Jacob’s affair with Alexa doesn’t need as much attention as it’s getting. It detracts from Sophia’s fish-out-of-water tale at her new school, an important story that highlights the overlooked experiences of black children at private schools. I want to care more about the show’s depictions of “black excellence,” as Zora calls it, but there’s nothing fresh about teens mocking each other for not being cool. Then there’s Charity and her husband Kevin, who has an electric moment with another man. The show definitely needs to cover closeted church members and the homophobia frequently found in Christianity, but again, I wonder how fresh this story will be.
In the premiere episode, when Lady Mae dismissed Charity for not having any children, it was an obvious indicator that something was supposed to be wrong in Charity’s marriage to Kevin. The two seemed close and affectionate, but as friends. In this episode, Charity remarks on that dynamic, telling Kevin their marriage works because they’re best friends. Kevin looks like he’s swallowed a lemon when he tells her he doesn’t want to hurt someone he loves. (This moment really called for a dramatic chipmunk, if you ask me.) I don’t look forward to seeing how Kevin’s secret plays out. Primetime soaps aren’t known for nuance.
Speaking of soap subtlety, Lady Mae serves up some Dominique Devereaux realness while sampling a menu with Kerissa, Jacob’s controlling wife. Kerissa tries to ask Lady Mae about Grace’s status in the church, but Lady Mae keeps commenting on the small portions of food. Lady Mae has already told Kerissa that she trusts Bishop James’ judgements when it comes to spiritual matters, but Kerissa is worried about Jacob’s place in the church and in the family. Her transparent questioning annoys Lady Mae, who shuts her down in the finest way: “Strength like yours, dear, is best expressed in stillness.” In other words, stop being a busybody and mind your business.
On Dynasty, Dominique’s sparring partner was Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins), and their bouts made for delicious television. Right now, none of the Greenleaf children or in-laws can compete with Lady Mae’s southern shade. Nevertheless, “The Baptism” gives Whitfield more to do, and it’s clear she will be a strong audience draw as the series continues. Lady Mae is certainly influential within the world of the show: She pressures Noah into accepting the Greenleaf home as the site for his wedding, just so she can have him keep an eye on Grace. She may not like Kerissa shining doubt on Grace, but Lady Mae will do what she can to maintain order. We’ve yet to learn her secrets, though. Trying to figure out who Lady Mae is that church-mother mask will be a challenge.
Of course, Kerissa isn’t the only busybody in the family. Grace discovers that David Nelson, the police officer accused of killing Kenny Collins, has been calling Bishop James for over a month. She meets up with him, then learns he needs an upstanding church leader to stand by him when he makes a public apology. Grace shows him the Danielle Turner file, and I’m already wondering how this will blow up in her face. David wants something from the Greenleaf family for his own survival. He wants secrets. Yes, Grace wants to bring down her uncle, but maybe David isn’t the best person to confide in. And yet, I must commend Greenleaf for showing how police brutality that involves black victims can infiltrate black lives: The case is mentioned at Calvary, at Sophia and Zora’s school, and a news report about it plays on a car radio.
Grace has been gone from Memphis and her family for almost 20 years. She doesn’t realize how powerful the Greenleafs have become, but she’ll soon find out. Grace needs to find a trustworthy confidante to help her take down Uncle Mac — but right now, it’s not looking good. Everyone seems to have quid pro quo written across their foreheads (and checkbooks). Does Grace have what it takes to go against her family? Time will tell.