Rutina Wesley as Nova, Dawn-Lyen Gardner as Charley.
The men of Queen Sugar are more than meets the eye. We’ve already seen how Ralph Angel struggles to move beyond his criminal past. Davis’s rape accusation has marred his image as a perfect husband and father. Calvin is a straight-up unfaithful spouse. It all leads one to wonder: What might be wrong with the show’s other male characters? In “By Any Chance,” we learn about Hollywood’s past. And it’s a doozy.
Violet is having trouble with the new manager at the High Yellow Diner. After he embarrasses her in front of friends by demanding she return to work after her shift ended, she reaches out to Hollywood. Hollywood pretends he’s on the rigs, but he’s really in a psychiatric ward, signing out his bipolar wife, LeeAnne (Erika Alexander). LeeAnne is on suicide watch and Hollywood has no choice but to be her caretaker. Shortly after trying to seduce him, LeeAnne becomes violent when she sees that a woman (Violet) is calling him. Hollywood eventually leaves LeeAnne behind with her cousin, reminding her that they agreed to move on. They remain married so LeeAnne can be included in Hollywood’s insurance plan, but as far as he is concerned, that’s the only thing left between them.
A hidden wife is quite a significant secret. What else is Hollywood hiding? When LeeAnne tries to kiss him, she claims she wants to have another baby. Another one? Do they already have a child? Even stranger, LeeAnne looks like a younger version of Violet — expressive large eyes, a curly hair cut in a similar style, plus they both met Hollywood while they worked at diners. He definitely has a type, and with so many things going poorly for Violet, she won’t be happy to learn about it.
After Violet’s rough day at work (which eventually leads her to quit), she comes home to engage in some much-needed down time with the Bordelon women. Nova pulls out a joint, Violet gives up way too much information about Hollywood’s prowess, and the women start asking Nova who she’s been secretly dating. Charley asks if she’s seeing a man or a woman, and Violet suggests that was just a college phase. Nova quickly corrects them. It’s not a phase. She doesn’t care about the package; it’s what’s inside that matters to her. We’re learning so much about everybody tonight!
Nova doesn’t describe herself as bisexual or pansexual, so I hesitate to assign either term to her. Regardless, it’s meaningful that her family accepts her as she is — that’s a rarity in small Southern towns. The revelation about Nova’s sexuality is simply dropped in the conversation, and then the women go back to teasing each other and having a good time. Maybe it’s a bit too on the nose to give Nova — a voodoo-practicing, weed-selling, creative talent — a queer identity. We get it: She and Charley are complete opposites. But if this episode helps anyone see how easy it is to love someone so unlike themselves, it will be well worth that lack of subtlety.
In the meantime, Nova doesn’t want to share her relationship with Calvin. It’s an ominous sign for the couple, and by episode’s end, it’s over between them. Calvin doesn’t appreciate the way she used him to get access to Too Sweet, the teenager she’d been visiting in prison, and he tries to explain why it’s bad that her front-page article on police corruption launched an internal investigation. Of course, Nova is proud of that. He tells her that police officers’ families constantly worry if they’ll come home safe. She counters that black mothers and fathers have harbored the same worry for over 300 years. He calls her a hypocrite for selling drugs to the people she claims to want to protect. It doesn’t matter if it’s just weed; it’s illegal. Nova kicks him out, demanding he leave his key behind.
Fighting back tears, Calvin wonders why Nova chose him, a married white man. He realizes she never wanted a relationship; she just wanted company. Insert eye-rolling emoji here. How dare Calvin get so righteous about ethics, morality, and love? He’s a married man! With children! He can’t understand Nova’s commitment to her race, so he tries to make her feel guilty about their relationship. He has some nerve. You don’t get to shame your mistress for not loving you, dude, just because you want her to abandon her community for your profession. Is he going to abandon his family? Why should Nova abandon hers? Calvin didn’t even attempt to understand where Nova was coming from. He wants sympathy because her investigation will make his life harder, but he completely overlooks how his job makes life harder for entire communities. Maybe the reveal about Nova’s sexual identity means she’ll kick Calvin to the curb for a woman with some sense, but I have a feeling he’ll be back soon.
While Hollywood and Nova deal with their respective drama, Charley tries to handle the legal ramifications of her own fraught marriage. She confronts Melina Gold, the woman accusing Davis of rape. Melina is not a “perfect rape victim.” She wears revealing clothes, a full face of carefully applied makeup, and doesn’t present as an emotionally devastated victim. After going toe to toe with Charley, Melina eventually contacts her to ask for $3 million and a face-to-face meeting with Davis. Everything about Melina screams untrustworthy, but let’s be clear: It would be a tremendous shame if her rape accusation is a lie. Hopefully, Queen Sugar is trying to comment on what society expects of women who are sexually assaulted. (See: The scene where Melina tells Charley that sex workers can be raped.) The episode is intimately concerned with looking beyond surfaces, so even though Melina’s choices of attire and occupation will raise ill-advised, inappropriate questions, they certainly don’t mean she’s lying.
Along with the fascinating story lines, Queen Sugar keeps me coming back each week because it is a truly beautiful show. Every episode director — all of whom are women — goes beyond the usual, expected angles of a nighttime drama. A wide shot shows Remy and Charley assessing the land, acres looming behind them in overwhelming fashion. Will the land swallow Charley and the rest of the Bordelons whole? As Hollywood tells LeeAnne he’s leaving, their heads rest in the bottom of the frame, the exterior brick of her home seemingly hovering above. A weight is about to collapse on them. During the confrontation between Nova and Calvin, we see similar shots: Nova sitting alone, her head just visible from the bottom margin of the frame; Calvin standing across from her, his face lined with worry at the edge of the screen. These couples are painted into their proverbial corners, unsure how to get themselves out whether they’re handling mental illness, tension between police and people of color, or the frustrations within interracial relationships.
“By Any Chance” is the best episode of Queen Sugar so far. Layer after layer peels away from each character, a testament to the show’s terrific writing. Even Remy reveals he’s not all sugary-sweet when he snaps at Charley for ignoring his advice at a local auction. He tries making it up to her by revealing he bought Ernest Bordelon’s repossessed tractor, and their relationship continues to brew, but I suspect this won’t be a one-time issue. Meanwhile, we learn that Micah (reluctantly) sees a therapist, and once again, it’s handled casually. Queen Sugar keeps pushing the idea that none of these characters have anything to be ashamed of — not their incarcerated pasts, not their mental-health issues, and not their sexuality. The show could stand to work on how it presents sex workers, but hopefully it’ll get better on that front soon.