Jack of All Trades
Tracee Ellis Ross as Bow, Anthony Anderson as Dre, Jenifer Lewis as Ruby.
In “Jack of All Trades,” Dre examines how the American Dream has changed for each generation. Parents want their children to have better, but it’s reached a point of excessive luxury that can only be a dream for most. Black-ish has never shied away from examining the upper-middle class lifestyle the Johnsons enjoy, but in this episode, Dre and Bow come off as snobbish and elitist — at least, until we get to the big sitcom lesson in the last few moments.
Jack and Diane bring home the results of their career aptitude tests. Diane’s test forecasts that she will be a powerful politician, while Jack’s says he will be a member of a skilled workers’ trade union. Jack loves the idea of becoming a welder, lumberjack, or mechanic, but Dre and Bow spend almost the entire episode freaking out over the possibility. They think Jack would be taking a step backward if he had a career doing manual labor. They worry that without a title like “doctor” or “senior vice president,” Jack will be treated like a regular black person. It’s honestly insulting, especially when they imply that Jack is best suited to working with his hands because he’s not intelligent and probably won’t get into college, let alone grad school.
Job titles don’t protect people of color from bigotry. We’ve seen that with President Obama, who held the highest office in the country and was still subjected to constant racial and xenophobic slurs. Lil Wayne thinks that because he’s wealthy, it means he’s not subjected to racial discrimination, but his life illustrates the constant effects of systematic bias, from the neighborhood he comes from to the type of music he’s expected to produce. Dre and Bow kept flouting their education as the reason why they want Jack to have higher goals, but if they were so well-educated, they’d know nothing can protect their black son from racism. They would know that black people with the same degrees and professional experience as their white counterparts are still paid less because of discrimination.
Dre tells the gang at work about Jack’s possible career aspirations. Of course, the white men say they love blue-collar workers, calling them “good people” so much that Charlie recognizes it must be code for something. He balls his fists in case it’s go time and he has to start fighting. (Yet again, Charlie is the best thing about the workplace scenes.) Mr. Stevens explains that all of his domestic workers are good people and docile and will make great food, if it ever comes to that. Dre wonders why he even confides with his coworkers, and I do, too.
Dre brings Jack to work with him, hoping to show how great it is to work in advertising, a white-collar field. Jack participates in market research, also known as tasting eight brands of white-cheddar popcorn. He’s having a good time until the sink explodes and none of the men know what to do. In fact, they cower in fear until Ignacio, the office maintenance man, arrives to save the day. Jack is in awe at how Ignacio handled the plumbing emergency and wants to shadow him the rest of the day, which makes Dre feel bad because he always makes everything about himself.
Upset that his son would rather spend time learning about a stranger’s career than his own, Dre goes to Pops for advice, but Pops has no sympathy for him. Pops reminds Dre that his working-class parents sent him to college to earn the education that now makes him think he can look down on others. Pops goes even further: He calls Dre a sellout for looking down his nose at blue-collar workers and for worrying about what white people think. Dre takes Pops’ words to Bow and they realize they should focus on their children’s happiness, not the potential careers they don’t want. It’s a quick, neat resolution after Bow has been trying to teach Latin to Jack because she thinks it will be more useful than learning how to repair the staircase. I don’t buy this happy conclusion after Dre and Bow’s snooty behavior, but we’ll just have to move on.
Meanwhile, Diane had been making fun of Jack’s low career aspirations and intelligence so much that Ruby has to intervene. She thinks Diane needs more Jesus in her life and begins reading from the Bible, but stops short when Diane vomits suddenly. Of course, this must mean Diane is possessed. A dead bird drops from the sky as Diane reads biblical phrases. Candles go out as Diane walks by. Junior breathes cold air when she passes him. Plus, Ruby has video footage of Diance standing by her bed in the middle of the night. She doesn’t want to explain why there’s a camera aimed at her bed and maybe it’s best if we don’t know. All of this leads Ruby to perform an exorcism on Diane, but Junior and Zoe break it up and confess the dead bird, the candles, and Junior’s cold breath were all pranks. Diane sleepwalks, which explains her presence by Ruby’s bed, and she vomited because she made a “Jack is dumb” cake then ate the whole thing. Everything has a logical explanation … until Diane glares at them and the lights fade out. Maybe Ruby needs to flick more holy white zinfandel over her granddaughter after all.
In the end, Dre takes Pops to work with him so the elder Johnson can get a better appreciation of what he does for a living. They meet Mr. Stevens and Connor, who are surprised that Dre even knows his father. The Stevens men would offer them an invitation to the club but they can’t; the implication that Dre and Pops wouldn’t be welcome comes through loud and clear. Pops keeps his smile in place, even as he asks Dre, “You know they hate you, right?” Dre responds that he didn’t know how much until that moment. Black-ish already addressed the presidential election a month ago, but those last moments between Dre and Pops seemed to reflect what a lot of Americans are feeling in the days following the election results. The show has a remarkable way of anticipating current events, despite filming each episode months in advance. We see that eerie prescience in “Jack of All Trades,” and we’ll surely see it again.