Tracee Ellis Ross as Bow, Anthony Anderson as Dre, Marsai Martin as Diane, Laurence Fishburne as Pops.
It’s no secret that Black-ish excels at handling heavy subjects with humor and nuance. “Lemons” is no exception to that pattern. Are there saccharine moments? Sure. It wouldn’t be a family sitcom without a little sappiness, but much like last season’s episode about police brutality, “Lemons” captures a particularly charged moment in American history in an honest, thought-provoking, and accessible way.
Eight weeks after the presidential election, the Johnson family and Dre’s colleagues must work through their emotions about the results and Donald Trump’s impending inauguration. The election was not a smooth process for the Johnsons, and post-election, stark political divisions have spread into the kids’ school and Dre’s workplace. Bow tries to cope by donating to multiple charities that will combat potential policy changes, and she proudly wears every bit of swag she receives for her contributions. Meanwhile, much to Dre’s annoyance, the kids are missing two days of school for a day of reflection and a healing rally. After a Latina teacher reprimanded a white student, he began a chant, “Send her back,” claiming they won’t have to listen to her anymore. The school hopes the rally will help curtail such hate, and asks Junior to recite the “I Have a Dream” portion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 speech.
Pops tells Junior there is much more to the “I Have a Dream” speech than that catchphrase, and soon after that revelation, Junior becomes “woke.” Pops stresses that “they” (a.k.a. the white man) want to pacify black people, which is why the rest of the speech isn’t taught. Dr. King, he explains, had more Malcolm X in him than people realize. Recognizing the speech as a battle cry, Junior gets a little too woke and starts dressing in all black, but Pops convinces him to dial it back. Pops doesn’t want Junior to be another angry black man, especially since his grandson has such an optimistic, bright way of looking at the world. He doesn’t want Junior to lose that. Yes, we should all fight, but we have to remember why we’re fighting and not lose sight of our goals.
I loved this recognition of Junior as an open person, particularly in this age of artists like Chance the Rapper and the celebration of #blackboyjoy. Pops doesn’t want Junior to be angry like he or Dre is, and it’s quite lovely to see him encouraging his grandson to hold onto his own way of looking at the world while also preparing him to confront opposing viewpoints. The family tends to pick on Junior for his nerdiness, so it’s especially touching to see Pops tell Junior to remain fully himself.
While Junior practices his speech, Bow turns her concern to Zoey, who doesn’t seem to care as much as she should about the election outcome. She offers to make donations in Zoey’s name, but Zoey’s not interested. Instead, she just wants to focus on making the best lemonade possible for the healing rally. Bow’s frustration with Zoey’s seeming apathy finally forces Zoey to explain why she’s concentrating so much on such a mundane task: She isn’t making liberal lemonade or conservative lemonade. It’s just a cool, refreshing drink made from love, which is what she can share to combat the hatred around her. That’s a beautiful sentiment, but Bow worries that she’s failed her kids anyway. Do they think the election means their values don’t matter? Zoey reminds Bow that just because their side didn’t win, it doesn’t mean their values will suddenly disappear. Soon, Zoey and all her friends will be able to vote — and they’ll do their part to bring those strong values back to the foreground.
Although the idea that love is all we need to combat the rise of racism is a little trite, I guess that’s a lesson family members can share with younger generations who may not be able to call senators or help escort people into Planned Parenthood clinics. Zoey is often considered apathetic, so it’s nice to see “Lemons” reveal that she has a better grasp on the complex subject at hand than her parents do. It’s a good way of showing that adults can learn from their children and that the parent-child relationship should always be a two-way street.
Meanwhile, Dre’s workplace is just as divided as the country seems to be. Strangely, Lucy (Catherine Reitman) is back and it definitely has nothing to do with a lawsuit no one can talk about. The show just introduced newcomer Rachel (Diane Farr) as a replacement for Lucy, so does that mean she’s gone now? It seems an odd bit of casting musical chairs, but we’ll deal with it. Daphne (Wanda Sykes) is back, too, wondering why white women voted for President-elect Trump, as rest of the office searches for someone to blame for the election. Lucy confesses she voted for Trump because Hillary Clinton was going to be four more years of President Obama, and her family and hometown suffered under his presidency. Josh, normally the dimmest of the office bulbs, seems particularly woke during this episode and asks Lucy about the Muslim families, LGBT families, immigrant families who will suffer under President Trump, but she doesn’t have a response.
No one can get any work done because the election results keep draining morale. Dre tries to get the office to focus on a project that is due that day, but it’s impossible. When Mr. Stevens questions whether or not Dre even cares about the country, it’s the last straw. Dre gives a damning speech about how much he loves America, even when America clearly has no love for him. Now, with the election of Trump, people live in fear and confusion and finally understand what it’s like to be black in the United States. Mr. Stevens says it’s a nightmare, and it’s unclear if the line should be funny or not. (Josh’s quip that he thought he’d be taller definitely adds some levity to the tense moment.) Dre later apologizes and hopes everyone can stop calling each other names and grow to understand each other. He loves America, warts and all, and while it’s a beautiful, unifying speech, it’s not really one I would’ve expected from Dre.
For the three seasons we’ve known Dre, he’s been quick to point out racial disparities and inequalities — and like Pops said, he’s angry about those injustices. Now that his white colleagues have a better idea of how his life has been, suddenly he’s calling for kindness and empathy? I’m not buying it, but I understand why Dre had to be the one to make this concession. As we move into what will surely be a presidency unlike any other, there is a strong need for empathy. Who better to send out that call than someone roughened by injustice?
Among its other accomplishments, “Lemons” is the kind of episode that instructs us on how to talk with children about touchy sociopolitical subjects, and why those conversations are so vital to everyone involved. Pops teaches Junior to go beyond textbooks for education. Bow shows us how we can support important agencies and public resources with donations. Zoey reminds us that giving love to others can sometimes be enough. Dre encourages us to remember that even those hardened by life’s difficulties can remain empathetic and caring toward others. At times a little too sweet, “Lemons” is still one of the best episodes of the season.