The best episodes of Master of None concern generational divides. Earlier this season, Aziz Ansari explored his parents’ Muslim faith versus his own and how different people view religion based on their own personal experiences. In “Thanksgiving,” episode co-writers Ansari and Lena Waithe explore another topic, sexuality, from different ends of the generational spectrum through the character of Denise, Dev’s childhood friend.
Dev has celebrated Thanksgiving with Denise’s family ever since they were kids. Denise’s mom Catherine (Angela Bassett), her aunt Joyce (Kym Whitley), and her grandmother Ernestine (Venida Evans) help in the kitchen while Dev and Denise play upstairs. “Thanksgiving” follows six separate Thanksgivings — 1995, 1999, 2006, then 2015 through 2017 — as Denise comes to terms with her sexuality and later opens up about it to her mother, eventually bringing her dates to dinner as well.
The early years show Denise as she slowly realizes her attraction to women through clothes, music videos, and other pop-culture ephemera. While she and Dev watch the “Brown Sugar” video, Denise’s mom thinks she’s eagerly staring at the hunky D’Angelo when she’s really checking out the ladies. She forgoes a nice Thanksgiving dress for baggy sweatpants and a huge hoodie. When she’s 16, she finally tells Dev that she’s gay (or “Lebanese,” as she says, because the word “lesbian” makes her uncomfortable), and Dev supports her wholeheartedly, mostly because he can’t wait to stop the “intense” conversation and smoke weed instead, like every typical teenage stoner.
With Denise’s mom, it’s not so easy. As Denise explains, black parents view their children as trophies, and since many believe being gay is a choice, they only blame themselves. It takes Denise until she’s 23 to finally come out to her mom, who quickly bursts into tears and tells her she doesn’t want life to be harder for her. Catherine also tells Denise that she can’t tell her grandmother because not only won’t she be able to handle it, but also she’s also forgetful — she’d have to come out again and again. Catherine then shares the news with Joyce, who takes it in stride and tells her she raised her daughter right. “Denise ain’t never been arrested, she in college, she keeps her job, and she respects her elders,” she says. “Honey, if she wanna lay around with some women, that’s her business.”
The situation becomes tenser when Denise starts inviting her dates to Thanksgiving. In 2015, she brings Michelle (Ebony Obsidian), a kind young woman who’s very respectful and generous to Denise’s entire family, yet Catherine doesn’t exactly warm up to her. That makes for an awkward meal, and Dev doesn’t help matters by repeatedly yelling across the table to Grandma. But the next year is even worse: After breaking up with Michelle, she brings Nikki (Erica Mena), a self-involved woman who calls Denise “Dee Dee” and whose Instagram username is NipplesAndToes23, if that’s any indication of her priorities. Catherine, Joyce, and Dev take an immediate dislike to Nikki, as any family member or friend would, inadvertently making Michelle look like a godsend in comparison.
In 2017, Denise and Michelle have reconciled and she attends Thanksgiving yet again. Though Catherine still feels a little cold toward her, Michelle bonds with her when she helps out in the kitchen and they both criticize Denise’s fashion sense. Catherine finally tells Denise that she’s happy for her and they sit down for a nice meal.
“Thanksgiving” captures an evolution of perspective for both Denise and her mother as they slowly but surely warm up to each other. Catherine comes to accept that while life will always be difficult for her daughter, for any number of reasons, it’s important to be respectful and accepting. Meanwhile, Denise had to let her mother get there on her own and not try to force her out of her comfort zone when she wasn’t ready. Year after year, Dev watches as a family learns that who a person loves doesn’t change who they are at their core, and sexuality is really just another conduit to happiness. Now, let’s all say grace.
Jack of All Trades
• The prologue scene features a very young Dev and Denise. Denise believes that Dev is black, but Denise’s mother explains that they’re both disenfranchised minorities. Denise then believes that Dev is a franchise, like McDonald’s. “Denise, how the hell you know what a franchise is, but you didn’t know that Dev ain’t black?!” Catherine responds incredulously.
• When asked if Dev’s family celebrates Thanksgiving, he responds, “We have lunch together. Then my Dad watches The Godfather and falls asleep,” which sounds about right.
• After Denise finally comes out to her mom, Dev asks if she responded with love and support. Denise snorts, “Nah man, this ain’t an episode of Growing Pains. She told me none of that stuff. But she didn’t disown me.”
• Apparently, Denise’s family knew that she and Dev were getting high upstairs before Thanksgiving the whole time, including her grandmother. “The whole house smelled like reefer.”
• “I mean, I always thought there was a good chance. You were the only girl who wore Jordans to the Spring Fling, and you have had those Jasmine Guy posters up for years. Always felt like it wasn’t about her acting.”