“I Know My Soul” is an episode that provides no quick resolution or easy answers. Wounds don’t heal. Insults burnish in the air. No outside threat forces the Bordelon siblings to mend their differences, at least momentarily, in order to survive. Like last week’s episode, it ends on an ellipsis. It’s hard to conceive of what will happen next since everyone is spiraling in different directions.
Nevertheless, Queen Sugar has always presented a hopeful stance on family. “Family comes first,” Violet says. Watching this week’s episode, I began to wonder, what do children owe their parents? And, is carrying familial legacies forward a gift or a burden? “I Know My Soul” is the best episode of season two thus far because it provides no heartwarming response to such questions. Charley, Nova, and Ralph Angel are forced to sit with their respective hurts and find salves on their own.
The episode begins moments after “Line of Our Elders” left off, with Violet making an impassioned plea for a furious Nova to stay in the wake of hearing about Ernest’s second will. Charley refuses to believe Ralph Angel, while Nova feels he is lording the will over his sisters. Ralph Angel may have legal rights to all the land now, but he does himself no favors by needling Charley and Nova. He repeatedly tries to hurt them by reminding Nova that she moved to New Orleans and never looked back. (Does she not deserve a life of her own? What does she owe her father, especially considering she was the least interested in the land?) He remarks that if Charley actually picked up the phone, maybe Ernest wouldn’t have ended up being a janitor. This is just the beginning of cruelty directed at Charley.
Meanwhile, Darla, Hollywood, Micah, and Blue play cards outside as curiosity grows about the turmoil brewing inside. (Director Kat Candler shows their Go Fish game in one of the series’s signature overhead shots.) Charley and Nova remain unmoved, so Ralph Angel goes to fetch the letter to settle matters, as if things could be that easy. While he’s momentarily away, the real issues that are causing Charley and Nova to react so venomously are uncovered.
Charley’s anger is easily understandable. In the wake of her issues with Davis and guilt over not coming when Ernest called, taking up this legacy is an act of penance and remembrance. She’s uprooted her life as well as her son’s. She’s tied her image and money to this legacy. That’s why I find Ralph Angel’s decision to hold onto this for so long only to now use it against Charley somewhat cruel. I get that Ralph Angel wants to prove himself, but how he’s going about that isn’t brave but impetuous and short-sighted.
Meanwhile, Nova isn’t angry over losing her claim over the farm itself, but what it represents. “You are going to have to let me in,” Violet says, recognizing that Nova’s reaction has roots in something she isn’t admitting. Nova opens up about the expectations Ernest placed on her: to settle down, have kids, live a more traditional life. Once Ralph Angel and Charley had children, he stopped asking about those plans — and Nova interpreted that as Ernest finally coming to terms with who she truly was. In finding out about this second will, her mind has changed. “Cutting me out of the farm seems like he’s judging me, punishing me,” Nova says.
The dynamics of legacies and the burdens upon black women who live untraditional lives is certainly fertile ground to explore. Actress Rutina Wesley carefully melds steely resolve, blistering anger, and confusion with the character of Nova. But I feel this story line could have gone a bit deeper. A parent placing weight upon their child to live a life more commonplace isn’t out of the ordinary. Nova is by far the most unconventional of the Bordelon siblings. She’s bisexual, has no children, deeply devoted to activism. I kept wondering if Ernest’s issues had different dimensions than what we’ve learned. Why did Nova’s disinterest in having kids bother him? Did he know about her sexuality, and if so, did that rankle him?
When Ernest’s letter is finally read aloud by Violet, she grants his words with great weight. Everyone is silent as she reads, drinking the words in and calculating their weight upon their lives. In the letter, Ernest pointedly notes he is leaving his farm to “the child of mine who needs it and loves it most.” He goes on to advise Ralph Angel to “never forget you are better than you think.” But what did he think about the repercussions on Charley and Nova? Legacy is important to black families, so this isn’t just about land and sugar cane. This is about everyone’s place in the world and how they believe their father conceived of them.
Charley and Nova are quick to question the letter. Through tears, they theorize that Ernest never took this letter to a lawyer for a reason, so maybe it was more a distant hope than a real will, especially since Ralph Angel had just gotten out of prison when it was written. I should admit I have complicated thoughts about Ralph Angel. I both feel for him and get annoyed by how quickly he’s angered, even if I understand the impulse behind it. Did he think for a moment about how he was setting the lives of his sisters aflame in his quest to find worth? Did he consider for a moment the day-to-day realities of this decision? How can he blame Nova for living her own life in New Orleans and not being there to parent him as he felt an older sister should? Charley is quick to point out the issues with Ralph Angel striking out on his own. “You’re not ready,” she says bluntly. Even Violet agrees. How is Ralph Angel going to run the farm if Charley doesn’t fund it? Ralph Angel doesn’t have concrete answers and, like Charley, I worry that he’ll lose the farm despite his passion. But the real main reason I have complicated feelings toward Ralph Angel comes down to his relationship with Darla.
Darla unwittingly becomes a bit of a pawn in the argument between Charley and Ralph Angel. Charley wants her to go to the mill to get important paperwork drawn up, while Ralph Angel insists she stays by his side, even if that means undermining her work yet again. He seems controlling to a degree that is uncomfortable to watch. He even thinks Darla is taking her side, merely because she does her job as Charley’s assistant. But what choice does she have? She can’t afford to lose another job because she stood by Ralph Angel. “You can’t go, Darla,” he says. He doesn’t plead; he insists. He also can’t see her perspective at all, instead believing she’s against him like everyone else, which is a rather simplistic way to the view the world. When Ralph Angel later decides to be cold toward her so that she couldn’t come inside, I realized how conditional his love is. Although Darla’s history with addiction plays a part in this, I believe the real culprit is that Ralph Angel sees the world rather starkly. You’re either with him or against him.
Ralph Angel’s desire to better himself at the expense of others is important, but Charley once again acts as the lynchpin of the episode. Remember, Charley’s interview with Ben is still ongoing. A photographer has flown in for her Galant Magazine spread. Ben is asking around about her impending divorce, which Remy takes note of. Charley admits to telling Ben about the divorce as leverage, curdling her relationships with Davis and Remy. Her scene with Remy in particular is painful to watch. When she admits to this, something changes in Remy’s face and he tells a story about how Ernest would always praise her as thoughtful. “Now I wonder if I misunderstood your father. Maybe thoughtful meant calculating,” Remy tells her. It’s an anecdote designed to wound. Charley is indeed calculating, but she has to be that way to survive. The fact that Remy can’t see that is troubling.
Charley’s wealth and lacquered presentation often give people the idea that she doesn’t need help. That she, like so many black women, can simply survive on their own with no one else to lean on. When Violet talks to Charley, she complains about how Ralph Angel is coddled. “I need help, too […] I want someone to fight for me,” Charley admits, crying. The Bordelon siblings are now spinning off in different directions. After Nova’s heart-to-heart with Violet about why she sold off her share of the farm, she decides to take Robert up on his offer and go to Atlanta. Ralph Angel remains headstrong. And Charley is clearly coming undone. When Ben asks what Ernest would think about her new career, she finally cracks. Her ability to spin things to advantage fails and all she can say is the wounding truth: “I don’t know.”