“Mother Nature” is bound to be a widely praised episode of Black-ish. It deals with a sensitive issue — postpartum depression — with a deft touch and a comedic yet measured tone, much like the episodes dealing with anti-black police violence and Trump anxiety. Black-ish is an uncommonly thoughtful sitcom, and “Mother Nature” will only serve to buttress that reputation. That said, it’s also kind of a downer, which isn’t a crime in and of itself, but it’s hard to digest given how long it’s been since we’ve had a solid run of classic Black-ish.
Think about it: The penultimate episode of season three was Yara Shahidi’s backdoor pilot. That was followed by the surprisingly challenging season finale, in which the Johnson family dealt with its anxiety over Rainbow’s complicated labor. Then this year kicked off with “Juneteenth,” which, for all its heft, is the kind of ambitious stylistic departure that used to come as a season finale. Not much time has passed in the Johnsons’ world, but the audience hasn’t seen the family in its natural rhythm since April. To make the long-awaited return to the Johnson home only to find things in disarray is pretty heartbreaking.
According to Dre’s voice-over, Rainbow hasn’t been quite herself since giving birth to Devonte, and he’s struggling to pick up the slack when she’s feeling too low to do the super-mom shuffle. Initially, the script has a bit of an old-fashioned Very Special Episode structure, with Dre, Ruby, and the kids first noticing the changes in Bow without knowing the words to put to it. After a huddle with Stevens & Lido, a firm that somehow manages to service clients despite spending all its time discussing Dre’s home life, Dre wonders if Bow is dealing with postpartum and confirms his suspicions with a multiple-choice quiz from a women’s magazine.
If all “Mother Nature” did was deliver the Black-ish take on postpartum depression and the feelings of guilt and stigma it engenders, it would be an admirable episode that few would mention in a list of their favorites. But rather than follow the familiar beats of a Very Special Episode, “Mother Nature” splinters off in an unexpected way and adds new layers to a central relationship. Bow quickly agrees to seek treatment for her mood disorder, and her doctor allays any fears over tainting her breast milk with prescription antidepressants. By this point, Ruby has already concluded that Bow is just being weak, and when Bow discovers that Ruby fed the baby formula instead of her breast milk, she’s furious.
The confrontation between Bow and Ruby might be the most emotionally raw scene Black-ish has ever done. When Bow is at her best, she can take Ruby’s verbal barbs and throw them back just as hard. But now that she’s constantly sad and feels emotionally drained by a baby she hasn’t bonded to, Bow’s tolerance for her mother-in-law’s insult-comedy routine is lower than ever. Plus, the underlying issue isn’t about Rainbow’s cooking or her fashion sense — it’s her fundamental ability to raise her children. When Rainbow doesn’t seek treatment, Ruby says she’s just weak. When she does seek treatment, Ruby unilaterally decides that her milk is poisoning the baby. It’s a maddening catch-22, and Bow is right to call Ruby out.
Tracee Ellis Ross and Jenifer Lewis are outstanding in the scene, but I’m already resenting the talk of Emmy worthiness that will crop up around their performances. Both actresses are incredible and deserve literally all of the awards, but they’re also Emmy-worthy when they’re doing pratfalls and cracking wise. Comedy is its own discipline, so it’s frustrating to see comedic performances singled out for praise once they become dramatic performances. As amazing as Ross is here, to lavish praise on her for the most dramatic scene she’s done on the show is to minimize the amazing work she’s doing when Bow cracks herself up with a reference to “Erykah Ba-Don’t.”
In all fairness, though, these complaints are mostly about timing. At a different point in the season, an episode like “Mother Nature” wouldn’t feel like as much of a slog. But after all the heaviness and novelty of the past few episodes, a knock-down drag-out between Bow and Ruby feels like too much to bear. Especially since it ends with Bow demanding Ruby move out of the house with Dre’s full support. This show hasn’t been quite itself for a while either. It’ll be nice to finally get back to normal-ish.