I learned at a young age that love is not enough. This is a lesson I’ve carried into adulthood through intensely close, yet toxic friendships and the growing chasms between familial bonds. Sometimes the lovers, friends, and blood relatives you care for the deepest aren’t meant to be in your life. But there’s a part of me that is deeply romantic and yearns to be proven wrong on such matters, who wishes that happy endings powered by love are not only possible but sustainable. Perhaps that’s why I found “Heritage” to be the most profound episode of Queen Sugar this season. At the core of this series is a consideration about the limits and power of love in all its permutations: romantic, familial, platonic, spiritual. This is the first time this season in which every plotline is poignant and challenging, refusing easy answers or any answers at all.
The strength of “Heritage,” beyond the considerable acting talents of the cast, is thanks to the deft writing by Monica Macer and Davita Scarlett. The directing by Liesl Tommy and cinematography by Antonio Calvache focus on the minute shifts of the actors’ faces and physicality, setting them against the near-mythic terrain of rural Louisiana. The episode considers the question, “Is love enough?”, and for each character the answer is significantly different.
I’ve been open about my issues with Nova’s story line this season. Nova is an amazing character in theory, but the writers have made the mistake of focusing on political rhetoric over emotion. By not having Nova intimately deal with characters who speak to the emotional reality of these political ruminations — this season, a potential Zika virus outbreak in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward — she’s become a frustratingly staid character. That’s why my heart leaped with joy when Nova spots Calvin across the room while she’s at a café with her friend Ciara. Calvin’s absence has cast a shadow over this season, since he was previously intrinsic to Nova’s emotional life. There was also never a real good-bye that explained why things soured between them after the harrowing incident in the season-one finale when Calvin and Nova finally made their relationship public, only for her to get spit on by his racist, white acquaintance.
When Nova sees Calvin, she freezes and he noticeably softens. The air changes when they’re in the same room. But although Nova tells Calvin he can call her, she later says to Ciara, “Some things are best left in the past,” remaining taciturn about the possibility of a reconciliation.
Later, Calvin shows up at Nova’s doorstep at night. The chemistry between actors Rutina Wesley and Greg Vaughan is some of the most electrifying I’ve witnessed on TV in recent years. This is why I am so conflicted about how their story line plays out in this episode. When Calvin and Nova sit down on her couch, the space between them physically and emotionally is vast. They both admit they haven’t moved on, despite all their efforts. Calvin is at the edge of tears and closes the gap between them. He gets on his knees, pleading, “Whatever it is, say it. I’ll do it.”
Calvin bares his soul to Nova, expressing the depth of his love. “Felt like a fraud my whole life,” he explains. He played sports, joined the force, got married, and had kids because of outside pressure. He is a man built primarily by the expectations of others. “I did my whole life what everybody else wanted me to do … until you,” Calvin says teary-eyed. “Being with you was the first time I could be me.” When Calvin tells Nova, “I love you so much. More than anything or anyone,” how can you not swoon? Who doesn’t want someone to look at them the way Calvin looks at Nova? They trade I love yous, but Nova is holding back. He’s open; she’s closed off. Despite all his proclamations and love, it isn’t enough.
“For you, I’m freedom. For me, you’re prison,” Nova says pulling away. The looks on their faces and their backs turned to one another are complicated expressions of the pain, yearning, and history between them. Calvin is deeply hurt, explaining he handled the man who ruthlessly disrespected Nova in the season-one finale. But for Nova, that isn’t the issue. She feels she can’t be herself fully with Calvin. She has to hold back particularly when it comes to her activism, which makes up a large part of her identity. Furthermore, being with a white cop is, in her mind, hypocritical given all she fights for. “Just because you wish something is meant to be doesn’t mean it is,” she tells Calvin. What else can be said after that?
These scenes are a great opportunity for Greg Vaughan and Rutina Wesley, who make a meal of the intricate emotional landscape their characters navigate. Vaughan beautifully portrays Calvin as a raw nerve. Wesley understands Nova’s longing. By the time they kiss in a way that can only be described as a good-bye, it’s dawn. When Nova closes the door on Calvin, it’s evident this is a door that won’t open again. I admire Nova for fiercely sticking to her political identity and refusing to bend to the men in her life, no matter how much she cares for them. Black women often deal with a precarious calculus when it comes to romance, weighing identity, politics, and yearning. I’ve been there. I understand what Nova is going through. But there’s a part of me that wishes Calvin would stick around, since this is the first time I’ve felt Nova’s story line has had a lasting emotional impact this season. Unfortunately, black women often don’t get love stories with happy endings in which passion supersedes all else.
Meanwhile, Charley deals with her own romantic impasse when it becomes apparent she and Remy are at very different places in their life. “I believe in forever and I want you in mine,” Remy says. It’s romantic pillow talk, but is it what Charley desires? Not really. She isn’t ready to consider another marriage or kids, which Remmy wants. She’s just reclaiming her life. But Remy is willing to stay with Charley despite the fact she may not change her mind.
Darla and Ralph Angel face the possibility that love may not be enough for far more harrowing reasons. Darla, Ralph Angel, and Blue wait on the steps of their home, watching her parents pull up. When we meet Quincy (Roger Guenveur Smith) and Darlene (Michael Michele), they immediately are more complex than the emotionally cold villains Darla has made them seem. (Also, Queen Sugar’s casting director deserves a raise. Smith and Michelle are stellar in these roles.) When Blue hugs each of them, you can see them both melt. Who wouldn’t, considering how adorable and kind Blue is? But as the entire family eats, the fissures between Darla and her parents become evident. Thankfully, Blue is off in the bathroom and doesn’t witness this tension. Quincy compliments Nova on her television appearance and Charley on her groundbreaking sugar mill. When he mentions that he and Darlene are proud of them, it becomes clear this is a tactic to needle Darla for her faults. Charley tries to compliment Darla, only for Quincy to counter that Darla could learn a lot from them. “Darla can teach a lot too,” Ralph Angel says sternly.
Darlene and Quincy are smartly not conceived as villains. Their relationship is revealed to be far more complex than Darla described it. In fact, Darlene and Quincy have actually been giving money to Violet in order to help raise Blue. They deeply love their daughter, which is why her addiction cuts them so deeply. On the porch, Darlene and Darla have an unfiltered conversation about the wounds between them. Darla chastises her mother for not returning calls or letters over the years, but Darlene explains the events from her perspective. Darla has often said she’s clean and that she loves them, only to take advantage of their love. She’s called them high, asking for money or threatening to hurt herself. She’s said she’d come home, only to never arrive. Her parents have come for her, only to find her absent. Being the parent of a drug addict is not easy. To pretend that it is and that her parents could survive years like this without breaking under the pressure would be cruel. “Eventually we had to create some distance for our own sanity,” Darlene explains, adding that this was especially hard for Quincy, which explains his continued distance. When it comes to family, sometimes there are no heroes or villains, just people in pain trying to survive. This is what Darlene’s parents had to do to survive.
Quincy and Darla eventually have a beautiful scene of their own. He’s kinder than expected if a bit standoffish. “I’m a good person,” Darla proclaims, her face full of hope. But her warm expression dissipates when Quincy tells her that to fully make amends, she needs to tell Ralph Angel the truth.
The revelation proves to be the most heartbreaking of this week’s episode. “Please don’t hate me. I hate myself enough for this,” Darla says before launching into a painful explanation that Blue may not be Ralph Angel’s son. The details about a party she went to in D.C. at the beginning of their relationship, the drugs she did, and the stranger she slept with don’t matter. It’s the idea that Blue — the son Ralph Angel has considered the best part of himself — may not be his. Something unravels in Ralph Angel as he steps away from Darla, curling into himself on the land he now calls his own. I think love is enough when it comes to Blue and Ralph Angel, no matter what biology may prove. But for Darla, I don’t think this is something Ralph Angel can forgive.
• Violet’s lupus diagnosis is heartbreaking since so much is at stake — her growing business and the precarious bonds of her family. When will Violet tell everyone? What does this mean for the family she’s holding together?
• “I started losing myself,” Nova says to her friend about why her relationship with Robert faltered. I deeply admire that Nova has stayed true to herself.