Is there any other drama on television that finds such beauty in simplicity?
I’m so happy that Queen Sugar is back, especially since director Julie Dash (the director of the iconic Daughters of the Dust) brings her considerable skills to Queen Sugar for both episodes that comprise the mid-season premiere. Her framing, the cinematography by Kira Kelly, and writing by Jason Wilborn are able to create an emotional pull from the most minute details: Blue’s crude drawing of a family tree, the contrasting hair textures of pivotal characters, the dusty pink color of Violet’s tissue-paper robe as she waits nervously in the doctor’s office, and the congratulations sign on the kitchen door of the High Yellow after Darla leaves a voice-mail for her mother. In “Yet Do I Marvel,” the Bordelon siblings and those in their orbit are in vastly different liminal states — between grand commitments, between a breakdown and a breakthrough, between resentment and peace.
At least at first glance, Ralph Angel and Darla seem joyful. The episode opens on them walking through the park discussing a movie they’ve just seen. They’re announcing their engagement, including to a very ecstatic Blue who can’t help but spill the good news to Nova. “So you’ll be together forever?” he asks, unable to mask his joy about his parents getting married. Of course, life isn’t as simple as Blue’s view of it. Perhaps that’s why Violet is a bit hesitant to congratulate them, asking if they’re ready to go all-in. She does soften eventually, even hosting a surprise party at the High Yellow. But I share Violet’s reticence. Has Ralph Angel really unpacked his need to control and lingering resentment toward Darla that blooms anytime things don’t go the way he desires? I worry that Ralph Angel and Darla believe that love is enough.
Meanwhile, Nova is mired in her own issues: An article she wrote about a potential Zika virus outbreak in the Ninth Ward, supported by Robert’s research, has caused panic to seize the community she so dearly loves. Her intentions were good, but this article led to a lot of fear and distrust. Nova’s ex–fellow activist, Chantal (played by Reagan Gomez), calls her out, wondering if she’s just interested in being provocative and getting white people to pay attention to their plight. She proves to be successful in the latter at the end of the episode, when Robert mentions the outright racist Timothy North is interested in lending “seven-figure help” to fight Zika virus in the lower Ninth Ward. Nova’s professional life touches on a nexus of issues, but I’m more interested in what it isn’t being shown in her story line. I wish her conversation with Charley about the particulars of Micah’s frightful run-in with the cops outside of the High Yellow during the engagement party was shown instead of just hinted at. Throughout this season, I’ve felt that Nova has been somewhat disconnected from her siblings in ways that undermine the strengths of the series overall.
While Nova and Ralph Angel are dealing with a lot of fraught issues, it’s Charley’s life that remains the true backbone of the narrative. Before the mid-season break, Charley was coming undone. The masks she created for herself were cracking. She was forced to face some uncomfortable aspects of her personality. But it seems that this is exactly what she needed.
In “Yet Do I Marvel,” Charley has come into her own. The beginning of the episode sees a chapter of her life close definitively as news of her divorce has gone public. She’s able to date Remy publicly with no worry over kissing him as they stroll down the street. But Charley’s life is far from perfect. She’s going through the painful process of rebuilding her life and deciding who she is, outside of the expectations others have thrust upon her. But this process is complicated by her mother, Lorna (Sharon Lawrence), who shows up uninvited.
Is there anything more terrifying for a daughter to say than, “My mother. She’s here?” Charley seems absolutely on edge at the prospect of seeing Lorna at such a vulnerable moment in her life. For good reason, too. I’ve suspected since the very beginning that Charley’s mother would be white. There was something about Charley’s demeanor, certain decisions she’s made, and how her siblings regarded her that clued me into this fact. But also I felt this for more personal reasons: My mother is also half-white and from rural Louisiana (a small town called Loreauville in Iberia Parish, for those that know the area). My mother’s background differs from Charley’s and she doesn’t look like actress Dawn-Lyen Gardner, but whenever I watch Charley onscreen, I’m reminded of my mother — the obsessive care over appearances, the fearsome protection of her family, the particular way she moved through the world. That’s why I saw through that clever directorial fake out when Charley walks into the restaurant and Dash’s framing suggests she’s walking toward the black woman at the back table.
Lorna and Charley’s fractured relationship becomes more apparent the longer they spend time together. Lorna bristles at the “industrial” nature of Charley’s home. She warns her that she’s now in competition for Micah’s affection with Davis. She’s disappointed that Charley has decided to run a sugar mill plant rather than continue the glitzier, high-profile work of being a sports manager. “Choice or reaction?” Lorna asks about the multitude of changes her daughter has made. “I’m happy,” Charley pleads. But among the greatest fault lines in their relationship — beyond Lorna’s kindhearted albeit cutting appraisals of Charley’s life — is race. Charley’s blackness means she will speak a language and contend with issues Lorna will never fully understand.
After Charley learns the truth about what exactly happened to Micah when he was abused by the police officer, her first reaction is to use all her clout and leverage to sue. But her second reaction is to hold her son and blame herself for his pain. Being black in America makes such atrocities more than just a possibility. Micah, for a time, was protected by wealth and his father’s fame. But no matter how rich and powerful you become, America never forgets your blackness. Charley is thrown into a panic over these truths and how they affect Micah. So she turns to her mother. No matter the divides between them, Lorna obviously loves Charley deeply. The conversation they have at the end of the episode is raw and emotionally charged. It is also one of the most honest portrayals of what it means to grow up between different cultures and races I’ve seen on television in a long time.
There is a lot to be gleaned from this conversation about Charley’s upbringing. Apparently, Lorna sent her away to boarding school and had her spend summers in St. Josephine for specific reasons.
Lorna: “I sent you away to school because you were a black woman in a white world and you needed the best education and the best pedigree.”
Charley: “That wasn’t enough.”
Lorna let Charley spend summers in Louisiana to know where she came from, but that created a stark divide in which Charley felt she had to manage her blackness. Blackness, for Charley, was something “put on a few weeks of the year.” She is tearful as she says this as if it is her first time voicing these truths. Lorna has no answers that will automatically heal Charley’s wounds. For now, her presence and love will have to be enough. “I’m here for you now,” Lorna says, cradling Charley in her arms. As Lorna rocked Charley, I was awestruck by the complexity and beauty of their relationship. Gardner and Lawrence have already grafted such weight to this mother-daughter dynamic in which the themes of race and belonging have as much importance as the love they share. Charley is navigating rough terrain to redefine her life on her own terms. After her tears dry and she puts her armor back on to enter the world, I’m curious to see how she defines her future beyond the expectations of her family, Lorna, Davis, and even the woman she once felt she had to be.
• I’m so worried about Violet, given her hair loss and obvious eyesight issues. I hope her trip to the doctor isn’t as ominous as it came across at the very end of the episode.
• I have so many questions about Lorna and Ernest’s marriage. How did those two even meet? Why does Violet still have a problem with Lorna?
• When Blue and Ralph Angel share a tender moment at Nova’s home because Blue needs a picture of Ralph Angel and Nova’s mother for his family-tree assignment, he’s quick to mention how much Nova looks like her.