Never Have I Ever has pulled off some surprises along the way, but none hit as hard as the reveal at the top of this penultimate episode of the season that Devi was not talking to her father when she said “I hate you” on the evening of his death. She was talking to her mother. Despite being so mired in the grief of a child losing her father, this show is more about Devi’s relationship to her mother. Or, more accurately, how losing her father complicates an already messy relationship with her mother. The mother-daughter storytelling in Never Have I Ever is striking — poignant and visceral.
The episode almost operates as a bottle episode in its confined setting. It all takes place on the day Prashant comes to visit Kamala. The house is equipped with the grandfather clock Nalini bought to impress Prashant and also with Devi’s uncle Aravind, who serves as male chaperone to the meeting. Nalini wants Devi on her best behavior — none of the usual Devi nonsense. It seems like a fairly innocuous request at first, especially since Devi has indeed been up to all sorts of nonsense and drama lately. But then Nalini takes it a little further: “For once can you please try not to make my life any harder?” she asks.
Devi spends the night before this request from her mother racked by a bad memory, almost like a nightmare. She tries so hard to focus on her kiss with Paxton, but it’s interrupted by flashes to her dad’s death, her saying “I hate you,” her therapist suggesting she needs another approach, Fab yelling at her. The editing here is fantastic, and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan provides some of the first glimpses into what ends up being her finest performance of the entire series. But when her mom asks her not to make her life any harder, the full picture comes together. We see the flashback in full. She told her mother she hated her, prompting Mohan to act as peacekeeper.
Throughout the episode, we get some more glimpses into this memory. Devi tries to push it down so she can act normal in front of company, but it works its way back in. Not only is the setting confined to one specific area for the episode, but the overall feeling of the episode is intensely suffocating in a very effective way. Devi can’t quite break free from this memory and its implications. In the flashbacks, it’s very apparent that Mohan is used to fulfilling this role, used to being between Nalini and Devi. The conflict is that Devi lost her sheet music before her concert, but it’s obviously much bigger than that. Nalini thinks Devi is careless and disobedient, and she’s frustrated. Devi feels misunderstood. Mohan’s caught in the middle. It’s such a perfect, tight look at family dynamics that does a lot with a little.
One reason Devi finds it hard not to think about her mother’s strictness with her is because Nalini is so different with Kamala. It turns out Nalini knew about Kamala’s secret boyfriend — Steve sneaking into the house all the time isn’t exactly subtle. He sneaks in one more time, insecure about Kamala meeting Prashant and also wanting to “save” her from her arranged marriage. Even though Kamala tells him his view of the situation isn’t correct, the episode doesn’t quite do enough to push back on Steve’s rendering of arranged marriage as an oppressive practice. But in any case, his presence helps Kamala realize she isn’t just not ready to marry Prashant; she isn’t ready to marry anyone. She breaks up with Steve and confesses the truth to Prashant after Devi accidentally outs the fact that she has been seeing someone else. Prashant is understanding, and he even decides that he likes Kamala and wants to date her in a slower, nontraditional way without telling their families. It’s a bit of a rushed conclusion for Kamala’s arc this season, and it doesn’t feel nearly as convincing as all the other Nalini and Devi stuff happening in the episode.
So that Nalini and Kamala can sneak a heartbroken Steve out the door, Devi has to create a distraction, and while that’s quite the roundabout way to get Devi in front of her harp again, it ultimately works in the payoff. Devi is confronted with flashbacks again as she plays, and it’s almost as if each pull of the strings causes her physical pain. But then her mind settles on something else. Not Paxton. Not one of her fantasies. A happy memory. Another moment of softness between her and her dad. He gave her her first harp. The calmest we ever see Devi is in these flashbacks with her father.
And Devi has good reason to be angry as hell in the present. On the night her dad died, she overheard her mother say that she wasn’t her daughter, that she was sick of parenting her and just wanted Mohan to do it. Nalini has no idea that Devi overheard this, but when Nalini tells Devi she’s thinking of moving the family to India for a change, Devi lets it all explode out of her. “You’re struggling to raise me because you don’t like me,” she says. It’s a gut punch, and Nalini falters. Devi tells her what she heard, and it’s a devastating moment that Ramakrishnan absolutely nails. Devi then goes for the jugular: “I lost the only parent that actually cares about me. I wish you were the one that died that night.”
Devi’s anger stems from so much more than the loss of her father. She feels abandoned by her mother. She feels more than misunderstood. She feels rejected and hurt. But the brilliance of this mother-daughter dynamic on Never Have I Ever is how empathetic and complex it is in its refusal to take sides. What Devi hears her mother say is truly heart-wrenching, but the writing does not demonize Nalini. She is an exhausted mother. She indeed does not really understand Devi. She and Mohan have different approaches to parenting, and she doesn’t have him as a support system anymore, exacerbating some of her frustrations with Devi. The peacekeeper isn’t here anymore.
The fact of the matter is that both Devi and Nalini say ugly things about each other. While they both might mean what they say in the moment due to the heightened emotions, neither likely fully believes what they’re saying. But there’s no denying that their relationship is fractured and that the gap has widened in Mohan’s absence. The muck of this mother-daughter relationship is on full display here, and it makes for a very emotional and stirring episode heading into the finale. Never Have I Ever most often surprises in its more dramatic moments.