Coincidentally, the episode of Black-ish immediately following the presidential election focuses on a conversation about white-collar versus blue-collar jobs — when the election was often portrayed as a battle between rural, working-class blue-collar Trump voters and liberal coastal elites. That depiction may be somewhat inaccurate, but nevertheless it’s a debate that’s been taking place. Black-ish often feels like it has its finger on the pulse of important cultural conversations, and this surprising convergence only increases that.
The episode’s central conflict arises when Jack and Diane get their results on career aptitude tests. Diane is slated to hold a “position of power in a political organization,” which delights her parents. Jack, on the other hand, is predicted to be a member of a unionized group of skilled laborers.” The reception to that revelation is somewhat more muted in the Johnson household.
Jack, for his part, seems legitimately excited about becoming a lumberjack, mechanic, or welder — which Dre sees as little more than a recipe for losing a finger. Bow is worried this will affect Jack’s mind-set going into middle and high school, which seems like a pretty good case for not doing these tests at all, right? This isn’t France or Germany, after all. This inspires Pop to speak up on behalf of blue-collar workers. He was one himself, and now he’s got a great life (even if it’s only because he mooches off his more successful, white-collar son). As he points out, “position of power in a political organization” sounds like a load of hot nonsense when you think about it for more than a minute.
Dre and Bow quickly take this to the school’s principal, who naturally assumes they’re there to talk about a real issue, like Diane’s behavior, or their refusal to attend parent-teacher conferences, or Pops’ known drinking habits. No, they’re there because they’re mad about Jack’s career aptitude test. The principal tells them to chill out, since Jack’s a nice boy. Diane on the other hand — but before he can finish that sentence, Dre and Bow are out the door, unwilling to confront an actual problem. “Teachers are scared!” The principal shouts desperately after them.
Cut immediately to proof of Diane’s bad behavior, as she’s trying to humiliate Jack for his test. He couldn’t care less. He’s just as much of a happy camper as always, but when Ruby sees this bullying, she decides to try setting Diane on the path of righteousness. She sits her granddaughter down and starts reading Bible passages to her. Diane reacts by immediately puking all over the Good Book, which convinces Ruby she’s possessed by a demon.
Dre’s in a good mood after the meeting with the principal, but of course that changes as soon as he gets to the office. Leslie and Connor seem supportive of the Jack situation at first, noting (incorrectly) that paid white laborers were just as important in building America as the black slaves. So, Dre asks, would Leslie have been fine with Connor becoming a paid laborer? “No,” Leslie responds, “I love him.”
Back at home, Dre and Bow come upon Pops teaching Jack how to unclog a toilet, and other important plumbing skills. Pops is proud of his grandson, saying he has a real future. Pops says he never worked harder than when he was a plumber, which prompts an eye roll from Ruby and a flashback to a younger Pops faking a back injury on the job in order to get out of work. But hey, Ruby did the same thing when she worked at the post office, as a subsequent flashback demonstrates. The conversation quickly turns serious, though, when Pops accuses Dre and Bow of looking down on blue-collar people. Dre says no, they just want their children to continue down the road they paved, and he thinks a blue-collar job would mean going backward. Every generation is supposed to be better than their parents, right? Well, not according to some statistics, which project millennials to be the first generation in a long time to have a lower standard of living than their parents. Pops is worried that this logic is turning America into a nation of “YouTubing selfie takers who don’t know how to fix a damn toilet.” Bow declares that she’ll reach out to Jack. For her, this means working through Latin flashcards with him, but Jack can’t even remember where he left them.
NEXT: Things get serious [pagebreak]
To test her theory about Diane’s demonic possession, Ruby has her granddaughter read aloud repeatedly from the Bible. Suddenly, a dead bird falls from the sky, freaking out Ruby. Later, when Ruby and Junior are hanging out in the kitchen, Diane walks through. Her presence snuffs out candles and makes Junior’s breath visible, which seems like evidence of demonic possession if ever there were some. Ruby takes off her earrings and dares the demonic force to fight her. No takers so far.
Dre’s plan is to show Jack the advantages of a white-collar life, so he brings him to the office. There, Jack is confronted by the inanities of Dre’s bosses and co-workers, who are busy playing video games and taste-testing different types of popcorn. Suddenly a faucet breaks, shooting water everywhere. The white-collar ad executives are at a loss for what to do; Dre even shoves Jack in front of him to protect his fancy sneakers from the water. Jack is much more impressed with Ignacio, the handyman who comes in and fixes the faucet in a hot second. Jack wants to follow Ignacio around instead, and Dre begrudgingly lets him.
He despairs about this later in a conversation with Pops, who tells him you can’t blame Jack for admiring a man with a job — a real job that has concrete results you can point to at the end of the day. After all, Pops worked on the neighborhood church and some billboards. His work still stands. Dre’s, on the other hand, fills those billboards with insurance ads featuring dogs in human clothes. Once again things get serious, as Pops tells Dre he’s disappointed that he worked so hard for his son to go to college, only to become a sellout who “looks down at me and spending your life worrying what white people think.” An emotional Dre responds that he doesn’t look down on Pops; he’s very grateful for everything his dad sacrificed for him — but that blue-collar life isn’t the life he envisions for his son. Pops responds that Dre’s life isn’t what he imagined for his son. “No one wants to buy insurance from a naked dog!” Dre shouts at his departing father. “The numbers show that!”
Elsewhere, Junior and Zoey find Ruby literally trying to perform an exorcism on Diane. They reveal that they were just messing with the superstitious grandmother — Junior threw the dead bird, and Zoey turned off the candles by remote control, and Junior put dry ice in his mouth to make his breath visible (“I can no longer taste salt, but it was worth it”). But then, of course, Diane out-pranks them all, when she makes the lights flicker off and gazes at them with a devilish expression.
Bow’s still trying to teach Jack Latin, but it’s going nowhere. After he leaves, Dre comes in from his conversation with Pops and asks if he’s crazy for not wanting his son to be a plumber. It’s not his fault, after all, that society looks down on blue-collar workers. Bow responds that societal prejudices are why she became a doctor in the first place. Being a doctor makes you bulletproof — it doesn’t matter what people say about you, because they always have to put “doctor” at the front. Dre reflects on his own job — “if I wasn’t SVP, I’d just be the black guy at the office.” They reflect on how achieving these white-collar jobs was, in some way, their protection from the judgmental white world. Their parents weren’t worried about if they were happy or fulfilled, because they were just trying to keep their kids alive. Now their success means their kids have the opportunity to pursue a path in life that’s actually meaningful to them. Dre realizes that he should let Jack chase his own American Dream — “all that matters is he keeps that smile on his face.”
The episode ends with Dre bringing Pops to work, to show him how it’s done. Naturally, they immediately run into Leslie, and naturally, he immediately makes a racist comment. “You know they hate you, right?” Pops asks his son after the boss leaves. Dre admits: “I never knew how much until right now.”
There weren’t a ton of laughs in this episode (and the demonic Diane subplot honestly felt a little undercooked) but the white-collar/blue-collar debate is one very much worth having in America right now, especially in the wake of this election. The show really does that conversation justice, and in doing so, maximizes its unique strengths.
Episode grade: B+