Just in time for Zoey's crisis of faith, Daveed Diggs shows up as Bow's atheist brother

By Christian Holub
September 29, 2016 at 03:58 AM EDT
Credit: ABC/Mitch Haaseth
S3 E2
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After the extended Disney World commercial that was last week’s premiere, Black-ish is back to tackling the big topics this week. Well, arguably the single biggest topic of all: God. After Hamilton star Daveed Diggs shows up as Johan, Bow’s world-traveling brother, Zoey gets infected by his secularism and admits she’s starting to doubt the existence of God — which, of course, sends Dre into a spiraling freak-out.

Let’s rewind. Dre’s top-of-episode musing this week is about “constants.” Humorous examples include new Jordans always coming out on Saturday, Rihanna always having a summer jam (looking at you, “Work”), and white men always going bald. A slightly more relevant constant is how much Dre hates his in-laws, especially Johan. After Johan starts showing off at dinner with his Parisian-dinner-this and croissant-that (he’s a professor and just returned from two years of teaching in Paris), Dre tries to remind him whose house it is by making him participating in grace, and he asks Zoey to lead. Dre’s trump card spectacularly backfires, however, when Zoey responds she doesn’t feel right saying grace since she’s starting to doubt her belief in God.

Dre’s immediate reaction is to ask whether there’s a Wiccan Club at Zoey’s school and whether she’s been forcibly converted. There must be some such fantastical explanation, Dre assumes, because there’s no way he raised a non-believer daughter. Zoey’s reasoning is a lot more grounded than that, however, or at least a lot more classic: How can there be a God when so many bad things happen? By this she means world hunger, cancer, dead babies. For a second I assumed this list would also include police shootings of black people, especially since there have been so many lately, but that may have been a touch too dark for what the show was going for here.

Johan thinks Zoey is on the right track. He, a self-described “man of science,” doesn’t believe in any man in the sky (or “sky cake,” as Patton Oswalt once memorably described religion). Ruby shows up a few minutes late to dinner, hungry after an “amorous FaceTime,” and Dre covers up what just happened, fearing she’ll chastise him for being a bad father.

In the world’s most awkward, racially charged version of the Wikipedia game, Leslie throws out a word to see if Dre can associate it with slavery. He chooses “Skittles,” and here again I thought the show might get into the weeds of current national dialogue, since Donald Trump, Jr. recently created a lot of controversy for retweeting a racist meme comparing Syrian refugees to Skittles (which might, in fact, originate with Trayvon Martin famously buying Skittles just before being killed by George Zimmerman), but no, it just happens to be an eerie coincidence. Charlie helpfully points out that “there are no brown Skittles” to help his friend draw the slavery connection, but Dre’s already moved beyond this silly game. He’s realized the other “God-ies” (Leslie’s term) in the office are Charlie and Curtis (the latter of whom even takes off his shirt to show off his religious tattoos, ranging from a fish symbol on his chest to a full-back portrait of Jesus). In other words, the black workers believe in God, and the white bosses don’t. He concludes this whole atheism thing must be some white bullsh-t and rushes home to purify his house of the contaminating influence of stuff white people like.

Bow and Johan subsequently find Dre in the kitchen, desperately trying to flush the family’s entire supply of almond milk and hummus down the sink, preparing to issue a “no more Whole Foods” edict. Johann responds to this insanity by reasonably pointing out there are plenty of black atheists (Ta-Nehisi Coates, for one, recently won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me, which offers a completely godless perspective on racism and black life, among other things). Bow counters that science doesn’t explain everything; sometimes things happen in the hospital that can’t entirely be explained away by medical science. Johann seems to think those huge hospital A/C units probably account for that. Once again, Ruby enters in medias res to find Dre would rather tell her Zoey is dying of an aneurysm than admit one of his kids is flirting with atheism. This last-ditch excuse doesn’t hold for long, though, and suddenly Ruby is blaming Bow, Johan, and their “family history of blasphemy” for contaminating her granddaughter.

NEXT: A real crisis of faith

Dre’s attempts to “save” Zoey grow increasingly more desperate. He plays her a 20-minute slideshow of default screensaver pictures soundtracked by a 99-cent iTunes playlist (Zoey is unmoved, to say the least) and then decides to bring her to the hospital so she can watch someone die. Zoey thinks this behavior is unworthy of her father and leaves him.

On a much lighter note, Bow is trying to motivate Jack and Diane to clean up after themselves more. There’s a new baby on the way, after all, and soon Bow’s attention will be needed there, so Jack and Diane will need to look after their own messes. Being the scheming twins they are, however, they quickly trick Junior into doing all their work for them.

For his next attempt, Dre recruits Ruby to drive the fear of God into Zoey. Unfortunately, his daughter seems much more interested in learning Johan’s “messy bun technique” than listening to her grandma drone on about the Bible. Dre doesn’t care about the Bible, though; he just wants Zoey to believe there’s someone up there looking out for her. Johan points out that he, for one, believes in things like unity, love, and friendship even without religion, but this prompts only eye-rolls and mockery from Ruby and Dre. I certainly never expected to see the charismatic and charming Diggs (who won a Tony for his scene-stealing performance in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton) be used as a laughingstock character, but that appears to be his role on Black-ish. Zoey, who’s being an extremely reasonable teenager throughout this episode, apologizes to her dad for not giving him the answer he wanted, but admits “This is where I’m at right now.”

After this, Dre turns his anger inward. Are Zoey’s doubts the result of his own fractured relationship with God? Did his own faith waver to the point he wasn’t able to provide a convincing example for his children? Seeking answers, Dre turns to the man himself with a deep prayer. Naturally, he can’t keep himself from getting distracted. At one point he refers to God as “The Notorious G.O.D.,” after which he reminisces about how Biggie died too young. Then he smells kettle corn.

Bow later finds him eating said kettle corn in bed, which annoys her but also seems like good proof of the existence of a higher power (three flavors in one bucket!). Dre remembers when Zoey was sick as a baby, and how he and Bow turned to prayer in their time of need. What will be her last recourse, he wonders, when she inevitably finds herself in a similarly distraught situation? Bow hopes she and Dre have provided Zoey with enough solid backing that she’ll be able to navigate those situations with or without the big man upstairs, but she and Dre agree they’ll really have to “God up” the next baby: Priest in the delivery room, the whole works.

Speaking of which, it’s time for Bow’s next sonogram, and she brings the whole family along. Here the episode flirts with some true darkness when the doctor has trouble finding the baby’s heartbeat. Everyone’s faces slowly fall, and a careful viewer can’t help but be reminded of the beginning of the episode, when Zoey listed dead babies as a reason for her doubts. As willingly as Black-ish tackles big topics like God and guns, though, it’s not quite as dark or intense as cable comedies, and the show fortunately declines to kill off the impending baby. False alarm: The fetus’ heartbeat is found! In their relief, Zoey exclaims “Thank you, God,” which relieves Dre immensely even though it feels like a bit of a cop-out from the complex issues raised by the episode.

Cut to a montage of each family member going through their personal prayers: Junior apologizes for masturbating, Jack hopes the monster that invented shoelaces doesn’t penetrate God’s Velcro heaven, Diane wants to kill Jack (or whatever it takes to get her own room), Zoey’s thankful that weirdo stopped following her on Instagram, and so on. Johan, by contrast, is alone in the living room drinking wine. We’re not privy to his secular thoughts.

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