At some point, it had to come to this for Franklin. A stint in prison was always on the horizon; it was either going to be the result of getting wrapped up in the game, or simply being a black kid with the nerve to exist during the height of the War on Drugs. So what options did Franklin really have along the way? He saw the struggle from the hop. He could scrape by in menial jobs in an attempt to legitimize himself in the traditional 9-5 sense, and still likely end up looking down the barrel of a cop’s gun—“don’t shoot him!” screams Cissy in a panic in last week’s episode, knowing full well her son means nothing to the guys with the badges—or he could build something of his own with the help of his family and friends.
Ever since the first season started to come together in its final few episodes, Snowfall has found interesting ways to complicate Franklin. The delicate balance is presenting him as a victim of circumstance, as a black kid just looking to carve out his own space in a drug empire where white folks and the government rule with impunity, while also criticizing his outsized ego. It’s a catch-22; Franklin’s black skin, and the context of the period setting, means that there’s no room for him within the system, and yet any movement outside of it nearly guarantees his downfall. And sure enough, that downfall comes swiftly, and Franklin begins the season finale sweating and teary-eyed, sitting under the harsh, buzzing lights of a holding cell.
It’s a relief that “Education” is so focused on Franklin, on telling a story of what incarceration looks like during the War on Drugs. The season’s other storylines have had their compelling moments, but largely pale in comparison to the visceral tragedy of Franklin getting in over his head. Those happy moments of the season premiere, with Franklin surrounded by money and girls and a seemingly endless amount of optimism, feel long gone as “Education” unfolds. All of that is stripped away, along with Franklin’s humanity, as he enters prison and is denied bail. There’s a stirring, overwhelming sense of defeat hanging over so much of this episode. As director John Singleton chooses to employ a number of fade outs between scenes, the feeling is one of endless uncertainty and anxiety. One scene blends into the next, with no real differentiation. It’s not bland though, it’s an aesthetic trick that puts us in Franklin’s shoes—while he has them—and head space, where there’s no real escape from this life.
What’s remarkable about “Education” is the way that it uses the personal story of Franklin to comment on much larger issues. Franklin is a character that we know and love (flaws and all), and we’re invested in his story, which makes his dehumanization in prison all the more upsetting. Snowfall then uses that to extend sympathy outward, showing that Franklin is just one black kid who gets pulled into a system that’s nearly impossible to escape. He’s just one in a community ravaged by Nixon’s War on Drugs—Teddy makes the point himself while convincing the DEA agent to let things play out. Running into Ray-Ray in prison isn’t a narrative contrivance, it’s a way to show that whole communities get swooped up by the authorities. Teddy’s government wants to transfer whole sections of the population to prison, and they’ve crafted laws to do so, laws that are conveniently ignored when applied to someone who doesn’t look like Franklin.
This is a punishing episode. All the vibrant colors that normally fill out an episode of Snowfall are gone, replaced with prison greys and blues. Piercing bright skies and a slight breeze through the palm trees is replaced with harsh, bland concrete and the clattering of cell doors. All the personality of the show has been zapped, but that’s the idea. Franklin’s never really taken the potential consequences of his actions seriously—call it teenage bravado— but now he has no choice. He’s thrust into a context greater than himself, the context of the War on Drugs, generational violence, and the breaking up of black communities.
Enough can’t be said about the way Damson Idris portrays the shift in Franklin’s attitude and mindset. His commanding presence vanishes, as he shrinks into the prison walls. At home he was king, but in prison he’s nobody. Everything about the way Franklin carries himself in prison is different from the outside world; he’s quiet, he doesn’t make eye contact, he slouches, he slinks around the hallways. It’s a survival strategy, but it’s also evidence of this young kid running up against a reality he thought he could avoid.
Eventually, Franklin does re-establish himself. He gets his shoes back after a violent confrontation, but it’s a heartbreaking and complicated reunion with his parents that brings about that anger, that pushes Franklin back to the boisterous, swaggering kid he was before he got locked up. In that moment, that scene, is the story of Franklin. He’s being pulled in two different directions. One episode ago he was promising his mom that he was getting out of the game for her sake, and now he’s angrily chastising her for breaking down when she sees his bruised and battered face. He’s torn between being better than the stereotype and finding a way forward for his family, and needing to toughen up in order to survive in the only world he really knows. Part of the heartbreak of watching “Education” is knowing the reality of this time and place, where Franklin will most likely become familiar with a cell sometime again in the future.
For now though, he’s out, and he’s figured some things out. He thinks “Mr. Reed Thompson” likely works for the government, and he figures he works for them now too. What does that mean for his future? It’s unclear, but the look on Franklin’s face at the end of the episode suggests that he knows he’s in a tough spot. And what does Franklin do when he’s in a tough spot? He begins making moves. The Franklin of season three is going to be motivated in a whole new way, now that he’s had a real run-in with the New Jim Crow.