Brandon P. Bell and Obba Babatunde (Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix)

For most students at Winchester, including the black ones, the backlash against the Dear Black People party is a campus cause they’ve opted into. Troy Fairbanks is a unique case. As the son of a prominent dean at Winchester and the frontrunner for student body president, Troy is expected to respond to controversial issues on campus. But rather than wait to release an expertly calibrated and politically calculated message, Troy springs to action, demanding his fusty father send campus police to break up the Pastiche party. In doing so, he solidifies his role as one of the leading black voices on campus. But like the other characters in Dear White People, Troy has to decide how much that prominence means to him and whether he wants to put his skin in the game, so to speak.

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I realize I’ve adopted a voice similar to that of Dear White People’s narrator, and that’s probably because Giancarlo Esposito’s voice-over is most welcome in “Chapter III.” That’s partially because voice-over narration generally takes getting used to, but also because Troy is the character most in need of a translator. He prides himself on being a social chameleon, on assessing what his audience wants from him and transforming himself into that. The Troy in the campus posters promising “A New Direction” is “the role he was born to play,” the narrator says. Because Troy’s personality is fundamentally phony, getting a handle on the person beneath the politician’s veneer is no easy feat. It doesn’t hurt to have an omniscient guide making the introduction.

“Chapter III” picks up just before the previous episode left off, with Troy and Coco in the throes of one-on-one voter outreach and Lionel next door in need of his first real haircut. Once Troy’s finished getting Lionel’s edges all crispy, he sets out for a final day of gladhanding before the election. He surfs across campus on a wave of his own charm, raining promises he can’t possibly keep, and concealing his fear that he might not be worthy of the faith people are putting in him. Troy even goes so far as to vote for one of his interchangeable white opponents rather than get himself one ballot closer to the presidency. But why vote against himself? Is it modesty run amok, insecurity, disinterest, or defiance?

It’s an open question, since Troy’s vote against himself provides one of the few glimpses of the real Troy Fairbanks “Chapter III” has to offer. Here’s what we know for sure: Troy loves women, weed, and love songs performed by men in matching powder-blue suits. That’s about it. Every facet of Troy’s character, including his love of crew, feels calculated and inauthentic. And underneath that, there doesn’t appear to be much of anything. That might sound like a knock against the character, but it’s actually a testament to how honestly Troy is written. He doesn’t really have personality traits. He has goals that require him to comport himself in a statemanlike manner, and those goals aren’t even his to begin with. Troy’s a vessel for his father’s will and hasn’t been forced to spend a moment thinking about who he is and what he values.

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That’s all likely to change now that there’s proof of Troy’s boathouse hookup with Neika Hobbs (Nia Long), a professor in Winchester’s African-American Studies Department and perhaps the only person who knows the man behind the mask. Troy can confess the truth to his scandalous sidepiece because she too is wearing a mask, feigning happiness with her fiancée, Monique, in public and violating her employment agreement in private. He can only be real with another pretender.

“Chapter III” isn’t as enjoyable as a self-contained episode as the previous two because it plays like the first third of a superhero’s origin story. Troy, too, was galvanized by the Pastiche party. It gave him the opportunity to stand up to his father and to do something he feels passionate about whether or not it fits into the dean’s 10-year plan for Troy’s life. But after going rogue for a few thrilling moments, Troy is forced back onto the straight and narrow path by his laser-focused father. Dean Fairbanks may not know what’s best for Troy’s life, but at least he has a clear idea of what he’d like to see, which is more than can be said for Troy himself.

Kurt’s power play to blackmail Troy may prove a blessing in disguise. It’ll force Troy to decide whether he is, in fact, ’bout that life, or if he would sooner trade one puppet master for another than risk the destruction of his carefully built “Tro-bama” persona. After all, Troy’s resentment toward the life his father pushed onto him doesn’t mean he doesn’t value and even enjoy the prominence and perks that life affords him. The threat against his new presidency gives him an out if only he can muster the nerve to take it. More practically, the blackmail development likely means some much needed forward momentum, since we’re still watching scenes from the chaos at the blackface party three episodes in. If anyone has to focus on the future and stop dwelling in the past, it’s Troy.

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Stray observations

  • Sam and Troy used to date until she realized she was basically dating a miniature Dean Fairbanks.
  • I would find it hard to believe the Asian-American students would be charmed by Troy’s dumpling demo except… Jesus, that dumpling was perfect.
  • I laughed out loud when Fairbanks shuddered at the thought of having Winchester compared to… *gulp*… a state school.
  • Hopefully this isn’t the last we see from Nia Long. I kind of love her in cougar mode.

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