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The 2018 Emmy nominees will be announced on July 12, and while it’s probably too late to sway the minds of anyone in the Television Academy, it’s my hope that the bottle episode in season two of Dear White People is part of the discussion. “Chapter VIII” is one of the most engaging, heartbreaking, and optimistic half hours of TV. Netflix could submit virtually any portion of it to earn Logan Browning an outstanding lead actress (in a comedy) award, recognition of Jack Moore’s script for outstanding writing, and a nod for Justin Simien’s dynamic direction.
Season two of Dear White People picks up not long after the events of the first season, including the blackface party, converging protests, and Sam (Browning) and Gabe’s (John Patrick Amedori) breakup. Simien and Moore structure “Chapter VIII” as a one-act play, a battle of wills between two former lovers who have spent most of the season avoiding each other. It isn’t until they’re seated in a soundproof booth that they really stop to listen. But, as Sam might say, the series and soon-to-be-reunited couple have to put in the work first.
Gabe is on a much longer journey than Sam, as his to-do list includes realizing that “weaponizing [his] white privilege” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Gabe uses his standing as a well-to-do white man to encourage others like him to examine their privilege, too. But when he called the cops to break up a fight in the first season, leading to Reggie (Marque Richardson) having a gun pulled on him by campus security, further traumatizing him, he demonstrated a dangerous way of thinking. Too many white people view the police as customer service—they call on law enforcement the same way they ask to speak to people’s managers. Moore’s script perfectly captures Gabe’s growing awareness, as well as Sam’s frustration at having to explain all of this to a presumed ally. But there’s also an underlying sense of hurt and lack of trust; Gabe is pissed that Sam slept with Reggie, while Sam feels betrayed by Gabe’s constant requests for proof of racial inequities.
Browning’s performance as Sam is a mix of righteous anger, pain, snark, and at times, an almost beatific grace. Whenever the camera lingers on her face, numerous emotions flicker across her eyes, precipitating the break in her voice that reflects just how tired she is of all this shit. Tired of fighting with bigots like self-styled “alt right” mouthpiece Silvio (D.J. Blickenstaff), who treat human rights as a thought experiment and view equality as oppression, but also weary of having to explain to people like Gabe why talking about racism isn’t what perpetuates it. Above all else, there’s a palpable sense of hope, even when the former couple really starts to dig deep for insults and comebacks.
The radio station proves to be an ideal setting for the self-contained episode, because there’s just enough space for Sam to break away from Gabe before admitting she still has feelings for him, and for Gabe to see all the context he’s previously missed. When Gabe pursues Sam, Simien’s camera follows them both as they stalk around the lounge where they once had sex, but are now questioning each other’s motives. Dutch angles are used, albeit sparingly, to demonstrate how the exes are initially skirting their real issues with each other. But when Sam asks point-blank if Gabe is blaming her for inciting racist actions, Browning looks directly into the camera. Simien can quickly make the room feel claustrophobic, zooming over Sam and Gabe as they realize why they’re arguing so passionately in the first place: because they’re still in love with each other. The most powerful statement made in an episode loaded with them is a reminder of what inspires us to keep fighting.