In the “Thanksgiving” episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None (Netflix), Lena Waithe delivers a moving exploration of sexual identity. Over the course of several Thanksgiving dinners, we witness her character Denise come into her own, while her mother Catherine (Angela Bassett) wrestles with the something she may have always known.
The episode begins when Denise is a young girl, watching music videos with a young Dev (Ansari). The walls in her bedroom are plastered with glossy posters of singers, rappers, and actors. As the kids sing along to the music videos, Catherine is sure that Denise is fantasizing about the men in the video, when the camera quickly switches to her perspective, showing who she’s really looking at; women.
In her teenage years, Denise confides in a young Dev as they smoke weed in her bedroom. This time, she is fantasizing about Jennifer Aniston from “Friends,” and is just learning the language to describe her sexuality. “Lebanese” becomes lesbian, and Dev, in a cannabis-induced haze, accepts her admission with no surprise.
Later, when we get to a diner scene, outside of the warmth of the family home, things get tense. In a compact restaurant booth, Denise and Catherine, discuss pregnancy. However, the conversation is not really about pregnancy. It’s about expectation and hope; a hope that Denise will be the daughter Catherine envisioned, but not necessarily the daughter she knows. It is fascinating to watch this exchange, and to witness the way that heterosexual identity is seen as safer, especially in the African American community. In a society where racial injustices run rampant, who also wants their child to be mistreated, or singled out because of their sexuality? Catherine struggles with this, blaming herself, and her inability to “keep a man,” among other reasons, for Denise’s sexuality.
At various points in the episode, there’s conversation around race, gender, and class. When Denise is younger, Catherine tells her what a minority is, and later, when Sandra Bland is killed, the family discusses it openly at the dinner table. The episode has a circular movement in which the time period changes, but the conversation doesn’t. There’s a certain nostalgia that remains as well- the same posters hang on Denise’s wall, her friendship with Dev is still hilarious, and her attraction to women remain the same, but somehow the outward acceptance of her sexuality presents a complication in all that seems constant.
Often, there’s an assumption that we, as black women, will grow up, go to college, be successful, get married to a man, and have children with a man. When women don’t fulfill this narrative, things can get confusing, tense, and sometimes unbearable. Some of this episode’s best humor comes from the awkward unfamiliarity that Catherine and Denise’s Aunt Joyce (an awesome Kym Whitley) have with the women that Denise bring home for Thanksgiving. While one of the women seems like the perfect match for Denise, Catherine is apprehensive, while Joyce jumps to give her an extra masculine handshake. This, complete with Dev yelling across the table to talk to Denise’s hard-of-hearing grandmother, makes these scenes beyond memorable and funny.
In the final shot, the camera elevates from the dinner table into an expansive overhead shot of Denise, her girlfriend, Dev, Catherine and her family eating and laughing. There’s a sense of togetherness here, and it feels good that Denise finally has a seat at the table.