Since Dear White People season 1 premiered last year, a lot has happened. Remember Charlottesville? That was only nine months ago. There was also the firing of Rex Tillerson, the reveal that Scott Pruitt pays on $50 a night for his D.C. condo, and the Parkland shooting, which inspired the March for Our Lives two months ago. Not to mention all the absurd news items that have faded from our minds — remember when Trump asked Washington correspondent April D. Ryan if she would set up a meeting with Black lawmakers? Yeah.
Given this weight of information, Dear White People season 2 feels like its jumped months in the future, not just days. Narrative-wise, the show picks up shortly after the rally outside Hancock house that ended season 1. But emotionally, Dear White People has aged. Season 2 delves into the more insidious parts of racial politics, like alt-right Twitter and the ingrained whiteness of university secret societies. There’s more history in season 2, as the narrator (and later, also the characters) unfurls the legends of the fictional Winchester University. A lot of it eerily mirrors things that are happening today, as I write, as the show makes its way to Netflix. If Dear White People season 1 was a commentary, then Dear White People season 2 is a dangerous, curious prediction.
The villains are more dangerous this time. The stakes are higher. Sorbet, a small fluffy puppy, has gone missing. At the same time, the humour is more insistent. The pop culture references are cruelly relevant, and, yes, there are more fake parody television shows. Winchester is, in many ways, a disaster, but it's also never looked better.
Episode One: Sam
Tis the season of exploring the alt-right. Actually, Dear White People might be the first scripted show to explore the hidden (scary, shitty) depths of the alt-right. At the same time, the residents of Armstrong Parker are dealing with something only slightly less sinister: white students. White students have infiltrated Armstrong-Parker, the residential house for students of colour. At the end of season one, Davis house burned right as Troy (Brandon P. Bell) smashed a window in Hancock house. The confluence of these two events suggested arson, but as of now, the leading theory is that a microwave lit the fire that sent white people to AP.
We begin at meal time, during one of Dear White People's signature tableaus. Sam (Logan Browning) is poking at sugary grits (sugary? okay) while Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherstone) judges. Grits are, apparently, one of the benefits of white students in AP. Other effects include: yoga in the common space, and an influx of white students watching P. Ninny (Lena Waithe's cameo) in her reality show.
This season delves right into the aftermath of last season's protest. It's hitting Sam harder than it is Troy or Reggie (Marque Richardson), thanks to Twitter, which has its own DWP world branding here. One of the things Dear White People does spectacularly well is create its own lexicon of pop culture and branding to employ throughout the season. (This is why it's particularly jarring to hear that 13 Reasons Why reference in the first episode. But I digress.) An alt-right account @AltIvyW is hounding Sam for her show Dear White People, calling Sam racist for its premise. The account campaigns for Rikki Carter, an alt-right figure, to come to campus. All of this is less political than it is personal — Sam is troubled. She isn't recording Dear White People, telling Joelle that another 'don't touch my hair' take would be "hack." She's lagging in school work and she's showing signs of depression.
This doesn't stop her from, erm, enjoying herself in her new double. This is a thing, I've learned, called "prebating," as Joelle calls it, a preventative form of sexual activity that exists to cure us of dangerous horniness. Sam prebates to defend herself from the good looks of Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), her film TA. Gabe broke up with her at the end of season 1, after she told him she loved him. There are other factors at play — he called the cops on the party; she slept with Reggie — but the biggest factor in their breakup was her obsession, he told her in the finale.
The second season of Dear White People is, once again, indecisive on the character of Sam. In a lot of ways, Sam is our protagonist, our trusty guide through the halls of Winchester's socio-political drama. But the show wants us to see her as flawed. When her father calls to check in, Sam snaps, hanging up on him before he can finish his sentence. Relationships with parents are never easy, but Sam's dismissal of her dad feels like a symptom of something more nefarious. It's also intriguing that DWP brought on another character — this show is good at utilising every character it introduces, and Sam's forlorn-looking father will likely make a return appearance. Sam's father, who is white, represents a different form of oppressive whiteness for her. And, the way she reacts to his phone call — it's off-putting, even for the staunchest Sam apologist — speaks to a form of anger that's more dangerous for Sam than anyone else. Then again, that's exactly what Sam's dad would say. I'm still not sure if the show wants us to judge Sam for her anger or if it want us to join in.
For the record, most of the characters in the show seem perplexed by Sam's ire. When Sam argues with a transfer student in the middle of her documentary class, the class seems confused, as does Gabe, who assumes the argument is about him. (It is probably a little about him.)
All of this orbits around Sam's Twitter coma, which starts as triumphant. It starts with an innocent dispatch: She tweets, "Dear outdated racist, your death rattles have a lot of typos" while "Changes" by DeJ Loaf plays. (This is a jarring use of a song that I strongly associate with On My Block.) She spends days in her bed (which is way too big for any college dorm, IMHO) tweeting furiously at @AltIvyW. She has the upper hand, argument-wise, but definitely the lower hand, life-wise.
"You haven’t showered in days, boo. He is winning," Joelle (perfect, rational, underutilised character) points out. He puts the nail in the coffin when he calls Sam's mother a "monkey." Sam bursts into tears, finally fully broken by the vitriol at her back.
The other nail in the coffin are a group of campus right-wingers who start a podcast called “Dear White People.” It’s exactly what it sounds like, and it sounds like InfoWars, but with college students.
To make matters worse, Sam emerges to discover that Gabe, Mr. I-Called-The-Police, is making a documentary. It's called "Am I Racist?" and Reggie is participating.
Deadpan to camera.
Sam: "Let's go running."
Joelle: "Like white girls in TV shows when they need an excuse for exposition?"
Joelle: "Like white girls in TV shows when they need an excuse for exposition?"
Episode Two: Reggie
Like Sam, Reggie isn't doing well. His episode begins with a bit of Reggie backstory: He wanted to go to Howard, but Winchester had a better computer science program. So, he headed to Winchester, where he eventually came face to face with the gun of a campus security guard. DWP graciously gives us some history here. Giancarlo Esposito (our narrator) pops in to say that in 1825, security guards at Winchester started carrying weapons as a response to a nearby slave rebellion. And, uh, yeah, that's the last time Winchester updated its campus weapons policy.
Reggie's having panic attacks and flashbacks to the event in question. He's also wearing a lot of chunky knit sweaters and he's in therapy, though only because the university compelled him to be there. He's also living with a white roommate named Clifton (Erich Lane). Clifton loves hot pockets (yum) and doesn't use a wash cloth (ew). He's also very scared of dolphins, and is currently sober in honour of Thane Lockwood (Brant Daugherty), the football player who died in season 1.
"I can handle white people. Clifton's just so white," Reggie tells his University-appointed shrink. The washcloth is a real sticking point for him. (As a result, we find out that Troy uses a poof to wash himself. Good info to have.)
So, how does Reggie go from Mr. Chunky Knits to Mr. In-A-Documentary-About-Racism? That rests on the shoulders of Troy's father Dean Fairbanks (Obba Babatundé)Dean Fairbanks wants Reggie to overcome his trauma, and his words are helpful, even if they're trite. "You got 99 problems — your head doesn’t need to be one," he tells Reggie.
Reggie pooh-poohs the Dean's help for most of the episode, resorting to other forms of comfort. He tries the Troy method, sleeping with a number of faceless women. It doesn't work. (He yawns during sex.) He also tries the Kurt (Wyatt Nash) method, which involves MDMA and wearing a lamp on his head. (A reminder: Kurt is the leader of the comedy troupe Pastiche. Pastiche, if you'll recall, was the catalyst for season 1. The troupe hosted a blackface party which Sam then justifiably chastised them for on Dear White People. Later, Lionel discovered that it was Sam herself who sent the invites for the blackface party.)
Early in the episode, Reggie also tries the Joelle method, sitting in on Bible study with her. Bible study probably is the most beneficent for Reggie. Joelle's quote from the Gospel of Joshua is particularly applicable for Reggie, but he's not ready for it.
After some MDMA, some sex, and a couple of angry roommate chats — "I confided in you about my fear of dolphins!" — Reggie is still struggling. What appears to turn the dial is Joelle (HMM. HMM). At an open mic, Joelle sings "Call Tyrone" while Reggie flirts with a rando. She glowers from the stage — HMM. — and, when she returns, she's pissed. She scurries home to watch A Wrinkle In Time, and Reggie is alone. Officially. So, he goes back to Dean Fairbanks.
"You cannot let those few seconds become your whole life," the Dean tells him. “You gotta find a way to let this out.”
And that's how he ends up talking to Gabe about racism for a documentary. Reggie begins by sharing the daily microaggressions that consume his life. For example, when he walks behind a white woman on the street. Does he cross the street? Does she?
"I’m done seeing myself through other people’s eyes. I’m telling you what’s going on beneath my skin," he tells Gabe.
Clifton, to the woman Reggie slept with: "Ma’am, would you like a hot pocket?"
Episode Three: Lionel
This entire episode is devoted to Lionel's relationship with Silvio (D.J. Blickenstaff), an important cliffhanger from last season. Dear White People takes its narrative upstarts seriously, and the show is ruthless when it comes to reckoning with the events of last season. Silvio kissed Lionel on The Night. It was dramatic. For us, the viewer, it was liberating. Lionel! Some love! Finally! For Lionel, it was probably liberating, too. But it hasn't been smooth sailing since. Last episode, they materialised briefly, seemingly on a date. This episode, it's clear that Silvio is fucking around. What's more important is Silvio, through his fuckery, becomes an emcee of sorts for the queer community of Winchester's campus. He takes Lionel (and us) through its winding halls, treating us to glimpses of both its grand flaws and its ecstasy. This is Lionel’s Goldilocks journey: He has to find the community at Winchester that fits just right.
They begin their "date" — Silvio arrives drunk and is generally rude throughout the night — at a party for literary students. All the newspaper editors are there, chatting about their favourite Real Housewives. I would like to take this opportunity, again, to grumble about the show’s pop culture inconsistencies. Why reference real television shows when there are already fake television shows within the show? That said, all the references are very funny, and the show uses them well. Real Housewives comes up whenever the characters are looking to deflect. When Lionel calls out another editor at the literary party for using a racial slur to describe Asian men, he ignores the comment, turning instead to Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
This episode deals a lot in the word “problematic” and how the characters in the show react to it. At the literary party, the editors and writers seemed exhausted by it, asking if it can be retired. On the other hand, Troy employs it freely and seems to welcome it.
“I’m problematic as fuck,” he tells Lionel when he’s called out for queer erasure. (Troy was “working on” a threesome with a pair of “fake lesbians” who just turned out to be a couple.) “Just @ me in your next thinkpiece.”
The crux of the drama is that, ironically, Lionel has nowhere to write a thinkpiece. The Independent lost its investors, the Hancocks, who turned out to be ultraconservative. The narrator tells us that the Independent used to be a right-wing publication, a conservative response to the Bugle, the university’s more well-known paper. Important: the Bugle published a tell-all on secret societies at the school in 1924. Lionel is studying this article, possibly because all the X’s he’s seeing around campus refer to a truly secret society.
Following the literati party, Silvio and Lionel head to Donna, a dance party in Chester. It’s also not Lionel’s vibe, but Sam is present, as are a number of gay Black men. The conversations are a bit more joyous, but the structure is largely the same. A group of men debate Taylor Swift versus Lady Gaga (“Miss Germanotta”), playfully accusing them of appropriation. At the party, Lionel also runs into Brooke (Courtney Sauls), another former Independent writer who’s struggling to find another paper to take her.
“Do you know what your little stunt cost me? Do you know what it cost Sylvio?” she hisses at Lionel. It’s a cruel reminder that the actions here have unimaginable repercussions. For Brooke, the Independent was a pipeline to a newspaper career. Now, the remaining school newspapers have rejected her — in her words, they “met their [diversity] quota.” Turns out, this is also why Silvio is acting dickish. He’s upset that Lionel dismantled his paper.
But this is all okay, because Lionel has a plan. He wants to smoke out the alt-righters, and he’s going to do it with… a new newspaper.
“Nobody at Winchester gains notoriety by upholding institutions,” he points out.
Just as the episode comes to a close, Lionel (finallyfinallyfinally) gets a new love interest. His name is Wesley (Rudy Martinez), and he’s funny, and he likes Lionel.
Lionel: "I’m always weird. It’s not really situation-dependent."
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