In its pilot episode, The Chi missed a few opportunities to really dig into societal and cultural structures that make the Chicago violence presented in the show possible. “Alee,” the season’s second episode, is a marked improvement as its narrative structure moves beyond the pilot’s broad strokes and alludes to the gritty details the series will hopefully explore. “Alee” brings our four leads (Kevin, Ronnie, Emmett, and Brandon) into a sharper focus and binds their stories through overarching themes that represent realistic challenges to black masculinity. Overall, “Alee” fixes a lot of the issues seen in the pilot, but there’s a need for the show to expand its scope. The episode still fails to give the show’s black female characters much opportunity, but it does highlight how the women in the lives of these men are affected by their actions while depending on them.
Emmett is perhaps the best example of this uneasy balance. Emmett is very clearly a trifling and irresponsible kid. After a paternity test, he can no longer deny that he’s a father now and he’s forced to accept his new duties. He’s literally forced–his baby momma drops the kid off and disappears. His mother refuses to raise his child and expects him to take care of his child and pay rent. Lena Waithe’s script doesn’t ask us to have sympathy for Emmett, but it does ask us to see his frustration. When Emmett almost abandons his kid in a swing, but changes his mind, it’s not a joyous moment marking his newfound adulthood, so much as it is him deciding to be a decent person.
It’s growth for a kid who can’t even keep his eyes on his girlfriend, but Emmett is clearly headed down a dangerous path as he attempts to get a handle on fatherhood. The mysterious loan Emmett receives from Quentin is clearly suspect and will inevitably get Emmett tangled up in the same mess that Jason, the murdered basketball star, was involved with. Yet, it’s realistic that a man in Emmett’s situation, frustrated and out of options, would fall down this rabbit hole. While Jason remains a mystery to the audience, it’s not hard to believe he was just a kid, hustling like Emmett to support the people in his life.
It’s these same circumstances that have seemingly motivated Ronnie. Ronnie has multiple women who he supports this episode–his ailing grandmother, who depends on him to stay out of a state-run home, and Jason’s mother, who believes he got justice. Yet, because the audience knows that Ronnie isn’t the hero he believes himself to be, it’s still difficult to have sympathy for him or root for his romance since it’s built on violence. Waithe’s script does a wonderful job of showcasing the thin line between black male hubris and fragility, however. Ronnie goes from gliding through the streets as his boys congratulate him for “taking care of business” to a broken man once he’s informed that Coogi truly had nothing to do with Jason’s death. The moment is a perfect conclusion to the episode’s events and strips Ronnie of all the false pride he felt from his violent act.
Finally, Brandon and Kevin’s storylines interact as they realize how necessary it may be for them to depend on each other. While Brandon excels at taking care of his wife and mother (as much as his mother will allow), he was unable to protect his own brother. It make sense that he would take Kevin under his protection, but just like Coogi, there’s very little he can do without jeopardizing his own opportunities. He can’t take Kevin to the police as a witness if he wants to protect him. He can’t protect Kevin from Ronnie without confronting Ronnie.
When Kevin tells him he has to handle his shit, it’s clear that Brandon is aware of his limited options, which leads him to calling his coworker to put their violent plan into place. From Jason to Coogi to Brandon and Kevin, it’s an incredible depiction of how cycles of violence are perpetuated, but it also seems as though Brandon should know better.
Brandon’s development in The Chi’s pilot was one of the highlights and the show hasn’t done enough to really show us he’s reckless enough to give up on his dream of becoming a chef to immediately move to violence. Sure, they are making it incredibly clear that he is going to cheat on his wife, but I’m not convinced he wouldn’t try more reputable options before turning to violence. While it seems as though Brandon could share that information with the cop who showed a personal interest in Coogi, he does have obvious reasons not to trust the police.
However, this is the most exciting development from “Alee,” because Kevin and his school friends make up the best parts of The Chi, so far. It’s already easy to see how Kevin could end up the next casualty whose street memorial makes up an intro to a future episode. As Brandon plots his next move, it’ll be Kevin who truly faces the fallout and it’s sad that he seems all too aware of that as a child.
- Like, seriously, just have Brandon fuck that restaurant lady already. The flirting between them is just too obvious. He’s ready to blow his life apart, even though his wife is seemingly wonderful.
- Sonja Sohn isn’t given much to do here, but her brief scene as a day drunk was wonderful. I hope we continue to see the direct impact of Coogi’s death on her, rather than experiencing it through Brandon.
- The kids in this show are truly amazing actors and I can’t wait to see what happens with Kevin’s crush.
- I like that Detective Cruz isn’t entirely presented as this “good rogue cop” who just wants to do the right thing. Even though he’s fighting with another cop, the moment he’s still invited to softball really does show that the CPD is a brotherhood.