Even at its best, The Chi still feels like four different shows that are forced to exist within the same ecosystem. There’s a gritty inner-city drama that looks at the choices black men are forced to make under corrupt systems with Quentin, Emmett, Ronnie and Reg. Kevin, Jake, and Poppa anchor a show about the ephemeral nature of black childhood joy when you’re forced to grow up in stressful circumstances. There’s a show about the balance of escaping your negative circumstances and embracing who you are in order to make something of yourself in Brandon. Oh, and then there’s that whole cop show with Detective Cruz and Jason’s murder...that’s all still happening too. We haven’t seen an episode where The Chi successfully juggles all of these plotlines, but “Wallets” is the best version of the show’s storyline collage.
In a twist, the best show within The Chi has become the one focused on Emmett, Ronnie, Reg and Quentin. Steven Williams’ Quentin has become one of my favorite villains. Even when the script gives Williams clumsy moments like Sonnie throwing their father’s whistle at him while pointing a gun at him (a reference to last week’s episode), he sells the intensity of the moment. Director Tanya Hamilton lets the camera linger on a knife in Quentin’s hand or Jake’s bookbag which helps to sell us on just how violent he could really be. Quentin’s background is still unknown, so he an actual wild card within The Chi’s universe. He seems to follow a code, but he’s clearly capable of horrific acts. It felt like Jake and Reg might not survive the episode and that’s a hard feeling to capture in a prestige drama. For example, this season’s earlier episode, “Quaking Grass,” struggled to make us feel like Brandon, Kevin or Ronnie were in any real danger as we saw flashbacks of their confrontation.
“Wallets” is the first time it feels like a central character could have their story cut short. It’s heartbreaking watching Reg’s eyes dart between the clock and the door, hoping Jake won’t come home. Barton Fitzpatrick had a quiet charm in earlier episodes as Reg, but now he’s become one of The Chi’s best characters. Reg’s story has outpaced Brandon’s as the one I look forward to most each week.
Quentin is right: Reg is disposable to Trice, to his gang and to the community he exists within. Unlike Emmett, he’s not hustling with the hope of becoming legit some day and his death wouldn’t be cutting a promising career short like Jason’s. Reg is a gun runner who brings violence to the community and it’s unlikely anyone would be surprised by his death. The one thing Reg clearly does care about is Jake and providing for him in the absence of their parents. Maybe Reg will be able to save himself by aligning with Quentin, but he’ll likely remain a pawn in someone else’s game.
That Jake looks up to Reg as someone in power and believes he can protect them makes it all the more sad. Kevin and Papa didn’t know they were saving Jake’s life when they held their mini-intervention, but that just shows how out of touch they all are with the gravity of the situation. The kids still make the best of every moment they’re given on the show. I’ve complained that Papa hasn’t been given much to do this season, but “Wallets” makes a lovely highlight reel. Whittling music. “Me” time. By the time Shamon Brown was describing the difficulties of cardboard applicators, I wanted to give him my own Academy Award. Papa is the relatable good kid, but that doesn’t mean he has to be removed from the action and Brown clearly has the skills to carry a storyline.
“Wallets” was also one of Ronnie’s best episodes. Ronnie has been adrift for most of The Chi and while part of that is a heavy-handed attempt to allude to his current mental state in life, that doesn’t come together well until now. Ronnie’s previous moments of clarity have been hindered by the weight of Detective Cruz or the mystery of Jason’s death. In this episode, Ronnie is finally able to stop wandering and heal for a bit, both mentally and physically. Literally, his infected bullet wound is seemingly healed by a pill-addicted doctor. Ronnie’s plot takes place in a hangout episode, with Meldrick even joking about the fact that they’re “bonding and shit.”
But, Ronnie can’t open up. He can’t even share what he wanted to be as a kid. We do learn that he served in the army and saw some action. We don’t know what kind of life Ronnie wished for, but it’s clear his current one has repeatedly been interrupted by death and violence. Even the doctor who saves him is unable to survive and dies of an overdose right next to him. Ronnie’s moment of healing ends with him dealing with another dead body and his frustrations are clear. It’s not surprising that he returns to the mosque. Rafiq finally gives words to what Ronnie has been unable to communicate. It now seems possible to forgive Ronnie for Coogi’s death and that makes his presence within the show more enjoyable.
Brandon’s story, however, has faltered in recent weeks. Brandon reuniting with Jerrika and starting a food truck isn’t particularly interesting. It’s odd that Brandon doesn’t even mention Coogi as part of his motivation for owning his own business when he’s trying to get a loan from his cousin. Coogi’s death is what kept Brandon and his family’s story grounded when The Chi started, but now it just feels like a convenient plot device to loop them into the show’s main narrative.
I’m not sure where Brandon’s character is headed, but the options on the table seem more predictable than Reg’s uncertain future. Even last week a commenter guessed that Brandon would start a food truck by the season’s end. At the pace we’re moving, I think we’re going to see Reg force Brandon to return that favor he owes him and the food truck will somehow be involved, leading to Brandon’s failure. Luckily, The Chi has found enough strength in its other stories to keep things interesting.
- I’m not sure I like how the show is framing Emmett’s desire to be in his son’s life with some kind of “she’s keeping his son away from him” storyline. Emmett has been a bad father for two years and doesn’t get visitation rights just because he got to bond with the kid for two weeks. He should pay child support.
- Brandon finally signed the papers for his mother to sell the house. Other than the pilot and that one bar scene earlier this season, have we even seen Sonja Sohn’s Laverne outside of that house? As great as Sohn is on the show, Laverne could disappear as a character at this point and it wouldn’t matter.
- Reg has a lot he could learn from Quentin. I hope he gets the chance to and isn’t killed.
- Brandon and his cousin are still great together. I love the reveal that his cousin rents out a closet in his house.
- When Quentin asked Reg about Jason’s murder, I was seriously like, “Omg, are we still on that? Who cares?” We only have two episodes left, so Detective Cruz will have to reappear at some point. Hopefully it’s wrapped up by the end of the season.