We couldn’t help but focus on the men of American Soul during Episode 4.
The ladies are good, for the most part: Tessa found her footing, literally and figuratively, finally showing Flo and the Soul Train gang she ain’t nothin’ to play with on the dance floor, and checking Don for taking out his frustration on her with mixed messages and disrespect. Simone is still getting away with using a fake ID to chase her singing dreams in a jazz club and has emerged as a Soul Train fan favorite.
But the men are having a tough time.
JT avoided getting pinched for his role in the robbery and police shooting – but only because Chris (Trey Best) made sure the crime was pinned on someone else. Now we maybe understand why Benny (Kristopher Charles) was tearing up after giving info to the police last episode. He knew he was basically writing a death certificate. Chris has now told JT he won’t get any money from the heist, so all the stress and drama was for naught. Now his family’s finally being evicted. Just as it seems he can buy a little bit more time, Mr. Willard pushes JT past the breaking point with a comment about his mom’s “million-dollar mouth.” We knew this was coming; people been talking to JT crazy for 3 episodes now. JT knocks him out, and the family seeks shelter from Ma Mable (Elizabeth Omilami) in a storage room at the diner. JT wants to hide this from Simone and Kendall, even against Ma Mable’s grandmotherly advice, “Don’t lie to the people you love.”
Simone’s on a mission to save up enough money for Encore to cut a demo and gives JT the pooled cash to hold onto. She knows his mama’s a drug addict, why would she do that? We’ll bet $96 - the amount Simone passed to JT - that the money’s gone next episode. Also possibly gone next episode? JT’s mama. Soon he may have to cut her loose so he doesn’t drown along with her.
Kendall is still figuring out who he is in the absence of his father. Possibly still sorting his guilt for avoiding his father’s fate in the service, he’s trying patriotism on for size, hanging a gigantic American flag in his room. Simone reminds him their mom would not want it in the house, but he insists – to his sister’s amusement – that since he’s the “man of the house,” it’s his call. He’s also still juggling responsible fatherhood with chasing his dreams, bringing his son with him to an emergency show rehearsal. Our real worry, however, is that Flo now has Kendall in her sights. Kendall clearly isn’t a virgin, but Flo’s on another level. Pulling celebrities, locking people in rooms to get a look, on a make it by any means necessary level. Kendall’s not ready. Our hero (anti-hero?), Don, is going through it. He’s still not landing big enough acts for the show, and his primary sponsor is threatening to pull out. He’s taking it out on Tessa, the only other person working as hard on the show as he is, and she’s fed up. Motown, which moved to LA right before Soul Train, has shut him out because he was “difficult” with Gladys.
Don rolls through Club 100 Proof hoping he can again grab an act through Gerald, but Gerald makes it clear that the new BFF free trial period is over. “(The) first taste is hospitality, brotha,” he says. “Now you gotta pay to eat.” Eventually, the two businessmen come to a gentlemen’s agreement: Gerald will help Don land marquee acts for a 5% cut of the business. But what Don doesn’t know (that we do), is that Gerald is a for real gangster. Like killing people and then standing up to his gangster boss’ crew, gangster. Don, you in danger, boo.
Before settling on an arrangement with Gerald, Don tries one more time to land an act on his own. Following a tip that Ron Isley is performing at an NAACP fundraiser, Don crashes the event and runs into Motown’s Ilsa Dejarrnette (Shannon Kane). Isla and Don bond over a little coke (what’s a couple of lines between social acquaintances?) and Ilsa offers to help him navigate the black bourgeoisie and make an introduction to Diana Ross (Michelle Williams), who showed up in place of Isley. Don, ever anxious and determined to do things his own way, charms Ross by knowing she sang Ray Charles’ “The Night Time is the Right Time” when she first auditioned for Berry Gordy. Diana, of course, is way too big of a star for a fledgling show, and she tells Don as much. Now, Don must get into Dejarnette’s good graces to get an in with Motown acts. Sounds like a scandalous tryst is on the horizon.
What this episode got right: Soul Train dancers indeed got paid in fried chicken. Members of the Soul Train Gang weren’t compensated, but there was free KFC on set every show taping for lunch.
What it could have done without: Johnnie Cochran showing up as the attorney for Dexter Brown might be a bit much. We appreciate incorporating black figures that we know and will recognize, and highlighting their backstory (Cochran made his name representing black victims in highly publicized police brutality cases), but the intersecting moments can feel forced.
What we absolutely don’t believe: That a record label’s legal representative is all up in lounges and parties, having final say on who performs where, and schmoozing with artists. Even at an everyone-wears-multiple-hats label like Motown. Ilsa is most likely based on long-time Motown senior executive Suzanne De Passe, but De Passe worked on all aspects of creative and artist development.
What we don’t understand: Why there wasn’t more of Janelle Monae’s Wondaland artist Roman GianArthur as Ernie Isley.
This wasn’t the strongest episode so far, but it was a necessary plot builder. Episode 5 looks lit, though. (Come through K. Michelle!)