Episode 9 focused primarily on Brianne, JT, Gerald and of course Don. Viewers were taken back to April 2, 1968; three years before Soul Train launched in L.A. and four years before the show’s present day. The four characters are preparing for a coming storm, not realizing how it’s going to manifest in their lives – and in the nation’s history.
Brianne Back Then…
Brianne and the Clarkes, complete with patriarch Joseph, are celebrating Simone’s birthday. We learn that both Simone’s voice and life are a gift since a respiratory illness plagued her through childhood. After Joseph gives a testimony for his baby girl’s health and strength, he and Kendall offer a birthday serenade. But the performance is interrupted when Brianne’s estranged brother, Pete (Njema Williams) barges in unexpectedly.
Pete reveals that Joseph and Brienne fled Alabama after Pete paralyzed a white man who tried to assault Brianne. When Brianne left Alabama, she left singing there as well. Pete, who we quickly learn is a gambler, is demanding $500 (a hefty amount of money in 1968) for his continued silence. It really be your own family.
When Joseph later confronts Pete with receipts that he misappropriated funds from Brianne’s mother’s estate and lost her land, Pete’s Deebo act stops quickly. He confesses the money is to invest in a jazz club in San Diego, and suggests that “Silk” (we’re guessing that’s Brianne’s stage name) could sing at the spot. Brianne ignores that, but tells Joseph to give Pete the money, with a caveat: “That’s blood money, Pete. Take it and my brother’s dead to me.” Pete shole did still take it, though.
Brianne takes the stage for the club’s closing night, singing in front of an audience for the first time, it seems, since she and Joseph packed up and left their hometown. Feeling free and energized, Brianne finally plants a kiss on Nate once they get back to the house – but then she tells him to go. Girl, what? I mean, we get it, Kendall’s gone, Joseph’s gone, there’s an opportunity for Brianne to explore her own identity and dream for the first time in almost 20 years – but that means Nate has to leave immediately? Talk about anticlimactic.
JT Back Then…
A much brighter and happier JT than we’ve seen through this season is preparing for high school graduation and his next steps, which include plans to move to Oklahoma with his sober, coherent and nurturing mother. A fresh start with better opportunities for them both, away from whatever lifestyle was connected to his father, away from the drug habit his mother’s already beat at least once.
Even back in 1968, Reggie was getting JT into messy situations and leaving him to handle the aftermath. Reggie starts a brawl with a fellow customer at the diner. JT, in his misguided loyalty, jumps in, even though the fight has nothing to do with him. As Ma Mable busts in with her shotgun to keep them from destroying her kitchen, Reggie breaks out. Fortunately, the incident leads to JT securing a job at the diner. But it also sets the stage for his unbalanced dynamic with Reggie later.
JT is already chasing his music dreams, and as Simone is literally just finding her voice, he sells his first song. His mother is so inspired by his talent, she uses the money set aside for Oklahoma to buy JT a car, promising that she’ll stay clean and the investment will pay off.
JT made it to the studio for Encore’s recording session after all. This episode reminds us that while Simone and Kendall are talented, JT is the songwriter, and the group records his autobiographical jam about having to grow up too fast. The kids hit the diner when they’re done, excited about an unexpected opportunity (more on that to come), and JT almost looks like the hopeful, unburdened young man from 1968 again. He tells Simone about the old Oklahoma plan and suggests they make the move together – anywhere – because he has to get out of L.A. He wants a simpler, less complicated life. But for Simone, leaving L.A. means abandoning her dream. The two table the discussion, and JT goes to take care of his sister while the Clarkes go to celebrate Encore’s big break.
Gerald Back Then…
Gerald once had a heart, apparently. Back in Memphis, he holds things down for the big boss, Hershall (Clifton Powell always plays somebody scary, don’t he?) at the original Club 100 Proof, and helps finesse the club’s liquor license. He’s also holding down the boss’ lady and club’s star talent, Pearl Madigan (Adriyan Rae) behind his back. 1968 Gerald is level-headed and even-tempered. He talks things out and negotiates! And he’s in love with Pearl, willing to leave everything behind to start a new life with her. She tells him it’s impossible, but then, in an alleged attempt to secure the cash for them to run away together, Pearl stages a robbery – a robbery Hershall initially blames Gerald for. Hershall commands that Gerald get his money back and shut the club down so they can rebuild in a new location. That’s when the ruthless Gerald we’ve come to know – and maybe even love, in a twisted way – emerges. Poor Pearl. She could sing, too.
Hershell and Gerald stand in front of the club as it becomes engulfed with flames, and just as Hershell is about to grill Gerald about Pearl (now we know why Hershell occasionally tries to have Gerald killed), they get the news that King’s been shot. If Hershell wasn’t sold on leaving Memphis before, he’s convinced now, and Gerald suggests they take their talents to L.A.
The icebox-where-his-heart used to be Gerald saunters into Encore’s recording studio mid-session to collect a payment from the producer. He likes what he hears and interrupts taping to ask how old the members of the group are. Simone got tripped up by Gerald for admitting her age before, but this time she knows to give a non-answer. As a result, Encore’s offered an opening spot at Club 100 Proof for Ike and Tina Turner.
Don Back Then…
Don Cornelius is on the streets of Chicago protecting and serving as a member of the police department. (Also, Sinqua Walls without the fro is a “Yes.”) To our surprise, the story Don told Gladys about the stand-off with a white man and a rifle really happened! We definitely thought he made that up. Later, Don pulls over a radio producer who compliments his voice, tells him his station is looking for a newsreader and gives him a business card. At home, Don and Delores are just too cute and it makes us sad, knowing she’s somewhere in the show’s present-day feeling hurt and abandoned. Don learns his father is suffering from Old Timer’s (that’s Alzheimer’s in old black people-speak). He would just as readily leave his father’s remaining days to fate, but Delores, ever his conscience and voice of reason, suggests he step up. In addition to his beat as a cop, Don and Delores are staging little soul shows that will soon grow up and become Soul Train. When the host and emcee for their event is a no-show, Delores encourages Don to play the role himself, exclaiming, “Who knows, you may be the next black Dick Clark!” Don is, indeed, a natural on the mic. Somewhere in Don’s mind, the Soul Train seed sprouted a leaf.
Later, at Delores’ urging and with her catfish in hand, Don goes to visit his dad and give Mamie some cash – cash he potentially got from a less than scrupulous colleague on the force. While Don sits with his father, telling him that he’s thinking of going into radio, the news of King’s assassination hits the news. His dad has a fleeting moment of mental clarity and presence and sighs, “Damn. Finally took him out.”
The doctor examining Don in Gerald’s office asks him about the headaches he’s been having. Don is worried he’s developing “Old Timer’s” like his father. The doctor tells him that he’s just overworked and dehydrated. Did MRI’s exist in 1972, or nah? ‘Cause Don Cornelius ended up needing a lot more than water. Instead of water, Don takes a hit of coke almost before the doctor’s all the way out of the door. Even Gerald thinks he’s trippin’. Don apparently does realize he needs to take better care of himself, though. He has a punching bag installed in his office and immediately starts letting out the anger and stress he’s been feeling during the fight with Dick Clark, the estrangement from his wife, getting curved by Deloris…all of it goes to the bag.
For all four characters, old vs new hung in the space of April 2 to April 4, 1968. Whether running from the past like Brianne; looking towards new fortune and opportunities like Gerald and Don; or choosing against a new direction, only to regret it later, like TJ. A storm did indeed hit the country on April 4, but not one that any meteorologist predicted.
What the episode got right: Don being inspired to go into radio, and by extension television, during a chance traffic stop.
What we absolutely don’t believe: Ok, we still don’t completely believe the story of Don and the abusive white man with the shotgun.
What we don’t understand: Nate Barker’s purpose. He wasn’t a necessary plot device to get Kendall out of the house or to get Brianne back on stage. He was great to look at, though.
This episode didn’t need to wait until the end of the season, it would have deepened our emotional investment had it come earlier. Still, it was a strong lead into the season finale, but we’ll probably be left with unanswered questions when the Soul Train pulls into its last stop.