“I ain’t no perfect man. I’m trying to do the best that I can with what it is I have.”
Before the title screen appears or a single character on The Chi utters a word, Mos Def’s airy vocals from “Umi Says” permeate the on-screen montage of characters settling into the lives they’ve constructed. Brandon happily serves customers out of his food truck. Emmett tries getting in contact with Tiff, the mother of his third (and possible fourth) child, while at his job. Ronnie puts up positive affirmations on his fridge. Then, their lives smash into the fragments of moments and lessons that they’ve been this whole time.
Ronnie finally confronts his estranged father, who he lived across the street from his entire life, in an emotionally unnerving scene. In his heart-wrenching monologue, Ronnie tearfully explains to the man who created him that his son is nothing more than a lost child who grew into a broken adult by scavenging for pieces of a man to make himself whole. He says he “needed some things from you that I’ve been searching all over the place for.”
In that one scene, Ronnie’s alcoholism, and subsequent criminal history, can be tied to his never-ending search to fill the holes left by an absentee father. Ronnie is roughly 40 years old and a 1993 study conducted by professors June O’Neil and M. Anne Hill concluded kids who grow up in a household without a father had the highest incarceration rates than other groups of children. The feeling of abandonment by a parental figure is often cited in studies as a reason children grow up to disrespect authority figures and indulge in illicit substances.
In a flashback sequence from earlier in the season, Ronnie opines about feeling out of place returning to Chicago from the military because had no sense of direction or what to do everyday. His time in the military had detrimental effects on his mental state and nearly drove him to suicide but, also gave him the sense of family and purpose that Ronnie yearned for from his father. In essence, his father being absent from his life drove Ronnie to seek the structure of a military environment that became so integral to his well-being and perception of life that being removed from caused irreparable damage.
You never really know which people are shards of a broken life until you see the cracks. For the better part of two seasons, Brandon was an upstanding member of society who unwaveringly stuck to his morals. Yet, after revealing he had knowledge of Perry’s involvement with 63rd Street Mob to Jerrika, Brandon flips out on her over her disapproval. Jerrika thinks Brandon is falling into the same trap as others who have got involved with gangs. Brandon vehemently refutes that, seeing his work with the gang as a way for him to escape his past of staring into empty fridges, begging random people on the street for money to eat and pulling his mother out of pimps’ cars. Brandon didn’t knowingly join a gang, but due to an unflattering past bubbling under the surface of his positive demeanor, he sees being affiliated with an illegal organization as making the best out of the cards he was dealt.
The National Gang Crime Research Center (NGCRC) surveyed 4,000 gang members in a 1996 study which concluded that only 25 percent of them join gangs to make money. NGCRC director at the time, Greg Knox, and longtime juvenile probation officer, Tom Schneiderl, agree that for most young gang members, the central appeal is having protection from a group of peers who validate your life choices. Knox goes as far as to deduce from his research that “the deeper a kid’s involvement in a gang, the more dysfunctional his/her family life.” Perry validating Brandon’s ambition, the on-demand protection he could call on from Reg and the ability to escape his impoverished standing in life are primary reasons for Brandon reconciling his gang involvement with the content of his character.
In this episode, Ronnie is the long-term effect of a broken home, Brandon is the initial acknowledgement of those effects and Jake is the beginning of those effects. Perry tells Reg that “Jake needs to be insulated from the trappings of the block” by taking him from the trap house to working in Perry’s legitimate pizza business. That way they can prevent Jake from having a criminal record that would draw police attention when he gets older, and presumably, more active in the gang. Jake’s father has not been in the picture the entire series and we learned earlier this season that his mother is a recovering drug addict who Jake has never met. So, when Perry decides Jake’s future for him with his brother Reg, he’s doing so with the only parental figure in Jake’s life.
This is why Jake goes back to selling drugs outside of school even after his friend Kevin got suspended, or why he lived in Chicago his entire life but had no idea about Lake Michigan. Who he is, is the nature he has been given, just like the scorpion that bludgeons the frog helping it cross the water.