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‘Survivor’s Remorse’ recap: The women are navigating the power doughnut hole

Missy especially struggles with being in proximity to wealth — versus holding it herself.

Season 3, Episode 5 | The Photo Shoot | Aug. 14

This week’s episode of Survivor’s Remorse is a continued exploration of sanctimony and self-righteousness, but the more interesting undercurrent is about the limitations of being a woman in proximity to power and wealth, but not necessarily holding it in ways that are conventionally recognized. It’s something that feels especially timely as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton makes her run for the White House. She is the ultimate example of converting power-by-proximity, which she held as first lady of Arkansas and of the United States, into concrete, recognizable power as a senator and as secretary of state.

In The Photo Shoot, Missy (Teyonah Parris) in her element: directing a photo shoot for an in-flight magazine that’s featuring Cam (Jessie T. Usher). It’s obvious Missy enjoys work, and that she believes she has a duty to effect how black women are portrayed in media. Missy has requested a brown-skinned model to play Cam’s love interest over a three-day photo shoot, but when the model she picks books a Vogue editorial at the last minute, the modeling agency sends over a light-skinned model instead.

Missy has a root canal the morning of the shoot, and doesn’t see what’s happened until she arrives midway through the first day of shooting. When she voices her concerns to Reggie (RonReaco Lee), she’s loud enough to interrupt the shoot. The photographer, Derek (Jaleel White), comes over to shush the couple. Missy demands a new, dark-skinned model to replace the one already on set. Even after Missy’s introduced herself as the client, Derek continues to address Reggie.

Ultimately, it’s Cam who has a problem with Missy. Missy thinks the most important thing about the shoot is the woman who’s going to be draped over Cam and what that says about the desirability of black women. Cam, on the other hand, is worried about how firing a model midway through a photo shoot will affect his reputation. In the eyes of Reggie and Cam, Missy behaved like a brat. But Missy saw a bunch of black men who just didn’t get it.

“I’m not criticizing,” M-Chuck shoots back, before launching straight into criticism.

I spoke to Ali LeRoi, who wrote this week’s episode, which was directed by Victoria Mahoney.

“Missy, who is absolutely just, and presenting this idea of how she’d like to be perceived and accepted in the larger world, is being offended by this thing by way of her husband,” said LeRoi. “She has some influence and control and so the idea that this is a great time to right a wrong — because on the surface it appears to be one thing — completely dismisses what the reality of any person’s individual condition is. That’s what’s problematic about global perspectives and global solutions. Once you start taking the individuals out of it, then you can’t see John Brown, because he’s just a white dude now. It’s like, ‘No, no, no. I’m on your side.’

‘No, no, no. You’re white. You can’t be on my side.’ ”

LeRoi and I spoke quite a bit about the public performance of sanctimony, and his irritation with it, and how that informed episodes four and five. But Missy resents having to give up the autonomy she had before the Vaughns moved to Atlanta and she had her own career. Even though Missy’s acting as a media consultant, she’s doing so as part of the Cam Ecosystem, an ecosystem to which she belongs because of her marriage to Reggie. Neither Derek nor the model are willing to recognize Missy’s power as real, or earned.

Missy may be experiencing the most conflict, but all the women on Survivor’s Remorse are in the middle of this doughnut hole — where they’re surrounded by wealth and its attendant power, but don’t really hold it themselves.

Take M-Chuck (Erica Ash), for example. The night Julius dies, she has an exchange with Missy. “I wanna go to college ’cause I don’t wanna be just sittin’ around here in Atlanta with no job, no relationship, not doin’ nothin’, just livin’ off my little brother’s money,” M-Chuck says. “You got an excuse. You’re married.”

“Hey, I had a job that I gave up before I came down here to support Reggie,” Missy responds. “I’m getting another one, now that we’re settled.”

“I’m not criticizing,” M-Chuck shoots back, before launching straight into criticism. “You got a husband. He makes money. I’m sure you keep Reggie happy in all the ways breeder women keep their breeder men happy until the point at which they no doubt finally breed. And you have a new little Missy or Reggie to show off and make your unemployment seem worthwhile.”

What’s funny is that while Missy’s choices are available to her as Reggie’s wife, M-Chuck benefits from having a mentor in Jimmy Flaherty (Chris Bauer), who is helping her map her way through higher education. In her quest for independence, M-Chuck is relying on the generosity of a man who can snap his fingers and give her a job. Even as she’s trying to climb out of the doughnut hole, she still needs a foothold in Flaherty to do it.

We’ve seen Allison (Meagan Tandy) wrestling with this too, in her refusal to accept the extravagance of a new car from Cam, and the conversation she has with Missy at Uncle Julius’ repast about whether or not it was the right decision. Navigating the doughnut hole is fraught enough for Cam’s female relatives, who seek to establish their value independent of him. But for Allison, the stakes are even higher, lest she be branded as a gold digger.

I’m curious to see where the latter half of the season goes on this front, not just with Missy, but with Allison, M-Chuck, and even Cassie, too.

“No, no, no. You’re white. You can’t be on my side.” — Ali LeRoi

Odds and ends

  • More Cassie (Tichina Arnold) and Da Chen Bao (Robert Wu) please! The chemistry between these two is delightful. After all, what is the appropriate response when your shoe magnate boyfriend ships you a life-size robotic sex doll re-creation of himself, anyway? Even with money and the ability to develop customized sex doll prototypes, long-distance relationships are the pits.
  • I was really interested in what Parris had to say about the Photo Shoot script after reading it. After all, Parris is a brown-skinned girl in real life. She doesn’t just play one on television. She’s been affected by the very things her character was railing against. “[Parris] really wanted to be able to be in a place where she didn’t have to apologize, that the character shouldn’t have to apologize for feeling the way that she felt,” LeRoi said. “That that was an important thing for her as a brown-skinned woman portraying this character. It is. It’s real. It’s very felt. It’s the desire to be heard and accepted and not corrected and rebuked, I think was a very important part of it. Trying to dance this line for Reggie and Missy, separating the politic of the situation from the relationship aspect of the situation was a delicate thing to do. I think we accomplished that, but I think that was one of her big concerns was just making sure that this woman wasn’t robbed of the right to stand and say what she was saying and have the feelings that she was having. It had to be reasoned away. That was just a very important thing.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.