OWN’s wonderfully lyrical series David Makes Man, from Moonlight screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, changed perspectives in this week’s affecting “Gloria.” Instead of continuing to show us the trials and tribulations of its title character (played by the excellent Akili McDowell), as he tries to hold on to his academic ambitions despite the pushy drug culture of his neighborhood, we focused on how his mother Gloria struggles between her own ambitions and a system designed to keep her down.
One of the best things about David Makes Man is how it gives us access to the inner thoughts of its characters, often through their daydreams, but also though imaginary figures or even scrawling text on the screen. In doing so, it illuminates their specific hopes and puts the realities of their situation into exceptionally sharp relief. “Gloria” starts with exactly one of those reveries, as David’s mother—played with outstanding charisma by Alana Arenas— appears to get the assistant manager position she’s been hoping for. She chats easily with patrons, is clearly beloved by all who frequent the diner, and there’s a yellow glow to all of her surroundings.
But that comes crashing back to blues and grays as she blinks back into the reality of her manager yelling at her to cut her break short and get back out on the floor, where patrons complain as the overworked staff try to make up for gaps in the shift. Gloria is chastised by this (white) boss for being “sassy” with customers in a way that feels overtly racial, and is then more or less threatened by him later with an unwanted sexualized advance.
There was a lot thrown in to this one moment, possibly too much, but we only have (so far) this one episode to establish the kind of work environment that Gloria is in. It’s one where she worries she won’t catch the bus (or multiple buses) home in time to be there when her youngest son returns from school, and struggles to make ends meet when customers don’t bother to leave tips. It’s also one where she has no recourse when her boss lunges at her and causes her to twist and fall and get hurt, and where she has no health insurance to see a doctor. In her dreams she’s wrapped up by a physician and then carried out in the arms of a man who loves and supports her, when in reality she sits on a toilet seat at her job and examines the bruise with her makeup compact. Limping in to find a freeloader chowing down on the burger her coworker made for her, she’s ultimately fired because she can’t work and can’t find anyone to take over her shift.
We haven’t seen much of Gloria in David Makes Man, because she’s always working. She is exactly the kind of mother who politicians love to reference in their speeches, the one who is raising two kids on her own and works to put food on the table but can’t always manage to do so. But she’s also the kind of mother who politicians love to moralize against and do nothing for when it comes to making sure there’s a safety net. As we learn in this episode, Gloria is a recovering addict who doesn’t have many opportunities, especially since she dropped out of school after one of her teachers got her pregnant. She’s a tough but fair mom, one whose true self can be seen in her relaxed interactions with Ms. Elijah (Travis Coles). But she’s also exactly the kind of person who is one injury away from slipping back into her painkiller addiction, and one paycheck late from having the power turned off or not being able to afford a phone.
In “Gloria,” you can see the constant pull of Gloria’s dual natures. She works so incredibly hard to make the right choices all of the time that you can feel her fatigue. And it’s not just the demons in her mind that plague her; a pharmacist (again, white) profiles her and encourages her to pay him a little extra to get some stronger painkillers. “No ID required,” he says with a slimy smile. She imagines screaming at him, “I said NO!” but instead just wearily takes his card and, the next day, returns her son’s newly-bought toys to have enough cash to procure those pills. Thwarted by a kind cashier, she buys another icy-hot patch instead. Similarly, after she’s fired at work, she reaches for a knife and a kind cook grabs her hand to steady her to drop it. It’s not the right choice to react with violence, but you can feel the enormity of her anger and desperation as she cries out to her boss, “I have kids!”
One of the things that makes “Gloria” so profound is showing why you can’t judge Gloria and her desire to want to make that pain go away. She dreams of going with Ms. Elijah to a drag ball and performing, but knows she should stay home with her boys and count every penny for the bills. The weight of the episode, though, comes in the understanding that this is not just one bad day, this is a cycle of being demoralized at almost every turn and just getting through. But because of that, because of how much is constantly stacked against Gloria, it only takes one bad day to potentially send her on a spiral.
Gloria never grovels to her boss, she smiles as she says no to Ms. Elijah about going out, and she tiredly rebuffs that pushy pharmacist. In her daydream, she imagines telling a young boy to always have respect for others and for himself, and Gloria seems to live by that (now, anyway). She sees a girl on a bus being whispered to by an older man, and she stares at her as a spectre of her past, in how she was used and deceived by someone who abused their position of power. “You chose to have those boys,” Ms. Elijah says to her later when Gloria explains that she can’t leave them alone. She loves them dearly, and they worship her, but life seems like it’s been a series of events happening to Gloria. And fighting against that has been exhausting (illustrated in heartbreaking fashion when her protestations are drowned out by a passing semi-truck). She maintains her self-respect, but she also has to survive. Her agency is limited—not nonexistent, but very limited. And so when she considers the pain pills, you’re really mad at all of those people and institutions and systemic problems that would allow Gloria to be put in that position of wanting to sell her son’s toys to manage her pain in the first place.
In a parallel, we see, briefly, a scene in “Gloria” where David is confronted by Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert) about the package he transported for him. David thought it was a one-off, but Raynan tells him “well today I’m saying something different.” He damns him by continuing, “you’re in the game now.” It’s the last thing the smart and sensitive David wants, but as his mother struggles to find money and David looks to shelter his younger brother by taking the heat when it comes to drug running, he doesn’t have much of a choice, either. He leaves to go look after his family in the moment, but more generally what will that come to mean? He wants to go to Thurston and start a path out, one that will eventually help his mother and brother. But that takes a long time and a lot of resources; there’s money to be made here and now for today’s problems. He’s in the game now, and so is Gloria. And in its devastatingly real way, Dave Makes Man isn’t yet showing either of them a way out.
David Makes Man airs Wednesday nights on OWN.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV