The season began on a high note with the episode “The Thief” which finds main character Dev Shah, portrayed by Ansari, living in Italy as an apprentice pasta maker following his breakup with Rachel at the end of season 1. The episode was a black-and-white homage to the 1948 Italian film The Bicycle Thief and is an artistic triumph above beyond anything from the first season.
In that episode, it became clear that Ansari and Yang would be willing to take risks with the storytelling that they wouldn’t have in the previous season when they were still trying to find their footing and the show’s voice.
And yet, as good as Season 2 is, the best episode of Master of None is “Thanksgiving“. This is the Netflix show firing on all cylinders. It’s heartfelt, honest, warm, and heartbreaking, all while being really, really funny. It also adds depth to one of the show’s main characters; Dev’s friend Denise.
A Showcase For Lena Waithe
Denise, played by Lena Waithe, who co-wrote the episode and based it on her own experiences coming out, has been an integral part of this show since the first season. But up until this episode, she’s mostly been there to provide support to Dev, call him on his BS or just goof off with him. She’s never been the focus of an episode.
In “Thanksgiving” that changes when we get to see what amounts to Denise’s origin story. We meet her family, we see her struggle accepting her sexuality, we watch her come to terms with it and come out to the important people in her life, first to Dev and then her mother, played by the legendary Angela Bassett.
In “Thanksgiving” we learn that Dev has been a regular guest at Thanksgiving dinners at Denise’s family’s house since they were both kids in the mid-90s. As they grow up together over the course of six Thanksgiving celebrations (taking place in 1995, 1999, 2006, 2015, and 2017) we see their friendship grow and deepen.
A Coming Out Story Done Right
The episode shows Denise and Dev go through awkward teen phases together. The friends smoke pot together for the first time, and he’s the first person with whom she feels comfortable enough to come out to as a lesbian (or as she says, “Lebanese” since she’s still so uncomfortable with the actual term) when she’s 16. It goes about as well as one would expect knowing Dev’s character and how progressive he is later in life. He has no issue with it and accepts it as another facet of the friend that he cares about.
Denise’s mother, Catherine, however, is not nearly as progressive. Denise waits until she’s safely off at college and has become more secure with her sexuality before she comes out to her mother during a Thanksgiving meal at a diner near her university. As expected, Catherine does not react well and burst into tears. She says to Denise, “I don’t want life to be hard for you. It is hard enough being a black woman in this world, and now you want to add something else to that?”
Growing and Evolving Opinions
Over the next two Thanksgivings, Denise begins to bring her girlfriends to the family dinners and we see Catherine very, very slowly begin to evolve. You can feel the palpable tension emanate from the screen during the first Thanksgiving with Denise’s girlfriend Michelle whom Catherine treats with barely hidden contempt.
The following year when Denise invites her new girlfriend Nikki (who has an annoying habit of referring to Denise as “DeeDee” and who’s Instagram screen name is “NipplesAndToes23” which leads to some pretty hilariously awkward dinner conversation courtesy of Dev) is even worse.
When Michelle returns for the final Thanksgiving and offers to help with dinner preparations, Bassett’s Catherine finally softens and accepts the offer. You can tell she’s still not 100% all the way to fully accepting Denise’s orientation, but it’s clear she’s made considerable progress and her enduring love for her daughter will get her the rest of the way eventually. Bassett acts the hell out of these scenes. She’s truly a force of nature in this episode.
Master of None at Its Finest
This episode handles the process of coming out both delicately and realistically. It handles the issue of how race can complicate the coming out process with a deft hand and a distinct lack of histrionics or needless drama. The writing is subtle and hilarious, and enough can’t be said for the stellar acting on display here; not just from Angela Bassett, but also from Lena Waithe as Denise, Venida Evans as her grandmother Ernestine, and Kym Whitley as Denise’s hilarious aunt Joyce.
“Thanksgiving” is a stunning episode — definitely the best episode of Master of None Season 2. And it’s very likely one of the best episodes of television you’ll see this year period.
Both seasons of Master of None are currently streaming on Netflix.
[A version of this article was originally published on May 23, 2017]