Anyone looking to escape their own awkward Thanksgiving dinners by bingeing “She’s Gotta Have It” was in for a rude awakening in the Season 1 finale. Determined to set the record straight for herself and her three beaus, Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) invites each of her lovers over for a surprise meeting of the men. While the dining room table discussions are just as awkward as you can imagine — and more so once Nola reveals her latest artwork — the episode overall turned out to be a beautiful statement of autonomy, agency, and understanding, helped along by the night’s in memoriam honoree: Prince.
But we’ll get to Prince in a second. Given the events of the season, it felt inevitable Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), and Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos) had to meet. They had come close so many times, be it near run-ins around Fort Greene or a very close call at Nola’s art show. More to the point, it had become clear Nola couldn’t go on with life as she wants to live it without forcing these men to confront the real her.
Each of Nola’s lovers has a different idea of who Nola is, what she wants, and why they’re the best — and only — person who can provide it. Jamie wants to give her security; Greer wants to give her himself (and gets confused, then wants her more, because she’s not fawning all over him); Mars wants to give her everything. He wants to be her best friend, her one true go-to, and her neighborhood defender.
But Nola wants it all. It’s not that she’s greedy or sees any of them as inadequate. It’s that she’s more satisfied, more well-rounded, and generally happier when she maintains relationships with all three men. They provide different satisfactions, even physically. The only problem? None of them take the time to consider that’s what Nola really wants, or they simply can’t wrap their heads around the concept in general.
Nola’s Thanksgiving dinner is the culmination of this issue. She’s tried to explain it to them every other way she can, and now it’s time for some tough love. Is the dinner awkward? Absolutely. Is it challenging? Very much so, and not just for the three men there, but for viewers as well. Some may have prickled as soon as Mars opened the door and saw Jamie, knowing then that Nola had told none of the men they were about to meet. Everyone could feel the tension around the table as the three dudes tried to out-macho one another, and every time it felt like the tension was dissipating, Nola pushed boundaries to make sure they understood her.
Never did she go further then unveiling “The Three-Headed Monster.” After a comparatively polite dinner discussion about the foursome’s situation (that honestly should’ve gone much worse), Nola pulls the shroud covering her latest piece and reveals a painting of all three men standing next to each other in the nude. Their penises are flaccid, but there is a “small, medium, large” correlation in size that’s impossible to ignore.
Now, it’s hard to imagine anything more emasculating than seeing your penis measured next to two other mens’ members as those men stand in the room with you. Oh wait. It’s more humiliating if there’s a woman in the room, too, and it’s even more awkward if she has intimate knowledge of all three men. (Makes it hard to question the accuracy, after all.)
Watching this, one’s first reaction might be horror, followed quickly by outrage. “How dare she do this?” “She didn’t even tell them they’d meet!” “What about their feelings? Their pride? Their wants?”
Well, that’s kind of the point. Everything leading up to the finale was about Nola managing their wants, their pride, and their feelings. She tried to set limits, and she suffered for it. She needed to shock them into a stupor to get them to understand. “That artwork is about being open; shiny and not shadowy; it’s about the truth, and I understand that can be the hardest thing to get to,” Nola says in her final direct-to-camera address.
Therein lies the reason why it’s such a necessary ending: Viewers may have heard Nola explain what she wants throughout the season, but they may have heard her the same way Jamie, Greer, and Mars did. TV love triangles — or quadrangles, in this case — invite the expectation of choice; that someone will win out and one happy couple will emerge. “She’s Gotta Have It” runs antithetical to that idea, and Lee understands how difficult it can be to drive that point home to audiences expecting couples, not polyamory. The ending works to get everyone there, from “the treacherous three” to people watching at home.
It takes a little time to sink in. After their protests, Nola simply says, “Objectification is a bitch, right?” She’s turned the tables, and even when she calls it out, the men are still stuck. “You took shit to another level,” Jamie says. “Next level,” Greer agrees. And as the men start to fight, Nola puts on the record Mars brought and starts to dance. Letting Prince do the talking for her, she works her way around the room, dancing for herself, with or without any partner, and eventually with all three. They may not understand how they’ll work together, but it seems by the end that the men get who Nola is more than they had before.
And so do we. But what’s also surprising about the ending is how far removed it feels from Lee’s 1986 film. The filmmaker has repeatedly said he regrets the movie’s rape scene (when Jamie, frustrated by Nola’s unwillingness to be monogamous, rapes her). Nola then attempts to acquiesce under pressure, and she agrees to be celibate for Jamie. But she fails, calling it “momentary weakness,” and ends the film going to bed by herself. It’s a rebellious stance foreshadowing an ongoing struggle; Nola says “they might know parts of me,” but that’s as far as she can go. It doesn’t necessarily feel like anyone in her world is closer to understanding who she is than when the film started.
Nola ends the series welcoming a new partner into her house. Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera) stops by, asks to come in, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Nola opens her door. Earlier in the season, the two spoke more seriously about a future together than Nola ever did with her men, and the idea that she can have it all — a healthy polyamorous lifestyle supported by her partners and, if she so chooses, a monogamous partnership with Opal — is surprisingly encouraging. Nola’s smiling face and heartening interaction with her three lovers paints a brighter picture for whatever’s next. People are coming around. There’s hope for change and acceptance.
The series made the stigmas Nola faces quite clear, both from society and the men in her life. But it ends on an optimistic belief: Nola has more faith in the future, and that’s a surprising message to hear at the end of 2017.