Early in Justin Simien’s laser-focused and enriching second season of “Dear White People,” Samantha White (Logan Browning) explains to her friend Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson) why she’s been struggling to speak out as she has in the past.
“Something’s changed,” Sam says. “Logic, reason, discourse — it’s out the window now. […] This isn’t a conversation. I’ve got a wall of vitriol at my back, and in front of me, I’ve got a fucking boy who makes me feel so many things at once I can’t make sense of anything.”
In a simple statement, reiterated by more characters in different sentiments throughout the season, Sam has summed up her own personal struggles as well as the challenge facing the show itself: use truth to eradicate misunderstanding without skipping life’s simple pleasures along the way. It’s about balance — there’s a cause to be defended, but there’s also just a girl who likes a boy — both are vital components of life, and both can consume all of oneself.
Weighing personal satisfaction with national priorities isn’t easy, but “Dear White People” blends them in such a way to illustrate how they’re linked. Each part is powerful because each part is honest, even when what it builds toward is an uncertain future.
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[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the Netflix original series “Dear White People” Season 2, including the finale.]
At the start of Season 2, Sam is blocked. She’s under attack from internet trolls led by the man behind @AltIvyW, a Twitter account that’s so much more than that. Using historical context at the start of each episode, Simien builds a bridge between the past and the future to show how hatred has always hidden behind a mask — and can blossom there. This Twitter troll is merely the new means of attack, not a new enemy entirely. Black people, minorities, and anyone pushed outside the patriarchy have been facing similar unidentified animosity for centuries, be it the KKK or other secret societies.
That’s the big picture, and it’s painted in rich detail. But Simien also knows how to move between individual stories to make you feel for each of his characters. When it’s later discovered that Silvio (D.J. Blickenstaff), the former editor of the now-defunct Winchester Independent, helmed the hate-spewing account, it doesn’t set him up as a villain. He’s a face to a problem, and (perhaps most importantly) a face everyone recognizes. But instead of pitting Sam against Silvio, the series focuses on the pain she feels from his actions (and those of his supporters) before he’s unmasked.
Silvio’s secret identity is revealed during Lionel’s (DeRon Horton) story. This matters because Silvio means more to Lionel than he does to Sam. “You were my mentor,” Lionel says when he discovers what Silvio has been up to; meanwhile, the troll is just another student at the school to Sam. What he does matters more than who he is to her, so not only does watching Lionel make the discovery add drama and significance to his story (they started the season by going out on a date), but it breaks down expectations — something “Dear White People” does quite well. Silvio isn’t just chasing a story or screwing around — he feels anger, and the scene explores that without absolving him for it.
The series does this episode by episode, person by person. Using the same structure as Season 1 — focusing on one character’s point of view for each “chapter” — it paints a number of intimate and informative portraits. Sam and Lionel remain reliable fixtures (and are smartly teamed up in the season’s final moments), but Joelle, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), and Coco (Antoinette Robertson) all see expanded roles, with the latter getting the most effective individual showcase of the supporting cast. Reggie (Marque Richardson), who stole the show in Season 1, Episode 5, develops well, but it feels like his arc still needs to be completed.
That is certainly the case for Sam and Lionel. Though both experience quite a bit in Season 2 (she loses her dad and fixes things with Gabe, he loses a mentor and finds a new partner), that final episode leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air. For one, Tessa Thompson’s guest appearance as Fox News correspondent Rikki Carter would’ve rocked the world even if she didn’t lay a devastating diatribe on Sam. But she did, and yes, Rikki got a slight comeuppance when she was forced to face the men and women she was taking advantage of to bolster her own self-image, but Sam is left doubting. Before Giancarlo Esposito shows up, she says she’s done with “Dear White People.” How will he change that? What can he provide these two amateur sleuths to encourage their crusade? And, you know, who is this guy?
When these questions are answered in Season 3, it could affect the impact of Season 2 — that’s how important they are. But that’s OK. “Dear White People” knows television is an ongoing medium and recognizes this conversation needs to persist, too. Season 3, assuming it gets the green light from Netflix, will be made by the same people who’ve earned their audience’s trust thus far.
Even with that in mind, it’s critical to acknowledge how effective Season 2 is in laying out its characters and its case. Less capable hands could lose the thread when making so many valid points. Though less funny than Season 1, this volume still entertains in order to inform. The look each student gives the camera at the end of their episodes is telling not only of their feelings, but of the show’s overall. They can be heartbreaking, intimidating, desperate, clever, and so much more, but they hold the audience accountable. Season 2 is a statement of understanding as much as it’s a means to help viewers engage with what’s happening in American culture. Simien and his talented writing staff, directors, and cast are more confident with a season under their belts, and that conviction burns through the screen.
Logic and discourse may be out the window, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to pull them back inside. “Dear White People” is an invigorating effort to do just that. Bring on next semester.
“Dear White People” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.