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Stacia L. Brown

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The Problem with the Alex Arc on Parenthood

Posted: 10/05/11 04:10 PM ET

As of last night Michael B. Jordan ended his riveting, sympathetic arc on NBC's Parenthood (or so I think. He could return, and it would likely benefit the show if he did, but more on that later).

Now that he's gone, I can talk about him -- and the way his interracial dating arc was handled. Jordan played Alex, the troubled black love interest to Sarah Ramos' white, sheltered, middle-class Haddie Braverman.

Relationship status? It's complicated.

Alex is twenty; Haddie's just starting her senior year in high school. They met at a homeless shelter, where Alex, now the supervisor, began as a resident. He's a recovering alcoholic, who recently earned a GED.

We had to watch Haddie's parents work through their Initial Reservations about Alex as an acceptable suitor for their underage daughter. It had nothing to do with his blackness, of course, and everything to do with his addiction struggles, homelessness, and otherwise hardscrabble upbringing.

Fair enough.

Over time, the Bravermans come to accept Haddie's new relationship, impressed by Alex's positivity and industrious spirit. Then, Haddie loses her virginity to Alex. The fam still rolls with it, gritted teeth notwithstanding.

But as is the case with most hot and heavy teen/post-teen romances, the drama swung down with force of Thor's hammer. It happened at the first house party of Haddie's senior year, when she decides to get smashed alongside her other underage drinking buddies. Alex, who opted out of the party because of its free-flowing alcohol, comes to pick her up afterward, but when he sees how drunk she is, he takes her arm to guide her home. She sort of pulls away, but it's more to insist that she isn't that drunk than it is as resistance to leaving.

The party's white teen host intervenes, insisting Alex is upsetting Haddie; Alex points out her drunkenness and firmly states his intention to take her home. The row escalates until Alex punches the teen.

Cut to Alex being escorted out by cops and trailed by a sobbing Haddie, pleading for his release.

"He's my boyfriend," she cries, apropos of nothing at this point.

Three episodes have followed this one. Haddie's lawyer aunt, Julia, gets Alex out of jail but explains the teens parents intend to press charges. This is when Julia and the rest of the audience find out Alex has a record.

Oooof course he does. Because it isn't enough that they've saddled one of the show's only black characters with teen alcoholism, poverty, and homelessness. He also has to have an armed robbery rap on his sheet.

You kind of know how it's gonna play out after this. The Bravermans, evolved as they are, are going to stand by Alex because they accept Haddie's own part in all this. And The Alex They Know is not the Alex with the record. Alex, for his part, is deeply ashamed, profusely apologetic, and insecure about the family's willingness to accept him and his foibles.

He begs Haddie not to leave him. He tells the Bravermans he didn't mean to drag them into his drama. This is All His Fault.

Only it isn't. It really isn't. He should've used the common sense a Life on the Streets likely taught him and taken a moment to assess his situation: lone, grown, black man at a party full of comparatively rich, drunk white teens. There is no way he should've thrown any kind of punch.

But he would've have felt he had to, if Haddie hadn't gotten drunk in the first place. She knew he was picking her up, and she knew he was an alcoholic. Hers was an incredibly selfish, if age-appropriate, decision.

In general, Haddie is a pretty selfish, often insufferable character. She is self-absorbed in the way so many teen girls are -- and even when she offers Alex a listening ear, as he faces adult assault charges and possible prison time, her voice has the distracted air of someone wondering whether Wilco's next tour dates will include her town.

As is obligatory for these storylines, Alex keeps telling her she will never understand his life because she's from the right side of the tracks. She insists she can try to understand.

But Alex would rather not take his chances. After Haddie's dad talks the party host's parents into dropping charges, Alex breaks up with Haddie.

She flatly asks, "Why?"

And you've gotta love that "why."

Here he is, trying to break it to her gently that he can no longer be involved with someone who doesn't understand his sobriety, his very adult obligations, and his utter aloneness in the world. And she's responding like he just told her he's bored.

If only she hadn't stormed upstairs after pouting in Alex's car as he drove her home, post-breakup, ignoring his last plea to "finish talking." She would've seen what a real break up between people who truly love each other looks like.

When Alex pulls his eyes away from Haddie's retreating back, he finally meets her mother's eyes. Immediately, he begins to choke up, and as he thanks her yet again for her support during his legal ordeal and apologizes for "everything," Mrs. Braverman accurately reads that she won't be seeing him again. She tells him that she loves him and he's like family, which makes his tears run, in earnest. The way he hugs her -- tightly, finally, sadly -- drives home the true difference between him and Haddie Braverman. Haddie's just losing a boyfriend she never truly understood; Alex is losing the family he never had.

It's devastating. But just as sad is the conversation Haddie has with her mother at the end of the episode. She asks why, if he really loved her, wouldn't he want to be with her. And her mother honestly responds, "I don't know."

This is the moment when we realize that, though Alex is "like family" to the Bravermans, he will never be family. The chasm they'd have to cross to understand how precarious his successes are and how easily they can be stripped from him is one of which they aren't even aware.

The most loving thing Alex could do for Haddie was to leave her. It's also the most loving thing he could do for himself.

Admittedly, I expect to see Michael B. Jordan on Parenthood again. This man is a powerhouse; they'd be crazy not to have him back. Plus, even though I don't want to see him back with Haddie, his chemistry with the family is fabulous, and if they worked hard enough, they could find a way to weave him back into the fold.

If not, look for him soon and often. This is his third deeply powerful performance on a profound and moving series. He's got great role-choosing instincts and, thank goodness, a great agent.

 

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