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TelevIsm: The Erasure of Heylia and Conrad on Weeds


Image description: Conrad, a bald black man wearing a white tank played by Romany Malco, and Heylia, a black woman of size wearing glasses played by Tonye Patno, sit at a table and look skeptically at a point to the left of the camera.

Weeds in its first three seasons was an excellent show—it was well-written, clever satire with multifaceted and funny characters. Its send-up of the rhetoric and culture of suburbia was funny and pointed and coherent. Celia was a hilarious and capable antagonist, and I loved that the older het white men on the show—Doug, Andy, and Dean—were strongly characterized as inept and lazy. In contrast to the class and race privileged characters in Agrestic, Heylia James and her nephew Conrad Shepherd, the pot dealers who gave Nancy her start in the business, were funny, sympathetic, and competent. They were easy to root for, while Nancy made irresponsible decisions by the dozens. Heylia and Conrad took themselves and their ambitions as individuals seriously, and handled themselves and their business adroitly.

I'm not alone in thinking that Weeds has fallen hard in recent years. The basic thesis of the show in its fourth and fifth season seems to be "everything falls to shit, and Mexico and Mexican folks are every awful stereotype you've ever heard." All but the most clearly and slowly spelled out motivations of the characters are completely unintelligible. It's not very funny, and doesn't put sexism or racism or classism in any kind of critical context. The greatest indicator of this steep drop in quality is the complete and total erasure of Heylia and Conrad. Much to the show's detriment, these two fine characters have been abandoned, literally never mentioned at all after the end of the third season.

Weeds is a very very dark show, and its main focus is people of questionable ethics doing shady business poorly. Doug really likes embezzling, Nancy is by her own fourth-season estimation "a shitty drug dealer", Celia is a flop as a city councilwoman, and Andy leaves his ten-year-old nephew holding the reins of an prohibited t-shirt business. The rich white folks in the first three seasons were consistent failures in finance and being decent human beings—all of these characters were irresponsible and always looking for shortcuts.

Heylia and Conrad got their hands dirty occasionally too, but much less often; furthermore, they almost always did competent, professional work. Heylia was a successful, authoritative voice of reason and business acumen in the early days of the show. She was the head of the family business, from dealing out of her kitchen to managing Conrad's transition first to the storage unit with her front business and then to the suburbs successfully and efficiently while mostly avoiding violence and harder drugs. She is assertive, but not particularly emotional, and effectively stays away from the "angry black woman" stereotype. Conrad was an ambitious and talented grower. He was often the most level-headed character on the show: focused, hard-working, and with few personal inclinations toward pettiness and greed.

They made missteps, too—they are realistic and human characters. In pursuit of romance, Heylia lets her customers slip away until her oversight is called to her attention by her daughter. Conrad made a misstep in offering bulk product to the violent U-Turn in the climax of the second season.

But aside from those examples, most of their missteps and failures are due to Nancy. Nancy, at first their client, later dupes Conrad into a partnership under terms that she immediately breaks, then goes on to steal Heylia's business. While I would usually be critical of this kind of blatant exercise of white and conventional beauty privilege, Heylia and Conrad both explicitly and consistently critique how Nancy manipulates her pulchritude and privilege.*

Weeds worked as satire because of Heylia and Conrad's consistent contradiction of the norms and privileges at hand. Heylia and Conrad made Weeds miles better by directly and explicitly playing up the ridiculous nature of Agrestic; they showed how Nancy pretends to subvert but actually reinforces the greed of class and white privilege. Their call-outs of Nancy's irresponsible bullshit—marrying a DEA agent, repeated lack of discretion—make the first three seasons of Weed a critical portrayal of privilege under my conditions.

And as importantly, they were interesting, well-written, well-performed characters (portrayed by Tonye Patano and Romany Malco).

And then they were silenced, and Weeds pretty much started to suck.

It's not that the characters just suddenly moved on to some other storyline—again, they have never been mentioned or shown since the third-season finale. Not once. This is particularly striking because Weeds has a good sense of how their character's past impacts their present. Relatively minor characters like Quinn and Pam have returned. But not Heylia, not Conrad.

Nor is Weeds suddenly an all/mostly-white show. They brought back Lupita and Sanjay, and I kind of enjoy goofy, vicious Ignacio and Nancy's clever mentor Guillermo. But most of the characters are stereotype city, with little depth or sympathy. Esteban is a not-particularly-complex vision of a villainous, violent, corrupt politician/drug kingpin. Sucio is explicitly characterized solely as a "dirty Mexican"—his name literally means "dirty".

Heylia and Conrad's abrupt departure was as much a sign that Weeds was going downhill as the move out of Agrestic. But at least we know what happened to Agrestic. At least its fire-y end is occasionally mentioned. Heylia and Conrad got no such resolution, no such respect. Weeds' portrayal of black characters as hardworking, capable, and responsible in contrast with incompetent, indolent white people was transgressive, and that aspect of the show has been lost.

The erasure of Heylia and Conrad is not only objectionable because it took away two awesome, compelling characters. It's not only objectionable because of racism. In Weeds' sudden abandonment of two central, critical characters, it has lost a point of comparison for its satire, the voice of critique that guided the viewer's understanding of the plot. And it's a vastly worse show because of it.

*I'll be talking more about the construction of Nancy's sexuality in later posts, so in comments, please keep the focus on Heylia and Conrad, and, in a larger sense, race on Weeds

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Comments

21 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Even in the beginning they

Even in the beginning they relied on bad, racist stereotypes, as I would argue was evidenced by Heylia's pregnant out of wedlock daughter.

That being said, I loved the Conrad and Heylia characters and wish the show had taken a much different direction. In particular one that had retained these two awesome characters. Once Nancy burned down the house everything went to crap plot wise.

What's wrong with having a child out of wedlock, exactly?

What's wrong with having a child out of wedlock, exactly? Vaneeta was not a favorite of mine - I didn't think she was very well-developed - but considering that pregnancy is a common theme on Weeds and that pregnancy outside of marriage is not really moralized in any instance, I didn't see any problem with that. She was pregnant, and there was nothing particularly significant about that in and of itself, which I liked in contrast with Nancy's pregnancy in the fifth season. The pregnancy gave an opportunity for Heylia and Vaneeta to have several conversations that passed both the Bechdel test and the Johnson test (the Bechdel test for characters of color). She seemed to be a good mother and Heylia a good grandmother - certainly more considerate than Nancy.

I'm not saying that there was no racism in the first three seasons, but I'm more troubled by, say, the characterization of South Asian students in the first season, or the framing of Celia's fling with Conrad.

The problem with out of

The problem with out of wedlock pregnancy is in black women it's Precious and it white women it's Juno. It's not framed the same way, and the fact that it escaped your notice as problematic is exactly the problem.There is a stigma of black women being baby machines that is so pervasive even black female CELEBS, positioned as "acceptable" to white audiences - like Halle - opt for unsatisfying marriages rather than the sting of having a child out of wedlock. It's not the feminist, neutral experience for black women that it is for white women. I had a huge problem with that too. In addition to framing black women in stereotypical ways, it also does the same with black men. As a black woman who was raised by a black father who was highly educated, profession and kind of Cliff Huxtable-esque, I tend to bristle when I see shows go for the cheap shot, especially since using that "absent black father" framing tends to go down some really problematic roads.

But then I see nothing particularly useful or celebratory about the way in which Weeds positions black folks. It's just more of the same. The fact that folks find anything particularly nuanced in their characterization - when they are black characters who are EVERYWHERE on TV and hardly original is kind of icky.

Wow, black folks selling weed! How novel. Oh, they lure the nice white into it? wow, trope smashing.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Also the Bechdel test

Also the Bechdel test doesn't work for race, as it frames things from a perspective that erases how racially marginalized folks view what matter to them and maybe that's solely things pertaining to their race. It also makes some assumptions about who is creating the content and would unduly penalize marginalized folks making movies about their lives that aren't necessary solely designed for white folks consumption.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

The out-of-wedlock daughter

The out-of-wedlock daughter pregnancy isn't a stereotype, but an accurate reflection of the high, and continually climbing, rate of children born to unwed mothers in the black community, particularly among low-income women. http://www.bvblackspin.com/2010/11/08/72-percent-of-african-american-chi...

I pretty much gave up on

I pretty much gave up on Weeds after the first episode of the 4th season, because my only way of getting it was to pay for it on iTunes or to get the DVD, and that episode pissed me off. But I was recently bored and found that season 4 and 5 were on Netflix streaming so I went ahead and watched them.

I agree with the post... I felt like we were supposed to have a lot more sympathy for the white characters while the rest were pretty much stereotypes.

The other thing I hated was that Nancy, who otherwise is a pretty interestingly complex female character - complex, not entirely sympathetic, intelligent, highly flawed - always got out of trouble through sex or sexual attraction to her. I haven't rewatched the first three seasons, but it seems like at least some of the time she actually used her intelligence to solve problems.

The other thing I hated was

The other thing I hated was that Nancy, who otherwise is a pretty interestingly complex female character - complex, not entirely sympathetic, intelligent, highly flawed - always got out of trouble through sex or sexual attraction to her.

You should definitely, definitely check back here, because this is essentially what I'm writing about next. :) I didn't start off with it because I'm a little concerned about slut-shaming her, and I thought that this was a little more clear-cut given as they seriously never mention Conrad/Heylia ever again and they are pretty clearly awesome.

(Commenting note: If you've got something to say about Nancy's sexuality, I guess you can go ahead and put it in this thread? Sigh, contradicting myself.)

allow me to add my amen. I'm

allow me to add my amen.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought Weeds turned to absolute shit after/during S3. Its charming satire of suburban life with touches of absurdism turned to a simply absurd "Let's throw every outrageous plot twist we can think of" soap opera sort of stuff (Shane killing someone? why?).

I haven't rewatched the episodes in some time, but I remember liking Weeds' portrayal of race in the early season. The black characters for instance, weren't walking stereotypes, and they weren't overly hygienic angels. They were black drug dealers, yes. but they had personal dreams and values, that were endearing, inconsistent, and in short, human. They dealt drugs, but they searched for love, happiness, and fulfillment. They were strong personalities but also violently funny and emotionally vulnerable.

The portrayals of Mexicans was one of the things that completely turned me off the show, along with the ridiculous excesses of the storyline. Why did the show go to such lengths to give well-drawn out, round, black characters, but then feel it was okay to trot a bunch of tired Mexican stereotypical 2-dimensional characters to either amuse or scare the audience. It reeks of hypocrisy and racism.

not to entirely digress, but motherhood might be another interesting subject in Weeds to take up. I really liked the portrayal of Nancy in the first two seasons. She was white mother who wasn't depicted as a complete angel. She made mistakes, regularly hurt her children's feelings, lost her patience, all while also showing love, affection, and some sound parenting. She's also single (widowed) and pursues her own sexual desire. There weren't too many TV moms like her that I can think of. That is until they turned Nancy basically into a pin-up girl (sorry to jump the gun on you as well). Not that I terribly mind seeing Mary Louise Parker in extremely sexy outfits, but they are wasting a very talented actress and a complex potentially interesting character.

and they're also wasting Conrad and Heylia. shame.

Thanks :) I thought that

Thanks :)

I thought that Shane killing her made sense within the context (she was talking about killing them) but it was the context that was the problem.

I felt like the show was very conscious about creating interesting characters of color and not reinforcing stereotypes in seasons 1-3 - even with U-Turn, who was in many ways a negative stereotypes, had some transgressive charecteristics (like his thorough attention to health).

While I agree with your assessment, I think that there are some interesting things that they do with pregnancy and motherhood in seasons five and six - but it's more in the context of the first three seasons. I think that the fourth season started out okay - again, I really liked Guillermo, and I liked the subtle foreshadowing of the maternity store.

Thank you thank you for

Thank you thank you for writing this. I stopped watching after season three. It just got pathetic. I keep hearing tidbits of the current seasons, and it just makes me sadder. Shane dealing drugs? Nancy knocked up by a scary Mexican dealer? Who she ends up marrying? It just makes me so sad for the actors, the show- what on earth were the writers thinking? Heylia was my favorite charachters (*while chasing Conrad around the kitchen*: "You gave her my cornbread recipe? And she put WEED in it?!") and i was so sad when she got, literally, cut out. In my mind, Weeds ended at season three. To take a show with gems like "What do you call the thing between the dick and the asshole?" "The coffee table." and turn it into a stereotype-reinforcing, pathetic, thin, two-dimensional joke is just a waste.

I really have no idea what's

I really have no idea what's going on with the show. I don't see how the quality and humor dropped off so steeply.

It's like the show got a lobotomy.

I agree. Weeds is in the habit of creating great characters and dropping them off unceremoniously, never to be heard from again. (Josh, Quinn, Conrad, Heylia, Vernita, Nancy's second husband, Sanjay, Celia, Isabel, Dean, etc.) Example: Josh. Remember Josh? If you don't I don't blame you, he was only present for the pilot episode, but he had a dry sense of humor, and basically made Nancy look good. He was an irresponsible smalltime dealer that Nancy supplied. Being irresponsible he allowed Nancy to take an authoritative role, and keep him in line. Moving up the chain was Conrad who introduced and explained the basics of drug-dealing to Nancy, who in turn learned everything he knew from Heylia, the mother of all drug-dealing knowledge. This chain of command made things comfortable, because if anyone made a mistake, they had someone higher up to correct those mistakes. Then this chain crumbles a little, and Josh's character is sort of broken and added to Nancy's children (So she can have dominance over someone) and Nancy herself (being that she makes a few more mistakes and is less in control). But later when Nancy and Conrad break away from Heylia, the chain simplifies. Conrad is the new mastermind, Nancy screws a few things up, and Silas wants in, and Nancy sort of starts her own little group. but after season 3, Heylia and Conrad disappear altogether, along with everyone else, and it just leaves Nancy and Silas, which basically screws the series and makes it feel disjointed.
They also pretty much eliminated any objectives or goals they might have in season 6. Initially it was for Nancy to keep herself afloat, then to compete with local dealers, and this was all very interesting watching and learning as she did. During her third marriage, there was at least some interest, the season had a clear antagonist and the goal was escaping him, but once she does, it's like the story just stops. They've stopped dealing, they just live life on the lam.
Nancy's character has been corrupted somewhat too, now she's treated like some troublesome child who has sex with everyone. She has no control over her kids or her life, and she just stopped trying. Each new plot point ends as quickly as it began, Silas wants to go to college, but then he doesn't. Andy tries to win a RV, but doesn't. Nancy sleeps with some guy from a trailer park, but then leaves. There's no sense of direction, things just keep happening to them. Each new episode is some new scattered gimmick but has no real effect on the plot. There is no more familiarity with the characters. I miss the days when Nancy could be seen with her signature iced coffee, humoring but hating Celia, and learning from Heylia.

I stopped watching during

I stopped watching during the 4th season as well. I was wholly turned off by the Mexican stereotypes and sexism. Doug 's terrifying "relationship" with the Mexican woman who crossed the border, where he basically kept her prisoner with his white, native-born privilege? Nancy getting raped by the Mexican politician/sex trafficker/drug overlord, and then insinuating that Nancy liked it? The show sure took a monumental turn towards crapfest.

Drug Trade expert weighing in

As a graduate student researching the US/Mexican drug trade and organized crime in the Mexican cartels, lemme say how much I agree with how sadly unrealistic the direction of Weeds has taken in recent seasons. When it still took place in Agrestic, the business partnership with Haylia and Conrad with Nancy, a largely private operation, was still believable and still interesting. But where the show took a wrong turn was in its portrayal of the Mexican cartels, the underground tunnel, etc. The lack of realism in this plot thread is mind-boggling. I realize that it is a comedy, so some suspension of disbelief is to be expected. But the idea that the Mexican cartels would EVER rely on the discretion and assistance of a woman as flighty and unpredictable as Nancy is just laughable. In real life, a woman like her would either have not been hired in the first place, or she and her entire family wouldve been killed and made to "disappear". The cartels simply would never trust their business to someone not more intimately connected, someone who had not already proved her loyalty tenfold. People in this drug war have been "disposed of" for far far less, sadly. And while I understand that it is merely a tv show, with dark dark comedy themes, to make light of what has really gone on and IS going on in Mexico now is irresponsible. When it was about small-time pot dealers in the suburbs, it was still interesting and fun. Now it has just devolved into the ridiculous and the offensive.

Seriously!

Thanks for the article! Ever since the beginning of season 4 all I could think was, "Why does the show kind of suck now?" and "What the hell happened to Conrad and Heylia?" I really miss them! For me, Conrad and Heylia were sort of the moral center of the show with all of these cartoonish fools in their orbit. Now, we just have cartoonish fools. Quinn taking Celia hostage? What?! Just one of the many absurd and implausible sub-plots clogging up the show. Not to mention the countless cheap shot jokes that are now so prevalent. I have a crush on Justin Kirk, so that's pretty much the only thing that keeps me tuning in at this point. ;)

Ironic Racism

IRONICALLY, I think this attitude of yours reeks of racism and bigotry.

"I loved that the older het white men on the show—Doug, Andy, and Dean—were strongly characterized as inept and lazy. In contrast to the class and race privileged characters in Agrestic, Heylia James and her nephew Conrad Shepherd, the pot dealers who gave Nancy her start in the business, were funny, sympathetic, and competent."

This statement alone shows that you are not content unless the white man is exploited to look the fool, and the black characters are in cool control of their sensibility in the storylines. This used to be called blaxploitation when it was the reverse, and it was stopped due to right thinking people on the left. Now, the left is deliberately exploiting the white male characters in any show that includes people of color. No room for Clint Eastwood, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, or even God Forbid the Fonz... no, just the Potsy's please you say, and make the Fonz a black guy. It's racism, pure and simple.

These characterizations have become so commonplace that it's become propaganda, and nauseating to watch TV these days knowing someone is brainwashing the masses at your expense.

what a relief

the black family on weeds were horrible, one-dimensional and lazy stereotypes. the whole idea that black people live in the ghetto and white people live in the suburbs, white people have real jobs, black people are criminals (what poc on this show wasn't a criminal?), white people live in planned communities, black people duck when shots fire. what about their portrayal WASN'T racist?

it's mind-boggling that how people things differently. as a black woman, I cringed each time they were on screen. I appreciated so much of the smart writing, but show runner jenji kohan showed that her and her writing team don't know much about people of color.

i wrote a whole blog on how disturbing i find the unchecked racism.

"The women of color on the show are of a similar mold. Asian women are oversexed sluts who whore themselves out at massage parlors or bed married white men. Black women are overweight, loud lip-smackers in need of charity (despite lucrative careers as weed dealers). Latina women can't speak English or drive, and exist only to simultaneously serve and irritate the white characters."

rest of it here: http://whitneyteal.blogspot.com/2010/11/on-weeds-race-problem.html

*updated comment, sans typos

*sorry for the crazy lack of grammar in that comment. typing too fast.* the post was SUPPOSED to read:

the black family on weeds was horrible, one-dimensional and full of lazy stereotypes. the whole idea that black people live in the ghetto and white people live in the suburbs, white people have real jobs, black people are criminals (what poc on this show wasn't a criminal?), white people live in planned communities, black people duck when shots fire. what about their portrayal WASN'T racist?

it's mind-boggling how people view things differently. as a black woman, I cringed each time they were on screen. I appreciated so much of the smart writing, but show runner jenji kohan showed that she and her writing team don't know much about people of color.

i wrote a whole blog post on how disturbing i find the unchecked racism.

"The women of color on the show are of a similar mold. Asian women are oversexed sluts who whore themselves out at massage parlors or bed married white men. Black women are overweight, loud lip-smackers in need of charity (despite lucrative careers as weed dealers). Latina women can't speak English or drive, and exist only to simultaneously serve and irritate the white characters." {this was based on viewing the first two seasons. more latinas came into the show later, obviously. equally bad portrayals, but more diverse.}

Racist Portrayals of Black Men and Women on Weeds

Thank you for noting that the first 3 seasons of Weeds was NOT transgressive. I'm not sure what to make of those who have claimed that the Black female and male characters on Weeds were/are not racist stereotypes. We've seen the overweight, fast talking, wise cracking, cynical Black woman so many times. And, yes, she is angry, very angry. In fact, she gets so angry that she attacks Nancy in her kitchen in the first season. I'm amazed that the Black woman who has the "pity sex" with the young Asian student doesn't immediately offend. When she learns about her pregnancy all she can say is that she wants money! Then when Nancy comments about the baby's size, this woman brags about how she just shot the kid out and has gotten compliments for this talent. She implies that she has sex with strangers on a regular basis and does so for money or to repay favors for the men who "pimp" her. She's an ignorant, dependent ho! What's new about that? This show is simply another attempt to marginzalize and denigrate non-Whites. U-Turn and Marvin are stereotypes of brutal, anti-intellectual Black male drug dealers. Even Conrad was poorly drawn. Why does every Black man have to be portrayed as hopelessly in love with a White woman even when they have very little in common? As far as represenataions of Mexicans go, well, let's just say they are treated even worse. At one point, Nancy's younger son even says, "I hate Mexicans," which sums everything up. If this show is transgressive, I'd love to see one that isn't.

Ridiculous

This is ridiculous. you defend conrad's character as "awesome" and "compelling," yet his was the character who zapped most of the energy from the show due to his mediocre approach to character portrayal and obvious resistance to the flow of the production. it was very clear from watching the show that people were uncomfortable working with this actor. they weren't just changing the direction of the show, they were removing baggage from the production, in the same way that they 'burned down the house', which everyone knows was a crappy site for filming, and was a symbol of the "suburban comedy", which the show had outgrown after three seasons. conrad (less Heylia -- I'm glad they brought her back into the circle) was not a thing to be missed from the show, not at all, not at all.

good

Good analysis and I believe everything you say. I watched the show very late on my DVR. But when I realized who played conrad, I had a feeling by the 4 season he wouldnt be there simply because the man who played conrad career took a turn in playing the movie 40 year old virgin. His absence could of been simply because he no longer wanted to play on the show for career decisions