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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