‘Black-ish’ Season 4 Ends With Renewed Love as the Johnsons Keep It Together

One can almost feel a gigantic sigh of relief at the end of the season 4 finale of “Black-ish.” After a few episodes where the show’s central marriage seemed to be headed towards a final, sad end, the season closes with heartwarming waves of hope. ABC’s sitcom is still going strong, keeping intact its combination of social awareness, human drama and welcoming humor. Yet near the end of this season the story decided to take on a very personal tone, exploring the complications of a marriage beginning to feel on shaky ground.

Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) are separated at the beginning of the season finale, choosing to try out living in different homes. Bow stays with the kids while Dre has set his eyes on a dream house, the kind of pricey, beach-side spot with wide rooms and remote control fire pit (not the safest for toddlers as his friends at work warn). It is an odd situation, especially for their friends. The kids seem to be handling it ok, although Jack (Miles Brown) can’t quite maneuver the new stairway in Dre’s house. Bow starts realizing just how much Dre did around the house, and small irritants seem big, especially car alarms going off in the middle of the night. Dre meanwhile realizes he’s can’t cook. But they both slowly begin to deal with everything on their own, gaining what seems to be a new independence. Yet as the days go by, Dre and Bow take a serious a look at the reasoning for being apart, and soon enough a sudden tragedy makes it clear they need each other.

One of the defining features of the style in the writing of “Black-ish” is the maturity of its characters. The show has tackled racism, American history and socio-economic debates with a down to earth intelligence. As season 4 began to hint at the breakup of Dre and Bow’s marriage, it never descended into cheap tricks. This season has found the couple grappling with Junior (Marcus Scribner) getting into college, visiting relatives and the way certain decisions such as getting a dog, or remodeling the kitchen, may seem small but contribute to cracks in a relationship. Finally Bow simply tells Dre they have completely different views of the world, and Dre respects her decision. The situation is not comfortable or romanticized, but it feels more authentic than the over-the-top breakups you usually get in sitcoms (or dramas for that matter). In the finale the pair begin to adapt to their new, independent lifestyles, what the show begins to explore is the difference between being independent and being alone. This is when “Black-ish” becomes a truly universal sitcom. Being a groundbreaking series about middle class African Americans, it nonetheless puts aside the politics and historical references near the end of this season, to speak a bit more widely about how we relate to each other in terms of relationships. In fact, there are not even that many jokes in the finale, but instead more introspection.

Of course there is always going to be some good humor to be had. Dre’s fancy new digs become a hilarious vehicle for a slew of jokes about the accessories in a big, expensive L.A. home. Pops (Laurence Fishburne) is of course around to share the wisdom of someone who has seen it all. Advice at work is less stellar, as Dre’s co-workers tell him a single man needs to get a pad that is “totally balling.” There’s a funny moment where Dre drops off the kids at Bow’s and offers to play catch with Junior, who is beyond excited. But by the time Junior finds his glove Dre’s time with the kids is up. This is the tone of “Black-ish,” bittersweet but never vicious.

So how to get Bow and Dre back together? As in real life, it is sometimes tragedy that makes us forget our quarrels. Near the end of the episode Dre gets a call from Bow, in tears, announcing that her father has died. He rushes him and consoles her. The closing moments of the finale are heartwarming reaffirmation for fans of this show that this family will survive together. Bow and Dre start attending counseling sessions again and feel that a page has turned, and new beginnings are now at hand.

“Black-ish” features the kind of characters we can continue watching for years. By staying true to the way life continues, with detours and delays, it remains engaging because it isn’t recycling gimmicks. Season 4 of “Black-ish” ends on a tender note, especially when Pops and his ex Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) discover Dre has let them both stay in his house for the remainder of its lease. “Everybody’s getting back together,” Pops says, making the hint clear. Everything has a way of starting over.

Black-ish” season four finale aired May 15 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.