Marriage isn't easy. That's a theme of many a sitcom, from the Honeymooners onward. And now that struggle has come to black-ish, in the episode "Fifty-Three Percent." During Devante's first birthday party, a series of petty squabbles between the Johnsons escalate from bickering to outright anger. But will Dre and Bow get divorced on black-ish? It's tough hard to see one of TV's best couples go through a rough patch four seasons into the show, but there's still plenty of hope for these too.
As a loving couple, Dre and Bow's first move is to make an appointment with a couples therapist. Because though many sitcoms — from Home Improvement to Everybody Loves Raymond and far beyond — put their central couples through years of bickering, it's rare that a TV couple actually seeks professional help. Their therapist helps Dre and Bow to realize that, though they are great parents and good providers for their family, they don't often have time to think about or work on their relationship. After talking things over, Dre and Bow go through the trouble of trying to orchestrate a date night and then schedule sex. But the administrative feeling of it all doesn't really help.
The episode forgoes most of its humor to show the Johnsons at their own individual worsts. Dre is alternatively domineering and petulant, and Bow can frequently be passive-aggressive and snobby. Though their reactions to Devante's early childhood development are both valid — wait and see versus early action — neither is willing to compromise with their partner. Usually, their contrasting approaches to life come together as a comprehensive attack on the challenges of childrearing, but now, they just seem unhappy with their usual problem solving style.
Long-term relationships do require serious work. And while the Johnsons have put off their issues for a long time, things have finally calmed down enough between Bow's decision to stay at home to Junior's college choice that there's time for the them to focus on their marriage. The episode doesn't offer any easy solutions for the couple, however. First-time black-ish director Tracee Ellis Ross makes the moment when Devante finally walks feel like a real triumph for all of them, which makes it even more heartbreaking when, despite all of their best intentions and work, the Johnsons are still troubled when the episode ends — still unsure if they're going to be able to solve their issues or if they're going to pursue a divorce.
The episode ends ambiguously, not just because the storyline will continue when the show returns on May 1, but marriages just can't be patched up in a moment. The show demonstrates that a comprehensive approach to issues, from seeking help outside the home to talking out problems honestly to making time for couple things other than kids and stress, is better than seeking out a quick fix. But it's possible that separation will be the only thing that works for the Johnsons. Maybe this is the show's chance to carry out a storyline that almost never happens to core couples in sitcoms: they separate, or fully split up, but become a successful, happy pair of co-parents.
Of course, a divorce or separation will be tragic for fans who have come to love the family as-is, and just the thought of the Johnson kids dealing with the emotional fallout of their parents splitting up is enough to make you cry. But, maybe it's possible to talk about what it's like to be a family with two divorced parents that isn't a stereotypical "broken" home — just a different one. Maybe Dre and Bow contemplating divorce will be the show's most emotionally affecting topic yet.