To this point, Fresh Off the Boat‘s attempts to integrate race into its storytelling have been tangential at best, particularly as the show’s tried to draw in a larger, mainstream audience with its first few episodes. “Fajita Man” is really the first episode that feels like it is taking the commonalities of the American experience and injecting some Asian-American culture into it, taking on a common racial trope and turning it into a fully-realized, universal story about the values of hard work – and more importantly, the struggles of trying to pass those ideals from generation to generation, in a positive way.
Obviously, the funniest incarnation of this principle for discipline comes from Jessica, who goes full-bulldozer in her simultaneous quests to stay cool during a heat wave and find a job. How she plows through anyone in her way is absolutely fantastic, adding to the powerful matriarchal aura the last three episodes have sharply defined; the scene where she tries to bully her way into a job at the furniture store is an absolute riot, speaking to the character’s determination to escape the boredom she experienced in last week’s episode, and to put her skills to work – skills that include “being good at everything I do,” which is something I’d be hard-pressed to disagree with. Jessica Huang is a powerhouse, and she absolutely knows it; that confidence is refreshing, and propels an otherwise incidental B plot with some great dialogue (those kids playing Evan and Emery are fantastic) and the wonderful characterization of Jessica, who has established herself as the standout character of the show (despite her closet homophobia, which comes out when she sells a house to two men she refuses to accept are lovers, her lone flaw).
It also makes a nice backdrop for the heart of the episode, a strong father-son story about passing on values from previous generations – or more importantly, realizing that those predicated ideals may not be the most healthy way to raise a child, after all. The framing device for this story is also fantastic, and shows Fresh Off the Boat‘s growing command of its pop culture references: Eddie is sent into a frenzy over the announcement of Shaq-Fu (combining hip-hop, the NBA, and video games, in one sweet $50 package), so he takes a job pushing fajitas (the big restaurant trend of the 90’s – an observation that rings oh so true) at Cattleman’s Ranch to pay for the game.
When he only makes $18 for a week’s worth of work, however, Eddie is furious – yet Louis relents, pointing out that hard work isn’t just showing for up, but doing everything perfectly all the time, always. Slowly – and thanks to the help of Grandma, who finally comes to life in this episode – he realizes that being a hard worker doesn’t mean he has to become a “hard man,” a person who couldn’t even smile on his own freakin’ Egg Day. And so he rewards Eddie for his hard work, and passes that same lesson onto his son, effectively breaking the cycle of constant pressure of disappointment many families feel, be it Asian-American (which is a very real thing, and not some light stereotype tossed into this episode, something I learned first-hand in college) or any other race in America, where hard work to buy things we don’t need is an important cornerstone.
Okay, that last note was probably an unintended one, but the father/son dynamic “Fajita Man” explores (complete with the quote in the closing scene that the episode gets its name from) is so terrific, I’m willing to put aside the materialistic pursuit of happiness Fresh Off the Boat seems to embrace in certain moments (after all, it does take place in the 1990’s, at the height of disposable income for the middle-class); the third act scene between Louis and his mother is so affecting, it elevates the episode (which was already, by far, the show’s funniest half-hour) into something much more powerful, something that not only breathes life into the show’s great unexplored dynamic (two of them, if you count Louis and his mother), but gives voice to a conflict many parents find themselves dealing with – that is, whether their actions to raise their child are actually helping them, or just furthering cycles of pain left from antiquated ideas. That – along with Jessica in the background, owning everything – makes “Fajita Man” an endlessly satisfying, entertaining episode.
[Photo via ABC]