Jess Wu Calder didn’t envision becoming a director, but she jumped at the chance during Season 2 of “Blindspotting” — even after learning her directorial debut would be one of the series’ most challenging episodes yet.
Episode 3 of the Starz comedy’s second season follows Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and her son Sean (Atticus Woodward) as they go on their first family weekend visitation to San Quentin State Prison, where husband and dad Miles (Rafael Casal) is serving a five-year sentence. The installment is packed with nuance, as viewers get an inside look at what the families of incarcerated individuals go through as they try to maintain relationships with their imprisoned loved ones.
While Ashley and Miles try to make the most of their circumstances, Sean throws a curveball at their plans when the young, mixed-race child unexpectedly blurts out the N-word in conversation with his parents.
Though they first try to sweep the topic under the rug — knowing their 7-year-old couldn’t begin to understand the nuances that come with the word — Sean’s insistence on understanding the topic forces them to talk him through the history of the word, from slavery to the 1960s civil rights movement to present-day issues of police brutality.
Rather than showing the conversation, the show chronicled Sean’s perception of the history through an elaborate dance number — a common storytelling approach for the show and a massive undertaking for Calder as a first-time director.
“It was definitely one of the most terrifying tests I’ve ever had to do, because of the weight of what that word is,” Calder told TheWrap ahead of the release of the episode Friday.
“This was Miles and Ashley’s attempt to tell Sean the most complicated, nuanced bedtime story of all time. Because of that, it was important to try to retain that innocence that they would try to keep [in telling the story], because he is seven,” she added. “So for me, keeping that magical feeling alive was important.”
Read more of TheWrap’s conversation with Calder about the episode below:
TheWrap: Episode 3 is a pivotal one for the show. What was your approach to crafting the installment?
Calder: I always try to look for the truth and emotion in everything. In regards to the weekend visitation, it was really important for me to try to do as much research as I could — because I personally don’t have that shared experience — to try to do justice to what it is that these women go through every day.
There was this incredible article that [followed] a journalist [who] was allowed to be embedded with a couple for their entire weekend visitation at San Quentin. I remember reading those words, and something that haunted me was almost like a throwaway quote, where the wife said that she was pretty sure her husband never slept because he just watched her sleep. And that, whenever she woke up in the middle of the night, instead of going back to sleep [she’d] sometimes just watch him sleep.
And I had this thought of these two people, all they want to do is soak up every single minute and appreciate every second that they are together. … The idea of wanting so desperately to just forget for the weekend that your loved one is in prison, but then not being able to because you’re rudely awakened, like almost every hour and snatched away from the dream.
Trying to imagine what these people are going through is really how I approached that episode.
Miles and Ashley share a big moment as parents when they’re forced to talk to Sean about the origins of the N-word, and all the history and nuance that comes with it. The episode addresses the topic with an elaborate and poignant dance sequence that walks Sean, and the audience, through the history of racism in America. What was crafting that sequence like, and then actually executing it on film.
It was very important for me to lean on the incredible collaborators that I worked with, including [Jon Boogz], who is the best choreographer ever.
At the end of the day, this was Miles and Ashley’s attempt to tell Sean the most complicated, nuanced bedtime story of all time. Because of that, it was important to try to retain that innocence that I think they would try to keep [in telling the story], because he is seven. So for me, keeping that magical feeling alive was important. That’s why [we see] the bed magically moving through different points in time. And the idea of the illustrated backdrops gives the feeling like Sean is stuck in a children’s book.
Regarding how we approached the choreography, what was most important was to get across the inherited emotional trauma that the word has caused throughout history. And most importantly, to make sure that the voices of Black women were also conveyed. That’s why it was really important in the scene that showed the auction block, that we saw Sasha [Mallory], the dancer playing the woman who is left behind after her husband or brother are sold [into slavery]. And then again, you see her as one of the 1960s students getting salt poured over her.
We wanted to make that connection that [shows] this cycle hasn’t been broken, and that there’s inherited weight that she’s still carrying over decades. And then transferring the offset onto the most recent time, which starts as this really joyful reclamation of the word but then, of course, ends in the shooting of a [Black man]. I think the emotion in those moments is the through line of the dance.
Atticus [Woodward] gives an incredible performance. Because he’s a child, we actually have to shoot his stuff first. [On set] he’s responding and acting to everything he’s “seeing” without ever actually seeing a single second of that dance. It’s just a testament to [his talent] that he’s seven and could pull off the emotion of that scene. To me it’s like a magic trick.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Blindspotting Season 2 airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz, and streams Fridays at midnight ET/Thursdays at 9 p.m. PT on the Starz streaming platform.