How ‘The Upshaws’ Director Robbie Countryman Used a Car Joke to Navigate the Family’s Changing Dynamics

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from the Season 4 finale of “The Upshaws,” now streaming on Netflix.

Season 4 of Netflix’s “The Upshaws” left everybody in the family ready to switch roles with each other if it meant saving themselves from their recently upended lives. The family dynamics have changed as Lucretia (Wanda Sykes) finds herself in financial trouble, Regina (Kim Fields) moves back into the family home after taking time to heal mentally and physically following her brush with death, and Bennie (Mike Epps) realizes he’s continued to neglect his eldest son, Bernard Jr. (Jermelle Simon).

After selling his valuable baseball card collection, Bennie uses the money to buy his middle children Aaliyah (Khali Spraggins) and Kelvin (Diamond Lyons) a new car to teach them how to drive — and accomplish a new milestone as teens. His generous gesture is extended to his younger kids, as he buys gifts (including an off-brand Coach bag, labeled Cooch) for them as well. However, Bernard Jr. is left out of the gift-giving celebration, and once again feels the sting of being Bennie’s eldest child who wasn’t afforded the same luxuries as his younger siblings, nor did he have a present and doting father.

But it doesn’t take long before the car takes a few hits. With Aaliyah riding in the passenger seat in several scenes, she and the car serve as a larger allegory that reflects each family member’s true feelings in the episode, director Robbie Countryman tells Variety.

Shortly after Aaliyah accepts the car, Bennie decides to take her for a spin as her first driving lesson, but they soon crash into the garage after he accidentally puts the car in reverse instead of drive. Not wanting to feel the wrath of his wife, he tells his daughter, “Switch with me” which she begrudgingly does (but comically asks for a bribe first). That line follows the characters throughout the rest of the episode.

“You feel like everybody wanted to be in somebody else’s shoes. Everybody was going through so much, so many difficult things. It played as a joke, but it has so many other other undertones to it,” said Countryman.

Relief is not a feeling the Upshaws hold onto for very long. It came after Regina survived a heart attack and was able to leave the hospital. But soon left again when the household realized she wouldn’t be going home yet due to her mental health issues. They do have their Aunt Lucretia to fill in the blanks Regina has been unavailable to fill.

But when Lucretia finds out all of her money was stolen by her personal accountant and she’s unable to assist her family financially, it changes their story. Her zingers aimed at Bennie lack their usual zest as she tries to hide the truth of her money struggles, but she feels it the most when she realizes she’s unable to help her nephew, Bernard Jr. open the gym of his dreams. And when she gets stopped by an officer in Aaliyah’s new car, she becomes the next “switch with me” moment.

“They all go through their lives knowing that she can save them,” said Countryman. “When something goes wrong, ‘Mom, I need a dollar’ — and Lucretia was always that. She would give them crap about it, but in their face, they had that safety net. Now that no one has that safety net, it’s gonna be interesting going forward how that’s going to play out.”

As Bernard Jr. seeks out different avenues to score funding for his gym, it hurts him even worse to know that his own father didn’t think about him and his ambitions. That feeling comes to a heated boil when he finally confronts his father about being jealous and disappointed.

It’s another tense exchange between the father-son duo (fans may remember Bernard Jr.’s coming out journey in Season 1) — but this conversation is with a different Bennie. He’s matured since their last skirmish, and yet, he realizes he still has some learning to do. It’s also the one time when Bennie seemingly puts himself in his son’s shoes, and understands his perspective.

“One of the things I told them was to really listen to each other. Don’t just say these words on the page. If you say these words on the page, they can still come across and people will get it but, I said I want you guys to feel what the other one is saying and really listen,” Countryman said of the scene. “I want to see the pain that some of this has caused both of you guys, because you both have trauma.”

He added: “I wanted it to be a scene about two people talking to each other feeling some of the trauma that the other one felt and then the burst of the of the emotion the situation and the years of of trauma and how Jermelle [as Bernard Jr.] was holding on to so much of that for so long. This was a good place to let it go.”

By the end of the episode, Bernard Jr. survived the emotional roller coaster with his father, and manages to secure the money for his gym. But alas, it will remain a dream deferred for some time. As Bernard Jr. shows off his plans for the gym to his family, Aaliyah crashes through the wall in her battered “new” car in her biggest accident yet and offers one last “switch with me” that’s just a little too late.

“Setting up that crash, there was so much to it because obviously the actors couldn’t be there. We had to do it in a split screen and I had to really have them match all their motions that they were doing. But they did a great job of staying in place and executing what I was trying to envision,” said Countryman.

Part 4 of “The Upshaws” is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

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