Plot: Dev has been going to Denise’s house for Thanksgiving ever year since they were little kids. This episode shows snapshots from seven of those family meals:
Early ’90s Thanksgiving: Denise learns that her elementary school friend Dev is not black, but Indian. Her mom Catherine (Angela Bassett) explains that they’re both minorities, and a minority is “a group of people who have to work twice as hard in life to get half as far.” They sit down to dinner with Denise’s aunt Joyce (Kim Whitley) and her grandma Ernestine (Venda Evans).
1995 Thanksgiving: Denise tries on a dress and proclaims: “Man, this is some bullshit.” Instead, she decides to wear casual, baggy clothes to dinner, much to her mom’s chagrin. During dinner, Denis’s mom, aunt, and grandma talk about OJ, Michael Jackson, and Clarence Thomas.
1998 Thanksgiving: Teenage Denise tells teenage Dev that she has a crush on a girl named Erika. This is the first time Denise has ever mentioned that she’s gay, and Dev is very kind and supportive. Denise tells Dev: “Being gay isn’t something black people love to talk about... Some black people think being gay is a choice, and when they find out that their kid is gay, they try to figure out what they did wrong.” To ease some of the tension, Denise and Dev light a joint and blow the smoke out the window. Denise’s mom comes in wearing a cosmetic mask and suspects something’s awry but doesn’t say anything.
2006 Thanksgiving: During dinner at a nondescript diner, Denise comes out to her mom. Denise explains: “I’m gay, I’ve always been gay. But I’m still the same person. I’m still your daughter. Nothing’s changed.” Catherine doesn’t take the news well, saying: “I just... I don’t want life to be hard for you. It is hard enough being a black woman in this world, and now you want to add something else to that?”
2015 Thanksgiving: Denise brings her girlfriend, Michelle, home to meet her family for the first time. Her mother and aunt are cold to Michelle, and they’re not impressed by the fact that she lived in China. Catherine is not happy that Denise is being physically affectionate with her new girlfriend. “Look, you can be lesbian if you want to, but when you come up in here, you respect my house,” she explains after dinner.
2016 Thanksgiving: Denise brings home a new girlfriend who likes to post racy photos of herself to Instagram. At the table, Denise’s mom and aunt talk about the death of Sandra Bland, and Dev mentions the story of an Indian grandpa in Alabama who was wrongly apprehended and abused by the police. Denise’s new girlfriend talks about a skateboarding dog that set a new world record. Denise’s family doesn’t hit it off with her new girlfriend.
2017 Thanksgiving: Michelle is back in the mix, and the family is pleased to see her again. Everyone has a good time at the dinner table, and Catherine finally tells her daughter: “I like Michelle... I’m happy for you.”
Food Background: Dinner is being prepared through most of this episode — turkey, greens, mac & cheese, cornbread, and peas — and the episode is bookended by birds-eye shots of Denise’s family and Dev sitting around a gorgeous Thanksgiving feast. As is often the case with many holiday meals, these delectable dishes are the reward for soldiering through awkward familial interactions.
A lot of the comic relief in this episode is food-related, as well. During the 2015 holiday, Dev breaks the tension by repeatedly screaming across the table: “Grandma Ernestine, your yams turned out really nice this year! You add a little nutmeg?” And he also surprises Catherine by making plans during dinner to take Denise and Michelle to a “Chinese restaurant in Flushing.” When Catherine remarks on how weird it is to be planning a meal while eating a meal, Dev explains: “Never too early to plan ahead, especially when it comes to matters of the tum.”
Best of None: At its core, “Thanksgiving” is a one-act drama with great performances by Angela Bassett and Lena Waithe. This is another example of Ansari and Alan Yang using Master of None to tell stories that you don’t often see on half-hour TV shows. The emotional payoff at the end is well-earned, and as a viewer, it’s nice to see all the major life experiences that Dev and Denise shared growing up.