It was the end of the world as we knew it, but not the true end of the world.
The apocalypse in A Black Lady Sketch Show's narrative interstitials turned out to only be a figment of a mind control experiment in the HBO sketch comedy series from creator, showrunner, and star Robin Thede. And so too, for that matter, were the sketches themselves. But because of who was behind that mind control — and what else she had the power to manipulate — the lives of the four core characters will never be the same.
In the Season 3 finale of A Black Lady Sketch Show, it was revealed that Dr. Haddassah Olayinka Ali-Youngman, Pre-PhD (Thede) was not only behind the experiment, but also had been elected president of the United States.
"What is this world that they're walking into, is this normal Earth? It's obviously not the end of the world because people are alive, but who's out there and who is in this world that would have elected Dr. Haddassah as president? It still doesn't feel like a normal society. So, we're excited to put the women into the world and see what that world now is," Thede tells Metacritic.
The four women (played by Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis, and Skye Townsend) went on a journey of self-reflection in the fourth season. Once it was revealed that they were subjects in an experiment, they had to become better versions of themselves to push past the puppets staring back at them in the mirror and return to their regular, real reflections. Then and only then were they considered "evolved" enough for the door to the hotel room in which they were being held to open and allow them to re-enter the world.
The women acknowledged that they didn't know what they were stepping into, but that didn't bother them because they were doing it together.
In addition to the resolution of the narrative in the finale, there were a handful of individual sketches, ranging from a video game about haircare featuring former cast member and now guest star Quinta Brunson, a Smart Guy reunion featuring Tahj Mowry and John Marshall Jones playing a heated game of Scrabble, and the return of Trinity the Invisible Spy (Black) who pulled workout instructor Octavia (Thede) into one of her missions.
"The sketches all live in this world that was in their heads as they were being mind controlled, essentially," Thede says. "This finale is weird, and if you really pick it apart, it's not just a bunch of random sketches. There's a reason why they're all in the finale, and there's a reason why you see a sketch without the core cast, which you've never seen before]. There's a reason why Octavia and Trinity meet — two characters who have been in completely different worlds."
"I just wanted the world to start to cave in on itself so you start to question the motivation for everything," Thede continues.
While Thede was excited to deliver some answers at the end of Season 3, those answers inevitably lead to more questions. Until we know whether more answers will come via another season or two, here, Thede talks to Metacritic about shaping three seasons of sketches so they all led up to the Dr. Haddassah reveal, bringing Brunson back, her personal highlights of the season, and the one joke that didn't have greater significance beyond just getting a laugh.
What was the inspiration to make Dr. Haddassah the puppet master here?
This is a show where Black women live grounded experiences in a magical reality. I take that magical reality very seriously. So, I think that, for me, I always want to play with the idea that we get to define ourselves in our environment in this safe space. So, that's why it's all Black woman on the show. It's just this place where, even where Katy Campbell is murdering people rampantly, she's still running for office. We still control this environment and what better person to personify that than the largest personality, arguably, on the show? Somebody who is literally and figuratively head and shoulders above others because of her head wrap. She's somebody who has been very outspoken, very opinionated. She's somebody who creates her own reality in her mind. And we've created our own reality in this world. And I think that as wild as she is and has as many conspiracy theories and things that she has, she also randomly sometimes makes like a point where you're like, "Wait a minute..." It felt like how politicians feel. And we knew that the women were in D.C. when we saw them that blinking light under the White House in Season 2. But there were still three versions of what this could have been even up until this season and honestly, even after the writers' room. The writers did not know who was mind controlling them until they watched it. There were three people it could have been. I will never tell you who the other two are!
So you put enough seeds in the three seasons that could have led to two other people?
Was there ever a question of whether she would step down from the presidency? Because if they walk back into a world where she is president, it could be very different from one where she isn't.
[Laughs] No way. No way could I leave the world with that! I was like, "I love this idea that for 27 minutes you're going to think she's president, but then of course she can't [be]." She sabotages her own self through her doublespeak [and] hypocritical theories. I think her leaving like that feels like what she would do.
And I love we met Supreme Rameek in flashback this year, so you have more context for why she ends up resigning, but who knows? I think Dr. Haddassah is going to have a journey like anybody else, and I loved getting to see her origin story this year as the setup to her inevitable world takeover. And here's the thing: She's still super rich. It's very interesting because if you remember "Black Table Talk" in Season 2, she said, "I have made no money doing anything." The truth is she has never made any money working: She has owned this company and used all of this money to create this mind control device, which we have not seen.
I kept thinking the device has something to do with haircare because you have all of those great sketches throughout the seasons talking about various products.
You will see!
Going back to the seeds you planted for the three seasons leading up to the reveal, looking back on it some of them seem very obvious, such as Season 2 literally opening with Dr. Haddassah looking into the camera and talking about mind control. Were you ever concerned that you were giving away too much too soon?
Millstone has always been there, ever since "No Makeup," and so, I was like, "Is it too much Millstone?" We would talk with our production designers and say, "Are they seeing too much of it?" But no one ever caught it. No one caught the Angela Bassett coffee cup in "Bad Bitch Support Group" even though the sketch literally opens on a Millstone logo. There's places where it just really wasn't subtle. Even in Season 1, we were taking all the set design pieces or elements from sketches and putting them into other sketches so you know the world is linked somehow, but you don't know why.
In the "No Makeup" sketch, the Chris and Lachel wedding invitation is on the back of Gabrielle's desk. In "The Invisible Spy Part 2" sketch there's a Claude and the Boppers record label behind Nicole Byer in the record company. There's the "On My Own" poster from the Patti LaBelle sketch in the back of "Viral Proposal." We put the f---ing "On My Own" poster in "What Up, I'm Three" this season just to see if anybody would see it, and only one person did! They are everywhere, they are in every sketch, and if somebody really wants to waste their time, I will go into every sketch and point them out.
As cast members changed season over season, the women involved in the narrative piece changed slightly. Now that we know they were mind-controlled, what does that mean for the other women?
I think in the reality that we've seen those are the four she mind-controlled. And so, the ones who aren't there were figments of their imagination.
But Quinta did return for a finale episode sketch. Does that mean there is something special about her character in this world?
I knew where that was gonna be the whole time. So then you think about it: Did those other women exist? Well, clearly, Quinta did. That's not to say anything about Laci [Mosely]; that's to say the rules can be questioned. Dr. Haddassah said no one else existed, so why is Quinta in a sketch? We know Dr. Haddassah makes up everything she says — she pulls it out of her ass — so I think that Quinta's presence makes you question what you know, even when you learn the new things in the finale, and that's intentional. I think that everyone should question what this reality can be and what the rules of it are. And I think we can suffice it to say that whether it's Dr. Haddassah or anyone else on the show, we are determining our own reality. And so, is there a larger meaning to Quinta's sketch in the grand scheme of things? I think there's a larger meaning to all of these sketches in the grand scheme of things, and that's why they merge. There's a larger lesson in all of it that has to do with self-determination and also that questions what we know to be true.
Earlier in the season you cast Hannah Love Lanier to play Dr. Haddassah when she was still known as Hailey. Obviously you knew where her arc was going, and seeing her so confident so young, even as she was being bullied, helped set that up. How did you work with the young actor to capture all of that?
We had cold auditions and there were a couple that got really close, and our final actress was so passionate about the speech she had to give it the board, it was really fun. But on that day, I worked with her on the voice a little bit more and really got the cadence because to do that impression, even as an adult, is a hard thing to mimic. She was so impressive and so cute. We worked with her even when she was raising her hand to hire for the teacher, when she was calling her Hailey; we were like, "No, no, like you're really offended by her using your given name." She took great direction from our director Bridget Murphy Stokes and didn't [need] much coaching; she really got it. And I think it helps to have lots of these character sketches to look at in real time, but she was stellar.
Looking at Season 3 as a whole, what were some of the most meaningful sketches to you personally?
This season, I was excited to see sequels like "Funeral Ball" and "Res-herrection" and that kind of stuff because I'm always fascinated to see if the audience responds to the stories that evolve with our characters. I was curious to see what happened with Haddassah's origin story and how people feel bad for her. That did what I wanted it to do: I wanted you to be sympathetic to Dr. Haddassah because I knew what I was going to do with her and that she was going to be so manipulative, and you needed that story to understand her a little bit more and go, "Oh, that's terrible. Why are they making fun of her?" so that you don't immediately hate her for what she's done. And I don't think people will hate her.
I love "Res-herrection." I love that whole series. As a kid who grew up in church, I loved that we found a way to not offend the church audience and to actually have them laugh at stories that they take so seriously and that we have reverence for as well. I think that's just a coup, just because it's really hard to write and really hard to make, and I was so honored to take on the sequel and write it after Holly Walker's genius first iteration of the series.
This whole season has been so special to me. I really love "Funeral Ball," I really love "WTF Wrestling." I really love "What Up, I'm Three." It's so silly, and we got to experiment, and I love that the audience that has an appetite for these new characters as well as the recurring ones because they definitely tell us every week which ones they want to see again. I also know that I'm gonna get crucified for not having "Black Lady Courtroom" in the season, but there is a reason for that and it's not going anywhere!
I assumed it was scheduling if you couldn't get a guest star, like Yvette Nicole Brown, for the sketch.
No, we write well before we shoot. But there's no Chris this season, there's no Coral Reefs, there was no "Black Lady Courtroom" because if we had every character that we've done before, we would have no new characters! We only had six episodes, there's only so much we can do, and there were already a sh-- ton of recurring characters in the season. We hadn't seen Katy Campbell since Season 1, we hadn't seen Fatima the security guard since Season 1. So, every season we'll get as many of them in as we can, but the great thing is, now we know that they can meet. That's the exciting expansion of this world now because characters don't have to live in their own individual sketch universe. If Trinity and Chris and the Coral Reef gang are all in the same sketch, it's fine now in this new sketch multiverse, so I think people will be excited to know that their faces are not going anywhere.
It just means we need more episodes in Season 4. No pressure.
There's no pressure on me, that's up to HBO!
And finally, why was Ashley Subject No. 1?
[Laughs] Just to f--- with me. No, it was alphabetical. My character is so ridiculous and finds the most ridiculous things to get upset about, but that had no significance unfortunately. I wish it did.
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