Hulu's Ramy is back for a second season, with its titular star Ramy Youssef still searching for religious fulfillment while trying (and often failing) to do the right thing. But this season has expanded on one of the show's best elements: its standalone episodes.
The best standalone episodes deepen a show's world while giving us a contained narrative outside of the season's larger story. Sometimes, it can be a complete diversion from the plot (well-deployed in series like Girls), tone or genre (Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains the pinnacle of this), or center exclusively on a supporting character. Ramy takes the latter route, and it's doing it better than most.
This season sees Ramy pull further away from his family as he ingratiates himself to a new sheikh (Mahershala Ali), all in an attempt to treat major depression after returning from Egypt. He still has to learn that everything isn't about him, even when he means well — and the season reflects that by giving us four standalone episodes in succession. Focusing individually on Ramy's parents (Hiam Abbass and Amr Waked), his sister Dena (May Calamawy), and uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli), each episode is sensational and helps get to the heart of the series.
The show is at its cringe-inducing best when focusing on Ramy's mother Maysa. Abbass is the series' secret weapon, already delivering a highlight in the first season with her episode about becoming a Lyft driver and the immediate struggles that arise from her new job. Maysa finds her maternal nature at odds with American conceptions of customer service, unknowingly shoving her foot in her mouth repeatedly due to her own biases and language limitations. It is to Abbass's credit that we understand Maysa's wounded goodness when she says the wrong thing. In Season 2, Maysa still struggles to articulate all that nuance and good intention, brilliantly setting up her follow-up episode, "They," which continues her Lyft saga. As she finally prepares to achieve U.S. citizenship, Lyft locks her account down due to complaints from a rider. With Dena's help (and ensuing chastisement), Maysa deduces that it was likely a gender non-conforming passenger that she had unwittingly verbally accosted. In a misguided attempt to get her driver access back and apologize for her ignorance, Maysa stalks the passenger and confronts them to explain herself.
The episode carries on several intersectional conversations at once: the difficulty to understand nuance in a second language, the capacity for well-meaning people to do harm because they don't know better, and the difficult nature conflict resolution amid stark cultural differences. It's a bold (and hilarious) episode that gracefully allows Maysa to learn from being in the wrong, and prevents any of the complexity of its converging issues from being diminished. And it all ends with a banger anti-Trump monologue that caps Abbass's spectacular work with righteous anger.
Dena's episode, titled "3riana Grande," is much more quietly internal. While her standalone episode in the first season dealt with her virginity, this season's gets more specific about the push-and-pull between Dena's more westernized point of view and her family's. After receiving news about an important scholarship, Maysa admonishes her for posting on Facebook before praying in thanks. Later, due the constant pressures of school, Dena's hair begins to fall out. To hide this, she begins to wear a hijab (much to the delight of her family), and following old-wives-tale tips of rubbing garlic into her scalp. Even though she frequently pushes back against what she perceives as absurd in her parents' beliefs, the instinct privately still crops up as part of her identity. Tragically for Dena, she keeps all of this to herself without anyone to understand the precise collision of pressure that she is experiencing. Hers is the episode that perhaps most underlines how each of Ramy's characters cannot see the other's experience, and how they choose not to share it.
An even more solitary, secret conflict plays out for the father Farouk. His episode is titled "Frank", the western name he adopts professionally. Much of the episode is set in coffee shops as he secretly applies for jobs, with his family unaware that he has lost his job. Farouk annoys fellow patrons by taking phone calls and borrowing power cords, but it's hard not see their annoyance as overly intense given what he is going through alone. Yet all of his employment woes are contextualized through his promises to young Ramy of a better father-son connection than Farouk himself had. On top of the obvious, his journey to America was emotionally linked to trying to please a distant father with success. As much as his disappointments in Ramy are felt, it's Ramy absence (emotional and otherwise) that hurts more.
The season's biggest surprise narrative comes from what it has formerly presented as the most archetypal character. Often depicted spouting patriarchal or prejudicial certainties, Uncle Naseem is actually hiding behind that persona, as he is secretly gay. While that revelation might normally be a cliche, his self-titled episode is filled with enough specificity to avoid covering well-trod territory. He has a regular anonymous hook-up at his gym, but Naseem doesn't know how to operate on the deeper emotional level that his lover wants. Naseem's self-hatred manifests not in his straight-acting displays, but in bouts of binge-eating. Once again, the show is fueled by understanding people we (and its characters) think we know with a richer, continually more complicated sense of context.
The satisfaction derived from Ramy's standalone episodes are a credit first to the series' ability to create characters we care about, making each of these episodes special in its own way. When Ramy uses this narrative device, it teaches us more about its supporting characters while highlighting the extent of the main character's myopic view of his family. This also gives viewers a more varied, personal experience of the Muslim American experience, and with the collective challenges facing family members as they struggle to see each other's truths.
All ten Season 2 episodes of Ramy are now streaming on Hulu.
People are talking about Ramy in our forums. Join the conversation.
Chris Feil is a freelancer writer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His previous work can be found at Vulture, Vice, Paste, and The Film Experience. Follow him @chrisvfeil on Twitter.