Perhaps what made Claws initially exciting is that it was difficult to know exactly what to expect from a dark comedy/crime drama set in a South Florida nail salon. So I went into the series (created by Eliot Laurence) expecting plenty of drama, hair pulling and the amazing scene presence that is and has always been Niecy Nash. Now six episodes in, what we’re actually getting is not only all that Claws promised to be (“a meditation on female badness”), but also much more in the form of truly groundbreaking family narratives. Just one of the many surprises in the series is the relationship between the main character Desna (Nash), and her younger, autistic brother Dean, played by the incredible Harold Perrineau.
To start, Desna is one of the most exciting TV characters to grace our screens in a long time. She’s as ambitious as she is dangerous, as inspiring as she is shocking. And in spite of watching her struggle to achieve her dreams of opening a new nail salon in the bougie neighborhood she knows she deserves, there is one emotion I’ve never felt watching her character rise and fall: pity. Desna is not a “strong, black woman.” She is here so that we don’t have to pretend to believe in that dangerous archetype anymore. Desna is here to be, in every sense of the word, her unapologetic self (though it’s important to note that she’s human and strong enough to apologize when necessary). And that was never more clear than in the latest episode, “Self-Portrait” where, at a pivotal nail competition, she got to define herself, for herself and for the rest of the world: “chaotic, complicated, but loving. Loved.”
It would have been all too easy to present Desna as a fascinating entrepreneur with… some interesting life/relationship choices. Had the series followed Desna as a single, somewhat unattached woman there would have been plenty to work with, as we’ve learned, through her relationship with Roller, and now a possible new boo, Gregory Ruval. It would have been even easier to write Desna as a single mother, dealing with baby daddy drama or something similarly juicy. But we’ve seen single black women and single black moms on TV (though more certainly wouldn’t disrupt the status quo at all). Rarely do we get to see a portrait of a black woman as a sister, and although Desna also takes on the role of caretaker here (so there is a somewhat maternal aspect to her performance), she and Dean are true siblings. They love and support each other, and they stress each other the hell out. I wondered, after the first episode, if Dean’s role would be somewhat limited in the series, since he’s so different from the other colorful characters populating the show, it’s been wonderful to see how the writers have taken care to develop his character.
Dean is living with adult autism and this obviously affects Desna’s day-to-day life, but Dean is also one of the most solid, dependable and ambitious people in her life. On the one hand, he works as one of the most important motivational forces for her—a constant reminder that she’s made promises to the people she loves. But Dean is also never played as a burden, and in the same way that we do not pity Desna, we do not pity Dean because he’s a fully-realized, complicated character with his own desires. Unlike the women at the salon, or Desna, Dean isn’t going so far as to involve himself in various illegal (and narcotic or sex-related) scams to reach his goals, but his goals are given screen time, and the message is that they are no less valid or interesting than the goings on at the nail salon. While Desna scrambles to make the money she hopes will eventually get them that waterfront property, Dean makes a plan to start weight training. On a lesser show this development would be mere fodder for easy laughs—and while it’s true that hearing him quote Arnold Schwarzenegger is funny enough—it says a lot about the series that Desna not only takes him seriously, but gets him a legitimate trainer.
Throughout these first six episodes, we’ve watched as Dean has supported and motivated Desna—even going so far as to help get her mind right with morning affirmations shortly after the gruesome death (or, presumed death) of her lover. So many of these small moments between them are really the heart of this dark show, where other characters are shooting each other, sabotaging each other and even getting kidnapped by ruthless villains wielding toys that make barn animal sounds (you’ll forget everything you thought you knew about Karreuche Tran, and applaud her amazingly absurdist work in this one scene). And so, it would have also been easy to lean into these warm, sibling moments to create some levity—but the Claws writers, instead, decided to bring Dean over to the dark side as well.
Episode five, aptly titled, “Bats**t,” reveals that Desna and Dean’s distinctive relationship is also complicated by the fact that they grew up together in foster care. Many foster children are lucky enough to find loving caretakers; I spent four years with such people until I was adopted, and although my foster parents weren’t perfect I knew nothing of the horrors that some of my foster siblings experienced, to say nothing of what my own siblings experienced in other homes. For this reason, I couldn’t help but champion the epic foster parent revenge plot that began to unfold when Desna and Dean learned that their former tormentors and abusers were alive and well, and selling real estate in Florida. There’s a beautiful moment where Desna is called by a neighbor because Dean has gotten himself in trouble; turns out he was just drawing graffiti on the billboard celebrating the two white people who had done far worse to him than Desna ever even knew. She begs him to come down before he gets hurt, but he’s not finished and pointedly asks, “Can I at least draw testicles on their faces?” How can she deny him this sweet, small revenge (though she does only permit him to draw the one testicle, for time’s sake)? Watching Dean draw the testicle was—yes, I’ll say it—a major highlight of TV this year, and a small win for all those foster kids who will never get to experience such public, artistic catharsis. (Though Dean wasn’t fully satisfied: “Why didn’t you let me draw the other testicle on their faces?!”) Of course, when Desna comes up with another plan for revenge against the Coombses, things go left, as they often do on this series. And we’ll have to wait and see what this means for Desna and Dean—and Dean’s budding career as a collage artist (that bloody Coombs piece he shows to Jen at the end of episode six is lovely).
Although it’s not a perfect series, there are countless other reasons to watch Claws, from the gorgeous New Orleans-shot settings, to ridiculous white patriarchs named Uncle Daddy and of course the stunning nail art that works as a palette cleanser in each episode. Niecy Nash’s name alone should have been enough to get you to tune in, and her work here proves that she remains endlessly watchable. But the duo of Desna and Dean must be celebrated, if only as a reminder that there are literally all types of black people and black relationships—and until we see renderings of all of them on TV, we’re not finished demanding more.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.