Content Warning: Brief mentions of addiction and child sex trafficking
At the center of the 2020 Starz drama series, P-Valley, is a strip club called the Pynk in a small Mississippi town called Chucalissa. Through the examination of its integral role in the town, the season explores the effect of religious morals on a fractured family relationship, and the destructive consequences of respectability politics.
The audience is introduced to the setting of the show, Chucalissa, Mississippi, and the Pynk through the point of view of a woman left homeless due to a flood, who rolls through to earn some money in a pole dancing competition. She starts out by using the alias Autumn Night. As she becomes more comfortable in Chucalissa, she starts to go by her real name, Hailey. After Hailey’s introduction as an outsider to the town, the show goes deeper into where each of the main characters are in their lives. The owner of the club, Uncle Clifford, is paying off the sheriff to turn a blind eye to the mayor’s new restrictions. Uncle Clifford has an affinity for the feminine, often donning a different bold wig and set of nails in each episode. She uses she/her pronouns and everyone that respects her uses them to refer to her as well. A veteran dancer, Mercedes, announces to Clifford that she’s finally doing her last dance after seven years. From here, the audience is given a look into their lives outside of the Pynk.
The parts of the first episode that take place during the day give the audience a look into the main character’s lives outside of the Pynk. Clifford gets rejected at a payday loan company which establishes the money problems that will plague her for the rest of the season. Mercedes coaches a dance team of high school girls during the day. In a conversation between her and her mom, it is revealed that she is saving the money she makes at the Pynk and hiding it in the building fund of her mom’s church. Mercedes intends to use this money to get a proper space for her team and to hold her own dance classes. This is the first showcase of the tensions between the two. While Mercedes’ mom is glad to take the money to improve her standing with the pastor and help the church, she disapproves of the way she makes it.
With the lives of several of the main characters riding on the Pynk and the financial stability they gain from it, the conflicting plot line of a real estate developer named Andre is introduced. Andre is in negotiations to demolish the Pynk and build a casino called Promised Land. This is further complicated with the mayor of Chucalissa also being in on the deal.
The rest of the season is a fight for the Pynk’s survival against the power of the establishment trying to extinguish it from existence.
A Complicated Family Dynamic and The Pursuit of Forgiveness
A running conflict for Mercedes is the tension in the relationship with her mom, Patrice, that stems from their history and her mother’s puritanical views. Through a series of conversations, we learn that when Mercedes was a child, Patrice was not only an addict but would sell her daughter’s body to get them money for food. Her mother has recently become a saved Christian and is now almost overcompensating to atone for what she did to her daughter. She not only attends church every Sunday (and encourages Mercedes to do the same) but she also leads the church choir and organizes the fundraiser for a new church building for the pastor, Pastor Gilfield. She even expresses a want to give her own sermon. While her strong faith may help to keep her sober and make better decisions, it has made her resent her daughter for the work she does at the Pynk. She doesn’t attempt to understand Mercedes’ situation but only casts judgement through an extreme application of Christian morality.
In the first episode, she comes to the club to ask Mercedes when she’s putting more money into the church fund but catches her during a pole dancing set. Afterwards, they have a fight in the parking lot of the Pynk in which she calls her a hoe and says she’s dishonoring God. Patrice falls to the ground in an over the top display of reverence and begs God to save Mercedes. The only thing that keeps her quiet and gets her to leave is when Mercedes gives her a large chunk of money that she earned that night. Patrice’s own interpretation of what a devout Christian looks like causes her to spit such hurtful words towards Mercedes. This not only has a deeply damaging effect on Mercedes’ mental wellbeing, but also what is left of their relationship.
Mercedes’ constant conflicting feelings towards her mother keeps her from cutting ties altogether even though she’s clearly using her. This deal that Mercedes and Patrice have, while mutually beneficial, also shows Patrice’s hypocrisy. Mercedes’ line of work is wildly lucrative, but is not seen as legitimate; so she needs somewhere safe to keep her money. Patrice hates that Mercedes strips at the Pynk, but is always more than willing to take all her stripping money because it is ultimately serving what she determines is a godly purpose. This is the excuse she uses to justify her actions throughout the season.
Patrice’s justification is so frequent that it almost reads as if she’s trying to reassure herself that her bad actions are ultimately good to soothe her guilty conscience. When divorced from her distorted view of religious dedication, Patrice’s actions are ultimately selfish. She takes money from her daughter to leverage power with the pastor so she can get a chance to preach. In the mid-season finale, Patrice takes both Mercedes’ money and the space that Mercedes was going to buy to convert into a dance class studio because she believed God called her to start her own church. This reads more as a power move than fulfillment of a godly calling. Through this she can not only spite Pastor Gilfield who believes that women have no place at the pulpit, but also her daughter who’s had the upper-hand in their deal because she was supplying the money and could withdraw it at any time.
As the season progresses, it’s clear that Patrice’s motivations are directly tied to her past. While outwardly she doesn’t show much love for Mercedes, she clearly still feels a strong sense of guilt for what she put her through. She seeks to ease this through throwing herself into Christianity, a religion with a heavy focus on the concept of forgiveness. Her focus on the traditional morals of her faith has caused her to push her daughter away instead of going to her for possible forgiveness and reconciliation. In episode 5 when Mercedes and Patrice are both in the same holding cell, she has a humbling moment in which she gets on her knees and asks for Mercedes’ forgiveness. Mercedes’ response is “Mama, you dead to me.” Even in a situation where she finally understands the wrongs she’s committed against her daughter, Mercedes believes that their relationship is beyond repairing.
When Mercedes finally posts bail thanks to Hailey, a coworker at the Pynk, she breaks down in her passenger seat in a rare moment of raw vulnerability. It’s clear that her relationship with her mother still causes her deep pain even though she was finally able to cut her off. Considering that Mercedes has been working at the Pynk for seven years, it can be estimated that her relationship with her mother has been strained for at least that long. Not only has she suffered at the hands of her mother when she was a child, but as an adult she is the target of even more hurt because of consistent verbal abuse. While it’s clear that she has this feeling of obligation that she should love her mom simply because of their blood relation, this is outweighed by the emotional toll this relationship has taken on her. Through the first half of the season, she is trying to get the money from her mom not only to put it towards her dream of a dance studio, but also to finally cut ties with her mother once and for all. The final straw is when her mother steals her money and the long term goal she was working for. This isn’t the way she had planned for it to turn out but with the money no longer in the picture, she feels secure in cutting her from her life.
Religion, family, forgiveness and redemption are themes seen all through this storyline. Patrice aims for redemption and forgiveness through religious devotion and a strict moral code. In a cruel case of hypocrisy, the actions she is seeking redemption and forgiveness for directly hurt Mercedes, her daughter who she has been aiming her severe moral judgement towards for years. As a direct result of this, Mercedes denies Patrice her forgiveness and ends up cutting her off for her own self-preservation.
In the second part of this piece, I’ll discuss the plot line surrounding Mayor Ruffin’s quest for respectability through the destruction of the Pynk and give my final thoughts.