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Black-ish is ripping apart its central couple. It’s messy but fascinating.

The ABC sitcom tackles the decidedly unfunny premise of marriages falling apart as Dre and Bow clash harder than ever.

Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Dre (Anthony Anderson) in “Blue Valentime”
Not exactly happy times at the Johnson house.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 29 through May 5 is “Blue Valentime,” the 22nd episode of season four of ABC’s Black-ish.

“Blue Valentime” is a jarring, purposely unfunny episode of a very funny sitcom. Every other scene does its level best to pull the rug out from under its viewers as it bounces between the joyous past and the bleak present, contrasting the hope that Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Dre (Anthony Anderson) once had with the pervasive exhaustion weighing them down now.

Black-ish is no stranger to weaving heavier topics into the fabric of its world. Over the course of four seasons, it’s tackled everything from the 2016 presidential election to police brutality to postpartum depression. But as written by Yamara Taylor, this episode tugs on a much longer thread that strikes at the core of what this show has been, and what it could be in the future.

As Bow and Dre drift further apart, the show is not only refusing to solve their problems by the time the credits roll but implying that they may not ever solve their problems. They may belong, as the previous episode “53 Percent” suggested, to the majority of married couples who eventually realize they can’t make the relationship work after all.

I don’t think I like “Blue Valentime” (even if for its cheesy title alone, let’s be honest). But given the sitcom parameters Black-ish is working within, and the story implications of its ending, I do respect the hell out of what it’s trying to do.

“Blue Valentime” uses editing and visual cues to convey its uncharacteristically bleak mood

It only takes a couple of minutes for “Blue Valentime” to make its intentions clear. The otherwise unremarkable cold open has Dre and Bow sending their kids off to visit Grandma as everyone laughs and jokes and gives each other a respectable amount of shit. But the second the door closes behind them, Dre and Bow visibly wilt.

As the grins slide off their faces, the scene’s color shifts from the show’s usual Technicolor buoyancy to a cooler, far more subdued tone. It’s not quite grayscale, but it might as well be given how palpable the couple’s collective misery is. In silence, Bow and Dre walk away from each other, forcing director Jonathan Groff to cut to a long shot in order to accommodate them both.

And that’s it. Not another word is said before a smash cut to the Black-ish title card, in a move as startling as it is smart. There’s no question from this point on that this is going to be a darker episode. In that moment, “Blue Valentime” establishes its bleak cred, preparing viewers for an unusual episode that — defying sitcom norms — may not have all the answers.

That disorienting color shift stays in place throughout the episode, emphasized by sporadic flashbacks that blossom in full color. Some of the flashbacks are straightforward. Tied to the current (disastrous) renovation of the Johnsons’ kitchen, they show Dre and Bow as young, hopeful new parents, starry-eyed at the possibility of the big new home that is now serving as a stark reminder of their dysfunction.

Quickly enough, however, the flashbacks get more pointed, more explanatory about how Dre and Bow went from feeling blissfully in love to unhappily tethered to each other. At a few points, these glimpses of the past start to bleed over into the episode’s present, as current day Dre and Bow dig into yet another argument. The transitions get a little messier, with past disagreements transitioning into voiceover to match the arguments’ overlapping points.

In these moments, “Blue Valentime” proves exactly why Black-ish is the right show to take on this storyline.

Not many sitcoms could — or would — tease its central couple separating. Black-ish is different.

Even though “53 Percent” teased as much the week before, it’s still something of a shock when “Blue Valentime” ends with Dre and Bow agreeing that they need some space. Even if the conflicts Bow and Dre are hashing out are ones they’ve had from the start, they’re the heads of a loving family that makes a point of talking out its differences no matter what. What makes this the potential end-all, be-all? What gives?

Part of what “Blue Valentime” suggests is that things can be good up until they’re not. And Black-ish has never been afraid to leave uncomfortable questions open-ended; even if its episodes devoted to tough issues end on a hopeful note, it’s rarely a conclusive one. This is a show that has always tried to represent the world’s gray areas, and that means acknowledging that some bad things are always going to be bad no matter how hard you try.

Still: It’s a gutsy move for a show to examine the couple at its center and ask if maybe, just maybe, the differences that made them a compelling pairing in the first place might be the ones that keep them from being good for each other forever. Black-ish spent almost four seasons convincing its audience that Dre and Bow’s conflicting points of view on the world is one of the main reasons their union works. Now, as they care for an unexpected new baby and reevaluate their relationship, that dynamic is turned completely on its head. It’s a disorienting move, and judging by the episode’s pointed formatting trickery, the show knows it.

If nothing else, Ross and Anderson are up to the challenge. They bring out Dre and Bow’s original chemistry in the flashbacks, making it clear exactly how much they’ve lost along the way. In the present day, Anderson taps into Dre’s performative enthusiasm and simmering resentment to make his frustration painfully palpable. Ross — who directed “53 Percent” — tamps down Bow’s intrinsic joyful approach to life by becoming the human embodiment of a sigh, her shoulders slumped and face resigned.

But Taylor’s script doesn’t just relate how Dre and Bow have drifted apart. It shows the cumulative devastation that a long-term couple can build up by choosing to highlight small moments that seem insignificant, until Dre or Bow reveals how much they did, in fact, matter. The best and starkest flashback shows Dre trying to surprise Bow in the earliest days of their relationship with a flirty scavenger hunt that leads to a single rose — a gesture he thought would be romantic but that she finds hilarious. They never talked about it, but as they now look around the wreckage of their relationship and wonder where it went wrong, it’s just one crossed signal of many revealing ones.

Not all hope is lost, though. One flashback shows Dre as a kid finding his mother (Jenifer Lewis) sleeping on the couch and getting a lesson in how falling in love can be great but also can lead to some hard, possibly heartbreaking work. But the key to a great marriage, his mother insists, is that the people involved have to keep falling in love with each other, keep choosing each other. At the very least, she says, they have to decide that the other is worth the trouble of trying.

There’s a brief moment in “Blue Valentime” when it seems like this memory might trigger the end of this detente — but it doesn’t. With two episodes to go before the show goes on hiatus, it seems unlikely that Black-ish would keep Dre and Bow separated for long. Then again, Black-ish is having enough success breaking the rules recently that doing so would maybe make more sense than not.

The Black-ish season four finale airs Tuesday, May 8, at 9 pm on ABC. Episodes are currently available to stream on Hulu.

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