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‘Abbott Elementary’ Recap: Season 3, Episode 6

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Abbott Elementary

Willard R. Abbott

Season 3

Episode 6

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Gilles Mingasson/Disney

Following a weeklong hiatus, Abbott Elementary snuck in a great new installment on Oscars Sunday before returning to its regular showtime this week. It would have been even more iconic if Bradley Cooper, who is now on the list of star-studded Abbott guest stars, had nabbed the Best Actor award. Still, it’s a sweet cameo nonetheless, and the Oppenheimer jokes are now particularly ironic considering Cillian Murphy’s win. Bradley kicks off the episode as Melissa’s student Khalil’s contribution to show-and-tell. Khalil ran into Bradley before school (Bradley loves the hoagies from the deli across the street from Abbott), and though he didn’t recognize the actor, he figured he had to be famous if so many people were trying to take a picture with him. The rest of Melissa’s class is equally unimpressed — one student asks skeptically, “If you’re famous, are you in Spider-Man?,” though he earned some clout points when he shared that he was in Guardians of the Galaxy — but the teachers bask in the actor’s superstardom.

Cooper isn’t the only special surprise awaiting the Abbott teachers. June Diane Raphael returns as Elizabeth Washington, the district’s chief education officer. You may remember her from last season when, in a manic display of diversity, she bestowed Gregory with the Educator of the Year award. She left such an impression on Greg during her last visit that he describes her as his sleep-paralysis demon when she shows up. Along with Janine and another district employee named Joan, Elizabeth announces that the city will designate Abbott as a historical landmark, as its namesake, Willard R. Abbott, used the building as a bomb shelter. The students are about as interested in the historic designation as they were in Bradley Cooper. It’s not until Ava assures them the plaque ceremony won’t be “old and dusty” because there will be a pre-party with pizza that the students begin to cheer.

Like their students, our favorite duo, Melissa and Barbara, are also indifferent to the significance of Abbott becoming a historic landmark, considering it a meaningless accolade. This reaction starkly contrasts with Janine’s; she is practically oozing with excitement. During the pizza-party celebration, Janine beams with pride and Jacob wears an “I <3 Willard R. Abbott” T-shirt. But who exactly even is Willard R. Abbott? We find out that he was a city planner in Philadelphia, but Willard was also a white man with a considerable amount of influence in the 20th century, meaning the probability of him being racist is about the same as the probability that Jacob got in his car and excessively hit his vape after the ceremony. An audience member blurts this fact out during Elizabeth and Janine’s speech before he and several other audience members take their jackets off to reveal shirts hilariously emblazoned with the tongue-in-cheek acronym B.L.A.C.K.S., which stands for “Building Love and Creating Kids Safety.” Jacob quickly zips his jacket to cover his T-shirt before the staff enters crisis mode.

The B.L.A.C.K.S. inform the staff that Willard wasn’t just a city planner but an enforcer of geographical segregation through redlining Philadelphia. When expressing her impartial attitude to the historic designation, Melissa said, “This is Philadelphia. You can’t hock a loogie without hitting something historic around.” Well, I’d like to take it further and say you’ll probably hit a landmark for someone who was racist or was complacent in the racist fabric of this country (if there’s even a difference). What’s actually surprising is that no one did a background check on Willard before deciding to broadcast that the school was named after him. Actually, Joan already knew but didn’t say anything, saying it’s “the nature of history — not all of it is good,” which tracks because a lot of white people hold that same flippant “We can’t change the past” attitude about their violent history.

Once the racist cat is out of the bag, everyone jumps to frantically problem-solve, but Elizabeth and Joan can’t be bothered with such a scenario, so they leave the predicament up to the teachers. Barbara and Melissa are ready to forget the whole ordeal and move on, saying that at least the kids got pizza. But Janine can’t stand for Abbott to lose its plaque and remain named after a racist, so she is determined to find a solution. Elizabeth declares they’re out of luck, sardonically saying the only way would be to find another prominent Willard R. Abbott to claim the school is named after. Janine and Ava jump at this chance to rectify the situation and do some research. Jacob, Gregory, and Janine comb through any record for a Willard R. Abbott but find nothing of note.

As they search, the show returns to Janine and Gregory’s will-they, won’t-they dynamic when Jacob purposefully leaves the “handsome moth” to the “cutie-patootie flame,” excusing himself so they can bond. Some fans have expressed growing tired of the story line, but I reiterate my sentiment from last season: Jim and Pam’s love story in The Office wouldn’t have hit the way it did without the slow burn, so we need to give Janine and Gregory some time to cook. The hopeless romantic in me loves their banter, and if it only shows up as friendship with a hint of yearning, that is fine with me. With Jacob gone, Janine catches Gregory up on her latest project at her fellowship, which will be a librarian program. Gregory is, of course, in awe of Janine’s ambition with his adoration written all over his face. Jacob bursts back into the room, suggesting to look up “Willy Abbott” for more results, which successfully brings them to Willard R. Abbott V, a direct descendant of the OG Willard.

From what they find, Willy’s reputation seems squeaky clean and uncancelable; he’s an environmental philanthropist who works to combat misinformation. Janine invites Willy to the plaque ceremony, and the staff tests him with random questions, like having him fill in the blank after the phrase “Women are …” and demanding to know where he was on January 6 (this was a great contribution from Jacob), to make sure he’s truly not racist. He passes the test, but sadly it turns out he’s something even more bizarre: a flat-Earther. At least racists can claim society indoctrinated them, but Willy is off the deep end in terms of conspiracy theories and the misinformation he claims to condemn; his idea of “misinformation” is probably facts and science. His speech begins impressively as he denounces his ancestor’s racist legacy and vows to use his wealth to right the wrongs of the past, specifically through environmental conservation. Willy proclaims that “there is no place for racism from one edge of the Earth all the way to the other,” leading to a tangent about Earth’s flatness, the myth of gravity, and, to Mr. Johnson’s glee, the fact that the moon is a spaceship.

Gregory and Jacob rush Willy off the stage while Elizabeth and Joan escape as quickly as possible. Janine is devastated that after all of her efforts, Abbott won’t be formally recognized as a special place. Barbara urges Janine to focus on what makes the school special for her individually, reminding her that a plaque could never represent what the school really means to the students and staff. This sparks a genius idea in Janine: She remembers stumbling on a historic photograph of Black teachers at Abbott while they were searching for a new Willard. Janine, Gregory, and Jacob visit the district archives to find out more, learning that shortly after John Quincy Allen became Philadelphia’s first Black public-school teacher, Abbott hired a whole cohort of Black teachers, continuing Allen’s legacy. Janine hangs up a picture of this group of trailblazers, reminding the students of the adversity and determination of those who made Abbott what it is today. And just like that, Abbott found its history.

• Ava’s doomsday-prepping cracks me up. When she said she spent the discretionary money from the historical designation on zip ties, beans, and birth control, I lost it. But it does beg the question, Does Ava need birth control for now or for future apocalypse rendezvous? If it’s for the apocalypse, I commend her dedication to not become someone who repopulates Earth. I get her; the last thing I’d want while navigating the end of humanity would be a pregnancy.

• I think Raphael is hilarious. She was outstanding last season, and it’s good to see her again. Her best line delivery in this episode is when she admits to joking about finding a new Willard. Ava says, “So racism is a laughing matter?,” forcing Elizabeth to look directly into the camera and say “Of course not” through pursed lips.

And finally, here are my favorite lines:

• Jacob, after the Willard R. Abbott racist reveal: “Well, now we know what the R stands for.”

• Melissa, when Joan says Rocky is a fictional character: “How about we throw you down those stairs and you can see how fictional they feel?”

• Janine: “I miss Abbott’s ambience. Our dirt has a certain Janine sais quoi.”

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