A toast: "To doing what we love."
Sunday's episode of Treme had an especially poignant significance: it was written by the late David Mills who died of a brain aneurysm on a location shoot in March. The episode on its surface bristles with a theme of the quasi-military occupation of New Orleans after Katrina. Under the dark surface is an unintended homage to David Mills, a story of love — a love for city, a love of culture, a love for music, a love for another. "I need your love so badly/I love you oh so madly," sings Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) to the young street violinist, Annie.
"Right Place, Wrong Time," named for a Dr. John song from the '70s that even I, clueless New Yorker, am familiar with, takes place four months after Katrina, and crime and tempers begin to flare. The heavy-handed police and National Guard presence frustrates city residents: "Cops are wound tight. Guard is on edge." Characters Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) and Antoine both have physical run-ins with authority, Batiste getting the worst of it. You have to worry about how he's going to play his "bone" with a mouth as pummeled as it is. In the first of many references to the title, the military presence is in the right place but at the wrong time - the guard would have been much more useful four months prior - during "the greatest engineering failure in the history of the country," as co-creator David Simon calls it.
In other plotlines, Big Chief Lambreaux continues to gather up his tribe, and big prof Creighton Bernette discovers the joy of YouTube.
The women in Treme continue to have the most interesting stories. If David Simon took to heart that The Wire lacked compelling women characters, Treme would be evidence for his conversion. LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) cares for her grandmother, searches for her missing brother and runs after errant contractors. Her marriage, revealed to be across class lines in the episode, appears strong - a glimmer of hope among some dark stories that cross Treme. A seemingly sturdy marriage is something LaDonna has in common with another character: Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) - married to Creighton and the hardest working woman in law business.
Poor Toni. She runs here and there through Treme. Rescuing people from jail, searching for lost sons, arguing with idiotic authority figures, and pouring love and understanding onto her husband and daughter. So far, she is the manifestation of pure goodness. It may make her one-dimensional, pretty thankless too, but I, for one, am enjoying her character, especially after the shock of the Chief finding his Wild Man.
Another strong female character, Janette has her loves too. In one of the most compelling narratives, Janette struggles to hold on to her number one love — her restaurant. She tolerates her other love, one of convenience to be sure, Davis."Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Davis McAlary has to open up the expensive wine and piss away all my money," but we all know the real ending of that song.
Davis takes her out on a date from the windfall of his one day of work at the Bourbon Street hotel. The lovely scene when Davis pours her the last glass of wine from their bottle, upon seeing Janette's pain at the thought of losing her place of business, is one of pure tenderness and subtlety. It almost makes up for the awful song he composes.
There are fleeting sexual assignations: Antoine and the stripper from the bar, the boy and his girl in Big Chief's place, Annie? But the heart of "Right Place, Wrong Time" is in the marriages of LaDonna, Toni, the connection between Chief's tribe, Sonny's love for Annie, and Davis coming out of his egoism and thinking for a moment of someone else - Janette.
"This city loves its music. It don't love its musicians." This is a reiteration of last week's "Everyone loves New Orleans, [but] New Orleans people?" from Big Chief Lambeaux. Treme loves its people. It loves its musicians too. As to be expected, Dr. John figures prominently in the episode. "Right Place, Wrong Time" plays when Sonny is shopping for that perfect bottle of Beaujolais for his Annie. Dr. John himself sings his famous "My Indian Red," apologizing to the gangs and hoping the song is performed with the "most love and respect" for the tradition. Jazz pianist Tom McDermott appears as himself - a musician who is appreciated in the city because he is playing the right places. Trombone Shorty - James Andrews - also plays himself. And that brings me to one of my favorite scenes.
The argument on gentrification.
It's not a matter of black and white. Nothing is in David Simon's world. Davis' neighbors confront him on his un-neighborly ways. They turn out not be outsiders and are pretty knowledgeable on things Treme. Davis, in his most sanctimonious manner, refuses to listen. And he stumbles in trying to retrieve the name of Trombone Shorty's cousin (Glen David): "all those damned Andrews." It signifies that he may be right about the gay couple's taste in decorating - fairy lights and overly large glass ornaments in the courtyard - but he's not right in his assumptions about his community.
Another scene full of gray shades — the final scene. I would argue that no one was in the right place at any time throughout the entire episode until the very end when the Katrina tour bus pulls up in front of Chief Albert and his tribe, mourning their Wild Man. The bus bears witness to the devastation and loss, and in a remarkable moment of being in the right place at the wrong time because there is no right time, the bus driver apologizes and pulls away. But snapshots are taken before he does. We can’t criticize this because we, the audience, are an extension of that bus. The situation is unwinnable. It is a more important dichotomy than the foreshadowing argument between Davis and his gentrifying neighbors. The devastation and loss must be looked at but must not be at the same time. We are "trespassing through the narrative" as David Simon says in his open letter to New Orleans found here.
I've got a Big Chief, Big Chief, Big Chief of the Nation
Wild, wild creation
He won't bow down, down on the ground
Oh how I love to hear him call Indian Red
When I throw my net in the river
I will take only what I need
Just enough for me and my lover
I will take only what I need
— "My Indian Red" lyrics
Up for discussion:
It's a redeeming moment when Albert hires the young boy he earlier found hiding in his bar. Does this make up for the beating he gave the young thief — the one he was searching for in the obits?
How funny is the conversation between Davis and Creighton who is hovering over his little girl during her piano lesson: "Don't let your mind get ahead of you Davis. Piano lessons. Don't think about what she will or won't do. That has nothing to do with you." There is a lot of humor in Treme. Enough maybe to bring it the awards that The Wire should have received. And speaking of The Wire...
HBO is using actors from The Wire in their trailers to entice Wire fans into the Treme neighborhood (e.g. Anwan Glover), but I find Wire actors disconcerting during the show itself and have to work hard to distance Chief Albert from Lester Freamon and Antoine from Bunk. A few more episodes and more pouring over the Times-Picayune, and I know I shall be successful. That said, the appearance of Jim True-Frost in the trailers for next week is welcome news! Fresh from Fringe, True-Frost is a member of Chicago's famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company and best known for his role in The Wire as Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, a great math teacher, not so great police officer.
This article was first published at Blogcritics