"I heard you twice the first time." - Delmond
After a two-week hiatus, during which a real-time Gulf Coast catastrophe continues to dominate the news, Treme returned last night with “All On a Mardi Gras Day.” HBO offers a synopsis of each episode of Treme “in case you missed something.” Missed something? “All On a Mardi Gras Day” is such a spectacle of sight and sound, a veracious depiction of the real thing, not only does the viewer miss something, he or she misses most things. As you would were you a tourist standing on the corner of Canal and Basin.
Late in Treme’s previous episode, “Smoke My Peace Pipe,” the series took a turn toward the compelling storytelling we’ve come to expect from Team Simon and Overmyer. Toni and Ladonna drove into the complex of trailers that serve as makeshift morgues for the unburied, unclaimed casualties of Katrina, and from that moment on, Treme paid off its audience’s patience. Despite the title, there was no peace in the haunted stares of Ladonna contemplating her brother’s death, Toni witnessing Ladonna's pain and her own husband’s depression, and Creighton staring at his blank screen (a particularly disturbing scene for a writer). Even Davis, peering into the dark windows of his sometime lover’s failed restaurant, stops and suffers.
These emotional moments continue in "All On a Mardi Gras Day,” almost six months to the day from Katrina. It is an episode devoted to the exuberance of the parade, but still it finds moments of mournfulness. New Orleans is not the same since Katrina. Nor could it be.
Ladonna struggles to hold her composure while grieving for her brother. As big an admirer as I am of her work in Simon’s mini-series The Corner, it is truly remarkable what she is doing in Treme. Her asymmetric gaze looks into the abyss, but her body remains strong (for the most part, except when Antoine plays her like his musical instrument). She has responsibilities: her aging mother, her husband, her children, her business. She must stay determined, but how affecting were her bowed shoulders. With a lilt in my voice, I say "I feel an Emmy coming" for Ms. Alexander.
Creighton and Sofia stop by Lake Pontchartrain’s south coast to bear witness to the not-so-ancient ruins of the lake's venerable seafood restaurants. This has a poignancy that no one could have anticipated. The defeat of Jaeger’s, Fitzgerald’s, Bruning’s, and Sid-Mar’s has even more significance than when this episode was originally filmed. Sid-Mar’s reopened this past January in Metairie, a northern suburb of New Orleans, and now as we all know, Sid-Mar’s is facing yet another catastrophe - the ongoing BP disaster and the impact it will have on the Gulf seafood industry.
One of the reasons why Chef Janette and the struggles of her restaurant weigh in so heavily into Treme’s storyline is to illustrate the importance of food to the unique New Orleans culture. The oil spill looms large over the seafood in Janette’s guerilla cooking whether Janette knows it or not. The spill will affect oysters, shrimp, fish, all integral aspects to the New Orleans cuisine. And it is not just seafood. New Orleans was in such a delicate state of recovery as it stood. As Susan Spicer, a New Orleans chef and restaurateur who serves as a consultant and basis for the Janette character, says: “The normal little things that you take for granted were just that much harder. We still don't have enough grocery stores.”
Last night, Chief Albert’s Indians continued working on their costumes, but the Chief remains locked in after his punch-up with the NOPD. In the hands of other television writers, the Chief would have received a last-minute reprieve and been able to march on Mardi Gras. Not here in Simon’s world. This is what makes Simon and Overmyer such notable writers. No cliches or convention.
The Indian Chief remains behind bars and without drama. With his father absent, son Delmond has the opportunity, the freedom, to experience Mardi Gras without his father’s large shadow. Delmond's about face is set up rather obviously by his too-honest puzzlement: “Why not put all that time, energy, money into fixing up the place.” What Delmond manages to understand by the end of the episode, with the help of some sex and alcohol Mardi Gras style, is that time, energy, and money is being put into fixing up the place via the parades.
Toni, continuing her saintly ways, which now include knitting, (she is a domestic goddess as well as a civil rights deity,) gives us what I believe is the first indicator that Creighton is not a native New Orleanian whereas she is. In discussing the night parades, she shudders at the “antebellum” aspect of these particular parades: “masked riders on horseback with pointy hoods? HELLO!”
Yes, hello, Creighton. You have a writer’s studio on a professor’s salary. What do you have to be depressed about?! But I digress. Writer's block is no joking matter. Creighton defends the old line carnival stuff. Toni responds in one of the most telling dialogues of the episode, that the parades, even in their carpe diem fun, are emblematic of something much more complicated: “That’s because you’re not from here. When you grow up with it, it has a whole other meaning.” It would be a fascinating turn of events for Toni, the native daughter of New Orleans, to have to nurse her husband through his breakdown over the breakdown of his adopted city. Toni knits on.
In an episode where the characters are supposedly putting their lives on hold for the parade, there is plenty of development. Creighton slips further into ennui. In contrast, Annie begins to wake up to how crippling her relationship with Sonny is. Her platonic hook-up with Davis for the day was perfectly charming. Well, it was more Jean Lafitte than Prince Charming, but it does Davis good to play a different role. The mask suits him. Notice the interesting parallelism of Davis not realizing the slave trader history of Lafitte and Creighton not acknowledging that some of the old school carnivals, particularly the night parades in Toni's opinion, have a similar inglorious background.
Wednesday's hangover must now be faced. Lenten suffering commences. Thank God for St. Joseph's Day.
I have to go. I have to mix up some Jameson and Cokes, but before I leave, here are some items up for discussion:
Why does Toni continually insist on feeding Creighton to offset his depression? It’s understandable, but not in his best interest. Lots of media moments have been made of John Goodman’s girth, including some great roles, but the last thing he needs is gumbo. There were moments in “All On a Mardi Gras Day” when I thought that Creighton was suffering from a heart attack, or at least an severe episode of gout, rather than depression.
A further installment in the campaign for Jacques the sous chef here. It’s not professional, but my informal campaign to expand Jacques’ character continues, if not for the actor’s incredible performance, then for the singular viewpoint of a recent immigrant into the depleted city. When Davis asks Janette if she needs him for Mardi Gras, and she responds no, that she has Jacques, we cheer.
The love for a city: the distant camera shots of New Orleans at dawn Mardi Gras day are reminiscent of season two of The Wire’s Baltimore seen from its port waters. Beautiful and affecting cinematography by Ivan Strasburg. And speaking of The Wire, as I must every week, isn’t Antoine living Bunk’s dream life?
We’re less than two months away from the season premiere of Mad Men, time to point out that the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park was built in the late 1920s, near the site of the Milneburg entertainment district, by the family of Bryan Batt, Mad Men's Sal Romano. Here's hoping he returns for season four.
As always, I recommend reading Dave Walker’s “Treme Explained” for everything that cannot be taken in on one viewing of Treme. One pleasant fact I learned from Mr. Walker's column: the French Quarter apartment where Janette begins her Mardi Gras partying and does such a great Elvis impersonation belongs to director Anthony Hemingway. How fun is that? Thank you. Thank you very much.
Originally published on blogcritics.org