Saturday, June 19, 2010
Treme: Wish Someone Would Care
“Hi, my name is Davis. Will you come to my party?”
Dear writers of Sunday’s Treme episode, "Wish Someone Would Care," thanks to you, I had to dig up all my old college notes on Kate Chopin. After rereading and reflecting, I regret to inform that Ms. Chopin’s heroines are still coming to bitter ends despite what Professor Creighton Bernette proclaims. Now I’m late filing this review AND I’m depressed. Just like Creighton’s student.
David Simon and George Pelecanos finally put Creighton Bernette into an appropriate forum for his speechifying - at work in front of the classroom! Here, as a teacher, Creighton gets to listen to cliches (“will this be on the test?”) and spout them (“Edna’s journey...she’s looking for truth.”) It was a relief to see Creighton doing something constructive, but the relief was short-lived. He assigns his class The Awakening, Louisiana native Kate Chopin's most famous novel. Chopin's main character, the unhappy Edna Pontellier, hovers over the episode, an episode framed by water, a story darkened so only the lights of the Abita Beer sign illuminate.
Edna serves as temptation for Creighton to succumb to his depression. It is a wonderfully ironic moment for the professor to dismiss his student’s depressed reaction to The Awakening (a perfectly justified reaction, by the way) when he too is despondent over the fate of his beloved New Orleans.
Depression, or variations on its theme: post-traumatic stress syndrome and post-Mardi Gras disorder, is a poignant motif for Treme’s penultimate episode, the ninth in a ten episode season, exceptionally short even in the contemporary truncated television schedule. In a discussion on Chopin themes, I would also pile on earlier work, e.g. a short story which appeared in Vogue magazine, 1893, called "The Father of Desiree’s Baby" or now it is simply "Desiree’s Baby." No relation to Antoine's girlfriend, Desiree, (or is it?)
On its surface, the story is a potboiler with a nifty little twist at the end, but underneath, it deals succinctly and effectively with issues of feminism and race relations. The Awakening may speak to Creighton, to his students’ bewilderment (or was that simply boredom?), but "Desiree’s Baby" supports Toni’s reproof to Creighton about his tolerance for the pointy hoods of the Night Parade: “That’s because you’re not from here. When you grow up with it, it has a whole other meaning.” That meaning is what causes the tension between Big Chief Albert and Lt. Colson in later scenes.
Edna’s dash for freedom from her 19th century conventional marriage is also manifested in characters other than Creighton. Thankfully, Annie makes a break for it, (and to the writers' credit, simple and unlikable Sonny becomes suddenly human and likable - suddenly Sonny); like Edna, Annie does not have a full grasp of her societal boundaries. In Annie’s case, her society consists of musicians and their cultural codes. She innocently thinks that asking Sonny for a musical separation will have no impact on their romantic relationship. Sax-playing Aurora Nealand, who has a temporary sofa for Annie to sleep on, sets her straight: Sonny has a point; a stupid one, but it’s still a point. If Annie and Sonny don't play music together, they aren’t together.
Janette, too, thinks of finding some release: a release right out of the city. She finds herself once again at the mercy of severe weather, discovering there are limits to the guerilla chef gigs. Later, Davis argues for Janette to stay put: ("there are just so many beautiful moments...”) Janette walking away in the pouring rain, her Bacchanal gig ruined, is one of them. The camera shot is gorgeous in its stark misery. I wonder if the writers had a Chopinesque despair in mind as our heroine, Janette, walks away into the water.
It is a beautiful moment but it’s not a life, as Janette points out. Edna rejects her 19th century Louisiana life; Janette rejects her 21st century one. As an old English major, I’m a sucker for these motifs.
In other storylines, there is a gravitas showdown between Clarke Peters as Chief Albert and David Morse as Lt. Colson: a leader of one gang (the police) warns the leader of another gang (the Indians) to keep things cool. Imagine someone calling David Morse "son." We take Colson’s word for it that there has been tensions between the Indians and the police on St. Joseph’s Day. This is not common knowledge outside Louisiana, like so much on Treme, research, research, research is needed. For more on St. Joseph's night and especially the strain between the Indians and the NOPD, please check out this New Yorker article.
Ladonna, now that she has found her brother, struggles with what to do with his body. Toni argues for an autopsy. The family vault has been badly damaged by Katrina. Antoine offers to help financially, keeping that old romantic story strong.
Davis can’t hear someone knocking because he’s playing “I Hear You Knocking” too loudly. Davis can't hear anyone knocking at any time in any format.
The episode ends as it begins - on the water: Edna Pontellier’s watery grave. Is it Creighton’s too? “I believe I will fulfill my obligations for today,” he remarks to a student. For today, what about after today? I’ve avoided spoilers and trailers for the next episode, so I don’t know (but I doubt) if Creighton really throws himself off the ferry. As loving as his goodbyes were to his family and as fervently he argued for the positives in Edna’s suicide, Creighton may be back on Sunday for the season finale. So far this series has not been the “kill off the main character” sort.
The whole ferry scene was very difficult to watch, the most distressing event of the series so far (even if it is a non-event and Goodman returns) because it is so reminiscent of the Spalding Gray suicide. It’s not just in the manner of superficial resemblance; the brilliant monologuist threw himself off the Staten Island Ferry after years of depression, Creighton could possibly be viewing suicide as Gray may have, as Edna did: a work of art.
British journalist Gaby Wood, in a portrait of Spalding Gray, interviewed noted neurologist Oliver Sacks about his treatment of Gray’s depression. Wood theorizes: “It's possible that,
rather than simply having come to the end of what he had to say, Gray saw the taking of his own life as part of what he had to say. 'On several occasions he talked about what he called "a creative suicide",' Sacks tells me. 'On one occasion, when he was being interviewed, he thought that the interview might be culminated with a "dramatic and creative suicide." I was at pains to say that he would be much more creative alive than dead.'”
In other words, Creighton, you certainly can't finish that book if you're dead.
The thought of suicide as “dramatic and creative,” as an alternative to the book Creighton is working on or pretending to work on, is the real theme of "Wish Someone Would Care.” The trouble with that title, or actually the exquisite irony of the title, is that people do care, Toni and Sofia, Spalding Gray’s wife and children, and many, many fans, but the caring is not enough. I don’t know if this parallel was intentional by the writers, but if it was or wasn’t, it is still brilliant. Did I mention what Oliver Sacks is perhaps best known for? His book Awakenings.
I have to go, I have a four hour lunch to attend, but before I go, here are some other items up for discussion:
What are we to think of the Texan, coming back to fix Ladonna’s roof? Is his motivation just a matter of pride - to truly show that Texans have a work ethic where the native New Orleanians don’t? Speaking of Miss Ladonna, she has the best line of the evening, one I was tempted to open the review with, but it is not family friendly so I decided against it: “We’re in Lent now, the legs are closed.” Is that a Simon or a Pelecanos bon mot?
As much as I love the Treme title song, it can be jarring when the teaser is a serious one, in this case, Annie and Sonny announcing their separate ways. Actress Lucia Micarelli does sadness and confusion very well; hopefully the character gets to stretch to happiness and clarity next year. In a season where lots of fans expected her to die, isn't it a twist if she survives and Creighton throws himself out the airlock?
Dan Attias, director, is a veteran of David Simon and George Pelecanos-penned The Wire episodes as well as many other top television dramas, including The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost, and Friday Night Lights. He directed my personal favorite Big Love episode - "Come, Ye Saints." So come all ye saints, see you at the season finale, "I'll Fly Away."
Originally published on blogcritics