A review of the Atlanta season finale coming up just as soon as we find out Ja Rule is just a dog…
On the one hand, “The Jacket” feels oddly muted as finale to such an exceptional debut season. Surely, a show with as great an opening year as this should go out with fireworks and/or huge laughs as a way to underline all that it achieved across the previous nine episodes.
On the other, “The Jacket” feels like the perfect way to close out Atlanta season 1. This was nearly always an understated show – even the most hilarious moments of an episode like “B.A.N.” tended to sneak up on you – and one whose dominant mode was to just hang out with Earn and the guys and observe what happened. Atlanta gonna Atlanta, and if that means wrapping up the season with one more shaggy dog story about the very thin line separating Earn from homeless poverty, the show has more than earned that right.
But “The Jacket” also works well as a finale because it suggests actual growth for Earn – emotionally more than financially at this stage, but still. There's a desperation to Earn in the premiere, and most of the early episodes suggested he was as eager to stay in Van's good graces because life would be simpler staying with her and their daughter as he was because of the affection he felt for mother and child. Here, Earn is still desperate, at one point even daring to walk up to cops immediately after they've shot and killed a man(*), just in the hopes of finding the key he thinks is in the guy's stolen jacket. But when he turns up at Van's apartment, he's not putting on a show, but genuinely being part of the family for a little while – yet willing to sleep in the storage unit(**) rather than push things further than they should probably go at this weird place in their relationship. And now that he's starting to make a little money via managing his cousin (and sticking with the day job at the airport), he may be using (or saving) it more wisely.
(*) There were moments this season where something violent happened, but presented in such a tall tale fashion where the series was all but inviting you to question the reality of it. What's remarkable about the shooting here is how the scene pivots from relaxed hang-out comedy – Darius wondering if 48 Hours works with an all-black cast, Paper Boi being invited to tour with a more famous rapper – to the stark reality of the shooting, and then back to deadpan as Earn starts asking about secret pockets, and Darius admits he swallowed two blunts when the cops turned up. (“Tonight's gonna be weird.”) That kind of tonal back-and-forth should be whiplash inducing, but here it's… not, in part because there's a certain matter-of-factness to both the hanging out and the sudden burst of violence. This is the weird, sad world in which Earn lives. Get used to it.
(**) Girls didn't invent the idea of a character with no better options sleeping in their own storage locker, but because Donald Glover did a brief stint there as Hannah's boyfriend, and because the two shows have similar low-fi aesthetics – albeit used to achieve very different tones – I couldn't help but think of the closing scene from “Sit-In.” (I will now excuse myself while the Internet yells at me for comparing Girls and Atlanta.)
Like a lot of the show's stories this season (trading the phone for the sword for the dog, Darius at the shooting range), “The Jacket” was a bunch of strange right and left turns on the way to an unexpected punchline. Sometimes this year, the punchlines could be explosive (the gun owners' reaction to Darius's poster, the invisible car gag from “The Club”), while in others they were more wistful. But it all feels like part of Earn's life, all feels like part of an incredible debut season of TV, and all feels like I'm going to be very impatient waiting for the second season. Doing only 10 episodes no doubt helps keep the quality this high, and allows Glover and company to experiment as much as they do, but I'm not quite ready to be without Paper Boi, you know?
As Alfred tells Earn late in the finale, “You did good, man.”
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org