‘Treme’ – ‘I’ll Fly Away’: Stormy weather

Senior Television Writer
06.20.10 67 Comments

HBO/Paul Schiraldi

“Treme” ended its first season tonight. I did a very long interview with co-creator David Simon about the show and some of the reaction to it, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as I call my shot…

“New Orleans needs you!” -Davis

“A lot of people gone. Those left, we gotta be about the day-to-day.” -LaDonna

On “The Wire,” David Simon was fond of a circular structure to his finales, where each season finale would recreate moments from that year’s premiere in slightly different ways, illustrating the show’s same-as-it-ever-was philosophy.

At first glance, “I’ll Fly Away” fits that mode. It’s again nearly 90 minutes to match the pilot. We close on Antoine again playfully arguing with the cabbie he had to stiff on his way to the second line parade, see Big Chief Lambreaux dance again, watch another funeral procession accompanied by the Treme Brass Band, put Davis back at the radio station so he can put on another rollicking montage song, etc.

But this season of “Treme” wasn’t a circle. It is not the story of how nothing ever changes. It’s a show about a world where everything has changed, and the extended flashback to what all our characters were doing as Katrina approached underlines how much has changed for most of them.

Most obviously, LaDonna still had a brother (who fits Janette and Jacques’ description as a solid, responsible guy) and Toni and Sofia still had a husband and father (whose indignation was at more curmudgeonly levels before the storm hit). Antoine lived on his own with a nice house and a car and everything that’s lacking in his new existence with Desiree and the baby out on the fringes of town. Janette had a house and a restaurant. Albert had a home, Sonny and Annie had each other, etc.

Not every change has been a result of the storm (if anything, the temporary post-Katrina lack of drugs in the city likely postponed some of the ugliness in Sonny and Annie’s relationship), but this place and its people are not the same that they were before the floods came. “I’ll Fly Away” makes clear that the changes will continue. Some will be good (Davis has matured, and now is providing shelter for Annie), some bad (Janette leaves town), but New Orleans and its citizens are in an unwanted, unstoppable state of transition. Very little is the same as it was, and if there were times this season where it seemed little was happening, the finale brings home just how much has actually happened over the past year in these people’s lives.

Because of what happened with Creighton last week, this is in many ways Toni’s episode, and Melissa Leo was superb in showing Toni coming to grips with the nightmare of her husband’s suicide. She’s clinging to every scrap of hope at the beginning (and the cops, while business-like, are decent enough to let her), then can’t anymore, and the horror overwhelms her. She tries to distract herself by talking work with a colleague, but when Creighton’s truck turns up, with an “I love you” note inside Creighton’s wallet, she has to finally, completely face the fact that this was no accident: Creighton chose a watery death over a life with her and Sofia. And what makes the moment sting, aside from Leo’s brilliance, is the way that Lt. Colson shows up and very kindly offers to let Toni have a few minutes alone with the truck to remove any evidence that would point towards suicide – allowing this woman to perpetrate a cover-up after she’s doggedly spent this entire season trying to expose a police cover-up and reveal truth to the world above all else.

Toni has the biggest moments (another one of which I’ll get to in a bit), but nearly everyone gets a moment to shine. Davis began the season as the show’s lightning rod character, and here he spends most of the running time giving Janette one perfect day, featuring the music of John Boutte(*), shrimp po’boys, a nap along the river and one damn suave move with the hotel room key at the place where they filmed “Pretty Baby.” It’s Davis using his love and knowledge of the city for good rather than evil, all winningly played by Steve Zahn. And Kim Dickens makes it clear throughout (particularly as Janette melts at the sounds coming out of Boutte’s mouth on her porch) that not an iota of the effort or the charm of this is being lost on Janette, but it’s unfortunately not enough. Much as she loves all the aspects of New Orleans that Davis shows her, the city has broken her, and she needs to get out, at least for a while. But if/when she returns, perhaps she’ll take him more seriously as someone other than an exasperating occasional sex buddy.

(*) Boutte performed at the Houston honkytonk Sonny traveled to in episode four, and of course also sings the series’ theme song.

Or perhaps he won’t be on the market for a Janette return. While the gods have been unkind to Janette and nearly everyone else in this cast, they reward Davis for his good deed by placing the angelic Annie at his doorstep. We’ve seen in their previous encounters that he’s very much attracted to her, but we also saw on Mardi Gras that he recognizes she could use some kindness more than another boyfriend, so there are a lot of possibilities within a Davis/Annie co-habitation situation. And for now, it gave us the priceless image of Davis looking back down the steps after Annie enters the house, as if he’s wondering, “Did this amazing thing that just happened actually just happen?”

Janette leaves town, and winds up sharing a flight with Delmond, who over the course of these last few months has made some peace with his father and the Indian thing. Albert misses Mardi Gras but gets to parade on St. Joseph’s – and I love how, as they did in the pilot, director Agnieszka Holland and her director of photography light things so the Big Chief’s feathers are often the only thing we can see against a black New Orleans night – and is rescued from a police beatdown(**) by Sgt. Thompson (the community relations officer who tried to negotiate a peaceful end to Albert’s Calliope protest). And in the end, in a very funny, underplayed scene between Clarke Peters and Rob Brown, father and son again bicker about the differences between old-school and new-school practitioners of “that Chinese shit,” and it’s clear that something fundamental has changed in the relationship. The words are the same, but the music’s different.

 (**) It’s interesting what perspective does for a show. “The Wire” was often told from the perspective of, and sympathetic to, the cops, so beatdowns of bad guys could often be played for laughs: this is just how things are done sometimes. On “Treme” so far, the cops are a minor presence (though I’m assuming/hoping David Morse is more of a presence next season), while we know and like Albert, so the possibility of him getting beat on the way he beat up the tool thief is something to dread.

So some characters end the season on bleak notes, and others on hopeful ones. And then there’s Antoine, still out there hustling, this time landing the best gig he’s had all season and squandering most of his paycheck at the card table. Wendell Pierce is such a charming man, and the real-life musicians he plays with so terrific, that I don’t regret any of the time we spent this year watching Antoine run in place. That said, I wouldn’t be unhappy if season two featured more of a distinct arc for the guy.

But even Antoine showed a little bit of progress throughout the year. He’s still living gig-to-gig, hand-to-mouth, but his connection to LaDonna allowed him to show some growth and selflessness as a family man. He gave her the money to help repair the family crypt(***), and he went to Daymo’s funeral, not because he got anything out of it but because he recognized it was the right thing to do – for the ex-wife who lost a brother and for the estranged sons who lost their uncle. And you see in his sons’ interaction with him in the second line that they see that little bit of change, and are grateful for it on this terrible day.

(***) And I loved how even in LaDonna’s grief, she was able to crack a joke at the expense of the cemetery director by listening to the sounds of her dead relatives spinning in their graves over the huge bill.

Now, we closed the series’ first episode with a parade at a funeral, but it was the first stage of that tradition: somber, stately and respectful of the body being taken to the cemetary. We close not with a mirror image of that, but with the second half of the tradition: the cathartic uptempo departure from the cemetary. It’s such a wonderful, largely dialogue-free scene full of gorgeous little moments: the boys running up to be with Antoine, and LaDonna letting the music wash over her as she starts to dance, and then Toni briefly smiling at the image of her friend coping with her grief, before being consumed once again with her own.

That brief sequence of the two women is “Treme” in a nutshell: joy and pain and music and great acting all mixed together.

One of the complaints some people had with this season, which Simon and I discussed in the interview, is the idea of “Treme” as a show with little to no story. And certainly, if you compared this to any season of “The Wire,” it would seem very lacking in plot. But I do believe that both shows qualify under Simon’s “novel for television” model. There are, after all, many different kinds of novels. Some are rich with incident, and some almost entirely about small moments in ordinary lives. “The Wire” belonged to one school, “Treme” to another. And I’m fine with that. There are times when I’m in the mood for a Richard Price urban crime epic. Then there are others where I just want to read a Richard Russo book about people in a small town where nothing seems to be happening – until I get to the end, and the emotional wallop makes me realize just how much happened, and how much it mattered to me that I got to experience it via such a confident, humanist storyteller.

“Treme” is not “The Wire 2: The Squeakquel,” but it never set out to be that. And in the end, I thought it was pretty damn great.

Some other thoughts:

  • I’m writing this review off a screener of the finale, which did not contain the tribute to David Mills that was set to run after the actual airing. I’m both eager to see it and dreading it; this season was the last thing he worked on, and that tribute feels like the final goodbye, you know?
  • And now we understand why Arnie was so eager to pay out of pocket to fix LaDonna’s roof: he was hustling to start up his own contracting business under Riley’s license. Very clever. Say this for Sonny: he brought this guy to New Orleans, and it looks like Arnie is smart and industrious enough to thrive in a place that desperately needs good contractors.
  • A very funny little moment: Davina enters the bar in trumph with all the supplies her dad sent her to get, only to be deflated when Albert immediately sends her out for more. A nicely-played beat by Edwina Findley.
  • Another perspective moment with the cops: we follow the two detectives out of the Burnette house as we hear Sofia’s anguished screams emerge from inside. They’re not bad guys, but this is just their job, while it’s Sofia’s whole existence that’s just been upended.
  • In the interview, Simon and I talked a bit about Sonny, and he suggested that perhaps this episode – with Sonny trashing his keyboard and again resorting to drugs – might be a low point for the character. I certainly hope so. I don’t need characters to be likable, but i do need them to be interesting, and Sonny was unfortunately not that this year.
  • Another excellent small touch: as the funeral is breaking up, we see LaDonna’s mother comforting her, when it’s been the other way around until now. Mothers aren’t supposed to bury their sons, but at the same time they are supposed to provide a shoulder for their daughters to cry on – and if that helps distract them from their own pain for a moment, so much the better.
  • For the final time this season, I again strongly endorse heading over to Dave Walker’s blog to read his footnotes for this episode.

What did everybody else think?

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