A review of tonight’s Atlanta coming up just as soon as I have more tongue confidence…
“I don’t want to keep waiting around for you.” –Van
“And I don’t want you to waste any more of your time.” –Earn
Late in “Helen,” Van lays her cards on the table about what she desires from Earn: “I want to be in a committed relationship where I’m valued as a human being and not as an accessory you can fuck.” Atlanta has never treated her this way, even when she appears only briefly in a story, but there have thus far only been one or two episodes per season that have been about Van, whether in the context of her relationship with Earn or not. The show doesn’t exactly take his side — for much of this installment, he’s every bit the petulant baby she says he is — but as a show told primarily from his point of view, and that’s primarily about his interactions with Al and Darius, it often feels like Atlanta doesn’t have any more room for Van than Earn does.
Fortunately, when we get a Van spotlight like last season’s “Value,” it tends to be great, and “Helen” was no exception. The episode, written by Taofik Kolade and directed by Amy Seimetz, deftly managed to show things from the perspective of both halves of the couple on a trip where that relationship apparently ceases to be. Often, we’re seeing the festival from Earn’s point of view, the customs and contests only half-explained so that it feels as foreign and baffling to him as it does to us. But at times when Van speaks German(*), we get subtitles so we know what Earn doesn’t, and we also follow her on her own as she speaks with her childhood friend Christina about whether she “chose black” when they were younger, and with the bartender about the nature of love and her relationship with Earn.
(*) Zazie Beetz, like Van, is half-German, and speaks both languages fluently.
Seimetz stages the latter scene beautifully so that it takes a very long time to realize Earn has been walking behind them without their notice, and then suddenly it’s all you can pay attention to — Earn’s presence subsuming the conversation for us in the same way he has taken over more of Van’s emotional life than she’s comfortable with if he’s not willing to commit to something serious. Their roles have completely reversed from last season, where now he’s the one supporting her, and seemingly coming in and out of her bed as he pleases (even if he’s willing, as demonstrated in the opening scene, to please her), rather than her calling the shots, and she’s understandably chafing at her diminished control over her own life, and at other people looking down on her as Earn’s baby mama, rather than a human being who has value and interests of her own.
Like many of the best Atlanta episodes, “Helen” alternates between rawness and surreality, and occasionally lets the two intersect, like the moment when a mortified partygoer assumes Earn is a white guy in convincing blackface until she grabs hold of his cheek. Van burns down several relationships over the course of the half hour, no longer having patience for any of it — of being too black for Christina, and not black enough for Earn — yet there are still moments that seem to border on magic, particularly the monster looming over Van in the alley (appearing as abruptly as Earn did moments before, not that she noticed) and collapsing into an empty costume that somehow has her missing cell phone.
That the episode concludes with Van going all Serena Williams on Earn at ping-pong, thus winning the right to only have to see him to discuss money and their daughter, could perhaps make it even harder for her to pop up in future episodes. She’ll never be entirely out of his life because of Lottie, and we’ve seen her push him away before and take him back later, so I’m sure this isn’t the last of Van(*).
(*) Production of season two overlapped a bit with the making of Deadpool 2, so Van’s minimal presence in the early episodes and the split with Earn here could also be for practical reasons to let Beetz go off and do the movie.
But the importance of episodes like this — beyond just being great half-hours of TV that feel so intimate, it’s almost like you’re dancing to polka music along with all of Van’s old pals — is how they bring Van’s inner life out into the open, so that when she pops up as a supporting character in an episode like last week’s “Money Bag Shawty,” she doesn’t just feel like an accessory, but like a woman who’s going along on one of Earn’s adventures for her own reasons, and not because she really cares about being at the strip club. The series is plenty fantastic when Van’s not around, but “Helen” is a reminder of how much value she brings to things, even if Earn can’t quite see it.
What did everybody else think?