A belated review of last week’s Atlanta coming up just as soon as I Twitter or Blogspot my thoughts…
“My father used to say, ‘Great things come from great pain.’” -Teddy Perkins
I watched “Teddy Perkins” for the first time in sub-optimal conditions: on my phone, during a turbulent cross-country flight at the end of a fun but exhausting family vacation. But such was the spell the episode cast over me that the bumps, the cramped seating, recycled air, fatigue, and size of the screen ceased to matter. For the duration, I was trapped in that haunted house right alongside Darius, pondering what to make of the Perkins/Hope brothers (or whether there even were two different brothers), hoping to just make it out of that nightmare in one piece.
What an incredible episode of television this was, with Donald Glover’s script (and mesmerizing, barely-recognizable performance as the title character) and Hiro Murai’s direction deftly using horror movie tropes in service of a riff on the lives of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and other black musical icons who suffered great personal loss on the way to recording some of the greatest songs ever made — and the crucial thematic question of whether the songs were only possible because of the losses.
Get Out was released a few months after Atlanta season one ended, and if it didn’t lead to more of Lakeith Stanfield — about my only season two complaint to this point was the relative lack of Darius — it may have inspired Glover to try for his own nightmare tale of a reserved young black man who wanders into a palatial home where black men are turning white. (There’s even a moment where Darius is stunned by an unexpected camera flash, though the result is quite different than what happens to Stanfield’s character in the film.) But beyond those broadest of strokes, “Teddy Perkins” is its own peculiar, riveting creature.
The object that brings Darius into contact with Teddy is a piano he hopes to acquire, despite not really playing, both because it’s free and because he likes the look of the multi-colored keys in the photo. Very little in this life is free, though, and Darius nearly pays for the piano with his life. As for those colored keys he keeps mentioning, they turn out not to be factory-made, but crudely painted by hand — the colors laying over the white ivories an inverse, equally unnatural-looking analogue to the bleached skin and surgically transformed features of Teddy Perkins himself.
The makeup job on Glover is meant to evoke Jackson — the deep chin cleft in particular — and the talk of Teddy’s reclusive brother Benny Hope suffering from a skin condition recalls Jackson’s unconvincing attempts to insist his transformed appearance was a result of suffering from vitiligo. Darius assumes the skin condition is fake, in part because he assumes that Teddy himself is fake — an assumed third-person identity that Benny uses to create some distance from the horrors he suffered at the hands of his abusive stage father, and from the crushing loneliness he feels after a life where he was a peer of artists like Keith Jarrett, Al Jarreau and Ahmad Jamal — and when we finally meet the real Benny, he’s hidden behind so many bandages and baggy articles of clothing (another late-in-life Jackson image) that there’s no way to tell what he looks like underneath, or why.
Perhaps Benny is meant to embody all the lies that Teddy tells about himself, and that MJ once did. Or perhaps he’s not meant to be a Jackson stand-in at all, but a representative of the episode’s other crucial artist: Stevie Wonder, whose stage name is similar to Benny Hope’s. Maybe Teddy tried to run away from his own blackness, convinced that transforming his face so radically would make him more acceptable to the white people whose approval their father beat them into chasing, while Benny’s face slipped away without him trying, or wanting it to. (Stevie only embraced his heritage more and more as his career went on.) We don’t know, because we only meet the brothers briefly at the end of their sad and tortured lives, and we only know what unreliable narrator Teddy tells Darius as part of a plot to murder his more famous and talented brother (or, if we’re feeling more charitable towards this damaged ghoul, to euthanize a sibling who’s badly hurting) and blame it on a stranger — little realizing that Benny is prepared to die without such elaborate theatrics. We can only surmise based on what we see and hear, and on the legends of Jackson, Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the other singers directly namechecked or indirectly referenced throughout this dense and strange story.
But we can make some guesses, particularly about the philosophical debate at the heart of it.
Can great art come from great pain? Absolutely. History is littered with stories of tortured singers, writers, comedians, actors, and more, who channeled their personal agony into work that’s universal in its power. But does it have to come from that place? Teddy might think so, based on his own abused experience, but it’s telling that the episode pairs him with Darius rather than Earn or Al. Some of this is narrative and logistic convenience — Al would lose patience in about 30 seconds and walk away, while using Earn would have involved a lot of body double work and special effects that aren’t Atlanta‘s stock in trade — but Darius is also presented as the wisest and most self-aware of the trio. He seems strange and lost in his own head at first, but there’s a recognizable logic to everything he does, and when he and another character disagree, he’s usually presented as the one who’s right. So when he talks to Teddy about Stevie Wonder, and how Stevie’s music came from joy rather than suffering, even considering Stevie’s blindness, it’s easy to read this as the episode’s own take on the question.
There’s plenty of pain in Atlanta, too. A lot of “Helen,” for instance, was about Van’s own difficulty with feeling trapped between two cultures, rather than being able to enjoy sharing in both. But there’s also plenty of playfulness and joy, even in the midst of an incredibly dark and ultimately gory episode like this one. “Teddy Perkins” is mostly a tragedy, but one that has room for references to Sammy Sosa’s hat, and where Teddy’s rundown of infamous abusive fathers somehow places Emilio Estevez’s dad from The Breakfast Club on a continuum with Joe Jackson and Marvin Gaye Sr.(*)
(*) Though if you’re going to cite a bad dad from that movie, shouldn’t it be John Bender’s?
And if you don’t trust the wisdom of Darius himself, then perhaps you can look at the choice of whose music bookends the episode: Stevie, not Michael. (Yes, the latter song is about evil, but it’s about Stevie struggling to understand the concept, since it seems so foreign to him.)
“Teddy Perkins” is not a joyful episode of Atlanta, given how deliberately unsettling it is, and how violently it ends. (Though it could be darker still, and conclude with Darius somehow being blamed for what the siblings do to one another.) But once it concluded and that initial spell was broken, joy was the strongest emotion I felt from it: that an episode of any show could be so hypnotic, so confident, and so surprising, even by the very high and versatile standards Atlanta has previously set for itself.
I’m back from vacation, with literally dozens of hours of television I need to get to, and all I want is to watch “Teddy Perkins” again — assuming I can work up the nerve to face it a second time.
Some other thoughts:
* Actually, I take back what I said earlier about Alfred just walking out of the house. As we saw in the previous episode (a balls-out comedy affair of the sort that shouldn’t make sense airing consecutively with “Teddy Perkins,” but does), he would probably protest and scowl a lot, but find himself hustled by Teddy in the same way he was by Bibby the barber.
* The episode also presents a more buttoned-down and straightforward version of Darius than we usually see, but there’s a trace of his usual prankster self in the opening bit about him transforming a “Southern Made” hat with the Confederate battle flag into one that reads “U Mad.”
* God, that ostrich egg scene went on for what felt like forever, didn’t it? Or maybe that was one time when the flight’s turbulence bled into what I was watching.
* In my review of the season’s relatively normal first three episodes, I acknowledged that things could get weird in a hurry, and perhaps an upcoming episode “could involve Darius smoking up with alien invaders.” This wasn’t exactly that, but it was in the ballpark.
What did everybody else think?