Review: ‘Atlanta’ finds ‘Value’ in Van in a different kind of episode

A review of tonight's Atlanta coming up just as soon as I fly a rent-a-PJ…

Atlanta so far has been flexible enough to become whatever it wants from week to week, so it's not surprising that we would get an episode like “Value,” in which Earn and Alfred barely appear (and Darius is absent altogether) while the focus is on a misadventure of Van's. Still, it's impressive how satisfying the episode turned out to be, what a good job it did changing our impression of Van, and feeling very much of a piece with previous outings even though the guys were barely in it.

Though the series has made clear that Earn is an unreliable clown whom Van is wise to keep at arm's length (though he has one of his rare responsible/paternal moments when she needs it most tonight), his POV is still the one that dominates, which means that she can't help but come across as yet another TV buzzkill girlfriend who may be right about the male lead but is no fun to be around. “Value” makes clear that she's more complicated than that, that she's capable of screwing up just as hugely as Earn – if anything, her drug test mishap is worse than anything he's done so far because she's the sole breadwinner in her household, and Earn's in no position to fully provide for their daughter anytime soon – but also that she really wishes she could throw caution to the wind like Earn or her globe-trotting friend Jayde, only to get a harsh reminder of why she can't.

And not that this has been a fast-paced, adrenaline-fused show, but it's still remarkable how long Donald Glover let that opening scene with Van and Jayde at the restaurant play out, and in such careful fashion. There's always a degree to which the Atlanta filmmaking style creates the illusion that we're eavesdropping on the characters, but that was particularly the case here as the two women feel each other out after some time apart, push each other's buttons (sometimes passive-aggressively, sometimes accidentally), and then occasionally land back on the reason they liked each other in the first place. A scene just overflowing with lovely little details, like the slow and sheepish way Jayde goes to Instagram her food after Van has given her a hard time about it.

And between the guilt over memories of their friendship, and whatever envy she feels over people who get to live more carefree existences, Van smokes up on a night when she really, really shouldn't have, and goes through a MacGyver level of gadgeteering to try to pass the drug test at school. The engineering with the diaper and the kitchen strainers is amusing in its own right, but the dark punchline to the story is even better: none of this was necessary, because the school system is too broke to actually do most of the drug testing, and if Van had kept silent, no one ever would have known. Why, it's almost enough to make someone put on whiteface and offer their best deranged Joker smile during in-school suspension, isn't it?

Until now, Van has been a minor enough character that Glover could have gotten away with never using her more than he has. (A friend who hadn't seen the episode yet responded to news that it was about Van by saying, “I”m not really sure I need that.”) But Van is important to Earn, and thus important to the show, so at some point she had to get more of a spotlight, and become more complicated than the woman who complains about our hero's constant mistakes. Excellent work by Glover and by Zazie Beetz, and I'm looking forward to seeing how (or if) I view her differently the next time she pops up in an episode that's back to being from Earn's point of view.

What did everybody else think?