A review of the “Tremé” season finale coming up just as soon as I like metal and sea shanties…
“When the rest of the world doesn’t give a fuck, what actually helps?” -Terry
“Tremé” has lasted through three seasons, and we’ll get an abbreviated fourth, yet David Simon and Eric Overmyer didn’t know the future at the time they co-wrote “Tipitina.” So even more than the two previous season finales, this one feels designed with an In Case of Cancellation, Break Glass philosophy. It’s not so much that anyone’s story comes to a definitive close, because each character lands in a place where there should be plenty to tell over the remaining five episodes, but all of them wind up in places where their stories could end – some for good, some for bad, most in between – if HBO hadn’t ordered additional episodes.
What really drove home that sense of culmination wasn’t any one individual story, but the extended sequence at the party to raise money for LaDonna’s bar, which is as close as the show has ever come to putting the full cast in the same room at the same time. Not everybody’s there (no Toni or Terry, for instance), but nearly all of them are, some of them interacting with each other for the first time in the series, like Davis introducing himself to LaDonna in the most Davis way possible by reminding her of the time she kicked him out of the bar. And though the tracking shot of everyone at the party was neither as long (a little under 2 minutes) nor as complex as the famous ones in “Children of Men” or “Goodfellas” or “The Player,” it was evocative of another classic Robert Altman movie, “Nashville.” That film was also about a community defined by its music, featuring a collection of stories about people who were sometimes connected by chance, sometimes only by geography and, like all Altman films (and this one is far and away the best), its interest in plot is tangential at best. That scene, and that shot, felt like the culmination of everything “Tremé” has been doing for the last three years, and if we might have liked to have seen this many characters together before, we can’t say the show didn’t earn the moment where it finally happened. That is a case of a show building something, brick by brick, and it paying off in a sequence that’s memorable not because anything incredibly dramatic happens (though who knows what happens when Albert gives LaDonna that ride home?), but simply because all the characters have survived everything to come to this moment. Janette returned to New Orleans. Sonny got on the wagon (twice). LaDonna came back from her rape, just as she will from the (as it turns out, unnecessary) torching of Gigi’s. Sometimes, you just want to get together with your friends, your family, your charming acquaintances like Nelson, and even the guy who messed up your mirror and soap dispenser, and have a party to celebrate that, by God, you are still here, and ready for what’s next.
Among the many themes of this season – which felt like the strongest one so far, in part because of the cumulative power of knowing what came before, but also in part because the stories felt more tied together whether characters were interacting or not – was the way that everyone kept striving to be better at what they do, whether it was Antoine trying to expand the limits of his range or Colson becoming louder and more overt in his attempts to clean up the homicide unit. Many of those attempts ended in failure, or frustration, or a realization that it isn’t what that person wanted in the first place (like Janette growing to hate the restaurant’s success, or Antoine recognizing that he’s as good as he’ll ever be, but his students can still get better), but everybody was trying, up to and including Nelson. (Hey, he did get better at his money-for-nothing game.)
Earlier this year, we saw Janette and Annie both make deals with men promising them the moon. But Janette’s deal with Tim (“Don’t fuck with me, Chef. I wrote the book.”) has played out like one of those “letter, not spirit, of the law” situations, and while Marvin has yet to screw over Annie, her success (and the travel that came with it) came at the price of her relationship with Davis. (I particularly liked that there was no big dramatic incident for their break-up, just a gradual separation that played out so slowly that neither party realized they had slipped away from each other until it was too late. The look on Davis’s face as he listens to Annie’s CD and realizes how little he paid attention to her and her career in recent months was terrific.)
Davis quits the music business in a huff, and of course becomes more successful at it than ever in the bargain through his goodbye song – which, in typical Davis fashion, is going to make it that much harder to get back into a business he realizes he just can’t quit.
Davis’ feeling is shared by Annie’s other ex-boyfriend. Sonny gets his happy ending with Linh (and a clean shave for the wedding), but he also recognizes at the Gigi’s benefit that he’s not ready for the life of a full-time fisherman. Problem is, as we’ve seen, when he spends too much time around musicians, he uses. Had the show ended now, we wouldn’t have to worry, but will he still be sober five hours (give or take a year) from now?
Antoine makes peace with his limitations, and as further signs of his maturity, we not only see how dedicated he’s become to the school band, but we see him give his favorite cab driver a tip without once commenting on the route! Great payoff to a long-running gag. And though Delmond’s not in danger of leaving the music business anytime soon, he takes the diametric opposite approach of Janette: where she reluctantly keeps working at the lucrative restaurant job, Delmond not only walks away from the bogus consulting gig, but (to the hilarious incredulity of Nelson) gives back the hefty consulting fee, just because he wants no part of the project.
But we see throughout this season, and this finale, that lofty ideals tend to provide more personal satisfaction than sweeping social change. Colson can feel better about himself for doing what he can to fix the department, but nothing’s really going to be fixed, and he’s become a pariah as a result. (Though, as consolation, he and Toni seem back together for good.) LP takes pleasure in the magazine article he got published, Colson knows nothing will be done about it. Toni may have better luck going after Officer Wilson with the help of Terry’s friend in the FBI, but that’s still one corrupt man in a department full of them.
At the start of the season, I wrote that it felt like Simon and Overmyer were using this season of the show “to engage in a 10-hour dialogue about artistic integrity versus the promise of commercial success.” But at the end, it also feels like they’ve been discussing the limitations of art to transcend itself. Janette makes great food, but doesn’t feel like her customers or boss truly appreciate it. LP wrote a great article, but nothing will come of it. Delmond was never going to get that fence taken down, no matter how much street cred he lent to the performance center project, anymore than “The Wire” was ever going to have a tangible effect on our government’s drug policies. But that doesn’t lessen the artistic merit of “The Wire” any more than it makes Janette’s crawfish ravioli something lesser just because Tim is making a huge profit off it.
We close, as we do any season of a David Simon show, with a musical montage, this time scored to the Professor Longhair version of “Tipitina” (though the one that the bar mitzvah boy and Kermit did was pretty terrific in its own right), as we see the ups and downs of the “Tremé” ensemble at the end of the year. When the music stops, there’s Albert Lambreaux, sitting in his chemo chair, taking in the poison that will hopefully save his life, patiently working on his stitching (this time of an eagle with a proud, noble visage that evokes the big chief himself). He may beat the lymphoma. He may not. But he is here, and he has lasted everything else the world has thrown at him, and so he will sew, until he can no longer hold the needle and thread.
Simon, Overmyer and company have stitched together 31 gorgeous episodes of “Tremé.” They have another 5 for us in store sometime next year. Based on this year, I can’t wait.
So go read Dave Walker’s final episode explainer of the season, and then tell me, hat did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org