‘Treme’ – ‘On Your Way Down’: The road home?

A review of tonight’s “Treme” coming up just as soon as I get a MySpace page…

“We’d all get a break then? Wouldn’t that be a nightmare?” -Janette

The return of crime to New Orleans is one of the key subjects of “Treme” season 2, but even with the addition of Lt. Colson to the regular cast of characters, the topic has still been something of an abstraction so far. Colson can talk about it, and Sonny might be witness to a club shooting, but crime hadn’t really touched the lives of our regulars in the first two episodes.

Unfortunately, that changes in a big way with “On Your Way Down,” as the crime wave very much hits home for several characters.  

On the smaller level of property crime, Janette’s wrecked house gets burglarized, forcing her to make a brief trip away from New York, and in the process possibly screwing up both her new job with the insane Brulard and her chance at getting a proper meeting with the Road Home people. And Sonny’s apartment gets burgled and his instruments either stolen or trashed after the cops leave the door unlocked after busting his drug-dealing roommate.

The episode’s big crime is one against a person, though, as LaDonna – tough, streetwise LaDonna, who has clung to this city as fiercely as any character on the show, even as the rest of her life has moved, piece-by-piece, up to Baton Rouge – gets robbed and raped inside her own bar.

On many shows, the rape of a strong female character would feel like exploitation, but David Simon and company(*) don’t do exploitation. Nor, for that matter, does Khandi Alexander. The two thugs’ forced entry into Gigi’s is incredibly disturbing, but the scene somewhat discreetly ends while LaDonna is still trying to back them away from her. And it’s a uniquely “Treme” circumstance that causes all of this; not only is the neighborhood largely deserted, but the NOPD is so overwhelmed by the crime wave and the bureaucratic nightmare of the city post-Katrina that LaDonna hangs up out of frustration, when in a different city and/or time, she likely would have stayed on the phone and waited for a patrol car to show up.

(*) Including new writing staff addition James Yoshimura, a “Homicide” vet who impressively stepped into the very large shoes left by David Mills.

After that, it’s all on Alexander to show just how badly LaDonna has been broken by the experience – how she can barely stand to let Larry leave her side, or how her expression tells the doctor exactly what the rape kit is going to find. We know from last season, and her work on “The Corner,” just how much Alexander can say with a simple expression, and here she has to work overtime because of how much of her face gets immobilized by the bruise makeup. That last scene, where she starts crying but her face can’t really move to give her the relief she needs, is just a stunning piece of work, the sort of thing that might win some awards if this were a show capable of winning awards (and made by people who actually cared about awards).

Yet even as things get incredibly dark for LaDonna, “On Your Way Down” keeps up this season’s mix of the good and the bad.

Janette comes home to deal with the robbery, and fails to convince the Road Home man to be fair and cut her a break, but it appears that Albert(**) is on the verge of getting the money he needs to rebuild his house.

(**) Albert and Janette’s conversation in the waiting room was notable for a couple of reasons. First, I believe it’s the first scene Clarke Peters has played with another member of the ensemble other than Rob Brown, since Albert has been the show’s most isolated character so far. Second, that scene and his earlier conversation with Robinette at the dump are the first times all season that Albert has seemed particularly alert and in any way outgoing. But it’s clear that those occasional extroverted moments are still the exceptions, not the rule, and that he’s still weighed down by depression or something similar. Note the way George finds that he’s fallen asleep in mid-stitch.

And Antoine Batiste and his Soul Apostles begin to sound like they really have something going. Even without proper charts, even without a guitar player (a position that Sonny is itching to fill), even with all the bickering they do, they sound pretty terrific for an embryonic band. The contrast between their strong rehearsal and then Antoine going to Gigi’s to find the place dark and locked said so much about the conflicting agendas of this season, and about how things can go so well for some characters and so horribly for others.

And we’re still very, very early in this season. I don’t even want to think about what fresh hell might be unleashed whenever George Pelecanos turns up.

Some other thoughts:

• Though Toni’s investigation into the Abreu death so far remains less compelling than last year’s search for Daymo (which had the added hook of LaDonna), I do like some of the small, telling details, like the report written on the paper plate. And it helps that the show now has Colson around on a regular basis as her go-to guy in the department, as Melissa Leo and David Morse unsurprisingly work so well together.

• Jim True-Frost (Prez from “The Wire”) appeared briefly in the first season as Delmond’s manager, and he appears here just in time to get fired for being way behind the curve about promoting musicians online.

• LaDonna’s assault makes this a pretty grim episode overall, but I still laughed long and hard at Antoine all but leaping back into the cab at the sight of the unruly school kids.

• Not much of Annie this week, but I always enjoy hearing Lucia Micarelli play, and I liked her reaction to unexpectedly seeing the picture of Sonny during his do-gooder period right after the storm.

• Ah, Brulard: “Do I have a life? This is my life. Committment. That’s all I ask.” Love that crazy SOB.

• One good side effect of Janette’s house being robbed (other than the comedy of Davis trying to pretend his phone is a gun) is that we get a brief Janette/Jacques reunion.

• We see more of Nelson hustling (for both contacts and women), and bringing Robinette up in the world with him – but only just a little. Robinette stands to make good money for all his hard work, but Nelson’s gonna make a whole lot more, mainly because he knows how to schmooze in a way that a guy like Robinette simply can’t and/or won’t.

• Finally, the ratings have not been especially good so far, with last week’s episode pulling in about 540,000 viewers for its initial airing, down about 60 grand from the premiere. HBO is driven more by subscribers than by ratings, but at the same time, execs at the channel say there’s usually no easy way to tell what specific shows are driving new subscriptions. Ultimately, I would guess a third season is going to come down to how much HBO wants to stay in the David Simon business – and even there I can see a scenario where they want the creative team but not this particular show and enthusiastically suggest he pitch them something else. We’ll see.

So go see what Dave Walker has to say in his latest episode annotations at his blog, and then, what did everybody else think?