‘Treme’ – ‘What Is New Orleans?’: Let’s stay together

A review of tonight’s “Treme” coming up just as soon as I put y’all on a need-to-know basis…

“You’re making a bad choice, son.” -Harley

Boy, for a long time during “What Is New Orleans?,” all I thought to myself was, “This seems awfully peaceful for a George Pelecanos episode.”

Then came the closing moments.

RIP, Harley. “This City” is a great damn song, and you deserved better.

We’ll get to Pelecanos’ usual role as the Angel of Death on a David Simon show (including some thoughts from Pelecanos himself), in a moment. But his death was the most tragic part of an episode that, more overtly than ever this season, was all about the dichotomy between the good New Orleans and the bad one, as summed up not only in the episode’s title but the final exchange between Antoine and Sonny.

At this point, it’s a city – and a show – where you can have something as light and fun as Antoine and Kermit stealing the audience out from under one another, and yet as dark and sudden as Harley getting shot in the face. It’s a town where Nelson can prepare himself to make a fortune by preemptively buying up property in what will soon be dubbed recovery zones, and yet one where LaDonna is terrified to even be inside her locked downtown hotel room, and can’t even get out of the car when she pulls up to Gigi’s. It’s a place Janette has run away from, even as she misses it fiercely, and a place Albert stubbornly insists on going back to, even when Delmond brings him to New York to perform with jazz legends like Ron Carter.

And just as LaDonna’s rape helped put a human face on the crime wave, the death of Harley – patient, generous Harley, who helped Annie come out of her shell and learn to write and play her own songs, who even loaned Sonny the guitar he needed to join the Soul Apostles – makes the escalation of violence something other than abstract theory. That’s Annie’s friend and mentor lying on the sidewalk, his blood on her face. This has been a very good season for Annie so far, and it’s now taken a very dark turn – one I can see her struggling to overcome just as much as LaDonna has.

Because Pelecanos now has this reputation as the guy who writes the episodes of Simon shows where bad (and usually fatal) things happen to characters we like, I e-mailed him for some thoughts on that rep, on how Harley was chosen as the man to fall, and in general how he approaches writing these scenes. If you haven’t seen all of “The Wire” but intend to some day, you will want to skip over this next passage and move on to the bullet points, as George is going to name some names as he talks about characters he killed:

It was Harley from jump street, because we wanted to show the random nature of the violence that came back a year after the storm, and that Harley”s humanistic outlook on life could not save him (in fact, it dooms him, as you know, when he tells the kid, “You’re making a bad choice, son.”).  Originally his death was going to occur in another episode but it fell into mine.  There is a plan in that we all decided it should be a street mugging gone wrong.  In other cases, the beat that I was given was simply, “Michael kills Snoop,” or “Omar and Brother Mouzone hunt down Stringer Bell and kill him.”  In the case of Bodie, Poot, and Wallace, I was given more direction, because it was my first script for David and he didn”t know if I could stand up on two legs yet.  David likes to use me for this stuff because I write the same kinds of scenes in the climaxes of my novels, and he thinks I do it well.  The thing about Simon is, he will call me up and discuss something I”ve written if he doesn”t quite like it or get it, rather than just throw it away.  Snoop”s line, “How”s my hair look, Mike?” is a case in point.  He wasn”t sure about it.  We talked about it for awhile on the phone and he still wasn”t sure about it, probably because I am not very articulate in explaining my work.  We decided to shoot it, because we knew that we could cut away to the long shot of the actual killing in the car if it didn”t work.  It must have worked, ’cause young folks in my neighborhood quote that line back to me all the time.

I don”t mind the rep, but I get no pleasure in killing these characters.  You are also handing an actor his walking papers, in effect, when you hand him his death script.

Some other thoughts:

• Khandi Alexander continues to do great work showing LaDonna’s struggle to get herself together, and the conflict between her and Larry remains a tricky one. Larry absolutely has reasonable points, both about the danger of the bar and about what the boys are seeing of their mother, but you can also tell just how much he’s struggling to end every sentence with “Toldja so!” And that’s not helpful.

• Albert’s time in New York – particularly his attempt to school Ron Carter in the bass, and later his insistence that the Africans stole the Indian concept from New Orleans – was alternately funny and uncomfortably sad, in part because it’s hard to get a read on exactly why he’s acting this way. Is he depressed, as Delmond tried to suggest earlier in the season? Or is he just, as Delmond suggests here, a stubborn old man who only knows what he knows but believes that what he knows is right?

• Last year, Simon shrugged off the suggestion that Davis in any way is a stand-in for himself, as the loud, passionate white guy who carves out a niche as a celebrator of black culture. Yet the subplot about Davis’ protest song being eclipsed by Lil Calliope’s dance track – the eternal struggle between using art to make a social point and just to entertain – felt very much like a summation of where Simon’s shows sit in the larger TV universe.

• Antoine’s little war with Kermit was hilarious, particularly the respective looks on each man’s face when Kermit showed up at Antoine’s club to return the favor. That was very much a “you come at the king, you best not miss” kind of moment. Antoine’s great, but he doesn’t have the muscle to permanently steal a crowd from Kermit.

• Sonny continues his fumbling, almost sweet pursuit of Linh, the fish seller’s daughter, and we had a  very clever theory from commenter Gladly last week about this whole corner of the show: what if the introduction of Linh, and her father, and Cornell’s uncle, is all about the series laying the groundwork for a hypothetical future season (it would likely have to be several seasons from now, unless Simon and Overmyer speed up the timeline) dealing with the BP oil spill? It would explain why they bothered bringing in a recognizable non-local actor in John Beasley, and has been Simon’s MO in the past: see David Morse’s appearances late last season, or Robert Wisdom doing a couple of scenes as Bunny Colvin in “The Wire” season 2 so he would be a familiar face if/when the Hamsterdam arc began the following year.

• The Abreu story still feels somewhat tangential, but at least now it’s to be tying together with Colson’s story, as Toni has a chance to go to him for help in the investigation – and potentially give him the ammo he needs to get rid of his bitter new Homicide boss.

So go read Dave Walker’s latest episode explainer at his blog and then tell me, what did everybody else think?