One of the strengths of the show has been the way characters shift depending on their contexts.
[Spoiler alert] The oddest element of this season of Treme so far is that the episodes don’t feel like they’re moving any closer to the end of a season or show. Even previous seasons accumulated some momentum as they neared the finale, but the show remains deliberately casual in its pacing and seems to add storylines instead of winnowing them down.
The dramatic heart of this week’s episode of Treme was the shooting of one of Antoine’s students and the news that Lambreaux’s cancer is spreading. The part of the episode that stayed with me though, was Janette’s story. Just as scenes in Treme echo other scenes in the episode, season or other seasons, the show’s characters reveal aspects of themselves depending on who they’re around. When Janette (Kim Dickens) was in New York around David Chang, it was easy to be focused on her talent as a chef - a thought furthered by her adult distance from the guys she lived with. Now that she’s back in New Orleans, we see her with Davis (Steve Zahn) and realize that she’s got some of his screw-up in her. We learn that not only did she leave Tim (Sam Robards) and Deshautel’s on the Avenue, but she slagged him and it on the radio - something she plays off as something that just happened.
Seeing her back in New Orleans invites you to think of her in the same way as Antoine (Wendell Pierce), particularly since the two have consistently been the most promiscuous characters on the show. David Simon and Eric Overmyer conceived of Antoine as the fifth best trombonist in town. What if Janette is the fifth best chef in town? What does that living look like? How does that happen, and what kind of accommodations do you make when you know that? We’ve got a sense over the run of Treme why Batiste isn’t bigger. The show suggests that he was a hustler at heart for most of his career, looking for the quickest, easiest way forward, and that the hard work and discipline needed to make more of himself wasn’t in him.
Janette seems to lack self-esteem, or perhaps imagination outside the kitchen. With all the possible restaurant names in the world, she chose a variation on her previous restaurant, one that would predictably upset her all-business former business partner. It seems like a choice made to sabotage herself, as does her blithe response to Tim’s anger at being trashed in public.
This sort of characterization is one of the show’s strengths. She and Antoine are two of its most likable characters, so much so that it has been easy to not notice their flaws or to let them slide. In that respect, Treme’s characters feel real. "If you like a character unequivocally, we’ve probably done something wrong," David Simon told me in an interview in 2011.
- I have mixed feelings about the death of Antoine’s student. I don’t remember her from previous seasons, so if she was in them, she wasn’t someone we were encouraged to connect to. Raising her profile in one show to make her a victim of violence in the next makes her death seem a little convenient and manipulative. It still had impact, but that’s more due to others’ emotional responses to the shooting than any attachment we had to her.
- The speech Lambreaux (Clark Peters) made looking at the area where he used to play also walked a fine line. Was the moment over the top, or the precisely accurate way this character would deal with the knowledge of his eminent fate? I believe the latter but understand anybody who sees it the other way.