The theme of corruption darkens this week in "Treme."

Photo from Treme season 3

Last week's Treme looked at the bargains we make to get what we want; this week's episode examines the same thing from the perspective of those we bargain with. Scenes of Tim (Sam Robards) closing the deal with Janette (Kim Dickens) in The Parkway are intercut with shots of Marvin (Michael Cerveris) doing the same with Annie (Lucia Micarelli) over dinner at Bayona. Marvin's hustle sounds oily as he tells the less experienced Annie about Jeff Tweedy of Wilco's love of introducing new talent - a line you suspect he's run by a lot of young talent - while Tim's rap sound more rational, which may only be a difference of context. Being left free to make your food your way may be just as fanciful a hope as being introduced to Wilco's audience, and making the pitch over po-boys may represent reading his mark as shrewdly as Marvin reads his.

Those relatively nuanced sales jobs contrast with more naked ones by Antoine (Wendell Pierce) and Nelson (Jon Seda). Antoine's pitch to go tour with a version of Tab Benoit and the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars sounds like a bargain a 14-year-old makes to stay out late on a school night. "I'm going to work those kids extra-hard when I get back," he tells Desiree (Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc), and the results are equally low-rent as cheats not with the hottest girl in the club but with the one who'll have him. Nelson's hustle is generic, and when he runs his NOAH rap by Desiree, it's clear it's not working but he has nothing else. He succeeds when he uses equally well-worn lines on the young woman who comes in looking for work - herself, a hustler in her way.

As much as the show humanizes its more predatory characters - no one enjoyed New Orleans more than Nelson Hidalgo in Season Two - the way Treme plays out the bargains people make and their consequences shows where its sympathies lie. This week's episode juxtaposes Hidalgo's seduction of the young blonde with Sonny's sex scene with Linh (Hong Chau). Nelson gets corny, cliched foreplay with a woman with big, fake boobs, while Sonny (Michiel Huisman) is trading much of the life he has led for one with her, and the result is far more meaningful and touching as they have sex for the first time in a station wagon in a parking lot. 

Corruption is obviously a theme this season and in the show in general, and what we see over and over again is how banal it is. It's not malevolent or Machiavellian. Last season we saw it manifest itself with air-tight corporate logic as Hidalgo and C.J. Liquori (Dan Ziskie) bribe Oliver Thomas. As Hidalgo's short con/long con lecture to Robinette breaks down, it's clear that it's possible to get so bogged down in its logic that it's no longer a thing you do but who you are, and you can slide to the point where you're a beat cop who'll beat a kid in front of witnesses because he interfered with the pick-up of a case of beer you demand as tribute. That sequence colors all the other bargain sequences in the episode as it adds an undercurrent of physical and emotional violence to all of them.

Episode Notes:

- Guitarist Ernie Vincent is leading his band through his classic, "Dap Walk," when the cop takes the case of beer and beats up the patron.

- Al "Carnival Time" Johnson is best known for one song, and usually if you see him live, he's playing a version of that song - often for 10 or so minutes. But Johnson can also really play classic New Orleans R&B on piano, as he does in the scene in this episode when he plays "Matilda." One of the things I'm proudest of from my time at OffBeat was putting Johnson on our Best of the Beat tribute to Fats Domino, and giving him an R&B set backed by Midnight Streetcar a few years later. During the dress rehearsal for the Domino tribute, Allen Toussaint, Art Neville and a host of other local legends watched as he sat at the piano to lead the band through "My Girl Josephine," and I got the impression from watching them that they didn't know he did this. When I offered him a full set, it was with the idea that he would play piano and do classic New Orleans R&B because he does it so well. It was nice to see the show draw attention to that side of his talents as well. There's more to the story of his challenge to get back the publishing rights to "Carnival Time" than he tells in the episode. You can get it here.

- This week, Annie and her band cover Lucinda Williams' "Lake Charles." I never know if I'm reading her story correctly. I think "Lake Charles" is in a key that's a little low for her, so it's not her best vocal. Since we've seen Davis and other musicians be intentionally mediocre, the scene could be written for us to see her that way, but I doubt it. For me, the idea of a genuinely developing talent trying to start a career is a more interesting story than one of a great talent needing to be discovered. It makes Marvin's interest in her more complicated, and it accounts for a Lucinda cover, which is almost a cliche for a young female Americana singer at this point.  

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Episode 1: Our World

Episode 2: Let's Make a Deal