This season of the HBO drama ends with many of its characters fighting the fight for traditional civic values.
[Updated] [Spoiler Alert] "When people start thinking that money is the fuckin' answer, you get a whole 'nother set of problems," Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) says in the concluding episode of Treme. "Money didn't make New Orleans, not the New Orleans I know, anyway. And money alone ain't going to save it." The relationship between money - or more accurately, the culture that surrounds those who really know how to make it - and New Orleans was one of the major themes this season, just as it was post-Katrina. Recovery happened on two tracks: a profit-oriented one that moved slowly and benefited those in the money pipeline more than the city, and the grass-roots one, with people helping each other and the sort of church groups that Davis led astray in season one coming in to gut and rebuild.
Lambreaux's piece of that story this episode comes when he and Delmond (Rob Brown) visit Armstrong Park and the Memorial Auditorium with Liguori (Dan Ziskie) and his team talking up the benefits of their planned jazz center. When Lambreaux asks them if they knew the Backstreet Museum or the House of Dance of Feathers, all fidgeted awkwardly. Not only had they not seen these other places to display Mardi Gras Indians suits, but it had obviously never occurred to them to do so. The local, improvised, street-level institutions never entered their more corporate thinking. Still, one of the strengths of the show has always been to avoid simple characterizations, and as the group walks on and Delmond slows to talk with Irvin Mayfield, Liguori can be heard talking about a virtually untapped resource. In his terms, he's recognizing the value of the project; he's not just a "vulture capitalist" looking for his next big score without interest in what he's making.
That story ends with Lambreaux and Delmond getting out with their integrity intact; Janette (Kim Dickens) doesn't end the season as easily. She let Tim (Sam Robards) and his money solve a problem for her - how to get back to New Orleans and open a restaurant again. This episode, she learns the consequences of the deal she made. She doesn't own her name, her kitchen and she's struggling to maintain control of her food. The days of winging it and heating a Hubig's pie are long gone. Now she can't fire a late chef or bitch out a clueless hostess without filing paperwork. The question we're left with at the end of the season is how much of her anger is a response to the more corporate business and how much of it is about her dealing poorly with the choices she's made and the lack of freedom she feels. Whatever the case, we see in the final scenes that the situation has not only taken the joy out of her work but it has made her less attentive to details as she took plates away before Jacques (Ntare Mwine) could garnish them.
The clash between the professional, moneyed culture and the improvised culture are personified by Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Davis (Steve Zahn) and their split. This episode, it's dramatized by ping-ponged scenes of him recording his goodbye to the music business in New Orleans while Annie is moving on to a national stage - literally - in New York City. When she asks if the CD-release party is going to be in New Orleans, Marvin (Michael Cerveris) tells her New York. "This ain't about OffBeat darling; it's about Rolling Stone and The New York Times," he says. Davis' music is all about personality while hers is all about craft, and when he celebrates recording it, he does so in a corner bar by lining up beers and shots. In contrast, Annie's party is in a swanky bar with classy drinks, and there the rift between her and Davis reaches the point that she sleeps with someone else. Even that made the difference between her and Davis clear. She and her boy consider breakfast the next morning from room service or the hotel restaurant, while Davis and Janette had a desperate, drunken Mardi Gras one-off. If reality kicks in on Annie's story, next season she'll find herself in Janette's position because someone other than her likely paid for that room. She could easily find herself feeling trapped by Marvin as Janette does by Tim.
It's tempting to try to connect those story lines with those of LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), L.P. (Chris Coy), Toni (Melissa Leo) and Terry (David Morse), drawing connections to a corruption of the soul, but that may be a reach. Nothing in the show's treatment of Annie so far gives us reason to believe that the producers see her as corrupt. She may value her music and career to the detriment of her relationships, but again, the only way that is presented as a form of corruption is on the question of songwriting credits on "This City," and that doesn't touch the scale of the police stories. Not even the publication of L.P.'s story can get the NOPD to investigate the Henry Glover murder, and the cops show more imagination and effort isolating Terry than they do solving crimes.
His story is left in an uncertain place. He's seemingly alone and cornered in Homicide, but we also have Toni's advice: "You've got to outlast the bastards." The inspector played by Jesse Moore is part of a great comic moment - of which there were a few this episode - that illustrates how deeply ingrained corruption is in the city's administration when he tries to get a bribe from LaDonna in burned-out husk of GiGi's.
Amidst all that, the line that was resonant came from Desiree (Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc) after watching Mayor Nagin's NOAH-related press conference on television. "They didn't know it, but they were fucking with the wrong people," she says. "They don't know it, but that's who we were this time - the wrong people." The pause after she delivers the line before the show cuts to Kermit Ruffins and Davis playing a Metairie Bar Mitzvah gives the thought a moment to hang there because that was the role of the representatives of New Orleans' culture at this point - to be the wrong people. In real life and on Treme, people inside and outside the city saw opportunities to make money with only casual regard for priorities other than their own. With the city's institutions paralyzed by their own internal issues or post-Katrina depletion, it fell to teachers, clerical workers, and musicians to do their part to represent for New Orleans and its culture (John Swenson tells the musicians' part of this story in his book New Atlantis.) They didn't win all the fights, but they served as resistance, and that counts too.
- When Antoine (Wendell Pierce) embraces his role as a teacher and mentor invoking Danny Barker, he says, "So what if I'm the seventh best 'bone in New Orleans; that makes me tops anywhere else, right?" This line was part of the conception of the character from the start. When I interviewed David Simon about Battiste in 2011, he said:
To me, the work-a-day musician, the working class ethos of New Orleans where the wages paid to produce this kind of magic are so utterly routine, where the lives themselves are so economically and socially fragile. To be the 14th best piano player in New Orleans might be to be the best piano player in another city. And yet, here you’re scratching out gigs and playing the front room of a restaurant at dinner hour. It’s remarkable. There was something about Wendell moving from gig to gig and yet coming back after the storm and being unable to contemplate any other life than the one he is pursuing—to me it was unkind, maybe that’s a better way to say it.
- Irvin Mayfield's presence in this episode was one of its most curious features. On one hand, Mayfield was largely treated positively as a representative for playing the political game, but he was also aligned with all the problematic forces in the season - Mayor Nagin and his office, and Liguori, Nelson (Jon Seda) and the developers. John Swenson interviewed Mayfield for his post-show wrap-up last week at OffBeat.com.
- In the sequence with Kermit and Davis playing Lee Dorsey and Chris Kenner covers at the Bar Mitzvah in Metairie, I wonder if they had to tell the extras to clap off-time?
- One comment the regular cast often make is that the nature of the show's stories means that many of the actors rarely interact with each other. With that in mind, the benefit for GiGi's in The Blue Nile plays like a season wrap party, and in a way it was as it was one of the last scenes shot in the season. It literally presents the show's New Orleans with most of their cast as well as musicians who seem to embody its musical heart - Ivan Neville, George Porter Jr., Johnny Vidacovich, Bonerama, Trombone Shorty, Big Sam and more. For the occasion, they add out-of-towner Jill Sobule, who sings "When My Ship Comes In" backed by a trombone army.
- Two whatthehell!! moments: Lambreaux leaves The Blue Nile with LaDonna? And Sonny (Michiel Huisman) gets married? In the first case, it wasn't clear if their exit together was part of their friendship or the development of something more than that. In the latter, it's not surprising that Sonny would want to or that Linh would say yes, but it's hard to imagine that her dad would agree to this.
- Finally, in an entertainment culture that fetishizes young love, it's great to see adult men and women interact romantically on Treme. Toni's excitement means more because there are a few lines on her face, and the wear on Terry's face makes the calm he finds in the first steps of a relationship all the more meaningful.
Updated November 26, 7:51 a.m.
Two final notes:
- I wondered while watching the judge read the verdict in LaDonna's rape trial and wondering if the show had given viewers any reason to think the jury was likely deadlocked because jurors had been threatened, which was happening then and now. Sam Wilkinson confirmed my fears at League of Ordinary Gentlemen when he wrote, "her rapists are let off the hook by a jury that can’t decide on their guilt or innocence." I suspect most New Orleanians watched that scene and knew that the merits of the case had little to do with the verdict, but I doubt those out of town got that.
- A friend reminded me that the benefit for GiGi's at the Blue Nile was reminiscent of Air Traffic Control's annual benefits for local non-profits. The national organization works with musicians in activism and social justice issues, and since 2007, it has brought national artists to New Orleans to help here and apply what they learn to issues in their communities when they return home. Each ends with a benefit show - the last few at The Blue Nile - and Bonerama has been the house band for them since the outset. The Jill Sobule moment certainly evoked the ATC benefits with an out-of-town artist playing a song outside the New Orleans canon and style - and killing it.