Tuned In

Treme Watch: Down to the Holy River

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Spoilers for last night’s episode of Treme coming up:

“Unlike plot-driven entertainments, there is no closure in real life. Not really.” —Creighton Bernette

I guessed very early in the episode “Wish Someone Would Care” that Creighton would kill himself, and that he would probably—as befits the history of the city he loved and wrote about—do it by drowning.

I am not saying this to brag, because I am spectacularly bad at guessing plot twists in general, and I had little clue, when Treme foreshadowed his depression at Mardi Gras, that it would prove as debilitating and damaging as it did. (Kudos, however, to commenter alynch3 for pointing it out.)

I knew it for two reasons. First, HBO sent out the episode with the request that critics not write or blog about it in advance, because of a significant plot point (without saying what that plot point was). And second, because the book that Creighton assigned his students near the beginning of the episode was the 1899 novella The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. Chopin was, as the episode noted, a Louisiana native; and, as the episode also noted, The Awakening was considered, among other things, a seminal feminist novel for its depiction of Edna Pontellier and her “awakening” to her own sexuality and to the suffocating situation of a wife and mother in the 19th century. The Awakening was notable, and controversial, for another important element—one of its most-discussed aspects, which the episode pointedly does not mention: Edna kills herself at the end, by walking into the Gulf of Mexico.

Bernette was based in part on the New Orleans blogger Ashley Morris, whose rants embodied many of the city’s frustrations after Katrina. Morris died in 2008, so it made sense that Creighton would die during the series—though the timing and cause of his death were different. And they encourage us to ask a question that Treme, to its credit, does not answer, that I suspect that Toni, with all her powers of sleuthing, will not be able to answer: What really killed Creighton Bernette?

Clearly Creighton was broken up in despair over the state of New Orleans—the “bubble floating on a zephyr” that he eulogized last week—but to say that he was killed by the flood would seem not only flippant, considering the people who physically drowned in it, but overly simplistic. I don’t pretend to be a mental-health professional, so I won’t judge how well technically Treme portrayed Creighton’s suicidal depression. But it seems more likely that his illness and the factors feeding it were inseparable: that his frustration over Katrina (and over his writing) fed his depression, that his depression fed those frustrations, and so on. It would tie a much neater bow than Treme cares to to say that one caused the other: Creighton suffered for New Orleans, but he also suffered simply because some people suffer. And you don’t really know why.

Creighton’s death was both heavily foreshadowed (in the episode, with the allusion to The Awakening, and his sudden change of mood) and not very heavily at all: his condition, though I don’t have a precise timeline, seemed to move quickly from writer’s block to a funk to full-blown depression. But the emphasis is on seemed to: depression often slips by even those closest to the person affected—Toni seemed disturbed by Crieghton’s falling apart and anxious about his writing, but not urgently worried for him. So it seems appropriate, in a way, that viewers might also not notice until too late.

TV doesn’t often handle suicide, let alone well (I can think of a couple of high-profile instances on House and Battlestar Galactica in the past couple years). And the tendency, as in life, is to judge the character’s act while also mourning: Creighton had a good life and a nice house and leaves behind a wife and a young daughter to get by without him. As somebody invested in the show, my instinct is to be pissed off, as if he were a family member: who is he to tell Toni to go off and “kick a little ass” when he’s giving up the struggle?

But depression is an illness, and I don’t want to fall into easy sanctimony about it, much less with a fictional character. As he indicates in his above quote to his class about closure—which, though David Simon says he’s not a mouthpiece, here sounds pretty much like a Simon Mission Statement—his suicide strikes me not as a sign of the hopelessness of New Orleans so much as something that happened because sometimes these things happen.

I will, however, mourn John Goodman’s leaving the show. Creighton was always strongest, I felt, not in the moments when he was directly speechifying to other characters or on YouTube, but for how he showed through action his deeply felt love for his adopted hometown: for being the guy to whom a Hubig’s fried pie was an act of communion.

One thing I sometimes find a weakness in Treme is that (maybe out of an urge to show its respect for the city), it writes in too many scenes of characters telling one another directly how New Orleans is unlike any other place, how wonderful it is to come home to it, how it’s dedicated to pleasure and beauty, &c. But Creighton’s farewell tour of New Orleans moments—one last po’ boy, one last Abita, one last Cafe du Monde beignet, one last street-busker performance, one last cigarette on the Mississippi River—was absolutely right, and expressed all that more powerfully than words could.

In another scene, in another context, Davis argued that Janette should stay in New Orleans because—and this is another Simon refrain—it has so many great moments. To which Janette answers: “They’re just moments. They’re not a life.” For her that may be true, and right, and even wise. But for Creighton—however you may feel about his decision to escape life—it is just as personally true and right to say that those moments are life. They’re the last thing he has.

And showing how those moments add up to something greater is what Treme at its best is about. It may not be closure. But it’s better.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Speaking of Creighton’s last moments, this episode invested them with an eerie and sad real-world parallel. I remembered from the coverage of writer David Mills’ sudden death on set that he died while watching an episode-nine scene shot at Cafe du Monde—the scene, I assume, of Creighton standing on one last long cafe au lait line.

* I focused mostly on Creighton here because it was obviously the biggest plot development, but also because I don’t have much to comment on in the other storylines. I’m glad Annie finally up and left Sonny but don’t feel much more invested—and like her friend, I found it hard to believe that Annie, a musician, would not see how personally Sonny would take a musical “breakup.”

* Not to be too morbid or to dwell overmuch on the foreshadowing issues, but I am curious: did you suspect at any point that Creighton was going to kill himself, and if so, when? I’m especially curious among those of you who’ve read The Awakening—do they still teach it?—whether it was as big a tipoff as it seemed to me. (I’m not saying that the act needed to be, or was intended to be, a surprise; I’m just curious if it played for others the way it did for me, especially depending on whether or not you know the Chopin book.)