Tuned In

Treme Watch: This City Won't Wash Away

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Spoilers for the first-season finale of Treme coming up:

Treme finished its first season with a finale that very much mirrored its pilot: sprawling, wide-ranging, deliberately paced, and—at about 83 minutes—expansive. It recalled our first encounter with these characters in ways both stylistic (another montage to the sound of a tune that Davis spins in the DJ booth) and thematic (a final funeral, with Antoine “play[ing] for that fucking money” with the Treme brass band). So I want to return to what I wrote about Treme, before it even premiered, or rather I want to return to what the late Treme writer David Mills told me (a few weeks before he died on set) about the role of funerals in the series and in New Orleans culture (in an interview for this preview feature):

Thematically, this is a show about that very thing. It’s about a city that’s been dealt a horrible blow. But it’s not about the horrible blow. It’s about the getting back up and moving forward with life, with your spirit intact. And that is what the cakewalk away from the cemetery represents. The dead person is buried and now this is about the moving on and the carrying forward and the maintenance of the community spirit.

The makers of Treme made the conscious decision to begin the series months after the levees broke and flooded the city, killing hundreds and leaving its future uncertain. And yet, over the first season’s course, we’ve experienced the deaths of several people who were killed by the flood either directly (the Mardi Gras chief found in his home) or indirectly or figuratively by its aftermath (Anotine’s trombone mentor, Daymo and Creighton).

The season’s final scene showed us the cakewalk away from Daymo’s funeral, an extended sequence that was honest and loving in its treatment of both the characters (LaDonna, letting the celebratory music help bear her grief, and Toni, unable to let go her anger) and of the music, which we saw as we have the entire season—from street level, not just as abstracted art but as a functioning community mainstay and support of life.

As the cakewalk second line reached its end, the camera pulled back, as we saw the group reach its stopping place at the street corner. Treme might have cut to credits there. But instead, it lingered another minute, showing the music stop, and the crowd break up. Musicians and mourners drifted off. Friends found each other and struck up conversations. The second line became a community of people in the street again. Life went on, its injuries salved and its fractures bonded a little by the common experience of the music.

From the beginning of the series, David Simon and company talked about how they wanted to make a show that dramatized the importance of culture in the life of an American city, a goal that might have sounded either highfalutin or impossible. As you know if you’ve read my weekly posts, I sometimes had problems with how they did it. Especially around the middle third of the season, the storytelling could get slack, and the makers of the show, seemingly unwilling to leave any reality on the cutting-room floor on order to edit it into compelling threads—not wanting to use the devices, in Creighton’s words, of “plot-driven entertainments”—sometimes lost the series’ drive. (For me, I’m thinking of much of the Sonny and Annie plot, or Antoine’s interludes with his Japanese benefactor, but I certainly expect your mileage to vary.)

But it has to be said: They took on a tremendous challenge, creating an hourlong drama about life and survival, in a series that eschewed the automatic-conflict generators of genres like cop and medical shows—and did it while placing the main driving event, Katrina, deliberately offstage. And in the season’s finest, most transcendent moments—like the closing second-line and some others in this finale—they actually pulled it off: they actually, through the relatively ordinary stories of characters we’d come to know, showed that culture was not just something a city like New Orleans creates as a tourist-business proposition but a sustaining part of everyday life.

Which is why I’m very glad Treme has a second season: it has its voice, its style and its characters, and its shown us what it can do when it uses those in the service of compelling stories. So I’m tremendously optimistic that, between the seasons, the writers and producers can maintain what works, bolsters the series’ story component and make this exemplary portrayal of American life even better.

One area where season one had virtually no problems was casting, and “I’ll Fly Away” drew some fabulous performances from its three central actresses. Khandi Alexander and Kim Dickens each movingly followed through on stories they’d been playing out the entire season, but it was particularly a moment for Melissa Leo. For the entire season, playing the ensemble’s go-to lawyer and Creighton’s support, Toni has generally been a player in other people’s stories, but her reaction to his suicide—after a fleeting attempt at denial—and her hardening anger showed why you cast an actress of Leo’s firepower in the role. Her refusal of his funeral requests and the second line—of the thought-out final expressions of his NOLA-centric life—was a furious slap at him through the wall of death, and a refusal, in her feeling of betrayal, to facilitate to stage-manage his death: “He quit! He fucking quit! Whole goddamn city down on its ass, all of us. Still here, one day after the next. I can’t dance for him.”

The city is still there—much of it—and the characters we have followed are carrying on. But over the course of ten episodes, Treme has shown how bouncing back isn’t easy; they’re wounded, to varying degrees, and feeling losses that will never be made whole. Which is why it was all the more effective that—as opposed to, say, weaving flashbacks into the series all season—the final episode showed us, minutes before it ended, what life had been like Before Katrina and what they lost: Antoine leaving his home and car (leading to all those cab-ride negotiations), Daymo fatally missing a call and getting pulled over on his way out of town, Creighton seeming to draw a kind of sustenance from being a Cassandra about the levees, Sonny and Annie enjoying a sweet moment before the rain, and so on.

The lyric that Steve Earle’s character worked on with Annie, and which played over the credits—”This city will never wash away / This city will never drown”—may have been a little on-the-nose as a statement of Treme’s spirit, but coming after ten episodes, it felt earned. Just a a church is not ultimately a building but the congregation that fills it, so too is New Orleans not the damaged buildings but the people that inhabit it. What Treme has shown us, over the season, is that by making a choice, and re-making it every day, they keep that city constituted.

But it also showed us that not all of them are going to make that choice. Creighton chooses the river. Janette chooses (for now) New York. As for the rest, though, while they second-line on to get past their grief, they and we can also not forget the real things that they’re lost. They may not wash away or drown. But hey will always be marked, somewhere, by the flood’s faint watermark.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* While I’d be sad for Janette to leave New Orleans, or Kim Dickens to leave the cast, it felt right that she leave. Not everybody stuck it out in New Orleans, and there needed to be someone for whom what she lost was just too much. It also wouldn’t have sat right with me to have an ending in which Davis suddenly opened her eyes to the magic of the city—when after all, she’s been a part of that city’s culture for years. But I’m not sure that’s finally what he was doing, even if Davis sees his role as being New Orleans’ biggest cheerleader, even to the point of belligerence. He says he’s trying to convince Janette to say, but—if he has matured at all as a character over these months—I’d like to think that he’s really just trying to give her one great goodbye.

* One of the things I’d like to see Treme improve in a second season is meatier work for Wendell Pierce. Pierce has played the hell out of the character when he’s had the material, but sometimes Antoine has felt more functional than intergral as a character. That is, he’s there partly because this is a show about music and the lives of artists, and Pierce has done great work inhabiting his hustling, on-the-edge life (where busting a lip and losing a trombone, for existence, can mean his ruin). But he’s also often there to provide a route in for some of the show’s great musical cameos, and leading to storylines like this, where we get to see him jam with the legendary Allen Toussaint but spends most of the episode in a comic-relief plot about gambling away his earnings.

* A couple of fittingly excellent scenes for Clarke Peters in this finale. First, obviously, was the staggering visual of his showdown on the street with the other krewe chief (picture above) that ends with an arm bump and “respect for respect.” It’s a disorienting scene, one that to an outsider can seem to be setting up a street battle, but it turns out the be a mutual acknowledgment of and tribute to tradition. But there was also the less showy, yet thematically similar, scene in which his jams with his son, a sweet moment, but also one that shows that they can’t play a few bars without arguing over the younger generation’s abandonment of tradition. Both scenes get at aspects of Albert that we’ve seen over the season, from his commitment to reforming the krewe to beating down an intruder to his quixotic housing-project protest: Albert is principled and dedicated, but he is also a hard man, which can manifest as stubbornness, hostility or even ugliness. Good on Treme that it didn’t idealize him or sand down those rough edges.

* There may be fans of Sonny and Annie’s storyline, but to me it fizzled out pretty much where it seemed it would all along: he’s just another weak guy who can’t stand his woman having more success than he does, exactly as he seemed at the beginning. With Annie and Davis apparently poised to become a thing now, it’ll be interesting to see whether Davis has in fact grown and matured at all, or if he just seems so in comparison to Sonny.

* And speaking of Davis, an utterly throwaway moment in the finale, which proved to be beautiful and unshakeable, was Davis’ getting theme-song-performer John Bouteille Boutté to serenade Janette with “Bring It On Home to Me.” I bet more than a few viewers were thinking, before Davis even said it, that he sounded just like Sam Cooke. To which he answered: “I fucking sound like John Boutté!” Perfect last words for a show that began amid heavy comparisons—to The Wire among other things—and strove passionately to sound like itself, and to capture the ineffable ways in which New Orleans sounds only like itself.