Treme – “Meet De Boys on the Battlefront”

“Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront”

April 18th, 2010

There’s a scene in this week’s episode of Treme where John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette sits in his office going over a list of programs being cut from what we soon learn is his own university. He lists off a lot of practical degrees, many of them in engineering, noting the irony that the programs are being cut just after a disaster which he believes could have been prevented or at the very least mitigated through proper engineers (electrical, mechnical, and otherwise) working on the levees, power grids, and everything else. That’s ultimately consistent with his character, or what we’ve seen of the character so far, but his subsequent rant about the courses being maintained (women’s studies, Caribbean studies, Portuguese, etc.) seems a little bit “off.”

It’s not that we can say that this character wouldn’t make that argument: while we could argue that his own position as a professor of English makes him a little bit disingenuous to be bashing the liberal arts in such a fashion, we don’t know enough about the characters to say that this is out of character. However, it’s one of the moments when you realize that not everybody is on the same page when it comes to the future of New Orleans, as “Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront” identifies at nearly every turn. It is an episode filled with moments where structural integrity or personal safety or the letter of the law are placed in opposition to both the cultural past and the storm-addled future of New Orleans, and while some stress the importance of identity others emphasize the importance of survival.

While there are temptations to read characters like Creighton, who rallies against authority and emphasizes the failures of bureaucracy, as representations of the creative impulse of David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, this speech and this episode are a reminder that they’re trying to capture the complexity of this city rather than a singular image of its rehabilitation.

Reality is a bitter mistress, and we’re seeing it catching up with many of our central characters: Batiste, his baby mama pressuring him to get a job instead of a gig so that they can pay the bills, takes a gig playing Jazz at a strip club on Bourbon Street; Davis, fired from his radio gig for allowing Coco Robicheaux to butcher a chicken live in studio in an effort to bring the spirits of the old New Orleans to the makeshift studio, takes a job as a front desk employee at a hotel so his parents will give him another loan; Ladonna, who desires to stay in New Orleans and run the bar that was an integral part of her childhood, is pressured by her husband to move to Baton Rouge, and fights with a contractor who’s effectively grifting her. All three characters are holding onto their identities in the time after the storm, unwilling to abandon the New Orleans they once knew in favour of the one that seems to have “survived” the storm. The work, at least for musicians or service workers, is in other cities, or in the bright lights and tourist culture of Bourbon Street; they’re hanging onto an identity which has either become displaced from the city or has never been part of what the rest of the world would considering to be New Orleans culture.

It’s an important episode, I think, for orienting us within New Orleans: we understand that we’re seeing only certain parts of the city, and only certain parts of the conflict. Creighton’s discussion about the post-Katrina period being a zero sum game is an important point, in that for everyone who seems to be getting by there is someone else who is suffering: while his daughter may be able to go to a school in New Orleans, in order for that to happen someone less fortunate is going to be robbed of the same privilege, and that’s just part of “life.” In some ways, some expect that everyone will follow the same path: musicians will accept the fact that they will need to get different jobs to survive, and people like Ladonna will be expected to go to Baton Rouge where there are hospitals, and doctors. If you are going to choose between your life or your identity, presuming that you are amongst those who believe that the two can be disconnected, most would argue that the priority lies with Maslovian, rather than musical or cultural, concerns.

I think we’re supposed to be rooting for these characters to follow their hearts, to fight against the attack on their identities and rebuild New Orleans in the image of its history. However, what do we do with Chief Albert Lambreaux murdering (or nearly murdering) a common grifter in his effort to protect that history? While we understand the Chief’s desire to avoid putting sheetrock over the plaster which represents the spiritual and cultural heart of the city in that particular metaphor, do we think that his attack on Skinny is a justified defence of the rebuilding efforts? The idea that the Chief has cultural authority in the same way that the police have legal authority – as we saw when the Chief suggested to his son that the cops (like himself) had no choice but to act when it was staring them right in their face – is really interesting, turning Albert into a sort of “Vigilante Identity Police” which may be dangerous. While the young thief seemed like a punk, his opportunism may have been out of desperation: perhaps he was stealing for the same reason that Albert is holding a practice for only two people, an effort to find stability in a world where everything they once had is gone. For some, their identity is the history of New Orleans and its vibrant community, and for others their identity is petty theft, and that’s sort of the joy (and the conflict) of realistic shows like this one.

Overall, the episode was really quite an enjoyable one: we got our little musical interludes (featuring both Kermit Ruffins and Elvis Costello), we got some more complicated philosophical material, and we also got some advancement on the closest thing the show has to a “procedural” storyline as Ladonna’s brother is found only in so far as Slim Charles is impersonating him in a prison somewhere. But whereas the premiere suffered from the sense that certain characters had no motivation to be acting as they were, in particular Steve Zahn’s Davis as I discussed on Sunday, here we saw why Davis both needed to find a job and why he would be so frustrated sending tourists to Bourbon Street to see the “real” New Orleans. Throw in the introduction of Sonny and Annie, two musicians working as buskers and confronting the same sort of tourist/reality binary, and you’ve got plenty of new ideas and some compelling scenes to help get them across, which is precisely what the show should be offering at this stage of the game.

Cultural Observations

  • For some compelling thoughts from David Simon in regards to the position of Tourists within the series, James Poniewozik has his answer to some questions he posed via email in regards to the church group from my future home, Madison, Wisconsin.
  • My one complaint about the series thus far is that the scenes where the bureaucratic or administrative failures during Katrina are discussed can often feel like exposition: while most of what we’re learning is coming from character experience, Melissa Leo’s character in particular seems to be learning information through scenes that feel much less organic, which is perhaps unavoidable but still something that should evolve as the season goes on.
  • Interesting bit of commentary on the sense of “taking advantage of tragedy” with Creighton’s novel about the 1927 flood – I think everyone pretty much agrees that Treme is far enough removed from and very self-conscious in regards to Katrina, but that concern is likely still present for some viewers, so it’s a little bit meta that they’d be bringing it into the fold.
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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Treme – “Meet De Boys on the Battlefront”

  1. S. Tarzan

    You mean Slim Charles, not Cheese, yes?

  2. Do you still feel like Davis has no motivation to be the person that he is? Or do you feel like this episode shined a light on his personality a little, especially given that he’s not the biggest jerk on the show (prize to Sonny). Selfish? Maybe. But at least his exasperation with people that don’t understand New Orleans comes from a place of wonder for his city instead of seeing the tourists as idiots unable to comprehend. I think he wanted to light those poor kids from Wisconsin on fire with laser beam eyes.

  3. Lemmy

    I wouldn’t say that Bernette’s rant against identity studies is necessarily out of character for an English professor. In some forms, literary study aims to take individuals imaginatively beyond themselves — see Northrop Frye’s classically liberal notion that the most powerful literature can catalyze experiences of imaginative sympathy that can then spill over into forms of social, and even political, engagement. Bernette’s objection to the relentless focus on “ME” that drives identity studies is thereby perfectly consistent with his role as an English prof, and with older forms of left-leaning liberalism that regard self-absorption as perhaps the most serious impediment to practically progressive politics.

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