Treme – “At the Foot of Canal Street”

“At the Foot of Canal Street”

May 2nd, 2010

How do you solve a problem like Katrina? If Treme started out by looking at how people survived the storm and how they are struggling to bounce back personally and professionally from its immediate impact, “At the Foot of Canal Street” moves onto how it is that the myriad of problems caused by the storm are being fixed. As the nation talks about canceling Carnival or not rebuilding the city, and as the city’s public works contractor is revealed to be incompetent, characters are forced to wonder whether they should take things into their own hands and try to enact some change on their own.

There’s some broad strokes in this particular part of the episode, characters proposing political campaigns and recording profanity-laced YouTube videos, but it subtly ripples through the rest of the show’s characters and storylines. Everyone has that point where they wonder if they should take their fate into their own hands, or where they struggle to do the right thing because they know it’s bigger than they realize, and Treme is just as interested in those responses as it is the direct engagement with bureaucracy and national media. “At the Foot of Canal Street” doesn’t entirely fix some of the show’s early red flags, but George Pelecanos nicely integrates even the show’s most problematic character into a narrative that feels as genuine as the rest of the series.

Creighton and Davis are quite similar characters, in that the storm hasn’t actually changed them: I’m pretty sure that Creighton was the kind of person who ranted and raved before the storm hit, and chances are that Davis was just as Davis-like in the pre-Katrina era. The question now becomes what exactly they’re going to do about it: while the show set up Creighton’s activism in the premiere, and we’ve seen Davis’ love for his city manifest in a number of stories, here we see the two men responding (or preparing to respond) in public fashions to the way the city is being treated by those in charge or those observing from afar. Creighton turns to YouTube (following his daughter’s example) and is quite chuffed at the response it generates in New Orleans (free coffee!), while Davis drunkenly ponders a run for political office and uses it to fuel his creative juices as he records what appears to be a rap late into the night.

They are, however, lucky: they didn’t have their homes destroyed, and while Davis has his keyboard stolen it doesn’t seem like he lacks for music equipment. They have the time to consider focusing on the world around them because they’re not like Janette, who is dealing with a house she doesn’t have money to fix and a restaurant that gets put out of commission by the incompetence of the public works contractor. They’re also not like Annie, whose transient lifestyle has left her disconnected from politics and keeps her from becoming “part of” New Orleans to the same degree as some of the other characters. They’re also not like Albert, who is caught up in Insurance battles and in reconnecting and reviving the culture of the city rather than fighting against those who threaten it. Everyone has their own way of responding, or not responding to this crisis, and seeing the diverse range of responses is one of the show’s greatest accomplishments.

Pelecanos (who wrote some fantastic penultimate episodes for The Wire) does a nice job of tying this theme into some of the less political stories in the episode, especially with Antoine Batiste. Wendell Pierce is having a lot of fun in the role, like starting the singalong in the E.R. as he waits to get his stitches out, but there’s a sadness to this character as he heads to Baton Rouge with Christmas gifts too young for his aging children. He’s well-meaning, not wanting to go so close to Christmas without presents, but his choice of gifts demonstrate how he doesn’t know his own children; in some ways he’s not unlike the company that filled in pot holes with gravel, trying to patch up their relationship when he knows that it may just wash away. It’s a poignant little story, and I thought Pierce was great throughout.

The Sonny story was somewhat less effective, but that has more to do with the character itself: this show has a pattern of showing us the character’s behaviour without context before explaining where they came from, which means we met Sonny when he was a bit of a jerk before starting to understand his story. He was a kid from Amsterdam (hence the accent) who Annie met backpacking and who has always been in love with New Orleans culture, so he truly has a romantic notion of the city. What’s interesting is that he’s only been there for a year and a half, so we wonder if he really understands the “real” New Orleans if he simply plays on street corners. His trip to Houston reminds him that he’s not an accomplished piano player, a “pretender” in quite a few ways, but he drags the Houston bouncer to New Orleans in an effort to keep the romantic notions alive – he resents Annie “fitting in” with local New Orleans musicians independent of his contribution, which seemed really jerk-like last week but which at the very least has been given some context this time around.

The episode also spends some time with Delmond in New York, which is a nice little story: it’s weird to see a story not “in” New Orleans, but the idea of exploiting Katrina for the sake of the concert tour and becoming part of New Orleans Jazz even when he clearly doesn’t play New Orleans Jazz nicely fits in with the search for identity after the storm. I still don’t know who half the people that he and his girlfriend ran into are, but the whole “Monogamy with Exceptions” bit was quite charming and I will never turn down Jim True-Frost on my television.

The show’s ongoing “serial” story still isn’t going anywhere (in that I don’t really care about David’s fate), but I thought that the explanation from Slim Charles was a nice bit of connection to the main theme for a change. They switched I.D. bracelets out of survival, as he didn’t want to get thrown into jail and he also didn’t want to see David (or so he claims) get destroyed by prison. The problem is that now it isn’t about survival it’s about pursuing the truth and moving on with your lives, and so now David is either dead or stuck somewhere facing a murder charge – what happens during the storm is one thing, but solving the problems that arrive from that chaos is something far more complicated, and the show is getting into playing out those stories.

Cultural Observations

  • Wire fans are unlikely to miss a shout-out in general, but “Hamsterdam” is such a beloved part of the series’ contribution to popular culture that I think every fan perked up at the mention. I’m guessing you have to be a slightly more attentive Wire fan to catch the Steve Earle cameo, as it’s a little bit less obvious, but it was marvelous nonetheless.
  • I love Clarke Peters in general, but his goo-goo eyes with his neighbour were particularly fantastic. That story didn’t go anywhere major this week, but I think giving Albert an apprentice of sorts is a nice way to channel his desire to bring back the culture, so I like where it’s going.
  • I am glad we have an update on the state of Antoine’s trombone, although the idea that it’s trapped in a bureaucratic mess is honestly more distressing that David’s fate.
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