“I’ll Fly Away”
June 20th, 2010
“I’m just a player.”
I’ve fallen into an unfortunate trap over the past month or so with Treme, and it’s quite a common one: with a show this dense and devoid of traditional plot development, and where the professional critics are receiving screeners and I am, well, not, I haven’t been able to work up the drive to write about the episodes when I’ve been seeing them a few days late every week (as a result of the conflict with Breaking Bad, which was so great this season). I’d hate for this to be read as a slight on the series as a whole, but I do think that I’ve avoided writing about it because I’ve felt uncomfortable offering a verdict on how the series has progressed.
I think what I’ve discovered is that Treme is constantly defined by fallout, both in terms of the overarching impact of Hurricane Katrina and the individual tragedies and events which define each character’s journey. When something happens on Treme, like the conclusion of last week’s penultimate episode, the real interest for David Simon and Eric Overmeyer seems to be the consequences. The Wire’s finales were always denouements, but Treme has been one long denouement from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, and living within that space has taken these characters to some dangerous places and created consequences that will not end with tonight’s season finale. While The Wire was interested in how one small decision or one bureaucratic inefficiency could snowball into tragedy, Treme captures the spirit of a city fighting to overcome inescapable tragedy, and the result has been some great television.
“I’ll Fly Away” is a powerful and riveting finale, one which emphasizes the central notion of how these individuals fit into the world around them. Treme is filled with characters who either struggle against the script they’re given (the creators) or who simply play the sheet music placed before them (the players), and after Katrina hit New Orleans everyone was forced to ask how far they would follow their desire to take control of their own future, and at what point they would simply let themselves be washed away by the storm’s aftermath towards a new path in life. At the conclusion of Treme’s first season, we see numerous characters reach the point where they’re forced to make a choice, and yet it is never presented as a judgment (either positive or negative) on New Orleans culture.
Regardless of whether these characters choose to fly away or stay in New Orleans until the bitter end, they will always love this city, and that infectious love is so apparent in the production of this series that no amount of tragedy can outweigh the strength of spirit shown in these opening episodes. While the series’ highly recognizable subject matter could have overwhelmed the individual characters that Simon and Overmeyer have created to populate their historical fiction, these characters have instead become a powerful way in which we as an audience come to understand the life of New Orleans, and the sheer weight that they were forced to carry once Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke.
And Treme is that much more accomplished for carrying that weight with such confidence.
Creighton Bernette’s death was a tragedy for everyone but Creighton himself. For Creighton, the tragedy was Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans, and so he lashed out by going online to spread his gospel, creating content to try to make a difference. However, when he actually sat down to write something substantial, to write about New Orleans’ past and to reconnect with his long gestating novel, he can’t do it. He realizes that in the wake of Katrina, everything feels empty: while for some Mardi Gras was a way to capture what was lost, for Creighton it was a reminder of how much had changed. He was playing the part he was supposed to play, putting on the costume and walking the streets, but it didn’t feel right anymore: while the script may remain the same, the set is completely different, and there was a disconnect there which shook Creighton. As he struggles to take control of his book project, it becomes representative of his struggle to take control of post-Katrina New Orleans, and to take control of his life: he eventually has one final New Orleans day before taking control of his own story, drowning himself in the river so as to assert his authority over his narrative. Creighton Bernette may not have been able to author a book, but he authored the end of his own life, and for him that was a small victory.
For Toni, it was an absolute tragedy, an unthinkably selfish act which leaves her with the burden of keeping details surrounding his death from his teenage daughter and the guilt of having not seen the signs, and not done more to help. Part of what we’ve learned by watching Treme is that New Orleans is a community, where people band together and where Second Lines grow from a small processional to an outright parade as friends and strangers alike join the line in solidarity for the fallen New Orleanian. At first, I thought the various ways in which these characters were connected was a contrivance, but here it’s powerful to see Davis and Janette both recognize Creighton in different contexts; it may make this a decidedly small world, but it’s a sense of community that you need in order to survive a storm like Katrina. However, as Toni points out, Creighton quit that community when he chose to end his own life, leaving behind those he loved to struggle not only with the ramifications of his own death but also the continued ramifications from Katrina. It’s one thing to chart your own path independent of the community, as Janette does when she flies off to New York or as Delmond did when he left New Orleans years earlier; it’s another to abandon that community, to never be able to come back (as Delmond did when he was needed, let’s remember).
Say what we will about Sonny and Annie, but they offer an intriguing glimpse into the position of the individual within this community. Sonny and Annie are outsiders, and they each come to New Orleans with two very different points of view: Sonny is there to experience this culture he’s admired from afar and to become immersed in its essence, while Annie is there to play along, following Sonny on a whim without any real connection to the city. Annie eventually assimilates quite well, connecting with various other musicians and creating opportunities for herself by playing well and being open to new experiences. Sonny, meanwhile, is never able to channel his initiative towards anything more substantial, so set on embracing and representing New Orleans culture that he’s unwilling to waver from his set plan. He is an imitator and an imposter, a dime-a-dozen pianist who has little but a dream, a keyboard and a modicum of talent to get him through life. Annie, by comparison, is a musician if not an “artist”: while she may not be creating her own music or singing lead vocals (she is, after all, “just a player”), she’s willing to learn, and she’s willing to sing harmonies for others. While Steve Earle writes his song on the streets in a collaborative environment, Sonny tries to write his song alone, and when it doesn’t turn out to his liking he throws a tantrum and retreats to the seclusion and isolation that cocaine offers.
Sonny’s problem is that he isn’t actually capable of taking control of his life, perhaps because of his dependence on drugs and perhaps because of some sort of psychic trauma experienced during Hurricane Katrina (since we now know that his stories of saving people’s lives were not fabrications). However, Sonny’s pupil in embracing adventure and seizing the day is more than capable: the bouncer from Texas has become the contractor from New Orleans, using his kind deed done for Ladonna in order to get a share of the contractor’s business moving forward. We’re not supposed to like Sonny, as he’s been written and played as a complete douchebag from pretty much the word go, but I think we’re meant to see him as a particular sort of tragedy (and one that’s valuable to the show in its own despicable way). He’s someone who came to New Orleans to soak up the culture and be a part of something special, and yet he finds himself trying to make a living in a broken city that he has no idea how to fix and in a broken relationship that he’s incapable of fixing. Just as Creighton jumped in the river to take control of his life, Sonny cedes control of his by getting high, escaping his reality and further separating himself from the community which could embrace him if he only reached out to them, if he was open to being a player as opposed to a lone wolf.
The reason that Davis went from a hateful troll to an endearing ragamuffin is because he became part of that community. When he first arrived, he was an artist struggling against “the man” and largely being a dick about it; while he presented himself as a curator of New Orleans culture, he seemed to be standing alone in his quest. However, when he began to engage with politics and when he began to engage with various parts of the series’ musical community, we came to understand that Davis is legit: he may not be the most disciplined individual in the world, but he is someone whose desire to create and engage with the world around him is noble and valuable. His battle with his gay neighbours seemed petty, but once they show a sense of community by helping him off the streets he takes down his speakers and strikes up a friendship like any neighbour would do. Davis is defensive and antagonistic, but once we better understood the community he was protecting, and once we saw how Davis’ enthusiasm could make a difference in that environment, his antics became funny more than frustrating. He may have abandoned his run for Mayor for a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, but he still put himself out there, and when he returns to the radio station with a less rebellious but nonetheless culturally respectful mandate (dedicating a song to the Indians) it’s like we’re seeing the character in a whole new light, a new light which never shone down on Sonny as a result of his reluctance to embrace the community around him.
Albert, meanwhile, is perhaps the most definitive “creator” in the series, as the Indian tradition of making a new suit every single year is more important to him than proper living arrangements (still living in a converted bar) or any other part of his life. When he is eventually forced to compromise, as they simply don’t have enough time for everyone to wear a new suit for the occasion, he doesn’t throw a tantrum: while Albert is willing to take a stand for his cause, he has come to accept that things are different, that Katrina changed the rules of the game. While Creighton couldn’t imagine that Mardi Gras could ever be the same after the storm (as he seemed to indicate in his post-festival depression), Albert misses Mardi Gras while in jail and simply looks forward to St. Joseph’s Day, and when they don’t quite get all of the work done they wanted to get done he looks forward to the following year when more people will be back and they’ll be ready in time. While Creighton was going on YouTube, Albert was orchestrating a sit-in to get the housing projects open, and doing his very best to restore the culture he loved so dearly. Clarke Peters has been tremendous throughout the series, but as he parades through the streets and squares off with another Indian band and the police, there is a confidence he provides in Albert that we can’t help but respect. While he has had his transgressions (like nearly beating a thief to death, for example), his unwavering desire to unite his former community is perhaps the series’ most inspiring and uplifting storyline, a beacon of hope amidst a great deal of tragedy.
The other beacon of hope in the series has been the struggles of Antoine Batiste: while he has had his transgressions as well (most sexual in nature), for the most part Antoine is struggling with things which have nothing to do with the storm. While the storm has made his life more difficult, it has exacerbated existing problems (his sons drifting away from him, his newborn daughter, his struggles to remain faithful, etc.) more than created new ones. His inability to get work makes taking care of his family a greater challenge, but his struggles are ultimately no different than any other starving musician. The series has created all sorts of levels of musicians on the series, and there’s a sense that the storm knocked Antoine down a peg: while the successful (like Kermit, or Antoine’s trombone-playing rival) are more in demand than ever as people try to capture and preserve New Orleans culture, those who were once perhaps nipping at their heels become merely players, left to take any spare gig you can find. And because we know Antoine so well, we see him struggling a bit: there’s a moment as he rehearses for the finale’s gig where he seems simultaneously bored by the rigidity of the arrangement and overwhelmed by its complexity. Antoine ends up gambling away his money from the gig because he isn’t there to play the notes: he’s there to be part of the community, and the camaraderie from the poker game is more valuable than cable and groceries for a musician.
Antoine didn’t really have a choice: without a car, and without a home, Antoine is forced to take any gig he can find in order to stay afloat (pun unintended). However, there will come a point in time where he may have a choice, where he will have an opportunity to start fighting again. Ladonna has been fighting from the very beginning, working to find her missing brother and refusing to accept that he was simply lost in the storm. As that story unfolded, and the bureaucracy is revealed to have failed David in the worst possible way, Ladonna keeps fighting until that moment when she sees his body in a refrigerated truck in a prison parking lot. At that point, Ladonna accepts the script she has been given because there’s no use fighting it: while Toni wants her to continue the fight and do a second autopsy to continue the court battle and to hold the city accountable, once Ladonna comes to her own conclusion she isn’t interested in the city being forced to admit to it, or any sort of compensation to be paid. There’s a point where you need to say goodbye, when someone like Davis needs to abandon his race for city council or when Janette needs to stop fighting Katrina’s impact on her restaurant and set up shop somewhere else. It isn’t the same as quitting, which is what Creighton did: while they may be bowing out of this particular fight, they remain connected to the community from which they come. Janette may be going to New York, but she’s going to keep cooking New Orleans food, bringing that part of her with her: Davis’ final day may not have convinced her to stay, but it perfectly captured everything she loves about New Orleans, and everything she wants to take with her when she tries her luck in the Big Apple.
And yet, for those who keep fighting, Antoine’s poker mantra represents words to live by: he only needs a few more hands to turn it around, and for those who keep fighting in New Orleans there is that sense that the light is just around the corner. However, that light isn’t going to solve everyone’s problems, nor is it going to erase Katrina from their memory. The decision to flashback to the days before the storm as the various characters prepared for the onslaught was a bit strange to me at first: as noted above, the series has done a fantastic job of emphasizing the weight of Katrina on these characters’ lives, and so we didn’t need to see how they initially responded in order to understand what they’re going through. Plus, it’s not as if the flashbacks solve any particular mysteries, as Toni’s investigative work accurately pieced together the circumstances surrounding David’s arrest, and we could have presumed that Albert would board up his windows and that Antoine would be worried about protecting rare LPs.
However, what I think that scene emphasizes is the sense that everyone was forced to abandon New Orleans: while Sonny and Annie stay out of necessity (with no car to take them anywhere), all of the other characters were forced to leave by the circumstances, holing up in hotel rooms or visiting with parents/family out of state. Davis, first suggesting that he planned to weather the storm, panics when it becomes certain it will make landfall, throwing his guitar into the back of his car and running for his life. While some guilt (like Ladonna’s struggles to keep David’s fate from her mother during Mardi Gras, or Toni’s struggles to understand Creighton’s decision) is character-specific, every character feels in some way guilty that they weren’t there for New Orleans, and they weren’t able to help their city when it was drowning – their community, as it is, was scattered across the southern United States, and remains scattered to this day. When they think about the people who died, or the people who have no homes to come back to, their own struggles fade away. Antoine is perhaps the best example of this: while he is not perfect, he realizes that Ladonna’s struggles are greater than his own and helps pay for the restoration of the family crypt, and he passes off his new trombone to his mentor as opposed to selling it for cash. Antoine’s greatest fault is that his love for his city may be more powerful than his love for his baby mama and his children, but are we supposed to fault him for that? Are we not supposed to see the relationship between the city and its citizens as the most central to this series, individual bonds which drive these characters more than their interpersonal connections?
Treme will always be a series about characters who are dangerously defined by their past, who struggle to escape the consequences of Katrina and either reconnect with their old life or chart a new course for themselves. Initially, I felt as if the historical specificity of the storyline was almost overbearing, as a character like Creighton voiced what we presumed to be David Simon’s own opinions on the bureaucratic failures and as Toni’s search for David revealed the chaos which reigned in New Orleans in the months after the storm. However, the show eventually evolved into a character study first and foremost, a look into the complexities of grief and identity within one of America’s great cities. If The Wire was about the American city as a bureaucratic structure, Treme is about the American city as a community of people forced to live within that structure. The result is a show which, unlike The Wire, is capable of consistently rising above tragedy to feel hopeful: in the final scenes of “I’ll Fly Away,” there is no dialogue to explain what we’re seeing, but yet Daymo’s second line tells us all we need to know. We see Ladonna swept away in the music and embracing her new reality, while Antoine walks with his two sons and reconnects with the family that he drifted away from in the past (and that the storm, in some ways, brought back into his life). And we see Toni Bernette, standing at the back of the line starting to understand Ladonna’s decision, and perhaps reflecting on her own situation.
That situation remains unresolved in the finale, but I think that Toni’s dilemma captures the bittersweet reality in which Treme exists. Creighton’s desire to have a second line at his funeral was made before he decided to “quit” on life, and as Toni points out the Second Line is not for those who choose the coward’s way out (even if they believe it to be the hero’s path instead). And yet so much of the show has been about celebrating in the wake of tragedy, taking to the streets in a parade while people struggle to find food to eat. That sense of guilt is part of post-Katrina New Orleans, a shared experience that haunts everyone in a different way. It’s not something that you’ll ever be able to reconcile, and it’s not something that I ever want Treme to lose: that this finale could be both heartbreaking and inspiring speaks to the strength of the writing and the performances, but also the general spirit of the show. While The Wire largely used subtle scenes and unique perspectives to achieve its particular spirit, with Treme it’s the musical performances that bring life to this world. While the show is light on plot, it more than makes up for it by placing its characters smack dab in the middle of New Orleans culture, prompting them to either push to create their own story or simply embrace the new New Orleans around them, or some combination therein which inspires them in some capacity.
Perhaps my single favourite scene all season came in “All On a Mardi Gras Day”: Kim Dickens, who really did some great work in a less showy role than the other female “leads” of sorts, is drunk and walking down the street in a fairy costume singing “Iko Iko” and trying to turn a car into a taxi with her magic wand. While there have been many circumstances where spontaneous musical performances have emerged, there was something so charming about the “Hey Now” refrain being picked up by the passerby. Much as the spirit of Glee is in the power of music to bring people together, on Treme music is the spirit of the community coming together, but while Glee is about grand gestures Treme is about small moments. The spirit of Treme cannot unite a broken New Orleans, just as Albert’s St. Joseph’s parade can’t bring the lost Indians back into the fold through a single performance, and despite how joyous the show’s music has been it has always felt that little bit sad. Janette’s performance is a woman using Mardi Gras to release the tension from having to shut down her restaurant and give up her dream, just as Sonny’s sit-in during his trip to Houston demonstrated his marginalized state, or just as Delmond’s live performances capture the clash between his past and present identities. Music is not only the positive spirit of the Treme, but within these musical performances the complications and contradictions within post-Katrina New Orleans emerge, along with simple family tensions (like Albert and Delmond’s bickering overtaking their attempted duet the morning after the parade).
“I’ll Fly Away” doesn’t shy away from the darkest of consequences, but it also doesn’t stop being a show about musical expression and the freedom of performance; Treme is not a show which seeks to contrast one New Orleans with another, but rather a show which seeks to capture the breadth of New Orleanian identity and emphasize that there is a common spirit which engages in both hope and tragedy. While The Wire often pitted one against the other, resulting in crippling denouements designed to rip out our hearts, Treme seeks to capture a world where they’re forced to co-exist, and the result is a different kind of series which is similarly fantastic at tapping into the depths of humanity, and I’m extremely excited to see how the series grows and expands in its second season.
- I want to emphasize how great Agnieszka Holland’s direction was here – the whole series has been beautiful, but so much of its sense of place depends on feeling like you’re in these various locations, and I thought that was just marvelously done. In particular, the scene where Albert’s daughter is on the phone with Delmond and the plywood suddenly blocks out all the light is just a haunting image from the pre-storm flashback, and truly spectacular filmmaking.
- Great performances all around, of course, but this is most certainly Melissa Leo’s Emmy submission should she be nominated: she was great throughout the season, and for a while was the one thing keeping me really interested in the search for Daymo, but she absolutely killed here, and should she sneak in for a nomination she’s a contender.
- I’m going to post this before reading Alan Sepinwall’s post-mortem with David Simon since I want to edit 4000 words before getting some sleep, but from what I’ve seen Simon’s candor is as welcome as ever, and there’s some really great stuff on the show’s “lack of plot,” the flashbacks, and plans for Season Two.
- Just as a note, it’s interesting that the women of Treme have been so comparatively shaken by the events of Katrina: Janette loses her business, Toni loses her husband, and Ladonna loses her brother, and by comparison the plights of the male characters are decidedly less personal. This doesn’t mean that the men haven’t felt their own sense of grief, but I thought it was worth mentioning how the grief has remained largely centered within the female characters.
- If we go by the precedent set two years ago with Zjelko Ivanek won for Damages, John Goodman is a frontrunner for the Supporting Actor Emmy (and deservedly so, as he was really great last week).
- I’m a little uneasy about the sexual tension between Davis and Annie, both because I don’t like the idea of Janette and Davis not remaining together (despite the distance between them) and because I sort of like the idea that their connection was about community more than romance. Obviously, those two can intersect (Antoine and Ladonna, for example), but it was never a focus of the season, so I am least hoping for a bit of expansion in that area (especially since, compared with The Wire, there’s more opportunity to investigate relationships in this series. Right now they remain non-traditional (Antoine and his baby mama, Ladonna and her Baton Rouge-based husband, Davis and Janette, etc.)
- As Scott Tobias noted on Twitter, there would be great value from a performance perspective in terms of adding David Morse (playing the cop who helps Toni hide Creighton’s suicide from public record) to the cast full time; however, I wonder whether fully engaging with law enforcement could take the show too far into The Wire’s territory. I liked what they did with the character in terms of the police’s agreement with Albert surrounding the parade, and that sort of community outreach is an interesting glimpse into law enforcement, but I worry about going too far into the criminal side of things and losing the spirit of the show. Still, if they could make it work, I’d love to see Morse back in a big way.
- A fitting tribute to the late David Mills, as the episode-closing second line because his as much as Daymo’s – he died far too young, and will most certainly be missed.
- For more thoughts on the finale, check out reviews from the aforementioned Sepinwall (at HitFix) and Tobias (at The A.V. Club).