Coming into this “Do Whatcha Wanna,” Treme’s second-season finale, a few plot developments seemed inevitable: Oliver Thomas would be dramatically charged with corruption, the police shooting case would reach a dramatic conclusion, Nelson would be forced to choose between his new appreciation of New Orleans and his urge to make money, LaDonna would leave town in tears, and Annie would write and debut a song. Or at least all that seemed likely to me, goes to show you what I know even after watching both seasons of this show and writing about one of them. Of course, I should have known better. If Simon and Overmeyer are good at anything it’s subverting expectations and this thoughtful, lovely finale shrugged off virtual every apparent narrative obligation and still brought the season to a satisfying conclusion.
Nelson finds himself on the other side of the insider/outsider divide when he’s cut off from the network that’s made his time in New Orleans so profitable and, for him at least fun. But, by doing (shady) business with Oliver Thomas, he’s now a potential liability for the people who let him set up shop, the men who keep their distance, never get indicted and who know how to use catspaws, like Nelson, to get things done. After a season spent using his cousin Arnie to further his goals, he gets an earful of Arnie’s frustration. I suspect, as he drinks himself into a stupor, it’s the words “What do you do?” that ring in his head.
Nelson gets something close to a villain’s ending, which may be harsher than he deserves. Or is it? His story has been one of misplaced arrogance. He arrived with the condescending notion that he could make New Orleans work for him and ended up—at least now—crushed by that notion. But that doesn’t mean he can’t come back. Witness Sonny, who bottomed out early this season and earned a chance to work his way back thanks to the support of a friend and a previously untapped work ethic. This week he even earns the respect of the Vietnamese shrimp-boat captain whose daughter Sonny wants to date, thanks to the respect and effort he puts into working on the boat. Sonny’s story in the back half of this season hasn’t been all that complicated but it’s worked, rescuing a character a lot of viewers had seen as, at best, as annoyance.
Sonny’s time on the shrimp boat also provides some foreshadowing of what’s to come for New Orleans and, possibly, the show. Passing by some offshore oil rigs, Sonny spots some leaking oil and told this is normal. And maybe it is, insofar as anything related to oil drilling can be called normal, but the Deepwater Horizon oil spill destined to happen in 2010 won’t be normal and the shots of those rigs look chilling even if you don’t know what’s to come. It will prove calamitous, maybe even disastrous, for those like Sonny’s new friends, who make their living on the waters. And maybe even for those who make their living serving food pulled from the Gulf. Is it possible that Janette will make a triumphant return to the world of New Orleans cuisine just in time to see her business imperiled by the industrial accident? Maybe. But for now she’s riding high. She’s got investors interested in making her dreams come true and a complicated but—so far at least, delightfully complicated—new relationship with Jacques. She knows sleeping with her sous-chef could mean trouble for both of them, but she sure looks happy.
Even Davis sees it when they meet at Jazzfest, which means he probably also sees how troubled Annie has grown. She wakes up screaming since Harley’s murder and it’s only in the episode’s closing moments that we see her doing anything but hanging around Davis. Putting, at last, pen to paper and finishing one of Harley’s songs. That’s in keeping with one of the season’s themes: The question of who would carry on New Orleans music and keep pushing it forward. From the looks of things, Antoine won’t be doing that directly. His adventures in leading his own band effectively come to an end with this episode but his adventures in leading a band of kids eager to make their own music, even paying for Robert’s lessons himself, seem to be just beginning. When his charges break into a respectable, street music-worthy rendition of what sounds like a variation on Treme’s theme—though listening again I’m not entirely sure I’m right about that—it’s an unexpected, and moving moment that brings the series so far full circle.
Though, happily we’re getting at least one more season of the show, “Do Watcha Wanna” could almost have worked as a series finale. Watching it, I found myself thinking of our recent Inventory of satisfying accidental series finales; it could easily have fit on that list. If this was the last we saw of Treme’s characters, I would have felt as if we’d gone on a memorable journey with each. Often that journey has been circular. Janette has come home. Del is headed there as well. Given the funds to restore his house thanks to, um, unexpectedly robust foreign sales for Del’s album, Albert has gotten a renewed sense of self-respect. (Interestingly, the series doesn’t put too fine a point on the fact that most people in his situation don’t have enterprising jazz musician sons with the means to bail them out, but that might have been a bit of a downer even for Treme.) LaDonna, too, comes back. It’s hard to imagine her living happily anywhere else. Hers harrowing story gets wrapped up neatly but, man, does the wrap-up work. Khandi Alexander has been turning in a remarkable performance week-in and week-out this season and here Lance E. Nichols, who plays her husband Larry, steps up to deliver the quiet counterpoint to her performance.
Not that there’s no loose ends even beyond Sonny’s encounter with the pump station. Though Sofia and Toni end the episode with a nice moment of togetherness—one that seems to confirm Sofia’s excursion into the lifestyle of New Orleans bad girl as a season of acting out rather than a true change of character—the police shooting case remains unsolved. One of the few complaints I’ve had about this season is that that particular subplot has seemed almost extraneous to the action, but maybe I wasn’t taking the long view. Now Terry and Toni have parted ways but both are after the same thing and both have sought out the FBI. As they say in the news trade, developing…
Then, finally, there’s Davis, whose own musical ambitions reach an impasse when he realizes what those around him have seen all along: He’s better at vision than execution. So he exits with a take on James Brown’s “Sex Machine” that lampoons his own Uptown origins and makes his way back to the radio station for one of the best moments this series has produced: that beautiful montage set to Louis Armstrong’s “Wrap You Troubles In Dreams.” Alternating shots of Treme’s characters with images from the city they call home, it provides a lyrical summary of the journey so far: Antoine and Desiree have found a home. LaDonna, after her confrontation with her assailant, has come back with Roger, who’s seen the woman with whom he fell in love come back to him. Janette realizes she’s got a long way to go, Nelson is on the outside looking in, Sonny has a life he never could have imagined for himself and is happy living in it, Sofia is carrying on through sadness and disappointment, Albert and Del are rebuilding, Toni and Terry don’t speak, Harley is not forgotten, a kid lies dead as two homicide cops chuckle… And then the city, beautiful, ruined, recovering. That one got me too.
One final note before we say goodbye for now: Ernest Dickerson directs tonight’s episode from a Simon script and both have a little more space thanks to a 90-minute running time. They make the most of it. Many scenes are driven less by dialogue than by wordless bits of acting and it all moves to a slightly more leisurely pace. Where most episodes of Treme have clicked through all of the plots democratically, here we don’t even see major characters into fairly deep into the episode. I liked it. This, to my eyes, is one of the very best episodes the series has produced, and it benefited from the extra space. I’d love to see next season have more 90-minute episodes. It certainly wasn’t too much of a good thing this week.
• Janette tearing up on streetcar… ‘Nuff said.
• Thanks to Marcus Gilmer for filling in last week. He did a great job. One more round of applause for Marcus, okay?
• I’ll just let Pops tell it too: