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Treme: "Santa Claus, Do You Ever Get The Blues?"

Illustration for article titled iTreme/i: Santa Claus, Do You Ever Get The Blues?
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Hello everyone. Sorry to take last week off, but I had good reason. Thanks to Hayden Childs for filling in. He did a great job, of course, even if I liked the episode considerably more than he did. As unpleasant as it was—and the attack on LaDonna was certainly the most disturbing moment the series has produced so far—it also clearly established the stakes of the season and followed logically from what previous episodes had been setting up. Where the threat of crime had provided disturbing background noise in this season’s first two episodes, here it became an unavoidable din. It dovetails with what’s shaping up to be the season’s overarching theme: Who will decide the future of New Orleans? And it provides one possible answer to that question: Maybe New Orleans has no future beyond mayhem.

Set around Christmas, “Santa Claus, Do You Ever Get The Blues?” keeps running with that that notion. LaDonna doesn’t make her first appearance until after the 10-minute mark, but it’s a breathtakingly disturbing moment. Khandi Alexander—hats off to her fine work here, again—is almost unrecognizable, and not just because LaDonna sports a black eye in the scene. Hair untended and with little attention given to her clothing, she looks far removed from the strong, confident woman we’ve come to know. Beyond her appearance, Alexander’s body language tells the story of what happened last episode, and how shattered it’s left her. Later, in the episode’s penultimate scene, Antoine learns of the death of Dinerral Shavers, a real-life New Orleans drummer, educator, and member of the Hot 8 Brass Band who was killed by a senseless bit of street violence while driving with his family. The city has gone from unstable to openly perilous.


Crime’s not the only source for fear, however. Having reluctantly undertaken the role of assistant band director to some elementary school kids who don’t even have instruments yet, Antoine watches them flinch in terror as a storm presses in, stirring memories of Katrina. Empathy begins in moments like that, however reluctant Antoine might be to make room for it.

Other characters are trying to build something in the rubble. For Annie, that means playing with Shawn Colvin, wondering if the moment could bring her to the next level of her career, chatting with an agent who might make reaching that next level possible… and then watching the possibility vanish when he recognizes she’s not ready for it. Never all that confident—she did, after all, hitch her wagon to Sonny for a long stretch—Annie looks disappointed by surprisingly undefeated by the encounter, or at least cheery enough to offer up a gift-wrapped song to Davis for Christmas.

Davis, too, is trying to make something, trying to “take New Orelans music where it’s never gone before” via a label that mixes a variety of genres (while finding room for his own music, too). It’s a dream created by his own peculiar mix of self-confidence and self-loathing, believing that he can create something out of the music that he loves that will negate his background as an educated Uptowner. (The degree to which Davis hates being white and from money can’t be underestimated. Who else would blame Teach For America rather than the government that brought them there for the troubles facing New Orleans teachers after the storm?) It’s fast-tracked by Aunt Mimi’s money, which buys studio time, some contributions from bounce artists, and the production work of Don Bartholomew (a real-life New Orleans producer who’s one half, with his brother Ron, of the Bartholomew Boys and the son of Dave Bartholomew, the man responsible—as performer, songwriter, and producer—for a large chunk of classic New Orleans R&B). That may not be enough, but it’s a start.

Antoine, too, is in the mood to build, putting together a first-rate soul covers band from local musicians—including real-life Japanese-born, New Orleans-based guitarist June Yamagishi—putting it to the test in clubs, then losing a key component when Yamagishi pulls out. Enter Sonny, a serviceable at best guitarist who can’t remember when to show up with practice and celebrates a successful gig by scoring. Something’s got to change. It’s a small town, and as his bandmate reminds him, he’s “in no danger of being, like, no great musician.”


But building isn’t a purely positive activity. Nelson’s construction projects tear through the rubble throwing out the good with the bad, including furniture and books untouched by the storm. Like the education system that’s simply brought in Teach For America rather than try to fix its problems, his approach is one of indiscriminately sweeping away the old and sweeping in the new. Part of why I like this episode—and this show, really—is the way it makes such connections without putting too fine a point on them. Patterns repeat across the city as if this era of post-Katrina city life were willing them to happen. It’s a season of renewal, but sometimes renewal comes at a cost.

That’s not confined by city limits, though. In New York, Del struggles to synthesize old and new by weaving traditional New Orleans music into modern jazz, much to the confusion of his (New York) girlfriend. He’s even taken to working on an Indian costume, even though his father isn’t making time for the tradition. Meanwhile, Jeanette defends tradition a different way. Already fed up with her job, she throws a perfectly made Sazerac into the face of Alan Richman (playing himself, like a good sport), the GQ food writer whose hatchet piece on New Orleans cuisine so enraged her in last week’s episode. She becomes, at least for a while, a folk hero for her efforts, although it leaves her a chef without a kitchen. Or, per Del, a culinary ronin. The two displaced New Orleanians meet—where else?—in a Saints bar, where Del reconnects with his briefly fired manager and Jeanette lets alcohol and a Saints victory shore up her come-what-may attitude.


Not everyone is finding his or her way out, however. Sofia learns of a teacher who’s committed suicide and seems confused as to why her mother thinks this would upset her. Albert, meanwhile, seems to sink further into depression, except when talking to a documentarian about Mardi Gras Indian culture at the Backstreet Cultural Museum (a real Treme institution dedicated to African American culture and traditions in New Orleans). At first his request that Del leave his “medicine” behind seemed like an odd note on which to end the episode. But everyone here, in one way or another, is looking to get healed.

Circling back to something Hayden said in his review, let’s talk about how Treme, like The Wire, favors short scenes, sometimes extremely short scenes, a choice that might be annoying if it didn’t use them so effectively. In some respects, it has no choice. With so many characters to follow, the show has to use their time on screen effectively or else shortchanging some strands. What I find remarkable about the show is how naturally it makes everything fit together beneath the umbrella of a single tone, even when the plots have little to do with one another, or even seem like they should clash. LaDonna coping with her rape and Davis’ musical aspirations—to choose one juxtaposition—sound like they should belong on different shows, but the contrast never seems jarring. The universe of the show feels complete, creating a sense that all the characters share that struggle of the city and the troubles of one ripple out to touch the others, even if they don’t feel it. At least that’s how it feels on a good week, like this.


Stray observations

• That said, Toni’s investigation does feel a little detached from the rest of the show at this point, doesn’t it? That could change.


• Which is better: Jeanette throwing the Sazerac or the later scene when she reenacts the moment for her friends?

• This week’s episode was written by Lolis Eric Elie, a prolific former Times-Picayune writer with a website worth visiting.


• Note that Councilman Oliver Thomas, Nelson’s new friend and Sofia’s new boss is played by the real-life Oliver Thomas. Note also that Thomas had to resign his seat in August of 2007—possibly within the timeframe of this season, depending on how deep into the year it goes—because of bribery charges stemming from some shady doings in 2001 and 2002. He served some prison time for it, too. I can’t think of another instance of a real-life figure playing himself in such a potentially unflattering setting.

• Funny story: I saw this episode by mistake a few weeks ago after putting in the wrong disc when trying to watch the season premiere. I watched the whole episode and even started writing it up until I realized my mistake. Thing is, it kind of works as a premiere anyway. You just have to fill in a few more blanks than usual.


• Hey, third season. Yay. I was worried there for a bit.

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