The penultimate episode of Treme’ is a real circle-of-life special, beginning with Davis, at the mike in the studios of WWOZ, confusing some visiting musicians by ruminating on the finality of death and the futility of existence, and ending with Big Chief Albert on his death bed. In the opening scene, Albert zones out while a priest is blessing the house; he spends most of the rest of the episode flat on his back and strung out on morphine, though he does snap to attention long enough to announce, with suitable gravity and authority, that he will not be able to make the walk this year, and to tell his son Rob to assume the crown and lead his people uptown. It’s like FDR declaring that he will not live to see the end of World War II, and asking Harry Truman to please try not to fuck up the country any more than he absolutely has to. Ron handles all this as stoically as he can, even attempting to please his father by telling him that “those modern jazz cats” he has been known to play with when he’s found himself on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line “can’t swing for shit.” But when Albert seems to be having what will be one of his last lucid moments, Rob does tell him, of a piece he played for him earlier, that “I wrote it for you.” “I know,” croaks Albert, re-affirming his stature as the Han Solo of hard-to-please father figures.
People acccept Albert as an authority figure—natural royalty—because he knows who he is. Not everyone in the city has that much going for them, and some people who have do have a pretty fair idea of who they are see it as something to be lived down. (Chef Janette, who has good reason for taking pride in who she is, is still contractually prohibited from profiting on her own name.) Davis is about to turn 40, which is why his latest on-air musings about the greatness of Louis Prima and the virtues of the Bosworth Sisters versus those of the Andrews Sisters end with the upbeat reminder, “Of course, they’re all dead now.” He asks Janette, if he drops dead tomorrow, what will he leave behind? “A good-looking corpse,” she says. Brightening, he asks, “You think so?” She shrugs: “From some angles.”
Not satisfied with this, he tries to talk his new asshole buddy Nelson into investing in his dream to start a nightclub in the largely abandoned Rampart Street area. He explains that a proper, rowdy shithole club that can foster new, living music will actually be of benefit to the staid, stuffy jazz “museum” that he thinks the money men are going to build nearby. When Nelson gingerly raises the issue with his boss, the boss shoots it down fast: He and his fellow investors will blow a cannonball through the good will they’ve purchased from the Rampart Street locals, who have been appreciating the relative quiet and will be pissed off if their neighborhood turns into one more stretch of the Quarter where drunks are weaving all over the street from late night until sun-up. It’s a brisk little lesson in the ways in which those who, like Davis, love and romanticize New Orleans and want it to live up to its legacy as the mythic home of Buddy Bolden and Sidney Bechet sometimes find themselves at odds with those residents who are just trying to live there, and would like to get some sleep before they have to go to work in the morning.
Once again, the most sheerly enjoyable scenes belong to Antoine, who has achieved a new level of consciousness about his surroundings since getting involved in the lives of his students, and who has mixed feelings about it. He can’t walk away from the role he’s taken on or the responsibilities (and the steady paycheck) that come with it. But he does treat himself to a lost weekend, throwing himself back into the lifestyle of a “New Orleans musician” with nothing on his mind but finding his next gig, jamming all night with a group that includes Kidd Jordan and Donald Harrison, then stepping out into the new day to go search for a parade to join. (He settles back into his classroom on Monday morning, instructing the children on that most important thing for a working New Orleans musician to know: How to tend a killer hangover.)
The plotline involving Toni, Terry, and their efforts to win a measure of justice for the victims of the NOPD remain the most frustrating part of the show—not because the material isn’t handled well, but because it’s based on actual recent history, and anyone who’s followed the cases knows that there won’t be (or, at least, hasn’t yet been) a triumphant, clear-cut resolution to the Danziger Bridge shootings, just as there hasn’t been an arrest made in the murder of Helen Hill, which figured prominently in the show’s second season. Treme’ links the frustration these stories generate to the other stories swirling in this episode when it has Terry admit that he doesn’t much want to be a cop anymore, and is wondering what else he can do with the rest of his life, but it can’t exorcise the frustration that the viewer shares from the sense that justice won’t be coming.
The history of the New Orleans police is an ongoing horror show, and one that it would be easy to exploit for garish thrills. (In 1995, a New Orleans policewoman named Antoinette Frank robbed the restaurant where her partner was moonlighting as a security guard, murdering him and two of the employees; a month after Frank was convicted of the murders, the remains of her father were found buried under her house, with a bullet hole in the skull. Transposed to Baltimore, the Frank case went on to inspire an episode of Homicide.) Nor has it whipped up a bunch of honest supercops, along the lines of the best and the brightest on The Wire, to fight the corruption. But it has tried to pay witness, as honestly as it can, to the fact that the justice department of a major American city that has been under terrific stress is in the hands of a Keystone Gestapo force, and to pay tribute to the few people who have tried to demand accountability from them. It just may have done too good a job of making you understand how much their heads must hurt.