Nothing monumentally dramatic happens in “Slip Away,” the fifth episode of Treme’s second season, but I think it’s the best episode this season has produced. It opens and closes with striking sequences that capture a sense of what it must have been like to live in the crime-stricken city New Orleans had become in 2007 and a sense of what it felt like to be one of those trying to will it to change and wondering if change was possible. The first of these events is the funeral of Dinneral Shavers, the Hot 8 drummer whose shooting death marked a low point in New Orleans’ post-Katrina history and a sign the city’s crime had found a new definition for the phrase “out of control.” The second is the street protests staged partly in reaction to that murder. Both are beautifully, and quite differently, staged.
Let’s talk about the first one first. Treme risks offense by recreating the funeral of a real, not-long-dead person. But “Slip Away” exercises the utmost respect in portraying Shavers’ funeral, portraying both the frayed emotions of those who loved him and the sense of loss and solidarity it inspires in New Orleans’ musicians. Outside the Fifth African Baptist Church, a throng of musicians waits to see Shavers off. Some knew and played with him. Others are just there out of solidarity with the community. As Steve Earle’s character, Harley, tells Annie later, “It felt right.” Musicians turn out for musicians, and as we approach the credits, the episode gives us the image of silent horns lifted in the air. Something has happened that demands acknowledgment, but Treme opts for a powerful, understated gesture to make that acknowledgement.
It applies the same sensibility to Sofia’s slow revelation that her father committed suicide. Stopped by a teacher after an assembly for another teacher who killed himself, she stops to wonder why she was singled out, connects it to her mom’s own reaction to the news, and then puts two and two together. It’s not hard. Part of her probably already knew it. But to confirm her suspicions, she follows his route and rides the ferry from which he jumped to his death. When she gets home, she has a confrontation with her mother, but doesn’t acknowledge what she’s come to recognize. Later, she finds she can’t watch her mother work, even though she’s working, as Oliver Thomas puts it, on the side of the angels. Watching this sequence, I found myself thinking about the easy ways to stage Sofia’s realization, particularly a heated confrontation between Sofia and Toni in which the former calls out the latter for lying to her. We don’t get that here. If that scene appears in later episodes, I won’t hold it against the show, but I appreciate that Treme lets us make the connection and contemplate the hell poor Sofia must be going through without making anything explicit.
Speaking of Thomas, I really liked his scenes with Sofia, where he gently explained why his opinions off the record don’t always match his opinions on the record and how working to get things done means more than expressing the right point of view all the time. It’s as concise an explanation of how democracy really works as I’ve heard. But it’s also strangely optimistic in its insistence that it always does work. The Pigeontown Steppers may end up getting their permit, but others might not come out of the process so fortunate. The machine has away of grinding up angels and devils alike, sometimes. (Or, in the case of Thomas, who many favored to be mayor after Nagin, making it hard to tell one from the other.)
Toni knows that quite well. Here, she keeps trying to focus on her sure-thing case against the police force for the shootings on the Danziger Bridge and away from the more difficult, and less profitable, case she’s been working. But something’s not letting her let it go. That nagging need to pursue justice isn’t unknown to the police, however: Here, Lt. Colson keeps returning to a murder that others are treating as an open-and-shut case that he sees differently. Like Thomas, they all want the system to work and even believe it can work. But they also realize the extraordinary effort that takes.
Some choose to work in the systems that keep New Orleans working. Others get drawn into them. Antoine really wants to focus on his band—which, ragtag as it is, still has a hot gig at LaDonna’s place this week—but each week draws him deeper into his teaching gig. And it’s not just necessity drawing him in. He’s starting to care for his kids and, after learning one of his drummers has been shot—a parallel of Shavers’ death—he senses that the responsibility for keeping New Orleans filled with musicians rests partly on his shoulders.
As for the literal task of rebuilding New Orleans: That rests on other shoulders, specifically Nelson’s, whose immersion in all things New Orleans continues this week with a trip to Mosca’s Restaurant in nearby Avondale. As much as I’m enjoying Jon Seda’s performance as Nelson and the way it’s never clear if his character will come truly to appreciate New Orleans or forever treat it as a smorgasbord laid out just for him, I’m starting to get more interested in Dan Ziskie’s Liguori, the wealthy, devoutly Catholic businessman who’s given Nelson his New Orleans passport. He delivers his “what’s great about Mosca’s is the same thing New Orleans struggles with in some ways” speech in kindly tones, but he seems to be easing Nelson into a position where he’s bound to look responsible for some truly radical, tradition-breaking changes in the city, specifically in a zone already marked on a map in Liguori’s office. At first I thought the character was simply an exposition device, a means to drop Nelson into the middle of city life, but it’s now looking like he has another role to play.
Elsewhere, Davis’ empire-building get an unexpected boost when Mannie Fresh agrees to participate on his sampler album, with some coaxing from Aunt Mimi. As hoary as the old-lady-raps comedy trope is, I still kind of loved that scene, and its details of what the air’s like at the upper reaches of the music industry: Lawyers in expensive suits making calls to musicians with a unique sense of time. While Davis tries to find the new sound of New Orleans, and Annie makes her first fledgling steps into songwriting by penning lyrics obviously about Sonny to a tune unwittingly lifted from Bob Dylan, Del tries to meld the new with the old, bringing some Jelly Roll Morton into his set much to the appreciation of a newly employed Janette. The crowd digs it, but Del’s girlfriend (when in New York) remains unconvinced. She’s also polite, but just polite, to Janette. Developing…
Also developing: Albert’s disillusionment and depression. By episode’s end, he’s grown so frustrated with New Orleans’ reconstruction, with its endless fees and inspections, he’s ready to leave for Houston, an unthinkable move just a season before. He leaves even as others double-down on their commitment to New Orleans via the anti-violence march, with its converging streams of protestors from different neighborhoods, all of whom have had enough. Like the opening sequence, it’s staged quite effectively, cutting from the noise of the crowd to Nelson and LaDonna watching the action from a quiet distance, each removed from it for quite different reasons—one’s seen too much violence and the other’s still new enough in town to treat it with an academic remove—then finally to LaDonna’s bar, with no LaDonna to inhabit it and keep it alive. The marchers in the street imagine a better future, but that future remains very much unwritten.
- Rob Bailey, a veteran of The Wire, and many other shows directed tonight’s episode from a script by Mari Kornhauser, an LSU screenwriting professor. (Kornhauser also penned the gloriously awful New Orleans-set, Nicolas Cage-starring, sex-filled 1991 drama Zandalee, but don’t hold that against her.)
- “We shall seek an appointment with Mr. Fresh.”
- Was I the only one a little confused about how Mr. Fresh knew Davis' aunt? I watched that scene a couple of times and didn't quite get it.