Treme: "Smoke My Peace Pipe"
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Treme: "Smoke My Peace Pipe"

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Treme

"Smoke My Peace Pipe"

Season 1, Episode 7

Earlier this week, FOX Sports boob Chris Myers, filling in for ESPN gasbag Dan Patrick on his sports-talk radio show, got himself into some trouble by saying the following with regard to Nashville, NASCAR, and a certain unnamed victim of natural (or, as Creighton would argue, “manmade”) disaster:

It's a great country here. We have disasters issues when people pull together and help themselves and I thought the people in Tennessee, unlike—I'm not going to name names—when a natural disaster hits people weren't standing on a rooftop trying to blame the government, okay. They helped each other out through this.

And Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, Tony Stewart, among some drivers went from the race over to the middle Tennessee area where still a lot of hardworking, tax-paying, legal American citizens have been affected by the floods and are trying to rebuild their lives and they are helping out. And I think that other people around the country, of course the music industry in and around Nashville helping, without making a big deal out of it and I think that's a good thing.

If you want to be further depressed by this remark, you’re welcome to read the comments below the Yahoo! Sports blog post on the matter, but it does give fresh resonance to a show like Treme, doesn’t it? When Creighton talks of “Katrina fatigue” in his latest YouTube missive, he speaks of the lack of sustained relief effort that accompanies these kinds of disasters, which draw tremendous media coverage at first (“Anderson Cooper was here. Katie Couric, too.”) and very little of the necessary follow-through. Sentiments like Myers’ are rarely expressed that bluntly; you don’t have to squint much to read the coded racial language of “people standing on a rooftop trying to blame the government” versus “hardworking, tax-paying, legal American citizens.” But they do speak to the more sinister implications of “Katrina fatigue,” when the relief efforts slow down and politicians can exploit the opportunity for some social engineering—a chance, say, to disenfranchise poor, black voters and turn the political landscape from “purple to red.”

Tonight’s Treme found Albert finally taking a stand on the social engineering that led to the shutdown of projects that were mostly unaffected by Katrina. And he does it via an attention-getting stunt that recalls similarly radical experiments on The Wire, like Hamsterdam (which also involved prying into boarded-up homes) in Season Three or the made-up serial killer of Season Five. The way Albert orchestrates his publicity stunt is pretty brilliant: He and his buddies cut through the chainlink fences, set him up in a friend’s mother’s board-up house, call the news media first to get the cameras ready, and the police soon after to orchestrate a standoff. Then once the people are made aware of this injustice—with Albert getting a major assist by actual residents coming back as squatters in their own perfectly livable homes—they would surely demand that their fellow citizens be allowed to return to their homes.

Alas, no. What’s surprising about Albert’s big stunt is the muted, deflating way it ultimately plays out. He plays his cards perfectly and manufactures the scene he wants (cops and media playing their role in a standoff, a few actual residents following his lead), but it’s all dismantled without anyone raising much of a fuss. He’s even denied a good perp walk, as the arresting officers choose to beat him up rather than respect his dignity. He’s in part a victim of “Katrina fatigue”: It may be unjust for the poor and displaced to have their homes boarded needlessly, but not enough people care enough to force a change.

But for me, the women of Treme dominated “Smoke My Peace Pipe,” especially Melissa Leo and Khandi Alexander, who saw through their missing person case with devastating results. Leo has always been a favorite of mine; in fact, I sang her praises in a solo Inventory from four years ago called 10 Character Actors Who Should Be In Every Movie. Of her tough-as-nails character on Homicide, I wrote, “she was a steady presence in an office often charged with self-destructive passion,” and a lot of that ethos has carried over to Treme. As Toni, Leo again is a counterweight to self-destructive passion—this time in the form of her husband—but she’s also strong and vulnerable here, someone who’s obviously affected by the investigation but determined to see it through. When the photos of unaccounted-for OPP inmates yields nothing, you can see that gear turn in her head, as she starts to consider the very real possibility that Daymo may be among the dead. Leo plays this moment perfectly: Her eyes register the sadness and desperation you’d expect from a compassionate person, but Toni is as much an advocate for LaDonna in this tragic turn as she’s been throughout the whole dispiriting ordeal. She’s LaDonna’s backbone to a degree, and her insisting that LaDonna follow her into that storage truck is as powerful a scene as this show has produced. (And I hasten to add that Alexander is equally good, and I suspect she’ll have more of an opportunity to prove how good as this continues to unfold.)

Seven episodes into Treme, the Daymo case is the closest thing we’ve had to Wire-like procedural thread, and I’m not sure whether its strong conclusion—to the mystery at least; there’s more fallout to come—is evidence of this show’s strength or that David Simon and company are better at handling crime procedural than the slice of life Treme normally traffics. Then again, Janette's more low-key travails this week were nearly as affecting. After her triumph in front of the master chefs just two weeks ago, it’s bitterly ironic to see her selling off her cookware and fineries to a thriving restaurateur and bidding adieu to her gifted sous chef, who was of course snapped up right away. At the same time, there are signs that her mobile cookery might liberate her from the torments of operating a business and get her back to what she does best—cook. And how about that tender scene between she and the suddenly fortunate Davis, who brings her dinner for once and alleviates her of the shame she feels in living in the dark, in squalor. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.

Stray observations:

• Nice moment for Tim Reid as Judge Gatling, aghast at the corruption and dysfunction that has resulted in LaDonna’s brother to get lost in the system. As many have mentioned before, Reid’s short-lived ’87-’88 TV show Frank’s Place, which cast him as a professor turned New Orleans restaurant owner, is to some degree Treme’s spiritual godfather.

• Some compelling backstory here about the origins of the Lafcadio Hearn quote Creighton reads to his class about New Orleans: “It is better to live here, in sackcloth and ashes, than to own the whole State of Ohio.”

• This episode was so good I didn’t even get to mention Antoine’s odyssey, from playing at the airport (a humble gig made humbler by the impromptu performance of a more accomplished trombonist, Troy Andrews) to visiting his dying friend in the hospital. As an artist, an earner, and a man, Antoine has been lost all season long, and this episode underlined that movingly.

• How about Davis stumbling into greatness? He can’t keep his record in the store, he’s taking precious percentage points away from a legitimate City Council candidate, and he’s in the running for Boyfriend of the Year. His apartment still needs work, though. (“Man, you could hide a dead hooker in here and no one would know.”)

• Again, Sonny proves to be a drag on Annie (and the show). Even Steve Earle can barely watch her bungle an audition she would have nailed without Sonny’s poisonous influence on her. 

• Exchange of the night, after Janette expresses embarrassment to Davis over how she’s living: “I’m not company, Janette. I’m your friend.” “With benefits.” “With or without.”

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