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Treme: “Poor Man’s Paradise”

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“Poor Man’s Paradise” is the penultimate episode of Treme’s third season and it follows in the tradition of penultimate episodes of David Simon shows dating back to the first season of The Wire in two respects:

  1. The script is credited to George Pelecanos, and
  2. something awful happens.

Here that something awful comes in the form of the much-foreshadowed arson of Gigi’s, LaDonna’s bar and, in many respects, the center of her existence. Since the first season we’ve seen her work tirelessly to keep it open and busy even when she had every reason to give up. Her insistence on sticking with it separated her from her family on more than one occasion, keeping her in New Orleans as they lived away from the wreckage in Baton Rouge. She might easily have given it up after her attack, which spoiled any illusion about the neighborhood around it being safe and made it a place filled with traumatic memories. And this season the frustrating payoffs alone made it a source of frustration that might easily be abandoned. Larry, after all, could keep her afloat. Instead she kept it going. It meant something to her. Now it’s gone.


The burning of Gigi’s is only the most dramatic of several collapses in this episode. Not to belabor comparisons to previous seasons, or to The Wire, but season three has fallen into a familiar—and effective—pattern, bringing narratives that have been heating up, slowly, almost un-noticeably, throughout the season to a boil toward the end. Take Davis and Annie: They began the season happily enough but have been playing out a variation on A Star Is Born all season, with Davis launching an ambitious R&B opera project that now looks DOA and Annie finding success as a Lost Highway recording artist. This week’s the meltdown, with a drunk Davis crashing Annie’s recording session—though the vocals did sound a little low in the mix—while Annie looks on as if she didn’t know him. She wouldn’t be where she is without Davis but where she is now seems to have no place for Davis.

Shame about that opera, too. Davis’ personality doesn’t always make it clear where his ironic attitude ends and his genuine passion begins. Like that stereotypical Gen X-er on The Simpsons, he may not even know all the time. But this season we’ve seen him truly care about his project, and about those he roped in to participating in it. And now it’s all fallen apart, thanks largely to the corporate interests of a record label and the perceived indifference of the public, both forces he set out to combat. There’s one more episode left so it’s probably too soon to close the book on this storyline, but it doesn’t seem to be headed toward the triumph it might have been.


But it’s not just failure bringing calamity. For Janette it’s success: Her restaurant’s a hit, she’s made a signature dish out of the difficult-to-produce crawfish ravioli, and it’s no fun at all. She’s not even herself anymore, losing her temper in a way we’ve never seen her lose her temper before. Janette’s always been driven, always been concerned with getting it right, but she’s never been the kind of humorless perfectionist she is here. Her final scene, returning from preparing feast after feast to a food-less apartment is almost too on-the-nose but it’s beautifully played and directed, like the whole episode, with understatement by Roxann Dawson.

On the other hand, things are looking up for Toni and LP’s collective pursuit of justice. The latter gets a satisfying moment in which he delivers 27 questions to the NOPD. The former gets the satisfaction of finding a willing eyewitness against Wilson and of learning that Terry is on the side of good after all. Not that it’s doing him much good these days. He gets a sympathetic visit—and beer—from Toni, but he’s the subject of two of the episode’s most chilling scenes: The fight at the beginning and a moment at the police station that’s almost scarier when, having confessed to talking to the FBI, he realizes he’s now a man without a country. Terry’s been just on the inside of the protective blue line since his introduction. Now he’s on his own, which is a dangerous condition in his line of work.

Nelson and Desiree, however, have formed an unexpected alliance. Not wanting to be the scapegoat for the NOAH debacle, he’s cast his lot in with the anti-NOAH contingent, plausibly claiming merely to be the middleman doing the bidding of others. That’s not a lie, even if conceals the fact that he didn’t really care if the rehabbing or the demolitions he was performing were the right thing to do. He’s moving on to bigger projects, namely the jazz center, which also seems to be coming together. He’s even able to drop LaDonna’s name as a way of winning Albert and Del over to his side. Nelson is very good at what he does. He’s also become one of my favorite characters on Treme, rescued from slickster stereotype by Jon Seda’s charming performance. He’s unscrupulous and unapologetic but it’s hard not to like him, and to root for something in his time in New Orleans to touch his soul. He meets and charms everyone, listens to all sorts of music and yet remains driven, always, by a need to take advantage of any given situation. That seems no more likely to change now than when we first met him at the beginning of the second season.

Finally, we’ve talked before about how well Treme ends episodes. That doesn’t change here with LaDonna, broken by the destruction of her bar, visiting Albert as he undergoes chemo. Two of the strongest personalities on the show have taken some hard knocks and Khandi Alexander’s delivery of the final line—“I just needed some quiet company”—is heartbreaking. Not everyone’s down and out going into the season finale, but many are struggling more than usual on a series that’s defined itself by struggle from the start.


Stray observations:

  • I didn’t realize until I looked her up, but Roxann Dawson is the same Roxann Dawson who was in the cast of Star Trek: Voyager.
  • Of course Davis has a gas-mask bong.
  • Is Sonny’s enthusiasm for getting married waning? It’s hard to tell during the dinner scene but Tran’s “Love is easy, marriage is hard” line suggests that there’s more to his story than just settling down into a happy ending.
  • Though I would have liked a full fourth season for this show, I was grateful to learn that it would at least have a half season to tie things up. Now I’m starting to think that’s not enough. These stories don’t seem, in any way, to be winding down. At any rate, I’ll miss Treme when it’s gone, not that we’re that close to the end yet.
  • Freddie Hubbard, the subject of a tribute concert this week, died in 2008. He was from Indianapolis—because, despite what Terry says, things can happen in Indianapolis—not New Orleans. But let’s go out with a Hubbard track anyway.