Sunday, June 05, 2011

 

Treme No. 17: Carnival Time, Part I

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along.


By Edward Copeland
This episode's title more or less says it all. Some stories advance in important ways, but this week's episode requires a recap less than it does a photo collage because that's what much of it plays like — especially the pre-credit sequence and almost everything that happens after about the first 23 minutes when it literally dances from one part of Mardi Gras Day to another (or so it seems at first glance). Co-creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer wrote the script, which pauses occasionally for moments of significance (and most of those go to Melissa Leo, reliable as ever as Toni; it's almost a cliché by now to note how great she is in this role). It even manages to finally move Sonny forward, where you don't actually cringe at the sight of him and see a glimmer of hope when you actually start to — gasp — care about the character. It's interesting that it's taken a real musician playing a version of himself to start giving Michiel Huisman's character a depth beyond sketchy stereotype. "Carnival Time" also gives Steve Zahn what may be his finest moment as Davis (and Davis' first moment behaving like a responsible adult). The one criticism I have really is more a sin of omission relating to what happened in last week's "Feels Like Rain" episode. Last week, Jacques was jailed, faced deportation and his situation was deemed so dire that chef Susan Spicer summoned Janette to New Orleans to help. The more I thought about it, it didn't make a lot of sense to me how Janette would have more pull in an immigration or bail problem than Spicer would but disregarding that, this week Janette's back in New York, working in Le Bernardin, seemingly with nothing heavy weighing on her mind, and Jacques' name isn't even mentioned. Other than that going unsaid and this season's continued trend of cutting musical performances to as little screen time as possible, "Carnival Time" provides a spirited hour with touching and heartbreaking moments sprinkled throughout. In fact, after the more conventional opening section, it's such a stylistic switch when it gets to Mardi Gras Day that for the first time, I'm dividing my recap in half. When they get too long with too much art, they tend to knock other posts off the page, so I'm hoping to avoid that. Part I recaps the opening through about 23 minutes in. Part II picks up once Mardi Gras Day arrives.


The first sight we see are balloons shaped like shoes floating by on strings, followed by a high school marching band and then one huge shoe full of ladies. Throngs on the street surround the sights, part of Carnival's Thursday night all-women parade held by the Krewe of Muses, which only joined the festivities leading up to Fat Tuesday in 2001, but has tripled its membership since. The Muses don't only ride in floats resembling footwear, they also toss many custom-designed shoes to the crowd as well as other items such as medallions and the requisite beads (though theirs have tiny shoe ornaments attached), but it's the shoes the people clamor for during the Muses' Parade. Davis, more hyper than usual, leaps from spot to spot alongside the parade's path, as if he's all eight lords rolled into one, shamelessly begging for a shoe. One of the Krewe tosses a shoe his direction, but a little girl seated above him snatches it first. He returns to Annie for comfort as yet another large shoe float enters the scene, only the people on this float throw beads at first — then the shoes start appearing and Davis starts pointing at himself again, pleading. He even lifts his shirt and flashes his nipples, but the Muse who looked as if she were going to grant his wish doesn't toss one. "You objectify me and then you deny me!" Davis shouts. Further down the route, Lt. Colson keeps a careful watch. One of the Muses tosses Colson a string of beads, which he dutifully puts around his neck. Toni and Sofia also are in attendance, though the frolic seems to underwhelm Sofia, even when she catches a shoe. Toni cheers her acquisition, but Sofia gives it away to a little girl. An exuberant female spectator flashes her breasts, but Colson intercedes. She defends her act by saying it's Mardi Gras. "Yes, yes it is, but if you want to do that, you got to get to the French Quarter," Colson tells her. "This is the Muses' Parade. Everybody on the float is female so unless you go that way, you're fishin' with the wrong lure. Try the boys of Endymion on Saturday. Take it to Canal, where nobody cares." The girl gives Colson a kiss and takes his beads. Davis continues begging for a shoe. When he returns to Annie, he finds that she's managed to get one. "Find another of these in my size and I can wear them for you later," she promises. Davis squints with intrigue for a moment before returning to the hunt.

With this week's episode, I can't complain about short scenes or quick cuts because "Carnival Time," for the most part, plays as if it's one long montage, taking a different form from any episode of Treme that we've seen, at least after we're about 23 minutes in. At least that's they way it played upon first viewing. When I went painstakingly through it again for the recap, it becomes more apparent what lies beneath the frivolity and while many writers have produced fine Treme episodes, dialogue really stands out when David Simon's name is on the actual teleplay and not just as a story credit. The flow of most of the episode though marches along like those high school bands in the many parades. Important things happen, but they're sewn into the fabric of the show's structure, much like the patch on Albert's Indian suit.

This episode was directed by Brad Anderson, who directed season one's "Shallow Water, Oh Mama," which concluded with the entire Bernette family dressed as sperm for the Krewe du Vieux parade. He also directed two episodes of The Wire, including "A New Day" from its fourth and best season, that took place after Carcetti officially became mayor. Anderson's resume also includes the "Belle Femme" episode of Boardwalk Empire, one of that series' most action and development-packed episodes in which I wrote in my recap: "It's the first time it's reminded me of The Wire, not in terms of complexity or greatness, but in terms of storytelling memory, showing that it did set up things early that would come into play somewhere later down the road." So I think Anderson proved to be a wise choice to direct "Carnival Time." I can't blame Anderson for the show once again trimming musical numbers to as little screen time as possible because by now it's clear that the show's makers have made the decision this season to do this on purpose. I don't know if it's a reaction (or overreaction) to those who whined about too much music. What's bad about it is the awkward and abrupt cuts often used on the performances. I would think the guest musicians who agree to appear would object at some point for going to the trouble of showing up for filming and then having less than a minute of their performance end up on the show or, worse, cutting to an extraneous scene in the middle of a song. Back when The Larry Sanders Show was on, even if they had other things going on simultaneously, guest musicians tended to perform a complete song — and that was a 30-minute comedy about a talk show, not an hour-long drama with music and culture as a central theme.

Colson and some fellow officers continue to monitor the crowds at the Muses' Parade. Colson notices a young man who raises his T shirt to show the gun he's carrying. The young man's date takes off and he tells her to wait up. Colson tails him through the crowd. Terry borrows one of the shoe charms from a parade watcher, promising to give it back. The young couple gets in a line at food vendor. Addressing the girl, Terry asks if she wants a shoe. "I just caught this. It's my third one. Give it to your girlfriend," Terry says. When Terry hands it to him and the kid reaches for it, Colson slams him against the vendor's trailer while another officer covers the girl. Colson gets the guy's gun. "Who the fuck brings a gun to a parade? What kind of asshole does that?" Terry shouts in the kid's ear. "Why do you want to take what's left of this city and turn it to shit?" The other officers take the young man away. As Terry goes to return the shoe, you hear the girl say, "So I ain't gonna get the fuckin' shoe?"

"Is this the big one in Eunice?" Davis asks. Annie says no, it's a new one that a lot of the musicians out there do. She tells Davis that Wilson, a friend of Harley's, invited him and Harley has invited them. "Cajun Mardi Gras. Not likely, darlin'," he responds. "For one thing, it's not Mardi Gras. So how are we gonna be in West French Toast, Louisiana, when we are gonna be in New Orleans for the holiday?" Annie thinks it would be interesting to do something different this year and take a ride out to the country. "My love, I have not missed a Mardi Gras in New Orleans in my life," he says. Annie tells him she's planning to take her violin and begins fiddling a bit of roots-oriented music. "Let me clarify," he says, as she runs her bow up his leg. "I'm going to leave New Orleans on Fat Tuesday to wander through swamps with some drunk-ass crazy Cajuns I don't even know. This is the plan?" Annie suggests next year and tells him she's going with or without him.

At long last, the band class at Theophile Jones Elie Elementary have instruments and uniforms and what a noise they are making — a painful noise. Antoine winces while LeCouer tries to quell them to be silent. One student figures they can march in parades now. LeCouer asks what they would play and the class suggests "Do Whacha Wanna" so he tells them to try and they do — to less-than-satisfying results. Antoine has heard enough and waves them to stop. "Do what you wanna? Y'all don't know what y'all doin'. Y'all killin' that song. It's gonna take a real band to cut that sucker loose and send it to the Saint Louis Cemetery." The band director tells the class that it's good that they finally have instruments and uniforms, but they can't just start marching and playing. "People come to those parades and expect to see the best school bands in the country. You ready to represent that?" Antoine asks. The class says, "Yes" but suddenly you hear the sound of some talented trumpet player and we realize that Robert, the boy who opened the series this season in the first episode is in that class. LeCouer suggests that the students watch the bands with the Zulus on Mardi Gras and the class thinks it's a good idea. He asks if Antoine can go and, though you see his reluctance, he agrees.

Nelson tells Oliver Thomas that he's firmed up the computer cable pricing and can save the city more than 50 cents a cable and have enough left over for him to take a little cut. Thomas says he's done what he could, but Greg Meffert controls all the technology contracts. "If he's fine overpaying, then I'm guessing one of his friend's got the current contract. Either his or the mayor's," Nelson says. "Then we're gonna have to get you some home cookin' to go in there with," Thomas suggests. "Home cookin'?" a puzzled Nelson repeats. "Have you ever heard of Zulu, Mister Hidalgo?" Thomas asks. "Zulu?" Thomas elaborates. "Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club." What I find fascinating is Oliver Thomas playing himself with the implication of corrupt New Orleans city government when in August of that same year he pled guilty to accepting bribes and kickbacks and served time in a federal prison before moving to a New Orleans halfway house to serve the remainder of his sentence last year. Thomas discussed his unusual situation with The Times-Picayune's Dave Walker last week.


Helping his mom carry something in to Bush Antiques on Magazine Street, Davis complains about the idea of "traipsing through the woods" for a Cajun Mardi Gras. "It sounds lovely, Davis," Ramona McAlary tells her son. "This is the problem with relationships," Davis says, "Sartre was right. Hell is other people." Davis' mother suggests that he and Annie talk, but Davis turns quiet and sullen, admitting he doesn't want to disappoint her. Mrs. McAlary cocks her head with a slight grin. "Oh my God — you're in love." Davis doesn't comment other to say he wanted to tell her so she knew why he wouldn't be at the family's party on Tuesday. His mom tells him not to let that bother him — his dad won't either. "He's riding Rex again," she tells him. Davis thinks it's been six years, but his mother says it's been eight. Dr. McAlary ran into an estranged friend at the bar at Dickie Brennan's and they patched things up and the friend asked him to ride the float again, even offered to pay for his "throws." Davis sees his out. "This is a big thing for dad. Huge. He would be heartbroken if I'm not there to see him ride again," Davis declares. His mother says he'd understand. "Shattered!" Davis shouts. "My God, what have I done?" Mrs. McAlary asks.

Here's an illustration of that sin of omission I mentioned. Janette busily works in the kitchen at Le Bernardin when she gets a call on her cell phone. Does it concern Jacques? No. It's her friend Julie, who sounds to Janette as if she's stoned somewhere on Canal Street. Janette says calls like this "make her homesick." She gets back to work, but Chef Ripert notices her taking the call. Given his words last week about the lifetime importance of the relationship with your sous chef, Ripert may be more concerned about Jacques than Janette seems to be. He did eat at Desautel's once after all.


Antoine Batiste & His Soul Apostles have just completed their first set at Prime Example in the Seventh Ward. As they step off the stage, Cornell tells Antoine that the room seemed a little thin without a guitar. Knowing his bass player is making none-too-subtle hints about Sonny, Antoine says he thought they sounded OK. "Besides, we can do a lot better than him. You said so yourself," Antoine fires back. Batiste heads to the bar in flirtatious mode again, but Cornell won't let him off the hook that easy. "I think we should give Sonny one last chance to fuck up," Cornell suggests. "You know his problem and so do I," Antoine replies, turning his attention back to the lady at the bar, but Cornell taps his shoulder. "Right now? We could give him a hundred chances and he'd fuck 'em all up." Cornell agrees to some extent, but tells Antoine he feels like he can talk to him. Antoine wants to know why Cornell even cares. "Man, I've been there, ya know," he says. Antoine nods and gives Cornell permission to give Sonny a last chance. Antoine returns to trying to smooth talk the lady.

The frame fills with a tight closeup of Davis with his eyes closed, as if he's napping. "OK, you can look," Annie says. Davis opens his eyes and leans back in the chair at the table to take his first glance at Annie's costume for a traditional Cajun Mardi Gras. Her odd and very colorful costume resembles all the photos I've found and looks like the descriptions I've read, right down to the dunce cap-looking hat called a capuchon that she wears on her head. The tradition of these costumes reportedly date back at least to Medieval France, if not earlier, when peasant would don these crazy outfits to ridicule and mock their "superiors" such as nobles, clergy and the intelligentsia. "Voila! Tres chicness," she says upon presentation. Davis makes his ruling. "Pretty great," but has to ask, "You're really gonna go do this, huh?" Annie tries to get him to reconsider, saying Harley helped her with her costume, he could help him as well. "Annie, about that. I've got a little problem," he says, presumably about to give her his family excuse about his father's big day returning to the Krewe of Rex.


Sonny's surprised to see Cornell at his door. Looking at the disarray of his place, Cornell comments, "I see you gave the help the week off." Cornell doesn't waste any time getting to his speech. "I've got a proposition for you, real simple. You do everything I say you gotta do, go where I say, show up when I say and when we get paid, I hold all your damn money." Sonny, already looking confused, just looks down and laughs at the last part. "For this I get what exactly?" Sonny asks. "You get back playin' with the band," Williams answers. Sonny assumes Antoine sent him, but Cornell says, "Hell no. I asked him to give you one more shot." Sonny lights a cigarette and tells Cornell, "I can hold my own money then." Cornell shakes his head. "No bro. Everything I say, you do. This isn't gonna work if you're hearing everything backwards." Sonny nods in agreement. "Gig's tonight at Prime Example. Be there at 9:30. Don't be late," Cornell says as he leaves.

Thomas brings Nelson into the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club and introduces him to Gralen Banks who says that Thomas tells him that he wants to ride Zulu. "I am told that I very much want to ride Zulu," Nelson responds. "Ordinarily, you want to get started a whole lot sooner. Come down here, make the right donations, meet the right people, but seein' that O.T. is goin' to sponsor you, I'm sure we can work somethin' out," Banks tells Nelson. "You did bring your checkbook, didn't you baby?" Nelson glances at Thomas. "Why do I suddenly feel like a mark?" Hidalgo says. Thomas chuckles. "Oh no. It ain't that bad," Thomas said. "I told him to bleed ya, just for a little bit." Nelson still seems a bit skeptical. "And Zulu is where a guy like me wants to be, huh?" Nelson asks Oliver. Thomas tells Nelson if he wants the people behind the contracts "to take your shit serious, then these are the friends you need." By the way, despite Oliver Thomas' recent extended stay in a federal prison and a halfway house, he remains listed as a Zulu member on the club's website.

Antoine certainly has been a horny fellow of late — for any lady that isn't Desiree. Earlier, he was trying to make plans with a woman for about 4 p.m. on Mardi Gras Day. Now, still at The Prime Example, he's prowling after a different lady might be doing around 2 p.m. that same day. Batiste gets interrupted again though, this time by the sound of one of his band's horns signaling it's time for their set. As Antoine returns to the stage, Sonny has rejoined the band. Antoine greets the crowd and asks if anyone made it to Bacchus that night. Bacchus is the Sunday night superparade of Carnival featuring animated floats and a celebrity as its "king". In 2007, that honor went to James Gandolfini. Too bad they couldn't have worked in a cameo by him into this episode since through The Sopranos, the recent TV movie Cinema Verite and the two war-related documentaries he produced and in which he conducted the interviews — Alive Day Memories and Wartorn: 1861-2010 — Gandolfini belongs to the extended HBO family. After bringing up Bacchus, Antoine tells the audience, "Speaking of which, we have a real celebrity in the house. Would you welcome Mister Al 'Carnival Time' Johnson to the stage?" As you probably surmised, Al Johnson's nickname comes from his best-known song which gives this episode its title and, for the third week in a row, the song for which the installment is named, gets short-circuited. The band starts the song's music going and then Johnson sings, "The Green room is smoking, and the Plaza burning down/Throw my baby out the window, let those joints burn down/All because it's Carnival Time, woooooohhh, it's Carnival Time....!/Oh Well it's Carnival Time and, everybody's having Fun!" Then onto another scene. The first four lines of the song that gives the episode its title and, including the musical intro, it gets 39 seconds of screen time.

Logically, it makes sense that LaDonna wouldn't want to take part in Mardi Gras this year, but for giving an actress as talented and powerful as Khandi Alexander as wrenching a story as they have this year, they continue to waste her for the most part in its aftermath. She had that brief moment of power when she recognized one of the men who raped her last week when Detective Leroy showed her the mug shots, but even that scene was a short one. With only four episodes left in the season, I have to wonder if she'll get any powerful scenes. With her rapist arrested in another attack, will she be called to testify or will she hesitate since that means everyone will know the truth and as far as we've seen, she's let everyone believe she was only robbed and beaten. The entirety of her appearance in "Carnival Time" finds her once again stretched out on that sectional in Baton Rouge with a drink in her hand as Larry tells her that he and the boys will stay in a La Quinta that night and be home by dinner the next day. Larry and her sons hug and kiss her goodbye and she says she'll enjoy her Mardi Gras there, raising her drink. She tells her sons to try to grab her some Zulu coconuts. Alexander's entire presence in this episode lasts about 44 seconds.

Toni cracks open the door to Sofia's bedroom where she finds the teen not doing much at all. "I thought you were working on your costume. Want help?" Toni asks. "I'm just not feeling it this year mom, you mind?" Leo perfectly captures Toni's stricken look when Sofia utters those words — nearly identical to what Creighton said last Mardi Gras shortly before he killed himself. "Maybe we can just do masks this year," Toni suggests, coming into the room closer to her daughter. Sofia's noncommittal. "Thought we could go see Pete come out at Commander's," Toni offers as an option. "He's back?" Sofia says since Fountain missed 2006 because of illness. "Daddy really missed that last year." Toni says she knows. "We could work our way Downtown, catch Saint Anne's toward the river." Sofia lifts her head. "The river?" At first, Toni can't look directly at Sofia while she's suggesting it, but she finally does when she's finished. "Well, yeah, I was thinking, there's this tradition of scattering ashes at the end of Saint Anne's." Sofia sort of shakes her head. "You want to scatter Daddy's ashes in the river?" Toni tries to make it sound joyous when she says, "On Mardi Gras. Sure. The band plays "Down By the Riverside" and they dip their streamers in the water, baptize the parade. I think he'd like that." Sofia won't look at her mother and registers little emotion when she says, "Sure. I guess. I mean, I know what the river meant to him." Toni's eyes widen as if she knows Sofia just said a lot more than she really did.

Sonny sits playing his guitar (I assume he was with Antoine's band long enough to buy a new one and give Harley back the one he borrowed for the audition) when there's a knocking on his door. Cornell opens the door himself and says, "Pack a bag." Sonny wants to know where he's going. "Away," Cornell answers. "A couple or three days." Sonny again asks where. Cornell shakes his head. "Is there any place worse than up in here?"

In New York, Janette keeps busy in the Le Bernardin kitchen when Chef Ripert comes up to speak with her. Ripert asks if, for someone with such a strong connection to New Orleans as herself, working the next day which is Mardi Grast might be like she's working on a holiday. "Well, yes. That and Saints home games," she admits. Ripert tells her, "It would be bad enough to think you were stuck beating tuna on one of the home games." You can tell Janette thinks Ripert's being sweet, but she says, "Oh Chef, tomorrow is Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Here, it's Tuesday. It's no big deal." Ripert won't let her refuse a day off that easily. "So make your own celebration. I'm serious," Ripert declares. Janette relents. Jacques, I presume, is either spending Mardi Gras in jail or has been deported back to Haiti. "That's nice. Thank you," she says. He's definitely no Brulard. "Hey Chef," Janette says, "would it be possible for me to dine here tomorrow? At Le Bernardin?" The ever-gracious man grants her wish. "For your holiday? Of course."

A man hauls a bucket full of catch off a fishing boat late at night as a car pulls up to the shore line. Cornell and Sonny exit the car and Cornell shakes the man's hand and greets him as his Uncle Don (John Beasley). Uncle Don asks Cornell if Sonny's "his boy." (Is Simon setting up just in case Treme lasts long enough that we have some Gulf fishermen characters in place for the BP oil spill?) "You ever done any oystering?" he asks Sonny, who, of course, hasn't. "You know your way around boats?" the fisherman asks next. "Some. I'm from The Netherlands. Holland," Sonny tells him. Uncle Don rolls his eyes and looks at his nephew with an expression that says, "What have you gotten me into?" Cornell laughs and heads back to his car, offering little more information than, "Back on Wednesday." Sonny gets a little aggravated. "You're just leavin' me down here? What the fuck, Cornell?" Cornell tells Sonny, "It's quiet down here. Relax. My uncle there is gonna keep you out of trouble." Sonny inquires of his bandmate, "And where are you goin'?" Cornell opens his car door. "Back to New Orleans. It's Mardi Gras tomorrow night." Cornell drives away and Sonny just looks out at the boat where he'll be spending his Mardi Gras.

That wraps Part I of my "Carnival Time" recap. Click here to be taken to Part II.


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Comments:
Nice catch on the missing Jacque thread. It never even occurred to me.
 
Sonny is still playing Harley's Danelectro guitar, a cheap reissue of a cheaper 60's era axe. He had wanted to borrow his (Fender) Telecaster but Harley wisely did not entrust him with that much more valuable guitar.
 
I wasn't sure. My knowledge of guitars is nonexistent. I just knew he was borrowing it for the audition and wondered if after a few gigs, he'd acquired one of his own.
 
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