Sunday, December 01, 2013

 

Treme No. 32: Yes We Can Can, Part I

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along. Unfortunately, another hospitalization put the final nail in me finishing this first recap on time and places the remaining recaps in doubt and jeopardy.

By Edward Copeland
As we return to our friends in New Orleans more than a year after we last looked in our their lives, it happens to be Election Day 2008, and we see the familiar trappings of any campaign — signs stacked on top of one another, long lines of citizens eager to perform their civic duty, poll workers taking their seats, ballot boxes being unlocked and set up and, finally, the actual process of voting taking place. During this montage, we catch our first sightings of characters we know. Desiree (Phyllis Montana-Leblanc) watches news reports of the expectations of a historic day while Honoré plays at her mother’s feet. Toni and Sofia Bernette (Melissa Leo, India Ennenga) stand in line together, awaiting the college freshman’s first chance to vote in a presidential election. Playing throughout this section of the premiere’s opening, we hear “Every Man a King,” the campaign song used by Louisiana’s legendary Huey Long and currently being spun by DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) on WWOZ. As the tune ends, McAlary explains the station’s theme that day aims to play songs of political import. “The polls have indeed opened in our politically calcified and corrupt state and remember, if you want your vote to matter, the question is 'What are you doing here?' To paraphrase the great Lafcadio Hearn, better to vote once in Ohio in sackcloth and ashes than 10 times in every parish in Louisiana,” Davis tells his listeners, before switching to Allen Touissant’s own version of the song which gives this episode its title, “Yes We Can Can,” a song Touissant originally wrote as “Yes We Can” for Lee Dorsey in 1970, but which added the extra "Can" when it became a 1973 funk hit for The Pointer Sisters. (I swore I did try to avoid going overboard on the background, but I imagine I'll let up as outside forces close in on the time needed for even bare-bones recaps.)


As Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can” glides us from WWOZ to the Lambreaux residence, Albert (Clarke Peters) sews in his driveway, mystifying his children Delmond and Davina (Rob Brown, Edwina Findley) that he lacks interest in joining their trip to the polls. Del emphasizes that the chance to vote for a black man for president might not come again soon, but his father stoically replies, “You really think that’s going to change some shit?” Though the last time we saw the big chief, chemo had left him bald. Now, his hair has returned and he’s regrown his mustache. After voting, Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) and Desiree come upon a musical garden party of sorts, where John Boutté sings Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Sonny (Michiel Huisman) drops Linh and her father Tran (Hong Chau, Lee Nguyen) off to vote, but Tran questions why he isn’t coming in order to tell his wife how to vote. Sonny explains he isn’t a citizen, so Tran says he’ll tell Linh what to do this time. Tran plans to vote for McCain. “Democrats in Vietnam — they quit, give up. Republicans for me, always,” Tran says. Sonny shrugs to his wife and asks, “McCain?” Linh just grins and replies, “Father knows best.” When Antoine asks James Andrews who’s paying him for the gig with Boutté, he tells Batiste that all the gathered musicians are working for free. Antoine decides to go home and retrieve his bone. While Albert expressed disinterest to his children, he sits on his couch and watches the television reports of the long lines that began early on this Election Day. Once Antoine has joined Boutté and the other musicians, they burst forth with “Glory Glory Hallelujah.” When no one watches, Albert himself turns up at a polling station. As the day turns into night, the celebratory atmosphere intensifies as Toni and Sofia join an Obama rally outside Kermit Ruffins’ Sidney’s Saloon, also attended by Antoine and Desiree and presided over by Ruffins himself, where all watch Barack Obama’s acceptance speech from Chicago. “That’s your president, baby,” Antoine tells Honoré. “He looks just like you.” Back at home, Albert again watches alone, still with an uncertain sadness about him. Ruffins blows his trumpet and makes his ways through the crowd shouting, “Yes we can” repeatedly until he gets to the middle of St. Bernard Avenue alone, clear of the crowd, and sees the flashing lights of police cars in the distance. Some things remain the same. The entire opening sequence of the premiere (written by David Simon & Eric Overmyer & George Pelecanos, directed by Anthony Hemingway) runs for nearly seven minutes. It’s a beautiful sight to behold and a great beginning to our final hours with our friends in Treme.

Following the credit sequence, we slowly pan from a group of chickens gathered behind the back of a small gray station wagon until we see the vehicle’s door ajar while two roosters near the door seem to be attempting to converse with Davis on his knees in front of his mode of transportation, taken out by a very large pothole. McAlary, in a moment that could be lifted from a Werner Herzog film, unemotionally says, “Fuck you” to the fowl as if they mocked his misfortune.(In the early years of Treme, I felt Zahn received undue criticism for his portrayal of Davis McAlary, many seeing him as little more than a caricature, but I’ve never thought that to be the case. Perhaps part of my defense stems from being an early fan of Zahn’s work both on stage and in films, but the Davis detractors give neither the character nor the actor who inhabits him the credit each deserves or recognize McAlary’s many layers of emotional depth and serious intent when it comes to the musical heritage of New Orleans. Davis McAlary as a whole exists neither as a cartoon nor a buffoon. Now that I recall, Herzog directed Zahn in Rescue Dawn, the feature version of Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly.) Meanwhile, it appears that last season’s tensions between Tim Feeny (Sam Robards) and Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) reached a boiling point and Janette no longer works at the restaurant which continues to operate using her name, Desautel’s on the Avenue. Not one to give up, Janette currently paints her own sign for a new restaurant she’s about to open on Dauphine Street at Louisa Street in the Bywater area of New Orleans. Only selecting a name for her new eatery stumps Janette. Her sous chef (and lover when last we saw them) Jacques Jhoni (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) suggests she call it Desautel’s, the only word she’s completed on the sign, but Janette nixes that since it was the name of her first restaurant. She floats the idea of Desautel’s on the Bywater, but Jacques says it summons the image of byproducts and might not be an appetizing image. For now, Janette remains stuck, but Davis’ vehicle does not as a tow truck comes to its rescue, if not McAlary’s. Once the station wagon leaves the scene, the viewer truly realizes what a monster the pothole that ensnared its front wheel is. It must be at least three feet wide, if not more, and who knows how deep, judging by the pooled water flooding to its surface. Davis yells in vain as the tow truck driver vanishes down the road about what should be done about the gaping hole. With no response forthcoming, McAlary surveys the surroundings. We leave New Orleans for a moment to check in on Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), back home in Texas, Galveston to be precise, with his cousin Arnie (Jeffrey Carisalez) in tow, looking for new projects in the wake of Hurricane Ike. Hidalgo also busies himself cursing at not getting through to one of his brokers, telling Arnie that the elusive man has “Five mil of mine under this guy’s ass and I can’t get him on the phone like he’s just some discount broker? What the fuck is that?” Nelson meets with two businessmen, Jimmy Staunton and Doug McCreary (Patrick Kirton, John Niesler), about getting involved in the demolition game in Texas. McCreary asks how big a slice Hidalgo might like and Nelson tells him he already has 15 crews ready to work and can get more if needed. “You didn’t like New Orleans much?” McCreary inquires. “Work was good, but I’m home now and damn glad to be back in the Lone Star State, believe you me,” Nelson replies. Staunton declares that if Nelson is tight with Bobby (a reference to a character named Bobby Don Baxter, a Texas demolition baron that Nelson enlisted to help tear down the Lafitte Projects in Season 3), he’s tight with Staunton. However, in order to get the contracts, Nelson must use the Houston bank that McCreary happens to own. Back in the Crescent City, it first appears as if Davis plans to repair the pothole himself as he wheels a shopping cart out to it filled with buckets and what appear to be supplies. Instead, he uses the cart, buckets and various other tools to create an almost modern art sculpture tall enough to warn motorists and to cover the road hazard. “My work here is done,” Davis proclaims as he walks away. (This section of the episode — and you could include the Galveston scene I’m about to recap as part of it as well — cuts from one short scene to the next in ways that often proved disruptive in many Season 2 episodes but, as in Season 3, they’ve fixed that flow problem so it doesn’t feel as if the viewer constantly hits a road bump for no good reason. They don’t have an underlying connection as the magnificent collection of short scenes in this episode’s pre-credit sequence does, but that segment had Election Day to serve as the cake for which those disconnected moments could be frosted into confectionery perfection, giving us one of the greatest openings of a Treme episode ever in the first of its final five. However, even when they don’t feel superfluous, because of health difficulties and other interruptions that barely allowed me to post this first recap on time and put the timeliness of the remaining four in question, I will be leaving many scenes I deem of lesser importance out of these pieces entirely.)

Back in Galveston, Nelson's broker finally returns his call and gets an earful from Hidalgo as to why he hasn't sold his stocks yet. "We are shedding like a thousand points on the Dow in the two days since the election. I can't take anymore," a more subdued Nelson tells his broker on the other end of the line before erupting again, "Get me out of this fuckin' market now!" As Nelson pockets his phone, he joins Arnie at a food stand selling Tex-Mex cuisine where Arnie and Nelson's lunch orders wait on the counter. "What do you think happened?" Arnie asks. "It's Obama, I guess," the erstwhile Republican Hidalgo speculates. "Wall Street doesn't like the guy or something, but this shit started two months ago when they let Lehman Brothers go under," Nelson declares, pointing at his cousin for emphasis. Arnie asks how much of a hit Nelson has taken so far from the economic collapse. "Between yesterday and today, what I lost about two months ago — about a million four and climbing," Hidalgo replies. "Don't worry. These are on me," Arnie reassures his cousin about paying for lunch. A somewhat clumsy instrumental version of the children’s gospel classic “This Little Light of Mine” (composed by Harry Dixon Loes around 1920 and recorded in numerous styles and genres with its lyrics.) plays us out of Galveston and into the Theophile Jones Elie band room. Antoine circles the young teens before urging his budding musicians to stop, telling them that the notes emanating from their instruments are "cacophonous — from the Greek word caca." Antoine asks the kids why they aren't coming prepared as they'd discussed and one replies that they are trying. "Not hard enough," Mr. Batiste tells his class. One of the students, Markell (Markell Henderson), admits to missing the former lead instructor, Mr. LeCoeur, who left for a post at a New Orleans high school. Antoine tells the band that LeCoeur isn't coming back and the students have him as their instructor year-round now. As Batiste lectures the kids about coming to class "correct," Cherise (Camryn Jackson) disassembles her saxophone, places it in its case and prepares to leave. Antoine inquires about her destination and Cherise tells him that she has to pick up her little brother, though Jennifer (Jazz Henry) teases that Cherise plans to hook up with her boyfriend. The bell rings for the day, so most everyone exits anyway. Antoine shakes his head and mutters to himself about someone as young as Cherise already having a boyfriend. Then he notices Robert (Jaron Williams) still sitting in his desk, staring down and shaking. Antoine asks Robert what's wrong because he knows it couldn't have been him playing that horn. "It hurts, Mister Batiste," Robert replies, indicating his groin area as his trumpet bounces up and down off his jittery legs. Antoine asks the boy if he's been "pulling on it" and his student offers the additional information that "it burns when I pee. It's sticky down there." Pierce delivers a great empathetic cringe once he realizes what afflicts one of his best students. Antoine inquires as to whether Robert has had sex and the prodigy once nick-named Bear tells of one girl in his neighborhood and "she's been bothering me." Antoine sighs, "They all do." He learns, to no great surprise, that Robert lacks both a family doctor or any kind of health insurance. "Gather your things, boy — your horn, too," Batiste tells his student as he puts his coat and cap on, a grin of wistful STD-related nostalgia crossing his face. (As has been the case throughout Treme’s run, Pierce’s portrayal of Antoine remains the series’ heart and soul. Pierce finds new ways to make Antoine funny and serious, often simultaneously, and reveals new sides to Batiste each season. The show manages to give most members of its ensemble cast moments to shine, but I can’t remember a wasted moment involving Pierce.)

We’ve already witnessed changes in several characters’ lives: Janette working on another new restaurant; Nelson feeling the financial impact of the 2008 Wall Street collapse and Antoine becoming the year-round, lead instructor for young band students. The biggest upheaval though may have happened in the life of LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Khandi Alexander). LaDonna and Larry have separated and LaDonna visits with Alcide and Randall (Renwick Scott, Sean-Michael Bruno), her sons by Antoine, on the porch of Larry’s Mid-City home. She asks if the teens if their stepdad treats them well and they tell their mom that Larry even has improved as a cook, though they have breakfast for dinner a lot. “Larry’s a good man and he loves you two like you’re his own,” LaDonna tells the boys, though the oldest, Alcide, immediately fires back with the question, “Then why did you leave?” LaDonna tries to explain to the adolescents that sometimes things just don’t work out between people, but she promises the three of them will be together again soon — though she emphasizes that the reunion won’t occur in the house that holds the porch on which they currently sit. Alcide remains skeptical, having heard LaDonna’s promises before, but she insists that once she gets the bar up and running again that she’ll find a home for the three of them. “You finish the school year out here. It’s what’s best for you,” she tells her hardened oldest son. “Until things sort themselves out.” Alcide looks decidedly unconvinced and unmoved while Randall lets LaDonna cradle him in her arms on the porch swing. Antoine reunites unexpectedly with a former member of his Soul Apostles when he finds Sonny working part-time at The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic that helps professional musicians who catch the sort of STDs that young Robert has. Sonny tells Antoine that he took this part-time job and does some gigs out of fear he’ll spend so much time on his father-in-law’s fishing boat that he’ll speak Vietnamese better than he does. Unfortunately, the clinic can’t help Robert since he not only isn’t a professional musician, but hasn’t reached the age of 15 yet, though Sonny says The Daughters of Charity at Ochsner will help him. “Fourteen and already burned, huh?” Sonny comments. “Yep. The kid’s a prodigy in more ways than one,” Antoine adds before sharing the hardest aspect about being a New Orleans musician to Sonny: “Having to explain to your girlfriend why she has to take penicillin for your kidney infection. The former bandmates erupt in hearty laughter. Even young Robert grins, though that prompts Batiste to swat him and ask, “What you laughing at, boy?”

TO READ PART II, CLICK HERE



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