Atlanta Ends Its Third Season On Typically Bizarre, Glorious Note
And Those Bottled Episodes? Not as Bottled As We Thought.
One of the questions that have to be boggling the minds of those of us who, like me, are huge fans of FX’s Atlanta: What has been going on with Season 3? The series has always been willing to operate within the world of the surreal, such as with the Season 1 masterpiece ‘B.A.N.’ and the Season 2: ‘Teddy Perkins’ but this season, it’s turned a corner that many of us have been wondering whether creators Donald Glover and Hiro Murai had somehow lost the narrative thread during the long layoff between Season 2 and Season 3.
The critics went into a world of awe over the third season opening: ‘Three Slaps’ an extraordinary work of television that seemed to have no real connection with anything that Earn’s voyages in Europe. But as the season unfolded, what appeared to be a troubling trend began to develop: nearly half of the season was devoted to these bottle episodes and none of them had even the clearest link to what was going on in Europe. And what was recognized as genius in the premiere began to wear on even the most devoted fans. I’ll admit to being troubled as well by this, though it took awhile to take affect: ‘The Big Payback’ struck me as astonishing, ‘Trini From The Block’ had interesting ideas but no payoff, and by the time a black and white episode aired in last week, I was starting to ring my hands. I’d mentioned a couple of times that Glover and company seemed to be emulating Jordan Peele’s version of The Twilight Zone, but by last week episode, I was starting to think they were taking it a bridge too far. Why were we spending so much of Paperboi’s European Tour in America, and not even the real one at that? And why were we spending so much time away of our main characters, and not following what was by far the most unnerving story of the season: what on earth was going with Van? Why was she in Europe and why was she going on this walkabout that kept leaning more and more into criminality? And where she did she disappear to halfway through the season?
I guess I should have had learned to have more faith in the creators. Because in the season finale ‘Tarrare’ we got an answer to the questions about Van — and may have gotten a clue that the writers haven’t been going on a tangent with all those bottle episodes.
The episode started featuring a character that has appeared on other Atlanta episodes, Champagne: a stripper who Van knew and has spent prior episodes following around. The episode opened with her in Paris with two friends, discussing a $6000 payout one was going to get for a particular sexual act that, if you’ve read anything about Trump’s supposed exploits in Russia, you’ve been deluged with as being a hypothetical. Then Champagne saw Van — only she really didn’t look like her. Her hair was in a bun, her skin looked paler than it’s already light-shade and she was speaking in a faux-French accent. Van acknowledged her, and then refused to acknowledge anything else.
The bulk of the episode followed Van from the perspective of Champagne and her friends, who didn’t know Van and didn’t see anything strange, and honestly didn’t seem to care the weirder things got. And they got weird fast. Van went into a hotel room with Alexander Skarsgard (not even the weirdest real-life cameo from a celebrity this season). She put cocaine on a drug pipe, left his room, and then hysterically yelled at the concierge that Alex was being abusive.
Then we went to a drug deal where she seemed to have the name ‘Tarrare’ and seemed utterly unafraid. She went to a museum where a guard knew her and the unnamed man inside knew her and she asked for ‘the package’. When the man deflected, she attacked him with a baguette that was very stale. Her description of how it became a weapon would be hysterical if the beating didn’t end with blood on it.
They followed her into a restaurant with increasingly frantic Champagne, trying to figure out what was going on with Van. Skarsgard showed up, clearly pissed (and we later saw him a bathroom, frantically trying to wash off his genitals). Then she went into the kitchen, kissed a chef she knew as Marcel, handed him the package, and watched he has began to prepare dinner — which were human hands. Finally as the episode neared its end and Van seemed utterly blasé, mentioning how she had every intention of moving to Paris, Champagne finally asked: “And Lottie?” This penetrated Van for a moment, and when she continued to deflect, Champagne just said: “To eat hands?”
And the façade utterly shattered. Screaming: “Where is Lottie?” Van had one of those searing and utterly brilliant breakdowns I’ve seen, assuring that Zasie Baetz will earn yet another Emmy nomination for her work as Best Supporting Actress. The denouement assured that, and finally revealed what’s been happening.
Van finally revealed the impetus for everything we’ve been seeing. “Things have been off for awhile,” she began and explained that one day she was driving down the highway and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she was on the other side of it. She picked up Lottie and she felt like a fraud. She went to Europe without thinking and one night on TV she saw Amelie and has modeled everything from there (if you look at Audrey Tatou’s character and much of her behavior from the Oscar nominated film, you can see what the writers were aiming at in this episode). Finally feeling safe, she told Champagne that they should go home.
That was the end of the episode…but not the season. In an Easter eggs that we are now used to getting at the end of the credits of Marvel Movies, after the credits finished we returned to Earn in Europe. An airport steward came to him with his ‘bag’ and even though Earn knew it wasn’t his, he still signed for it. He spent the next minute looking through it, finally taking out a framed photo of a family before leaving the room. The man in the photo looked familiar, but it was not until I read comments after the episode that I realized he was the same man, who had been in the boat at the opening of ‘Three Slaps’… and who shot himself at a motel in ‘The Big Payback.’ Give me a what?
The writers have been coy about what this may mean and as to how all of these bottle episodes may fit in the bigger picture, but it’s now clear they are part of that picture. It also fits in with the surrealistic tone that has filled so many of the episodes of Season 3, not only the bottle episodes and ‘Tarrare’ but so many of the others we have seen to this point. ‘The Old Man and the Tree’, which showed the world where the rich seem to be hiding from the inevitable apocalypse, ‘Cancer Attack’, where the search for Alfred’s phone led to a fan who didn’t seem to exist in the world but knew everything and the stunning ‘New Jazz’ where Alfred’s trip on mushrooms led him on a surreal journey to ‘cancel club’ where he had a discussion with Liam Neeson that made it very clear whatever consequences the culture of racism has in the world. Many of these same episodes showed Bryan Tyree Henry, trying to accept staying true to himself with the mask of success, doing some of his best work on the series.
We will have to wait until the fourth and final season airs (it may be later this year; it’s more likely to be next year) to see if Glover and Murai can indeed tie this altogether. How much they will need to tie Atlanta together to make sense is an interesting question: despite the rants by some fans online, Atlanta is not Lost, but just a…well, what is it? If Season 3 had proven anything, it’s that Atlanta remains utterly unlike any series on television today. And despite everything that’s happened, it remains one of the very best. No matter how it ends, I will miss it when it’s gone.
My score: 5 stars.