A Reaction and Analysis to ‘The Big Payback’
It is very rare of me to review an episode of a series that I already went into extensive detail on in the same season. It’s even rarer that I do so having just raved about the same show by doing a similar deep analysis just two weeks earlier. But while I was watching ‘The Big Payback’, the most recent episode of the extraordinary — comedy? — series Atlanta I knew that I was going to have to do another deep dive into an episode that had nothing at all to do with the adventures of Earn and Paper Boi in Europe, but is just as quintessentially Atlanta.
When I watched the season premiere ‘Three Slaps’, I was left in utter wonder at its brilliance in its darkness and comedy even though it had only the most tangential connection to anything that happened in the series (and even that depends entirely how you view the last minute of the episode. ‘The Big Payback’ doesn’t even bother with that remote connection and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything that has happened previously or will again. I imagine there will be a lot of controversy and discussion about it in the weeks and months to come. But as a level of quality, it was as brilliant as ‘Three Slaps’ or almost any other of the great moments of the show (and there’ve been a lot of them already)
The series, in what is clearly an outlier for Atlanta, follows entirely a white man, Marshall Johnson played by Justin Bartha, who I know from his work on The Good Fight. He has a normal job at his company, and he is separated from his wife, trying to reconcile with her and be a good father to his son. There’s an odd scene in the moment when he’s at a coffee shop, and walks away to find cookies in his pocket. A car starts following him before the title of the episode. And he keeps receiving calls from an Unknown caller. Everything seems normal…we don’t know how quickly we’re going to go deep-diving.
In the elevator, Marshall hears a conversation about certain litigation. We hear about upcoming layoffs about certain lawsuits. A woman gets frantic. Then we start hearing rumors. “They can start going after you personally,” a woman says. “Start doing ancestry searches.” Marshall ignores it, and then looks at some African-American co-workers. Then Marshall leaves work and sees a bunch of African-Americans talking exuberantly in front of a gas station — in luxury cars. Then his daughter asks him: “Are you a racist?” followed by “Did we own slaves?” A light goes off in the viewer’s head. Marshall tries to brush it off, saying lamely: “We’re Austro-Hungarian. We were enslaved by the Byzantine Empire.”
It’s when he’s making dinner for his daughter that we finally realize we’re in an alternate universe. He is greeting at the door by Shanequa Johnson, who tells him very simply: “My great-great-grandfather was owned by your great-great-grandfather. You owe me $3 million. “ She bursts into his house, live streaming the whole thing. He threatens to call the police. She says she’s already called them. She leaves admiring ‘her house’. Marshall tries to go back to making dinner.
The next day things get worse. Almost all the African-American workers at Marshall’s job have quit. He tries to explain to this co-worker what’s happening, and she brags that her family is Ashkenazi Jews. “We were slaves too!” She doesn’t buy his Austro-Hungarian line. Shanequa is now at his workplace with a megaphone shouting out Marshall’s sins for the world to hear. He tries to have a conversation with one of the few African-American workers left as to what to do. He tells her about his experience with black women and that he should just give in. Cut to him talking to his white co-workers telling him to sue. That night, he goes to his wife’s house to see his daughter and his wife tells him about being visited by Shanequa. She starts saying she can’t be associated with him, and when he tries to press her she says: “My family’s from Peru!” “You were white yesterday!” he shouts. She tells him she can’t have anything happen to her finances so the divorce must be finalized. Marshall drives back to his home, and finds Shanequa there with an entire crowd of her friends. One chases after him ominously and he drives away in fear.
The next scene shows him at a cheap motel, utterly at a loss. He breaks down in tears and then goes to the bar to have a drink. A man his own age senses what is wrong and tells him a similar story. “My grandfather said he built himself up on his own. That wasn’t true.” He launches into a monologue about the realities of slavery and what they are between white people and African Americans, ending it saying he will be okay. Then he’s outside by the pool…and the rest I will leave you to find out, only to say in the context of the episode, it makes perfect sense.
The last scene of the episode shows how far Marshall has fallen and the kind of world he will live in, probably for the rest of his life. I won’t reveal the rest, save that it seems far more optimistic an ending than we got for Three Slaps.
All that said, what is the viewer supposed to make of ‘The Big Payback’ in the context of Atlanta? It clearly doesn’t take place in the same reality as anything we’ve seen and it honestly plays more like the kind of episode you’d expect from a Jordan Peele movie than anything else. (The episode even ends with the same music that ended his brilliant horror film Us) Why did Donald Glover and Hiro Murai choose to make this episode which clearly didn’t have a connection to the previous two episodes? What makes me thing there might be some larger context is the one line of summary I got going in on the guide to the episode: “I was legit scared watching this.” Is this another piece of fiction that we have gotten from Glover and his colleagues; another piece of extraordinary satire like we got from the first season classic ‘B.A.N.’ I still don’t know.
What I am certain of is that Glover, Murai and everybody connected with Atlanta has decided to go into Season 3 and 4 guns blazing, breaking down the few creative boundaries they set up going in the first two seasons. In a way this episode is a mirror to the contour we got of white privilege in last weeks episode: ‘The Old Man and the Tree’, which was more ‘traditional’ but no less hysterical and fascinating. You may have your doubts about the surrealism, but the viewer knows with absolute certainty that there’s nothing like it on television — even compared to other episodes of Atlanta.
My Score: 5 stars.