At its languid but intoxicating best, HBO's Treme dances and grooves to its own peculiar and particularly New Orleans beat. Call it the rhythm of life. And, naturally, death. But mostly life. Such is the case in the series' languorous 80-plus-minute finale, infused with sorrow but also overflowing with a defiant resilience and joy in the moment that captures the ebullient nature of this national treasure of a city.
Plot-wise? Let's not dwell on that. As Professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) told his students in the penultimate episode, before presumably stepping off the ferry to put an end to his blocked creative life, "Don't think in terms of a beginning and an end. Because unlike some plot-driven entertainments, there is no closure in real life — not really." Could be a testimony to Treme itself, which has taken some knocks for its often oblique approach to actual narrative. (Ominously, Cray added when asked about an upcoming test, "In the end, every one of us will be tested, and every one of us will be found wanting.")
Creighton's suicide, and the grief and rage of his widow Toni, provide much of the dramatic meat of the finale, and Melissa Leo makes a feast of these moments. Especially when she erupts at a sympathetic co-worker, after revealing that Cray requested a Second Line parade (complete with band and playlist) in his will: "He f---ing quit! ... Whole g.d. city down on its ass, all of us still here, one day after the next. Can't dance for them when they quit."
But the dance of life does go on. Especially for the fallen (during the storm) and long-lost/finally found Daymo, who gets his Second Line funeral procession as the show comes to a triumphant close, with his grieving sister LaDonna (the remarkable Khandi Alexander) eventually succumbing to the rhythm and beat of the music, becoming part of the exultation and celebration of life, her body swaying in a paroxysm of release. (We also spot Toni walking along, lost in her own private world of sadness.) The Second Line breaks up, life moves on, New Orleans goes back about its business of rebuilding and surviving. End scene. End season. Comparisons to Robert Altman at his most expansively humane are inevitable, but David Simon's Treme has a distinctive flavor all its own.
Among the other highlights: Indian Chief Albert's sleepless vigil to get his tribe's costumes ready for the St. Joseph's revels, serenaded by Davis McAlary's radio playlist, dedicated to those making a "new suit of pretty," and pretty they are; Davis's valiant but ultimately fruitless attempt to keep despondent chef Janette from leaving town for New York, showing her a perfect day that includes breakfast beignets and a private Sam Cooke-style musical performance at her door ("That moment can't happen in New York"), a nap by the water, and a tryst in a room in the hotel/brothel where Pretty Baby was filmed. Davis may have lost Janette for now, but when he gets back to his home, Annie is waiting on his stairs. "What did I do right?" he marvels. (Sometimes, dude, karma is more blessing than bitch, especially in NOLA.)
"There are so many beautiful moments here," Davis told Janette in the previous week's episode, and that is so true about this show. From the finale, I'm also fondly remembering Delmond jamming with his dad Albert on the morning after the exultant St. Joseph's procession, as Albert talks smack about modern jazz while advising his musician son to swing. And then there's Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce), his own worst enemy, still short-changing cabbies as he goes off to some well-paying gigs whose lucre he manages to blow by joining the big boys' poker game. (Although it's Miss Irma Thomas who ultimately cleans him out.) Antoine is the heart and soul of the New Orleans depicted in Treme: self-indulgent, exasperating, forever sheepish, yet loyal and unbowed, unable and unwilling to quit, because he loves this life too damn much. (Unlike Creighton, the impassioned blowhard who couldn't live with the reality of his damaged city and what it had done to his creative voice.)
In the brilliant and moving coda, as LaDonna stands at her beloved brother Daymo's graveside, the ringing of a cell phone transports her and us back to the Day of Katrina, and we witness the beginning of the nightmare, as characters we've come to know and love evacuate (or not). Antoine leaves behind some out-of-print jazz LPs as he heads to an over-packed car, the doomed street-musician couple Annie and Sonny walk the eerie empty streets, Cray is reading from Walker Percy and, watching the Weather Channel, bellows his belief that the storm will pass and "we can all go back to pretending the levees aren't made of Spanish moss and Krazy Glue" (as Toni and their daughter laugh), while Janette retreats to her parents' home in Huntsville and a stoned Davis tries to ride out the storm until he gives in to the threat.
And Daymo? He's on his way to rescue the meat in Janette's ill-fated restaurant when he runs a red light and is sucked into the bureaucratic system, a maelstrom from which he will never emerge, as LaDonna frantically calls and calls and calls ...
"He's home now," Antoine tells LaDonna after Daymo's funeral. And what a home it is. Treme is the next best thing to actually visiting New Orleans, and I look forward to going back "home" next year.
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