[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Thursday's Season 3 finale of Atlanta. Read at your own risk!]
There's only one rule for watching Atlanta: Expect the unexpected.
If you came into the Season 3 finale of Donald Glover's absurdist comedy thinking it would follow Earn (Glover), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) on another European romp, or tie all of the season's threads in a neat bow, you were pleasantly mistaken. Written by executive producer Stefani Robinson (What We Do in the Shadows) and directed by Glover, "Tarrare" entirely focused on Zazie Beetz's Van, who has been MIA for large swaths of the season.
When we catch up with Van in the finale, she's created an entirely new life for herself in Paris; She has a stereotypical French accent, a French boyfriend, a twisted relationship with Alexander Skarsgård, who appears as a wildly exaggerated version of himself, and a new job serving human hands to rich people. The responsible Van we've known is nowhere to be found. Instead of worrying about paying the bills, she's more concerned with using a very stale loaf of baguette to beat up a courier who failed to deliver the aforementioned delicacies. It's not until she runs into her old friend from Atlanta Candice (Adriyan Rae), who reminds her about Lottie, that she shakes out of this dissociative episode and admits she's been feeling kind of lost, which is how she ended up in Europe in the first place.
As if Van's second life wasn't enough to chew on, there's also an end-credit scene that ties into one of the season's running threads: A courier delivers a lost suitcase to Earn — except the bag isn't Earn's. Curious about the identity of someone who shares his name and traveled on the same day as him, Earn rifles through the bag and we see that it belongs to the white Earn Marks (Tobias Segal), who appeared in the premiere's eerie opening scene before killing himself in the "The Big Payback." Thus, Season 3's two tracks — Earn and company's European adventures and the thought-provoking Atlanta-set bottle episodes — finally merged.
After screening the episode, TV Guide hopped on the phone with Robinson to discuss Van's surprising arc, Skarsgård's appearance, and more.
How did you decide to end the season with this Van-centric episode, and why did that feel right?
Stefani Robinson: I don't actually think this was always the plan, to be honest. I think we always knew we wanted this sort of Van episode to exist as you see it now. But I don't think in the writers' room we always had the plan in mind to have this episode be the one that ended the season.
But I think looking at the season now and how it shakes out, it's probably the most satisfying ending because you actually get a chance to see the true small quiet moments of Van hint at something larger going with her personality. So, in that way, to actually have the runway to plant those seeds [earlier in the season] and to almost forget about it and kind of end it on this bigger kind of note, from my perspective, feels satisfying.
Van is probably the show's most grounded and practical-thinking character, and this new persona feels like a big leap for her. As you were writing the episode, how did you approach making this stark change feel emotionally grounded?
The conversation for this episode started in terms of why Van was in Europe, because she is so grounded, and was there a more interesting reason for why she was there. I think we were all very interested in giving that character more agency and something that felt outside of what we've seen her as. You pointed out that, for the most part, she always has been grounded and responsible, and that's actually [been the source of] a lot of conflict within her, right? The conflict of being a grounded person, but then also wanting to let loose a little for a night and smoke weed with your friends, but there are consequences. And the struggle of, "I'm supposed to be the grounded mom who has a job and has responsibilities while everyone else gets to run around and have fun." We sort of see that in that episode, in particular, butting up against itself.
We wanted to do something a little bit different with her, and it's in tone with the season. This season is a departure, quite literally, for the characters — they're going to a different place [Laughs] — but I guess it's a little bit of a departure in the form because we have the little bottle episodes; we're playing with the structure of the show. In that way, I think it just felt right to approach Van in a way that we haven't seen her. That's kind of where the conversation started. Then, it's always super important to me as well that these stories feel grounded in what's true for the characters as well, so that's where you have that mix: the more zany comedic journey that she goes on, but it's actually grounded in something we've been building towards with that character. There's this search for identity and self, and what that means. I feel that's truly the undercurrent of what she's been struggling with, from my perspective, in the entire show.
Before the season premiered, Donald revealed Ryan Gosling was almost on the show. Was he supposed to play Alexander Skarsgård's part?
Yes, this is the role we tried to get him to do — not to say that we settled for Alexander Skarsgård. I feel like there were like three people we were like, "Oh my gosh, it would be so perfect if we could [cast them." Alex was one of them. Ryan Gosling was one of them. I forget who else might have been in the mix. But, we were so lucky to get Alex. Now watching the episode, it couldn't have been anyone else but him. He commits so well to the comedy and self-deprecation. He's so funny to watch, and I can't wait for everyone to see him. [Laughs] Yeah, it's pretty ridiculous.
In your mind, how does the Alexander Skarsgård character fit into what you wanted to explore in this episode but also in the season as a whole, because there have been several cameos?
There wasn't anything deep to it other than we thought it would be funny. [Laughs]. That's just one of the things where it's like, "Wouldn't it be funny if we don't hear or see Van for a while and then we sort of crash-land into this new life that she's made for herself and she's friends with Alexander Skarsgård. How jarring and abrupt would that feel?" And the nature of their relationship being twisted and weird, and kind of unhealthy. That was just pure comedy. I think for a lot of those cameos, at least from my recollection, [came from asking], "Wouldn't it be funny if?" And then we just write it and see if we can do it. What you see is what you get.
I especially loved the detail of him being obsessed with Ashanti's "Rock Wit U" and wondering if Ashanti and Nelly were still together. How did you come up with that?
It's a good one. I love hearing him say that. When I wrote it, I wrote "Say It Right" by Nelly Furtado. I think we weren't able to do it for rights issues and I think that Nelly Furtado ultimately passed on it being included in the episode for personal reasons, which is completely fair and I respect. Donald and I went back and forth quite a bit about what the song could be. We had a pretty big list of songs that could work, but then ultimately, the Ashanti is perfect because number one, I love the song, but it also has that mid-2000s field to it that we wanted to go for. Like this idea of Alexander Skarsgård is getting tipsy in his hotel room, not necessarily listening to the song of the day, but it's almost like he's racking his brain and going back in the catalog. It felt weirdly right and added some depth to the character.
What discussions did you have with Zazie and Donald about Van's breakdown in the kitchen and subsequent monologue at the end?
I think Donald was really good about letting me shade in those moments, especially the last moment. That was something I sort of wrote and didn't spend a lot of time thinking about. And I don't say that to mean I wrote it flippantly. I cared about that moment for that character so much, but when I say I didn't give too much thought to it, [I mean] I didn't want to belabor it. I wanted to write something that felt authentic and real, and even a little autobiographical. I wasn't on set, so I wasn't part of the bigger conversations that might have been had, but I feel like Zazie completely understood the assignment.
The end-credit scene finally brings Donald's Earn and the white Earn Marks together in a way. What were you guys going for with this white Earn?
I don't know! [Laughs] I think that's probably a better Donald question than anything else. I know he was attracted to this idea of like, at least in the beginning with Lake Lanier and the rowboat, this idea of curses, and we're all cursed by this thing that is racism, and it's haunting and absurd, surreal, and horrifying at the same time. He is just sort of a presence throughout the entire season and, I think, really holds the narrative together in a very abstract way. The way I look at him — and I can tell you my own interpretation without having to speak for Donald — is it almost feels like he's kind of shepherding us through the season and this experience. He's not quite like a Greek chorus, but he's something like that — commenting on what we're experiencing, why we're experiencing, and then obviously at the end, bringing it full circle. I think bringing what we consider the sort of dreamworld in the bottle episodes, which are distant from our characters, into the world of our characters, and bringing both of those narratives into one thing.
I know you're busy with What We Do in the Shadows, but were you also involved in Season 4? If so, what can we expect from the final season?
Yes, I was involved with Season 4, and I'm sworn to secrecy about what I can talk about. But it's great. I think it's one of my favorite seasons, and I'm really excited for everyone to see it.