Practically no show has been as filled with artists as Treme, whether it’s the main characters or just musicians who play in one episode and are never seen again. Last week I spoke about how strangely uninteresting the show’s investigatory and law-based side is to me, and a lot of this is because although the Treme as a whole is about the rebuilding of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, individually it’s always primarily been about making it as an artist. These artists come from all strata of life, from the extremely successful Delmond Lambreaux to the always-on-the-verge-of-hitting-bottom Sonny. All of their lives were ruptured by the events of Katrina, and now it’s a question of what they do next.
Because of this, many of the most important scenes of “Me Donkey Want Water” came back-to-back as characters made deals that would decide their future—in the case of Annie and Janette, they were even cross-cut. The sad fact of the matter is that artistic ambitions and talent aren’t enough; ultimately you have to make a deal with someone to make money, even when you’re uncertain about what your new partners’ aims may be. Janette has put off making this decision for an entire season at this point, largely because she doesn’t trust the people who’ve been offering her a job. Yet ultimately it’s either choose one of them or always be just an assistant to David Chang, so she has to sign eventually. And Annie’s manager almost certainly wishes to make their relationship much, much closer, but she needs someone to help her with her move from playing dives and backwater Louisiana bars to something bigger. Both of them pull the trigger now, regardless of their doubts about these men’s ultimate goals.
Davis has always been interesting as an artist because while he’s certainly talented, his greatest talent lies in the recognition of others. David Simon has almost created in him the ultimate critic, someone who sees the best in artists and is able to do something about this. And while he’s sentenced to endless frustration in his personal ambitions, Davis cares almost as much about the musicians he loves as he does his own projects, and so is willing to go to bat for them with his aunt Mimi in order to get their albums made. So he signs, too, and agrees to her terms.
Even the show’s con artist has important moments this week, as he tries to explain to his workers why he thinks they should actually do the work they’re being paid to do. It still isn’t clear whether he believes he’s doing something good for New Orleans or not, but that ambiguity is what saves Nelson Hidalgo from being a cartoon character. It would be easy to just make him a womanizing money-grubbing carpetbagger from Texas, yet since the show’s beginning he has always seemed to actually wish the city well. He wants to earn a quick profit, yes, but thus far he’s also wanted to actually build something out of the city’s ruins. He’s rather play the hero than the villain—it’s just that either way he wants to make sure he’s lined his pockets with money.
Then we have Sonny and Antoine, who spent last season playing together in Antoine’s band and this season have both given up some of those aspirations. Sonny just wants to be with the girl he loves, and he finally does, with an assist from her dad seeing how good he is at piano. This is of course not that dissimilar to how Antoine has long been making his way through the women of New Orleans, and once he’s out of town he’s back to his old ways again, betraying his partner. Both of them got lucky through their music, and both look to have major consequences in the future.
Then we come to the Lambreaux family. While Albert plays bass, his true art has always been his work as Indian chief, and last week actually saw us his big change, passing that onto his son based upon the way Delmond did so much with his music to honor his heritage. Unfortunately, Albert’s health problems weren’t limited to his cough; it turns out he has non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I think the big question this year for him will be whether he’s able to march at Mardi Gras, but for now we’re left to dwell on that diagnosis.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Toni’s wonderful advertisement, which is one of the funniest things the show has done in a while. I can’t wait to see how that plays out, and it’s a good reminder of how enjoyable Toni is, despite the frequent tedium of her stories.
So while this wasn’t the most enjoyable episode of Treme to watch, it was still pivotal. It still felt like fewer performances than in previous seasons (and I’m always disappointed by the show insisting Annie sing), but it’s unsurprising when there’s so much material. But perhaps with so many choices already made, Treme can slow down a bit in allowing its characters’ decisions to play out. It’s been three episodes, yet for many characters it feels like we’re halfway through their arcs… and for this show, that’s a very good thing.