After a string of existential one-offs for the characters of Atlanta, “North of the Border” sees the show’s central posse reconvene for a somewhat normal episode. Earn (Donald Glover) and Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) are working out the routine of a touring rapper and, as usual, nobody’s pleased but the blissful Darius (Lakeith Stanfield)—unless you’ve got a jicama allergy.
Stress levels start off high and keep getting higher as they prepare to depart for a college show. Everyone wants better accomodations, Paper Boi (sure to carry his gun everywhere now) is suffering from some serious anxiety after his mugging/overall freaky experience in last week’s “Woods,” and Tracy (Khris Davis) keeps inviting himself places. And the latter, hired on as security to try to make him useful, isn’t putting stuff back in the damn fridge. The inhumanity of it all.
Director Hiro Murai continues to make every setting the show ventures out to feel even more like itself. A crappy college campus, an apartment complex, the groupies and roommates: They’re like the boiled-down essences you’d find in a stand-up set. These environments are heightened truth, a stretched story, not quite fantasy but just a little more than reality. That can be funny. It can also be intensely disturbing.
Or, in every situation Henry’s grimace is called for, it’s both. When the girl they’re staying with (who also has ties to the organization that hired them) brings Alfred back to her room, he’s excited for a simple fling. Christ, he needs it after the season he’s had. We find out she’s a bit more than he bargained for, after she narrates a vivid and graphic dream that sounds like something out of folklore… only without making any sense. But then he sees footprints on her ceiling and, well, sometimes compromises have to be made, dammit.
And of course, Paper Boi has doomed himself. Or Earn has doomed the both of them. Either way, they were never meant to have all this responsibility and all this expectation thrust upon them. It’s too much and they’re ill-equipped, unlike the seemingly inhuman Clark County, who is theorized to be an “industry plant.” Especially Tracy, who is operating on a totally different level than his friends. He takes his fake bodyguard duties very seriously, though really he mostly hits unguarded bodies. Those attacks lead to a loose, scrambling chase scene that goes from Atlanta sweatiness to A Hard Day’s Night boyishness over a few seconds. They’re all giggling with the adrenaline of the chase, nothing more than overgrown kids. Friends out of their depth.
They continue to sink as their quest for post-escape weed leads them to a citronella-infused frat house. Nothing good can come from this, that’s clear from the beginning. When they get to the horrorshow that is a Busby Berkeley-style lineup of naked kneeling pledges, replete with a Confederate flag backdrop, it’s not a surprise or even a shock. The teens went to the haunted cabin. The kids played with the Ouija board. When the nude pledges do a “Laffy Taffy” dance, dicks a-swingin’, it amplifies the nightmare from the expected to the truly surreal. There was a rash of “frats are toxic” message films that came out a few years ago, but nothing reduces their strange sadness to its core like naked, shivering white dicks dancing to a D4L song to entertain two black men in front of America’s grand symbol of white supremacy.
That bonding experience (weird, I know) was just the icebreaker Paper Boi and Earn needed to talk about the season’s most-foreshadowed moment: Earn getting dropped as management. Neither are blameless in their unprofessionalism, but that’s not really Paper Boi’s job—especially after his epiphany in the forest. He’s willing to do what it takes to make it, and that means no more acting like a scrapper. No more sleeping in college apartments to save a few hundred dollars. And what does Earn do but immediately prove him right, letting his temper get the better of him. Bad things can happen to everyone else and be met with smug judgment, but then he flies off the handle when something happens to him. So when he gets his ass beat by Tracy, it’s just the punctuation mark to the long, exhaustive sentence that has been “You’re fired.”
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.