After last week’s entertaining but shallow dive into media perception and the politics of how to conduct oneself as a celebrity, this week’s episode is comparatively much smaller. Throwing away the the two/three story system of the last few weeks, it’s a single well-constructed, funny, and effortlessly smart story about Van, a character who’s previously been pushed into the background. Here are five reasons why the show works so well when it scales back its ambitions, and just focuses on character.
There’s few more bittersweet feelings than meeting up with an old, very successful friend you haven’t seen in a while. And this episode brings all those dynamics rushing back—the passive aggressive sniping, the constant sizing up, the attempt to bring things to the past with a shot at a mutual acquaintance—through the dinner confrontation/conversation between Van and her friend Jade (a standout Aubin Wise).
Time has passed, and their interests and their views of personal value have totally changed. Jade wields that phrase, “personal value” with a sense of righteous fury. Where Van’s everyday thoughts are now about juggling Lottie, making enough money for rent, and budgeting for the future, Jade is traveling around the world with NBA star flames and complaining about the weather in London.
Their uneasy dynamic is everywhere. It’s not just in the details of their conversation, where Jade abbreviates “private jet” as if that’s an obvious thing to do, but in the way she dominates the proceeding. When Van first arrives at this tense conversation, it’s not more than a minute before she’s already picking out wine for the table, and ready to order Van’s meal if she didn’t jump in with her own choice. She has, after all, had far more experience with the finer things.
Van’s outward life can’t compare with Jade’s, but it’s not as if she hasn’t considered her personal value. She doesn’t have the marks in her passport, or the stories about late night model shoots. Van has picked a life that she once looked down on—“You’ve become one of those girls we used to make fun of,” Jade says with a brutal sting. A kid or family is just another notch on Jade’s list of things to do, but Van thought she was going through the steps of adulthood.
It’s not just little things like Van’s preference of chopsticks for Thai foods, but the last years of her life that are in the conversation’s crosshairs. The camera stays tight in this ten-minute conversation sequence, lightly taking different vantage points that reorient the power struggle that’s happening on screen. But all the while, it’s gradually floating away until it’s wider and wider and the silence is awkward and telling.
Neither of them has had a single bite, but it’s only a moment later before Kevin, Jade’s latest romantic conquest comes to join them at the table. He’s brought along a friend, a corny dude who’s all too eager to size her up and attempt to flirt. She expected the scrutiny, but this is something else entirely.
But that all melts away in Jade’s final olive branch in the form of a blunt in a parking garage. They’re back in their groove, and all of their current differences have just melted away. They’re just having a good time passing it back and forth, and letting all of the bullshit of their life slip away. It’s at that moment that Jade’s life seems a little less charmed.
And all of a sudden, it’s the next morning, and Van’s in her bed. Who knows whether they ended up at the listening party or how many drinks followed that blunt. The key was left in her door, and her phone is vibrating, reminding her of that “drug test” that she conspicuously forgot while she was smoking. It’s only two hours until work, and she’s freaking out.
Not everything is bad. Earn is maybe stepping up—not five minutes later, he’s walking through the door and telling Van to catch up on sleep before work. He’ll take care of Lottie for her. She’s impressed. Maybe Earn is living up to his potential, maybe not.
Either way, she still has to deal with that drug test, and that Powerade she’s chugging isn’t doing anything to get the weed out of her system. She needs outside help, someone who’s familiar with smoking, and would have to deal with drug tests.
Alfred isn’t having it, though. He knows that Van’s only coming to him in a moment of desperation.
That brings us to the visual centerpiece of this episode, which is nearly silent with the exception of Funkadelic’s slippery Maggot Brain highlight on the soundtrack. Forced to reckon with that day’s drug test, Van decides that her solution is a science experiment that gives the cooking montages of Breaking Bad a run for its money.
Alfred’s no use, and she’s not about to ask Earn, when he’s been hanging out with Alfred anyway. Using Lottie’s used diapers, Van begins the gross process of cutting up each individual diaper, straining the fibers, wringing out the urine, and funneling it into a condom to tape to her leg. It’s a scheme that’s destined to blow up in her face, but like the best parts of Atlanta, it’s ingenious in its patient execution.
That brings us to the climax of the episode, where Van confidently strides into the school—I love how the musical cue stops abruptly when a teacher interrupts her to tell her about a problem student, preparing for one last payoff—before she tries to act totally normal in front of another teacher. But she can’t open the tied condom, and her plan is over in a split-second.
Deeply frustrated with the whole situation, Van gives up. “I smoked weed,” she says matter of factly to the principal (Millie M) after being called in to ask about her lack of urine sample. It turns out the drug test is mostly a formality after the first hiring condition, but that’s not the end of her ironic day. “We all need to blow off steam somehow, but unfortunately you admitted it, and I have to fire you now,” the principal says with the same sense of scrunched resignation.
It’s a brutal ending, and one that initially seems a lot lighter than its subsequent realizations. But Van’s going to be fine. She just needed that moment to take stock. It’s time for her to re-calibrate, whether that means taking Earn up on what he promised, or just finding a new job.
Michael Snydel is a Chicago-based writer who has somehow tricked other people into reading his thoughts on the things he loves. His interests include intimate psychological thrillers, teen soaps and Krautrock. He writes regularly for Paste Magazine, is a co-host of The Film Stage Show, and has had by-lines at The Film Stage, Vague Visages, and The Dissolve. You can follow him on Twitter.