Vanessa and Earn’s relationship is a dynamic that’s informed much of the first season of Atlanta, but it’s never been highlighted to the extent it is in this week’s episode, “Juneteenth.” In fact, it hasn’t been since Vanessa and Earn’s disastrous dinner date in “Go for Broke” that they even spent an entire episode together: Despite glimpses of their civility and frustration with each other, their relationship has been at the fringes of the series as they’ve followed their own journeys. “Juneteenth” continues the season’s prevailing interest in race, class, and self-definition, but it also uses those political themes to dissect the way that relationships can become a series of obligations, even as two people care about each other. Here are five times “Juneteenth” uses these larger ideas to examine a single relationship.
As the episode begins, the camera is tight on Earn as he grabs a nearly spent joint out of the ashtray—just wide enough to see that there’s a woman on the other side of the bed. But it’s only a short breather before Earn realizes he’s not in his apartment, and now he has to awkwardly end a one-night-stand. Today’s the day for something he definitely forgot, and Vanessa is none too pleased when he comes out of his hook-up’s door and gets into her car smelling like weed and sex.
“Are you high?” she asks, with a combination of annoyance and inevitability, as he absentmindedly lays his head against the window in a daze. She may have partied too hard only a few episodes earlier, when she mucked up her school-mandated drug test, but she’s snapped back to reality. Her eye is on the future, whatever that future may be—and more relevantly, whoever may be in that future.
Vanessa and Earn aren’t necessarily on the rocks, but there’s a separateness about their lives that underlines the disconnect between them. There’s nothing glamorous about their relationship. She feels obligated to deal with him, but she doesn’t expect him to step up. He’s too busy playing with the window controls in her car, even as she tells him multiple times that it messes up her hair. But he does need to step up. This day is about Lottie. It’s about opportunities. It’s about Vanessa’s next steps, and Earn needs to play his part as the caring, capable man on her arm.
An opulent mansion party isn’t their regular weekend scene, and Monique definitely isn’t their usual company. Vanessa’s relative is only too excited to welcome her and her new “hubby,” Earn. It’s bad enough that Earn and Vanessa need to pretend their ailing relationship is a happy marriage, but Earn was ill-prepared for a soiree celebrating the anniversary of the 13th Amendment, replete with hors d’oeuvres served in ceramic bowls shaped like slave ships. And that’s to say nothing of an aggressively nice white host who excitedly fetishizes black culture.
Earn is not about to let this pass without comment. Not a moment through the door, he glibly jokes about an all-black a cappella group singing from the stairs being put up for auction, and he’s only too ready to troll Craig, who’s sure he knows Earn from a local country club. All the while, the passive aggression is at an all-time high between Vanessa and Earn as they purse their lips and jab at each other out of earshot of the rest of the guests. Their relationship is being put on display, and they’re only too aware of their hypocrisies.
Not a single person is going to give Earn a break, not even a bartender who scolds him for skipping the line—referred to as a “queue” for maximum pretension—and forces him to choose from a fixed cocktail menu with names like “Underground Rumroad” and “Plantation Master Poison.” Vanessa sees this fanciness from another angle as she follows alongside Monique, who chastises waitresses for not smiling. “This is a celebration, not an orphanage,” Monique says, as Vanessa looks on in horror. Even the hired help needs to pretend that they’re having a good time.
Vanessa is just grinning the whole time, and her smile only becomes wider as Monique takes her under her wing. “You remind me of me, and we’re going to make sure you get everything you want,” she says. This is what she came for—the connections. And Monique has promised a treasure trove of contacts at this party, like a principal from a prestigious university, upscale designers, and guests with enough pull to get her on the next “Real Housewives” franchise. She’s mesmerized by all this ease and wealth, but is that what she wants? She’s not sure.
Earn is busy receiving his own uninvited guidance in the study from Craig, who’s only too willing to lecture him about appropriation, pat him on the back for being a “brother on the business side of music,” and entreat him to take a pilgrimage to his motherland. But that’s only a prelude to a playwright whose latest opus is about “two gangbangers who hold up a pastor, drug dealer, and a pregnant teen in a strip club,” and a preacher who delivers each word with a transparently creepy lustiness. These are the black Americans who are fighting for the future of culture, but they’re so oblivious about the other spheres of life that they can only sound like a parody.
The highlight of the episode comes when Earn and Vanessa are making small talk with three society women on the porch. They ask a harmless question like, “What does Earn do?” and he unexpectedly starts into a winding monologue about how he does nothing and Vanessa does everything. He says she’s a “great mother, provider, and a partner” before capping it off with a peck. It’s an objectively sweet moment that’s horribly painful in the context that these two people don’t feel that way about each other anymore.
It’s an effective scene on its own, but it’s also a scene of immense control, as the two actors, Donald Glover and Zadie Beatz, go through a complex series of emotional reactions throughout Earn’s monologue. At first, Vanessa’s only facial expression is worry—worry about being discovered as frauds. But both of their reactions mutate as Glover hits every line, his eyes lighting up right on cue. And while Vanessa is first moved by the sincerity of these words, it’s only seconds later that she has a crushing realization that it’s all a game to Earn.
Coming after an earlier scene, in which Vanessa asks him to play pretend and just do this favor for her, this is what she asked for. But he’s too good at pretending, and Vanessa can’t help but run off to the bathroom to compose herself—to wonder why they never worked out. Out in public, he makes it look so easy to be in a functional, successful relationship, but it’s much more complicated behind closed doors. Vanessa wants the “security and the honesty,” but even Monique tries to convince her that that’s an impossibility. You have to settle for one or the other.
Earn and Vanessa separate again, moving closer and closer to their breaking point. Vanessa is steadily downing cocktails while Earn is forced to watch Craig recite some wack slam poetry. But they can only put on airs for so long as two of the valets approach Earn, recognizing him as one of the people who hangs around Paper Boi, and try to slip him their mixtape.
Earn is confused, but Monique and Craig have their own reactions. Monique thought she had an Ivy League professor in her home, while Craig has a “Eureka!” moment, gushing about how he’s been following Paper Boi since the beginning. Monique’s reaction turns to disgust as more information comes out. “You’re not going to shoot up this party, are you?” she says, without any detectable sense of irony, before mentioning that you can’t choose your family.
That’s the final straw for Earn. He’s sat silently all day while people have said ignorant things to him, but he’s not about to let this women say nasty things about his cousin. Miles may not be Monique’s idea of success, but Earn is happy to be around him, and he’s finding his own satisfaction. Personal honesty is more important to Earn than impressing rich people, and Vanessa couldn’t agree anymore. Their future is unknown, but for just that moment they know what they saw in each other.
Scott Joplin, “The Entertainer”
Sam Cooke, “Chain Gang”
Michael Snydel is a Chicago-based film and tv critic who has somehow tricked other people into reading his thoughts on the things he loves for years. 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, Ebert Voices, Movie Mezzanine, and Vague Visages. You can follow him on Twitter at @Snydel.