The culmination of Donald Glover’s media empire didn’t necessarily have to coincide with the end of Atlanta’s second season, but it certainly helps drive some points home. After his music video for “This is America” smashed YouTube records, his SNL performance won praise, and he debuted in the biggest sci-fi franchise on the planet—all in the same week—ending Earn’s season arc might feel like a bit of an afterthought for the polymath. But with “Crabs in a Barrel,” Glover finds a throughline in his disparate interests and reckons with the systems he faced to succeed in each.
They’re all components of the entertainment industry. The stress, the silliness, the exploitation, and the rock-star feeling that’s too attractive to ignore. Atlanta, especially this Earn-centric episode, is two clenched fists and a popped forehead vein. Whether it’s the “religious” Lyft driver that refuses to listen to the GPS while she sings her gospel or the entertainment lawyer that came “highly recommended” but whose clients are disappointing one-hit wonders and reality TV stars, people seem disappointingly imperfect to a man that needs perfection to drag himself back up.
That’s because his client/cousin, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), is ready for the big leagues. He made a deal with the devil down in the forest and is willing to go the distance for his career, even if that means kissing fan ass. So now, on the precipice of a European tour with Clark County, bona fide Sad Boy Earn has to parent his daughter (which is the only time we see the poor guy smile in… maybe the whole season?) and two grown men (which is when we see him as stressed and depressed as he is the rest of the season) while wondering if he’s going to have a job once he crosses the Atlantic.
The stress becomes visual very quickly—a Chekhov’s gun so obviously placed that even the elementary school background art screams “What is in my backpack?” Then, while saying goodbye to Van (Zazie Beetz) and his daughter after a hilariously blunt parent-teacher conference, Earn does what many of us who fear emotion do: He considers saying something meaningful, then does a joke “goodbye” with a silly voice. Watching his brain churn, consider the option, swallow it, and go to the pained Plan B is as crushing as knowing that the two-parent household the teacher recommended is never going to work out.
Continuing to crush up the wadded paper ball that is Earn’s psyche, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). is too chill for his own good, letting his passport expire and not giving a single shit because, damn, man, he’s playing three-dimensional chess against himself over here. Stanfield delivers “conflab it” and “the ol’ switcheroo” like nobody else—partially because nobody else is saying incredibly good things like this. His is the funniest part of the finale, which doesn’t seem fair because other characters couldn’t get away with questioning the right way to piss (through the zipper or over the boxers?) in the waiting room of a passport expedition office with a Hasidic clientele and a deliciously frank clerk. It’s like a Where’s Waldo of weirdness and Earn’s in the stripes. Things just get absurd when Darius gets involved.
They also, as the two are often mirrors, tend to get real. After Van tells him she’s considering moving in with her mom and taking their child with her, Earn feels rock bottom enough to open up to his most self-assured friend. That makes sense, especially after not just one but two people ask him if he’s doing OK (a record for the show that loves to remind us that undiagnosed depression is running rampant through its protagonist). A little advice and a little compassion goes a long way for the long-suffering Earn, who’s developed spiritual scoliosis with all the weight bearing down on his mind. The cure? Room to stretch out and a lightened load. And maybe, if Darius has his way, a talking cartoonish joint. “Smoke me! I really wanna be smoked!”
Before you decide that wow, maybe this series of revelations will lead to a third season of Atlanta that’s Earn’s answer to Master of None’s soul-searching second season, you gotta realize that there are no easy answers to this show’s problems. Earn’s load is gonna get lightened one way or another, but it doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s either going to be by failure—trial and error—that hardens Earn and makes him better, or by using his strengths— being a devious son of a bitch—to adapt to difficult situations. The problem is, as Alfred says, not only is nobody going to help them, everybody else made it by doing whatever it took. Even Tracy, who, by the time they get back from Europe, will probably have his own business. Robbin’ Season comes to a close with everyone a little poorer, but with the promise of great riches on the horizon.
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.