No matter how much things change in Atlanta, the same problems persist. It’s the high-level injustice of structural prejudice mirrored in the personal problems of those affected. Cycles are inescapable, no matter how small and specific they may seem. Here, in “Helen,” it all takes place in a different setting than we’re used to seeing in the series: The Fasnacht Day celebration of Helen, Georgia.
The German festival is an externalization of the complex relationship between Van (Zazie Beetz) and Earn (creator Donald Glover). They started the series as friends with a shared child, hooking up from time to time but decidedly apart. Now, especially considering last week’s stunting solidarity, things between the two seemed more stable than ever. There’s a closeness between them that’s developed over the course of the series, beginning with the solid foundation of mutual understanding and blossoming into something more monogamous. “Helen” opens with Earn eating Van out—a televisual rarity that speaks to sexual obligation and stereotypes of male sexual selflessness, even if he lacks the tongue confidence he gains after a joint or two—and ends with the cold practicality of people with nothing but obligation between them.
That the episode handles this transition smoothly is thanks to director Amy Seimetz, whose handling of Beetz and Glover is just as surgical as her shot choices, and an astonishingly dense script. That script, written by Taofik Kolade and dense not with wordplay (though there’s plenty) but with layers of meaning, makes intense, hilarious culture shock a bitter catalyst for a relationship’s deterioration.
Fasnacht is weird. Traditional. An anomaly when compared to the strip clubs and hookah bars of “Money Bag Shawty.” There are complicated German games, dancing competitions, and a sea of white faces. (So white that someone approaches Earn thinking he’s in really good blackface.) And, as the episode goes on and people’s authentic blackness is called into question, this accusation becomes complicated. Sidebar: there’s a discussion between Van and her high school friend about black female identity and how it relates to (1) men (2) children, and (3) the race of both. It cuts like an executioner’s axe—not funny or particularly exciting, just brutally efficient.
For now, these encounters simple rub in how crazy the fest is.
Like an upsetting German Eyes Wide Shut, the exclusion and extreme incongruity is an extrapolation from day-to-day cultural schisms: In one, it’s a crazy sex cult; in the other other, people wear lederhosen. And even in the latter’s almost satirical intensity (I say “almost satirical” because New Braunfels, Texas is as German as they get in the deep South), there are white people that say “dawg” and refer to their car as “the whip” around the single pair of black people in the city.
The willingness to confront and address this cultural difference is the divide that ultimately drives Van and Earn apart. Van’s embrace of the silly traditions is sweet and natural. It’s her childhood, no matter how odd it may seem. For Earn, it’s just not fun.
Earn is too detached and too self-absorbed to partake in something that has the potential to embarrass him. A cute German bartender flirts with Van and it Earn’s insecurities take over. Earn doesn’t want to look out of place, because that would imply that he doesn’t belong, which would make him feel inferior. Earn likes to believe he’s above the rest of the hustlers around him, but he never gets the respect he feels like he deserves as someone with an Ivy League diploma. He’s a constant (often self-inflicted) stuntee—and that can make anyone’s ego sensitive. But when he’s the same kind of selfish now that he and Van have become closer—and he has some financial power over Van—it cuts to the quick. He got worse with his success and not better, despite Van’s hope for the opposite.
Beetz is unstoppable here, while Glover does the dour deadpan he’s honed over the years. The former runs the gamut of emotions, finding a rainbow’s multitude of disappointments and frustrations—pushing the story forward with nothing more than a furrowed brow and faraway stare. Van is so locked into her cycle that the sounding board that eventually allows her to jettison herself from the situation is literally in another language—and a literal thieving demon gives her the impetus to figure things out with the imperfect imp haunting her life, Earn. Yeah, there’s a demon, and he’s terrifying. Really terrifying.
Equally scary is the finality of it all. The arbitrary, exhausted finality of the penultimate scene—in the relationship’s narrative, the flatness of the ping-pong match’s field of depth, and its focus on Van’s intensely neutral face—is the unavoidable depression of a breakup that’s been seen coming, plastered over, and rotted hollow. They’ve been tangled in this game too long for its participants to ignore. Now that the game is ended, it’s clear both players were experts, but the only way either could win was to stop playing.
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.