Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Earn’s Cold Gambit Concludes Atlanta’s Second Season

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So ends a wonderful week of television. Steven Universe kicked it off in style, The Americans and The Expanse continued it, and Atlanta capped it off in due style. How do you end a season full of loss? Do you pile on with one more great robbery? Or do you go for an unexpected and much-needed win? Well, as usual with Atlanta, there was a bit of both.

Earn Finally Gets a Win

For about 99% of its length, “Crabs in a Barrel” was a slow-motion car wreck. Turns out Alfred had not yet fired Earn after their conversation at the end of “North of the Border”. However, the firing still seemed inevitable. Earn spends this entire episode expecting it, and no one can tell him otherwise. He also finds out his daughter is languishing in a terrible school and Van is moving them back to her mother’s house. All the while, he struggles to get Al’s house packed up and Darius and Al ready for their European tour.

When I realized Uncle Willy’s gun was still in the backpack when Earn hit the security checkpoint, I expected him to accept his circumstances as one last loss in a season full of them. He has a way of accepting the bad things that happen to him. He accepts the ups and downs with Van, he mostly accepts how people stunt on him, and he accepts all the setbacks on his life.

It’s not like he is okay with it, but Earn has always had a passive attitude. I figured he’d accept TSA finding the gun, let Al move on with a new manager, and just accept picking up the pieces afterwards.

When I realized he put the gun in Clark County’s bag, I felt conflicted. Earn finally got a win. He saved his ass legally, impressed Al enough to keep his job, and will make enough money for Lottie’s tuition at the recommended private school. It was a good moment for Earn’s success level in life. However, I hope it wasn’t the kind of cold-blooded move that makes Earn less relatable in the long run. Especially since Clark’s manager took the fall.

Besides the obvious question of what Clark will do (he has to know that gun wasn’t his or his manager’s), I worry about the cost on Earn’s conscience. In general, despite his failings, he is a good guy. An easy person to root for. He means well in life and takes care of those close to him. He may not always provide like he wants or needs to, but he never really stops trying. He also has a relatively good moral center. Now, that moral center has held him back, no question. And you can absolutely raise questions about the nature of morality, especially regarding his circumstances.

It’s just a slippery slope from here. What stops him for going too far and losing what makes Earn so damn likable to begin with? Can he stop before he loses the traits that Alfred admires? Or Van? Just because his relationship is on the brink with both of them doesn’t mean they’re irreparable. Will Earn course-correct too far and make them irreparable?

We’re nowhere that point yet, though, so right now I’m nothing but happy for Earn. He finally stopped accepting the bad in his life and took action. He will need to. Like Darius told him, black people can’t afford failure the way someone like myself can. Earn can’t sit back and wait for life to reward him like it might reward Clark’s manager. Who, by the way, probably won’t face half the consequences Earn or Clark County would have if they took the rap for that gun.

Earn has had various moments throughout season 2 where he attempted to make a stand. He had the whole stunting episode and the fight against Tracy, for example. These moments never worked out for him, though, and Earn went back to his usual passiveness. It’s likely this stunt with the gun will cause him future trouble, too. Still, this one worked out where the others didn’t and in large part because of those previous failures. Strife and failure prove to be great learning experiences, as does desperation.

Earn’s had nothing but strife, failure, and desperation in season 2. I think he learned from it. He still lost Van and has to deal with further distance from his daughter. He still has money troubles. Al’s not going to forget all of Earn’s shortcomings as a manager, and Clark County might be out for revenge now. For now, we need to let Earn have this one. He earned (hah) it after a season-long downward spiral.

Goodbye to Robbin’ Season

So here we are. The end of Atlanta’s second season. To say it was great doesn’t feel strong enough. Many critics have ranked Atlanta at or near the top of their lists of best shows on television. It deserves it. This second season improved remarkably upon the first, which says something considering how good the first season was. It took all the strengths of the first season, upped the weirdness, and eliminated most of the unevenness that occasionally plagued its predecessor.

This season adopted a more traditional narrative structure than the first season, yet did so without losing its episode-to-episode accessibility. You can still jump in to almost any episode and fully enjoy yourself, even without seeing others. The vast diversity of Atlanta especially makes this easy. You have your comedy episodes, your dramatic episodes, your horror episodes, and your surreal combinations of multiple genres. Within these larger genres you have your subgenres; girls’ night out, boys’ night out, Fargo-ish woods adventures, intense sibling horror, family wackiness, on and on. Atlanta really does provide something for just about anyone.

What really made this second season stand out was how narratively and thematically cohesive it was despite the variety of genres tackled throughout the season.

The title “Robbin Season” stands out, obviously, as it was the season’s subtitle. Characters were robbed of money, innocence, relationships, friendships, jobs, and various other tangible and intangible possessions. This easy thematic guiding arrow made for a lot of fun analyzing each episode. What character was robbed this time? What were they robbed of? How abstract was said robbery? Sometimes the main cast was robbed, sometimes they did the robbing, but you could always find something.

However, ultimately I feel like this season was one based in transformation. Each of the main cast was forced to face hard facts about their present circumstances and make some change. They each faced this change in their own time. Van had to face the treading water of her relationship with Earn and make a decision to stop it. Al had to choose whether to fully embrace his Paperboi career or not. I’ve already talked about Earn and his challenges. Even Darius had “Teddy Perkins” and the effect that episode had on his life.

No matter where Atlanta went in season 2, it ultimately tied back to these thematic points of loss and transformation. In that regard the finale worked remarkably well. It felt like every character spent the episode saying goodbye to their former lives and the people they used to be. Their lives will change drastically now.

And whatever my reservations about the potential negative impact on Earn’s personality, these changes will benefit everyone. Van and Earn can move on to greater personal success for their daughter and will move Lottie to a better school capable of fostering her gifts. They can also achieve greater personal and professional success without each other to fall back on as a crutch. I’ve already talked about Al accepting Paperboi. I hope the ending with Tracy means he’s also learned something about keeping people like that around him.

This greater connection between the episodes made for a much better season of Atlanta, without the whiplash that sometimes occurred in the first season. Something dramatic might happen in one episode, then suddenly it’s like nothing happened. Such was not the case in the second season. There was a clear progression of events guiding the characters towards satisfying endings to each of their seasonal arcs.

Now, I mentioned recently how I have no idea what plans Donald Glover and crew have for future seasons of Atlanta. However, this stronger narrative structure makes me think there are future plans for the show. Maybe it takes some time, like season 2 did, but I feel like a seed was planted for future episodes.

If not? I think season 2 ended in a satisfying way. I’d hate to see Atlanta go when it’s so strong, but I could make peace with this ending. Everyone’s on their path to a better life. Earn solidified his spot as Alfred’s manager, Al made his peace with his career, Van’s ready to find her own way forward, Lottie’s going to a nice school to become a super genius…

It’s a pretty solid place to end the show, if that’s the decision Donald Glover makes.

I sure hope that’s not the decision. Atlanta was absolutely incredible this season. There’s no other show like this on TV right now. No show with Atlanta’s mix of humor, drama, surrealism, genre-variety, and authentic blackness. It’s a show that has so much to say about society and can say it in so many ways.

It would also be a shame to leave these characters behind when they all came into their own this season. I feel like the entire cast really took ownership this year. Donald Glover was predictably excellent as Earn. We all know how talented Donald Glover is, so I’m not surprised to see him excel at Earn’s downward spiral throughout the season. He also had the excellent performance as Teddy Perkins, which will definitely earn him some award consideration.

In the end, I think this season belonged to the rest of the cast. Brian Tyree Henry absolutely owned his role as Al this year and deserves his own awards consideration. Zazie Beetz was excellent in Van’s gradual refusal of her status quo. Lakeith Stanfield continues to make Darius one of the most enigmatic, fascinating, and fun characters on television. Just like the writing, these actors took the best parts of their performances last year and honed them to a razor edge.

Season 2 of Atlanta hit on absolutely every level. I cannot recommend this show enough. I don’t care what you like in a TV show, Atlanta not only does it but does it well. I hope we get a season 3 and that it comes quicker than season 2 did. If not, I’m happy to wait. I waited for season 2 and it was more than worth the wait.

Images Courtesy of FX

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