Friday, July 19, 2024

A Horrifying Darius Episode Makes for Atlanta’s Best Ever

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I wasn’t sure what to expect when Atlanta finally gave Darius a solo episode. He’s such an enigmatic character, and mainly the one responsible for the first season’s surreal vibes. You don’t know much about him, but you know when he shows up, things tend to get weird. What would happen when he finally got his own episode? The only thing we could expect for sure was for it to be strange, surreal, funny, and make you think.

Atlanta gave us that and then some.

The Price of Success

It could not be more fitting that one week after a relatively harmless episode focused on funny conman hijinks in pursuit of a haircut, we get an episode like this one. To say there’s a lot to dig into is an understatement. “Teddy Perkins” was a terrifying study of creativity, the pursuit of success, childhood abuse, the loss of innocence, loneliness, Michael Jackson, jealousy, sibling relationships, and probably many other things that went totally over my head.  This episode was practically the opposite of last week’s episode.

These past two weeks were a perfect example of the versatility of Atlanta’s writing, directing, and acting. While “Teddy Perkins” had a few laugh-out-loud moments (sorry, Sammy Sosa), the majority of this episode was spent diving into the abuses and pain of two formerly famous brothers. Not only was it done well, it was done with a skill that makes you almost wish Donald Glover created a show solely based on these types of concepts.

I think it’s pretty clear Teddy and his brother were meant to resemble Michael Jackson. Both were black musicians suffering from a condition lightening their skin. In both cases you have severe childhood abuse involved. Teddy’s voice was not a MJ impersonation, but definitely meant to recall him. Same with his plastic surgery.

While these similarities were definitely meant to provide an initial shock laugh at how weird it was, “Teddy Perkins” wasted little time delving into an intensely uncomfortable horror atmosphere. Within minutes of Darius talking to the man, things feel entirely wrong. Teddy’s creepiness becomes apparent immediately. By the time he begins talking about music and his brother, it’s apparent the man is suffering and mentally ill.

Like Darius, I spent most the episode assuming Teddy and Benny were the same person. Even when Darius ends up in the basement with Benny, I didn’t question my previous assumption. I suppose I can’t say I was completely surprised when Benny emerged from the elevator to kill his brother, but it was unexpected. The episode did such a good job of characterizing Teddy/Benny’s pain that it was so easy to assume he hid the truth, that he was Benny and felt ashamed at everything he had lost over the years. He had lost everything once defining him.

All that was left was a creepy mausoleum dedicated to the past. It was a monument to the pain Teddy and Benny went through, a constant reminder submerging them in their abuse and regrets. Literally, in the case of the wing of Teddy’s “museum” dedicated to the father responsible for abusing him. Teddy literally idolized and memorialized childhood abuse.

It raises questions about Teddy’s current treatment of his brother. He had him locked in the basement and apparently treated so poorly that Benny not only wanted to die himself, he took his brother with him. Was Teddy recreating his father’s abuse to try and “inspire” Benny to new musical achievements? Was he taking that abuse even further? I walked away from this episode wondering just how long these two brothers lived isolated, surrounded by memories, and with one mistreating the other.

It’s clear Teddy justified his father’s abuse because of the success of his brother. He also talked of Benny making another successful album. Between these comments and the treatment we see of his brother, it’s clear Teddy was continuing his father’s abuse in order to recreate the past. Everything about the situation was awful. You have to wonder how long this went on. Possibly it went on their entire lives, with both brothers trading abuses based on the current power dynamic between them. Such was the influence of their father.

I also can’t help but wonder just how many child prodigies live this way (although not exaggerated), and even worse how many Teddys there are who suffered the abuse without the success. We only know about the successes whose histories become known later in life. The treatment of the Jacksons, the Drew Barrymores, the Judy Garlands. You can look the subject up and find a stunning number of celebrities who experienced abuse as a child.

You don’t hear the stories of those who never made it. They don’t get public sympathy or offers of help. No one has any idea of their struggles to cope with the mental and physical abuse their parents put them through in the name of success, or the further abuse they suffered with failure.

This was Atlanta at its most dramatically powerful. Yes, it was absurdly surreal. Yes, it made sure you laughed sometimes. At its core, though, “Teddy Perkins” was a haunting horror story of two brothers suffering physical and mentally, and how fame lay at its core.

A Showcase for Lakeith

The thing about television or film is that it doesn’t always matter how well something is written or directed. You can have the best script in the world, a brilliant director, and yet ruin the entire production if your cast can’t handle the material. Atlanta has never had that problem, thankfully. The entire cast more than carries its weight and often transcends it. These are some really terrific actors.

I talked a bit about this last week with Brian Tyree Henry’s role as Paper Boi, and how he does such a great job with the vast range between pure comedy and dark drama. Zazie Beetz does an underappreciated job with Vanessa’s understated role. Donald Glover does a wonderful job, and has perhaps never lost himself in a role the way he did playing Teddy in this episode.

One thing that seems increasingly clear, though, is that Lakeith Stanfield should be a star. This man is freaking transcendent.

His role as Darius has always been a standout aspect of Atlanta. When people try to sell the show to potential new watchers, he always comes up. He’s funny, surreal, and deep, and a great deal of that comes from Stanfield himself. There has never been a huge spotlight for Darius before now. He gets his moments, for sure, but we don’t know much about him. That he still arguably reigns as the most interesting character is solely because of Stanfield.

This episode was his long-awaited showcase and he delivered exactly how he was expected to. Sometimes I wonder just how he manages to portray Darius as both the most enigmatic character on the show and also the most real. I suppose it’s the way Stanfield treats his character so earnestly. He doesn’t treat Darius’s eccentricities as strange or something to play for laughs, even when they clearly are. They’re just a reality of who Darius is.

That the concept of this episode could be so strange yet end up so haunting speaks to how well Atlanta handles his character and how convincing Stanfield is in the role. The idea of the pothead best friend of Paperboi driving out to retrieve a piano with multi-colored keys from a Michael Jackson stand-in just sounds so absurd. It makes perfect sense for Darius.

Stanfield handles every moment of this episode perfectly. He’s at peak troll form when he buys the confederate hat and uses a red marker to scratch out his own message on it. He sells the strangeness of Teddy’s mansion and the fear as the danger increases. Talking Stevie Wonder with Teddy feels as natural for him as slipping back into jokes with Alfred. Darius is one of the most versatile, interesting characters on television and it’s in large part because of Stanfield. His charisma leaps off the screen at all times and his versatility has transformed this role well beyond its concept. He jumps off-screen every single time he appears.

What’s more, I fully trust that Stanfield will incorporate the traumatic effect of what he experienced in this episode into Darius’s character moving forward, even if the script doesn’t always remember. He has owned this character and defined him in a way the best actors do. This is not something Darius would forget, and I don’t expect he will.

There was a lot to love about “Teddy Perkins”. The directing was top-notch (courtesy of Hiro Murai). The dialogue as well. As I said before, Glover knocked his own role out of the park as Teddy. Ultimately, though, this episode belonged to Darius. It belonged to Lakeith Stanfield.

Closing Thoughts

There was just so much to love about this latest episode of Atlanta. I can promise you that this will be a strong contender for the best episode of anything put on TV this year. “Teddy Perkins” is a truly brilliant piece of work adding that helped Atlanta’s already fantastic second season climb to newer heights.

As weird as it is to think the past two weeks were both part of the same show, I can’t think of a better argument for watching Atlanta. They show off everything I think makes the show special. The wide range of tones and genres it excels at, the range its actors are capable of, the genius of the writing and directing, and the pure entertainment factor were all at their best.

Atlanta is a great, great show. I can’t imagine “Teddy Perkins” not being a frontrunner come awards season unless season 2 finds some way to top it. Honestly, at this point I wouldn’t even be surprised.

Images courtesy of FX

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