Sunday, July 14, 2024

Van Has a Ladies Night at Drake’s House

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After last week’s creepy episode, I was glad to see Atlanta get back to something lighter. Yeah, I loved “Teddy Perkins,” but I don’t want to watch that every week. Even better, it’s a Van episode! I said back in my review for “Helen” that I hoped the split with Earn would lead to solo Van episodes. “Champagne Papi” gave fans exactly that, and executed Atlanta’s special brand of weird, funny moments and blunt realness with the high quality I’ve come to expect.

The Perils of a Social (Media) Life

The setup to this episode was rather simple and never really evolved. Van gets to attend a New Year’s Eve party at Drake’s mansion. She and three friends (including the one who got them the invite) plan to use it as a social media opportunity. When they arrive, they end up split up for various reasons and going about their own adventures.

Turns out the party itself was just as deceptive as their reasons for going. Drake wasn’t actually there and all the photos women were posting on Instagram with Drake were fakes taken with cardboard cutouts. Everything about the party turned out to be fake, from the hosts to the attendees.

One thing that really struck me about this episode was how exploitative it was. Coming off “Teddy Perkins,” the opening with the “shuttle” taking women to the party felt downright terrifying. Everyone in that van trusted the driver to take them to the party, but what if he didn’t? Then soon after they arrive, Van strikes up a conversation with a man who comes off charming at first, but quickly reveals himself as a clinging creep. Between the drugs floating around, the alcohol, and the motives of everyone at the party, there was a visible discomfort about the entire situation. Everyone was trying to take advantage of everyone else.

This is true of Van, who used a friend to get in the party for the Drake photo. It was true of the friend, who is using her connection into the party for entirely selfish reasons. Obviously all the guys at the party hoped to exploit the women there. The women running the scheme using Drake cutouts to charge for Instagram selfies used the desperation of the party goers.

“Champagne Papi” is a surprisingly harsh look at the fakeness built around social media and also at the dangers it can pose to women. Everyone at the party has cynical, self-serving motivations for attending that aim at increasing their social media standing. There’s no doubt that social media is a huge part of modern culture. In the end, you have to ask yourself how much of it is real. At what point does the fake life you’re portraying on social media cross over into affecting the world outside it?

Darius’s appearance and rambling lecture about the world being a simulation were definitely a fun surprise, but they were a statement on social media culture and that very line. Everyone viewed everyone else at the party as someone crossing the line. Van’s friends commented as much within minutes of arriving. It felt like projection since they were often doing exactly the same thing. See the friend of Van’s who obsessed over the white woman. She assumed the woman was just there to steal a black man. Even when confronted with the knowledge that this woman was the longtime girlfriend of the man she was with, Van’s friend refused to back down.

Then you add in the danger to the women at the party and it all feels uncomfortably tense. When Van’s friend Nadine vanishes from the spot Van left her, you can’t help but worry for her. The woman’s high on an edible she didn’t want to take, that she doesn’t know the contents of, and there’s a party full of guys who would take advantage. She turns out to be okay, thankfully, but how many others like her attended the party? What if the creep hounding Van had found Nadine instead?

Thank goodness it was Darius and his philosophical ramblings who found her.

I know it’s hard for men to recognize and understand the constant danger and/or discomfort women feel in the world. Maybe most won’t feel it as viscerally as I did watching this episode. I can say I definitely did, though, from the second Van and her friends showed up in a parking lot looking for a ride to the party.

Van’s Bad Decisions

Since she’s so often connected to Earn and his stupidity, Van usually comes off as the voice of reason and good decision-making on Atlanta. Sometimes it has made me wonder what Van saw in him to begin with. Was it just young love resulting in a child that the two stuck out for their daughter’s sake, even as Van grew up and Earn didn’t? Did Earn used to come across more maturely? Did Van share a lot more in common with Earn than I assume?

“Champagne Papi” gave us a pretty big hint that Van’s prone to the same stupid decisions as Earn. It also made clear how similar they can be in similar situations.

Earn always comes across as uneasy in party situations. He never seems capable of just letting go and enjoying himself. Often, he views parties as a job where he has a specific goal in mind. If not, he still ends up distracted with real life problems and uses the parties to hash out those problems. Meanwhile, we usually see Van having fun and growing exasperated with Earn’s unwillingness to engage.

Turns out Van is much the same. This party wasn’t about having fun, it was about proving something. Proving to Earn she’s living her life without him, proving her social media status, proving she still has it. Not once did she attend this party to have fun. The first words out of her mouth once she’s inside are, “Where’s Drake?” That picture was the only reason for showing up.

She acted much how Earn usually does when we see him at social gatherings. Van was completely wrapped up in her own stuff and didn’t have fun until she wandered away from the party. Even then, having fun was secondary. Even the way she acted around her friends was similar to Earn. She seemed like a tag-along with little in common with them.

“Champagne Papi” also showed us a—to be a bit harsh—a dumber Van than I’m used to seeing. This was also another way in which she reminded me of Earn. Atlanta’s first season portrayed Earn as someone intelligent struggling to catch a break. You assume once he does catch a break, he’ll take full advantage. Then he starts blowing money on nonsense and doing stupid shit. You start realizing it’s no mistake or coincidence that Earn starts the show off like he does, that he isn’t some smart guy with a bit of bad luck and lack of opportunity. Earn’s made dumb decisions that shaped his life.

Van appears to have that much in common with him.

Atlanta showed us a glimpse last season in the episode where she smokes weed the night before a drug test at work. We see more glimpses here in her behavior before and during the party. Needless to say, it’s kind of messed up for a woman with a surprise child and a STD to insult a friend for using condoms. That suggests a recklessness not so different from Earn’s money decisions that end up stripping what money he makes quickly away. The idea that condoms are childish is the same kind of stupid idea that has you showing up to a party and taking an unknown drug without a second thought. It’s the kind of recklessness that has you waking up a month later realizing you’re pregnant.

You can also see it in her choice of friends. Candice was a completely selfish person who ditched her friends at the party immediately. Another friend forced a third to take drugs she didn’t want to, then launched a racist attack against the longtime girlfriend of one of the celebrities there. At least Nadine seemed like a decent person, even if she made the same kind of stupid decisions her friends seem prone to. Why is Van hanging around these kinds of people when she so often comes off as better than that? Is it specifically because she wants to feel superior?

Van’s clearly an intelligent and capable person. Much like Earn, you know her life should be better off. Unfortunately, she’s probably spent most of her life making the same kinds of bad decisions he has, which is probably how they have kept gravitating back to each other. I hope they both shake these habits off as the show continues.

Closing Thoughts

The fact that this was probably the weakest episode of the season speaks highly of Atlanta’s second season, because this episode was not weak at all. It didn’t have a ton happen, but there were so many great moments. I continue to be amazed by the consistently high quality the show maintains. The first season was wonderful, but it had far more peaks and valleys compared to the second season.

What makes it more amazing is how different the show is from week to week, which contributed greatly to the uneven quality of the first season.

I admit this episode might swing and miss with people who have no interest in a rapper party attracting women looking for Instagram likes, or have no interest in a girls night out with these characters. It’s so different in tone from what people celebrated with “Teddy Perkins” or the more strange and surreal stuff Earn, Al, and Darius often get up to. Since the “main plot” of the show is Earn managing Paperboi’s rap career, an episode like this does nothing to advance it.

I didn’t care. This episode was the entertaining blend of humor, threat, and authenticity that helps make Atlanta so special. This is the kind of episode you get from people who know this situation and these people intimately, and better yet, know how to make me enjoy watching it on TV.

Images Courtesy of FX

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