While perhaps a bit simplistic, it’s been interesting for me to dissect this season of Atlanta by placing some amount of emphasis on the “Robbin’ Season” subheading. “Helen” seems to eschew my logic by taking place outside the city in a countryside village in upstate Georgia. That in mind, given the personal battles Van and Earn go through this week, I suppose you could say the show finds the couple going after each other for being who they are, even at the most extreme of times. It may not be robbin’, but the severity of their fights mean they may have stolen a bit from each other’s soul by the end of this episode.
The premise of this episode is not unlike last season’s “Juneteenth” where Van brought Earn to a fancy party and the two attempted to fit in by saying they were more than what they are. It made for an awkward experience, as Earn was out of his comfort zone, but still managed to result in a reaffirmation of the care he and Van have for each other, beyond the fact that they share a child together. “Helen” is built along a lot of the same ground in its early minutes, but a separation grows more and more apparent as time goes on.
“Helen” even opens like a sequel to “Juneteenth” as we find Earn being intimate with Van, followed by a road trip up to Helen, Georgia. Both are on good terms, with an intention to enjoy the festivities, however odd they may seem to Earn. Not being from the area, they are undoubtedly bizarre to me (and I would assume others) as well, as the town of Helen is the sort of Bavarian-influenced logging community that looks like the result of what happens when permanently stuck in Oktoberfest. It actually fits the show’s absurdist conception in finding a way to alienate Earn by using Zazie Beetz’ actual German heritage to give her, and those around him, an upper hand.
As the two make their way into a celebration area where Van has a few acquaintances and Earn knows no one, I half expected the show to delve into Get Out territory. Curious looks and the episode’s biggest laugh moment in the form of a reference to one very racist Dutch Christmas tradition seemed to be pointing the episode towards a more nightmarish scenario for Earn to be in. However, despite the episode’s best efforts to continually display horror imagery (a demon horse, Earn’s own choice of Jason Voorhees-style hockey mask), things become an actual nightmare for Van and Earn based on how their personalities conflict.
Dropping the oddness of the surroundings that include lots of German phrases only applicable to the event we are watching and a strange game involving the bouncing of small balls randomly until they land in a basket, real trouble arises. Earn does not do well in strange and unfamiliar situations. Even when Earn’s in his town that’s the case, given his efforts to be merely a decent manager for Alfred, instead of finding a more ambitious path to take. Placing Earn in this Oktoberfest setting puts him in a mood that Van picks up on. However, rather than hold back or change her position on how to act (which she most certainly does not need to do), deeper considerations are made instead.
This is really is an episode about Van, as we see her side of things and learn new information about her current situation. Last season had Van losing her job as a teacher in “Value,” and her state of unemployment has apparently continued. She’s staying at home to take care of her daughter Lottie, while Earn pays the bills. That’s not a permanent plan, but it’s one Van is called out for by her friend Christina, as they engage in a frustrating conversation about their choices.
With Atlanta having the ability to change the type of show it is on a weekly basis, it speaks to the talent of the performers and sharpness of the writing that Donald Glover’s series could easily work as a serialized drama about relationships if it wanted to. Fortunately, the show merely chooses to dig into the heavier drama on a minimal level, with artistically shot scenes of ping-pong working to set up an audience for true understanding.
As the night gets weirder and the ensuing uncomfortableness of the couple grows, the conversations take on a very real tone that does not filter out the language, cursing or otherwise. Regardless of who holds the more significant burden, the only thing attitudes have done in “Helen” is unleash the various insecurities being held onto by Van, leading to the ping-pong matches mentioned above matches that determine where the night and she and Earn’s lives will be headed next.
Filmmaker and actress Amy Seimetz took over directorial duties from Hiro Murai this week, and while the series visual style is held intact, credit goes to her use of close-ups. The complexity of these characters is greatly emphasized by the silent moments, including the ping-pong matches, as we get deeper looks into the eyes of Glover and Beetz. It’s no surprise that the final ping-pong match is not even shown in full, as “Helen” is beyond having a need to be evident in what the state is between Van and Earn. A sort-of breakup between this sort-of couple was inevitable once the episode began underscoring the weirdness with the real issues that would be coming to light.
As noted, Atlanta is thankfully not a show about this pairing. It’s an aspect that can be explored, but there’s plenty of room to follow all the characters separately. That is ultimately what makes this series more successful, as the individual journeys can be fascinating. Heading outside the city limits has certainly led to an emotionally draining episode, but I suspect we will still get more out of these two as a sort-of couple again. Until that time, however, there’s plenty of ground to explore with these two on their own, and that will happen whether or not the two continue to “choose black.”
- When the pig appeared in the streets, I was ready for Glover to go all Jordan Peele on us throughout this episode.
- “No way! You look so good…” – Every facial expression from everyone involved was pitch-perfect and hilarious for its awkwardness. And seriously, that’s a wildly racist tradition.
- Earn wins the ball game by simply dropping them in the basket. Everyone was stunned by this. I said I haven’t been to Helen, but I’m curious what the town’s response would be like to this episode.
- “Fuck you.” – Earn’s anger is thrown directly at random guy in the mask.
- “I know this arrangement works for me.” – That right there may be one of the most truthful statements on life Atlanta could offer in a way to get people thinking about their choices.