Jayson Buford wants you to give Sigourney Weaver the flowers she deserves.
We catch yet another hand wringer this week. The flat recap is nearly a one-liner: Al takes a Nepalese Space Cake with Darius that works like an edible loaded Stroopwafel. It’s an episode that is almost certainly a pure hallucination.
But of course, it’s a half-hour of television that is brilliant in its probing. It’s written by Donald Glover, directed by Hiro Murai, and discusses ideas I’ve never seen openly interrogated on screen. It’s about the insecurity that comes attached to Black male celebrity.
From the beginning, we’re made to consider Al’s relationship to the people closest to him. Earn’s newly found professional remove and inaccessibility, and Darius, a clinger who doesn’t serve any real purpose to Al besides as a bodyman/shaman. He takes Al out for a day of edibles, but Darius’ concept of a trip is adolescent, get high with a curated playlist and wander the cobblestone streets, and even that is too much work for him to handle.
From there we descend into a paranoid, sorry, Lynchian hell populated by sex workers in the red light district taking Al’s picture through plate glass windows, vulnerability at the hands of random, unpredictable and violent white fanboys with no regard for human life. There’s an inability to distinguish real life drama from performance art at the Museum House. Is that Chanel hat cool, or does it make you look like a Goofy? Do you need a *real* friend who can cut through the noise and tell you the truth about the conventional wisdom you want to push back against, but aren’t entirely confident to discuss? Are you something to other people? Are you nobody to everyone? Where is your money coming from? Who owns your masters? They’re all fascinating questions. But with the abbreviated structure these episodes offer, whether anthology or supposedly in the stream of the series narrative, I would argue, it’s once again an elegantly constructed exoskeleton with no flesh.
I think “Lorraine” illustrates much of the criticism I’ve had when it comes to the way this season treats story and character. The actress Ava Grey is spectacular, but her character Lorraine (Named after Al’s mom) is a symbol, and because they don’t get the opportunity for real voice or personhood, their flat identity is weaponized and disembodied. Lorraine isn’t a fleshed out person, they’re an idea, an avatar fictionalized demon in the back of Al’s head who is merely a way to consider an aspect of the idea of Paper Boi, not even Alfred because we’ve kind of stopped thinking about Alfred as a person, but an amorphous representation of a Black rapper detached from their source of celebrity in America and decontextualized in Europe.
The Cancel Club is an extension of Lorraine: A Lynchian Neverland where human shaped dalmatians buy your drinks and a white Henny neat is called a Chris Evans and everyone loves controversial and “canceled” artists like Da Baby, Dua Lipa, and– of course, once again we get a needle scratch cameo. Liam Neeson is presented as the nightmare scenario of a celebrity offering an insincere apology. Where they make rappers perform, and trans dates have apartments where they fuck rappers their friends refer to as 106 & Park. It’s a secret fear of being discovered coupled with a desire to find and be your authentic self, critics be damned. But it’s a cop out.
Because Paper Boi isn’t being misrepresented. He’s managed by a cousin who fights for every dollar and rider item, who will change his cousin’s clothes and ensures he owns his own masters. This undermines Lorraine and reduces them to a figment of Al’s imagination, a disservice to the crucial representation the character should own.
But I have to be real, the loaded term “New Jazz” clearly meant a lot to Glover and kind of sailed over my head. Am I giving Lorraine their due as a character? What’s the deal with the hat? Here to potentially put me in my place is the only guy I’d share a Nepalese space cake with, Jayson Buford. What am I missing here Jay? – Abe Beame
Jay: For the first time this season we now have an update on how good cousin Earn is as his manager. It was a problem earlier in the series, with Alfred frequently putting Earn on notice. Now, it seems that Earn took that to heart and does have Alfred’s back. Earn casually tells him “Yeah, you own your masters”, it is a great understated moment in an uneven season. Lorraine was a character that, again, made me question Glover’s relationship with Black women. Liam Neeson’s cameo is hit or miss, but hearing Paperboi ask and Earn deliver the answer we were hoping to hear was one hell of a payoff. What do you think?
Abe: I wish I could get there with you, but again, I think the point of this episode is everything is an illusion in Al’s head. None of the insecurities or threats are real, and this entire season all we’ve been shown is Earn’s competence, ironically at the expense of the closeness that was never an issue as he was finding his footing as a manager the first two seasons. To say Lorraine is another stone to throw at Glover in his storied and troubled relationship with Black women is giving that character a lot of credit. For me, she didn’t even have the dignity of personhood, she existed as a symbol, which I suppose does actually support what you’re saying if not directly. Some were saying this was a kind of pleading redemption attempt on Neeson’s behalf, I certainly did not read it that way. I thought it was pretty fearless, if not slightly disingenuous. Where were you with Neeson after his incident, in the wake of his apology, and where are you now? Did that initial sin move the needle? Did this?
Jay: You go with that “everything is an illusion” take quite a bit. It fits here, somewhat, because Glover does deal with the extra-terrestrial disguised as a human in his work. The fact that Lorraine was not given personhood is exactly why it is an interesting perspective on what Glover perceives Black womanhood to be like. Lorraine is snappy and even when she gives sound advice, it is done from the lens of rudeness towards Alfred. It never feels like you are watching a human being talk with someone else. It’s like Glover got made fun of one time and he had to write that experience on the page.
Neeson’s original sin was more humorous to me than offensive. But it was dumb. To strip a group of their humanity because of one person is well, bigotry, and shouldn’t be done. He was taking the viewpoint of someone who had done a “past misdeed” as opposed to someone who currently felt that way. It was still weird and an example of white people being well, themselves. This didn’t move the needle for me, but the quote “the thing about white people is we don’t have to learn anything if we don’t want to” is a cold hearted truth that will appear on Twitter the next time a white politician has a racist scandal.
Abe: I would challenge you to find anything that contradicts the idea this entire episode wasn’t a fever dream playing out in Al’s head slumped in an alley, high off edibles. I actually really like the idea that the “point” of the use of Lorraine in this episode was the representational lack of personhood, but we’re giving a lot of credit, carrying a lot of water and doing a lot of work for Glover.
The Neeson thing, I think the idea was a dark interpretation of what white men are “really” thinking when these scandals occur. It can’t possibly be read as something Neeson genuinely means. My take is he’s sin eating here, and I guess I respect his willingness to go along for the ride?
Jay: It fits here! I gave you that. Just think that the Twin Peaks industrial complex has taught us to think that everything is a dream. I’m a face value kind of man. But I digress. Yeah. I respect Neeson’s willingness too. It’s a hell of a performance too. But does Atlanta know what they’re doing with this? It seems like the show is aiming for the pantheon heights this year, yet it doesn’t yet say much profoundness. It’s over reliant on Tyree Henry’s brilliance as an actor. But this does make me wonder about how they will end next week. There are some fan theories that Glover has been using the anthology episodes as a way to show what Earn’s dreams are. And that he will tie it together all season. What says you?
Abe: Man I would love that. If you recall, we jumped out pretty early on Succession last season and they managed to land the plane about as well as anything I’ve seen in the last few years. I hope this is all building to something because of the amount of time and effort we’ve expended on this show, but your question concerning whether the show knows what it’s doing is the one that haunts me. I just don’t have any idea where the fuck this could be going narratively, maybe the corrective is coming in S4? Or maybe there’s some master stroke waiting next week.
So, who knows who is reading at this point, but just because you and I haven’t discussed it, for pure fuck-it fun because of where we’re publishing this, assuming you’re not being paid to write about it this week, thoughts on the new Kendrick?
Jay: So look, it was fine. Kendrick is a brilliant writer, who knows how to capture moods, contradictions, motifs, and straight forward storytelling. But he isn’t a deep thinker, and this is another one of those personal responsibility songs. It isn’t hitting for me the same way it used to! I tweeted that – and I never want to tweet again – that Kendrick was rapping at a top level with the same worldview as he always has. He is who he is. This song was just fine though. Even our friend Brian Josephs, a huge Kendrick fan, said it was just fine. Visuals went crazy but I’ll wait for the album to come out to be more enthusiastic. What says you?
Abe: It’s funny, he’s quoting “I Want You”, but it feels more like something off Here, My Dear. It’s a breakup song, at least as far as I can tell off a few initial listens, with “The Culture”, and it’s appropriate this conversation is being couched within a conversation about Atlanta and Donald Glover, because a bigger question is how is Kendrick framing that incomprehensibly large and intangible body? Both auteur’s relationships with and interpretations of these institutions as they perceive them kind of become the story. It feels fraught and very complicated to me, which like Glover, is probably part of the point he’s trying to make. It also feels like a song I personally will have to listen to 20 times, along with a narrative podcast doing a Wikipedia’d line reading to untangle, which is part of my frustration with Kendrick. I don’t think density is a bad thing, but you get to a point where you become a parody of yourself.
I remember in the great D.T. Max biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, there’s a part where Wallace is straining against how he’s been pigeonholed and understood by his audience and the public at large as he’s writing The Pale King, but in his attempts to do that, he’s still incredibly dense and pomo and larding his prose with footnotes. And the point Max makes is at a certain point, you simply are who you are. I’ve always been fascinated with Kendrick’s mainstream popularity. He’s such a knotty lyricist and an inscrutable thinker to me, and I wonder if we’ll finally start seeing that come to bear, if this will be more of a project “for the fans”, or if the idea of Kendrick as a symbol will continue to be enough for him to play in whatever the equivalent of midwest malls are in today’s pop ghetto.
I had hoped what we saw on Keem’s album, Kendrick in this kind of fun and weird space where he’s being musical and bizarre and a thinking man’s Chance the Rapper, would be the tone of this new project, but it would appear that’s not the case. More fire and brimstone Angelou stuff. It’s not really a problem, but it will be a chore. What do you make of my tea leaf reading?
Jay: I mostly agree. Kendrick’s a weird rap superstar; I get annoyed by the fanbase and then when the albums come out, it is hard not to be impressed by how intricate he is as a writer. His lack of humor is his achilles heel though. All great rappers are funny. And he has a lot of weighing on his mind and heart – I get that – but guys like Ghostface, Jay-Z, even 2Pac understood that the best way to get across something is to also show some levity when the stakes are high. Kendrick feels like Oscar bait at times.
Abe: A very charitable reading of Pac! Who I feel was rarely in on the joke, when he was funny. Yeah, I mean at this point the mastery isn’t in question, it just is a question of what to do with said mastery. Once again, on the Atlanta subject, I feel that the lead up to Nope is an interesting corollary talking point. I have personal concerns that because his approach to horror and general storytelling has been appropriated and reheated a lot, and for lack of a better word, exposed in lesser hands, it’s time for Jordan Peele to pivot. I’m nervous about Nope, which I will see the first day I can in a theater. And I have the same concerns for Kendrick. We’ve been to the show and we’ve seen the strings.
I’d love different energy, see him move in different directions than what he delivers on “The Heart Part 5”, which is a great and incredible song almost any other artist on Earth couldn’t deliver if you gave them a thousand years and an infinite stack of notebook paper in a sealed vault. But I think we’ve gotten to a very rare point with Kendrick’s artistry that reaches beyond the possible and demands where else can he go with his incredible ability? It’s not words at this point, but colors, and I want more than the muted palette this time out, but that’s one idiot fan’s perspective.
Jay: We’ll find out when Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers comes out!