The article below contains spoilers for "Yes We Can Can," the December 1st, 2013 episode of "Treme."
David Simon and Eric Overmyer's New Orleans drama "Treme" returned to air last night with a lilt in its step and no particular sense of urgency, despite having only five episodes to close out its sprawling narrative about a city in recovery after a devastating natural disaster and the many manmade problems that followed. Urgency has never suited "Treme," which has moseyed, music numbers and all, into its abbreviated fourth and final season without worrying about cliffhangers or carefully wrought plot twists -- when characters have died, gotten together or broken up, it has never been with the thrum of "you won't believe what happens next!" but with an immediacy that defied calculation. When Annie (Lucia Micarelli) walked out on Davis (Steve Zahn) in "Tipitina," for instance, it didn't seem like the end of an arc but the pair's lives slowly pulling them in different directions. They would go on in their separate ways, and sometimes they'll come back together.
Which they did, briefly, in "Yes We Can Can," catching up over coffee as Annie comes back from being on tour, her career as a musician still on the rise while Davis' brief burst of viral fame with "I Quit" has been fading fast. Former lovers tend to be generous in "Treme," perhaps because the series makes life look so long and storied -- no heartbreak, no matter how bad, is worth souring a relationship forever, especially in the close but vibrant community in which the show is set, where characters are always crossing paths. "I like the way you all are!" Davis protested when Annie told him that her manager was frustrated by the limited niche set for her and her band, that he wanted them to change in order to break out and find larger success. The way you are might net you success in New Orleans -- something that works for Kermit Ruffins but not for others like Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown), who traveled further afield for wider success. And there's the rub -- do you adapt, shift and possibly compromise in order to make it beyond the purest and most limited expression of your art, or do you stay as you are and risk never reaching beyond your immediate circle?
If confounding, lovable "Treme" has often has seemed to be about everything, especially as it got away from the didacticism of its angry first year. It's about the continuing push and pull of art and commerce, about how going big can kill the magic of regionalism and intimacy, but how being a stickler for authenticity can be its own trap. On that side there's Clarke Peters' Albert Lambreaux, whose stubborn insistence on the right way of doing things is a source of strength and a self-censorship of sorts, his choices keeping his music to a very specific type of performance that his son can find maddening even when coaxing him to record an album. On the other you have Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens), who last season teamed up with a financier who built a restaurant on her name and personal brand -- only get fed up and walk away, leaving her with the great frustration of watching her own face going by on ads for the place at which she no longer cooks.
"Treme" has so many multilayered, burnished characters that it actually makes the idea of saying goodbye to the show a little easier -- they seem fully formed in their lives and their pursuits to keep on going long after the cameras have shut off. In this season, too, they've carried on while we weren't looking -- they voted and watched as Barack Obama was elected president, optimism tempered by the sight of police cars in wait around the celebration. They've started new businesses in the case of Janette; they've grown into new roles as teachers and father figures in the case of Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce); they've found new love in the cast of Albert and LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), of Terry (David Morse) and Toni (Melissa Leo). And they're still watching people die at the hands of indifferent, self-protecting police officers in the case of Sonny (Michiel Huisman), who even when cleaned up and married still attracts trouble.
But as we approach whatever end is in sight for "Treme," it's starting to seem like Jon Seda's Nelson Hidalgo may be, if not the most important character in the series, perhaps the most central -- and he's one who didn't even show up until season two, an opportunist who arrives to make money off the post-Katrina cleanup effort. Nelson should be the most callous embodiment of capitalism, a man who aims to turn a profit off of misery and government aid, who happily gladhands and greases the right palms, who Davis describes (to his face) as a "corporate succubus who has set up shop in our quaint little village with the intent of harnessing its very essence for fun and profit." Nelson, who can tell a guy in Galveston how happy he is to be back in the Lone Star State and not long after tell someone in New Orleans that "Tex Mex is great, but duck and andouille, I mean, c'mon!" There's little ruffling or shaming Nelson, no matter how difficult the ask, as he's sought to please everyone, himself most of all, a cheery businessman not afraid to get his hands dirty.
Nelson might be the destroyer in "Treme," but he also could turn out to be a force of good, because the show has always made clear his enjoyment of the city, of the people, of the music -- sitting at the counter at the restaurant from which Janette walked away, he can tell the difference. Nelson has taste, and unlike the men whose company he tends to frequent, he's open -- he's even willing to listen to Davis' monologue about why the second line and the hole-in-the-wall jazz clubs the city's looking to knock down made the act they just listened who he is. There are a dozen characters in "Treme" who can attest to the importance of the old neighborhoods and the culture that comes from them, but Nelson -- Nelson might actually be heard by the people in power. He's someone who knows how to move through their world of backroom deals and quid pro quo scenarios -- and he's not one to be counted out as an ally, for all the trouble he could be part of.