The article below contains spoilers through the Sunday, December 29th, 2013 episode of “Treme,” “…To Miss New Orleans.”
Oh, I’m going to miss spending time with these characters.
That’s not something I thought I’d write when “Treme” premiered in 2010, a series that seemed to combine all of co-creator David Simon’s least commercial and most didactic impulses, a New Orleans-set drama about musicians, about authenticity and about the ways in which the city, freshly ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, was being failed by the country and the state. It felt smart, urgent and scoldy, putting monologues on the state of things in the mouths of John Goodman’s irate English professor Creighton Bernette and Steve Zahn’s DJ and rabble-rouser Davis McAlary that seemed transparently aimed at viewers rather than anyone else on screen.
But in the penultimate episode of season one, Creighton threw himself off the ferry after spending a day soaking in the city he loved, revealing his previous anger to be a sign of darker and more personal distress than his fiery video blog indicated, and Davis revealed his ability to put his self-righteousness aside when necessary in favor of self-interest.
And “Treme” grew into a series that was still prickly, yes, but was about a community in all its messy, vital, unique splendor, about artistic integrity and the price it can exact, about the indifference of systems that protect themselves and how exhausting and difficult it can be to battle them. The show’s fondness for its characters became palpable, even as it let them fail and pick themselves up to try again. They were as generous to each other as the series was to them, and last night’s series finale “…To Miss New Orleans,” written by Simon and his fellow co-creator Eric Overmyer and directed by Agnieszka Holland, overflowed with that rueful warmth.
The moment that finally made me well up after many close calls was when Annie (Lucia Micarelli), on stage at the House of Blues, greeted Sonny (Michiel Huisman) in the audience as her oldest friend in New Orleans and the one who brought her to the city. Their stories have so diverged that I’d almost forgotten they started the series a couple in an unhealthy relationship, Sonny struggling with a drug habit and the fact that his girlfriend was able to outshine him musically. Sonny was despicable then, and Annie a victim, but she went on to learn to play the fiddle like a real Louisianan, and to earn herself a hard-fought career on the rise in the music industry, and he cleaned up, started working on an oyster boat and got married. That scene reuniting the two, as Annie dedicated “Careless Love” to her former flame after years apart, was sweet and sharp, encapsulating the emotion “Treme” has been able to summon like no other series on television — a loving acknowledgment of the way things were, with all the good and bad, and to the fact that they are no longer.
Or as Davis declared in the episode, “to time and its passing,” a toast to a series built around the knowledge that things would never be as they were — before the city was rebuilt by people who prefer pristine jazz centers to the divey clubs from which that jazz came, before the storm, before the death of Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), before the million small changes that the years bring. Not that change is always bad, or as dire as it may seem — look at Annie and Sonny and how they’re both older, wiser and better off than before.
Look at Davis, doing an excellent job as a waiter in Janette’s (Kim Dickens) restaurant but still getting high and coming up with concept album ideas afterward at the bar. Look at Delmond (Rob Brown), welcoming a new child into the world and accepting that he may not be able to live in New Orleans full time, but that he’ll keep one foot there and one in New York. Look at Toni (Melissa Leo), filing a new lawsuit on behalf of another wronged family, and still sitting down to joke with the sheriff at lunch.
Or look at Antoine (Wendell Pierce), whose coming-of-(middle-)age has been my favorite longterm arc on the series, as the trombone player has gone from a permanently broke deadbeat dad constantly shortchanging taxi drivers to a man commiserating with LaDonna’s (Khandi Alexander) other ex outside the house he’s opened to the two sons he once rarely had time for. “It takes a village,” he mused, and it isn’t a platitude — their family may be sprawling, but it’s also solid in its sprawl, parents and stepparents filling in when there’s a need to make sure the kids are properly raised to adulthood.
Antoine proving he could be there for his children and for the woman he was once married to is a new thing for the musician, whose relapse into a booze-addled 24 hours of jumping from gig to gig in this last season served more as a last hurrah to the flightier life he used to lead. He’s not just a father several times over, he became a surrogate parent to the teens and possible future musicians he’s been teaching, parent of the various villages in which they’re being raised, some far more sparsely and reliably populated than the one he described when talking about his own offspring. And to do that, you have to show up — even if it’s to nurse a handover with charming honesty.
The New Orleans of “Treme” is a beautiful shambles, a place where a car-destroying pothole goes unfixed for weeks, but does get decorated by passing crowds on Mardi Gras, a place where even the most urgent news stories get put on hold while the town breaks for its world-famous party, where getting justice from a corrupt police department comes at the cost of the job of the honest cop willing to speak up. It’s a frustrating and marvelous place, and the show’s been the same kind of indomitable creation. I’m sorry to see it go, except that it went out on such a perfect note of bittersweet complexity — like the culture it celebrates and mourns and suggests will endure anyway, it’s something to have been relished even as it’s come to a close.