[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Atlanta” Season 2, Episode 6 titled “Teddy Perkins.”]
We are shook and yet in awe. “Atlanta” made good on the promise of violence and danger that was laid out in the opening moments of the season with Thursday night’s installment “Teddy Perkins.” The fact that FX announced the episode would air without commercial interruption (and – to the horror of TV critics – without an advance screener) should have been the first indication that something extra special was in the offing. This would turn out to be one of the most disquieting episodes of horror to ever grace a comedy series.
In the Darius-centric episode, “Atlanta’s” mumbling dilettante (Lakeith Stanfield) arrives at a stately but careworn mansion to pick up a special piano with colored keys from Teddy Perkins and Benny Hope, two brothers who shared a musical past and, as viewers soon learn, an abusive father. As the episode wears on, Teddy’s odd hosting style begins to creep out the usually unflappable Darius. Through a series of terrifying and twisted events, Darius is left shackled to a chair as an injured Benny shoots Teddy with a rifle and then kills himself.
In the span of 41 minutes, “Teddy Perkins” manages to build a perfect psychological horror movie in miniature. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most disquieting elements and themes:
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Teddy Perkins’ Michael Jackson-esque Whiteness
Teddy Perkins is the stuff of nightmares, and to preserve the power of his disturbing looks and mannerisms, the credits only list Teddy as being performed by “himself.” Much of the online chatter, however, believes that series creator and star Donald Glover is, in fact, playing Teddy under heavy makeup and prosthetics. Whoever it is did as brilliant a job as Stanfield did playing the straight man for the first time on the show.
Teddy’s unnatural looks are the leading reason why he’s so frightening. Not only does his face make him appear to be a long-lost gelfling from “The Dark Crystal,” but it also enters the Uncanny Valley, where it falls just short of looking fully alive.
Teddy’s looks are also disturbing in that there’s no explanation given to why he once appeared to be a dark-skinned black man (via photos, located in the house, of him from earlier decades) but now has almost bleached-looking skin. While this is an obvious nod to Michael Jackson (some online have suggested that Teddy and the bandaged-up Benny represent the two sides of the late King of Pop and his own psychological and physical struggles), who had the skin condition known as vitiligo, the episode doubles down on the idea of a black man under light skin, when Darius urges his friends to Google image search “Sammy Sosa hat.” Their reaction to seeing the much lighter Sosa elicits shock and then mockery with jokes comparing the Dominican ballplayer to the pale skin underneath a scab and speculating that he faded after being put in the dryer.
Echoes of “Get Out”
Both Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning “Get Out” and this episode follow the same pattern as well, with an unsuspecting black man driving to a large estate for what should be a positive experience (meeting the folks; picking up a piano). The initial friendliness he encounters turns out to be a sham, and the encounter ends with violence in which the man barely escapes with his life.
Of course, “Get Out” almost does the reverse of the aforementioned skin issue, literally wrapping black skins around white people. Stanfield played one such character who begins to glitch from that surgical procedure when his photo is taken. Later in the episode when Teddy snaps a Polaroid of him, Darius shies away from the camera, explaining that he’s “not a big photo person.”
Going to Egg-stremes
In what is probably the most hilarious, bizarre, and nauseating sequence, Teddy eats a giant, soft-boiled ostrich egg, which he claims to also be known by the macabre name, “an owl’s casket.” Even before Darius shows signs of queasiness, viewers have already started to gag while watching the watery albumen slosh over the shell and Teddy’s fingers dig around in the flesh.
This scene appearing so early in the episode confirms to viewers that no, this is not a normal man nor household. It shifts the entire episode, thereafter, into the realm of campy grotesquerie where anything is possible and highly likely to be just as upsetting. Numerous other quirks that are just off include Teddy leaving unusual messages to himself on what initially looks like an intercom, and Teddy offering Darius a water bottle — but coming back with a a glass of what he said was a mix of different bottled waters.
A callback to the egg is made later when Teddy trots out cliches about sacrifice, which become increasingly disconcerting (not to mention, patently made up). “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet,” he says and adds, “To build bridges, people have to fall.” He then follows this up with, “My father used to say great things come from great pain.”
Abuse and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
In fact, Teddy alludes to his father’s philosophy often, such as when it’s observed that Benny expresses hurt and pain well in his music because “he just played what he knew,” and that not living in easy conditions could perhaps lead to a great album or even a masterpiece. Teddy’s twisted devotion to his abusive father is so complete, he even dedicates a wing of the house to his father’s memory, alongside other great and demanding (read: abusive) dads, including Joe Jackson, the fathers of Marvin Gaye and Serena Williams, and “the dad who drops off Emilio Estevez in ‘The Breakfast Club’.”
Of course, rationalizing his father’s abuse as a necessity to create art has twisted Teddy’s perceptions of his own self-worth, and Teddy continues the cycle of abuse with his brother Benny. Here we see echoes of the themes of resentment, control, and imprisonment that’s seen in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Like the 1962 psychological thriller starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, “Teddy Perkins” also centers on two siblings who had a showbiz upbringing, live in a mansion, and one of whom is confined to a wheelchair. Similarly, their relationship has also turned to bitterness, backstabbing, abuse, and eventually murder.
From Bibby to Benny
In the middle of the episode, Darius and the viewers get a welcome respite when he calls his friend Alfred “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry), who is in the drive-thru with his friends Tracy (Khris Davis) and Earn (Donald Glover). The hilarious conversation reminds us of the comic relief provided by Lil Rel Howery’s character when he’s called on the phone in “Get Out.”
This oasis of normalcy and humor, however, only serves to make events that Darius is experiencing at the hands of Teddy all the scarier though. It lulls the viewer into a sense of complacency that is completely shattered by the violence at episode’s end. Some audience members couldn’t help to point out that the comedic contrast to last week’s episode “Barbershop” featuring Bibby (Robert Powell) created an even bigger whiplash.
The Evil That Men Do
Underneath the horror-comedy elements is a yearning to get to the bottom of why people hate and hurt each other. Childhood abuse is offered up as an explanation of some of the trauma that Teddy is still working through, and this is the most perceptive and engaging that we’ve ever seen Darius.
When he tries to placate Teddy, who is holding him at gunpoint, Darius is every person who is trying to understand why he’s facing down the barrel of a gun, why hurt must lead to more hurt.
“Not all great things come from great pain,” he says. “Sometimes it’s love. Not everything is a sacrifice… Your dad should’ve said sorry… [but] it’s not an excuse to repeat the same shit over and over.”
In the end, it’s more violence and not Darius’ keen understanding that stops Teddy in his tracks. What may have been a moment of hope turns, and pessimism and fatalism win the day. Sadly, it’s an all too common occurrence these days, and as bizarre as this episode is, it’s not unrealistic or fantastical. That’s what makes it even more frightening than “Get Out.”
Stevie Wonder’s “Evil” closes out the episode, and it’s a fitting questioning of humanity:
Evil, why have you engulfed so many hearts, evil
Evil, why have you destroyed so many minds
Leaving room for darkness, where lost dreams can hide
Evil, why do you infest our purest thoughts, with hatred
Evil, why have you stolen so much love
Leaving everyone’s emotions lost and wandering free
Evil, why have you taken over God’s children’s eyes, evil
Evil, before they could really grow to see
That your way, is not the way, to make, life what it should be
Evil, why have you destroyed, you’ve destroyed so much of this doggone world evil
Evil, oh, why have you broken so many homes
Leaving sweet love alone and outcast of the world.
”Atlanta” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.