Series finale review: 'Treme' - '...To Miss New Orleans': The last Mardi Gras
"Tremé" has come to an end. I had a lengthy interview with co-creator David Simon about the final season — but more, ultimately, about the past, present and future of his career — and I have a review of the series finale coming up just as soon as my shoes feel like science projects...
"Like, you can only bend so far before everything you're doing doesn't matter anymore — until you've lost the point." -Annie
"Tremé" never turned out to be "The Wire: New Orleans," no matter how much fans of the previous show might have wished it. And "...To Miss New Orleans" didn't feel quite like any "Wire" finale. There are moments when it becomes clear that the more things change in this city, the more they stay the same, for good or for ill, but this has been a series about evolution much more than its predecessor was. Traditions continue, but in ever-changing ways and often with new players. As DJ Davis notes before the closing montage begins, you can hear a song that you've heard a million times, but because of a change in the song, or in your own life, you can hear something wildly different in it than ever before.
The title is a completion of the pilot episode's "Do You Know What It Means..." (both episodes were directed by Agnieszka Holland), and we hear John Boutte's version of that song playing over the final montage. We see familial and communal traditions go on, even if some familiar faces are missing: Toni and Sofia once again dance out of the house to Professor Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras," just as they once did with Creighton, while Delmond, George and the rest of Albert's tribe go on without their chief.
Janette and Davis wind up together again, but he's not the man she understandably walked away from so many times in the past. He has grown enough to see value in helping others for its own sake, and it turns out that he's a kick-ass sommelier. But for all his feints toward middle-age — including his hilarious anthropologist routine during Mardi Gras — he has not entirely left behind the creative agitator he used to be, whether he's excited to write a song about Godzilla fighting Martin Luther King, or busting Darnell's chops after Darnell makes the mistake of praising his recent shows.
We see Sonny and Annie reunited, sort of, when she spots him in the audience at the House of Blues and thanks him for bringing her to this city and letting her fall in love with its music. But this is not the shy, manipulated doormouse we met in season 1, nor is he the resentful junkie holding too tight to his more talented partner. The Annie we first knew would never be capable of standing up for herself the way she does with Marvin (and the way we see her continue to do in the final montage, suggesting their detente only goes so far), just as the Sonny we first met wouldn't be so content with the life he has now as only an occasional dabbler in the musical world.(*) It's a perfect barometer of how far each of these two has come, and more powerful for the fact that it happens that way, with Sonny just a distant spectator to Annie's rise, rather than with them having a more direct conversation.
(*) In our interview, Simon points to Sonny as one of the characters who got short shrift due to the 5-episode final season. This is Michiel Huisman's first appearance since the premiere, and his scenes are largely a rehash of what he and Linh talked about at the end of last season. I suppose at this point, his struggle is so relatively small-scale — find some low-level gigs while staying sober doing it — that it makes more sense to marginalize him than other regulars at this stage of things. But the Alan Sepinwall of 2010 would have been shocked at how much he would grow to like Sonny by the end.
Delmond completes the home repairs Albert couldn't (that house itself has come pretty far from the shape it was in when the series began), and he decides to embark on a future that will involve his native city, and raising his baby in his father's tradition, but he remains his own man in other way's. Despite Albert's request that he lead the tribe out on Mardi Gras, for instance, Delmond insists that George do it, since he has seniority and will be there from year to year. That he'll be living in both cities is framed as honoring a promise he made to Albert, but we also spent the past four seasons watching Delmond reconnect with the city at the same time he was finding value in his father's traditions. He's making this decision for Albert, but also for himself.
The depiction of Mardi Gras has been an annual "Tremé" highlight, and if we had to have a half-season, it feels right that most of the major business should conclude by Carnival time. The parades offer light moments, like Antoine's wandering eye returning when he runs into some old female friends, or Antoine acting like an overgrown kid at the possibility of getting his son to throw beads to him. But there's room for darkness as well, as LaDonna and the boys get caught up in the real-life shooting at the 2009 truck parade. LaDonna's fear, and her need to let the boys know she's okay (and vice versa), provides one final chance for Khandi Alexander to show us just how great she's been in the role (and, as usual for a David Simon production, how ignored she's been by awards voters).
We close with an image that simultaneously speaks to the difficulty of fixing the city's problems, but also to the great communal spirit that draws and keeps people, and that made New Orleans such fertile storytelling territory these past four seasons. The enormous pothole that claimed Davis' car in the season premiere (which took place nearly four months before the events of the finale) still hasn't been fixed, but the junk he put in the hole to warn other drivers has taken on a life of its own, turning into an urban scarecrow festooned with Indian feathers, Mardi Gras beads, and even a mask. It's a headache in so many ways to live there, but by the end you understand why it's so difficult for someone like Terry Colson to leave, why LaDonna fought so hard, multiple times, to get back, why Davis and Toni and Antoine and others act like there is nowhere else in the world they could imagine living.
Farewell to "Tremé." It's been one hell of a party.
Some other thoughts:
* In our interview, Simon explains why there was never serious thought given to trying to make it to the Saints' Super Bowl victory, and/or the BP oil spill. But he does slip in a mention of the former in the closing montage, as Indiana transplant Colson brags about the Saints beating the local Colts.
* Even Nelson gets to do a good thing on his way out of town, tricking Tim Feeney into giving Janette her professional name back in exchange for a spot in a jazz center that will never be built. It was always interesting to see how the series treated Nelson, who on the one hand is a parasite who's figured out how to make money without actually doing anything, but is also presented as someone who developed a genuine love for this town, who was open (at least a little) to things like Davis' Rampart Street plan, and who here does this enormous favor for Janette. He was never treated as villainous in the way that some of the worst politicians on "The Wire" were. Of course, you could also look at the hustle of Tim as Nelson looking out for his own self-interest: by improving the chance of success for Janette's new place, he also improves the chance he'll be able to eat her cooking again the next time he's back from Texas.
* Toni and Terry's stories also got short-changed to a degree, but even as he has to leave town (and her) to escape the repercussions of his testimony, we see that their tilting at various windmills wasn't entirely in vain. Officer Wilson, for instance, finally gets arrested, with Joey Abreu's father there to watch the perp walk.
* The closing credits included a tribute to "the musical and cultural community of New Orleans," and also one to writer/producer David Mills, who died on set late in production of season 1.
So go read Dave Walker's final episode explainer, read the Simon interview — which includes a discussion of the real-life inspiration for that final image — and then, for the last time with "Tremé," what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org