by Bryan Washington
“Helen” is the episode of Atlanta that I’ve been waiting for. Of course, it’s centered around Van. Last week, I mentioned we hadn’t seen much of her yet, but it’s finally happened. She’s arrived. But before we start, it should be noted (and loudly, from the heavens!) that this one was directed by Amy Seimetz and written by Taofik Kolade (in his first-ever episode of television!).
I just have to say it again: This episode is all Van’s. It is its own marvel in a consistently marvelous show, a high point and an event.
The episode starts with Earn giving Van cunnilingus, so let’s start there. I think it’s the first time in the entire series that we really see female pleasure — the women of Atlanta are, more often than not, portrayed as accouterments, or means to an end, or detours on the road to some bit. If you’ve been following along with me, then you know that my biggest gripe with Robbin’ Season thus far is the lack of screen time for Van. When we finally did see her, three (3!) episodes in, she was an accessory for Earn: the person who picked up his bills, his date (although he didn’t even use that word), his “you can dance with my girl over there.” There was an entire episode in the look of disdain Van gave Earn at the end of “Money Bag Shawty,” and it may have taken a minute for that particular narrative to come about, but we’re getting it in “Helen.”
Van and Earn find themselves driving out of Atlanta for some sort of German festival. We’re never given a clear answer on why Van is fluent, specifically, (although it looks like she’s spent some time abroad, and also she may have studied German in school), but what matters is that she’s able to fit in with these folks, in her own way. It’s a mostly white crowd. Most of the crowd is absolutely oblivious. There are, naturally, the obligatory cross-cultural blunders: the German game that all of the white people (and Van) understand, to Earn’s detriment. The woman who admires Earn’s “costume” enough to touch him, only to find that he’s actually not in blackface.
If Earn found himself out of place in the episodes prior, navigating the world with Darius and Alfred, he is absolutely at a loss now. In a direct contrast to the airs he put on in his escapade with Van last season, he finds himself unable to put them on now – not because he can’t (because he can), but because he can’t bring himself to care. He says that this isn’t his world, but the look on his face says that he thinks he’s above it. And there’s a difference in that chasm that starts to play across Van’s face. (Although maybe the point here is that there are many worlds in this one, and we have to choose which ones we’d like to work to be a part of. Maybe the point is that it’s a choice.)
When Van grabs a drink a little later, she makes conversation with a bartender (sans subtitles, to mirror Earn’s alienation, unless you speak German!), and it is the most comfortable we’ve seen her all season. Her shoulders are relaxed. She’s laughing. In last week’s episode, she was just along for the ride, with everything happening in this sort of floating along way. Here, with this guy, she’s making jokes. Laughing at his. It doesn’t matter that most American viewers won’t understand them. We don’t need to know what she’s saying, only that she is comfortable saying it, and that this comfort is discomforting to Earn. He gripes about it. And then, a little later, ejects himself from the event entirely. He calls the whole thing stupid.
But that’s when, all of a sudden, a pretty magical thing happens: The episode changes. We lose Earn entirely. We’re given Van in her own element. She’s a black woman at a festival for a culture that isn’t her own.Although IRL, Zazie Beetz is a German-American who was born in Berlin and speaks both languages. There are so many different reasons that people turn to cultures outside of themselves, or attempt to find a home in them.
Sometimes, it’s shame from where they’re coming from.As shown in the conversation with Van’s friend, who claims that Van chose black and she chose white. And introduces her as “Lottie’s mom”! And frames her whole existence around Earn’s involvement in music! Sometimes, they’re looking for acceptance that they haven’t found elsewhere. Sometimes, it’s born out of something that they admire, or something that feels truer to them than what they’re told they should adhere to. Sometimes, it’s something that simply interests them, but when was the last time we saw a young black woman on television pursuing a milieu so far outside of the dominant American narrative of who and what she should be?This is a genuine question. Yes, there’s Insecure, which is brilliant, but I’m not sure if it’s the same thing.
Click HERE to read the rest of the recap, “Helen.”