by Bryan Washington | via Vulture
There are, I think, two ways we could approach “Teddy Perkins,” and the first one means working with the story on its own terms. It’s Darius’s episode. He’s in pursuit of a free piano he found on the internet. He ends up at this mansion in the middle of nowhere — which means we’re outside of the city, again — driving up to a house that might be even larger than Van’s benefactor’s from “Juneteenth” last season. It’s worth noting that every single time a character in this series has come into contact with wealth, no good has come from it. But Darius enters anyways, and the door is opened by a man whose skin has been very deeply bleached (and who is very obviously portrayed as a black man in white face). Teddy Perkins, the owner of the home, welcomes Darius in.
His manner is deliberate. His speech is measured. His dress is immediately reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s. Teddy sits Darius down, asks if he’d like a glass of water, and in a nausea-inducing minute proceeds to dig into an undercooked ostrich egg. But instead of rushing the transaction — or just getting up and ghosting — Darius indulges Teddy’s stilted conversation. As it so happens, Teddy says he didn’t post the piano online.This becomes significant later – if not Teddy, then who? He suggests it was his “audiovisual woman,” but we never see her. But he is into music. Obsessed, actually. And with jazz, specifically, definitely not rap (an “underdeveloped” form that “never grew out of its adolescence”). Also, his brother Benny was a noted jazz musician.
As Darius later confesses in a phone call to Al, he knows he should leave at this point, but he really wants the piano. (The keys are paint-washed; they really do look pretty cool.) So he and Teddy talk about rap’s merits and its lack thereof, as well as Darius’s affinity with the piano as an object (which Teddy finds somewhat trifling, another warning sign), and Teddy opines, not too bitterly, on Benny’s career, listing how his brother played with Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder and Ahmad Jamal in his prime. Benny is still with us, Teddy says. He lives in the house. He’s just not around.
It was around this time that I realized Teddy was being played by Donald Glover. The likeness between Earn and Teddy isn’t exactly obvious: During a cut from Darius’s situation to the city — where Al, Tracy, and Earn are getting Krystal drive-thru — the camera lingers over Glover’s face a few times to emphasize the connection. The shots feel extraneous until you realize what’s going on. And you don’t realize their connection until you realize it, but once you do, it isn’t something that you just unsee. Or at least I couldn’t. Although, in a lot of ways, I wish that I hadn’t noticed it just yet. Once you know, you can’t help but equate your perception of Teddy with your perception of Glover (who wrote this episode, with Hiro Murai directing), for better and worse.
Just like that, an episode about Darius’s bizarre adventure becomes a treatise on the reverberations of success for Donald Glover. Both Teddy and Glover have, in their own ways, come into contact with realms of splendor. Both men have, in their own ways, been played on or picked around for acting “white.” Both men have, in their own ways, responded to their criticisms. They’ve grown with, and around, those struggles, molding them into the men they are today. But while Glover’s reaction to fame is his own business, Teddy’s is laid out for us here: physically, psychologically, and interpersonally.
There are slapstick moments over the phone between Darius and company, mostly revolving around the notion that Darius should leave, and also wow isn’t Teddy’s skin pretty fucked up? The phone call grounds us back in something like reality, and reminds us how Darius’s situation might be viewed from the outside. But, just as easily, the men criticizing Teddy from afar are the “most people” that Teddy said wouldn’t understand his struggles. That makes Teddy pitiable, if not understandable, just for a moment. The episode doesn’t seem to want us to look down on him, or to laugh at him, but to consider him from as many angles as possible, as someone that fame simply happened to (or, as it were, that fame happened around).
But when was the last time Teddy had any company? So he stalls with Darius around the mansion. He shows him the museum he designed, and explains his plans for a historic center. He talks about his abusive father, how the man pushed his two sons by punishing them, and ultimately defends his actions: “Great things come from great pain,” he tells Darius, while showing off a faceless mannequin dressed in his father’s old suit. After Darius once again pushes that he’s just here for a transaction — that he doesn’t want a role in Teddy’s manufactured world — Teddy dismisses him, leaving Darius to lug the keyboard down the elevator himself.
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