by Bryan Washington | via Vulture
In “Woods,” we follow Al on a journey across several planes. On the first, our hero ends up traversing a literal forest. In another, he negotiates the terrain between the life he thinks he’s still living and the persona that’s engulfed him. But eventually, Al finds himself in the midst of a ghost story, although the ghosts are combination of the world’s and his own, a spiritual assault that leaves him dried up on the shore. As a character investigation of a guy caught up in the nether region between fame and life as a pedestrian, the episode is masterful, even despite its more problematic bits. It’s the final precipice of a man before he falls into the rest of his life. By the time the credits roll, we’ve seen Al lean over the edge, his mounting existential terror, Things are getting better, but it’s still seldom that we catch this from black protagonists on television. More often than not, they’re relegated to laugh tracks, or simply trying to survive whatever script they’ve been written into. They don’t get to think about what they’re doing or why. and the eventual descent.
The episode opens with the apparition of Al’s mother in his house. She notes, “You know good and well that I did not raise a son this lazy,” before fading out to the tune of a hymn. Her presence is never explained, and Al is only just aware of it, but her melody folds into a cell phone’s vibration — reality calling.
It’s Earn, “just checking in.” He hasn’t been doing a very good job as a manager this season, or the last for that matter. So Al promptly ignores him. And despite his manager’s insistence on signing some forms, Al says he doesn’t have anything on his agenda for the day. But, in fact, after talking to Darius in the kitchen, a horn blows outside calling our man for a date.
In the middle of making homemade pasta (which he literally puts his foot into), Darius says he thought Al was “allergic to girlfriends.” There’s tension and tentativeness in their exchange, recalling their unexplained disagreement in “Alligator Man.” Al responds that the woman waiting outside isn’t his girlfriend. There’s concern there for his friend, but Darius ultimately demurs, suggesting that Al at least recommend her his pasta.
What follows is the first of several pans of Al walking from one place to another. They’re entirely affecting: In an effort to retain some hold on normalcy, the mundanity we see onscreen contrasts with the hard-up image of Paper Boi. For the first time in the series, Al looks entirely out of place in this neighborhood. He’s outgrown it, so to speak. And when he meets Ciara in the car, she says as much. She is a woman who has flipped her job at a local strip club into a career as an Instagram model, and she’s warm with Al, although the interaction feels just slightly off. Al is uncomfortable with Ciara, so the audience is uncomfortable with her, too. (I won’t dwell on it, but if the intention here was to make Ciara’s case less than legitimate for Al, the script pulls it off at a pretty heavy cost. Because, in many ways, she’s a caricature, which is disappointing at best. Once again, Atlanta is giving its female characters the short stick.)
They spend the day together. Ciara mostly chides Al about his efforts to stay “real.” Shopping for shoes, she chastises him and throws rocks at his manager — rocks that are only heavier by merit of our knowing how valid they are. “That dope boy from the hood act won’t last long,” says Ciara. “People gonna get tired of seeing a sweaty nigga in a Polo and cargo shorts. Nobody wants someone famous to look just like them.”
Al and Ciara keep returning to the role that Earn plays, or should play, as Al admits that, “He don’t know how to do all of that.” Ciara notes that Al needs to get himself “a manager with a big dick” — Al nearly leaps out of his shoes with a “Girl, I don’t know nothing about all that!” — a suggestion that accelerates his cousin’s already rapidly ticking clock.
Later, when the pair sits down for a pedicure, Ciara approaches the question of branding: “I’m Instagram famous, boo,” she says. “I can’t be selling my wigs and out here looking janky. I’ve gotta compete with white girls with lip fillers and butt injections, selling lip gloss and spray tans. Everybody wanna be a black girl, but the black girls ain’t making no money from it.”
Ciara notes that he needs to focus on Instagram more, and after another nod toward Earn’s uselessness, she gets to the point of the afternoon: She’d like to Al to attach his brand with hers. It could be good for them. They’d probably make a little money. (Yet again during Robbin’ Season, the viewer plays audience to a hustle.) When Al nods again toward his realness, Ciara laughs that right off.
“Shit, you’re on the radio,” she says, “and you’ve been making money. You’ve been not real.”
She implores him to wake the fuck up. Al says that he doesn’t have to stop being real, claiming, “That’s something that boring-ass people like your ass gotta do.”
Click HERE to read the rest of the recap, “Woods.”