AtlantaThe ambition of has known no bounds this season. Ten episodes that were announced to be set on a European tour took us away from the show’s main characters, in a variety of unconnected lives and circumstances. The finale is a long overdue reconnection with one of the main four. Van has barely been around this season, skirting the periphery of the action and resisting Earn’s attempts to connect with her. Finally, in this episode, we learn where she’s been and (more importantly) what she’s thinking. Van fled to Paris, where she took care of a chef, adopted a haircut from Audrey Tatou and took on a French accent. Naturally.
The framing of this discovery is clever. Candice (Adriyan Rae), a friend of Van from Atlanta, is in Paris to meet a rich man for a lucrative sexual encounter. She took her friends Shanice (Shanice Castro) and Xosha (Xosha Roquemore) on vacation. (The factual exposition is perfectly presented: ten years ago, the premise of sex work would have been more shocking; in today’s world, where Onlyfans are a daily option for an indebted generation, it’s just (an excuse for a girls’ trip. No kink-shaming here.) But how will they find tourist fun? “You have to know a local to come up with crazy stuff,” laments Candice.
Solution granted. Candice spots Van on the street, and this new French version—so French that she’s wearing a striped shirt and carrying a giant baguette in her backpack—takes the trio shopping around Paris, where they learn about her new life. She is engaged in a sort of psychosexual power play with Alexander Skarsgard (who plays a lustful version of himself). She plants drugs. She beats a bloodied man with the stale wand during a confrontation over a mysterious package. During a meeting with a group of tough guys, they call Van Tarrare. “The man who ate the baby,” Van explains to his oddball companions. (It’s a reference to a French historical figure, a traveling showman who hung out with prostitutes and thieves and whose insatiable appetite eventually led him to eat flesh.) On that note, the quartet travels to a party at Skarsgard, where Van prepares the meal with his new French boyfriend.
None of this makes logical sense in the realistic world of Atlanta we remember the first season. You just have to surrender to the show’s version of reality, or what its reality has become. It is Amelie, Atlanta style, a dispatch of all the trope-laden stories of young female protagonists briskly traveling across the continent, from roman holidays for Emily in Paris. These women lived lives full of fantasy and romance. AtlantaThe vision of today’s Paris involves sex work, kink – and in a twist that takes the episode from clear-eyed to downright surreal – wand pounding and cannibalism.
It’s a concept, but it works. One of the reasons is the always wonderful Beetz, who can really demonstrate her range here. Whether she’s serving up that glee, breaking down and breaking plates at dinner, or delivering that deeply felt monologue by the river, she’s outstanding.
Another reason is Stefani Robinson’s screenplay, which confronts the reality that living a conceptual life is rarely satisfying. After delving into farce and surrealism, “Tarrare” hits a very real spot. In this waterfront reveal, Van recounts her struggles with internal darkness and identity and why she fled Atlanta. Her line about Lottie staring at her in disappointment is heartbreaking, a stark example of the lies depression can tell us – it doesn’t just plant thoughts in your head, it can stick expressions on the faces of people who love you. Of course, the confessional ends with Candice reminding Van, “You don’t have to pee on somebody?” Even if you find the rest of the episode overdone, this scene is justly balanced.
For the record, Candice brings Van home and Shanice goes on her mission. This last shot is as funny a send-off of the stereotypical notion of Parisian romance as I’ve ever seen. It’s also sort of an ideal on-season button, in that it’s not an on-season button at all. We were taken to unexpected places by a show that wasn’t afraid to make some raw, jarring stops along the way.
Some will not find this finale satisfying. We see no evidence of Earn, Paper Boi and Darius. There is no indication of how the European tour is going. There is no set up for the next cycle of episodes other than Van returning to Atlanta. The show’s approach for this season will likely be the subject of much discussion. Two tracks ran throughout – one anthological, one episodic – which didn’t allow for much character progression among its main four. In the end, it took our expectations of a mainstream narrative and, well, pissed on them.
Is it fair to these characters and the viewer? This is a question for the season, but not for this episode. Some people who love television get more excited when a show crosses the boundaries of content or format. Others are primarily concerned with the characters, their care, and their diet. By those standards, this season has been exciting and frustrating. Still according to these criteria, the final was a complete success. Van (and Beetz) had a day in the sun and a wealthy Frenchman pissed himself under the moonlight.
- The symbolism of Tarrare, this cannibalistic friend of sex workers and thieves, works overtime. It’s a sufficiently obscure reference that it doesn’t seem, uh, fraught with meaning. Van herself has hung out with a gang of people who are both ripe for exploitation (and eaten alive) and have access to more money than they probably should, including a friend who works in the sex. (And maybe Van is herself? Van introduces Candice to her new boyfriend as someone she stripped with on a cruise. It’s unclear if she’s being facetious.)
- Skarsgard is totally committed here, displaying an appealing sense of humor about himself and the entertainment industry. Her best moment: “You really fucked me there, I could lose the baby shark movie now,” he tells Van after she plants the drugs in his hotel room. Extra points for dancing in leopard print underwear.
- I hope Shanice got the full price, but she really should give Candice a cut for being a good friend to both her and Van.
- There are a lot of good comic lines here. Shanice and Xosha’s Greek chorus is hilarious, especially when they find that Van hasn’t put down his giant wand. “Maybe it’s security bread, like she doesn’t feel French without it,” one said. Their exchange as they try to figure out what’s going on is another great moment: “She’s not hurting anyone. Okay, she hurts people, but these are people who seem to deserve to be hurt.
- Will the show maintain this shared focus next season? I interviewed Robinson this week, and she said nothing. I am not sure Atlanta will repeat the structural formula of season three; the desire to direct and to surprise is too anchored in its DNA. Where is it?