The title of this episode, "Meet De Boys on the Battlefront," comes from a wild Mardi Gras song. (It's also what Albert chanted in his Chief getup in the last episode.) But consider it here a reminder that we barely know the characters of Treme. So episode two digs into these New Orleans souls, and shows us what they need. For the most part, they need money.
Also in this episode: the difference between a gig and a job; the difference between a conservative Times op-ed columnist and Slim Charles; and the difference between the smell of pussy and the smell of barbecue.
We're in the WWOZ booth with D.J. Davis McAlary and guitarist Coco Robicheaux, who finishes up a great, dirty tune and then grins as McAlary effuses, "That was just awesome!" The station has moved to the tourist quarter from its old digs, and so Coco pulls out some voodoo candles and a chicken to summon the spirits of the station's old home. Then he pulls out a big knife and tells Davis to play his next song.
And, credits! Let's meet this week's new characters first as we make our way through this episode's tangled plotlines. (We've untangled them here, for the sake of clarity.)
Sonny Needs an Attitude Adjustment
Two street musicians, keyboardist Sonny (Michiel Huisman) and violinist Annie (Lucia Micarelli), play a terrifically gruesome love song for an audience of tourists and locals down in the French Quarter. (We can tell we're supposed to think they're good, because the camera seeks out a couple of locals nodding their heads appreciatively.) But when three earnest, fresh-scrubbed Wisconsinites — here with their youth group — request something "authentic," Sonny turns into a real jackass, making fun of them for pronouncing the city's name "New Or-LEENS" and muttering about how they didn't care about the Ninth Ward before Katrina. (Which, you know, of course they didn't. When we were their age, growing up in Wisconsin, we only cared about R.E.M. and breasts.) Slate's Josh Levin has pegged this as a scene proving Treme's antipathy towards outsiders, but I'd argue that the message is at least somewhat muddied by how annoying Sonny (and Davis, and Creighton, the show's vocal Defenders of N'Awlins) can be.
Later, Sonny and Annie are in a crowded bar, where Sonny is spinning stories about his post-Katrina week in a boat rescuing people out of trees and off roofs. A buddy is dubious, but Sonny insists it's all true. When he heads off to drop the kids at the pool or see a man about a horse or some antiquated euphemism for pooping, the buddy asks Annie if Sonny's full of it. "I wasn't in the boat," Annie answers. Up onstage, the band starts singing a song dedicated to all those who haven't yet returned to the city:
I hope you're coming back to New Orleans
It really is that land of dreams
There's no other city like New Orleans
I knew that I just couldn't stay away
So I came back and now I'm home to stay
Rebuild my life in New Orleans
Leave aside the fact that the song rhymes "New Orleans" with "dreams" — using the very pronunciation for which Sonny belittled the poor cheddarheads. It does handily serve as this week's David Simon Thesis Statement: Real New Orleanians can't stay away from their city, no matter how bad its condition.
Too bad the song's so lousy.
Davis McAlary Needs a Job
Turns out a live-chicken sacrifice isn't what the management of WWOZ was looking for. Davis's mom won't lend him money unless he gets a J-O-B, which is how Davis McAlary winds up behind the check-in desk at a Bourbon Street hotel, barely containing his disdain for everyone and everything he sees. After directing some big galoots to Bourbon Street — "Just exit the hotel," he says — he encounters a trio of freshly scrubbed, authenticity-seeking church-youth-group members from Wisconsin.
Davis wants to show them the real New Orleans, so he sends them to a club in the Seventh Ward called Bullets. "Give this to the cabdriver," he says, handing them an address, "and if he says anything, tell him that you're sure." And Bullets is pretty great — the trio get chatted up by our favorite 'boner, Antoine, and hear some outstanding music — but when they don't show up back at the hotel the next morning, Davis is fired. A while later, Davis runs across the cheeseheads, makeup smeared, beads a-jangle, hangovers cranking, who thank him for the most fun they've had in their lives and ask him for a breakfast recommend. He sends them to the Clover Grill, then, as they stumble away, giggling, says to himself, "Now where the fuck am I gonna eat breakfast?" Because who would want to eat breakfast in the same room as someone from Wisconsin? Gross! They would probably drink milk.
Antoine Batiste Needs a Gig
Or rather, a job, his girlfriend Desiree declares: "There's a difference between a gig and a job." He comes home late every night, she says, smelling like cigarettes and pussy. In a moment that will be fondly ranked by fans among the best in Treme history even if the show lasts 25 seasons, Antoine claims that what she's smelling is not in fact pussy, but barbecue. Anyways, Desiree is pissed, so it's trouble when, the next day, there's a knock on the door and Antoine's ex-wife Ladonna shows up to deliver a clay elephant his son in Baton Rouge made for him. The two women spit a little fire at each other, even though I'm going to go out on a limb and say that going out with Antoine is not exactly a holiday.
That night, Antoine's got a job on Bourbon Street, but when he runs into another 'boner on the way he doesn't want to admit it. But the pal can tell Antoine's on his way to a gig, because Antoine's just carrying his trombone around, because apparently Antoine doesn't own a trombone case. "There's pride on Bourbon Street!" the buddy tells him, but Antoine still won't come clean. He doesn't look so sad to be playing Bourbon Street later, though, when, locking eyes with a topless stripper in a French Quarter club, he cuts loose with a fantastically obscene trombone solo. Or maybe he's just inspired by the scent of barbecue.
Ladonna Batiste-Williams Needs Some Good News
Lawyer Toni Bernette, still looking for Ladonna's brother Daymo, hears from some public-interest advocates that prisoners shipped out of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina wound up at prisons all over the state. It's just a matter of figuring out where Daymo wound up — and then, assuming he wasn't arrested for anything serious, he can likely get released after time served. Some prisoners have gone months with no phone calls.
Meanwhile, Ladonna's trying to get the roofer who's been promising to fix Gigi's Lounge to do some work. She's off to Baton Rouge, she tells him, and will be back tomorrow. "That roof ain't right I'm goin' courtside on y'all." The trip to Baton Rouge is rough — she's glad to see her sons, but her husband wants her to sell the bar and move to BR full time. "I grew up in that bar," she says. "Daddy left it to me." Ladonna's another of Treme's characters unwilling to abandon her home, even when her husband not unreasonably points out that their family's life is in Baton Rouge now. It's to Treme's credit that we can see how much this totally sensible truth seems like a cruelty to Ladonna.
When Ladonna gets back to the bar — still with a broken roof, so we look forward to seeing her go courtside on that dude — she meets Toni, who tells her she found Daymo. It will take a little while to get him out, because the parishes are given FEMA money for each prisoner they keep, but he could be home in days, she adds. But when Tony, Ladonna, and Ladonna's mom — wearing her best crown — show up at the little parish jail, the prisoner who comes forward isn't Daymo Brooks, he's David Brooks. No, he's not this David Brooks, either. He's "Dave Brooks," played by The Wire's Slim Charles, Anwan Glover, who weirdly seems to have had a hell of a time getting work since that show ended. Toni looks aghast, probably because she knows what Slim Charles did to Cheese.
Creighton Bernette Needs an Agent
Creighton's in his Tulane office, reading a memo about the university shutting down the engineering department to a grad student. It doesn't take Creighton long to get into a full-on stemwinder, complaining about the dubious wisdom of cutting out a department that actually teaches people how to do something as opposed to the ethnic-studies departments the university is keeping alive. He may have a point, but seriously, is there anything Creighton won't turn into a diatribe? We don't know that the Tulane Jewish-studies department deserves the same amount of Goodmanian bluster as, say, the Army Corps of Engineers. Soon, outraged-Creighton videos will replace outraged-Hitler videos as a YouTube meme.
Anyway, Creighton's thinking about quitting and finishing a novel he's 250 pages into about the great 1927 flood. (Already the subject of John Barry's great book Rising Tide and Randy Newman's great song "Louisiana 1927"!) "Timely," Toni remarks as we see Creighton poring over the manuscript. But first, he needs to get his daughter back to boarding school in Baton Rouge. He promises her that she'll be back to school in her hometown soon — they're planning to make a charter school out of a local public high school. When his daughter indignantly notes the unfairness of booting the public-school kids out for someone like her, Creighton sighs. "It's a zero-sum world," he says. "Someone wins, someone loses."
Janette Desautel Needs a Loan
Last episode, we heard restaurateur Janette respond to anyone's questions about her house with a despairing "Don't ask me about my fucking house." Now we see Janette in her fucking house, and it's a mess. She's talking to somepne on the phone about her wiring, and forgets the omelette she had on the stove. When it burns, she sits down on her bed to eat it and bursts into tears.
Janette fixes a gourmet meal for her parents as a prelude to asking them for some money. It cost her $70,000 out of her contingency fund just to get the restaurant reopened, and neither her SBA loan nor the insurance has come through. Her parents love her food and obviously love her, but when she asks for 25 Gs, they offer five. "Well, six," her guilty father says. It may not be enough, we know, as Janette and her sous-chef perform triage on the past-due bills.
Albert Lambreaux Needs Some Indians, and Delmond Lambreaux Needs Bail
Albert, the big chief, heads out in search of his tribe. A neighbor tells him he heard George Cottrell ended up in Oklahoma City. "He'll be back, though, when he get tired of eatin' that food." Meanwhile, he says, his cousin's squatting in the Calliope projects, which despite having taken very little water have been boarded up by the city.
Delmont watches Albert run some chocolate-lookin' water from the bar's kitchen faucet and advises him to get a filter. Yes, the Brita people will get right on straining the shit out of your water supply. He invites his dad up to Houston for the holidays, but Albert declines. Delmont needs to leave soon; he's got a session with Allen Toussaint in the studio. "But can you swing?" Albert asks him, half-joking. "Not all you modern-jazz cats can." "You sound like Wynton," Delmont laughs; he's playing at a Lincoln Center New Orleans tribute soon. Albert grunts, unimpressed. "Everybody loves New Orleans music. New Orleans people?"
So can Delmont swing? In the studio with Toussaint and Elvis Costello, he sounds fine. (The session guys bug Costello to go out, but he protests that he has a reputation to uphold: "I have tea to steep.") Delmont sits in with band Galactic later that night and, though he's working hard at it, he does seem to swing. Unfortunately, he fits in a little too well, as an after-show smoke break behind the bar gets broken up by New Orleans's finest, who cuff Delmont for possession. His dad bails him out and takes him to the airport. "The Indians, that's your thing," Delmont says, apologizing that he isn't staying for his dad's first Mardi Gras rehearsal. "Always was."
Albert's been rebuilding a house, but he gets back from a break to find his tools stolen. When the Chief calls, shit gets fixed, though, so soon a shamefaced neighborhood guy returns them, letting Albert know a sneak thief named Skinny sold them to him. Late that night, Albert tracks Skinny down in a house he's stripping of copper wire. Poor Skinny gets the worst of Albert's frustration at the state of his beloved city. "I can build a house from scratch, roof to foundation," Albert says indignantly. "What can you do?" "Okay, you somebody," Skinny replies. "Good for you." Albert beats the shit out of him with a pipe, then gets a couple extra punches in for good measure. All I could think of while watching this was The Wire's Johnny, another entrepreneurial salesman of copper wire, which just made me feel bad for poor Skinny. Are we supposed to be on Albert's side after watching him nearly kill some kid?
Anyways, George Cottrell shows up at the bar the next day, ready for practice. "Where you stayin'?" Albert asks. "With you, I guess," George replies. Albert hands him a tambourine and the two of them start singing and chanting. They sound great, honestly. Why'd they even need to practice? They'll walk through fire and swim through mud. Snatch a feather from an eagle, drink panther blood. They're de boys on the Battlefront. Wild Tchoupitoulas gonna stomp some rump.
The Times-Picayune's Dave Walker continues his awesome Treme CliffsNotes, breaking down episode two's New Orleans references (and complaining about the voodoo).
Alan Sepinwall thinks the strain really shows on Delmond's face when he tries to swing.