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. 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.
So Darius descends. And, of course, the elevator brings him to the basement, where he finds Benny, who has been rendered a prisoner in his own home. In shades, confined to a wheelchair, Benny communicates to Darius via chalkboard that Teddy will kill them both. But there’s a gun in the attic, he adds. Darius reluctantly agrees to salvage the rifle for Teddy, but only after he packs the keyboard.
Which is to say that Darius has no intention of doing that at all. (And can you blame him?) But Teddy has somehow parked a car behind Darius’s U-Haul, which means that Darius finds himself back inside the mansion, yet again — only, this time he’s in the know. He’s armed himself with a fireplace poker. Upon confronting Teddy, who’s still lost in his own world, living through his brother, Darius finds himself in the most familiar situation we’ve seen this episode: a black guy at gunpoint. Only today, he’s going to be Teddy’s “sacrifice.”
Teddy has Darius dead to rights. At this moment, for the first time in the entire season, we see Darius at his most candid. He apologizes to Teddy for his father’s transgressions. He also apologizes for the transgressions of his own father. But he also tells Teddy that pain isn’t always necessary, nor is sacrifice, and that beautiful things can still come from the absence of those two elements. It’s a clear-eyed moment from a character that’s historically been all over the place, and Teddy even tells him that the sentiment is beautiful. But, he adds, it is actually incorrect. He draws on Darius, ready to fire.
And that’s when long-lost Benny finally surfaces from the basement. He wheels himself out of the elevator, reaches for the rifle, and, without a thought, fires on an astonished Teddy. Kills him dead where he stands. Right in the living room. Then, he gestures to Darius, telling him to hurry up (not frantically, but in the rush of someone who knows what they want), and just as our dude realizes what’s coming, Benny uses the gun to end his own life.
Darius is shook. He’s lost another of his two allotted regrets. Thinking he’d walked into a free transaction, he finds himself as the witness to a murder-suicide. And also the witness of a miraculous life. And also the witness to what success can do to the people surrounding it. But Teddy wasn’t the actual artist, right? Or is reconstructing a life, embalming it, its own type of art with its own particular costs?
Now, listen: This episode was a lot. It is lofty. The bits about pain and suffering go on and on. But they aren’t divorced from what we’ve seen from this season so far, and the meticulousness of it all is jaw-dropping. In the past three episodes, we’ve gone from the transition of a woman’s emotional maturity to a slightly mad-cap comedy to an intensely architectured excavation. Any one of these episodes, for any other series, would be a high point — and yet it’s because we’ve gotten the three of them back-to-back-to-back, in the same working-class narrative, that we find ourselves grasping at straws, entirely in awe.
One of the merits of art, I think, is that it can exist on a plane that it’s constituents might not be entirely aware of. There are layers to this episode — and, so far, to this season — that aren’t immediately apparent on a first, second, or third viewing, while not even slightly detracting from the enjoyability of Atlanta’s narrative or the growth of its characters. That isn’t something that you see on just any television series, on any network, and to bust genres so consistently isn’t something that we’ve seen on a series helmed almost entirely by minorities, or people of color, or black folks. Obviously, we already knew that we haven’t often been able to tell this kind of story — what Jordan Peele called “elevated black shit” — but many audiences may not have seen it from these hands before. For them, this very old thing in fact seems very new. And, in that way, Atlanta really is nebulous, as good new things are hard to come by.
So, it could be that Teddy is a stand-in for Glover. Or it could be that Teddy is actually Benny, who’s locked his father in the basement. It could be this is a wildly grim riff on the death of Marvin Gaye, or the “small” deaths of all fathers who push their children toward greatness, or the death of the black father, specifically, as he pushes his children into a world that will always push back against them. No matter how it goes, at the end of this episode, we’re all left a little like Darius: bewildered, despite a general idea of what happened. His encounter with Teddy is something he’ll be thinking about — that we’ll be thinking about — for a long time. What higher bar is there for an episode than that? To live beyond the day, week, or year in the mind of its viewers, twisting, morphing, and waiting to be deciphered.