“North of the Border” is something like a tiny road movie: Earn, Al, Darius, and Tracy take a cross-state trip to play a college show in the boonies. The result is as mortifying and surreal as you would expect — and it’s also the last thing Al needs after his labyrinth through the woods. But above all, the trek to play a show that Al notes he’s performing “for free” (despite Earn’s insistence on Spring Fling’s $60,000 down the road, afterwards, someday, maybe) condenses and magnifies the ways that Earn isn’t worth shit as a manager.
He is not very impressive in that regard. We’ve seen hints of that all season, between Clark County’s manager making advances in the foreground, materializing at all of Al’s events with more money than Earn ever seems to pull, and Earn’s outright refusal to act as a hard-line advocate for Al. How many scenes this season have we seen Earn working to make Al more money? More than five? More than three? You’d really have to squint to find them.
At their current trajectory, the split was bound to happen. But, of course, Earn has to fuck it up a little bit more, in what ultimately becomes a master-class performance in six parts.
1. For starters, Earn fails to book a hotel room for the show that evening (or, as he claims, “It’s not a hotel per se”). Attempting to finesse Al with their accommodations just to save a couple hundred dollars, he pulls up a fledgling IG model’s on-campus apartment — she’s a young woman with footprints lining the top of her ceiling — in hopes that Al won’t think too hard past the feet. But when Earn piles the trio into the car with the promise of a place to stay, Tracy decides to tag along as security — and does Earn bar him from traveling with them? Or reprimand Al for enticing Tracy with $200? Absolutely not. And, if anything, he all but encourages Earn to post up with Violet, their host. (Or, as she describes herself, the “magnificent crocodile” to Al’s “beautiful white crane.”)
2. Even on the job, Earn is aloof. Once they’ve reached the actual concert venue, performing in TLC-esque attire, he allows Al to move around unencumbered. Our heroes run into Clark County and his manager (who notes that the show was good for a “college set”), and Al is left to talk to whoever, to the point that he’s getting pulled aside by total strangers. Earn’s hands-off approach is so bizarre that Darius even comments on it after a young woman majoring in modern literature talks to Al about her “Paper Boi Paper.”
3. Even Earn sees, from the outset, that bringing Tracy along is a bad idea, but he tags along anyway and soon exacerbates the situation. After Violet dumps a drink on Al for talking to the “Paper Boi Paper” woman, and then calls Tracy a “broke-ass security guard,” he actually pushes her down the stairs. Earn catches her, just barely, but the damage is already done, and Violet calls her brother and his friends. (It’s worth wondering what Clark County, shepherded by his manager, is up to during all of this.)
4. What follows is an actual cross-campus chase scene, because Earn is really bad at this! He even raises his hands in protest, calling on Violet’s friends to reconcile as “black people” who are “nonviolent.” From his brawl in last week’s episode, we already know that Al is Atlanta’s very own Dae-Su, but what reason is there, specifically, for him to be in this situation in the first place? Or for Tracy to perform a running jump punch? There isn’t, but Earn has created this situation nonetheless, so our guys find themselves on the wrong end of a pursuit, flying through buildings, entirely lost.
5. And then they end up in a frat house that’s in the middle of hazing their pledges. While the scenario is innocuous enough for the frat boys, there is, again, no reason for Al to be there. As White Boy 1 says, “Dude, I’ve gotta tell you, you’re one of my two favorite rappers. You and Post Malone.” (As if this weren’t enough of a paradox, Darius notes aloud that he was thinking about joining the NRA. White Boy 1 replies, “Y’all are crazy.”) Once Darius and Tracy wander off to scope the house’s gun collection, Earn and Al pay audience to the naked pledge’s serenade to D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” which is exactly what it sounds like. At this point, Al has checked out. He’s done. He notes that “Tonight was some bullshit,” and Earn actually agrees with him … by blaming Tracy! And he’s genuinely shocked when Al reveals that, in fact, it’s his fault. This is the moment that Al tells Earn, straight-up, that he’s been talking to Clark County’s manager. (Earn asks, “For what?”) But even after all of this, Al hasn’t cut off his cousin entirely. This isn’t the deathblow we’ve been waiting for — but, of course, that doesn’t stop Earn.
6. After spending the night at the frat house, our heroes make the slow walk to the college’s bus stop, only to walk back to Violet’s apartment, where they find their car trashed, Al’s weed stolen, and their clothes splayed on the lawn. Even Al’s sneakers are sliced — “Damn, I can’t even be mad at that,” says Darius — Violet and her roommates took no quarter. But it’s only after finding that his laptop is gone that Earn crosses the threshold of banging on Violet’s door (as if she’d ever open it). When that doesn’t work, he pulls the actual fire alarm and attempts to kick the door down. In the midst of all this, Al says, with despair, “Don’t do this to me, nigga!” And that’s probably a wrap on their working relationship.
Naturally, on the road back home, Tracy pokes an already tense car ride. (Although, in his slight defense, Tracy is the very same guy that he was when we first met him, with no frills whatsoever, whose actions could be seen from miles away. A good manager would know that.) Earn asks Al to pull the car over to fight Tracy’s “dumb country ass.” Al actually pleads with him to give up the ghost. Tracy, in his own way, does the same, laughing the whole thing off. (We don’t see Darius in this shot, but one can only wonder what face he’s wearing.) But Earn insists, creating a scene in the backseat, so Al acquiesces. He is entirely over it.
The car pulls over. Earn gets his ass kicked. And because he is a glutton for punishment, he comes back for more after Tracy lets him off gently, but firmly. Each one of the men protests Earn’s actions, until Tracy finally body slams Earn onto the pavement, and they all slowly, gradually, step back into the car. For a beat, it looks like they’re going to leave Earn busted on the side of the road. But in the end, they don’t.
Earn gets back in. They drive. There’s nothing else to say.
The fight was the marquee moment here, but what really stuck out, for me, was the conversation between Earn and Al in the frat house. The two guys are sitting on this couch, in the middle of nowhere with a backdrop of the Confederate flag, and Al openly, honestly, expresses concern for their current situation:
“Look, you’re family, man, and I’m trying to ride with you, but sometimes this shit just ain’t enough. Because money is important. I see exactly what’s happening out here. It’s getting colder. It’s getting harder to eat. I need shit. Lottie needs shit. You need shit. I’ve gotta make my next moves my best moves, man. Something’s gotta shake. And I don’t think you’re cut out for it.”
Given what we’ve seen so far in Robbin’ Season, Earn really isn’t cut out for this. He isn’t the guy Al needs right now, and you can’t help but wonder if her ever was. Which only gives us so far to go with the season’s remaining two episodes. Al has a choice to make, and Earn has to wake up. But there are no assurances that either decision will be easy to make, or that they’ll be made at all, or that we won’t find ourselves where we already have so many times this season: stunned into silence by the audacity of circumstance.