The titular character in Toni Morrison’s 1973 Sula, Sula Peace, is a Black woman envied and hated for breaking a cardinal rule of 20th-century Black communal life and its expectations of women: She has centered her own pain, pleasure, and perspective over that of others. More of a haunting than a heroine, Sula harms and is harmed throughout the novel, and even in death, her appetite for freedom weighs heavily upon those who blamed her for their own starvation. Shaping up to be a narrative descendant of Sula, Van emerges in Atlanta’s third season as a woman who has turned her back on the socially acceptable. After leaving her child and home in Atlanta, Van appears on the periphery of this season’s episodes in scenes marked by indulgence and elusiveness, where she steals from homes and boutiques and dodges Earn’s calls. These brief moments hinted at the war within and a hunger for more than what had been prescribed to her.
In this week’s finale, Van’s hunger finally takes center stage in an episode bearing the name “Tarrare” in reference to an 18th-century French soldier and showman made infamous for an insatiable hunger, a need to feast so grotesque that it was alleged to have claimed the life of a 14-month-old. Notably, this episode dives into desire and all the things we do to please and purge the urges that claim us. With Van as the axis of the narrative, the figure of Tarrare is taken on by a Black woman who indulges not in food but in the fictions of self-mythology. In the face of depression and suffering, Van teases others with her opacity and takes on new identities; she embodies the words of poet Rita Dove, “If you can’t be free, be a mystery.”
The episode begins in Paris, France, the chosen home of Tarrare, at a brasserie in the 7th arrondissement of the city. Three Black women (Candace, Xosha, and Shanice) sit at a table as Candace explains that she has been, to borrow the words of the inimitable City Girl Yung Miami, “flewed out” to Paris by a rich man who has pledged to pay her $6,000 to pee on him. Mid-conversation, Candace is distracted by the familiar face of a woman she recognizes as Van — an old friend from Atlanta that she met while “stripping on a river cruise.” What is unrecognizable is the thick French accent and air of mystery that her friend has acquired. But as they soon discover, though the City of Light is not Van’s home, it has been the perfect place to obscure her own dimming fuse.
Van invites her and her crew to come back to her apartment. Eager to hang out with “locals,” the three women become immersed in Van’s cryptic and chaotic life. When Van brings the girls along to run some “errands,” the tasks that consume her day are revealed to be far from mundane. First, she takes them to a luxury hotel where they meet Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård, with whom Van has sustained an odd psychosexual relationship that includes planting crystal meth in his room, setting him up in the press, spitting in his face, and listening to Ashanti together. Candace asks the timeless question: “When did you start fucking Alexander Skarsgård?” Van brushes off Candace’s alarm as the mark of American prudishness and rushes the girls out of the hotel and on to the next chore. Skarsgård, who appears a few times in the episode, sits at the intersection of the destructive mythologies Van has constructed for herself. The True Blood star is entirely consumed by desire; his humiliation kink aside, it is his eagerness to be a part of something that later causes him to salivate at the thought of communal cannibalism. And though Van seemingly holds great power over him through desire, she is equally tethered to the gratification degradation brings.
When the three women follow Van to a parking lot to pick up a package in a cooler, things go left once she realizes the package is not there. Van complains about how a man named Emilio “fucked her” by failing to make the handoff. After being identified as Tarrare, “the man who ate the baby,” by a group of menacing young men who’ve stuck knives into the wheels of their motorcycles, Van plays it cool like an action star and then makes a run for it as the girls follow awkwardly behind her. She hunts down Emilio at a museum where she beats him with a rock-hard baguette. Since the episode’s open, the bread in question — which Shanice humorously calls Van’s “security bread” because “she doesn’t feel French without it” — has been in Van’s bag through it all, and in this scene, the hardened bread is the perfect metaphor for Van’s own metamorphosis. Emilio cowers and gives Van the package with which she promptly leaves to head to a dinner party. “There is something seriously wrong with Van,” Candace tells the girls, though they’re enjoying the ride.
At the party, the gritty glamour of Van’s life begins to dull. The infamous package contains severed hands that Van’s chef boyfriend prepares as the main course of the exclusive, sacred dinner. In the kitchen, Candace prompts Van to cut the shit, noting that she noticed Van has been avoiding her phone all day. Van deflects, pointing to Candace’s need to control others through judgment. “You’re so in control? You almost beat a man to death with a fucking baguette,” Candace retorts. (“Van, again?” the boyfriend sighs as if this has been a recurring habit of hers. OMG!) “If you wanna live your life doing this crazy shit, okay, but what about your old life?” Candace asks. “Lottie? Where does she fit into all this.”
Though she claims to have a plan to incorporate her daughter into her new life, the very thought of Lottie breaks Van down. As she throws plates and screams until her French accent can no longer hold her, the boyfriend runs (“A lover was not a comrade,” Morrison wrote in Sula), but Candace waits out the emotional storm. In the end, the finale closes out the season with an outpouring (well, two outpourings and, yes, pun intended). As they sit outside on a bench facing the Seine River, Van recounts a moment of suicidal ideation in which she closed her eyes while driving in Atlanta and found herself veering off into the opposite lane. Rattled by her depression and loss of purpose and identity, Van brought her daughter to her parents’ home and fled to Europe. “I want[ed] to be Amélie,” she thought to herself, setting out for Paris to embody the whimsy of the 2001 French rom-com protagonist, though she realizes this, too, isn’t a solution. “Who the fuck am I?” Van asks aloud. “You’re somebody.” To be clear, Candace’s response is not profound. Being somebody and knowing who that somebody is are two vastly different things. Friendship does not undo Van’s depression, but it does provide her with a life vest that keeps her from drowning for the time being. In the end, it is Van who declares it is time to return home, and Candace pulls her close and affirms her direction.
When we first met Van back in the show’s first season, her character was defined by everything she used to be. She was an elementary-school teacher until a failed drug test ended her career. And her primary tie to the show’s three male leads hinged upon her previous relationship with Earn and their child. Two seasons later, their bond seems to rely on duty and history rather than a remarkable passion for one another. In this final episode, we see Van strive to realize her own potential beyond motherhood, an occupation, or even a partnership. If only Atlanta had given Van’s character more room to fly even in the erratic ways witnessed in the episode. Idle and anxious, Van hovered over this season only to finally land in the finale. And for a finale, “Tarrare” bends more toward a cliffhanger than a conclusion (more appetizer than an entrée, an opener to a full-course meal left unserved, if you’ll indulge the culinary metaphor). Luckily, the cast tasked with serving this narrative in tapas-size portions delivered with grace and humor. Like Sula, Van’s limited arc epitomizes the line — “And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” My primary regret is that this season did not allow us more time for Van’s discovery of the artistry within her. The canvas awaits.
• The Cannibal Club (2018): “Girl, this some high-end shit,” Shanice says (If I had to pick a favorite character in this episode, it’s her, hands down! Team Shanice!) as she sits down to eat at the dinner party. When Xosha lifts her napkin out of curiosity for their “first-class” meal, she yells, alerting Shanice, and each woman gags and gets up, but the rich attendees (Skarsgård included!) do not recoil at the menu offering of “little hands.” In The Cannibal Club, Brazilian elites literally eat their employees!
• The Paperboy (2012): While Candace is off tending to Van, Shanice pees on the rich dude as she looks out at the Eiffel Tower from his window. The man cries out and begs her to stop the stream, but the flow continues uninterrupted. (The best part of the scene is when “Splash Waterfalls,” by Ludacris, plays the episode out). The perfect film for those who loved this wild scene is 2012’s The Paperboy, in which Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron!
• Watermelon Man (1970): In the post-credits reveal, Earn receives a bag from the airport marked with his first name and last name as well as the date of travel, but he is adamant that it is not his. When he opens the bag, it turns out to be the other Earn’s (remember white Earn from the first and fourth episode of the season?) stuff — our Earn takes no interest in the medications or the family photo but gravitates to the Deftones T-shirt. Are Black Earn and white Earn inverses that follow one another? Is white Earn just Glover’s voice disguised in another character? If you find these kinds of questions intriguing, check out Watermelon Man, a film where a white salesman morphs into a Black version of himself.