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The Awakening: The Water's Edge on Treme

"Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful." - Lao Tzu

Water has been at the heart of HBO's criminally under-appreciated series Treme since the beginning. After all, it's a series that recounts the lives and passions--both physical and intellectual--of New Orleans inhabitants several months after Hurricane Katrina. Everywhere one turns there is evidence of the power of water, from the stained and mildewed walls of the homes to the changed waterfront, dramatically altered after centuries due to failing levees and now-missing structures.

However, water was never so front and center on Treme as it was with last night's episode ("Wish Someone Would Care"), written by David Simon and George Pelecanos and directed by Dan Attias, the season's penultimate installment, which began with a lover's quarrel between musicians Sonny (Michael Huisman) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli) at the water's edge and ended with a fateful ferry ride into the Gulf of Mexico for one character.

In between was another storm, one not as savage as Katrina but one which also erased the foundations of life for another character, signifying the very end of their life in New Orleans, washing away the ties that bound them there, the never-ending war between life and one's city.

Water might be about permanence but it's also a quixotic substance. It can't be contained, nor can it be counted on. It, like Life itself, has a mind and a method all its own.

When I was writing a feature about Treme for The Daily Beast before its launch, I interviewed HBO's Michael Lombardo and told him that I believed that if you're at all interested in human beings, you will be interested in Treme, that the series delved into the universal human concerns we all have. While the characters' situation may be far removed from our own (unless, of course, you live in post-Katrina New Orleans and lived through the storm), their needs are the ones that we all have: food, shelter, companionship, love. Their lives are inextricably intertwined with the culture and cuisine of New Orleans: music is the oxygen they breathe.

I stand by that description, as the first season of Treme is about to come to an end next week, that it's pleasure that keeps us going in the face of unspeakable adversity, that music and culture are the things that make us--and keep us--human, and that to lose that intangible thing is to lose one's grasp on what essentially makes us human.

John Goodman's Creighton Bernette seemed to offer a prophecy for this episode while sitting at his keyboard, typing a line of his never-ending, in-progress novel, writing that the rains came and continued into the next day. Sure enough, an unexpected storm does arrive, on the same night as a party hosted by Davis (Steve Zahn) at his house, one that brings together "musicians and hot women" (and his gay neighbors, with whom he has buried the hatchet)... even as Janette (Kim Dickens), uninvited to this soiree, loses everything, from her new business (one borne from the ashes of her failed restaurant) to her home. Yes, the water takes it all once more, washing away what had one stood so strong.

It's fitting that Janette would want to throw in the towel now. Yes, she survived the storm, kept her restaurant going as long as she could, but there's only so long that one can fight. And the fight has gone out of Janette now. Seeing her in the torrential downpour, tripping and landing in the muck, I knew that she had had enough of New Orleans, had lost her battle with the city. She'd lost the music. It's what she admits to Davis the following morning in bed, that she wants to try her hand in New York, to see if she can make it there.

Davis chides her for the moments she'll be missing, the impromptu second line, dancing with her neighbors, the infusion of culture at every corner of New Orleans life. But Janette's right: those moments are just that, they're moments, rather than a whole life. For her, they don't make up for the rest.

But it's the moments, meanwhile, that Creighton is struggling to hold onto. To a goodbye kiss with his wife Toni (Melissa Leo), a compliment to his daughter, a gracious tip to street fiddler Annie ("for the pleasure"), one last great meal at his favorite establishment. I've been worried about Creighton all season, with his godlike wrath, his anger towards everyone who had failed New Orleans and its inhabitants, his unendurable writer's block.

Creighton's righteous indignation seemed to be a reaction to the blaseness of everyone's reactions to Katrina. The nation had moved on but New Orleans had not. He made polemical YouTube videos, he ranted to a documentary crew and to NPR, yet his own freshman lit class was just as entrenched in apathy. Unable to reach them with his lesson on Kate Chopin's groundbreaking work, "The Awakening," Creighton is shocked to see that his class just doesn't care. They're lazy, unimaginative, and disconnected from both their own histories and that of the written word.

To them, "The Awakening" is "a really old book" that just happens to be "short." They don't see Edna's experiences as a cautionary tale, nor do they see the work as a naturalistic representation of the ebbs and flows of every day life, just as Treme itself is. Is it the final straw for Creighton? Has the storm taken everything from him, stolen his creativity and his identity? Even though his wife and daughter might represent something to cling to?

Creighton follows in Chopin's heroine's footsteps. After embarking on a personal tour of New Orleans, to eat the food, hear the music, to say his goodbyes to all of the pleasure it has afforded him, he stares into the deep blueness of the Gulf of Mexico, a borrowed cigarette at his lips.

And then, like Edna Pontellier, he leaps into its dark embrace.

Despite the fact that I've been waiting for several weeks for Creighton Bernette to end his life, the fact that he did so--off-screen--with nary a splash or a suicide note cut me to the core. But it was the final shots of the episode, the scene of domesticity played out by Toni and Sofia (India Ennenga) at their home, unaware of Creighton's death, and the haunting shot of the lone car at the ferry terminal, unclaimed and empty, that stuck with me.

Will they ever know or understand why Creighton chose death over them? Toni sought to bring closure to LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) by investigating the particulars of David's death in lock-up, but it doesn't matter in the end to LaDonna; her brother is dead and nothing will bring him back. But for Toni and Sofia, the questions are just beginning. Why did Creighton kill himself? Why weren't they enough to keep him going? How could he abandon him in that way?

Unlike LaDonna's David, Creighton wasn't bludgeoned to death. There are no villains, only victims here... and likely no answers that will remove the ache and hurt that follows in the wake of his suicide.

Next week on the season finale of Treme ("I'll Fly Away"), Toni’s concerns about Creighton turn to anger; Albert and the Indians suit up for St. Joseph’s night; Antoine gambles away a big payday; Davis tries to convince Janette to stay put; Annie weighs her future options. A funeral procession offers its mourners a chance to reflect on the events of the last year in New Orleans.


Piper said…
I've also been very worried about Creighton's state of mind over these last few episodes and have been waiting for something awful to happen. It was heartbreaking watching as, smiling, he said goodbye to his wife and daughter. I'm assuming that he's truly gone which is sad because I thought John Goodman was brilliant on the show!
Nola Chris said…
Creighton was on the Gretna ferry which crosses the Mississippi river - not the Gulf of Mexico.

So sad to see him go - if he is really gone?

Great show - none of us will know what to do with ourselves here in New Orleans after next Sunday night...

Nola Chris
Anonymous said…
Wow - this show started off slowly but once the audience was allowed to fall in love with the characters and the city it has blossomed into something very special. I have loved every minute of this series and truly hope that it makes it back next year.

As for Creighton - I am heart-broken that he gave up on his city to the expense of his loving family. I understand his frustrations but I cannot fathom his decision to end it all.

Thank you David Simon for bringing this experience to my television.

P.S. - love you Annie!!

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