By Caleb Michael Sarvis
Jennifer Anniston once said, “Once you figure out who you are and what you love about yourself, I think it all kind of falls into place.” The issue for Earn and Vanessa is neither really knows the answer to “Who am I?”
Pair that with poet Dejan Stojanovic, who said in The Shape, “I travel, always arriving in the same place.”
“Helen” is my favorite episode of season two, in terms of story-telling, characterization, and progression for the series. Everything I’ve been craving since Atlanta’s return has arrived, and delivered, on what I hoped for the series going forward.
I bring about the two quotes above to 1. satisfy a pop-culture requirement necessary to feed Barrelhouse’s brand (does Rachel from Friends fit the bill? She’s no Patrick Swayze, but…) and 2. juxtapose these ideas of “place” before getting into the scope of this week’s episode.
One more quote. This time a well-know idea from Leo Tolstoy, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
Earn and Vanessa are traveling to a manufactured German town to celebrate some variation of Oktoberfest because Vanessa is of German descent (to the point where she can speak it fluently, a nice wrinkle we learn this episode). She and Earn are on the road, Earn at the wheel, smoking weed while they drive. Van muses, “Are black women considered brunettes?” and they almost strike a wild hog eating slop in the street.
We know they’re headed somewhere, just the two of them, and I am in. Creating characters as products of their setting, and then placing them somewhere foreign (in this case, for Earn), is a classic story catalyst. We see that when they arrive and Earn is the only one not dressed up before reluctantly accepting a hockey mask from an acquaintance, and when they play “hootz-kootz,” a game involving tennis balls and a plastic jug. Earn wins the game easily, reaching forward and dropping the balls in the jug instead of bouncing them in. Essentially, he teaches them how to dunk (which reminded me of the alley-oop scenes in Semi-Pro) because he’s an outsider. He sees the world differently. Everyone is amazed. Van says he got lucky.
This difference in world-view ignites the conversation we’ve been missing from Atlanta: What’s the deal with Earn and Van? Between Earn’s childish and selfish unwillingness to participate and Van’s exasperated attempts to engage him, we learn quickly that clearly this is not a fit. We couldn’t see it for sure in Atlanta, where the comfort of the everyday allows characters to sleep-walk. We could only assume. But at Oktoberfest, where Earn feels alienated and othered, their true contempt for their situation rises to the surface.
The two concepts go hand-in-hand. We are products of our “place” whether that’s geographical or categorical. Characters are the same. But more importantly, we are led and pushed by the situations these places craft for us, and the limited-choice decisions we make in those situations.
We’re introduced to a new character, a childhood friend of Van’s. This friend is obviously of a similar background as Vanessa, but lives and conducts herself very differently. When she introduces Van to those at Oktoberfest, she leads with, “This is Lottie’s mom.” To which one of the men responds, “Oh, Earn’s girl.”
Perhaps Van’s absence can be chalked up to that. I go back to that quote from Jennifer Anniston, which isn’t all that insightful, but she pairs identity and place, and it reminds me of Van. While she is Lottie’s mother, and obviously paired to Earn in some way, she’s still hungry from something else. “I’m not just Lottie’s mom,” she tells her friend, and while the reader may agree, we struggle to provide an answer to the unspoken response, “Okay, then what else are you?”
Her friend tries to spin Van’s circumstances, telling her that being a baby-mama works for her. “I chose white, you chose black,” she says, and finishes with, “You needed that identity.” Van is rightly upset and handles it remarkably well. Though she walks away from the conversation, we understand what her friend said mattered, despite its archaic nature, and Van begins a small transformation that leads to what we assume is an official break-up with Earn.
Two things working for me:
At Oktoberfest, there’s a man in a tall and spooky wolf-deer-monster costume. It’s a wonderful little detail that hovers about the outskirts of the story. At one point, Van loses her phone, and when the wolf-deer-monster engages her in an alleyway, it turns out the creature had her phone. It’s a thread I can follow, but loose enough to echo the residual surrealism that makes Atlanta great. I’m also in on ping-pong as extended metaphor for conversation. While Van and Earn say some things that need to be said, twice they choose ping-pong to settle their disputes. Winner gets what they really want.
Two things I’m not sold on:
Earn as selfish dick isn’t too much of a leap, but I don’t quite follow the progression of that revelation. It could just be a consequence of place, but prior episodes always led me to believe that Earn wanted this more than Van did – that he was simply irresponsible – but this episode has turned that on its head. More wolf-deer-monster would have been nice, or at least a moment of expository dialogue where we learned a bit more about it. I just loved it so much.
Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Looney Purgatory or (i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith) (Carbon Books 2018). He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and received his MFA from the University of Tampa. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Saw Palm, Panhandler Magazine, Eyeshot, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @calebmsarvis