By Caleb Michael Sarvis
Let me catch my breath. Let me watch this episode several more times before I dive into the workshop.
“Woods” is a character and culture study crafted within the confines of a magical-realist narrative. There are ghosts (more on that later), and potentially imagined hermits (is Wally real? Does it matter?). Alfred seems to think so, it’s the only thing he seems really concerned with, but what is the value of “real,” and what does that mean, anyway?
On Context and Multiple Reads
There’s a dedication at the end of “Woods” to Willow Dean Kearse. I didn’t recognize the name, but because it followed a particularly resonate episode, I figured I’d at least look it. Learning Kearse’s identity changes my read of the text. But more on that in a bit.
The episode opens with Alfred aka Paper Boi waking up on his couch. His mother exists in the background, camera unfocused, and chastises Alfred as she cleans the mess around the house. “I did not raise a son this lazy.” We don’t know much about her, considering she’s never made an appearance prior to this, but that’s in line with Atlanta’s world-building. She fades out the room and Alfred’s phone rings. “You doing okay, today?” Earn says on the other end. Something’s up with Alfred, and on my first watch of the episode, it seems he is simply over the bullshit. As he tells Sierra later in the nail salon, “I ain’t into all that fake shit,” and as he storms out, “I don’t have to stop being me.”
Then he receives a text message from a number he hasn’t saved in his phone. It says, “Thinking about you today <3.”
As the episode unfolded, from Alfred’s getting jumped, to his escape into the woods, and his surreal interaction with the seemingly homeless Wally, I assumed this was an episode about Alfred “getting it” – an epiphany that will lead him to real success and out of Atlanta. There’s an obvious change at the end, as he embraces the young fan in the gas station, and decides that being “real” is obviously not what it’s all cracked up to be, especially since Alfred doesn’t receive any monetary reward for it.
Willow Dean Kearse is the mother of Brian Tyree Henry, the actor who plays Alfred aka Paper Boi. She passed suddenly in 2016, shortly after Atlanta finished production on its first season. Knowing this is a show that embraces the meta, the reader can realize that Alfred is not simply over the bullshit. It’s the anniversary of his mother’s death. This is why Earn is checking in. It’s why somebody he isn’t close to anymore is thinking about him. Its’ why he tells Wally he’s having a bad day.
When Wally holds the box cutter to Alfred’s neck and tells him, “You keep standing still, you gone, boy. You’re wasting time, and the only people who got time, are dead,” he’s reminding Alfred we’re all here and then we’re not. Make something of yourself. Did your mother teach you nothing?
It seemed a bit out of character for Alfred to sob in the parking lot once he found himself out of the woods, but understanding this is grief, not fear or relief of that fear, it settles and ripples through the events of the entire episode. Alfred, for the first time in this world, is experiencing real anguish.
On Soft Allusions
Atlanta isn’t afraid to embrace allusions. It will recreate real-life viral videos, doctor family photos of celebrities, and even use Justin Bieber as a character, even if take creative liberties regarding his race. These are all explicit and immediately recognizable.
There’s a moment in which the camera catches Old Wally creeping behind Alfred that reminded me of Yoda on the back of Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Perhaps I’m reading into this, that it’s a visual coincidence brought about by my appetite for meta (Donald Glover plays young Lando Calrissian in Solo).
But maybe I’m not wrong. When Old Man Wally tells Alfred that he needs to make a decision about how he’s going to get out of the woods, does it not remind us of Yoda’s, “Do or do not, there is no try.” Alfred continues to brush off those around him, ignoring their advice because it’s “fake.” Does this not echo Luke and Yoda’s exchange, where Luke says, “I don’t believe it,” and Yoda responds, “That is why you fail.”
Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m just hopeful for a little more. But soft allusions, when executed correctly, can give a story texture. When I consider Alfred as a Skywalker archetype, I give myself another path in which to lose myself in the show. Is he a hero? Or something closer to a Macbeth or Hamlet?
A bigger stretch, even, because grief, loss, and dedications are prevalent in story… but the tone of this episode reminded me of Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” – especially when we factor in Alfred’s perpetual denial (of what’s real), which is the true “language of grief.” Perhaps it’s wrong of me to think of Alfred as an archetype.
Two Things Working For Me:
The events in “Woods” work really well as tangible forces of opposition to Alfred’s desires and beliefs systems. When the young fans approach Alfred, realize he’s walking alone, they echo the sentiment that he’s “keeping it real,” and use the opportunity to assault him, pull a loaded gun on him, and rob him (Robbin’ Season!). It’s an excellent plot move, in that his escape to the woods feels real, but it also weaves in perfectly on a thematic level. An execution I hope I can learn from. Early in the episode, Darius claims that he just learned to make pasta, that he learned it in a dream. If we consider Alfred’s exploration into the woods a dream itself, then we can credit Darius’s aloofness as a piece of well-placed foreshadowing.
Two Things I’m Not Sold On:
The deer carcass works for me, though perhaps it is a little heavy-handed? Death, left to vultures, visual clue, etc. This is really a nit-pick because it does work as a reminder that Alfred is going nowhere, and the exchange in which Wally says, “That’s you, deer guts. That’s what I’ll call you,” is beautiful. Additionally, the end, in which Alfred embraces a fan and offers the picture, might be a little too neat? I add a question mark, because, again, this might be a perfect episode.
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