By Caleb Michael Sarvis
“North of the Border”
Earn has booked Pajama Jam for Paper Boi, a free concert at a local college. Paper Boi will be alongside his rap foil Clark County, and won’t be paid for his performance, but his presence will open doors for future money-making opportunities. At least, that’s how Earn sells it.
Additionally, there isn’t a hotel, rather an apartment that belongs to a beautiful young woman with approximately three hundred Instagram followers. To Earn, they’re making money by saving money. He’s being practical.
To Alfred, this is just another misstep in a series of managerial missteps.
On Character Catharsis
What “North of the Border” gives us that no episode has to this point, is real emoting from Earn. In “Helen” he grew short with Van, but never lost his cool, only chose to act like a child. In previous episodes, he was clearly frustrated with Tracy, with body guards, with Darius, but bit his tongue because in wild moments, he felt the need to maintain some semblance of control. In this episode, Earn finally loses that control, and while it seems like the worst decision for his character at the time, it’s something the show needed.
The monotony of life hitting Earn at the worst times was growing stale as a story device, and there’s something fresh about a character finally cracking before us. When he realizes Violet and her friends not only cut patterns out of their clothing, but also stole his laptop, the reader thinks this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Close. He storms towards their apartment, voice raised. He kicks the door repeatedly, and when no one comes outside, he pulls the fire alarm—a nonsense move that will only turn he and his friends into a target once again. But this isn’t the moment.
Had the door broken in, and Earn been able to exact something on another person, he might’ve cooled off and found a semblance of peace; but because he doesn’t find anything, he’s still stewing, leading to his demanding the car be pulled over so he can fight Tracy. He’s so determined, he even declares he’s going to beat Tracy’s ass. Mind you, Tracy is over six-feet-tall, the most built of the bunch, and Earn is a slim five-ten, awkward with his raised fist. Tracy, though a pain in the ass and the most immature of the bunch, understands his advantage, even if Earn doesn’t, and tries to end the fight before it begins. A pathetic exchange ensues, in which Tracy practically knocks Earn unconscious. Tracy returns to the car and we’re given a wide shot of the car in park, Earn slumped and still on the road in front of it. Other cars pass without a second thought.
We linger in this moment, our own adrenaline spiked, and for whatever fucked-up human reason (Tracy’s fist to Earn’s face was not an easy watch, but I also couldn’t turn away), we are satisfied. Earn barely scrapes himself into the back seat of the car, but the ease is palpable. Earn’s release is palpable.
On the Escape
What I enjoy about the notion of the escape, is that it doesn’t necessarily rely on a character’s desire for anything, except for safety and a return home. Atlanta is a show about desire, of longing for something just out of your reach, and a lot of the stories are built within that structure. The show remains unique, but its dependency on that can sometimes feel redundant.
Last week’s “Woods” and this week’s “North of the Border” both embrace the idea of the escape, rather than real desire. Alfred is jumped by three teenagers while walking home, so he has to disappear into the woods. There’s no desire there, other than he wants to be safe and return home. In episode nine, Tracy pushes Violet down the stairs (though Earn catches her). A large group of college-aged men (including Violet’s brother) chase Earn and company through campus. Safety (and weed) bring them to the brilliantly absurd fraternity house.
The escape strips a scene down to its guts (consider the deer in episode eight), and creates a calm in which the pretense of the everyday disappears. Alfred reaches epiphany only after being attacked by strangers (twice). He also doesn’t confront Earn about his poor management until they’ve been chased, finding something like peace in the bizarre fraternity house.
Sometimes, the answer to “what does the character want?” can be a little too abstract (love) or too concrete (money) for good story-telling. When writers embrace the escape, characters are removed from the comfort of their environment, and are only left with themselves. What do they want in these moments? To find that comfort once again, and since they’re already uncomfortable, it’s a reasonable time to air their grievances. A character’s desire to go home captures the best of both—the physical space of one’s home and the tranquility / stillness that is represented by the idea of home.
The escape is purely human. Think Don Draper and California.
Two Things Working For Me:
I don’t know that I’ve watched something as funny as two rows of naked pledges, heads bagged, slinging dick while they dance to D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” on television before. The staging of this scene is perfect. Confederate flag booming in the backdrop. White fraternity brothers boasting about their gun room. Naked pledges, on their knees in two perfect rows. It was the best way to build us up before hitting us with Alfred’s honest confrontation with Earn. Secondly, as mentioned above, Earn’s meltdown was a welcome sight. His arrogance proved costly, resulting in an ass-beating, and while it hurt to watch, it brought to surface something we only saw bubbling underneath.
Two Things I’m Not Sold On:
I’m surprised the group stayed in the frat house overnight. Especially after a tense moment between Alfred and Earn, it seems unlikely that one of them wouldn’t have gone somewhere else. Whether the rest of the night was a frat party, or a search party, I think we missed an opportunity for one more engaging scene. I’m also still a little surprised by Earn’s incompetence. I probably shouldn’t be, but it’s alarming that he organized the sleeping arrangements he did, given that we know it’s Robbin’ Season.
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