And He Keeps It Out Of Sight
“Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?”
MacHeath in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera
People here have complained about the dissonance of hearing Louis Armstrong’s jaunty pop rendition of Mac the Knife over the closing credits, but like everything else about a David Simon production there are layers upon layers. It is truly odd that the song originally known as Die Moriate (The Flick Knife Song) in Bertolt Brecht’s dark operetta The Three Penny Opera, a song about the career criminal protagonist MacHeath’s predilection for gruesome murder as sport became a popular song of the 1950s. If you know the libretto of the opera it is as disconcerting as hearing a snappy Top 40 song about Jeffrey Dahmer. It heightens the shock of the closing shot, plays on the “back in town” refrain in the episode’s focus on the return of crime, and if you dig deep enough you find yourself hearing MacHeath ask the audience in his impassioned speech before the gallows the quote above, and thinking of Hidalgo and Hidalgo. Note that when Nelson is in the hotel bar, the band is playing: Mack the Knife.
The stark contrast of the song and LaDonna’s expression is a fitting close to an episode that is rich in contrasts, the complex interplay between the individual characters: Sonny (revealed by the photograph to be more than we thought) making the effort to get himself off the street even with the knowledge that he will never match the child prodigy on the piano he confronted last week, as compared to Antoine climbing back into the cab when confronted by the unruly school children; Janette who fled her gutted home to New York and slaves in a nightmare kitchen to advance her career seated next to the deeply depressed Lambreaux who can barely bring himself to sew, Janette who left to work a line in New York against Jacques who stayed and works the line for Susan Spicer; Janette’s stoner roommates (think about Sonny’s) and anonymous sex partners versus the friends she left behind in Jacques and Davis (and just realizing as I really think this through how large a role Janette played in building this tableaux); the struggles of everyone else in the story versus Nelson Hidalgo’s easy skim.
All of the other action building those contracts is not as one reviewer thought distractions from LaDonna’s story, were not just fifth business to advance a single character story, but carefully complex story telling. That interplay was critical character development and stage setting for the future in a story that is about the interplay of the characters as much as it is about each, that is about building the stories that are fundamental to the social critique inherent in Simon’s stories, and ultimately about the largest and most central character of all that speaks no lines: the city itself; not a city of architecture but a city of music and food and culture, a city of rampant crime and gutted houses and government dysfunction and corruption, and in the end about why they all come home, why it matters.
Ray summed up the feeling in the city in that winter of our discontent so well in his last post. If that closing credit song set your teeth on edge (as it should) then you have an inkling of what it felt like in that time. It was on so many levels a brilliant choice.
P.S. — While the Treme team rarely misses a note, I am curious why the Downbeat reviewer would refer to Delmond as a “post-modern John Coltrane” and not a “post-modern Miles Davis” for a host of reasons: his instrument, his performances which sound clearly derived from the mainstem of post-bop cool jazz, and his increasing use of New Orleans roots in his music reminiscent of Sketches of Spain. Just askin’. Maybe music supervisor Blake Leyh should get a check off on musical script references.
— wet bank guy