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Hearing everything backwards

June 12, 2011

Carnival has traditionally been a time when the social order is inverted. Fools become kings, men dress as women, the rich and powerful are mocked, dogs and cats live together. What better week for the characters of Treme to reverse course, to break with tradition, to do the exact opposite of what they would have done or would have wanted to do? Last week it was Opposite Day on Treme.

Last year, when asked if he was playing any gigs on Fat Tuesday, Antoine responded “Me? On Mardi Gras Day? Oh, no, uh-uh.” This year, when asked by Keith Hart to watch the Zulu parade with his students, he responded with exactly the same words, except for the “no” part. He’s got a job job now, but more importantly, he’s starting to see where he fits into the larger picture of saving the culture in New Orleans. Ironically, his own sons don’t play, because they were raise by their mom and Ladonna didn’t wanna raise no musicians. Antoine being a kind of absentee dad, he wasn’t around to have that kind of influence in his own boys’ lives. On Mardi Gras Day, he’s doing the opposite of his usual, not only for the day but in his life in general. And when his 2:00 and 4:00 appointments are coming up, Desiree tells him, “It’s Daddy time.” Antoine will be playing actual daddy instead of baby daddy for the rest of the day.

Last year, Janette was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but spent the day cooking, and the night running the streets high as a motherfucker. This year, she can’t make it home for Carnival but spends the day celebrating. In a weird twist, it’s not being home that lets her celebrate it like a holiday. And this year she’s not only not high, she’s out with her roommate Nick, who is having his own opposite day by giving up Captain Crunch and pot in favor of a sober meal at Le Bernardin.

Colson and the rest of the NOPD are waiting for the hammer to fall in the crime world. There have been shootings at second lines, killings of musicians and filmmakers. No reasonable person would think that Mardi Gras would go off relatively without a hitch, all those millions of people and not a single shooting, but New Orleans goes and does the opposite of what is expected of it. Just this one time, at least.

Cornell Williams tells Antoine he wants to talk to Sonny to give him one more chance, and Antoine says “You know his problem and so do I. And right now, if we gave him a hundred chances he’d fuck ’em all up.” Which is generally the truth when you’re talking about addicts. Unless you’re talking to a recovered addict like Cornell.

It’s not clear whether Cornell the character is in “The Program” or if he’s just figured out the Point a la Hache cure, but one of those little slogans you hear a lot in 12 Step rooms is “All you have to change is everything.” When you’re in recovery, every day has to be opposite day, because your little reptile addict brain is constantly telling you to do shit that makes perfect sense to an addict, but which is going to get you back to getting fucked up in a hurry. Cornell knows this, and he knows that what Sonny needs is a serious dose of doing the exact opposite of what he thinks he should do. “Real simple, you do everything I say you gotta do. Go where I say. Show up when I say. And when we get paid, I hold all your damn money.” Sonny doesn’t like the idea of somebody holding his dope money and he balks. Cornell knows it’s opposite day: “No, bra. Everything I say, you do. This isn’t gonna work if you hearing everything backwards.” Cornell is at the beginning of the process of showing Sonny that there is another way, there’s another path through this.

Even Hidalgo gets himself a “sponsor”, in the form of Oliver Thomas recommending him for membership in Zulu. But this, again, is about more than just getting Hidalgo some choice business connections. OT is showing Hildalgo that, sure, we do graft in New Orleans better than anybody, but palling around with Liguori, donating to the St. Alphonsus stained glass fund and making it rain for Bobby Jindal aren’t the only path. There’s a way to do this buying-of-influence thing that, sure, is corrupt, but still helps people who are worth helping. Under OT’s tutelage, Hidalgo has made it rain for The Pigeon Town Steppers and the Zulu organization. Thomas the character reminds us a little of Frank Sobotka, who was as corrupt as they come in the longshoreman’s world, but who kicked that money back down to help the union and its increasingly desparate members.

Sadly, the two people having a Mardi Gras starkly reminiscent of last year are Toni and Ladonna. For the second year in a row, Ladonna is holding a terrible secret inside and leaning on the bottle instead of her family, since she doesn’t want to ruin their Mardi Gras. Only this year, stuck up in Baton Rouge, her isolation is complete and she doesn’t have somebody like Antoine around to fall apart in front of. Toni, too, is spending the second Mardi Gras in a row trying to be enthusiastic about the day for a reluctant family member, but this year it’s Sofia instead of Creighton. And last year, Toni had the relative luxury of being a little bit in denial about how bad off Creighton was. This year, there is no denial, she’s seen it get as bad as it can possibly get. She’s getting the same treatment in a different form with Sofia, but her eyes are wide open this time and she’s terrified.

There’s a thing in movie writing called a reversal, where a character hits an obstacle so severe, so obstinate, that it turns him around 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Sometimes you’ll see these reversals around a midpoint scene halfway through the film. We’re a little more than halfway through the season, but we are seeing these reversals come to light on Opposite Day in several characters.

Toni has finally voiced the fear that has probably been growing in her mind for weeks now: Sofia knows the truth about her father, and she is filled with rage. There’s no way Toni can keep on going the way she’s been going. Either she does something radically different in her relationship with Sofia, or she’s going to lose her. There is no other path.

Antoine and Larry have had a similar realization about LaDonna. This is not something she’s going to snap out of, this is not something she’s going to get over. Something needs to change. This is clear to them now.

Sonny knows the jig is up with the whole dope fiend thing. He’s lost so much. He lost his girlfriend, he can see his dream of becoming a great musician falling apart, he gets robbed, he gets taken advantage of. And he’s inside his own head thinking he’s got nobody to blame but himself, that all of this happens because he’s inherently a fuck-up and a worthless human being. It’s a shitty place to be. And now this guy, this great musician, is reaching out and saying, “come on, man, we can fix all of this. You just have to do everything the exact opposite of how you’ve been doing it.” Sonny’s reversed course in a big way.

All on a Mardi Gras Day.

  1. June 12, 2011 9:29 am

    Perfect piece but I’m mad at you for using a title I’d been stashing. I wrote it on a napkin last week as soon as I heard that line!

    Be that as it may, I watched that episode again last night. Yes. Again. There’s always something else in it. Something I didn’t see. Since you’ve already cribbed my notes, I might as well put them out there. They’re little things but things I didn’t notice the last two times.

    Colson and the kid with the gun at the parade: When he says “Why do you want to take what’s left of this city and turn it to shit?” I saw a frustration, which would be typical, but also a pain over the loss of his city. He’s mostly talked about police issues. But in that moment we saw his personal loss, albeit relatively controlled. It was subtle acting, but said a lot.

    Toni: The look she gives Sofia when talking about St. Anne and the ashes in the river and Sofia responds with, “You know how he always felt about the river.” Sofia searches her mother’s face as Toni searches hers. Sofia’s waiting for her mother to tell her the truth, right then, at that moment. Toni realizes but doesn’t recognize her realization that Sofia knows. Again, subtle acting, perfect. Poor Toni has to go through the entire day terrified and alone as she puts Creigh’s ashes and the Hubig’s wrapper in the river, before she cops to it.

    A perfect Opposite Day moment: Last year Antoine sneaks in late and Desiree is sleeping on the couch with the Rex Ball on tv. This year, Desiree quietly walks into the same room, Antoine and the boys sacked out on the couch with the Rex Ball on tv. Perfect. (Overmyer wrote last year’s Mardi Gras episode; Simon wrote this one.)

    And I have to say that the all time best put down line for someone being jerk on Mardi Gras day was delivered by Janette on the phone to her friend: “May you strangle on beads and fall down in front of a Blaine Kern tractor.” Loved that as well as the lines written for the roommates regarding the King Cake. I didn’t write them down as I was laughing so hard but they were wonderful lines.

    Beautiful piece, Ray.

  2. June 12, 2011 9:59 am

    Brilliant. I tthought Sonny acquiesence at first and later the smile on his face when he takes a beer signal a realization deep inside (unless its his lizard brain screaming Beer!). My the Uncle’s remark one gets the idea this isn’t Cornell’s first intervention oor resort to the Point a la Hache clinic. Perhaps he checked himself in there. Sonny, like everyone else, was into Opposite Day last week but something about him makes you think it might stick. I felt the same way about Toni the problem solver. Now that she’s admitted the problem her obvious next step is to throw herself into solving it.

  3. June 12, 2011 11:00 am

    Ray, outstanding analysis.

    I was worried for a moment that the arrest of the man with the gun at the parade was going to turn into a police brutality case. That’s something that we in NOLA probably don’t want emphasized on national TV, but it was–it is–a real part of life here. The police force seems to habitually get front page attention for routine arrests of suspects who end up in the hospital with multiple broken bones and who sometimes die. There was at least one highly publicized beating on or near Bourbon Street in about the time frame of the show, so I thought we might be headed down that road. Luckily, the writers were able to show the anger of Lt. Colson (I am tempted to say “righteous” anger) but still keep it in good humor as the suspect’s friend seems more worried about the shoe. Mardi Gras and this episode of Treme went off without a hitch.



  4. June 12, 2011 11:15 am

    Thanks y’all.

    @Tim: Yeah, this was my favorite episode and even though I really liked last year’s Mardi Gras episode, this one nailed it in terms of the mayhem and the energy and the noise. It really felt like Mardi Gras on the screen.

    @Sam: I listened to Sofia’s line 5 or 6 times, and I am now reasonably sure she said “I mean, I don’t know what the river meant to him.” The river has always been a complicated force in Creighton’s life, and that’s where he chose to die, and so Sofia is confused. Is the river a good thing or an evil thing? Toni was a little bit tone deaf in that exchange, like it maybe didn’t occur to her that not everybody would think that remembering Creighton by the river in direct view of the damn Algiers ferry would be the best way to find some peace. It would have been something to talk to Sofia about, but Toni doesn’t do that talking thing well and Sofia is shutting her out anyway. It’s like they’re both trapped in their little silos of grief.

  5. June 12, 2011 2:57 pm

    Whereas I heard Sofia say to Toni, “You don’t know what the river meant to him.”

    I am not saying I heard correctly though.

    Love, C.

  6. June 12, 2011 3:37 pm

    @Foxessa: Yeah, that’s what I thought I heard first. I also thought I might have heard, “You know what the river meant to him.”

  7. June 12, 2011 4:26 pm

    ‘When you’re in recovery, every day has to be opposite day, because your little reptile addict brain is constantly telling you to do shit that makes perfect sense to an addict, but which is going to get you back to getting fucked up in a hurry.’
    With your permission I’d like to use this as a direct quote for the topic at my next meeting. I have never thought of it like that, but it’s true.
    Sonny wants to get back on track , he is starting to rationalize the situation, but by taking the beer it shows he wasn’t just using booze as landing gear, maybe. We really just know he is a dope fiend , after all.
    I hope Cornell has better luck with his pigeon that I ever had with mine. Every drunk and cross-addicted dope fiend I sponsored in “The Program” shit on my head. Not one goddam one stayed clean or sober.
    I hope the writers are kinder to Cornell and Sonny. There’s hope; Simon told us to just watch the show and see how it unfolds, ‘cuz we ain’t no good at predicting shit no way.

  8. rickngentily permalink
    June 12, 2011 6:39 pm


  9. June 12, 2011 10:17 pm

    Everybody already said so better than I could but this is some elegant shit, brother.

  10. June 13, 2011 11:44 am

    “your little reptile addict brain is constantly telling you to do shit that makes perfect sense to an addict, but which is going to get you back to getting fucked up in a hurry.”

    Read this thing of beauty again today. Where do people who have no self-discipline get it from? How do they let go of a crutch that has become a part of their bodies? Do they find other addictions of the not ingestible variety? Got to hand it to the ones who make it and to the Cornells of the world who take the time to give a damn, whether the Sonnys know they need help or not.

  11. June 13, 2011 11:52 am

    This has the potential to get way off-topic since a lot of people have strong opinions on this topic (and honestly, unless they’re addicts or former addicts themselves, I’m not too too interested in their opinions), but addition has nothing to do with self-discipline. Self will, the idea that you can force outcomes, that by force of will you can make this thing happen or avoid that thing…that’s exactly the kind of thinking that leads to more drug use. The recovery mantra (and I realize it doesn’t work for everybody) is that you gotta give up the self will because that’s what got you where you are in the first place. You have to rely on something outside yourself. Whether that thing is spiritual or something else will depend on your continually evolving belief system.

    But the idea that addicts somehow lack discipline…that’s just society imposing its Protestant-work-ethic-derived moral judgment on a problem that they don’t understand. That’s not how addiction works.

    What Cornell did for Sonny is brilliant. He got him outside of himself. He didn’t give him a work ethic, he didn’t give him self-discipline. He gave him a way to break his mind out of its spiral and give him something larger to think about. Manual labor is a way to do this, but it’s not because it’s work, it’s not because it’s self-discipline, it’s because it breaks the pattern of being trapped in your own head thinking only about yourself and your sorry situation and how you need to get high to feel better.

  12. June 13, 2011 12:12 pm

    I get it, Ray, and sorry if I hit an exposed nerve. After years of having the Willpower and Self-Discipline to do this, that and the other hit into our heads and using the force of will to get out of bed everyday and put one foot in front of the other, the human tendency towards guilt and self-flagellation is a great thing. It has to be like what LaDonna hears and feels when Larry tells her she should have sold the bar years ago. Great, thanks, that’s helpful.

    How do atheists go through AA? And going past spirituality and all that, ultimately, all you have is yourself, like Sonny is going to have to be and deal with himself without dope, Cornell, the labor, even the girl. I mean, what the hell do you reach out to when your continually-evolving belief system ends about an inch away from your skin?

  13. June 13, 2011 1:35 pm

    How do atheists go through AA? And going past spirituality and all that, ultimately, all you have is yourself, like Sonny is going to have to be and deal with himself without dope, Cornell, the labor, even the girl. I mean, what the hell do you reach out to when your continually-evolving belief system ends about an inch away from your skin?

    That’s kind of the point. Addiction ultimately, is an attempt to control. Yourself, outcomes, your environment, your mood, whatever. Even if you’re picking up in order to become out of control, you’re still the one changing the channel.

    And control, for any human, is a total illusion. Existence is chaos. It’s a matter of chance. We can, and do, forestall the total loss of order, by discipline, possessions, company, seatbelts, money, all kinds of things that make us feel like we actually have a say in our destiny. But at any second, any one of us could get hit by a bus, our children could die, our city could get destroyed, evil people can gain power over our country, etc. We can gamble our way through it by making ourselves as comfortable as we can, and we pretend we’ve “got it under control” but mostly that’s just luck. Luck and insulation and denial.

    It’s easy, hell it’s almost mandatory, for us as stupid humans, to forget the real nature of the world. We all, most of us anyway, “use” something, lots of things, to do so. It’s a matter of degree of dependency and the “legitimacy” of the substance(s) we use that makes the difference between the “Dope Fiend” and “regular” people. Harm reduction is considered a radical approach for dealing with addicts, but it’s no different than what we’re all doing every day with posessions, money, religion, etc.

    Getting clean is coming to grips with what is, and accepting it. And part of what you come to accept is that there are very few people around who are not using something.

  14. Anita permalink
    June 13, 2011 2:26 pm

    “what the hell do you reach out to when your continually-evolving belief system ends about an inch away from your skin?”

    Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a mystery. You walk out there that one inch and you don’t turn around. Just keep going in that absolutely uncertain, completely vulnerable inch until you realize that’s where you always were anyway and it doesn’t hurt quite as much as the other. If you’re lucky, you find a bunch of other people in that inch, too. Some are brilliant, loving people and you find them and hang on together. They’ll tell you, you don’t do anything the rest of your life; you just do it today.

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