Photo: Roger Do Minh/FX
The main character of Toni Morrison 1973 Sula, Sula Peace, is a black woman envied and hated for breaking a cardinal rule of 20th century black community life and its expectations of women: she centered her own pain, pleasure, and perspective on those of others. More haunting than heroine, Sula hurts and is hurt throughout the novel, and even in death her hunger for freedom weighs heavily on those who blamed her for their own starvation. Becoming a narrative descendant of Sula, Van emerges in Atlanta‘s third season as a woman who turned her back on the socially acceptable. After leaving her child and her home in Atlanta, Van appears on the outskirts of this season’s episodes in scenes marked by indulgence and elusiveness, where she robs houses and shops and dodges Earn’s calls. Those brief moments hinted at inner warfare and a thirst for more than was prescribed for him.
In this week’s finale, Van’s hunger finally takes center stage in an episode named “Tarrare” after an 18th-century French soldier and showman made infamous for an insatiable hunger, a need for feasting so grotesque that it would have cost the life of a 14-month-old child. Notably, this episode delves into desire and all the things we do to please and purge the urges that claim us. With Van as the axis of the story, the figure of Tarrare is assumed by a black woman who indulges not in food but in the fictions of self-mythology. In the face of depression and suffering, Van teases others with his opacity and takes on new identities; she embodies the words of poet Rita Dove, “If you can’t be free, be a mystery.”
The episode begins in Paris, France, Tarrare’s chosen home, in a brasserie in the city’s 7th arrondissement. Three black women (Candace, Xosha and Shaniece) sit at a table as Candace explains that she was, in the words of the inimitable City Girl Yung Miami, “robbed” in Paris by a wealthy man who is committed to paying his six grand to piss on. In the middle of the conversation, Candace is distracted by the familiar face of a woman she recognizes as Van – an old friend from Atlanta whom she met while “stripping naked on a river cruise”. What’s unrecognizable is the thick French accent and air of mystery her friend has acquired. But as they soon find out, while the City of Light isn’t Van’s home, it has been the perfect place to darken his own dimming fuse.
Van invites her and her crew back to his apartment. Eager to spend time with the “locals”, the three women find themselves immersed in the enigmatic and chaotic life of Van. When Van brings the girls out for “errands”, the chores that consume her day turn out to be far from trivial. First, she takes them to a luxury hotel where they meet Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård, with whom Van has had a bizarre psycho-sexual relationship that includes planting crystal meth in his bedroom, settling in the press, spitting in his face and listening to Ashanti together. Candace asks the timeless question, “When did you start fucking Alexander Skarsgård?” Van dismisses Candace’s alarm as the mark of American prudery and rushes the girls out of the hotel and onto the next chore. Skarsgård, who appears a few times in the episode, stands at the intersection of the destructive mythologies that Van has constructed for himself. the true blood the star is entirely consumed by desire; his humiliation aside, it is his eagerness to be a part of something that later makes him salivate at the thought of communal cannibalism. And while Van apparently has great power over him through desire, she’s also committed to the gratification that degradation brings.
When the three women follow Van to a parking lot to retrieve a package from a cooler, things take a turn for the worse once she realizes the package isn’t there. Van complains about how a man named Emilio “fucked” her by failing to do the transfer. After being identified as Tarrare, “the man who ate the baby”, by a group of menacing young men who stuck knives in the wheels of their motorbikes, Van plays him cool like an action star, then s flees as the girls awkwardly follow her. She tracks down Emilio to a museum where she beats him with a rock-hard wand. Since the episode opened, the bread in question — which Shaniece humorously calls Van’s “security bread” because “she doesn’t feel French without it” — has been in Van’s bag through everything. that, and in that scene, the hardened bread is the perfect metaphor for Van’s own metamorphosis. Emilio curls up and gives Van the package with which she quickly leaves to go to a dinner party. “There’s something seriously wrong with Van,” Candace tells the girls, though they’re enjoying the ride.
At the party, the gritty glamor of Van’s life begins to dull. The infamous package contains severed hands that Van’s chef boyfriend prepares as the main course for the exclusive and sacred dinner. In the kitchen, Candace asks Van to cut the shit out, noting that she noticed Van has been avoiding her phone all day. Van deflects, emphasizing Candace’s need to control others through judgment. “You have so much control? You almost beat a man to death with a goddamn wand,” Candace retorts. (“Van, again?” The boyfriend sighs like it’s one of his recurring habits. OMG!) “If you want to live your life doing this crazy shit, okay, but what about your old life?” Candace asks. “Lottie? Where does she fit into all of this?
Although she claims to have a plan to fit her daughter into her new life, the very thought of Lottie breaks Van. As she throws plates and screams until her French accent can’t hold her back any longer, the boyfriend runs (“A lover was not a comrade,” Morrison wrote in Sula), but Candace awaits the emotional storm. In the end, the finale ends the season with an outpouring (well, two outpourings and, yes, pun intended). As they sit outside on a bench facing the Seine, Van recounts a moment of suicidal ideation in which she closed her eyes while driving in Atlanta and found herself swerving into the opposite lane. Shaken by her depression and loss of meaning and identity, Van took her daughter to her parents and fled to Europe. “I want[ed] to be Amélie,” she mused, setting off for Paris to embody the fantasy of the French protagonist of the 2001 romantic comedy, though she realizes that isn’t a solution either. “Who the fuck am I? Van asks out loud. “You are someone.” To be clear, Candace’s answer isn’t deep. Being someone and knowing who that person is are two very different things. The friendship doesn’t undo Van’s depression, but it does provide him with a life jacket that keeps him from drowning for now. At the end, it’s Van who declares it’s time to go home, and Candace pulls her closer and asserts her direction.
When we first met Van in the show’s first season, her character was defined by everything she was. She was an elementary school teacher until a failed drug test ended her career. And her primary connection to the show’s three male leads lay in her previous relationship with Earn and their child. Two seasons later, their bond seems to be based on duty and history rather than a remarkable passion for each other. In this latest episode, we see Van strive to fulfill her own potential beyond motherhood, a profession, or even a partnership. If only Atlanta had given Van’s character more room to fly, even in the erratic ways seen in the episode. Inactive and anxious, Van hovered over this season to finally land in the finale. And for a finale, “Tarrare” leans more toward a cliffhanger than a conclusion (more appetizer than entree, opening to a full, unserved meal, if you indulge in the culinary metaphor). Fortunately, the cast was tasked with serving up this narrative in tapas-sized portions delivered with grace and humor. Like Sula, Van’s limited arc embodies the line – “And like an artist without an art form, she became dangerous.” My main regret is that this season didn’t give us more time for Van to discover the art in her. The web is waiting.
• The Cannibal Club (2018): “Girl, that’s high end shit,” Shaniece says (If I had to pick a favorite character in this episode, it’s her, hands down! Team Shaniece!) as she sits down to eat for dinner. When Xosha raises her napkin out of curiosity for their “first class” meal, she screams, alerting Shaniece, and each woman gags and stands, but the wealthy attendees (Skarsgård included!) don’t shy away from the menu offering of ” little hands.” In The cannibal clubBrazilian elites literally eat their employees!
• The Newspaper Boy (2012): While Candace tends to Van, Shaniece pees on the rich dude as she watches the Eiffel Tower from her window. The man screams and begs her to stop the flow, but the flow continues uninterrupted. (The best part of the scene is when Ludacris’ “Splash Waterfalls” plays the episode). The perfect movie for those who liked this wild scene is the one from 2012 Newspaper delivererin which Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron!
• The Watermelon Man (1970): In the post-credits reveal, Earn receives a bag from the airport marked with his first and last name and the date of travel, but he is adamant that it is not his. When he opens the bag, it turns out it’s Earn’s other thing (remember that white Earn from the first and fourth episodes of the season?) – our Earn isn’t into drugs or to the family photo but revolves around the Deftones the shirt. Are Black Earn and White Earn successive inverses? Is White Earn just the voice of Glover disguised as another character? If you find these kinds of questions intriguing, check out watermelon mana movie where a white salesman turns into a black version of himself.