NOTE: This is an episode review. Of course there are going to be spoilers.
First of all, I kinda called it. OK, they weren’t exactly skiing, but let’s not pretend I’m the only one who never would have guessed the “Helen” episode was actually going to be in Helen, Georgia. Random as hell, right?
Actually, nah. They pulled off the best episode yet in the strange little German town in the North Georgia mountains — in the appropriately named White County.
We start “Helen” with Earn’s head between Van’s thighs, followed by a quick transition to a hot-boxed car ride. Van and Earn have a healthy sexual relationship, and are operating like a normal couple on a road trip, when suddenly there’s a wild black pig eating littered food in the middle of the street forcing them to stop suddenly. It’s hard to know what this was meant to foreshadow, although near the end of the episode there’s an equally puzzling scene where Van is alone in an alley and is confronted by a different beast. It’s more of the dreamscape logic that the show has leaned on to great effect — a gonzo sort of area between symbolism and pure imagery that viewers have to decipher on their own.
We get closer and closer to Van and start seeing things from her perspective as the episode develops. As a result, she emerges the winner of “Helen,” though it’s not exactly the kind of winning she, or we as viewers, want to celebrate.
Van has Earn figured out, which she proves through pointed observations throughout the episode (e.g. “You’ve got some swag. It’s weird swag, but people like it.”). And it’s true; Earn is likeable and relatable, because he abides in similar fashion to Jeff Bridges’ classic The Big Lebowski protagonist, The Dude. But without Alfred or Darius around, it’s harder to see Earn’s downtrodden attitude as tolerable, and as Van lets us know, she’s tired of it, and maybe of him.
Taking them off to Helen for what seems like Oktoberfest or some other German festival might seem strange to folks outside Georgia, but it’s actually not unheard of and is far from the weirdest thing the show has done. Helen is a small Germantown located two hours up from Atlanta in the North Georgia Mountains. It got a huge rush of German immigrants during the Gold Rush, and they stayed around and turned the town into something like a tiny German Disneyland. It’s even the home of the state’s first brewery, Helenboch.
There have long been rumblings of pseudo- or outright racism in North Georgia, but it’s not like you won’t see black people out there regularly, including couples Van and Earn’s age who just want to get away on a random weekend. But the two ladies peering through the store window at them as they arrive to check in at the lodge isn’t just for comedy. Black folks do draw eyes.
It isn’t the only example of suggested second-class citizenship we see in how the two of them are treated by both friends and strangers. There’s the black feminist Van, who pulls a friend to the side to gently confront her about not using her name when introducing her to others, opting instead for “Lotte’s mom” and “Earn’s girlfriend.” The friend – also a young black woman — alludes to this being Van’s fate, as she “chose white” when they were growing up, as opposed to Van choosing to be, or date, African-American. The conversation is unfortunately interrupted, but it’s always reassuring that Van doesn’t take any shit when it comes to her sense of self-worth. There’s also the argument between Earn and Van in which we get Van’s true feelings about her willingness to follow Earn and his friends around. But he can’t even return the favor when asked, even bringing up the fact that visiting the strip club in “Money Bag Shawty” wasn’t at all her thing, but she took one for the team and went along.
It’s going to be interesting to see what happens next with Earn. His selfishness is becoming a burden, and it’s hard to blame Van for feeling like it might not be worth the time. On the low, even toward the end of the episode, when the handsome German-speaking bartender walks with Van and has the chance to c-block or hate on Earn, he doesn’t. But we can tell he enjoys her company, and she seems willing to share it, creating an obvious chemistry, that goes beyond their shared German language and heritage (Zazie Beetz is German-African-American, but I don’t recall the story of how her character came to speak German; hopefully we’ll learn more soon). Who knows if Mr. Steal Your German Girl will be back again in the coming weeks, but perhaps Van’s days of choosing black could soon be temporarily suspended?
But it’s not like we can’t see that Earn is getting tired of something as well. As soon as they get inside the party, we get more of the awkward tension created by Earn’s unwillingness to assimilate into the weird, Eyes Wide Shut/Wicker Man/Get Out vibe of the event, from the weird masks and creepy mascot to the hilarious scene where the lady mistakes Earn for a friend wearing blackface and tries rubbing it off his cheek. He’s non-compliant to the crowd’s insistence that he play along, and doesn’t understand why Van would bring him. He’s even more confrontational, in his passive-aggressive way, telling the charming bartender to do his job and pour a beer instead of flirting, in German, with Van. He also doesn’t flinch when he says “Fuck you” to the weirdo in the baby mask who watches Van skunk him in ping pong, winning a bet that should have forced Earn to enjoy their time away, but instead forces Earn into making a dumb, unnecessary insult about Van’s need for his support.
— AtlantaFX (@AtlantaFX) March 23, 2018
Van’s obviously trying to invite Earn deeper into her life, but it’s obvious Earn has something going on that’s causing the issue. Whatever it is, we get a glimpse of Van’s frustrated sadness as she spikes, backhands and volleys aggressively against Earn in the episodes ping pong challenge finale, in which her victory means they decide not to see each other for a while. And for the first time, Earn looks willing to fight for their relationship, but it’s too little and too late.
It’s interesting that his radio station friend from the first episode is back, and drops game on him about what women want. “That’s what girls do when they like you; they just wanna twist their life up with yours. That way it’s harder to disconnect…” But he can’t bring himself to be comfortable enough to share himself with Van in a way that makes her feel “valued as a human being and not as an accessory you can fuck,” as she says.
Earn isn’t just a loser; he loses for a living. He loses both ping pong matches. He loses his lady. And he’s losing excuses for his behavior, at least that’s where Atlanta seems to be steering us with this episode. But Earn is a young black man, living through the time in one’s life where the world is giving you every reason to give up. In case you didn’t hear about the study released this week, black men are failing more than anybody else in society. Even our women are leaving us behind.
“Helen” has Earn giving America a heavy view into the deeper reality of what happens to young black men, and how things affect love and relationships to the senseless point that we leave our women and families, and go off to fall permanently behind. I can’t vouch for him too much, but there’s something entirely familiar in Earn’s disconnected existence. Sometimes, when you’re young, black and gifted in America, nobody understands you, or the world in which you exist. But maybe we’re not meant to understand all of Earn’s thought process or how he sees the world. We just see that Van is beginning to see the world similarly, and she wants better. And from this exploration into how easily love can fade, the two deliver my favorite episode of the season.
Rating: 4.9 out of 5