We barely had a moment to digest the intro before shit got really, really, really creepy. Darius buys a red Confederate-flag trucker hat and changes the embroidered phrase “SOUTHERN MADE” into famous Cam’ron meme “U MAD” with a Sharpie. But yep, a black man proudly sporting the Dixie stars and bars on his head is one of the most comfortable moments of “Teddy Perkins.”
In Robbin’ Season’s most Get Out-iest, heebie-jeebiest episode thus far, it’s finally Darius’ turn to be the center of attention. And it’s everything you expect, but somehow, substantially iller, in that “imagine Michael Jackson as The Crypt Keeper” kinda way. Let’s just say I stayed up later than expected after watching it, and not just because I had to write a review. If “Teddy Perkins” didn’t creep-you-T-F out, you might be Teddy Perkins IRL.
The layers of disturbia in “Teddy Perkins” are manifold, laced with more sheer eeriness than we thought we’d been conditioned to expect from the show’s anything-goes attitude toward plotlines and predictability. It’s still an ends-justify-means format, in which we’re always promised at least some resolution near the end, but given no guarantees of what the ride will be like once we’ve bought the ticket. And somehow, even with an distinctively dark 41-minute mini-movie — with an ending that makes us wish we could pass Darius a blunt of whatever he needs to settle his nerves — we end up with brilliant psycho-comedic gold, which may now officially be a genre.
Music also factors into the mood and story of Teddy Perkins, the amazingly creepy brother of a mysterious hermit pianist named Benny Hope. Perkins is selling his brother’s multicolored piano to Darius, who found it on an internet message board and decided to buy it, pulling up to a Bel-Air-style mansion with a U-Haul truck to make the purchase and move the keys. And songs from Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind album are sprinkled throughout. In a bit of audio foreshadowing, Stevie’s normally soul-settling voice feels out of place as Darius approaches the mansion in his rental. The album itself, made in 1972, features Stevie almost exclusively, from vocals to instruments and production. It’s considered an arrival at artistic maturity for the groundbreaking artist, with somewhat-heavier contemplation on social issues. And we definitely get some of that with this Atlanta episode.
By the way, yes, that was Donald Glover playing Teddy, in prosthetic whiteface. I wouldn’t bet against the possibility that he just won another Emmy with his portrayal of Teddy (who, in the meantime, you should be following on Twitter.
Teddy Perkins is easily one of the most comfort-repelling characters Atlanta has given us to date. His hair has a similar shape as the villain from No Country For Old Men, his pigmentation deficiency seems unnatural, to say the least, his voice just isn’t right at all, and his eyes seem to be see-through. The bone structure of his face is something like Jim Carrey’s alter-ego in The Mask, and the black and magenta colors of his robe seems particularly bothersome. I wouldn’t have been mad if Darius just turned around and left at first sight of Teddy — everybody else would’ve left, right? — but again, this is Darius’ episode, so of course he stays, and doesn’t seem sure if he’s really in danger, because sometimes he’s clearly an idiot.
He stays as Teddy cracks open and prepares to eat a soft-boiled ostrich egg (which is apparently a real thing people do). He stays through Teddy’s alarming acknowledgement of not having a butler, despite seeming like he’d requested water for Darius through the intercom. He stays after admitting, in one of the brief phone breaks Darius takes to call Alfred for advice about staying or leaving.
Meanwhile, Alfred, Earn and Tracy seem by contrast to be just fine at a Krystal drive-thru, stunting on the guy taking the order by rejecting his advice to add fries and make the meal cheaper, with hilarious egging-on from Tracy. They’ll make it to the next episode with no major issues, but back at Teddy’s house, things feel quite different, which helps to build nervous anticipation that something’s definitely coming. You certainly feel the connection to Get Out in the sequencing and pace of the episode’s remaining events, but it’s cool to see it in TV format and get the same ominously tripped-out vibe.
Once again, Atlanta uses an episode to take issues familiar to all, and shines line on the experience of having these issues while being black, which certainly makes them more complicated.
Teddy’s appearance, which we assume to be a product of skin-bleaching, comes from a painful place of African-Americans equating fairness or darkness of skin color with societal worth, and being something that you don’t get over, over time. There’s also an interesting mention of rap music, which Teddy says “never quite grew out of its adolescence.” It sort of brings us back to how “Little Stevie Wonder” grew into musical deity who wrote and recorded Songs In The Key Of Life, with timeless songs like “Black Man,” “Pastime Paradise,” and “Love’s In Need of Love Today” — the kind of real-life music that demands maturity just to be truly appreciated.
It’s certainly a fair point, but when we meet the mannequin Teddy has propped up and dressed in a suit as a possible effigy of he and Benny’s dad, and we learn that the brothers — particularly Benny — were beaten in order to be “good at life.”
And it seems that Teddy has come to an acceptance of this as a way of life: sacrifice of joy and happiness are to be expected, and “great things come from great pain,” as he says while looking up to the faceless cloth statue, admiring what it represents. “We were a sacrifice,” he says with pride and without remorse for the childhood he missed.
It was hard not to laugh when Darius checks his phone, and Alfred has texted him to ask if he’s dead yet. But it’s also making viewers nervous, because unlike Alfred we can tell that Darius is a deer in Teddy’s trippy headlights. He wants to relate, even as he’s cuffing himself to a chair at gunpoint.
The ending of the episode is a bit confusing. It doesn’t seem clear why Teddy’s surprised his brother is still alive. It also feels strange that Teddy knew all of a sudden to look in the attic for the gun Benny mentioned to Darius. And if Benny was right when he tried warning Darius of Teddy’s intention to kill them both, but Darius was going to be tied to a chair, did Teddy plan on killing his brother with the poker? If so, why? Also, damn.
It’ll take watching it again, but it’s totally worth it since the climax includes a telling moment in which Darius, as calmly as can be expected for the situation in which he finds himself, tries explaining that it’s not too late for Teddy to break the cycle of violence and “sacrifice.”
Teddy’s not exactly wrong, because we all see the results of the work those dads put in on Michael and his Jackson 5 brothers, and the Williams sisters, and Tiger Woods, and even Emilio Estevez’s character in The Breakfast Club. But as black fathers do what they think is necessary to increase the chances of their children’s survival, they’re not only breaking them in, they’re also breaking them and continuing a cycle of violence and retribution that affects the family.
As Teddy explains how Benny was pushed to become the best piano player possible, we are pushed to consider how aggressive over-parenting affects talented individuals throughout their lives. And this did a masterful job of further humanizing one of Atlanta’s most irreplaceable characters, and making us ask ourselves what happens when we keep habitually dehumanizing brilliant black kids.
I imagine I’m not the only person who’s been waiting to see what the show did when it eventually got around to having a Darius episode, but you can tell that everyone involved knew this one had to be special, if not also completely nuts. They did not disappoint. As we’ve been trained to expect from Darius’ twitchy personality and beautiful mind, it’s another one of those times where you’re left thinking about it for longer than you think you should be. Yes, Darius has flashes of brilliance at times, making us all think about the deeper level of it all, man. But sometimes he’s also an idiot. We’re never quite sure how much of which he’s giving us, or how he’s going to get through a situation, but he’s one of the best reasons to watch Atlanta, and I’m glad he somehow survived.
Rating: 4.9 out of 5