Courtesy of FX
Never heard of Helen, Georgia? It’s ok, neither has Earn. But that doesn’t stop Van from dragging her pseudo-boyfriend there for an Oktoberfest get-together. If last episode’s date night left you tenuously hoping for a reality in which Van and Earn ended up together, I’m sorry to break the bad news. What ensues in “Helen” are inevitably racist interactions, a much needed wakeup call for Van, and Earn acting like a bigger baby than his apparently invisible daughter (seriously, where is Lottie?).
This episode continues to borrow from the ghosts of its first season—Van’s friend Christina is the new Jayde from the sixth episode of Season One’s “Value,” and this episode’s disaster date is reminiscent of “Juneteenth”—but makes up for it by approaching them from different angles. Whereas Jayde made her opinions of Van clear, Christina’s biases are more implicit—until they’re not. When she introduces Van to her white friends, Van becomes “Lottie’s mom,” “Earn’s girl” who “used to be a teacher.” Van, she is not. Things come to a head when Van confronts Christina. “I don’t know why you have to introduce me as Lottie’s mom. You know my first name… And that’s not all that I’m gonna be for the rest of my life, is Lottie’s mom.” In one fell stroke, Van addresses how women and mothers are sometimes defined not in terms of who they are, but in terms of their relationships to others. Van is the most interesting character on the show (sorry, Darius, you can have coolest character), and the reduction of her character as the partner of Earn, who has done nothing but disappoint all season, and the mother of Lottie—whose absence from the show I’ve slowly started to realize is purposeful—cannot go unchallenged.
The episode goes on to further address black womanhood in the same conversation with Christina. “Like, I chose white. You chose black,” Christina says of their respective partners, before proceeding to define, this time, Van’s blackness. “You never hung out with me and Melanie when we invited you. And you only went to the black parties. I mean, it’s like you needed that black identity… You never invited me to your parties,” she lists. “That’s because, um, you always acted like you were better than us, and you would pander to us and say shit like, ‘I wish I had kinky hair.’” “Which you do. You just straighten it,” Van retorts. When Christina has the gall to get offended, Van is quick to point out her hypocrisy: “You literally just told me that I’m going to be a baby mama, and that’s ok because I ‘chose black.’” Coming from a fellow black woman, Christina’s words speak to one facet of the politics of black womanhood, in which black women are quick to pigeonhole their frenemies into stereotypes in order to make themselves feel superior.
“Helen” doesn’t just stop at Season One—it also takes from Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning “Get Out.” Van and Earn leave Atlanta for the very white, suburban Helen, Ga. They nearly run over a pig on the way, only to dive into a culture in which “traditionally, there’s a moor character that people show up in blackface.” And at the end of the day, the couple that came in together doesn’t leave together. But somehow, the show never feels like anything less than authentically “Atlanta.” When Earn wins a game of Hootz-Kutz by simply putting balls in a jug, everyone celebrates. As the festival comes to a close, flashing lights frame Van, a new German friend she’s made, and Earn, in a more rare, ethereal moment of cinematic—as opposed to narrative or anecdotal—genius. And when Earn says he’ll pick up Lottie from his mom’s house the next day, we nod along, because of course Lottie’s been with her grandma this whole time. The seamless coherence of these incongruous anecdotes is too consistent to be mere strokes of creative luck, but who cares?
Finally, another show hops on the “Game of Thrones” episode “Stormborn” bandwagon to depict female sexual pleasure.Looks like I was right about the strip club not being the best place to go on a date…To touch someone’s natural hair is one thing, but to literally touch someone’s face to see how “good” their blackface makeup is? White women, strike two.Am I the only one who got the “Love & Ping Pon—” I mean, “Love & Basketball” reference?Van better watch out for the cute German bartender, or else we’ll actually have another “Get Out” on our hands.Someone needs to teach me how to punch like Van. Seriously.
—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at email@example.com.