This Atlanta review contains spoilers.
Atlanta: Season 2, Episode 4
It’s always interesting when a series takes its characters on a trip outside of their comfort zone and this week Atlanta did it in no small measure. Van takes Earn to the mountain town of Helen (which is indeed a real place with Bavarian-style architecture) where they’re holding a festival that I am not going to try to spell. I attempted to Google it phonetically and it seems like it might be called “Fastnacht” but the festivities on display in the episode don’t add up with the Wikipedia entry I found. There are also Oktoberfest banners on display in some scenes so maybe it’s just Oktoberfest?
The reason I mention all this is to demonstrate how “Helen” shows little to no interest in acclimating the viewer to just what the hell is going on. You sort of just have to gradually get used to this new, faux-German town setting, their extremely weird customs, and also the fact that Van is apparently German. It makes the start of the episode extremely alienating, which is perhaps the point, as it helps put us in Earn’s shoes. However, it also made it hard to enjoy any of the comedy or drama taking place as I was too busy trying to understand who all these white people were and why there was a guy in some kind of demonic antelope(?) costume.
However, I came to appreciate the way Atlanta told this off-kilter — both in general and for the series — story. I kept waiting for a monologue from Van to fill in the blanks, but it never came. Regardless, in the end, with almost no expositional dialogue, “Helen” managed to convey enough about Van’s past and made this town real enough that it didn’t feel like some weird fever dream. I was wary at the start, but this proved itself to be extremely confident, to-the-point storytelling.
It feels like our expectations are being toyed with deliberately. The start of “Helen” has echoes of Get Out, complete with a car ride interrupted by a wild animal. However, unlike that film, which only gets more alienating, “Helen” (though it never exactly stops being weird) gets progressively more grounded. We’re surrounded by unfamiliar oddities, but the dialogue between Van and her childhood friend and Van and Earn is all too real. It’s uncomfortable and everyone is awful to one another, the way only people with shared histories can be.
This isn’t a terribly funny episode, but that’s okay. Atlanta isn’t only a comedy and, in this case, shoots for and scores drama a lot harder, ending on the series’ most tragic note yet. I wasn’t a huge fan of the final dramatic moment being based around a ping-pong game; it felt a little too constructed. Still, it’s effective because it’s a repeated plot device from earlier in the episode. Also, while Van sets high stakes for the ping-pong game, we realize, regardless of who wins, it’s not actually going to be a deciding factor in anything. Only Earn and Van can choose how big a part of each other’s lives they want to be going forward.
(Side note: even though “Helen” isn’t so comedic, I will mention the best joke. A character in blackface is one feature of the festival and a woman runs over to Earn in awe, thinking she’s witnessing some extremely convincing blackface. When she realizes her mistake she awkwardly says, “Oh. You look great… And I’m sorry.”)
The strength of “Helen” is that it starts out as confusing, surreal madness, but gradually brings everything crashing down to an ugly realism and does so with almost no awkwardly plopped-in backstory. By the end, we get that this is a real place and a real event that Van enjoys and also that she’s originally from Germany, something I don’t believe has been mentioned before. Some confusion can be cleared up if you know the bit of trivia that the actress, Zazie Beetz, is also originally from Germany and, like any smart series, Atlanta is simply utilizing the natural strengths of its performers. But, really, that’s just gravy. Thanks to phenomenal storytelling, “Helen” stands on its own merits.