The Rhythm of a City Out of Sync: The Disrupted Spaces of Treme

May 11, 2011
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As Antoine Batiste rehearses with his nascent ensemble in “On Your Way Down,” the third episode in Treme’s second season, he continually stops them: someone is either off key (“Oh, you meant a concert B Flat?”), off rhythm, or simply out of sync with what Antoine has in mind.

In his review of “On Your Way Down,” Salon Television Critic Matt Zoller Seitz says much the same of this episode, remarking that it was “unimaginative in most ways, and tone-deaf in others.” He cites the circumstances surrounding the vicious rape of Ladonna Williams as his chief concern, and argues “her suffering was treated glancingly” as a result of the large number of characters followed throughout the episode. He emphasizes how “A beloved character was raped and beaten to a pulp. The emphasis should have been on her.”

While I will admit that I felt this episode was the strongest of the season, and that I would respectfully disagree with a number of Seitz’s criticisms, I do want to explore the nature of this response, as I think it speaks to one of the central themes of both this episode and the season as a whole.

As Kristina demonstrated so well last week, the larger sense of place associated with New Orleans and its role or those who remain the city and the ex-pats in New York City is integral to our understanding of the show’s narrative and the show’s characters. However, as notable as this sense of place is, often our focus is on smaller spaces within that place – we are constantly moving back and forth, traveling from character to character and from space to space within the larger “place” of New Orleans.

For me, this season has begun to draw a clear distinction between place and space, emphasizing that one’s knowledge of the former does not necessarily apply to the latter. In the moments leading up to Ladonna’s terrifying ordeal, we see her weighing the situation, and there is that brief moment where she sees familiar faces across the street. That is the New Orleans she knows: friendly neighbors and a sense of community; however, her harrowing experience reveals that the space has been infiltrated by the rise in criminal activity, the same kind of activity that we continue to hear stories about from during the storm itself (as we get this week with Toni’s interview with the officer who discovered her client’s son’s body).

While season one seemed to chart the resiliency – and the limitations, in the case of Creighton and others – of New Orleans as a place, defined by its people and its culture, season two is digging into localized spaces and demonstrating their continued vulnerability in the wake of the storm. Jeanette’s home is taken over by a squatter, while Sonny’s home is invaded by police and left open for looters to finish the job. While one could argue that Sonny was culpable in his case, given that he allowed the drug trade to unfold under his roof, the invasion of the drug trade demonstrates his lack of control over the rise in post-storm criminality from entering into that space.

To go back to Seitz’s point regarding the constant shifts between different storylines even as Ladonna suffers in the hospital, I would argue that this is part of the season’s overall narrative structure. The editing means that we are constantly shifting from space to space, never settling into one long enough to get a clear picture. Just as Antoine can’t find the right rhythm, the show can’t seem to find its bearings: it’s like someone is constantly tuning the radio receiver looking for a different channel, a maddening experience on the one hand but an enlightening experience on the other.

It is also, within New Orleans, a necessary one. The police find themselves trying to be in fifty places at once just like the show itself, while Jeanette struggles with trying to be in both New York and New Orleans at the same time. By never allowing us to feel comfortable in a single space, and by forcing us to move our perspective away from Ladonna despite our concern, the show invites us to consider the absences, disruptions and invasions facing these characters as they go about their daily lives in the city they once knew.

The “where” of Treme is becoming less cultural with each passing week, a sign that the struggles of Katrina continue to erode the spirit of the city. While the constant shift between different spaces in “On Your Way Down” may have seemed to reduce the meaning of Ladonna’s experience, I would argue this shift captured the constant struggle New Orleans residents face as they try to find their bearings in their ever-changing city, a struggle which seems no better than it was this time last season.

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