A review of the Atlanta Season Three finale, “Tarrare,” coming up just as soon as I ask my friend’s cousin to pee on you…
And here we come to the end of this long-delayed, ambitious, confounding, frequently incredible season of television. Across the last two and a half months, Atlanta has given us four different anthology episodes exploring Black life in America (your mileage will vary on whether this was too many, the perfect amount, or not enough), a locked room mystery, an introspective drug trip with a bonus Liam Neeson cameo, a satire of corporate co-opting of Black celebrity, and more.
The one thing Season Three had yet to give us prior to this week, though, was Atlanta going to an absolutely bonkers comedic space in the way we know that it can. Other episodes certainly had their funny moments, particularly whenever Al’s patience was wearing out, but Atlanta is capable of being the funniest show in the world when it wants to be, and it hadn’t yet tried to remind us of that this year.
Enter writer Stefani Robinson, who closes the season on an explosively funny and absurd note with “Tarrare.” Splitting her time the last few years between this series and What We Do in the Shadows, Robinson has the distinction of having written the no-doubt-about-it funniest installment of each: “Barbershop” (where Al’s quest for a good haircut led to a series of humiliations) here, and “On the Run” (which introduced the world to regular human bartender Jackie Daytona) on Shadows. Robinson can do introspective and thematically ambitious, too — she co-wrote Season One’s Van spotlight “Value” and penned Al’s harrowing “Woods” odyssey last season — but even more than Donald Glover himself, Robinson seems to understand the ways in which these characters and this show’s very specific, dream-like tone can be bent in the service of gut-busting humor.
“Tarrare” is not just a hilarious closing note for Season Three, but a conclusion of the closest thing we’ve had to an ongoing story arc. Yes, the tour has been happening this whole time, but it’s primarily been an excuse for the group to have other adventures throughout Europe. Al’s bout with writer’s block, his ongoing questions about Earn’s management, Socks randomly joining the entourage (and just as randomly disappearing from it, it seems) — none have carried on for quite as long as Van’s mysterious arrival on the tour and her even more mysterious disappearance from it.
“Tarrare” explains all of that, though it takes quite a while to get there. The episode begins, in fact, as if it is going to be yet another anthology story, as we are with a trio of women — Candice (Adriyan Rae), Xosha (Xosha Roquemore), and Shanice (Shanice Castro) — going wild over a trip to Paris paid for by a man who gets off on Candice peeing on him. But Candice has been on Atlanta before, as one of the friends Van went with to the party at Drake’s house in Season Two’s “Champagne Papi.” (She’s the one who gets Van and the others into the house, but also the one who ditches them to go check out T-Pain’s party.) And right on cue after Candice mentions how useful it is to know a person who lives in Paris, who should walk past but her old friend Vanessa? This is not the Van whom either we or Candice thought we knew, though. She is sporting a new hairstyle — modeled, she will explain later, on Audrey Tautou as the title character of Amélie — speaking with an affected French accent, and acting as if she is Parisian, born and raised.
There has been something off about Van pretty much from the moment she climbed out of the shuttle in Amsterdam to spend the day with Darius, the death doula, and the man who may or may not have been Tupac. No one understands why she came, nor what is going on with Van’s parents and little Lottie. At Fernando’s weird party in London, Van started getting her kicks shoving waitstaff and other guests into the pool, then slipped out altogether and began ignoring Earn’s increasingly frantic calls and texts. When she and Earn crossed paths again in “White Fashion,” she seemed interested in adopting a new persona, à la Grace Jones in the Eighties, and it was implied that she really had shoplifted the wig that the aggressive Karen accused her of stealing. So her turning into a malevolent, ultra-violent Amelie — one who brandishes an extremely stale baguette like a samurai sword(*) — does not feel wildly out of keeping with what we’ve already seen, even if it would have been impossible to predict this exact brand of madness.
(*) Xosha Roquemore and Shanice Castro provide crackling commentary throughout, but my god, the joy in Roquemore’s voice when — after the cousins spent several previous scenes speculating about said baguette — Xosha screamed, “The bread was worth the wait!” It is at once a great in-character bit and something that feels like it could be a meta-joke about the discussion among the Atlanta writers as Robinson pitched the outline for the episode.
Due both to the series’ primary interest in the guys and to Zazie Beetz’s film career, Van-heavy episodes tend to be few and far between. But Beetz makes an absolute meal of this one, leaning into her character’s sweeping self-delusion and the utter force of will that has apparently allowed her to build this entire fake life for herself in Paris — including a job, various underworld contacts, and a sado-masochistic relationship with Alexander Skarsgård as himself(*) — in such a short amount of time.
(*) Just when you thought the Liam Neeson cameo couldn’t be topped, along comes Skarsgård and his willingness to make an utter fool of himself, including a sequence where he responds to Van spitting in his face by running off to masturbate in a bathroom. Skarsgård has long come across as an actor who, like Jon Hamm, would like to be funny but is too broodingly handsome — and too good at playing intense-bordering-on-terrifying men — to get those opportunities. (Though he’s in both Zoolander films.) May this open the same comedy doors for him that Hamm’s 30 Rock stint once did for him.
As with so many things Atlanta, it is an exaggerated level of reality that suggests Van has done all of this — leaving Lottie behind with her folks, joining and then abandoning the tour, bumming around London, and now plugging into so many corners of Paris — in the space of a few weeks. Yet despite the absurdity of it all — which includes Xosha and Shanice being invited to dine on fried human hands(*) with various ultra-rich members of Paris society — “Tarrare” is able to nimbly pivot into something more serious in its closing minutes. Where the cousins, who don’t know the real Van, have been wildly entertained by her escapades, Candice is increasingly troubled by her friend’s out-of-character behavior. In the kitchen where the hands are being prepared, Candice keeps pushing and pushing, particularly on the subject of Lottie, until whatever spell Van has cast over herself breaks and she begins screaming and smashing plates, no longer able to hide from the pain that led to her temporary break from reality.
(*) The episode takes its name from an infamous figure from French history, who had such a seemingly bottomless appetite that he was accused on more than one occasion of dining on human flesh.
On a bench by the river, Van explains the level of depression she was feeling at home — so bad that she found herself closing her eyes while driving — that led her to this short, strange trip. In the show’s first season, Van represented the stability that Earn couldn’t find for himself. But since she lost her teaching job, she has been adrift and confused, struggling to define herself beyond her role as Lottie’s mom. This is an extreme — and for our purposes, wildly funny — way of responding to that, but the conversation scene manages to take Van’s more relatable problem seriously without in any way undercutting the jokes that came before…
… or, for that matter, the punch line that comes after. While Candice focuses on helping Van, she outsources the golden shower job to Shanice, who proves to have the opposite of a shy bladder. While she gazes wistfully at the Eiffel Tower, she lets out a stream of urine that rivals either Jimmy Dugan or Frank Drebin in duration, until even Candice’s sugar daddy is forced to yell, “Stop!” That’s comedy right there.
Interestingly, the episode and season do not conclude on that note. Instead, after the credits have rolled, we cut back to Earn in the lobby of yet another hotel on the tour, an airline employee bringing him a lost bag Earn claims is not his. For a moment, it seems like perhaps this will be a long-delayed payoff to Van telling Darius in Amsterdam that the airline lost her luggage. (More likely, it seems, she hopped on the plane without having packed anything.) Instead, the answer proves more complicated, and a callback to the scene on which Season Three began. The bag in question belongs to an Earnest Marks, just not this Earnest Marks — it’s the property of E, the loquacious man who told the ghost story at the top of the season premiere, and who then blew his brains out late in “The Big Payback.” As our Earn walks away with the other Earn’s Deftones t-shirt, the camera lingers on a photo of E with his family as dissonant horror movie-style music plays.
Is this simply a full circle moment for the season? A summation of the larger themes about how racism and questions of racial identity are everywhere, even when our heroes are far away from the show’s titular city? A teaser for the upcoming fourth and final season, which was largely made in conjunction with this one?
We’ll have to wait until at least later this year, if not sometime early next, to know for sure. But the rest of “Tarrare” is a blessedly welcome reminder of the comedic places Atlanta can go to that precious few other series can follow. And also that everything Stefani Robinson writes these days is must-see.