Skulls and Trombones
So go out and see some live local music. Oh! And bring your gun.
—Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn)
David Simon calls Hurricane Katrina’s descent on New Orleans the city’s “near-death experience.” Where The Wire offered a loving autopsy of Baltimore, a city slowly and painfully betrayed by its institutions, Simon’s Treme is an equally astute portrait of “an urban people” still struggling to come back from a brink.
It helps that the city has long been on intimate terms with death. Treme reveals this in details, in moments that reveal the secret shape of things. One such scene opens the second season on 24 April: a young trumpeter sits on a stoop, trying to summon “When The Saints Go Marching In,” the song about a time “when the moon turns red with blood,” the song that Louis Armstrong forever wed to New Orleans. With just a few clumsy notes, we’re already in the land of death and music, following a young Orpheus.
The scene shifts quickly to a cemetery, where Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) stands before a grave with his trombone, playing a lower, sadder requiem, a dirge not for the world, but for one man. Another quick cut, now to Toni (Melissa Leo) and her daughter, Sofia (India Ennenga), sitting down to a meal. Sofia almost casually remarks, “I wish Daddy were here.” Her mother says nothing, able only to look back at her. The next cut returns us to the boneyard where shining marble angels look down, immobile. As the trumpeter passes by, still calling on “The Saints,” the camera lingers on Albert (Clarke Peters), applying a fresh coat of paint to another headstone.
This is why people watch Simon’s work. Within a few moments, using virtually no dialogue, the sequence evokes an entire city, where people tend to mourning and music. Like many novels it relies less on plot and event than on character and atmosphere, assembling pieces, building something dense and lasting. The second season is New Orleans 14 months after, and something like a “new normal” seems to have taken hold. But Simon’s interest in cities has always been how they happen: how do particular practices and ideas become normalized, and how do these reveal crosscurrents of power?
Thus the appearance of Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda, who also worked on late seasons of Simon’s Homicide), a smooth Dallas contractor eager to help shape the new landscape. He forms a sub rosa partnership with the local kingmaker, the kind of man who can sincerely declare, first, “New Orleans needs to be a great city,” and in the next breath, “There’s money to be made here.” Hidalgo is thinly drawn, especially in the early episodes (at one point his musical theme is “Mack the Knife”), but he does become more than merely another avaricious “developer,” representative of capital-elite politicking.
While Hidalgo pursues his vision of a new New Orleans, Lieutenant Terry Colson (David Morse) tries to hold together the old one. Though essentially stabilized a year after the storm, the city still suffers from violent crime, and lacks the police presence to do much about it. The city is, he says, “depressed, anxious, angry… Everybody is out of their minds.” Simultaneously, the national media, to Colson’s dismay, seem interested only in reporting the latest shooting. In Colson, Simon revisits one of his recognizable character types: the cop trying to do the right thing within a deeply flawed system.
It’s Colson who gets the last word in the season premiere. He stands over the body of a dead white woman, killed in the street when was “too slow” to give up her purse to a pair of black thieves. The young black trumpeter wanders over to look at the body; perhaps, as the lyrics of “When the Saints Go Marching In” have it, he’s bearing witness to the moment “when the new world is revealed.” Colson, stares down, exasperated, dejected, frustrated. He looks up and shoos away the kid: “Get out of here. There’s a curfew.”