Though the episode has a layer of racial anxiety and tension to it, it's Van's journey from start to finish that has us hooked. She finally gets the episode she deserves.
“We can be good together, but only when we really have to be. And I’m slowly figuring out that maybe we don’t have to.”
While delivering one of the most sobering lines of Atlanta yet, Van finally wakes up to the realization that her relationship with Earn is coming to an end. After her re-appearance in last week’s "Money Bag Shawty," viewers were left with more questions than answers. "Helen," the fourth episode of Atlanta’s second season goes some way to provide those answers.
From the opening scene in the bedroom to the last scene back at her doorway, Van gets her way. This episode is about her and coming to terms with her current life, her decisions and crafting a new path forward by re-centering herself. "Helen" is as much about Earn’s refusal to take charge of his life as it is Van’s decision to wrest back control of hers.
Centered around an Oktoberfest event out-of-town that Van is keen on, Earn is being dragged reluctantly to it while Van is enjoying herself thoroughly. On the drive up, and throughout the episode, echoes of Jordan Peele's hit film Get Out ring clear. They very nearly run into a wild boar on the road after making jokes of “doing lodge stuff” (having sex). The comparison to the Oscar-winning movie is instant and fears for the couple’s safety, in whatever way, is heightened. Much like Get Out, the tension in the episode builds slowly, starting with the all-white Oktoberfest the couple finds themselves in.
If Earn ever thought he was "above" something or felt out of place, it's nothing compared to being surrounded by masks at this event and playing the customary games. If you were baffled by all of it, you’re right there with him. Stunned by it all, the fact that there’s supposedly a minstrel with blackface shouldn’t surprise Earn (and us) but it does. His visible discomfort is only heightened when he’s asked to participate in either the games, the dancing or the dress up. He only had to succumb to the latter when a festival-goer mistook his actual face for, well, blackface.
But this episode isn’t about Earn. It’s about Van. She’s in her element here. She’s beaming; enthusiastically dancing along to the accordion-heavy music, working the room with ease, hugging people, confident, speaking German fluently, and very at-ease in conversation with everyone. She’s even cocky with Earn. It’s only when she notices Earn’s visible discomfort (despite warning him of it) that things turn sour for her.
With the admission that he doesn’t want to be there and thinks its lame, Van realizes Earn’s true feelings for her and by proxy, their relationship. Attempting to salvage her evening, she turns to Christina, her friend, but finds no comfort. Much like her discussion with Jayde in last season’s episode "Value," her conversation with Christina leads to one of the most telling moments in Atlanta.
After being introduced as “Lotte’s mom” twice and “Earn’s girl”, Van realizes that her life isn’t hers anymore. She’s no more the individual that she once was. Her life is driven by others and she takes Christina away in private for one of two conversations that shape the entire episode. “Since we were kids, I chose white, you chose black,” Christina explains. “It’s like you needed that identity.”
“You literally just told me that I’m going to be a ‘baby mama’ and that’s O.K. because I ‘chose black!’” Van, irritatedly, snaps back.
After a German demon thief, who will give many nightmares, steals Van’s phone, her night is officially ruined. What was an appealing festival has now lost its charm. She’s left wandering the streets of the town with the revelers in tow, looking for her phone. Falling into a conversation with a bartender in German, the casual way with which they spoke earlier returns. They’re not flirting, rather, the bartender bestows some advice to Van before she excuses herself: “You should start a relationship with yourself.”
It’s the best advice anyone has given her yet on Atlanta. Since she lost her job last season, she’s turned into a female Earn, floating through life, relying on him here and there. The drive and ambition she showed when we first met Van - that initiative - has disappeared. And after punching the demon in the throat to get her phone back, she has a conversation with Earn that might have set the nail in the coffin.
“I want to be in a relationship where I’m valued as a human being and not as an accessory,” she tells him. In an assertive manner, Van has laid out all her cards on the table.
Earn retorts indifferently: “This arrangement works for me.”
As with everything else in his life, Van is convenient for Earn when he needs her to be: a bed to sleep in, someone to fuck, cash for his life. He’s never truly given to the relationship what she has and she’s realized it. He had more fight challenging Michael Vick to a foot-race than he did attempting to salvage this relationship. Though she does ask him to one last ping-pong game (best of 5) for their relationship, it’s more about Van than Earn. The camera focuses on her as she bites her lip and focuses her eyes, putting the ball away with concentration. She’s determining the course of her own life.
- It's a delight to see one culturally impactful show, Atlanta, echo another, Get Out. With several allusions, it was a great nod from one phenomenal creative to another.
- The direction throughout the series has been stellar and it continues with Amy Seimetz behind the camera for "Helen." With the choice of close-ups, cutaways and even the opening bedroom scene, it was apt that a female directed a Van-focused episode.
- Earn’s reaction to getting mistaken for a minstrel in blackface was comedy gold. His acting, which has been incredible all season, was raised for this episode but was second to Zazie Beetz who brought her best to showcase Van’s tumultuous journey.