The final season of Treme, even as the series continues to overflow with the vitality of live music and an ever-evolving regional hash of international cultures, hangs on death. Clarke Peters’s Big Chief requires medicine and around-the-clock care, two things he’s sternly adverse to, for his unrelenting cancer; Toni (Melissa Leo) is proceeding with a civil rights case against the NOPD for the wrongful death of an asthmatic prisoner; and as he turns 40, Davis (Steve Zahn) begins to think about what he’ll leave behind as his legacy in the city he loves so dearly. Even the show’s gregarious, quintessential mainstay, Antoine (Wendell Pierce), is living under a dark cloud following the shooting death of a student. Perhaps inevitably, Treme now seems overwhelmed by how short our time can be.
The season opens with the 2008 election of President Obama, and the feeling of hope is palpable, as is its attendant exceptions. As the first episode, “Yes We Can Can,” ends, city hero Kermit Ruffins steps out into the street amid the bacchanal of Obama’s win, and is woe to see that every street still has a pair of flashing police lights at the end of it. (The multifarious use of “A Change Is Gonna Come” in the episode is at once piercingly sincere and knowingly sardonic.) With David Morse’s honorable cop finally making real headway into a number of overlooked or covered-up crimes, with some help from the feds, Treme imparts a feeling, however small in scope, of real transformation in the Crescent City, but it comes with an insensitivity toward the city’s traditions.
As such, the show’s creators align the end of their astonishing collaboration with their characters struggling with the concept of going pro. Fiddle-playing Annie (Lucia Micarelli) is now tangling with a manager who insists on a band of studied studio musicians, rather than her live backing band, to record her upcoming album. On the other side of the coin, Jeanette (Kim Dickens) is still attempting to shake the corporate-funded hangover of her catastrophic second restaurant; in an excellent bit of capitalistic absurdity, she’s even prevented from using her own name to market her new establishment. The government’s newfound interest in enforcing law and order in New Orleans goes along with a corporate interest to redefine and regulate the city, particularly the expansive artistic and culinary cultures that it engendered. Among all the death and injustice, there may be no more disheartening moment in the show’s final season than watching Antoine take a cherry gig teaching a white, well-meaning actor how to pretend-play a trombone for a role based off of famed black Louisiana musician Kid Ory.
Money has always been the man in the shadows when it comes to Treme. Those who want to help rebuild New Orleans aren’t necessarily interested in giving the city back to its people, preferring instead to open it up to family tourism and, by extension, make the Big Easy more palatable to all. The face of this “advancement” has been Jon Seda’s Hidalgo, a kind of carpetbagger from Texas. At one point, he finds himself tutored by Davis, who’s looking to revive a street full of sleazy music clubs across from a lucrative corporate project Hidalgo wants in on. Davis uses the story of Trombone Shorty’s homegrown ascension through beer-and-booze-soaked hovels as a reference point to make a case to bring back pre-Katrina New Orleans culture without alterations. And what stings is that Hidalgo is more or less convinced, helped along by Davis’s promise to name a club after him, but his backers don’t see the value (a lead investor tells him that they need to “control” the music). Of course, what’s always been so sensationally moving and immersive about Treme is its willingness to depict such an expansive and diverse community without binding its characters (or itself) to a tidy, idealistic vision of post-Katrina existence. Life, with all its messy conflictions, pours out of Treme and here, like all good things, it ends with equal parts rage and love in its bombastic heart.