Treme, HBO, and Sexual Assault

It’s taken me a while to catch up on this season of Treme, but I’m finally on track. I still think the show has weak spots. The overlap with actors from Treme and The Wire is significant enough to be distracting, as is the presence of Slightly Alternate Universe Tom Colicchio and Eric Ripert. The show’s recapitulation of political events feels a bit like a time capsule. And it’s a baggier show than I would always like, though I will watch musicians fiddle around forever, particularly when brass is involved.

But one thing that’s struck me as particularly strong this season is the way Treme is dealing with sexual assault and its aftermath. The scene where LaDonna gets assaulted in her bar isn’t as brutal as the scene where Dr. Melfi gets raped in The Sopranos, but her fear is raw and powerful, her pool cue whipping ineffectually through the dark air. Khandi Alexander is a remarkable actress, and it’s both horrifying and a wonderful piece of craft to watch her face as a doctor performs a vaginal exam in the hospital to check her for signs of sexual assault, to watch herself steel herself to take the pills that will guard her against sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, to watch her smile with a marked-up face, through missing teeth. Unlike Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, where swift prosecution and conviction offer the promise of healing within the programming hour, there’s no police investigation going on, no warm and fuzzy sense that LaDonna’s going to be okay. LaDonna could close up the bar, move to Baton Rouge with her husband—it’s more complex than if she was simply too poor to move away—and the show has a respect for that complexity.

Similarly, the attack on Dr. Melfi is incredibly hard to watch (it’s in the episode “Employee of the Month,” if you want to check it out)—you’re really forced to sit through something horrible, rather than given the mercy of a shot that cuts away from the worst of it. But her pain and rage are powerful and sustained. I appreciate that The Sopranos respected that damage enough to let it linger, rather than curing her for the comfort of the audience. Most of the time, the premium cable networks get criticized for taking advantage of their ability to show explicit sex to titillate viewers. But that same license also means that HBO, Showtime, and the other pay cablers also get to show the starkness of sexual assault in a way that primetime television can’t.