The Divine, Difficult Women Of ‘Treme’ And David Simon’s Female Characters

I caught up with this third season Treme last week, and among other things that struck me about the show—particularly that television shows about music are always going to be viscerally satisfying in a way that even the most beautifully-shot shows about food can never be—that the show really clicked for me this season, and distinguished itself from David Simon’s other shows, through its female characters. I wrote about two of them, LaDonna and Janette, as part of a piece on television’s difficult women for the Daily Beast late last week:

I was initially frustrated by Janette Desautel’s reaction to the opportunity to open a large, well-backed restaurant back in New Orleans. Her disregard for human-resources briefings and her distaste for even the prospect of profit margins seemed petulant to me early in the season. But as the restaurant opened, her temper tantrums started to make sense as the reasonable-sounding restrictions began to make it harder for Janette to run her kitchen, manage her staff in a way that was effective, turn out dishes that became so in demand that it was impossible to fulfill all the orders and still keep quality high, or even hold a benefit for a fellow, if less-glamorous, New Orleans restaurateur.

The experiences of that woman, LaDonna Batiste-Williams, raise the question of what it even means to be strong when the world punishes you for being cool and composed. After surviving a brutal sexual assault and struggling to reopen her family bar in the aftermath of Katrina, LaDonna spent much of this season waiting for her assailant’s trial to begin and trying to push back against demands of protection money. Her rudeness to her husband’s upper-crust relatives or willingness to cuss out the man extorting her may not be badass, but they’re an assertion of dignity to people who are all too willing to peel it off her like a layer of skin. And while LaDonna may never get the baseball bat she keeps behind the bar out in time to chase off the man trying to intimidate her into withdrawing her rape charges, or to keep him from burning her bar, her failures don’t make her weak or flailing.

I also thought Treme did an excellent job this season with two of its much more subtle storylines this year, too: Annie (Lucia Micarelli), a young musician beginning her rise towards the big time, and Sofia (India Ennenga), the daughter of civil rights lawyer Toni Bernette. Annie’s trajectory is outwardly smooth: she signs with an agent who keeps his promises to her, she begins touring and her work is well-received, her album comes out towards the end of the season. What lends the story drama is how her success is received by the people around her. Her mother (Isabella Rosselini), devalues Annie’s success because she isn’t performing classical music, and makes little effort to learn more about the blues tradition Annie’s working in, even as her father makes some efforts. And even worse, her boyfriend Davis, a DJ, is pursuing his career in parallel to Annie’s, and is so distracted by his own dreams that he doesn’t even notice that Annie’s success is happening. Davis is more musically and politically ambitious than Annie is—while she aspires to record some of her old friend Harley’s songs, he’s trying to convince his aunt to fund a scathing opera about Katrina and New Orleans’ musical legacy. But when he finds success, it’s with the musical equivalent of a temper tantrum that goes viral, cussing out his aunt, and Annie, or so it seems, in the process. The two of them break up without a big, bruising fight: neither of them needs to speak out loud the obvious truth that Davis will always be jealous, and Annie’s simply grown beyond his parochialism. By the end of the season, Annie’s performing at Jazz Fest, and Davis watches her, invisible, from the crowd: he finally sees her and her successes, but her world is now too large for him to stand out in it.

Sofia’s story is somewhat more dramatic, but it’s still handled as if the human scale of it is important and worthy. In retaliation for her mother’s investigations into the New Orleans Police Department’s actions during the storm, Sofia becomes the regular subject of traffic stops, warnings from cops, even an arrest for being underage at a party where alcohol is being served. Sofia is doing her best to be a good kid, and to protect both her family and her mother’s work by not getting into trouble—Toni’s surprise when she finds out that Sofia has broken up with an older boyfriend she thought was a bad influence on her daughter is a lovely example of a mother coming face-to-face with her daughter’s maturity and being pleasantly surprised by what she finds there. But it’s New Orleans, and Sofia is a teenager. Some joy and some trouble are inevitable. And when Toni decides to send Sofia off to finish her senior year in Florida, it’s both the right thing and painfully unfair. When Sofia comes home for a visit and finds Terry Colson, an NOPD officer who becomes her mother’s new boyfriend, drinking juice in his boxers, the polarization between them is reversed. Their conversation may consist of Sofia telling Terry that Florida sucks. But from Sofia’s face, she’s unexpectedly pleased that her mother’s found love, or something like it, in the wake of her father’s suicide. Both of them are growing, and for the first time, capable of recognizing it in each other and being happy for each other, as if they are friends as well as mother and daughter.

I don’t think that Treme is as good as The Wire, a more focused and complex bit of storytelling machinery. I’m not sure it’s always as devastating as The Corner. And it’s a baggy experiment with what televised storytelling can be, rather than a tight work within an existing genre like Homicide. But in terms of David Simon’s ouvre, Treme has the greatest density of good female characters, and I think he’s doing some really nice storytelling about them. There’s a proportionality to the narratives in Treme, a fullness to them. These women are neither only career women or only considered interesting in terms of their relationship with men. In fact, the stories are alive to the tensions between maintaining careers and maintaining relationships, and unlike The Wire, where Simon really only pulled off that exploration with Kima Greggs, he’s doing it with a lot of women in Treme. Janette’s sensuality and difficulty about her food feeds into her continued attraction to Davis. LaDonna’s rigorous approach to her bar, the prosecution of her rape case, is one of the reasons she’s drawn to Indian Chief Albert Lambreaux: he’s got the same rules-based view of life and the same sense of dignity about him.

Treme may never truly be a great show, but I’d be sorry if its experimental structure and pacing and this approach to female characters got lost in its low ratings. Maybe Annie’s success, or Sofia’s transfer of schools, or LaDonna and Janette’s struggles to keep their businesses alive wouldn’t sustain a show on their own. But maybe together, they could.