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April 2018, Week 2

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 		 [Packing in as much raw emotion and as many twists and turns as a
feature-length thriller, “Teddy Perkins” is a gothic funhouse of
an Atlanta episode, filled with warped mirrors reflecting different
aspects of American and African-American experience.]
[https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 THE MANY LAYERS OF ATLANTA’S ‘TEDDY PERKINS’  
[https://portside.org/2018-04-08/many-layers-atlantas-teddy-perkins] 

 

 Matt Zoller Seitz 
 April 6, 2018
Vulture
[http://www.vulture.com/2018/04/atlanta-teddy-perkins-analyzing-its-many-layers.html]


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 _ Packing in as much raw emotion and as many twists and turns as a
feature-length thriller, “Teddy Perkins” is a gothic funhouse of
an Atlanta episode, filled with warped mirrors reflecting different
aspects of American and African-American experience. _ 

 , FX 

 

Presented without commercials, clocking in at 35 minutes, and packing
in as much raw emotion and as many twists and turns as a
feature-length thriller, “Teddy Perkins” is a gothic funhouse of
an _Atlanta_ episode, filled with warped mirrors reflecting
different aspects of American and African-American experience, as well
the preoccupations of the show’s creator, Donald Glover. It’s
certainly the only episode of an American comedy series to end with a
murder-suicide, and throughout the rest of its running time, it
scrupulously observes (and one-ups) the
now-established _Atlanta_ stylistic MO, skating right along the edge
of dreamlike or figurative action without quite crossing the line. By
turns evoking _What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?_, _Sunset
Boulevard_, _Get Out_, and the real-life stories of the Jacksons and
Marvin Gaye
[http://www.vulture.com/2018/04/atlanta-teddy-perkins-easter-eggs.html],
“Teddy Perkins” glides lightly over the possibility of being
interpreted in any one way, and that’s the source of its eeriness.
The episode itself is like the mansion that serves as its principal
set, a chamber of secrets and horrors with many rooms, doors, and
passageways, but only one way in and out.

Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius, in some ways the gentlest and most
reflective of the show’s male leads, claims the spotlight here,
driving to a mansion in a U-Haul truck to pick up a piano with
kaleidoscopic keys. Darius’s odyssey introduces him to reclusive
pop-star brothers, Teddy Perkins and Benny Hope. Teddy is played by
Donald Glover
[http://www.vulture.com/2018/04/atlanta-teddy-perkins-episode-donald-glover-in-whiteface.html] in
prosthetic whiteface, while Benny wears an elaborate mask disguise
that evokes both the swathing of a Hollywood diva and the Invisible
Man’s false face
[http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0024184/mediaviewer/rm2662386688]. Stevie
Wonder provides the episode’s opening and closing soundtrack; near
the end, his real-life blindness becomes a subject of conversation,
treated as both physical fact and metaphor.

Darkness and illumination, blindness and seeing are woven throughout,
befitting a story whose central character, Teddy, seems to view
everything in binary, either/or terms, usually coming down on the side
of an interpretation that’s laughably, horribly wrong. At one point
he leads Darius into a room that he describes as a kind of museum of
fatherhood, describing his own, terrifyingly controlling and abusive
father (glimpsed briefly in an old 16mm home movie) as ultimately
operating from a place of love, desiring only to produce excellence.
“You’re saying your father used to beat you so you’d be good at
piano,” Darius says, politely but with an incredulous edge. “To be
good at _life_,” Teddy corrects him, then elaborates: “Great
things come from great pain.”

There’s a showbiz story being told here, and it’s personal. Teddy
is an abused child all grown up, and he has internalized his
father’s cruelty to the point where it has become a lens through
which he views himself. Darius’s initial meeting with Teddy has, as
its centerpiece, an enormous ostrich egg that Teddy says is also
called “an owl’s casket.” Ostriches are native to Africa; the
owl is a symbol of prophecy, learning, and higher wisdom in many
cultures, and the pairing of that bird with the word “casket”
implies a death of those values, a condition that Teddy, in his
high-voiced, grinning obliviousness, seems to exemplify. The egg, of
course, is fertility, but there’s something singularly unnerving
about making its emblem so gigantic here. The ostrich egg is
cartoonishly oversized in a way that simultaneously confirms Teddy and
Benny’s immense artistic potential and turns it into something
grotesque. (Darius nearly vomits at the sight and sound of the fluids
gurgling out of the egg as Teddy sloshes around in it with his bare
hand.) The perversion of this symbol of life connects with the stories
Teddy tells about he and his brother having excellence beaten into
them by their father (“to be good at _life_”), a character
explicitly likened to Joe Jackson, who once told little Michael right
before a concert that there were snipers up in the rafters who would
shoot him dead if he missed a single step.

There’s another layer here, though, and it’s racial-political —
or at least it could be; as I said up top, Glover traffics in
analogies and symbols, but he’s very open-ended in how he deploys
them, going for plausible deniability so that he can just say, “Oh,
that egg is just an egg,” etc. I don’t think it’s an accident
that the mansion where these two black men live resembles a plantation
(as the house in _Get Out_ did), or that Darius begins the story by
ironically purchasing a cap with a confederate flag symbol and
“Southern Made” and then defacing it with a red Sharpie so that it
reads “U Mad,” or that Teddy’s face is whitened like Michael
Jackson (a reaction that Jackson said was a result of vitiligo, while
armchair psychologists attributed it to both racial self-loathing and
an abused child’s wish to obliterate any trace of his old self). I
don’t think it’s random, either, that when Teddy leads Darius into
his shrine room, the “father” is white and looms over the two
black men, one of whom (Teddy) is out of his mind with pretzel-logic
adoration while the other (Darius) looks on with appalled amazement.

There’s an equation here of the abusive black father (who only
wanted his children to succeed in the white man’s country, and in a
white-run industry) and the “Great White Father” of Uncle Sam,
insisting that everything the country does, no matter how depraved, is
ultimately for the good of its citizens, in the name of apple pie,
motherhood, and self-improvement. _The Invisible Man_ referenced in
this episode is the title of a book by H.G. Wells, but it’s also
one by Ralph Ellison. The former is science fiction, the latter a
novel about a black man whose color renders him “invisible” to
white culture. In “Teddy Perkins,” the black man whose face has
become white gets shot by the brother whose face remains hidden — a
character who is literally crippled and locked away in a basement, the
place where (according to various colloquial expressions) we keep our
crazy relatives. In the end, we’re left with a feeling of relief at
having escaped this madhouse, if only for a moment, as well as a deep
feeling of sadness that Darius was unable to save either man, and had
to be content only with saving himself.

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