"When people get sick and stop doing the things they lived for in the first place, they only get sicker." - Delmond Lambreux
As such, there is no TV show I've seen that has a more realistic depiction of what life is like than "Treme," a show featuring an ensemble cast of characters in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The show is very, very difficult to get into because there are no big resolutions, and a lot of music, but no big action scenes. If season 1 of "The Wire" were slow, the entire show of "Treme" is incredibly slow.
However, what "Treme" doesn't have in what we normally expect from TV, it makes up in the richness and elegance of its characters and their life trajectories. I just finished watching season 3, and again, there was no overarching resolution, and no one was really completely happy at the end. But there were setbacks and small victories worth celebrating. No, "Treme" won't be my favorite show ever - I don't think I have the maturity yet to appreciate fully a show as slow but elegant as it is. By the end of season 3, however, I can definitively say there were two characters that rank among my favorite of all time.
What makes a good character, a Prospero character , as W.H. Auden puts it (after Prospero in "The Tempest"), is a character that has "the self-respect which comes from taking a pride in something.” Frankly, that doesn't just apply to characters, but people as well - I know people that, despite all their flaws, have a redeeming quality of unrelenting generosity, toughness, or determination, and that's something I've tried to highlight that I've seen in others.
And so there are two that highlight stories of steely grit and unrelenting determination for their life-long passions in the face of adversity: Albert Lambreaux and LaDonna Williams.
Albert Lambreaux (played by Clarke Peters) is a Mardi Gras Indian, the chief of the Guardians of the Flame tribe. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, Albert returns to New Orleans and immediately begins assembling his tribe to make their suits for the next Mardi Gras coming up. Albert and his tribe spent months doing this every Mardi Gras as a part of their tradition and culture.
However, in 2008, Albert is afflicted with lymphona, and only has a 50/50 chance of surviving with aggressive chemotherapy. While a doctor insists that he start treatment immediately, Albert flat out refuses - he will not start treatment before Mardi Gras, decreasing his chances of getting healthy. His daughter, upon finding out, is furious.
But then when his kids discuss this, the son, Delmond says these words: "When people get sick and stop doing the things they lived for in the first place, they only get sicker."
Being the Indian chief for the Guardians of the Flame is what Albert lives for at his age - with his kids already adults and self-sufficient, that is the core of his identity. Would he have had a better chance of good health if he started treatment immediately and sat out Mardi Gras? Probably. But his spirit triumphed above his physical health - and that pride and self-respect for what he does makes Clarke Peters's Albert Lambreaux one of my favorite TV characters, even more so than his cerebral counterpart of Lester Freamon in "The Wire."
LaDonna Williams (played by Khandi Alexander) is the owner of a bar in the Treme neighborhood, and a very strong, well-respected woman in her community. During the entirety of season 1, LaDonna leads a search for her brother, Daymo, who was arrested during Hurricane Katrina and is still missing. Throughout this whole process, her husband, Larry, a dentist, implores her to give up the bar and move in with him to Baton Rouge.
Early on in season 2, two young men break into her bar one night as LaDonna is closing, and she is left beaten and raped. We don't see the assault, only the aftermath when a man in the community suspects something is wrong and drives her to the hospital.
She then moves to Baton Rouge and stays away from the bar for a while, but LaDonna is a shell of herself. As she talks with investigators and lawyers about the incident, her steely grit and determination that we saw in season 1 have all but evaporated in the face of her trauma. Because of this, Larry is pushing LaDonna to sell the bar even more, which doesn't help because the bar is important to LaDonna.
One day, LaDonna is in New Orleans speaking with a lawyer about her options in convicting her rapists, and she is enraged at the lawyer for the bureaucratic problems the city has faced since Katrina.
"I don't blame you for being upset," the lawyer says.
"Upset? Bitch I'm past upset. I'm all the way to lose my fucking mind," LaDonna responds.
This scene, so well-done, shows Larry grinning in the background as LaDonna's spirit is revived in this moment.
“I'll tell you one thing: we ain't selling that damn bar. Look at you. This is who I married. You went away, but now you're back," Larry says
"What are you talking about, Larry? You hate the bar. You always did."
"I hate it to death...but we ain't selling it...We coming home. All of us. You ain’t gonna be who you are otherwise. I see it now.”
As being a Mardi Gras Indian chief was a part of who Albert Lambreaux is, running and owning the bar is a part of who LaDonna is. Both of these characters are sick and suffering, but the epiphany that Larry has in this moment is that without these things that they lived for in the first place, they'll only get sicker. Seeing these two characters embrace those parts of themselves in season 3, well, elevated "Treme" to the top tier of shows I've watched.
The message? The theme? It's cliche to say this, but I'll say it anyway: always do the things you live for. They'll keep you sane, even when all the other things in your life are falling apart. Whatever it is that is a core part of your identity - that you personally hold that self-respect and pride for - keep doing that even when everyone else around you thinks you're wrong. We all need that constant - and it will make us whole to be ready for everything else.