Refusing to be pigeonholed as, well, anything, Atlanta continues to defy genres. ‘Teddy Perkins’, the sixth episode of an already stand-out second season, may well be the best episode Atlanta has ever created.
Taking viewers down a rabbit hole, Atlanta makes good on the promise of violence and danger that the first few minutes of ‘Robbin’ Season’ laid out. The episode, which aired without commercials, was the exact concoction of horror, absurd, funny and violent. Centred on Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), the episode takes place in a creepy mansion in the weirdest episode Donald Glover and his team have cooked up yet.
We’re first introduced to Darius as he’s filling up petrol for his U-Haul and buys a confederate flag hat along with a red marker. Filling in the letters, he leaves four blank, spelling out “U Mad” – a parody of the flag and it’s meaning to the black community. A bit of light humour to cleanse the palette before Darius drives up to a McMansion and is introduced to Teddy Perkins, who is hiding behind the front door that opens on its own – a classic horror movie trope.
Teddy, himself, is the stuff of nightmares. Though the credits list Teddy as being performed by “himself”, much of the online chatter points to Donald Glover being under the prosthetics and heavy make-up. With no explanation given to why Teddy looks the way he does (he was once a dark-skinned black man but is almost white now), we can only assume that this is an obvious nod to Michael Jackson, who suffered from vitiligo.
?Darius, though, is here to pick up a piano – one with multi-coloured keys that he desperately wants. From here on out, comparisons to Get Out are obvious: an unsuspecting black man drives to a large estate for what should be a simple, happy experience ends up, in a series of terrifying twists and turns, being shackled to a chair, barely escaping with his life after violence solves the dilemma.
But, let’s take “Teddy Perkins” as a stand-alone feature: a psychological horror mini-movie that left viewers on the edge of their seats.
Teddy attempts to make small-talk with Darius. He asks him if he likes music, spouts his condescending opinion about rap, tells him about the famous people (Nina Simone, for example) that have swung by this house and played the piano. All the while, he’s eating a giant, soft-boiled ostrich egg. As Teddy dips his fingers into the flesh of the egg, Darius’ reactions are the viewers: queasy, uncomfortable but engaged and willing to answer Teddy. He’s doing it for the piano.
And the piano calls to him when Darius goes wandering around the house, curious about it (“I’ve never been in a house with a parlour before”.) And when Teddy opens the door in a jump-scare moment, the psychological thriller, the stand-off between the victim and his would-be murderer begins.
Slowly, the episode starts to unravel its true purpose. It dedicates an entire segment to Teddy showing a wing of his house dedicated to his father. He wants to turn the entire house into a museum, a place where people can come and pay respect to his brother, Benny Hope, a famous pianist. Both Benny and Teddy have suffered at the hands of their abusive father and share a musical past. Playing three hours of piano twice a day every day, they also had weekly piano exams on Sundays.
Teddy’s twisted devotion to his father is absolute. He even mentions other abusive fathers as role models: Joe Jackson, Marvin Gaye Sr, Richard Williams and “the dad who drops off Emilio Esteves in The Breakfast Club. ” The adversity and pain he suffered is alluded to when Teddy talks of his father’s philosophy and how Benny played pain well because “he just played what he knew.” This underlying bit of tension – of abuse and suffering, of adversity, of pent-up horror – cuts through the episode’s core. And it’s juxtaposed so well with last week’s absurdist episode ‘The Barbershop’ along with the normalcy that Teddy portrays. After all, Darius is just trying to get a piano from the house. Though we know what’s coming, we don’t really know what’s coming. We’re relaxed and tense and by the episode’s violent end, we’re left both shaken and aghast.
We’re getting to understand Darius more as a character now. Last season, we had a sense of Darius’ empathetic side and now, we see a childhood marked with abuse: the tough parenting and resentment that shaped Darius into who he is. The way he deals with it is by asking why hurt must lead to more hurt. In one of the show’s more poignant, heartbreaking moments, Darius, who’s facing a shotgun held by Teddy, says, “Not all great things come from great pain. Sometimes it’s love. Not everything is a sacrifice. Your dad should’ve said sorry. It’s not an excuse to repeat the same shit over and over.”
The episode’s many references, themes and motifs circle back to one thing: abuse. Considering that this show is supposed to be “comedic”, it was one of the most unsettling horror episodes to grace TV. It is also the pinnacle of great television.
* Playing the straight man for the first time, Darius is impeccable. As we’ve mentioned before, each actor on Atlanta is raising their game with each episode. He’s only outdone by whoever is under Teddy Perkins’ mask — whoever it is, give them an Emmy already.
* Atlanta has been making several Get Out references. This episode was one long callback to the movie, especially when Teddy snaps a Polaroid of Darius which prompts Lakeith Stanfield to say, he’s “not a big photo person.”
* The comedic interruption of Al (Brian Tyree Henry), Earn (Donald Glover) and Tracy (Khris Davis) in the car is perfectly timed. Much like with the phone call with Lil Rey in Get Out, it’s a welcome respite from the horrors of the main storyline.
* The episode manages to cram several laugh out loud moments: Al’s reaction and quips about Sammy Sosa, Darius and the confederate flag hat, Paper Boi’s entire blase interaction with the drive-thru staff, Teddy speaking into the recorder when everyone thought it was an intercom. Gold.
* Director Hiro Murai is consistently outdoing himself. Yet again, with him at the helm, this episode is elevated.