If you are reading this… it’s already too late… err I mean full spoilers follow:
Atlanta is a show rife with outlandishly memorable moments (I’m looking at you, invisible car) and much needed social commentary (transracial is a real thing and it’s pretty stupid). This past week’s forty-one-minute commercial-free mini-movie managed to hit every single one of those checkmarks. In the end, most were confused and there was a lot left to interpretation. As annoying as that would be in most cases that is exactly why this episode is the best of this season and gives much-lauded episodes like B.A.N. a run for its money for the best episode the show has had, period.
So far this season each of the main characters has had their episode where they are put in unenviable positions. All Earn (Donald Glover) wanted was to stunt on folks for one night and he walked into one demoralizing situation after the other. Van (Zazie Beetz) just wanted to share something she loves with the man that she THINKS she loves and it ends with not only her feelings being hurt but essentially the end of the only real relationship she has ever had. Al’s (Brian Tyree Henry) goals were even less lofty. The brother just wanted to get a haircut and he couldn’t do that without going on a journey that is both fantastic and fantastically annoying. It was obvious that at some point we would finally get a Darius episode, but we had no way of knowing that Darius just being Darius (wistfully deciding he needs a piano with colored keys even though he has no idea how to play) would lead to what is essentially a horror-comedy that almost cost him his life.
We need to get one thing out of the way first: Lakeith Stanfield (Darius) just needs to stay out of white-affluent areas. Between this and Get Out he may just want to cut his losses and stay in whatever the blackest areas in Atlanta are. Darius is a proxy for us if we were in this situation. The first thought I had as Teddy is explaining his brother Benny and his affliction is that the wheelchair-ridden pianist doesn’t even exist. When Darius is drawn upstairs by piano music and we get the jump scare of Teddy opening the door Darius notices that even though the music is coming from the room, the wheelchair is empty. If Benny was resting who was playing the piano? Darius thinks his theory about Teddy and his brother is confirmed after this and as the viewer, we have to think so as well.
As Darius realizes it’s time to go Teddy brings him to his room to honor great fathers. It’s at this point that the underline meaning of this episode takes shape. Teddy notes earlier in the episode that his brother’s music was supposedly better because he knew real pain; He played pain better than anyone. Teddy reveals that his father would beat them if they messed up during their three hours a day of practice. Their father would punish them physically. Darius (once again acting as the proxy for the viewer) says that Teddy’s father was a piece of crap for doing that to his children. Teddy, in probably the funniest part of the episode, says this room will be dedicated to his father and all of the great fathers: Joe Jackson, Marvin Gaye Sr., Serena Williams’ father, Tiger Woods father, and the father who dropped off Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club. This leads us to the following question: what exactly is the cost of creating great art? Do you need pain and trauma? Or can you create greatness using nothing but love?
After Teddy’s mini-meltdown after Darius says he can understand what Benny is going through Darius finally gets his piano but when he accidentally ends up in the basement we finally see that Benny is (or at least seems to be) a real person and he also warns Darius that Teddy is going to kill them both. Talk about taking a turn. This being a mini horror movie even after the realization that Benny thinks Teddy is going to kill them both, Darius goes back into the house. If it was any other character on the show they would have just walked home. The only person that could turn around and go back in the house and it be believable is Darius. In what is the most haunting moment of the episode, Teddy, and his cold dead eyes reveals his murder plot to Darius.
Darius exclaims that there is no Benny and things look pretty bleak as Teddy has a shotgun trained on Darius. Darius tries to reach Teddy one last time by explaining that Teddy’s father should have said sorry. Not all greatness comes from great pain. Darius points out that Steve Wonder (who they both admit to loving) wasn’t blind. He saw through his music. Teddy wants to believe that blindness was Wonder’s pain. Teddy tells Darius that what he said is beautiful but wrong. When it all looks bleak… what’s that we hear? Is that Benny Hope’s music playing! Benny hits the ring and makes the save, shooting Teddy then himself.
There is a lot to unpack there. The struggle in this episode is the meta-conversation of does iron sharpen iron or is there a better way to mold talent? This seems to be a direct commentary of Teddy… or rather Donald Glover who plays Teddy, own misgivings about fame and how one deals with it. The Teddy character, who is one of the creepiest things I have ever seen on television, seems to be an amalgamation of Glover’s feelings about fame and the most famous case of trauma backed artistic genius: Michael Jackson. There are many references in this episode about Benny and Teddy’s past that parallel that of Jackson’s. An overbearing father, a seemingly made-up skin condition, eating Ostrich eggs… ok may not that last part but you get the point. Teddy and Benny are two sides of one coin. Teddy is the part of Jackson’s damaged psyche that still idolizes his abuser (Joe Jackson). Benny is the reclusive side of Jackson that wants to be left alone to revel in his misery of past mistakes and roads not taken.
The level of subtext in this episode was insane, but we have to note that what Glover managed to do under all that makeup as Teddy was masterful. This episode doesn’t work without Glover’s slightly higher pitch on his voice and incredible facial expressions. Teddy’s quick descent into madness is much easier to digest because of Glover’s commitment to the character. It’s being reported by numerous outlets that Glover stayed in character the entire time and very few people on the set were made aware that Glover was even playing this role. It’s almost a shame that we most likely will never get to see these characters again you know… with them being dead and all. With Atlanta essentially being black Twin Peaks, who knows what will happen.
This is the episode that will be discussed and debated for years to come. I just spent over 1000 words trying to piece together the meaning behind “Teddy Perkins”. In all honesty, I could probably go for another 3500. The Glover brothers have managed to put together an episode of television that will forever live as a blueprint of how to properly mind-f your audience while making them question everything they know about the price of celebrity and fame.