The relationship between Earn and Vanessa has always been a complicated one neither quite has a grasp on. Earn seems to move in and out of Van’s house depending on his income, the two alternate between marital closeness and estrangement, and you can never quite predict what events will bring them closer or split them apart. These spark points in their relationship make for some of the best episodes of Atlanta. The same proved true here, and gave me the kind of Van episode I’ve been craving since last season’s “Juneteenth.”
A Tiring Relationship
Nothing really happens in “Helen” that seems much worse than the previous conflicts between Earn and Van. They go to Oktoberfest and Earn tries to fit in with a crowd he doesn’t fit in with. Van gets frustrated at his sarcastic, half-assed “attempt” and they fight. The argument makes Van consider her own place among the crowd. It leads them to wonder about their relationship.
So what’s so different this time? I suppose it’s just the totality of how many times they’ve done this. They’ve been trying to make this work, for their daughter’s sake, and Van is finally ready to pull the trigger on the whole effort.
It’s not strange for two people to stick out a relationship for their child. Earn and Van have never really been in love since Atlanta started. Whatever spark brought them together has dissipated. They’re still attracted to each other and still have a physical relationship, but they only appear to try for anything more at interspersed points in time out of obligation to hopefully discover more for their daughter’s sake. And really, it’s always been Van calling the shots while Earn passively goes along. If she wants him in the house, he lives there. If not, he leaves without much fuss.
Van finally seemed to realize this in “Helen.” She didn’t react with the same fire of past arguments. Earn’s behavior was entirely predictable, and Van knew what was happening the moment Earn bitched about dancing. As she says, she’s plain tired. This emotional whiplash between the intimacy that began the episode and the anger that ended it is draining. She wasn’t the only one exhausted, either. Earn seemed exactly the same. Both need to move on to some new dynamic instead of continuously trying this out of obligation.
What makes it worse is how neither side ever wants to talk about it because they know any real conversation will make their issues immediately obvious. As a result, Van swallows her displeasure at Earn taking her to a strip club. Earn passively aggressively pouts about going to upscale parties rather than just say no. They hope ignoring the problems makes them go away. Without true communication neither truly knows how the other feels or what they want out of the relationship.
It’s easy in episodes like this to gravitate to one side and blame the other. Depending on the side you want to pick, blaming either Van or Earn would be really easy. Van doesn’t try to help Earn feel comfortable at all. She outright clowns him in front of another man. She treats him like a pouting child. The episode is also told in a way that puts us in Earn’s shoes more than Van’s. We’re made to feel uncomfortable in the setting just as much as he is.
On the other hand, Earn doesn’t make any real effort, either. He wants to be an outcast in this setting. He makes zero effort to enjoy himself or meet Van halfway. Earn clearly doesn’t want to make the effort, and really never has. Not fully. It’s not Van’s job to put her enjoyment aside in order to make Earn feel comfortable. It’s not fair to ask her to put her own interests aside for his sake. He isn’t growing up at all, even with the ways managing Paper Boi has changed his life. If anything, success has caused him to regress.
Choosing sides really isn’t the point. Neither makes an effort because neither is fully committed to the other. That’s the main lesson to take away from this. Earn and Van have always struggled to make it work, and now hopefully they can finally stop trying and focus on being happy with themselves.
It’s no surprise this latest conflict between the two happened yet again in a setting triggering Van’s struggles with identity. Van’s always wanted a lot more than her life in Atlanta (or life with Earn) can provide. There’s a bit of a snobbish side to her life that we don’t fully know. This episode only added to the mystery. I don’t think we knew before that Van has lived in Germany and speaks German.
She has always been drawn to “white” society as an example of something more and better than what she has, yet she always ends up feeling like an outcast once she’s there. Her conversation with Christina told us she’s felt this way so far back as high school. There’s a conflict between who Van is and what she wants out of life that leaves her often isolated. Is she the woman who smokes out with her Instagram model friends and hangs with Paper Boi, or is she the woman who sips champagne and tries to make connections among the upper class?
Well, she’s both, and so she can never fully be either. Van’s character is one hopefully working towards acceptance. That she finally seems ready to end things with Earn suggests she’s on her way. Hopefully this also means we’ll get more of Van separate from Earn.
While Van certainly has her own personality, and it was well on display in “Helen,” she rarely gets an episode outside of her relationship with Earn. To be fair, that’s true of just about everyone so far. After all, Atlanta is about Earn. It has such good characters, though, and I want to see more of them. I want more of Van and Alfred and Darius without Earn needing to be involved. Earn’s great, but now that we’re near halfway into the second season and the supporting cast has grown increasingly more interesting, I hope to see Atlanta give them some room to shine by themselves.
I can’t wait to see where Van goes from here. Earn will still be in her life, of course. They have a daughter. This might be the end of her romantic relationship with Earn, though, and that will hopefully give Van her own space to shine.
I could spend a lot more time talking about the actual setting of the episode and how Atlanta yet again handled the transition between surreal situations and very real human truth with a skill few shows can manage. I could also talk about how similar “Helen” sometimes felt to Get Out. Atlanta always does a great job making sure the audience feels as uncomfortable surrounded by white people as Earn and company do. The show does a fantastic job making perfectly normal settings and behavior feel alien.
Mostly, though, I’m walking away impressed yet again by just how good Atlanta’s characters are. They might be frustrating, they might make you sad, but they have become the true strength of this show, as characters always become the strength of any truly great show. And if they start separating a bit from Earn now the way Van is, they’ll get even more room to grow and develop.
I’ll definitely feel bad for Earn in the process, but maybe then he can grow up a bit himself.