In “Helen,” the fourth episode Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta, Earn and Van take an interesting road trip to a countryside village for an Oktoberfest event. Surrounded by German people and culture, Earn is clearly out place in the white-dominated environment.
The episode focuses on Earn and Van’s “complicated” partnership and where they stand with each other, which is unclear to the viewer in the beginning the 26-minute running show. The episode begins with the duo being intimate together in the bedroom, and while they have a daughter together, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are each other’s emotional backbones. The drive to Helen begins on a lighthearted note, but quickly takes a turn as the episode progress. It’s apparent that Van wants more from Earn than he can fer.
Here are all the highlights from Thursday night’s Atlanta.
Earns's First Rodeo
Upon arriving in Helen, Earn realizes he’s out his element seeing that white women are looking out their windows and staring at him as though they have never seen a black male before. Van attempts to comfort him saying he has a “weird swag, but people like it,” so he'll be just fine. By the looks Earn’s face, he isn't convinced. She warns her partner in crime that sometimes people dress up in blackface at this gathering, and somewhat worried, Earn asks how she felt about that as a kid — which she dismisses all-together.
Dressed in a traditional dirndl, Van leads the way, guiding Earn into the hall for the grand festivities. Van is extremely excited to be there, greeting all her childhood friends from the past and introducing Earn to her peers.
Everything went smoothly until a female participant came up to Earn and told him that he “looked so good” while touching his face. She basically insinuated that Earn dressed up in black face. Seeing that the town has racist tendencies, Earn takes up the gentleman's initial fer, asking for the mask and sporting it the rest the night.
The awkwardness doesn't stop there, though. The next activity presented to Earn is this old-school game where players pass a ball around and at some point, make it into a container that is placed in the middle the circle. Earn is very bemused playing what seems like an ancient game, but as he continues to do so, he unintentionally makes a successful shot. The moderator the game praises him and encourages everyone else to applaud him for such a feat. In celebration, they chant his name over and over. Earn still doesn’t have a clue what he did so special and Van tells him he got lucky.
Van’s (Much Needed) Epiphany
At some point the day, Van and Earn make their way to the biergarten to grab some beer because what kind Oktoberfest would have no beer, right? Van orders for the both them and starts casually chatting with the bartender in German. They exchange laughs and glances, clearly flirting in front Earn, who is standing right next to Van. Earn puts a stop to it calling out the bartender and asking if he can get some service.
As the activities continue, Earn is obviously uncomfortable and doesn’t want to be there. There’s a point where he vents to Dave, who is Christina's (Van's friend) boyfriend, about Van and how he feels that she is pressuring him to like these activities. He just keeps emphasizing how this is not who he is. He eventually expresses his point view to Van, who is frustrated because she just wants him to do this for her. Because he is unwilling to take part for her sake, she does her own thing — still attempting to have some fun.
As Van tries to make the best the situation, her childhood friend Christina, who is the only other woman color, introduces her to another couple as Lottie’s (her daughter) mother. After the encounter is over, Van frustratingly confronts her friend about what just happened, saying she is more than just someone’s mother. Her friend responds in a very interesting way, saying that Van always chose black and she always chose white. Van, rightfully defensive, said she didn’t choose black. Her friend continues saying that Van never went to the white parties with them growing up, but Van puts a stop to what she has to say and sets her straight. Van made it clear that she never hung out with her and their friends — not because they were white — but because they were mean and thought they were better than everyone else.
Completely out the blue, there’s a point where Dave comes over and asks for a photo with Christina. When Van goes to grab her phone from her pocket, she realizes it’s not there. The demon-like character must have stolen it from her! Earlier in the episode, one the participants explains that it’s a long-rooted tradition that the frightening character steals an item from one person at the event. The word gets out to the party-goers and now, Van is on a mission to find her lost item!
En route to find her phone, she’s walking in a crowd next to the bartender she spoke with earlier in the episode. Speaking in German, the charming man tells Van that he has a place for her and her boyfriend to stay at in Germany. That is if she ever goes back. She denies that they are together and she describes their relationship as “complicated.” They continue having a deep conversation about love and how it can possibly die, but at least you live through it.
Little do they know, Earn is behind them watching the two chat in a way he knows they’re connecting. Van excuses herself after the chat to pee in a dark alley-like place secluded from the others and as she finishes peeing, she sees the monster character again. She hits the creature, and hears her phone vibrating in the trash bin. She picks up the phone only to see a text from Earn saying, “We should talk.”
The crowd finds Van and asks if she got her lost item back, which she assures she did. The crowd applauds and proclaims her a warrior.
There’s a point where Van finds Earn sitting in the hall where all the prior activities occurred. Sitting by himself in defeat, Van gets straight to the point and asks Earn what he wants. He responds saying this sounds like a trap and she continues inquiring. Eventually, she cuts to the chase and tells him, “I want to be in a valued relationship and not an accessory you can fuck.” Earn looks puzzled and responds with the cold-hearted words, “I don’t know what I want. I know this arrangement works for me.”
There’s a point where Van puts her foot down and tells him that she’s done waiting for him. He responds saying he doesn’t want her to waste anymore time, so she challenges him to one last ping pong match to show how tired she is from the situation. She brings her serious A-game, proving she can’t be messed with.
This latter ping pong scene described above is the second part a previous scene, where the duo is seen playing ping pong together. As both scenes demonstrate, Earn and Van utilize the game to their own personal favors. Van initially uses it to convince Earn to take part in the day’s festivities while Earn uses the only “white game” he knows to get away from the festivities.
After losing to Van the first time, she wants him to go back to the festival, but he refuses. There’s a point where she’s wondering why he’s not willing to do things for her because she’s always willing to go out her way to do things for him. She brings up how she went to the strip club with him in the last episode, and how she attends all Alfred’s concerts every weekend. Earn defends himself, saying he doesn’t want to do what she wants him to do simply because he’s not in the mood. The scene somewhat forebodes what was going to happen in the second ping pong scene between the two. They’re constantly struggling to be on the same page, and it’s evident that their partnership isn’t strong enough to survive.
Earn and Van’s Harsh Fate
After their disagreement, Van and Earn head back to the city, and Van is making it very clear that she won’t be played for a fool. This time, Earn takes the passenger seat during the ride home and smokes weed as Van drives. There’s a point where they make it back to Atlanta, and Earn and Van are at her doorstep. Like any other break-up, awkward in nature, he tells her that he’ll pick up their daughter Lottie and she closes the door, demonstrating the true end to Van and Earn’s “complicated” relationship.
As he walks away, Van watches him depart through the window. Just when you thought Earn and Van could resolve their issues this season, Earn shows his true colors and you realize Van deserves so much more than Earn.
Atlanta Robbin’ Season continues Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.