HBO renewed "Treme" after the season was in the can and sent off to critics, meaning that it was still in limbo when the last episode (teleplay by David Simon & Eric Overmeyer, story by Simon & Anthony Bourdain) was written.
Limbo is a terrible place for a series to be. "Hill Street" was left hanging until well beyond the point where a proper send off could be filmed. At least John Romano got to burn down the station house; David Milch never was that close with "Deadwood." (A finale to "Deadwood" – any finale, be it the kind of short season "Treme" is being offered or a stand-alone two-hour like Joss Whedon wrestled for "Firefly" – is at the top of just about everyone’s list of episodes we most want to see.)
Rather than leave their audience hanging, "Deadwood" style, Simon & Overmeyer settled for a split decision: they wrote a season finale that could have been a series finale…sort of, kinda.
I watched it before the short-season renewal announcement was made and thought, “Huh, is this it? Is 'Treme' over?”
All the long story arcs that have been running for three years are feathered into the final montage: Sophia is off to college; Terry and Toni are a couple; Antoine has accepted his role as teacher; LaDonna has put the rape behind her but not given up on Gigi’s. There’s even a wedding.
It’s sensible without being satisfying, not because there’s anything wrong with where these stories have gone but because there was no narrative build to the conclusion. Because "Treme" is more Dickens than Trollope, we want a sustained narrative drive to a finish rather than an end to the volume at hand.
That said, what’s most interesting about the season’s end is that it is significantly more hopeful than where the season began. Yes, New Orleans, three years after the storm, has no governance. And Terry and Toni are threatened by the very sight of a patrol car.
But there are more images that speak to the city’s culture than there are to the continuing post-Katrina disaster. The city and its polis may have been damaged beyond repair, but its essence, expressed in its culture, remains. These have been the two poles of "Treme" throughout the season, mostly given equal weight.
In the end, Simon & Overmeyer let culture win. The final image – the only one presented without music underneath – is of Albert, in his chemo chair, stitching next year’s Indian design. The culture continues.
Shortly before that, there’s another image – that of Barack Obama, newly elected.
Not even Simon & Overmeyer, of course, could have predicted Sandy. But seeing that image after the enormously different response given to last month’s storm is startling. Change really did happen.
No matter how traumatic events – within New Orleans and the country – may have been, after Sandy, that image is even more hopeful than when this episode was written.