The sixth episode of “Atlanta’s” second season is one the most terrifying and well-produced pieces of television ever created. Broadcast on FX in 35 commercially uninterrupted minutes, the episode, titled “Teddy Perkins,” carries a high-strung tension that never allows the viewer to breathe. You feel like there’s no escape.
Previously, the episode’s main character Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) was a Zen-like, stoner character who provided unexpected wisdom and comedic relief. But Stanfield’s acting coupled with the writing in “Teddy Perkins” gives Darius’s character depth and development.
The episode begins when Darius arrives at a plantation-like house to pick up a piano. After he pushes the unlocked door open, Teddy Perkins, a Michael Jackson-like figure played by an unrecognizable Donald Glover creeps out of the darkness. Teddy is a black man with a high-pitched voice who appears to suffer from vitiligo and facial reconstructive surgeries, appearing more caricature than man. He offers his hands to Darius with limp wrists, like someone unaccustomed to human interaction.
Director Hiro Murai and Glover make it clear how uncomfortable the episode will be when Teddy cracks a soft-boiled ostrich egg – an “owl’s nest,” as he calls it – with a miniature, croquet-like mallet. He peels the egg open, slices it apart and dips his three middle fingers into the oozing mess before licking it off his fingers, maintaining petrifying eye contact with Darius.
Teddy says he lives with his brother Benny, a famous pianist who suffers from a skin condition that prevents him from going outside. Teddy tells Darius that Benny played “pain better than anyone,” capturing the episode’s theme of broken, abusive childhoods. But Teddy interprets this pain as a necessity, and creates a shrine devoted to his father and other abusive musician fathers like Joe Jackson. Teddy shrugs off criticism from Darius, who was also abused by his father, saying, “most people wouldn’t understand.”
This perversion of reality is what makes Teddy such a terrifying character. Since Teddy only knows pain, he interprets the darkness around him as a positive, believing his father’s words that “great things come from great pain.” These red flags of odd behavior, coupled with a shot of live cameras in every room, foreshadow something terrible and create a constant, gripping tension.
As Darius takes the piano to the elevator, he notices a drop of fresh blood on the keys. The elevator sends him to the basement where he meets the wheelchair-bound, mute Benny, who writes on his chalkboard, “Teddy kill us both. Gun in attic.”
Darius realizes his U-Haul has been blocked in by Teddy’s car and returns inside with a fire poker. He finds Teddy in a film room watching a vintage video of his father screaming at a young, crying Benny, who’s playing the piano. “I love this song,” Teddy says.
Teddy reveals that he has a shotgun and brings Darius downstairs in hand and leg cuffs, and explains his plan to make Darius look like a home invader who killed Benny. The next moments devolve into bloodshed and leave Darius alive, waiting for the police.
While the entire episode is jarring, it never feels like shock for the sake of shock. The pacing is purposeful and the overtones of child abuse, stardom and racial identity create the thematic backdrop of the inner and outer struggles of the two brothers.
Similar to “Get Out,” the episode’s horror operates on psychological, physical and social levels. While not as direct in its racial commentary as “Get Out,” the artificial whiteness of Teddy and his brother and the plantation-like layout of the home create racial tension that drives the episode’s eeriness.
Teddy and Benny are robbed not only of their childhood, but of the chance for normal lives. As Darius says to Teddy about being abused as a child: “But that don’t give you an excuse to grow up and repeat the same (expletive) over and over.”