Atlanta's stellar debut season has so far focused primarily on the show's male characters: Earn, Paper Boi, and Darius. Through engaging storytelling, the show has managed to build these three into well-developed and endearing guys, giving the writers enough latitude to explore a male-dominated storyline without alienating female viewers. But that does mean that Atlanta has mostly left Van, the mother of Earn's child, on the back-burner. This week, the show invites us into her world.
Despite her limited screen time, Van (Zazie Beetz) already felt almost fully formed before Tuesday night's "Value," an impressive feat and a credit to the show's writing. Until last night, Van's most on-screen time came in "Go for Broke," a surprisingly tense episode that largely revolved around a date, but was told through Earn's broke point of view. With "Value," Van is brought into the foreground of Atlanta and established as her own character, outside of Earn. This separation allows Atlanta to really build Van out from the ensemble—and to have some fun with it. "Value" presents Van as her own individual by taking what we know about her (her job in education and penchant for "corny" guys, for instance) and expands it while simultaneously expanding her world, all delivered in one of the funniest episodes of the season.
We immediately understand Jayde's place in the friendship hierarchy: She speaks over Van, explicitly disapproves of Van's choices, is always ready with unsolicited and patronizing advice.
But "Value," co-written by Donald Glover and Stefani Robinson, has more on its mind than simply spotlighting Van. In its first scene alone, "Value" takes on the intricate and intimate details of female friendships, as well as the complexities and multitudes of being a black woman—all through a simple dinner with Van and her best friend Jayde. The two have a complicated, layered relationship, and Atlanta does a brilliant job of conveying this through a single conversation. The two women lead almost opposite lives, with Van employed at school while taking care of her daughter and dealing with Earn's occasional nonsense whereas Jayde can just hop on a plane to Paris; her only balancing act is juggling the multiple pro-athletes whom she dates. We immediately understand Jayde's place in the friendship hierarchy: She speaks over Van, explicitly disapproves of Van's choices, is always ready with unsolicited and patronizing advice. But we also understand that there is clearly something there, "old times" that they can't let go of, and a lingering love that allows the two to remain friends (the sporadic but mutual laughter throughout simultaneously heightens and bridges the awkwardness). After all, it's Jayde who later effortlessly convinces Van to smoke pot on a work night.
There are some moments in the scene that don't require subtlety—at one point, Jayde explicitly says, "Women have to be valuable. Black women have to be valuable"—but for the most part, Atlanta tells entire stories with a single line of dialogue (referring to Van's hair, Jayde remarks, "It's cute—looks better than last time," and we immediately understand the nature of their friendship) or a look (Van's tight smile, hinting that she's not saying everything she really wants to). Even the editing builds tension: The two women are rarely in the same shot, but instead each alone in the frame as the scene cuts back-and-forth. They're also generally framed off-center, adding a little disorientation to the conversation. Even as the friends' conversation gets into dicey, defensive, and argumentative territory, "Value" seamlessly lightens the mood with Jayde instagramming her dinner—nothing in the real world will distract her from presenting her best life online.
From there, "Value" switches gears when Van wakes up the next day to a phone reminder about an upcoming drug test, essentially going into slapstick territory. (There is that wonderful and strange joke with a black student in whiteface that I hesitate to dive into further because it could—and should—lead to multiple interpretations.) Yet even when the episode goes into decidedly lighter (and grosser) material, it's still committed to building Van as a character: Through Paper Boi's amused mocking, Van's creative desperation, and her ultimate last-ditch confession, we learn that Van is more than just Earn's baby's mama—she is, in her own right, one of television's strongest, most interesting characters.
Follow Pilot Viruet on Twitter. Atlanta airs on Tuesdays at 10 PM on FX.