[Warning: Spoilers for the Atlanta season 3 finale, “Tarrare,” written by Stefani Robinson and directed by Donald Glover.]
While the season was split between stories about the curse of whiteness and following the gang -- Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), Earn and Van -- as they travel through parts of Europe, the finale focuses squarely on Van, whose story has largely played out in the background of previous episodes.
“We really wanted to do a Van solo episode,” Robinson tells ET, using it to address why she showed up in Europe in the first place. And once that was decided upon, everything that the character did was working up to what happens in the final installment of season 3.
So, in “Tarrare,” a reference we’ll get to later, Van is unexpectedly spotted by an old friend, Candice (Adriyan Rae), who happens to be in Paris with her two friends, Shanice (Shanice Castro) and Xosha (Xosha Roquemore). Though, this Van is not the same person we’ve come to know. She’s sporting an Amélie-type haircut, a French accent and purporting to have a whole life in France that doesn’t seem to acknowledge her daughter, Lottie, who is still back home in Atlanta.
After initially trying to shake Candice off, Van invites the three friends to follow her around as she runs errands around the city. First, they stop by her apartment, where they see pictures of her as a model in magazines and snapshots of her and her new boyfriend, before setting out on scooters to a hotel room belonging to Skarsgård, who in this version, enjoys being emasculated. There, Van leaves drugs around the space before calling the front desk to investigate.
When it comes to the True Blood actor’s appearance (a callback the characters make in the episode), Robinson gives all credit to his casting to Glover, who reached out and got him to come onto the show. But what made the casting so perfect was that you could almost believe this was the real version of Skarsgård. “In terms of a celebrity playing himself, it had to be someone like him,” Robinson says of “him getting off from being emasculated and being weird.”
Once they leave, the women head over to a seedier part of town, where Van hopes to collect a package. However, things quickly turn sour when their scooters are slashed and are forced to run away on foot. Luckily, they escape unharmed and end up at a museum, where Van makes brutal use of a weeks-old, stale baguette she’s been carrying around the entire time. (“Stale baguettes can potentially become weapons,” Robinson says of the wildly unexpected end to the running gag about the oversized bread in Van’s backpack.)
After beating in a stranger’s face to get the package she’s been hunting for, they all head over to a fancy dinner party -- and this is where things take a dark turn. The package, it turns out, is a human hand, one of many being fed to the guests, along with Xosha and Shanice, who dine on the flesh with napkins over their heads. (The event is a reference to both the titular French showman known for his insatiable appetite, which included cannibalism, and decadent way of eating an ortolan bunting in France.)
When it comes to bringing the French folklore into the episode, Robinson points to an “iconic Facebook group” she used to be a part of, in which members shared fascinatingly bizarre Wikipedia entries -- and one of them happened to be about Tarrare. “He’s this mythic strange man who supposedly ate children and stank so bad. Like, he could eat tons and tons and never get sick,” she recalls. And given that this season takes place in Europe, it was just something that stuck with her. “And I think it sort of ties into, a little bit, the cannibalism that we see in the episode.”
Meanwhile, the dinner itself was a bit of commentary on the class and privilege of people who do things like eat this rare, French delicacy, which has actually been outlawed in Europe since 1979. More specifically, it tied into the season’s overarching theme about the curse of whiteness, which largely inspired the one-off, bottle episodes.
Speaking of those episodes, Robinson says they “definitely exist in the same universe.” But anything more specific about how they play into Atlanta’s reality is purposefully left up in the air. “We didn’t want to make it so concrete,” she adds.
Before leaving the party, Candice confronts Van, who eventually reveals that she’s having an episodic breakdown and has been pretending to live a life in France after multiple failures at home, including a vague suicide attempt. After that frightening moment back at home, she hopped on a plane to Amsterdam, where she met up with Earn, Paper Boi and Darius -- and has slowly been disassociating herself from her pain and suffering.
That mental breakdown, Robinson says, picks up on not only the hints dropped throughout season 3 -- “the cracks in the facade” -- but also “the threads from the previous season, which saw her lose her job and trying to exist as a single mother while also dating and feeling lost within that.” And as a result, “she was feeling a little bit inconsequential,” the writer adds.
As someone who is no stranger to anxiety and depression, Robinson wanted to channel those feelings into what Van is experiencing. “The cornerstone of what she’s going through was just true for me and true to other friends. And then I think specifically true for just Black women,” she says, noting that what the character is going through is not often seen on television. “They’re real feelings and they shouldn’t be glossed over.”
And so, when Van finally comes to and shares with Candice what she’s been going through, Robinson says, “There’s a sense of relief of feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m not strong enough to figure this all out.’ And I think that moment was just really important on a personal level, but also for the character as well.”
She adds, “I think it was just true to what she was experiencing.”
In terms of ending with this episode, Robinson says that what happens with Van is something that was sort of experienced by all the characters. “They’re breaking form. They’re in a new place. They’re somewhere unfamiliar and things aren’t necessarily tied together in ways that they have been tied together before,” she says, explaining that it captures the chaos of the entire season.