‘Atlanta’ Season 3 Finale: Van’s Nervous Breakdown Explained

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read unless you have watched “Tarrare,” the Season 3 finale of “Atlanta.”

The Season 3 finale of “Atlanta” is styled after the quirky and comforting French rom-com “Amélie,” though this version is weirder and grosser.

The episode is titled “Tarrare” after the 1700s French solider who was famous for a medical condition that made him constantly hungry — he was able to eat his own body weight in meat, and was also rumored to engage in cannibalism. In “Atlanta,” that hunger belongs to Van (Zazie Beetz), who becomes so unsure of who she is that she has a nervous breakdown, engulfing herself in a French alter ego complete with an accent, a boyfriend, an apartment and a job in a butcher shop that serves human hands.

Almost all of Season 3 takes place in Europe, focusing on Earn (series creator Donald Glover), Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) and Alfred aka Paper Boi as the latter tours the continent as a rapper. This premise gave the writers a puzzle: how could they keep Van, Earn’s on-and-off partner and the mother of his daughter from him, apart from the story?

“She’s a huge part of the show. It wouldn’t be ‘Atlanta’ without her,” says Stefani Robinson, who executive produced the season and wrote “Tarrare.” “But the reality is that she’s not hanging out with Darius and Alfred. I do n’t even think that Darius has her number on her cell phone.

So they decided to work backwards. Entrenched in her French life de ella in the finale, Van runs into Candice (Adriyan Rae), an old friend from Atlanta who’s only appeared in one episode before, as well as new characters Xosha (Xosha Roquemore) and Shanice (Shanice Castro). They follow her through events including, but not limited to, an affair with Alexander Skarsgård (“Such an amazing cameo. He was so game to make fun of himself,” Robinson says) and a bloody fight in a museum where she uses a stale baguette as a weapon.

It all finally comes apart when Candice asks Van where her daughter Lottie fits into this life. Van begins hyperventilating, throwing things and sobbing: “What the fuck am I doing here?”

With “Tarrare” out now via FX and Hulu, Robinson told Variety about dropping hints at Van’s mental state and the 47-second stream of urine at the end of the episode.

In Seasons 1 and 2, every other character is portrayed as unreliable or mysterious while Van is the reliable one, but Season 3 disrupted that dynamic. How did you conceptualize her European journey?

There’s so many clues throughout prior seasons that are pointing that [toward Van’s breakdown]. When we do see Van, it’s in the context of other people being very much themselves, and [she is] reacting to that. Like, in the episode in Season 1, the conversation she’s having with her friend de ella Jade about, “What is your value, Van? What do you bring to the table? And in the Juneteenth episode, you see her pretending to be married [in front of] this bougie group of people that maybe she can fit herself into. You see her question what it is to be a person. I don’t think she really knows who she is, so it’s interesting to explore the reason being that she’s having this mental breakdown and identity crisis. Part of her is reaching for anything, an excuse to break out of who she is. We were hinting at that throughout the entire season with some of her more erratic behavior from her.

When you wrote those smaller moments of erratic behavior, had you already planned the full extent of the delusions she experiences in the finale?

The cult-y thing was already established [by the time the finale was written], but again, the big question was the underlying thing as to why she’s there. Once we were able to isolate what the issue was, it was much easier to go back to all those episodes and bring [Van’s issues] to the front. Like how she gets on the plane. She was always having to get on the plane, but we just [further fleshed out] the way in which she was doing so. And the ceremony. She’s trying out a new personality; she’s like, “Let’s see how far we can go!” And seeing her at parties throwing someone in the pool, those were all [written] after we knew where we wanted to land the plane. We were more intentional about how to illustrate how other people saw her. Like, what is going on with her? Why are you here?

Those questions from the other characters also reveal an interesting dichotomy with the male characters. As Van points out, no one asks Earn about his responsibilities from him back at home.

There’s an implicit bias, like because you’re a mom and you’re a woman and you’re a Black woman, you’re gonna have it all together, no matter what. when [Van points that out], it’s so important. Why aren’t we interrogating the male characters about what’s going on? Why are n’t we worried that Earn has n’t seen his kid from him? Why do we just so readily accept the fact that he had to go off and go to work and go travel in Europe, whereas when Van’s here … I don’t spend much time on Twitter, but I did see a couple tweets that were like , “Who’s with the baby?,” when no one’s asking that question of Earn. Can’t she, as a woman, book a trip and go somewhere herself and trust that she has a network of people to take care of her child?

Left to right: Zazie Beetz, Donald Glover, Stefani Robinson and Brian Tyree Henry
Rob Latour/Variety

Of all the ways to script a mental breakdown, why choose to make Van delve into an entirely new life with a French alter ego?

One of Donald’s mandates is to make [episodes feel] like a short film. And there was something appealing about making this quintessential French “Amélie” episode, taking that whimsical, quirky, I’m-a-French-woman-with-a-cute-bob-haircut-and-a-baguette, stereotypical experience, and turning it on its head a little bit. One of my favorite things is when a character becomes so entrenched in a different world so quickly. Like, oh my god! See? She has her own apartment de ella, and she’s got a boyfriend and she met Alexander Skarsgård in the span of I don’t know how long! Ella she’s been in fashion magazines! The unsettling nature of how deeply she committed to this character, and how quickly, was really important. And the cinema of it all — the museum, the set pieces — as much as the story, the visual perspective was important. Being in Europe, taking full advantage of that and giving the character a chance to play in that world was exciting to everybody.

To me, the finale felt like a prequel episode to Episode 9, when Earn finds Van after not having known where she was. Is that how you see it?

Oh interesting! I don’t know if that was intentional, but I like that read on it. The fun thing about “Atlanta” is that it can be whatever you want it to be. So much of “Atlanta” happens outside of time. Our universe feels surreal. To think that [Van’s entire time in France] could have been just a week is just funny. We had conversations about how much time had passed, and we thought it was a more interesting choice not to put a label on that and lean into more nebulous experiences. The weirdness that we haven’t seen her for a while. The details of her life [in France] are very well thought out and planned; she really has deep roots. The more jarring or strange it felt, the better, because it was thematically in line with what she was going through emotionally.

What was on your mind while writing Candice, Xosha and Shanice into this episode?

There was a conversation in the writers’ room about [whether] Earn and Alfred and Darius should be a part of this narrative, but I felt like it was just too convenient for these guys to show up. It wouldn’t happen that way. There’s a part of Earn that’s like, “she She’s a grown woman. I think she’s okay. I’m gonna keep calling her, but I have a job to do.”

I liked that it was characters we’ve never met before. Van turns around and sees Candice, and you can see in her face that she was not accounting for [someone] from her life to walk in and call her out. It was important to have someone who knows her from a very specific place in her life from her be like, “It’s Van! From Atlanta! She’s not the French woman who drives around with a baguette on a scooter. I went to high school with her!” To have a mouthpiece. But then to also have [Xosha and Shanice] to be the Greek chorus and point things out, but also just to be that counterpoint, like, “Yeah, we understand, Candice, that you know who she is, but we don’t know, and we kind of like who she is .” Having those differing opinions about them about the alter ego probably [reflects] what is going on in Van’s head. Is this me? No one knows me here. I can be whatever I want to be, can’t I?”

My last question is about the final shot of the season. Since Candice is busy consoling Van, Shanice has to take over her appointment with the man who has a kink for being peed on. While staring out the window at the Eiffel Tower, she pees on him for a full 47 seconds… why?

You timed it?

Yo hice.

What was your question again?

Why so long?

The humor of it for me was that Shanice has no finesse. She’s like, “Alright, I drank a ton of Powerade, let’s do this thing.” It’s such a disgusting ending juxtaposed with the beautiful, twinkling tower. It’s a different image than how we normally see that romantic Parisian landscape. I like that it’s a little uncomfortable.

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