Atlanta gives Van a new standalone episode months after season three finale “Tarrare.” Halfway through the fourth and final season, the new Janine Nabers-written episode “Work Ethic!” finds Van (Zazie Beetz) visiting the production studios of filmmaker Kirkwood Chocolate, hilariously fashioned after Tyler Perry. With Van is her daughter Lottie (Austin Elle Fisher), the character having grown up since her season one debut as a toddler.
Van’s tour of “Chocolate Land” gets off to a questionable start when it turns out that Chocolate is a “Big Brother” figure and no one’s allowed “in or out” of his personal office. Although the filmmaker goes unseen, his menacing voice is heard during shooting, correcting actors and the production team. Present to film an episode of a series that resembles Perry’s House of Payne, Van prepares for her television debut, but it’s Lottie that steals the spotlight, winning over Chocolate. Demanding Lottie to star in the series, Lottie happily goes along with it while Van attempts to dissuade her daughter from acting.
“Everyone acts, Ms. Vanessa,” Chocolate retorts.
With Lottie whisked away to the next scene, Van grows anxious for her daughter, unlike fame-hungry parents who push their kids into becoming child-actors. A stage mom observes that Lottie has a growing interest in acting, urging Van to “stick together” as her daughter is lighter-skinned and thus, favorable to Chocolate. Van begins losing track of Lottie, who’s placed in 13 more scenes of the TV show.
A New Orleans-raised maintenance man, Shamik (Xaveria Baird), flirts with Van, walking her to the Tommy Lister Memorial Stage, named after the late Friday actor. The next production seems to be a satirical look at Abraham Lincoln, but Lottie is still nowhere to be found. Van accuses the production crew of “kidnapping” Lottie, while mentioning that none of Chocolate’s material is good and that he’s only won “Black awards.”
“Say what you want about Mr. Chocolate but he’s done a lot for the community,” a teammate retorts. “I’m rooting for everybody Black.”
Seeing Lottie at the next soundstage, Van witnesses her daughter acting alongside a crack-addicted character playing her mother. Lottie asks the woman why she’s here, but the answer isn’t quite simple – neither are Lottie’s next whereabouts. Growing frustrated and calling the production studio a cult, Van barges her way into Chocolate’s office with the help of an older actress, Marcie (Nicole Samuel Washington), who she met earlier in the episode.
Van stumbles upon Chocolate (Donald Glover in disguise à la Teddy Perkins) madly typing in his lab, watching Lottie moving on “from the next scene, to the next stage.” To Chocolate, life is an “operation” that “runs on its own” and cannot be controlled. Van accuses Chocolate of being a “con man” who makes “unrelatable” content for Black audiences. Lottie is returned to Van courtesy of the first PA (Ja’ness Tate), when Chocolate reveals that he’s been watching Van the entire time, calling her a “Kirkwood Chocolate woman.” Instead of offering her a deal, he extends one to Lottie — six seasons of her own children’s show, which Van declines to Lottie’s disappointment. In the end, Van chooses to protect her daughter from exploitation, reclaiming their relationship.
Atlanta fans have been critical about the portrayal of Black women, particularly Van, and “Work Ethic!” sadly continues to gloss over her character development in favor of uncovering the mystery of Kirkwood Chocolate. Tyler Perry satire isn’t new (see The Boondocks episode “Pause”) but the show seems empathic to his perspective as a Hollywood underdog. With five episodes of Atlanta remaining until the series finale, we’re holding out hope that Van gets a solo outing.
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