So, during my conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates earlier this week, he mentioned that he wants his work to “haunt” those who read it, where (paraphrasing) it sticks in their heads and they can’t extract it. I’ve had similar conversations with other writers—and others across the creative spectrum—and this feeling is universal among them. Us, I guess. Not necessarily the part about haunting. Some want to provoke. Or entertain. Or enrage. Or deconstruct. Or enlighten. Or tickle. Or excavate. Or some combination of each. But all want what they do to be felt. To prove to be sticky.
The stickiness is the best thing. And also the most elusive, because there’s no template or algorithm to determine how to create a thing that nestles inside of people. You just, I don’t know, you just have to find a way to make work that feels true. The actual truth is arbitrary—a weightless and body-less organism whose construction is dependent on sensibility, history, atmosphere, indigestion, and whim. Whatever you wish your truth to be, it should appear in your work. But whether your truth feels true to the people who engage with it is the slippery part. This nexus of truths is a destination you can spend your entire life attempting to reach; and when I watched Euphoria and Colman Domingo get there last weekend, this is why—well, one of the reasons why—it’s still in my head.
For a show that exists quite firmly in a state of grimy iridescence, part one of its two-part holiday special was a smoke break. It revolves around a conversation over diner pancakes with a recently-relapsed Rue (Zendaya) and her sponsor Ali (Domingo). There are parts of their conversation that feel too perfectly written—Ali has the perfect response to everything Rue says to him, and no one is that wise in the moment. But the performances are blazing. Zendaya is a superstar. Watching her and Michaela Coel emerge with all of their gifts in the past year feels like how it must have felt to witness Bird and Magic entering the league at the same time. It’s been a privilege to be here while they’re here. But Colman Domingo owns this episode. I don’t quite have the words to describe what he does here the way I want to. If he were a hooper or a writer I would, but I’m not as familiar with the language of acting. All I can say is that everything he did felt right. Each pause, each facial tic, each line reading, each rhythm with his responses. It didn’t feel like I was sitting with them. It felt like he was sitting with me.
And then, moments after revealing that, while under the influence of crack decades ago, he was physically abusive to his wife and is now mostly estranged from his two daughters, he leaves to take a smoke and call one of them. (It’s Christmas Eve, after all.) And the five-minute stretch from the time he gets up and then comes back in the diner hit that nexus of truths as hard as any show I’ve seen this year.
With Moses Sumney’s “Me in 20 Years” raising the barometric pressure, we witness Ali voice all of the regret and the fear and the anxiety and the wistfulness and the love of a changed man who fucked up in a way that will maybe never be forgiven. And probably shouldn’t be. What he does with his voice and his face and his laugh and his eyes when he hears his grandson’s voice for the first time in years felt like I was watching water; like he’d conjured every dad separated from his kids for self-induced reasons, and created a composite based on them. He’s been through some shit, but he put them through that same shit. And while he’s clean now, the relationship ain’t, and he knows that. And you feel all of that in those five minutes.
It was sticky. Now, it’s stuck inside of me.