None of us could’ve anticipated that the season finale of Nathan Fielder’s deranged series The Rehearsal would hinge on a line as terrifyingly delivered as “No, I’m your Dad.” And yet, that’s where we were led in the final installment of what’s now officially season one of the show. (HBO announced a sophomore season ahead of the finale’s airing.) As to what that second season will look like is probably still up for grabs: Will Nathan continue his fatherhood rehearsals or might he return to the initial pitch of helping others rehearse life changing situations? Or might it loop back on itself in some clever-if-cringe-worthy way instead?
In any case, this finale episode felt aptly cathartic—if characteristically discomforting. Which is odd given that we begin with a birthday party (for Adam, who’s now turning nine). But as Nathan finds during said celebration, it’s hard to lose yourself in a fantasy when not only you are faced with background actors who can’t talk back but you are constantly and acutely aware of the fiction of it all. He has a hard time bonding with new nine year old Adam, a fact that yanks him out of the experiment altogether.
But you know who has less of an issue living and losing himself in such an acting exercise? A child actor. A six year old named Remy, to be exact, who not only can’t handle not play acting as six year old Adam any more but who refuses to acknowledge that Nathan is not his “Daddy.” In a series that’s probed the blurred lines between fiction and reality, constantly shuffling between the two often within the same scene, it was only a matter of time until one of Nathan’s actors would lose the plot this way. That it’s a young fatherless boy whose fantasy life with Nathan clearly offered him that which he lacks in real life made it all the more heartbreaking. A rare moment when you could see Nathan struggling with the consequences of this entire operation. And, as with everything in The Rehearsal, the line between its comedy (their conversation around clarifying how Remy should be happy he’s Christian) and tragedy (the later distinction between Nathan being a “friend” and not a “daddy”) got murkier and murkier as the episode went along.
As ever, the encounter rankles Nathan. But it pushes him less to help out Remy (though he does that, eventually, somewhat) and more to revisit his own missteps. Caught up in his own guilt, he decides to figure out what he could’ve done differently. The “rehearsals” then become not iterations of what may happen but, quite the opposite, endless combinations of what could have been. Maybe he could’ve been more detached. Maybe he could’ve not hired child actors. Maybe he could’ve used dolls instead. Or maybe he needed to have kept Angela around. (Side note: I’m so happy we got Anna LaMadrid-as-Angela back!)
Nathan’s instinct is understandable. Who among us doesn’t spend his days (and nights, even) re-litigating old conversations, reimagining the things you could’ve and should’ve said…turning over your every interaction to come up with a more perfect way of having lived your life. Only that’s where Nathan begins. After realizing the play-acting as Adam’s dad was a puzzle he was well-equipped to solve because he’d created it himself, he turns his attention to Remy because it’s a problem that forces him to think outside himself. Literally.
As a way to understand what happened and to forgive himself, Nathan decides the best way to do so is to see himself from the outside. (As a psychological strategy, it feels in line with how Nathan has approached the entire series; he processes from the outside in.) It’s why he opts to play-act as Remy’s mom—only to, as the final beats of the episode suggest , find himself wanting to break that illusion apart altogether. He breaks the rhythm of the scene by announcing he’s the kid’s dad. (Does he mean Remy’s? Or nine-year-old Adam’s?) He shatters the illusion yet again.
Is it a breakthrough or a breakdown? Nathan’s delivery allows us to see it as either. And both. Or, perhaps more to the point, it obscures any one reading of the moment, leaving us, as ever, to sift through our own feelings about what these meta-rehearsals are doing for Nathan and his audience alike. Throughout the series we’ve been nudged to, if not empathize, then understand Nathan’s motivations. But they’ve become so deranged (note how even the rhythm of this episode was faster and more repetitive than usual) that you start to wonder how much of Nathan’s breadcrumbs you’re being led to follow. It’s long felt like all of these exercises are for Nathan’s own benefit. I myself talked about him hijacking Angela’s “rehearsal.” But to end on such a note is also to open us to the possibility that he’s (obviously) always been in control, nudging us toward examining why we may feel comforted or uncomfortable about his every move.
Ultimately, The Rehearsal‘s season-finale episode perplexed me in all the ways I anticipated it would. It made me cringe. It exasperated me to no end. It fascinated me. It constantly had me figuring out how its behind the scenes worked. Even when I could see the strings (PAs offering fake birthday presents to a group of background actors), I was given just enough smoke and mirrors (a maybe real PA or an playing a PA talking about how actress Nathan is a “weird dude” ) to force me to finally give up.
Is this show a meditation on “reality” television? A probing examination of the scripts and strictures we’re called to adhere to as part of our social contract? A dissection of one man’s inability to leave anything to chance? A study in control? An exercise in acting-as-therapy? On theater-as-self-help?
My head hurt by the end of the episode, which is, arguably, a testament to Nathan Fielder’s entire project. I’ll be thinking about it for longer than I’d like to admit, as if it were a puzzle I was called to solve rather than a television show I should simply have enjoyed watching. I am curious what he’ll do for a second season, though I do worry for our own sanity—and the discourse it’ll no doubt engender.
- I feared with Angela gone we’d lose the off-kilter humor that has so featured Fielder’s show so far thanks to a bunch of background actors (who by union rules cannot utter a lick of dialogue) I found myself chuckling at the absurdity of Adam’s ninth birthday.
- “I don’t want you to be Nathan!” offered us yet another unwittingly revealing sound bite of the season. Remy may have delivered it in the midst of a temper tantrum but considering Nathan then decides to play act as Remy’s mom (a performance that allows him to interact with the actor he’s hired to play “Nathan”), you wonder how much to heart he took it after all.
- Although, I take it back. Perhaps the most revealing line in the entire episode came courtesy of “Adam (age nine)” who, when Nathan breaks character and addresses him as an actor, asking the kid whether Nathan makes for a good dad offers the greatest unintentional read of the show : “I mean. You’re a great scene partner.” Is that not The Rehearsal in a nutshell? For all the platitudes Nathan spouts toward the end of the show, the lesson we should all be taking from it is the idea that you can never replicate the real thing. You can try to pretend to be a good father but all you’ll ever do unless you actually become a father is be a great scene partner.