Let’s Unpack ‘The Rehearsal’ and Its Bizarre Season Finale

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The first thing to know is that Remy appears to be fine. Shortly after The rehearsal aired its season finale, Twitter followed with the grandmother of the child actor, who insured worried viewers that the young performer is “doing a great job”. (They also shared a video of Remy rescuing a ladybug to commemorate his sixth birthday.) Whatever suffering we’ve seen Remy endure on camera, at least we’ve got word from a loved one that his life isn’t in ruins.

The update comes as a relief – because of our concern for Remy, and because there is so much we do not know about The rehearsal. We don’t know how much of the story mastermind Nathan Fielder plotted beforehand or how much he found in the editing room afterwards. We don’t know the order in which the main scenes were shot, or how much time elapsed between them. We don’t know how exactly Fielder wrote some of the rehearsal scenes, or how much he told his subjects what would happen to them. For example, did Fielder tell Angela, a woman with a traumatic history of substance abuse, that he planned to have their teenage son impersonate an overdose in front of her? Or did he take her unwilling consent (“Whatever you think you need for the show, that’s fine”) as carte blanche?

In the absence of answers, all discussions about The rehearsal take place in a vacuum. Fielder is a longtime fan and practitioner of magic, a field that thrives on the opacity of his methods. In a New York profile that ran before The rehearsal‘s premiere, Michael Koman, the co-creator of Nathan for you, Fielder’s previous calling card – noted that Fielder admired British illusionist Derren Brown. “He’s someone who made something that you don’t know how to do and how good it is,” Koman said. “If I had to guess what drove Nathan, I would feel like he made something with those qualities.” At least by that standard The rehearsal is a resounding success. Like Bo Burnham, another artist of technical wizardry and relentless self-examination, Fielder seems committed to letting the work speak for itself.

But what else was there? The rehearsal trying to do, and what lines did it cross to do it? These are questions that The rehearsal actively posed throughout the six episodes, and they remain open towards a newly announced Season 2. We’ve seen Fielder, in his character as the emotional automaton, also known as Nathan Fielder, cheating on his subjects and refusing to say anything about it. We’ve seen players pressured to sign releases they couldn’t read. We’ve seen actors Fielder hired question his entire experiment, possibly because he said so. (“You say we’re talking, but it’s your project. It’s not like I really have anything to say.”) All of these excerpts emphasize Fielder’s inherent power over procedure, prompting us to ask if and how he abuses it. But no one explains this dilemma like “Pretend Daddy,” an episode in which Fielder credibly accuses himself of an objectively immoral act: harming a child.

To summarise: The rehearsal is to descend into madness, but Remy’s plight still requires some context. Remy is one of several actors Fielder has recruited to play Adam, his fictional son. Initially, Fielder – unobtrusively playing God – creates Adam on behalf of Angela, a single woman interested in “rehearsing” motherhood. To adhere to child labor laws and simulate an entire upbringing, Adam is played by different actors at different ages, from infancy to adolescence. Remy is cast as 6-year-old Adam; at a birthday party hosted by Fielder, who now only “raises” Adam after Angela chose to leave, he hands over the role of Adam to an older actor named Liam. The problem is, Remy doesn’t want to leave.

Remy’s mother, Amber, tells Fielder that her son grew up without a father and has finally reached the age where he understands that absence. by dr. Fart playing with Fielder, Remy has lost himself in the fantasy, unable to turn off his attachment like a switch. “He doesn’t want it to be real,” Amber explains. Fielder tries to talk Remy himself (“Remember when we made a TV show?”), but Remy remains visibly upset (“I just want to stay with him”). The conversation ends relatively well, but we’re still forced to see a child moved to tears by the vagaries of a production – and those tears, in turn, were folded into a story about the grown man leading it.

So far, at least Fielder has the excuse of ignorance. He did not know Remy’s background and the problems raised by his plight are almost inherent in child acting. (Amber admits she’s not sure if Remy even understands what acting is.) It’s what happens next that really brings The rehearsal through the mirror and into unknown territory. Fielder later returns to Amber and Remy’s house and gets Liam in tow for an apparent playdate. Amber tells Fielder that she is sure Remy will be fine, partly because she sees herself in him. It’s a beautiful feeling, so much so that we hardly notice Fielder asking Amber where she got her sweater. It’s not until Fielder asks Liam if he’s had “enough” that we know what’s coming: a bravado final scene where Fielder rehearses a conversation as Amber, opposite Liam in a wig as Remy.

During The rehearsal,,The character Fielder is constantly confronted with the limits of his approach. The filmmaker Fielder again and again refuses to give the viewer a neat resolution, let alone uplifting. The penultimate episode features a triumphant montage in which Fielder boldly steps into the role of a single parent, but instead of ending there, it ends in a tense debate over Israel with Adam’s mentor. The result of these dual instincts is that the Fielder we see rarely draws the right lessons from his obvious mistakes.

Whenever Fielder encounters evidence that the rehearsals—and his attempts to recreate reality to stage them—are not having the intended effect, his reflex is to increase his commitment. Most of the people adversely affected by this are adults. Patrick, a man arguing with his brother over their grandfather’s estate, becomes involved in a complicated ruse so Fielder can introduce emotions into his test drives. Thomas, an acting student, accidentally lets Fielder occupy his apartment in an attempt to understand him. These incidents were breaches of trust, but at least we could tell ourselves that trust had developed between two consenting adults—even when Fielder made sure to show us the power it takes to obtain that consent.

With a child, even that excuse evaporates. Just minutes of screen time after Remy shows Fielder the potential price of his actions, Fielder is back to use his young attack as a means to an end. He understands that he has done something wrong and has planned his next set of rehearsals as an attempt to avoid the same result in the future. But he’s unable to apply his own insight from a few episodes earlier: “If you assume what others think, you might just turn them into a character that only exists in your head.” Confronted with the fact that Remy is a human with emotional needs he hadn’t foreseen, Fielder turns him into a literal character for Liam to study.

In the context of Fielder, however, Remy’s confusion is not entirely undesirable. The rehearsal is, on the face of it, Fielder’s attempt to end his emotional alienation from those around him. He wants to control his environment so badly that he can finally make peace with his lack of control, and tap into a part of himself that he keeps tightly locked up. “I’m often jealous of others — as they may just believe,” he says. (As, for example, Amber believes Remy will be fine.) Of actors, he notes, “They have a way of channeling other people’s emotions that I don’t quite understand.” During an argument, an actress who plays Angela hisses: “Do you want to feel something? No matter how hard you try, you will never succeed.” The rehearsal starts with Fielder testing his hypothesis on others, but it would always end with him as the object and subject, mad scientist and lab rat.

As horrible as Remy’s tears are to watch, they are, in a twisted way, what Fielder has been looking for all along. It is Remy who is completely immersed in the illusion, so much so that he cannot distinguish between achievement and personality. It is Remy whose constructed fiction evokes an authentic reaction, even if that reaction is negative. There’s a tinge of jealousy in Fielder-as-Amber’s final speech to Liam-as-Remy: “I think it’s good that you’re sad because it shows you have a heart,” he says. “It shows you can feel.”

Remy brings Fielder as close and as far as he’s ever been from a breakthrough. By taking Amber’s stance, Fielder finally articulates what’s wrong with both of his tactics (The rehearsal is “a weird thing for a little kid to be a part of”) and his strategy (“life is better with surprises”). But he only gets there by ignoring every red flag and sticking to a very flawed premise, which may only convince him of its validity. Even Fielder’s revelation is undermined by The rehearsal‘s renewal. What in itself sounds like a natural ending – an embrace of spontaneity over structure – now reads like a warning sign of what’s to come.

That The rehearsal intentional in its inconvenience does not affect its polarized reception. It is possible to exploit even if you criticize exploitation; the use of real actors, especially children, to question the nature of acting invites discussion, as does the refusal to provide more clarity than what the subjects themselves (Remy’s grandmother, Angela’s terrible date) decide to reveal. The rehearsal‘s achievements would mean little if they weren’t the result of real risk. But as much as The rehearsal wants us to follow Fielder down the rabbit hole, it also ends with a final deflation of his, and our, selfish streak. After that dizzying monologue, Fielder stands up and closes the season with a shot from his own butt crack. Some self-exposure is more literal than others.


The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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