Let’s Dissect ‘The Rehearsal’ and Its Surreal Season Finale
What exactly was HBO’s “docu-series” attempting to accomplish, and what lines did it cross in the process?
The first thing to note is that Remy appears to be fine. Shortly after the season finale of The Rehearsal aired, Twitter contacted the child actor’s grandmother, who assured worried viewers that the young performer is “doing amazing.” (To commemorate Remy’s sixth birthday, she also shared a video of him rescuing a ladybug.) Whatever distress Remy experienced on camera, we now have word from a loved one that his life is not in shambles.
Because of our concern for Remy and because there is so much we don’t know about The Rehearsal, the update comes as a relief. We don’t know how much of the story creator Nathan Fielder planned ahead of time or how much he discovered in the editing room after the fact. We don’t know what order the key scenes were shot in or how much time passed between them. We don’t know how carefully Fielder scripted some rehearsal scenes or how much he told his subjects about what was going to happen to them. For example, did Fielder tell Angela, a woman with a traumatic history of substance abuse, that he intended to stage an overdose in front of her? Or did he take her grudging permission (“Whatever you think is needed for the show, that’s fine”) as permission to do whatever he wanted?
All discussions of The Rehearsal take place in a vacuum in the absence of answers. Fielder has long been a fan and practitioner of magic, a discipline that thrives on the secrecy of its methods. Michael Koman, the cocreator of Nathan for You, Fielder’s previous calling card, noted Fielder’s admiration for British illusionist Derren Brown in a New York profile that ran before The Rehearsal’s premiere. “He’s a guy who made something so good that you can’t figure out how he did it,” Koman said. “If I had to guess, Nathan’s motivation would be to feel like he created something with those qualities.” By that metric, The Rehearsal is a resounding success. Fielder, like Bo Burnham, an artist of technical wizardry and relentless self-criticism, appears to be committed to letting the work speak for itself.
But what else was The Rehearsal attempting, and what lines did it cross to do so? These are the questions that The Rehearsal actively posed throughout its six-episode run, and they remain unanswered as Season 2 is announced. We’ve seen Fielder, playing the emotional automaton Nathan Fielder, deceive his subjects and then refuse to admit it. We’ve seen players pushed into signing contracts they didn’t have time to read. We’ve seen actors Fielder hired question his entire experiment, possibly because he told them to. (“You say we’re talking, but it’s your project.”) It’s not like I have much of a say in the matter.”) All of these excerpts highlight Fielder’s inherent power over the proceedings and raise the question of whether or not he is abusing it. None, however, illustrates this quandary better than “Pretend Daddy,” an episode in which Fielder credibly accuses himself of an objectively immoral act: causing harm to a child.
To summarise The Rehearsal is about to go insane, but Remy’s predicament still requires some context. Remy is one of several actors Fielder has cast in the role of Adam, his fictitious son. Initially, Fielder—playing God—creates Adam for Angela, a single woman interested in “practising” motherhood. Adam is played by several actors at various ages, from infancy to adolescence, to comply with child labour laws and to simulate an entire upbringing. Remy is cast as 6-year-old Adam; at a birthday party hosted by Fielder, who is now “parenting” Adam on his own after Angela chooses to leave, he passes the role to an older actor named Liam. The issue is that Remy refuses to leave.
Amber, Remy’s mother, tells Fielder that her son has grown up without a father and has finally reached the age where he understands his father’s absence. Remy has become engrossed in the fantasy of playing Dr. Fart with Fielder, unable to turn his attachment off like a switch. “He doesn’t want it to be fake,” Amber says. Fielder tries to reason with Remy (“Remember we were making a TV show?”), but Remy remains visibly upset (“I just want to stay with him”). The conversation ends on a positive note, but we’ve still been forced to witness a child moved to tears by the whims of a production—tears that are then folded into a narrative about the adult man who runs it.
Fielder has the benefit of ignorance up to this point. He had no idea about Remy’s background, and the issues raised by his plight are almost inherent in child acting. (Amber admits she’s not sure Remy knows what acting is.) What happens next truly transports The Rehearsal through the looking glass and into unknown territory. Fielder later returns to Amber and Remy’s house, bringing Liam along for what appears to be a play date. Amber assures Fielder that Remy will be fine, in part because she sees herself in him. It’s such a sweet sentiment that we barely notice Fielder asking Amber where she got her sweater. Only when Fielder asks Liam if he’s “had enough” do we realise what’s in store: a stunning final scene in which Fielder rehearses a conversation as Amber, opposite Liam in a wig as Remy.
Fielder the character is constantly confronted with the limits of his approach throughout The Rehearsal. Similarly, Fielder the filmmaker repeatedly refuses to provide a neat resolution, let alone uplift, to the viewer. The penultimate episode begins with a triumphant montage in which Fielder boldly assumes the role of single parent, but instead ends with a tense debate over Israel with Adam’s tutor. As a result of these competing instincts, the Fielder we see rarely learns the correct lessons from his obvious mistakes.
Every time Fielder sees evidence that the rehearsals—and his attempts to recreate reality in order to stage them—aren’t having the desired effect, he increases his commitment. The majority of those who have suffered as a result of this have been adults. Patrick, a man arguing with his brother about their grandfather’s estate, becomes entangled in an elaborate ruse so that Fielder can inject emotions into his trial runs. In an attempt to understand Fielder, Thomas, an acting student, inadvertently lets him stay in his apartment. These were breaches of trust, but we could at least tell ourselves that trust was established between two consenting adults—even though Fielder made sure to demonstrate the strong-arming that can go into obtaining that consent.
With a child, however, even that justification vanishes. Fielder is back to using his young charge as a means to an end just minutes after Remy shows him the potential cost of his actions. He realises he made a mistake and frames his next set of rehearsals as an attempt to avoid the same outcome in the future. However, he is unable to apply his own insight from a previous episode: “When you assume what others think, perhaps all you’re doing is turning them into a character that only exists in your mind.” Faced with the realisation that Remy is a human being with unanticipated emotional needs, Fielder transforms him into a literal character for Liam to study.
Remy’s confusion, however, isn’t entirely unwelcome in Fielder’s world. The Rehearsal appears to be Fielder’s attempt to heal his emotional distance from those around him. He wants to control his environment so badly that he can finally accept his lack of control and tap into a part of himself that he keeps tightly locked away. “I am frequently envious of others—the way they can simply believe,” he says. (For example, Amber simply believes Remy will be fine.) “They have a way of channelling other people’s emotions that I don’t fully understand,” he says of actors. During a fight, an actress who plays Angela hisses, “Do you want to feel something? You will never succeed, no matter how hard you try.” Fielder begins the Rehearsal by testing his hypothesis on others, but it was always going to end with him as object and subject, mad scientist and lab rat.
As heartbreaking as Remy’s tears are to witness, they are, in a strange way, what Fielder has been chasing all along. Remy is completely immersed in the illusion, so much so that he can’t tell the difference between performance and personhood. Remy is the one who responds authentically to the constructed fiction, even if that response is negative. Fielder-as-final Amber’s speech to Liam-as-Remy contains a hint of jealousy: “I think it’s a good thing you’re sad, because it shows you have a heart,” he says. “It demonstrates your ability to feel.”
Remy brings Fielder as close to and as far away from a breakthrough as he’s ever been. Fielder finally articulates what’s wrong with both his tactics (The Rehearsal is “a strange thing for a little kid to be a part of”) and strategy (“life’s better with surprises”). But he only gets there by ignoring every red flag and clinging to a deeply flawed premise that may or may not convince him of its validity. The renewal of The Rehearsal overshadows even Fielder’s epiphany. What appears to be a natural conclusion on its own—a preference for spontaneity over structure—now appears to be a foreshadowing of what’s to come.
The fact that The Rehearsal is purposefully uncomfortable does not diminish its polarised reception. It is possible to exploit while criticising exploitation; using real actors, particularly children, to interrogate the nature of acting invites debate, as does the refusal to provide additional clarity beyond what the subjects themselves (Remy’s grandmother, Angela’s terrible date) decide to reveal. The accomplishments of The Rehearsal would be meaningless if they weren’t the result of genuine risk. But, as much as The Rehearsal wants us to follow Fielder down the rabbit hole, it also ends with a final deflation of its (and our) self-importance. Fielder stands up after his head-spinning soliloquy, capping off the season with a shot of his own butt crack. Some forms of self-exposure are more literal than others.