The Rehearsal S1E3: “Gold Digger”

Nathan stands with an Apple laptop strapped around his shoulders such that it sits in front of his torso
Courtesy of HBO

The following contains spoilers for The Rehearsal S1E3, “Gold Digger” (written by Nathan Fielder & Carrie Kemper & Eric Notarnicola and directed by Nathan Fielder)

I don’t know why it didn’t quite occur to me last week that The Rehearsal might proceed with both a season-long arc and a client of the week structure. Clearly this is the best of all possible worlds, and “Gold Digger” is absolutely delightful as Nathan carries the idea of rehearsing for life through increasingly outlandish iterations. The whole structure has gotten properly recursive at this point, and parsing out what’s “real” and what’s not is a fool’s errand. And it’s to miss the point, as The Rehearsal brings home the truth that there is no bare reality behind the mask. It’s masks all the way down.

So it’s fitting that S1E3 gives us a discussion of Halloween (which, of course, Angela thinks is Satanic), and indeed begins with Nathan and Adam in costume as Batman and Robin. But of course that’s not really Adam; it’s a child actor playing Adam. Except there is no real Adam because it is always a child actor playing Adam (except for when it’s a doll), and yet there obviously is a being that functions semantically as “Adam” even while there is no single person called Adam whose name is actually Adam.

Adam exists only as an idea, iteratively embodied by the various actors who play the part. And at the same time, Nathan plays the role of Adam’s father but tells us he doesn’t feel it. One might suggest some link between emotions and the real, such that they can’t be captured through the pretense of one of Nathan’s rehearsals, but then The Rehearsal subverts that notion through everything that happens with Patrick.

Patrick sits at a table, crying
Courtesy of HBO

Realizing that feelings have been missing from previous rehearsals, like Kor’s in the premiere, Nathan sets out to replicate the emotions Patrick is likely to experience when talking to his brother about his inheritance by having the actor who is playing Patrick’s brother (Isaac Lamb) ask Patrick to help him help his grandfather (who isn’t really his grandfather but another actor, Vincent A. Cefalu), and then leaves them to pursue a quest for gold on their own. Nathan wants to create a bond between these two men, and it seems to succeed.

The emotion Patrick feels after being told that Isaac’s grandfather has died seems real, and the catharsis he achieves in the rehearsal that follows seems equally real. But by “real” here I can only mean authentic, or genuine, since it all pertains to people and events that didn’t really happen. Or did they?

To be honest, I don’t even quite know how to assess the ethics of all of this. It’s clear that Nathan lies to Patrick and emotionally manipulates him, but also the result seems good. I guess when it comes down to it, trying to parse the ethics just doesn’t feel terribly interesting. Rather, it risks missing the point, which lies in how The Rehearsal is exploring the minimal difference between life and pretend. In trying to create a better rehearsal for Patrick, Nathan invents what are, for all intents and purposes, real events in his life. The premise of the show eats its tail.

In narrating the progression of events with Patrick, at one point Nathan tells us that he couldn’t help but be sad that Isaac’s grandfather would soon be dead. The actor playing him doesn’t actually die, of course, but that’s not the point since the character he’s playing does and we don’t know anything about the actor who is playing the character. One could argue that Nathan is getting confused, or the character Nathan Fielder is playing who is also named Nathan is getting confused, but again I think the more interesting approach is to take this at face value and ponder the truth of the claim that the old man will die because his character will.

That’s sad, even if it’s fiction, and even if you wrote the story.

An digitally aged Nathan looks back at Nathan in a bathroom mirror
Courtesy of HBO

On the home front, Nathan takes up farming because Angela wants to, even though she doesn’t help. He makes a doctored photo album mixing things that have actually happened with things that didn’t. And he has custom mirrors installed so that he and Angela see themselves aging at a sped-up rate in coordination with the aging of their child. The result is uncanny, and I do mean also in the Freudian sense.

This condensing of time means faking the harvest of their crops, which leads to a hilarious shot of squash sticking out of the ground (they do not grow like that at all) and the closing moments of S1E3 where Nathan notices a store tag on a bell pepper and turns it around to hide it

A hand reaches down to pick squash that have been stuck into the ground
Courtesy of HBO

Through all of this, he seems to be after those moments when he is able to briefly forget that he’s pretending, and wonders at the way others can so easily immerse themselves in the world and just believe. I think that’s crucial to thinking about The Rehearsal—it works as brilliantly as it does comedically because it stems from someone who cannot simply live without thinking about it, even if it takes to extremes what tends to function far more subtly in day-to-day experience.

There’s a poignancy to The Rehearsal through its first three episodes that I didn’t quite expect, and an earnestness to Nathan Fielder’s approach that I think should undermine any claim that he’s being exploitative.

This past week, Robbin (whose name is apparently spelled with two Bs because of course it is) gave an interview to Vice to complain about his portrayal on the show, but if you read it he very much seems like exactly the guy we met in “Scion.”

Indeed, the humor in The Rehearsal stems not from mocking Robbin, or Angela, or Patrick, but from taking them just as they are, instead of from the kind of critical distance required to pass judgment. That can be uncomfortable, as when Nathan isn’t sure whether he should keep Patrick from making anti-semitic remarks during his rehearsal when he and his brother would naturally make such remarks to one another, or maybe it’s just generally uncomfortable even when we’re not butting up against that kind of serious topic. But Fielder finds humor by pushing through the awkwardness and pretending that it isn’t.

Gold Digger

The title of S1E3 (“Gold Digger”) mostly directly comes from the fact (?) that Patrick’s grandfather stipulated in his will that his inheritance should be withheld if he’s dating a gold digger. So his rehearsal is about trying to convince his brother that his girlfriend, Tess, is not a gold digger. (I really find myself wondering whether the will truly used the phrase “gold digger” or how this point was put presuming that—as a legal document—it did not.)

We never meet Patrick’s brother, nor his girlfriend, in S1E3, as after the catharsis that occurs during his rehearsal, Nathan can’t track him down and tells us he never saw him again. I do find myself wondering if, like Robbin, Patrick will come out of the woodwork this coming week. Presumably he doesn’t know that Isaac’s grandpa was fake, but would very much learn this from watching the episode. I wonder how he might react to that.

And somehow I was a good way into writing this article before I realized that the whole scenario with the fake grandpa gives another meaning to the episode title, since the two men literally undertake a quest to dig up gold. I’m not sure if that joke is a deep cut or if I’m just a little dense and it was really obvious to everyone else way sooner.

At this point I fully expect the premise and structure of The Rehearsal to keep shifting as we progress through the latter half of the season. I have no idea where all of this is heading, but I can’t wait to find out.

See you next week.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

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