The Idol Episode 4 Recap: “Stars Belong to the World” Flips the Script & Power Dynamics Entirely

Jocelyn with her eyes closed in The Idol Episode 4
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

The following recap contains spoilers for The Idol Episode 4, “Stars Belong to the World”

Episode 4 of The Idol, “Stars Belong to the World,” opens with a montage of day laborers—the housekeepers, groundskeepers, and security guards who keep Jocelyn’s (Lily-Rose Depp) palatial mansion from becoming a cesspool. The sheer manpower on display indicates the way pop stars are akin to royalty in American culture. Guards with guns stalk the perimeter. Leaf blowers march along the topiary and greenery. Maids pour out half-used bags of cocaine and extract dildos lodged into the wall. The tone is revealing: Beneath the veneer of debauchery is hard, unglamorous, proletarian strain.

The laborers operate as underpaid shadows lurking in the background, and as such, they see everything. Whether the wealthy want to admit it or not, secretive tales of lives and lifestyles lie vulnerably in waste alone—waiting to be exhumed from the trash. Maidservants, one might say, have unprecedented access to the detritus of their employers’ belongings. They have direct insight into a reality meant to be hidden from the public. And sometimes, they even glimpse the psychic soft spots and vulnerabilities of their masters.

In a humorous exchange of carnivalesque leveling, we witness two down-to-earth housekeepers gossiping about Tedros’ (Abel Tesfaye) paranoic conviction that everyone is constantly talking about him. Unfazed by the gloss of charisma and personality, they see right through him—diagnosing him as suffering from a Napoleonic complex. This intuition is reinforced by the filmmaking: Levinson cuts to a Tedros, silk-robed and looking dwarfish on the mansion balcony. The soundtrack then doubles down on irony, caustically playing The Weeknd’s cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” (“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry that I made you cry. Oh no, I didn’t want to hurt you. I’m just a jealous guy. I was feeling insecure.”)

This introduction serves a few functions. First, it anchors the perspective of the episode, putting the audience into the position of outsiders. In “Stars Belong to the World,” the shenanigans get quite rowdy. By familiarizing us first with everyday proxies, we can see privileged elitism as an exception to the norm, as a microcosm of an exaggerated reality most can’t enjoy or fully imagine.

Secondly, it bolsters the rift between sober proletarianism and erratic aristocracy. Whereas ordinary laborers enjoy clear-eyed sanity and percipience, the ultra-rich and famous lack perspective, detached from common sense-making skills. Thus, the shenanigans that will ensue become grounded by the framework of socioeconomic insularity—the abnormality, the perversion, and the creative kink we will encounter precisely exists because of hierarchical stratification.

Lastly, the maids set the thematic scene—foreshadowing “Stars Belong to the World” as the episode where we’ll finally see Tedros’ moronic mediocrity. Decider’s Episode 4 recap captures this dynamic quite astutely:

“The dude’s a big nothing. But this is a feature of the character, not a bug. Think about every showbiz-adjacent cult leader you’ve ever heard of, from L. Ron Hubbard to Charles Manson to the NXIVM guy. There’s always much less to them than meets the eye, and it’s never prevented them from drawing talented and intelligent people. Identifying people they can successfully exploit is the one thing these assholes really are good at, and once the hooks are in, they dig deep.”

The maids showcase the limits of Tedros’ stature and spell. They easily see through his posturing. They instinctively dig deep into his flaws and weaknesses, and they’re but wallflowers observing from the periphery. And their debunking of the cult leader’s flimsy mythology paves the way for an episode that will track its gradual unraveling.

To start, Destiny (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) has finally disinterred some dirt on Tedros, telling Chaim (Hank Azaria) that he went to jail for extreme physical abuse (“Torture! F*cking torture? I thought she only f*cked white boys,” Chaim interjects). Worried for Jocelyn’s safety and future, Destiny thinks they should kill the “mother*cker.” Chaim laughs, then vehemently refutes the notion (“Don’t be no f*cking p*ssy, Chaim, come on!” Destiny pleads). Unenthused by the risks of homicide, Chaim takes a cooler approach – “F*ck faces like this always have a weak spot. Our job is to find what it is.”

Destiny wearing all black in The Idol Episode 4
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

Destiny’s reconnaissance mission is soon set into motion. Her job is to show up at Jocelyn’s unsolicited, linger around and chat with Tedros’ posse, and sniff out the details until she finds a way to sabotage the wannabe cult leader legally and pacifistically before he gains full control over Jocelyn’s career. Through Destiny, the audience gets yet another outsider proxy—a plant wherein we can witness the decadence and insanity inside Jocelyn’s mansion with skeptical, investigative eyes. We’re positioned as sleuths on the prowl—poking around for weak spots to exploit ourselves.

The dire need to peep around is strengthened by Tedros’s increasingly manipulative and domineering coercions. From his peremptory interaction with Leia (Rachel Sennott), it is overtly clear he shows little to no sign of checking or curbing his imperious aims. Eating a big bowl of cereal at the end of a massive table, Tedros forces Leia to read off Jocelyn’s daily schedule. She has an 8:00-10:00 am training, a big concert call at 10:30 am with Andrew Finkelstein (“He’s an industry legend,” Leia proclaims, neglecting to mention the more important fact that he’s in control of Jocelyn’s upcoming tour as her Live Nation representative), and a Half Magic meeting (Half Magic is Jocelyn and Leia’s collaborative makeup line).

Tedros does not approve of most of the schedule. He lets the training slide, but outright rejects the phone meeting with Finkelstein (“I don’t care who’s on that call. You can cancel that.”) and he questions Leia’s intentions when she snaps back at his request to scrap the Half Magic side project altogether (“You’re here for Jocelyn right?”). Tedros claims the makeup line is a superfluous distraction, insinuating it to be nothing but a cash grab side hustle for Leia. Perhaps it is. Or perhaps he just wants to be in total command. He also lambasts Leia for being “soft” and gives her a demeaning ultimatum: “If you’re going to work for me, you’re gonna have to grow a bigger set of balls.”

Leia, arguably proving that “balls” aren’t the problem, rebutting “I’m definitely here for Jocelyn. I know I am.” Sennott’s inflection here (“I know I am”) is pitch-perfect—acidic and sharp. Reacting, Abel smiles nefariously and mischievously. As Episodes 1-3 indicated, Tedros’ primary nemesis and dissenter is Leia, who’s seen through his sleazeball calculations and despotic intentions from the get-go. As Jocelyn increasingly submits, Leia increasingly stiffens up—becoming testy and recalcitrant. Though naïve and impressionable (she’s visibly kept somewhat in check by her infatuation with Izaak, a dynamic spelled out early in the episode as she slobbers over her coffee while watching him do yoga in a leopard speedo), she sees through Tedros’ bullshit.

“Stars Belong to the World” also introduces the long-teased producer Mike Dean into the show. In a recent Indiewire article, editor Julio C. Perez IV notes a surprising influence on the series’ aesthetic:

“Sam locked into a reality TV aesthetic. He was really interested in the way that type of storytelling is different from a more highly premeditated and articulated version of cinematic storytelling.”

This trash TV influence is never clearer than in the slow-motion arrival of Mike Dean, who gets out of a luxury car bong in hand as the low-angled camera roves behind and pans up in a showy and unctuous gesture of maximalism (recalling so many shot choices found in slimy, bling-centric reality programming). Wearing an M.W.A. sweatshirt and rocking a messy hairdo, Dean proceeds to scour the house for the right acoustic arrangement, clapping in each room. Ultimately, he decides to record in the same room as the series’ opening photo shoot.

Tedros and others in front of a car
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

As opposed to Tedros, Mike Dean’s presence provides a benevolent form of authority—an industry figure who’s earned his status and authority by sheer artistic attunement and expertise. Playing himself, Dean is also yet a meta cameo insofar as he’s The Idol’s composer. In a brilliant maneuver, Levinson and his team clearly decided to invite the musicians behind the series’ score and soundtrack to become featured characters on the show.

In the post-credit HBO featurette, Levinson speaks glowingly about Mike Dean—calling him not only “a musical genius [but] also absolutely hilarious.” This hilarity comes through in spades throughout, especially in the scene where Dean and his cronies giggle nervously at Tedros and Jocelyn’s S&M-adjacent recording methodologies (we’ll get to this shocker later). By mocking the self-seriousness of the moment, Dean and company create a sense of levity—solidifying it as campy, plump erotica.

It’s also clear how much collaborative passion everyone involved in this project had for every detail and stratum of its creation. Listening to Mike Dean talk about scoring the show in a spare room downstairs in the HBO Featurette is quite revealing of the self-contained and tight-knit creative atmosphere. Not only does most of The Idol take place at Abel Tesfaye’s $70 million Bel Air mansion, but much of the pre and post-production took place in it as well.

Dean talks about Levinson vibing out in the studio: “He loves to watch me make music and show me references while I’m working. Tangerine Dream. Black Sabbath, Night of the Living Dead. The whole project has been synth—Oberheim, CS-80, Jupiter-8, Moog Voyager. Every synth we’ll make into something different.” Clearly, Levinson’s cinephile sensibilities and interests transcend what’s happening on the screen. He also cares deeply about the accompanying music—working closely with The Weeknd and Mike Dean to create musical themes that tightly mirror the narrative and tonal themes.

In fact, much of The Idol’s score was organically and spontaneously crafted in The Weeknd’s studio, just as we witness Jocelyn and Tedros’ writing music with Mike Dean in “Stars Belong to the World.” As Mike Dean explains:

“On the fourth day, I was working on the score, and I was just playing [the main theme’s] chords. Abel got on the mic and sang the melody. We had a 24-piece string section replay it all, and it became the theme of the show. We created it live actually.”

In addition to Mike Dean, the episode also features clever tie-in scenes with Ramsey (an artist whose work has appeared on both Euphoria and now The Idol) writing music fictionally with Jocelyn. In the Featurette, we learn Ramsey is not only a side character (a somewhat vaguely defined member of Tedros’ extended posse), but also a major influence on the genesis and crystallization of Jocelyn’s musical sound. It was Ramsey, we learn, who helped turn “Fill the Void” (Jocelyn’s latest creation) into something “a little darker and a little more aggressive” than her previous work (namely, the over-produced and shiny “World Class Sinner,” which is undoubtedly infectious but artificially poppy). From these anecdotes, it becomes clear Ramsey was an instrumental part of Jocelyn’s musical evolution: “Her earlier stuff felt a little bit more mechanical. There’s a real switch when she meets Tedros.”

It is therefore metafictionally interesting that The Weeknd, Mike Dean, and Ramsey are not only the brainchildren behind The Idol’s catchy songs, but also the co-creators within “Stars Belong to the World”—conflating what is going on behind-the-scenes and onscreen together. As Dean lauds “Fill the Void” for its “super wet vocals,” its “reverb-heavy, backward style,” its “raw-broken up distorted drums,” and its “trippy, dark, gothic trap” undertones, you realize the creation of the song within the episode is not as farfetched or even fictional as it may seem—it’s merely a recreation of the songwriting process that went into the series.

Jocelyn sings into a mic
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

In fact, Levinson’s openness toward hiring musicians to act reflects his proportionate openness in welcoming actors/actresses to participate in the music-making process. During her audition, Lily-Rose Depp was asked to sing live, reportedly performing a memorable “a cappella version of “Fever”—the 1958 song made famous by Peggy Lee. Throughout the series, Lily-Rose is the actual voice behind the recorded versions of the songs we hear. And as Suzanna Son (the actress who broke onto the scene with Red Rocket and plays Chloe in the series) details, she privately “made a demo of crocodile tears and sent it to Sam and he incorporated it” into the show. Contrary to his largely overblown and unsubstantiated reputation for being “difficult to work with,” these anecdotes are a testament to Levinson’s leniency.

Speaking of Chloe, her moment with Destiny (who’s in full-blown gumshoe mode) by the indoor pool is easily one of the more heartwarming in the series. Chloe, who’s a doe-eyed and freckled callback to the nostalgic Judy Garland/Shirley Temple era of rosy naivete, instantly takes a liking to Destiny (spritely skipping and hopping toward her in the hallway before inviting her to a jam session by the pool). Beside the water, she performs “Crocodile Tears” and receives some of the more nuanced song-coaching moments I’ve ever seen in fiction.

Destiny certainly understands the art of singing: “Your tongue wants to retreat. So that’s why it’s covered. But you want it out. And then let it spin with the vibrato.” Chloe follows Destiny’s vocal lead, matching her tone precisely. The subtle tip is the first of many we see wherein Destiny conveys her shrewd discernment of the subtleties of harmony and melody. (Later, she tells Tedros that the sing-song-y part in the middle of a Lana Del Ray copycat number “needs more grit”).

Sensing Chloe’s gullibility and ingenuousness, Destiny uses her mentorship moment to slyly pry into Tedros’ background. Before long, Chloe divulges her full backstory:

“He saved my life. I was living on the street. I was a heroin addict. Tedros saw me and he put his hand out and he saved my life forever and gave me a place to lay my head on.”

Beyond opening the possibility for a fascinating future standalone episode about Chloe’s previous life (I’d also wholly welcome flashback episodes documenting Izaak’s past and Jocelyn’s mom’s villainy), this conversation reveals Tedros’ keen sense for preying on the vulnerable and weak. Chloe is the embodiment of innocence and artlessness, and she’s thus the perfect weak spot for Destiny to zero in on. But she’s also a kindhearted soul—someone who is guileless and unadulterated despite her unseemly past.

Destiny senses this, and gives her loads of exhortation:

“You know what they call people like you? A pure heart. You’re real but this business is a corrupt f*cking place. Don’t let nothing, no one or anything, get in the way of your gift because it is pure, and it is beautiful. And the moment that voice gets out to the world, there’s going to be a lot of people who want to take it. But you can’t let them. What you got is special. You stay true to your crocodile song. Because that’s you. Stay observant. Because if it feels wrong it’s wrong.”

This alarming and ominous speech serves as a cautionary warning—a damnation of the pervasive corruption and sharkish vultures surrounding Jocelyn in the series. As we came to learn at the end of “Daybreak,” Jocelyn has grown dependent on complacency. Here, we see her pulling strings in a manipulatively passive mode—gaming Tedros to extract her inner creativity:

“I like not having to make decisions for myself, because I trust you,” she tells him.

“You should make that the opening lyric to the song.”

As Levinson reflects at the end of the episode, Jocelyn is not merely Tedros’ victim. She is actively trying to get something out of the relationship. She is strategic and in search of honest inspiration and capitalizes on Tedros’ devotion and their romantic madness and subsequent tension to extract something artistically raw and vulnerable and heartfelt and alive. Tedros is her muse, and Jocelyn is fully accepting of her parasitic subservience. This can be read through their interactions and the lyrics of “Fill the Void:” “I don’t wanna decide things for myself, on my own.”

The studio sessions also allow Tedros to abuse and augment his power. As already noted, his prime target to bully is Leia. He harangues her on multiple occasions as she sits and flirts on the couch with Izaak (“Can everyone shut the f*ck up for two seconds,” he screams before singling out his favorite scapegoat: “Leia!”). And when he catches Leia a little later whispering that she needs to pee, he takes the opportunity to embarrass her in front of everyone, stopping the music to isolate her humiliation: “You can go to the bathroom. Complete silence while you go to the bathroom.”

Leia’s bladder suddenly has a change of heart, and so she declines the awful invitation. For what it’s worth, Jocelyn, in a rare moment of fortitude, defends her friend/assistant as well, telling Tedros she’d summoned the inquiry. Meanwhile, Destiny is not fully onboard with the “Fill the Void” recording. For her, the way Jocelyn enunciates “yeah” is but an anticlimactic shrug. She needs to “go there!” Tedros’ eyes light up at the suggestion as he announces to have “just the trick.”

Harkening back to their favorite NSFW pastime, Tedros pulls out a blindfold and a microphone and directs Jocelyn to silence everything:

“You need to block out the world. Get out of your head. I need you at the edge of c*mming. What turns you on is going to turn them on. It needs to be real.”

Before long, he’s full-on fingering her in front of everyone—Mike Dean, Leia, Izaak, Destiny, and the anonymous crowd of clingers and hangers-on. The method works, in praxis—Jocelyn moans “yeah” in an undeniably visceral manner. But the indecent technique to get the intonation just right elicits awkward glares and stares from the lackeys. Initially, Mike Dean and his posse look shocked but unperturbed—ripping hits from their bong and giggling sheepishly. But the nervous chuckles soon give way to stunned, pale, ghastly stares: The entire room traumatized into a state of paralysis.

Destiny, looking perhaps most uncomfortably of all, relays the events to Chaim as best she can: “There’s some weird ass kinky shit going on here. Jocelyn’s on some weird ass S&M shit with this dude. It’s f*cked up!” As disturbed and disquieted as Destiny is, she’s commensurately impressed: “What’s wild, though,” she tells Chaim, “Is that they all have their own sound.” Shen then proceeds to detail the primary artists of Tedros’ inner circle as a montage shows the group rehearsing, songwriting, and performing in the studio.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph plays Destiny in The Idol.

As it turns out, Destiny is a seasoned spy – a master of observation. She’s not only digging up dirt but also scoping out the talent. She waxes religiously about Chloe (“They got this little girl over here and she writes these crazy lyrics they’re like poetry like poems like if you really stop and listen and stuff you want to give your life to God.”) and Izaak (“There’s this African American man—he sings like an angel.”). And as unsettling and perverse as Tedros’ methods may be, Destiny is equally impressed by his results: “I’m not even trying to change that man. I’m just observing. I want to see how he moves so I know how to manage.”

This shift is indicative of how gung-ho the industry can be on success and productivity. Despite witnessing Tedros controlling Jocelyn in a super creepy way, Destiny is nonetheless on the fence about foregoing her misgivings and apprehensions due to his effectiveness. Given that Destiny is one of the most protective and morally centered people on the show, and that her sole prerogative was to glean incriminating evidence, her sudden wishy-washy perception of Tedros’ presence in Jocelyn’s world – goes to show how ethically susceptible the business can be.

Destiny seems stoked and in awe regarding Tedros’ capacity to lure out something specific with Jocelyn, Izaak, Ramsey, and Chloe, and because of his knack for extracting creativity, she’s increasingly willing to overlook the means:

“But what he does to get it: I done seen some shit! Tests their limits. Puts them in chains and restraints and shit!” Destiny exclaims on the phone.

“What like torture?” Chaim retorts, in disbelief.

“Yes, puts them in like chokeholds, and makes them tell him their deep dark secrets.”

Tedros’ grooming strategies, meanwhile, are being mirrored by the very different but equally dubious grooming techniques deployed by the record label on Dyanne. In a very telling back-and-forth montage, we witness Tedros and Nikki concurrently in action—two master manipulators. The primary difference between the two is one is working within the system and the other outside it—Tedros is rogue and kinky, while Nikki is bureaucratically tricky.

Nikki’s manipulative edge can be seen as we watch Dyanne being shepherded around the record label headquarters and flattered in meetings:

“We don’t just find ordinary people on the street and give them the keys. We see something that’s special in you and it’s not just your talent. It’s your work ethic.”

I found Nikki’s emphasis on “work ethic” here to be quite intriguing. As I speculated in my breakdown of “Pop Tarts and Rat Tales,” Dyanne seems to be a stand-in for the encroaching dominance of K-Pop, on a subtextual level at least. Whether a stereotype or not, K-Pop acts are renowned for their tireless work ethic. Resembling cultural norms and exaggerating them to their nth degree, the demanding K-Pop “Idol Factory” is known to push artists to unfathomable limits. As opposed to our increasing focus on self-care in professional spaces, K-Pop artists are expected to professionally persevere, regardless of mental and physical health.

This phenomenon is touched upon in-depth in Medium’s “Ethics in the Korean Entertainment Industry,” which notes how in “South Korean society, working/performing despite being ill or exhausted is considered a sign of a strong work ethic rather than an endangerment.” Thus, while Dyanne doesn’t feel like a very fleshed-out character, she has a certain degree of depth if one considers the broader cultural commentary. Her dramatic juxtaposition vis-à-vis Jocelyn creates a dichotomy of antipodal tensions: assiduity vs. artistry, steadfastness vs. capriciousness, dependable conformity vs. erratic creativity, etc.

Dyanne is thus the perfect rebound artist for Nikki and the label, which is ostensibly rattled by the whirlwind of Jocelyn’s mental health crisis and unpredictability. Tired of Jocelyn’s unreliability, they virtually hire a substitute singer, even giving Dyanne Jocelyn’s single: “We want your first song to be World Class Sinner,” Nikki gloats. Nikki realizes that Dyanne’s tractable temperament and robotic precision can be molded to their dictates. The way she showers her with corporate padding—telling Dyanne she’ll receive the top producers, bumps in the algorithm, and a world-class tour – is telling. She’s the antidote to a volatile and turbulent diva—she’s the corporate ideal, a dependable and undeviating servant.

Nikki in The Idol Episode 4
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

Oddly enough, this duality redeems Tedros quite substantially. While he also demands subservience and strives to micromanage everyone in his coterie, there’s a genuine intention to cultivate artistic honesty and extract authentic expression. Unlike Nikki, who sees Dyanne as an android idol or a synthetic doll (See: Black Mirror’s “Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too” for supplemental commentary on this dynamic), and is frothing at the mouth of the opportunity to puppeteer and play with her career, Tedros appears to sincerely want to unearth the raw, primordial, and eternal creative energy and soulfulness within his minions.

This is not to say Tedros isn’t mercenary or disturbingly oppressive. The post-coital argument between Izaak and Leia in bed highlights his authoritarianism. Leia, as customary, leads off the row by voicing her unpopular consternations about Tedros’ psychopathic tendencies:

“Honestly, I just think it’s really f*cked up that we’re all just sitting around while Jocelyn’s getting assaulted?” Leia complains.

“A-assaulted?” Izaak chuckles, smiling incredulously to dismiss the accusation.

“Ya,” Leia continues, “And no one is saying anything. Like, Destiny isn’t saying anything. I don’t know where Chaim is. Like, they’re all letting this psychopath exploit her, beca–, sorry, but he is. Just so they can make money? Like all these people say it is their job to take care of her, but they don’t really care.”

“Okay, I know his methods can seem odd to outsiders but it’s his process and it works.”

“Ya, I think that it’s great, but I don’t think that it’s worth it.”

“You know Tedros always says there are two types of people — the ones that support you and the obstacles.”

“So, am I one of the obstacles?”

“I don’t know, are you?”

“Honestly, Izaak, I’m just really scared for her right now. He’s doing mind control on her or something.”

“Mind control?”

“Ya, he’s using her in front of other people like she’s not even a human being.”

“I mean she’s not a human being. She’s a star and stars belong to the world.”

This dispute nicely summarizes Tedros’ dehumanization of Jocelyn and his indoctrination of artists into disciples. But it also offers a stalwart defense from Izaak, whose final comment serves as the foundation for the episode’s title. In this context, “Stars Belong to the World” becomes somewhat of a misnomer. Whereas one can read it as a reclamation of the underrecognized humanity of artists (i.e., stars are people too), a stricter and less generous reading renders a very different inference—that stars are alien species, shackled and enslaved to the world.

For her part, Jocelyn is neither completely docile nor surrendered to the world. With an underbite of snark and manipulative tenacity, she is a fighter, which comes out in spades in “Stars Belong to the World.” On a brief and snarky phone call with Talia (Hari Nef), Jocelyn snaps back with subtle sarcastic jabs, poking fun at the way media rhetoric deprives artists of their relatability. After Talia leans into the conversation by poking at the sore subject of the “World Class Sinner” music video (“Last time I saw you, you were having a really hard time.”), Jocelyn rationalizes her histrionic condition (“Grief definitely comes in waves.”).

Here, Talia recites the same compassionate phrase she used in “Double Fantasy” (“I mean, you’re only human…”), only this time it doesn’t come across nearly as empathetic. There’s something contrived and forced about the delivery. Whether it’s the readymade redundancy of the idiom or the slipperiness of how it is articulated, Jocelyn is put on edge, and bitingly quips, “It’s funny. It feels like people keep saying that to me as if I’m not [human].” By recognizing the way language can insinuate its opposite effect, Jocelyn once again shows how weary and savvy she’s become when it comes to spinning narratives and speaking in journalistic code. Seeking to reclaim her humanity, Jocelyn bluntly calls out the loaded doublespeak, the sophistry, and the bullsh*t.

These moments exemplify Jocelyn’s maturation and autonomy as a free thinker with justifiable skepticism. She may be submissive to Tedros, but she’s far from a naïve lamb or sacrificial sheep. To the contrary, Jocelyn is conspicuously playing a role of servility—exploring romantic enslavement for aesthetic aims.

Jocelyn’s next creative output, “One of the Girls,” highlights this dynamic to a tee:

“Push me and choke me ’til I pass out

Push me down, hold me down

Spit in my mouth while you turn me out

I wanna take your light inside

Tear me down, snuff me out

Hands on my neck while you push it up”

The song and lyrics resemble Lana Del Rey’s melodic timbre and masochistic themes (Lana has been called out for romanticizing domestic abuse in Ultraviolence, for being choked in videos, for using The Crystals’ 1962 line, “He hit me and it felt like a kiss”) have long been a source of controversy, declared as antifeminist as I chronicled in the premiere recap. Here, we see how playacting as a sub to a master figure can be an imaginative experiment and a form of agency, as opposed to the other way around. In the same vein that powerful detectives (see: Basic Instinct), stage directors (see: Venus in Furs), Wall St. stockbrokers (see: 9½ Weeks), music professors (see: The Piano Teacher), and wealthy heirs (see: Sanctuary) can fetishize the role of being a sex slave, it is not beyond the realm of belief that powerful pop divas might crave the same usurpation.

On the topic of BDSM, the subplot resulting in Xander being hog-tied with cords and forced to wear a shock collar designed for dogs is inarguably the most sadomasochistic sequence in the episode, if not the most disconcerting of the entire series. It all begins with Xander in the shower singing. For whatever reason, Tedros is lurking in the room, and he’s immediately piqued by what he hears. Levinson shoots the entire interaction like a horror film, with Tedros stalking Xander while lurking in the dark shadows like the killer in an ‘80s slasher flick.

Eventually, Tedros sneaks up on Xander and prank-scares him (“You should have seen your face!”). There’s something simultaneously playful and sinister about the encounter, and as the scene cuts to the next development (showing Tedros waking up Xander and the rest at the crack of dawn like a military drill sergeant, screaming, “Up! Up! Up! Good morning!” as he aggressively wields a pool cue), we realize Tedros’ discovery is both a blessing and curse. Tedros forces everyone to stand in a single file line and begins to interrogate the groggy, pajama-clad crew: (“Does anybody know the meaning of family?  Famulus means servant. It is our duty to serve our family.”).

Xander stares ominously as he gets out of the shower in "Stars Belong to the World," Episode 4 of The Idol.
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

From here, he pulls Xander out of the group, forces the dog collar around him, and begins to gather the truth behind Xander’s hidden talent by jolting him via remote control. Tedros may be figuratively wash-boarding Jocelyn’s creative manager, but his intentions are somewhat altruistic—he wants to learn why Xander has kept his singing chops a secret: “Why don’t you sing anymore? You should really give the gift that God gave you.” As he testifies, Tedros relies on the cruel shock collar to unlock people and find out what’s in their hearts. He uses torture as a therapeutic tool. The ethics are beyond murky, but the overarching purpose is at least partially generous.

Writing and squirming in pain, Xander tries to lie at first (claiming he tore his vocal cords, to which Tedros notes, “You are either fully healed or you’re lying”) before revealing that he was coerced by Jocelyn’s mom, Julianne, who outed him when he was 13 and forced him to sign a non-disclosure contract agreeing to never sing (apparently, Julianne feared Xander might eclipse Jocelyn). These two acts crippled him, causing Xander to quit an unspecified “show” and move in with Jocelyn and Julianne as an underling.

Here, the roles of Jocelyn and Tedros begin to truly flip for the first time in the series. As foreshadowed early on due to the much too obvious Basic Instinct allusion, many outlets were quick to speculate Jocelyn as the true overlord running the show.  At first, Jocelyn is tentative. “This feels a little extreme,” she whispers to Tedros, to which he responds declaring his unwavering fidelity: “You want to know what’s extreme? My servitude. My devotion to you. On earth and in heaven. All you have to do is tell me he’s lying.” But as the scene goes on, the two begin to switch sides. As Xander reveals the truth behind the unspoken contract Julianne forced upon him, laments the “years this bitch has taken from me,” and claims that Jocelyn “controls everything around her and everyone and now she’s doing it to you,” Jocelyn abruptly becomes fierce and menacing.

“You took everything from me! You used me for all my worth!” she screams, furious after Xander calls her “more disgusting and f*cked up than [her] disgusting c*nt of a mother.” From this point, Tedros suddenly begins to quail and recoil as Jocelyn amplifies her rage, demanding that he continuously torture Xander with electric jolts. By the end of the sequence, Tedros’ puppyish eyes and Jocelyn’s stone-cold glare tell a very different story than the one we’ve been hitherto trained to see. Jocelyn has been hardened by the viciousness of the industry, developing a brutalist streak of her own. As a result, she is the one suddenly pushing Tedros to the brink, as the latter looks palish and uneasy as he heeds Jocelyn’s ruthless commands.

Though hard to read, it seems like Jocelyn may be guarded in some realms, while truly gullible in others. For one, she’s an unapologetic apologist for Tedros’ sketchy past. As world-weary as she appears, Jocelyn fails to see through Tedros’ flimsy alibis for his sordid past. We witness Jocelyn’s impressionable alter-ego in full display as she outlines Tedros’ carceral past for Destiny. She knows he’s spent time in prison, and defends him effusively, downplaying the abuse and positioning Tedros in the role as the victim. “He’s actually really sensitive about it,” she begins, painting Tedros as a reluctant villain who choked and punched a crazy ex in self-defense.

It’s hard to tell how much Jocelyn believes this canard, but she has no issue regurgitating Tedros’ alternative narrative as Destiny prods for more info (“And then!?” she asks, hilariously feigning enthusiastic curiosity). In “Stars Belong to The World,” Da’Vine chews up her line readings and masticates every scene to piece. This is HER episode. She’s comedic gold from start to finish, and brilliant in this scene in baiting Jocelyn to disclose Tedros’ backstory, which also includes a 6-year stint behind bars (the purported fallout after a group of girls “extorted him for money” by telling the “cops he was like their pimp”).

Meanwhile, after her conversation with Talia, Jocelyn is summoned by Tedros to “go public:” If the press isn’t necessarily going to humanize her as she deserves, why not live stream a preemptive confessional video herself? Cut to Jocelyn on the lawn beneath her mansion’s balcony (the same lawn she quietly cried beneath her sunglasses on in “Pop Tarts and Rat Tales”), speaking directly to her fans (“It’s just you and me,” she says, indulging a sense of false intimacy so common on social media) via her TikTok or Instagram account.

It’s a smart PR maneuver for Jocelyn, beating the headlines, telling her story in her own words (“My earliest memory was when I was three years old of my mother beating me with a hairbrush.”), and expressing “gratitude for allowing [her] to process what’s been the most difficult time in my whole life. By the end, she vows to be a bigger, better, and stronger Jocelyn: “I promise, I’m not going to let the trauma of my past affect me going forward. There’s a new Jocelyn coming.” She signs off, and the selfie live streaming vantage point (mirroring the series’ highly intimate opening shot, wherein we witness Jocelyn’s chameleonic emotional versatility) pulls out to show her inner orbit functioning as a live audience, clapping and congratulating her speech.

Jocelyn's new posse watch her live stream a confessional update on her social media.
Courtesy of HBO

In Compact Mag’s “The Art of Exploitation in The Idol,” Adam Lehrer dissects Tedros’ quote from “Pop Tarts and Rat Tales” claiming “Pop music” to be “the ultimate Trojan horse,” arguing that it doubles as the show’s mantra and Levinson’s artistic philosophy at large:

“He is masterful at adopting the language and imagery of contemporary pop culture, channeling its addictive and seductive qualities, and deconstructing it with antagonistic thematic content that, in a subtle and elegant manner, challenges the normative thinking that dominates the entertainment industry.”

Later in the same article, Lehner reflects on fame as “little more than the willingness to be devoured by the mob.” Both observations synthesize wonderfully in Jocelyn’s viral confessional, showcasing Levinson’s capacity to tap into the parlance of the Gen-Z-dominated online conversation to subtly chastise and satirize its phony qualities. Levinson’s brilliance is in pandering to the zeitgeist’s aesthetic and messaging while mocking them clandestinely. His films and TV shows, from Assassination Nation to Euphoria, straddle the liminal spaces between spoofing and sympathizing with his target demographic—simultaneously reifying and undermining the status quo.

Unlike the previous episodes, the third act of “Stars Belong to the World” is the least intriguing, depicting a nighttime bacchanal at Jocelyn’s mansion. The Bel Air debauchery is as one would expect, filled with cocaine, tequila, phallic cameos, and poolside sex acts. The licentiousness, however, plays second fiddle to the power politics conspiring in the pockets and niches.

Tedros is primarily and pathetically preoccupied with practicing kung-fu moves, flirting with groupies, and dousing Leia with a tequila-filled squirt gun for being a party-kill by cleaning up the teak table, “ruining the whole night,” and “being a b*tch for no f*cking reason.” His alpha-male microaggressions (to use the popular vernacular) toward Leia are transparent and targeted. He knows she’s suspicious of his motives and an enemy, and he’s subsequently determined to beleaguer her to the point of resigning. Tedro’s party shenanigans also unveil deep social anxieties and insecurities: He’s retreating to horseplay to hide the fact he’s a parvenu.

As Tedros immaturely terrorizes Leia, his arriviste status comes crumbling down by dint of Chloe’s MDMA-induced garrulity. Unconscious of her loose-lipped loquacity, Chloe spills Tedros’ entire scheme, informing Jocelyn that Dyanne was assigned by Tedros to recruit her to the club. In one chatty statement, Jocelyn and Tedros’ tryst detonates. Unaware that Tedros’ subterfuge had been revealed, Dyanne stops by the couch where Jocelyn and Chloe are lounging to have a one-to-one Jocelyn. She informs Jocelyn that Nikki asked her to sign with Magistrate and release “World Class Sinner,” and that she wants to garner her approval before moving forward.

Though heartbroken and wronged, Jocelyn accedes, maintaining pretenses so that she can hypothetically plot her revenge in secret. Dyanne intuits something is off (“Why are you crying?”), but Jocelyn quickly offers a legible pretext (“I’m just really happy for you. Let me go get you a drink.”). Instead of procuring libations, Jocelyn calls up her previously discussed ex-boyfriend (the Hollywood A-list actor, Heartthrob Rob (Karl Glusman, cheekily cast after his starring role in Gasper Noe’s Love) to invite him over.

Rob arrives in a down-to-earth outfit (jeans, brown hoodie, and work boots), and proceeds to be everything Tedros is not: low-key, soft-spoken, quietly confident, and truly compassionate. Unfortunately, Tedros is flummoxed and perturbed at his appearance and forces him to partake in a passive-aggressive drink off (“You want to do another one? Doesn’t everybody gotta take it up the ass to get these roles out here?” Tedros rhetorically and belligerently asks).

As Tedros, Abel Tesfaye rules this scene. Tedros’ is sloshed and unhinged, screaming maniacally and jumping into a Bruce Lee stance. Abel captures his reckless abandon with startling accuracy, accentuating Tedros’ pathos and bellicosity as he tries to browbeat Rob into cowering. Rob, however, doesn’t flinch at Tedros’ contentious antics, and as Jocelyn arrives and runs to hug Rob and whisk him away to the bedroom upstairs, Tedros is left a muttering, crying, slobbering wreck.

Upstairs, we learn all about Rob and Jocelyn’s breakup. We also learn Rob is about to embark on a press tour for a superhero movie he’s not very proud of (“They could have cast anyone else,” he self-loathingly admits, echoing Alicia Vikander’s anti-superhero sentiments as Mira Harberg in Episode 1 of Irma Vep). Jocelyn is not interested in self-pity. Instead, she flirtatiously attempts to lift Rob’s spirits (“I’ve seen that Latex suit. I recognize that ass.”), inadvertently reinforcing his complaints about the anti-artistry of the genre, which reduces his acting skills to a sexy physique.

Heartthrob Rob (Glausman) makes his appearance in Episode 4 of The Idol.
Courtesy of HBO

Jocelyn’s objective for the rendezvous is to seduce Rob and sleep with him to spite and upset Tedros by way of a vengeful hook-up. Sadly, Rob is a bit confused by her over-the-top come-ons and seductiveness: “Put clothes on you lunatic,” he jokingly bemoans, as Jocelyn balks, “You’re no fun.” Having watched Jocelyn’s confessional video, he’s more curious about her emotional state and wants to have an intimate conversation: “Why didn’t you tell me all that shit? Like about your mom? […] I have this image of you. You were giving her a bath. Can’t imagine how awful this must be.”).

Jocelyn is not having it. She winces, shrinks, and dodges his attempts at intimacy. She won’t explain why she’s not answered his calls. She stands temptingly nude on her balcony, then smokes half-clad between an evocative painting of abstract legs. She tells him she bought her translucent outfit to come to meet him in Germany before he “f*cked [his] costar and broke [her] delicate little heart.” Annoyed and ashamed by the allegation, Rob reminds Jocelyn that they weren’t exclusive: “For the record, you’re the one who said it was boring to be monogamous,” he counters. “Well, I take it back,” Jocelyn pronounces.

We realize from the exchange that Heartthrob Rob is legitimately concerned. Jocelyn falsely promises she’s in “a good place” despite throwing house parties and spiraling into a toxic relationship. She refuses to join him on his press tour, and then, despite his resistance and desire to have a heart-to-heart (“There are plenty of guys in the world you can have sex with that won’t ask you any questions”), Robs ultimately succumbs to her advances: “You know what I like most about you. When you want something, you find a way to get it.”

Meanwhile, Tedros, looking forlorn, emasculated, and defeated, has a sudden epiphany as “Quiet Storm” by Smokey Robinson cryptically kicks in. He stares up at Jocelyn’s Prince poster and chuckles. What’s he thinking? The epilogue seems to hint at his conniving grin as Xander (now a fully indoctrinated flunkey) and a random groupie meet Rob on his way down the stairs. Xander asks Rob if he’ll take a quick photo with the unnamed Siren, and he reluctantly agrees. But as she flings herself all over Rob, hopping on his lap as Xander snaps a photo to sabotage his reputation, he becomes instantly agitated, instructing Xander to “delete that f*cking photo, bro!”. Of course, he won’t. Of course, Tedros has all the content he needs to create a media firestorm, smearing Rob in one fell swoop.

This scene feels a bit too broad and oversimplistic for taking on such a serious and topical subject. While false victimization and strategic cancel campaigns are undoubtedly real, misogyny and rape culture are very real, too. Suffice it to say, such issues deserve considerably more nuance and subtlety and ambivalence than this scene lends. In dumbing down the complexity of false accusations, it feels tonally and narratively negligent—dismissing an entire phenomenon with a straw-man scenario. That said, it’s also simply implanted as a plot device, and as such, it will surely reappear in the season finale, “Jocelyn Forever.”

Not unsurprisingly, “Jocelyn Forever” is already riled by fractious arguments online regarding whether it was meant to end at Episode 5 or Episode 6. While many outlets falsely jumped to the conclusion that The Idol was ending prematurely due to HBO execs pulling the plug to cut its so-called losses (See: Radar Online’s poorly researched yet widely circulated and celebrated article, The Weeknd’s HBO ‘Torture Porn’ Series ‘The Idol’ Will End After 5 Episodes), the truth is much less salacious.

As it turns out, it is neither canceled nor terminated early. As reported by Men’s Health, Dexerto, and Vox, such overzealous claims were simply wishful thinking on behalf of anti-The Idol acolytes. At Cannes, it was advertised as a five-episode series. In a GQ article, Abel Tesfaye called the series a “five-hour film. Just as HBO’s PR tweeted that reports of The Idol’s cancellation were “misreported” on June 15th, this latest wave of misinformation shows the lengths to which online mobs will go to spread false rumors that reinforce their aesthetic preferences.”

In truth, when the regime switched from Seimetz to Levinson, the series sloughed an episode for unspecified reasons. It will be interesting to see if this leaner version feels rushed or taut, skeletal or succinct. It is possible Levinson simply distilled the core material down to five economic episodes. It is also possible there was significant pressure to do so, given the cost of reshoots. As it stands, there are myriad narrative threads to tie up in a single hour. Whether or not it will live up to its lofty setups or feel fragmented/scattered remains to be seen, but the final episode undoubtedly has plenty of storylines to reconcile and juggle.

With so many potential directions, it is easy to see the massive potential for expanding this ostentatious satire well beyond its virginal season. It may be tonally shambolic at times, but Levinson’s visual panache is lush (resembling everything from Refn’s polished oeuvre to recent auteur projects, like Paul Schrader’s The Canyons and David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars), the show’s “cannily constructed earworms” are climbing Spotify’s steaming charts (“World Class Sinner” currently sits at No. 9 on the Viral 50-Global playlist), and the sizzling onscreen talent is starting to gel. Whatever happens, one can only hope art wins (whatever that means). And if that means it must end, let’s hope Abel’s description of the season as a self-contained 5-episode film rings true, and everything wraps up with some measure of finality.

Written by Paul Keelan

Paul Keelan currently resides in Phoenix, AZ with his wife and cat. He has toured the continental US multiple times as a bassist playing rock jams, lived / traveled / taught abroad for over five years (primarily in Asia), and watched an unhealthy amount of movies.

When not writing about cinema for 25YL and Letterboxd, or working on his travel novels / novellas, he spends free time reenacting imaginary montage sequences as he records, edits, and cohosts the spectacular sports movie podcast Cinematic Underdogs.

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