The Idol Season Finale Recap and Analysis: Is it “Jocelyn Forever” or Jocelyn’s Swan Song?

Lily-Rose Depp and Abel Tesfaye star in the final scene in The Idol, onstage at SoFi stadium.
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

The following recap contains spoilers for the season finale of The Idol, Episode 5, “Jocelyn Forever”

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Episode 5 of The Idol, “Jocelyn Forever,” takes no time to reveal the shifting power hierarchy within Jocelyn’s mansion. Levinson skips traditional exposition dumps from the get-go to organically dot the narrative threads. Tedros (Abel Tesfaye) is visibly inebriated, sweaty, and at his wit’s end. Petulant and whining, he berates Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) from the periphery after she demands (“You know, I think you should go!”) that he leaves the home recording studio: “Do you really want to kick out your only source of inspiration?” She is now the boss, and Tedros is the outcast.

Of course, Tedros doesn’t heed orders or vanish at a snap. Though soused and slightly slurring his words, his megalomania remains on high alert and at full tilt. He declares himself to be Jocelyn’s creative “faucet,” proclaiming that her recent outpouring of hits wouldn’t exist without him: “So, you think these [songs] are self-portraits now?” Jocelyn, surrounded by Mike Dean, Ramsey, and random production assistants, stays unflappable and undisturbed by his reproaches. In retaliation, she ridicules Tedros and exposes his entire schtick, calling him “a con man and a fraud” before recapping his “whole plan”/ruse before the full room.

For the first time, we learn that Tedros has been obsessed with Jocelyn for years. We hear Jocelyn recap that he hired a backup dancer (Dyanne) to bring her to his club. For obvious reasons, this is creepy, sleazy, and overbearing. If it’s romantic, it is only romantic in a sociopathic sort of way. Mike Dean (Jocelyn’s producer and a music industry legend) succinctly capsules Tedros’ disquieting designs: “That’s some super LA shit. F*cking vampire.” For anyone paying attention/keeping records, this is a clever and cheeky intertextual reference to when Tedros shows up at Jocelyn’s mansion in “Pop Tarts and Rat Tales,” donning a long, black coat and Dracula vibes.

Though not hard to miss, Twitter was fast to wax comedic about this outfit, describing Tedros as “dressed up like a vampire Jedi from Spirit Halloween and saying some freaky boi stuff.” Abel himself reflected that he leaned into vampire motifs to exaggerate the show’s campiness:

“Yeah, [the vampiric vibes] intentionally heighten the camp of it all. But the reality is, there’s nothing really mysterious or hypnotizing about him. And we did that on purpose with his look, outfits, and hair—the guy’s a douchebag.”

The fact that Abel admits leaning into camp is intriguing. And the fact that Dean likens Tedros to a bloodsucking LA hipster douchebag reinforces his campy qualities. Such moments remind viewers that Tedros is an unabashedly fictional archetype—as over-the-top as the series. The costuming, the plotting, and the garishness should be engaged with an air of lightness and levity.

In Susan Sontag’s “camp”-defining essay, she describes the aesthetic phenomenon of camp as a celebration “of artifice and exaggeration.” In her words, it is a storytelling mode that “converts the serious into the frivolous,” a mode that sees “everything in quotation marks,” and a mode of “Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” Camp must have all the right ingredients to succeed: “The proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.” When it fails or is “just bad,” the most apparent cause is “mediocrity in its ambition.” When it succeeds, it delivers something so outlandish that it brings pleasure—a level of excess and surplus that demands enjoyment.

The same could be said for The Idol. With self-aware silliness, it exudes innocence and naiveté—the guise of a “seriousness that fails.” For more flexible and open viewers, appreciating the show becomes less a moral argument than an aesthetic/subjective one. Did it wryly blend all the ingredients of camp suavely? Or did it falter, producing something lackluster and mediocre?

Jocelyn sits in the basement with Xander, Izaak, and Ramsey in The Idol.
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

The Idol straddled this fine line between middling entertainment and high camp throughout its inaugural season. Ultimately, differences in opinion boiled down to a difference in sensibility and taste. Unlike ideas, which can be debated, sensibilities are harder to pin down as taste has “no system and no proofs.” Nevertheless, as Sontag suggests, taste is of the highest order when it comes to art; to “patronize” taste is to patronize oneself, for nothing is “more decisive” or crucial in the governance of “free—as opposed to rote—human response.”

In this context, liking vs. disliking The Idol primarily comes down to pure discretion, despite all the controversies and calls to rationality. Vacillating from cheeky spectacle to histrionic intensities, the series’ variegated sensibilities can be viewed through many lenses—enjoyed for its theatricality, derided as a tonal failure, or debated with wishy-washy feelings.

In “Jocelyn Forever,” I fell squarely into the ambivalent camp. I admired the show’s style, excess, topicality, glossy sheen, performative indulgences, and comedic acidity (Eli Roth is ridiculously hilarious). But I also found its metaphors so on the nose they bordered on insulting, its twist preposterously hackneyed and superfluous, and its decision to reframe the entire narrative baffling. I enjoyed its self-reflexive snark or unadulterated silliness. But I waffled and floundered while trying to make sense of its smug ending.

Another recurring feature I admired in The Idol was its repetition. Every episode has at least one shot of the maidservants and housekeepers sweeping and dusting. In every episode, we see Leia waking Jocelyn by pulling the curtains. In every episode, Jocelyn is boxed in by cinematic framings, as if trapped in her mansion. Levinson and the creative team cleverly reuse and reappropriate settings in loaded, symbolically heavy-handed ways. Take the opening showdown in the series finale: Just one episode after depicting Tedros rounding up the clan to torture Xander (Troye Sivan) in the basement, Levinson shows him failing to instigate a coup in the same space.

This time, Tedros’ pep talk and mutinous speech are met with deaf ears and a stalwart counterattack from Jocelyn. Tedros tries every tactic in the book. He patronizes Jocelyn’s sudden air of authority (“Aye-aye captain!”). He chastises her for “talking to [his] people” without first talking to him since “they’re an extension of [his identity].” He bemoans her covert strategy to “swoop down” and steal his cultish minions. Nothing succeeds.

With implacable coldness, Jocelyn doesn’t flinch or even raise her voice. She chides Tedros for being a “sweaty, drunken disgusting mess” (the shot of Abel smelling his armpits short after this diss is quite funny). She reminds Tedros’ increasingly insubordinate cadre of talent of who is now in control: “See, the difference between me and him is I can actually make you a star.” Jocelyn isn’t playing games, and her speedy switch to waging an all-out insurrection seems telling. Sure, Tedros’ exposed machinations had upset her. But her ruthless degree of stony-hearted staunchness hints at the fact that Jocelyn’s takeover had been planned all along.

Unmoved and pitiless as Jocelyn is, Tedros isn’t surrendering too quickly. He continues to take shots. He continues to hector and exhort whomever he can, trying to rally and commandeer the troops back to his team. He whispers to Xander that Joss will cut him out of the show. He implores everyone to dress scandalously (“Don’t forget sex sells!”) to impress the bigwig label/Live Nation execs heading to the mansion—namely, Andrew Finkelstein (Eli Roth) and Nikki (Jane Adams). And he demands that if anyone receives any attention from the hot shot reps, to lean into it. Whether resilient, delusional, or planning a rebellion, Tedros still believes he has skin in the game.

Eli Roth in The Idol Episode 5
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

Soon enough, Jocelyn’s management team shows up for a one-on-one meeting about the tour and her mental health. They don’t realize they’re walking into a house filled with Tedros’ scantily clad underlings champing at the bit for a chance to garner recognition. This mismatch of vibes and intentions turns the would-be stuffy business meeting into a screwball comedy of conflicting sensibilities and agendas.

From the moment Izaak (Moses Sumney) greets the team at the front door wearing nothing but gold satin shorts (“Who is he? A really hot Targaryen?” Finkelstein quips), the awkward tensions begin. As an uptight, white-collar yuppie-golfer prototype who spends his days getting pedicures and manicures in the comfort of his LA mansion, Finkelstein is the perfect antithesis to the sexually and spiritually libertarian energy of Tedros’ team. While he winces and smarmily retreats from the group’s bawdy solicitations, he doesn’t recoil in a browbeaten or intimidated way.

Instead of withdrawing, Fink comically and uncomfortably narrates the entire imbroglio, play by play. “Oh, we’re hugging now,” he says, mocking the intimacy of the greetings, “surprised we weren’t branded on the way in.” Once seated, he continues to riff on his chagrin, defusing his embarrassment with jocular deflections. Astutely tapped into contemporary pop culture controversies and gossip, he fills his broadsides with witty allusions to Hunter Biden, Nxivm, and Kanye (whom he likens to Jocelyn, citing the fact that Ye was “filling arenas until he started following Adolf Hitler”). Without a doubt, Finkelstein still has serious trepidations about backing her upcoming tour.

Eli Roth sells the aloofly sarcastic jabs perfectly—conjecturing about the pubic louse and crabs crawling behind the walls, insulting Tedros’ imposter persona (“You telling me Scarface Miyagi over there found [these artists]? He can barely put a sentence together!”), and begrudgingly recognizing the talent on display as Chloe, Ramsey, Izaak, Xander, and Jocelyn all take turns performing.

Picking up where Episode 4 left off, Destiny (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) first invites Chloe, whom she’d coached by the pool, to show off her songwriting chops (“Sing like a god,” she encourages the prodigy). Fink is candidly impressed but also points out that talent alone is not everything: “She’s talented, but so is the banjo boy in Deliverance […] like what are we doing?” Similarly, after Ramsey finishes her number, Fink whispers to Chaim (Hank Azaria) that “She is good. I give her five stars. But I feel like Ed McMahon over here” (referencing the host of the original Star Search and TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes).

Levinson intermittently eavesdrops on mumbled conversations as Tedros’ acolytes perform, gradually blowing the socks off Jocelyn’s executive team. Eventually, Destiny formally introduces Tedros to Nikki; noticeably standoffish and icy, Tedros tears Nikki apart, calling her a Judas and a TikTok-obsessed algorithm c*nt with no taste. For all his flaws, one cannot help but feel Tedros’ ire and loathing here is genuine insofar as he cares about making art, not commercial products.

Nikki takes visible umbrage at the insult but sardonically deflects the slander. Self-aware of her mercenary and corporate superficiality, she defends herself by claiming that Tedros was doing nothing but stating the obvious: “A little like calling the kettle black!” Tedros is stumped by Nikki’s embracing of the critiques and tries to launch an identity-politics parry, pointing out the so-called “racist” terminology in her kettle analogy: “Yo, Izaak. You hear that? Black!”

Ramsey performs in "Jocelyn Forever."
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

Believe it or not, Nikki and Tedros soon begin to hit it off—just seconds after this tit-for-tat. Watching the procession of incredible talent, Nikki realizes that Tedros has a knack for scoping out and cultivating raw musical artistry. “It’s incredible,” she exclaims before pausing to check in on Tedros’ level of sobriety: “Are you a little loaded? I’m not judging.” Tedros lies, denying the backhanded accusation, but Nikki doesn’t care: “You’re a little loaded, but you’re brilliant. And I am telling you this. I want to work with you after you called me a c*nt because you’re brilliant. I can be your c*nt.”

Tedros’ eyes light up, innocently surprised to see someone appreciate his value. It’s a subtly poignant moment, given how rock bottom he’s hit and how ostracized and downtrodden he’s become. Spiraling quickly, Tedros has become the laughingstock of the house. During the audition, he looks so sloshed and palish that Mike Dean’s posse spends the entire rehearsal tryout mock clapping and savagely trash-talking about Tedros. “Dude is sweating like a whore in church,” one of Mike Dean’s lackeys says, to which Dean echoes the most reiterative bromide in the series: “Don’t trust anyone with a rattail.”

Rattail or not, Nikki is impressed and soon sings Tedros’ praises to Finkelstein. Fink is not buying it, peevishly snapping they’d have to “tour with a paramedic to jab him with an adrenaline shot.” And although he’s flattered, Tedros isn’t buying Nikki’s pitch either: “It’s not about the politicking and propaganda or whatever,” he grouchily insists, “this is art.”

At the same time this is taking place, Leia (Rachel Sennott) is busy trying to handle the budding PR fiasco surrounding Heartthrob Rob. She paces back and forth in the backyard—flummoxed, exasperated, and yelling laughably direct lines like “I know you’re not a rapist!” into the phone. By this point in the series, the sight of Leia snappishly flustered in a state of crisis management has become a running joke. The semi-tragic character arc of Leia’s stonewalled crusades and campaigns for common sense will arrive a few scenes later when she finally quits.

Before that happens, Leia reenters the living room and tries to inform Xander about Rob’s situation. Both Xander and Mitch strategically ignore her pleas. Having sabotaged Rob himself by taking the incriminating selfie during the cliffhanger ending of “Stars Belong to the World,” Xander pushes back at the idea of telling Jocelyn. As they debate, Izaak struts and sings, wearing nothing more than a gilded loincloth, grinding the floor and later humping Nikki while Destiny sings his praises, hailing, “He has the soul of Prince!” The scene is raucous and riotously edited to capture the utter pandemonium.

Lily-Rose Depp plays Jocelyn in the finale of The Idol, reading a text message about Rob.
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

Ironically, Nikki is the first to break the silence about Rob, gasping out loud after she reads a news update about the rape accusations on her phone. Fink has arguably the funniest reaction to the explosive controversy, immediately seeing the news drop strictly from a business perspective. Responding to Nikki (who had mourned, “Oh, no! He’s got that huge movie coming out,”), Finkelstein prickly and narcissistically laments his jealousy of Hollywood: “We’re in the wrong industry!” As Fink sees it, Hollywood can pivot around “cancel culture” predicaments in ways the music industry can’t, wielding tech and digital graphics to its advantage. After all, as Nikki reads, since Rob’s face appears in “only 5% of the film,” the studio decided to replace him digitally and move forward with the “summer release strategy.”

This is the first of many self-aware reflections on the complexities of navigating mainstream art within a reactive, boycott-friendly culture in the finale. Later, after “Jocelyn Forever” jumps forward a half-year to showcase her Jocelyn tour, we hear Nikki and Fink reflect on the countless close calls they endured:

“Don’t pretend like you weren’t scared!” Nikki jests, alluding to Jocelyn’s rough journey back to touring.


“Your employees staged a walkout claiming Jocelyn’s music is misogynistic, and you weren’t scared?”

“Walkout? Seventeen [idiots] and 200 journalists.”

Once again, a general disdain for “cancel culture” disrupting the entertainment industry becomes a recurring subtext in a Levinson vehicle. That said, it’s hard to know whether Nikki and Fink’s disdain for “woke”/politically active corporate awareness is being endorsed, satirized, or both in such scenes. After all, Nikki and Fink represent the evil underbelly of the music industry, which suggests the script may be more interested in mocking their elitist perspective than promoting it.

While the PR fiasco surrounding Heartthrob Rob piques Fink’s entrepreneurial attention, it enrages Jocelyn for a different reason. She instantly suspects the accusations had been staged in vengeance and scowls at Tedros. The two have a tense standoff. Jocelyn doesn’t mince her words: “You’re small, and you’re petty, and you’re jealous.” Smirking, Tedros facetiously denies any wrongdoing, shifting the focus back on Jocelyn and her disobedience with the underhanded remark, “You don’t think people are capable of hiding who they really are?” It’s a canny and revealing line, notifying the audience that this world consists of pervasive façades and foreshadowing further acts of dissimulation.

Cutting through the tension, Xander jumps on the mic and asks the room if he’d be permitted to give the penultimate performance of the afternoon, a rendition of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” Tedros uses the moment to remind Jocelyn’s of her pettiness toward her lifelong friend, sarcastically asking, “Aren’t you proud of Xander? It’s a miracle. He got his voice back.” Furious and fuming, Jocelyn ignores the bait and storms outside for a cig break. She meditates and prays (subtly alluding to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”). Chaim senses something is off and heads out to check on her. Jocelyn doesn’t spare niceties, instantly asking Chaim to get rid of Tedros by any fiscal means necessary: “Pay whatever he wants to get out of my life forever.”

Chaim takes Tedros to the mini-bar to threaten him with a monologue that resembles in tone, style, and spirit Bill’s (David Carradine’s) iconic Superman-themed monologue in Kill Bill 2. Instead of poetically riffing on Superman, Chaim conveniently repurposes Little Red Riding Hood, the classic Grimms Tale story the series has foreshadowed since the first episode. He recites the parable’s basic storyline with menacing undertones, describing how the big bad wolf became prematurely smug and ended up with rocks sewn into its belly. His cryptic delivery of the thinly veiled threat/story is gloriously sinister and ends with a resounding mic drop:

“So, after I told the story, my five-year-old daughter asked if I was scared. Do you know what I told her? I told her no. Do you know why? I am the hunter.”

As Chaim enunciates the final word, “hunter,” he chinks Tedros’ glass, marking his downfall. The Idol’s approach to camp—playing it cool enough to feel genuine yet silly enough to feel intentionally theatrical—is apparent within this interaction. By cheekily reinventing the classical fable with a postmodern twist, the series also resembles Angela Carter’s “The Werewolf,” her revisionist take on the fable in The Bloody Chamber). (For another example of this figurative playfulness, consider Chloe’s flamboyant and fiendishly devilish headdress in the recording studio scenes early on in “Jocelyn Forever.” The costume is intentionally ludic and outrageous. Far from literal, it is meant as a metafictional wink.)

Tedros stares down Jocelyn into a hallway in The Idol.
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

The same elevated mythology could be said for Jocelyn, who returns to the living room to strut and lip-synch for Nikki and Fink—first splaying her legs on a sofa chair and then outrageously crawling on the floor. Her dance moves are crisp, meticulous, and exact. She sells herself as mentally and physically fit and ready. But for the sake of the show and the season, her number feels a little lackluster compared to the preceding performances by Xander and Tedros’ long-standing coterie (Izaak, Ramsey, and Chloe). Unlike the previous performances, Lily-Rose/Jocelyn is undermined by the odd decision to have her diegetically lip-synch, which is unfortunate.

As versatile and vocally talented as Lily-Rose is, there’s no way to quickly replicate the raw emotional and vocal range of seasoned pop stars like Moses Sumney and Ramsey. As a result, she comes off more akin to Britney Spears’ ersatz years than anything. While this works wonders for the depiction of Jocelyn, it also makes the talent surrounding her onscreen shine more brightly. It seemed unnecessary to have Jocelyn lip-synch for her creative/executive management. Lily-Rose steps up musically as Jocelyn in countless other scenes, legitimately singing many of the series’ breakout songs. Why not have her do the same in her most critical performance in the series?

Disappointments aside, Jocelyn’s infectious sound and catalog of songs showcase the latest example of a fictional music star forming a real-life canon (also see: The Partridge Family, Sister & the Sisters, The Fabulous Stains, Pink Slip from Freaky Friday, The Wonders’ theme for That Thing You Do!, and the entire soundtrack for 2001’s “punk rock prom queen satire Josie and the Pussycats”). Proudly inauthentic yet also impossibly addictive (like the show), The Idol’s soundtrack, performed and recorded by an imaginary artist, is a form of camp: blurring the lines of parody and sincerity.

While Jocelyn’s final performance doesn’t quite meet expectations, her pop star impersonation excels on a kinesthetic level. Cognizant of the anticlimactic absence of singing and its middling effect, Levinson attempts to gloss over the shortcomings with sexy editing techniques. Jocelyn still receives glowing praise from Nikki and Fink when she finishes the number. “This is the best fucking music that has ever poured out of you!” Fink proclaims. “As a parent figure, I couldn’t be prouder of you. The tour is back on.” Hearing Finkelstein’s positive feedback, she silently cheers; meanwhile, hallway guards can be spotted whisking Tedros off Jocelyn’s premises in the background. Everything has finally fallen into place.

The guards take Tedros to a black SUV where Chaim is waiting. In the SUV, Chaim writes a check to Mauricio Jackson (Tedros real name, penned in an insulting I-know-who-you-are manner) and hands it over. Tedros smiles in disbelief and rips it up. Once again, he may be a douchebag, but he’s also a person of passion and integrity. If anything, his aims are far from monetary: “You’re trying to buy your girl back?” Tedros retorts. “She’s worth so much more than money.” Honor intact but defeated nonetheless, Tedros is escorted away in the SUV as Chaim chuckles: “Fine by me. I f*ckin love Plan B.”

Plan B is a hit piece Chaim propositions Talia Nef to write. Talia agrees, scrapping and replacing her profile on Jocelyn. While Chaim’s Plan B feels improbable (Talia spent the entire series working on the Jocelyn profile, so why would she shift last second?) and narratively convenient (would Vanity Fair even care about Tedros?), it resonates as an inside joke nonetheless: After witnessing Talia navigating Jocelyn’s equivocations and the firewalls of her management team for five episodes, she doesn’t even end up writing the much-anticipated comeback article at all.

Meanwhile, Dyanne’s subplot hits a wall as well, as Nikki mendaciously informs her that the label, Magistrate, ran into “a bit of a hiccup” that will cause them to “hold the release of the single, [“World Class Sinner”].” Nikki’s empty apologies and bromides are amusing. “We’ve done all we can,” she faux-empathetically explains, struggling to shield the Cheshire grin from unveiling her arrant dishonesty. Use this as “inspiration,” she presses, half-giggling out of insincerity. Dyanne, across the table, is disheartened and distraught.

Dyanne mopes and pouts upon hearing Nikki’s dismissive/deflective suggestion: “You want me to write a song about my legal issues?” It’s a telling response—while Nikki recommends using the time to work on creative endeavors, Dyanne cannot conceive the possibility of independently writing music. She thus takes Nikki’s platitudinous pseudo-encouragement much too literally. Dyanne may be artistically disinclined, but she isn’t a ditzy idiot. Getting into the hotel, she asks Nikki about the “hiccup” point blank: “It was Jocelyn, wasn’t it?” Nikki doesn’t answer, grinning sheepishly as the elevators close.

Dyanne hears bad news about her upcoming single in the finale of The Idol.
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

The third-act epilogue occurs six months later at the stunning and state-of-the-art SoFi Stadium, where Jocelyn is preparing to perform on her already very successful tour. The venue is impeccably designed—sleek and opulent, it is as artificial and awe-inspiring as Jocelyn’s musical reawakening. Levinson’s camerawork admires SoFi’s metallic sheen, monumental scope, and commercial splendors. The lens eventually falls on Nikki, Chaim, and Fink, the trio of champions perched directly above a conspicuously lifeless ad for Michelob Ultra.

Cutting the camera angle to pry behind their backs, we snoop as they lean on a railing above the stadium floor. Their posture is reposed yet victorious, signifying three emperors overlooking their spoils, basking in their kingdom. Feeling triumphant, they celebrate their recent successes, which include the whole tour selling out in three weeks and her single “Fill the Void” jumping 8000% in streaming charts. “Who knew there was a gold mine in mental illness?” Nikki villainously laughs, harkening back to her quips on the commercial potential behind psychopathy during Episode 1’s photo shoot. She then answers her rhetorical question: “All you have to do is admit it, and everyone feels sorry for you.”

The entire conversation is clumsily interwoven and interjected into the episode—blatant exposition to get the audience up to date. Beyond filling us in on lost time, we also receive a gloating update on Tedros’ precipitous fall. The three celebrate the “sniper Talia” and her Vanity Fair assassination piece for taking “his ass out.” Nikki exults, “Talia is hot,” coming full circle from “Pop Tarts and Rat Tales,” wherein she paranoically eyed her like a spy and openly called her “communist China.” Though the whole context of the Vanity Fair hit piece is not spelled out, we glean that Talia managed to procure “quotes from that stripper girl” and that Tedros eventually “lost his club.” Still spitting fire, Fink likens Tedros to Keyzer Soze (from The Usual Suspects) and makes fun of a rap video he previously shot in a Carl’s Jr. parking lot. He toasts Tedros’ demise with acerbic verbal flair: “I’m just glad we got that psychopath out of our lives. That f*cking gonif. That f*cking guy was like herpes.”

All this boasting serves two functions. It tarnishes any lingering likability of the three execs, setting them up for overdue comeuppance by garishly portraying them as heels. It also allows us to begin to feel pity for Tedros, who we simultaneously see arriving at the SoFi box office as the trio prematurely revels in his misfortune and downfall. Tedros’ unexpected appearance immediately spurs many questions. Is he back on good terms with Jocelyn? Has he shown up unannounced? Is he trying to sneak in?

Without his usual impudence or cockiness, Tedros asks the roll call window if his name is on the guest list. After a long and humiliating silence, the woman tells him no. He pauses—distressed and filled with visible indignity—and then asks if there’s a Mauricio Jackson. There is, and as infantilizing as this gesture is, he accepts the access badge and walks inside SoFi Stadium, a shell of a man.

Deprived of his persona/namesake, his schtick is over, and his swagger has vanished. To heighten our sympathies, Nikki even switches her tune for a second, somewhat waxing sorry for him as she suddenly speaks empathetically about Tedros in a voice-over: “The sad thing is he has really good taste in music. He sold out the stadium in a weird way.” Fink scoffs and mockingly agrees, deciding to “send him a sweatshirt.” We can sense karma awaits his bumptiousness.

Tedros endures a second embarrassment trying to enter Jocelyn’s dressing room. The security guard forces him to wait outside while requesting permission. When the guard returns, he looks Tedros square in the eye and tells him, “She never heard that name Tetros before.” Tedros is flabbergasted, angered, and speechless. A few seconds suspend, tense and awkward until the guard breaks the silence: “I’m f*cking with you. Hurry up, Don Juan. Go Inside. Your shoes are blinding me.”

If Tedros’ silver shoes and cheap blue tux are blinding, Jocelyn’s white dress and Red Riding Hood-style scarlet scarf we get a glimpse of next are eye-opening—signifying she’s become the mythological character, only in a subversive manner. Inside her dressing room, Jocelyn awaits like a queen or a conquistador. But before Tedros can reunite with his timeless temptress, elusive prey, and scarlet torturer, he must pass one final stage: Destiny.

Tedros and Jocelyn's shoes in the finale of The Idol.
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

As Tedros sits patiently and timidly in an empty dressing room, Destiny walks out to set things straight and lay down the law (Samuel L. Jackson-style with rhetorical fire, expletive brimstone, and invective fury):

“They put you through the wringer. Listen, I don’t give a f*ck about your past. Call a spade a mother*cking spade. You are and were a pimp. We all got to do what we got to do to survive. But if you hurt her, I will hunt you down like the mother*cking dog you are. And I will kill you. On God. Enjoy the mother*cking show.”

After her lecture, Destiny leads Tedros into Jocelyn’s makeup room. Jocelyn shows up a few minutes later, walking through a cliché dressing room corridor flanked by opposing mirrors, aping a classical trope in horror films and erotic thrillers. Ultimately, she sits in front of a mirror, her likeness repeating infinitely in endless reflections. Though we never learn why, Jocelyn explains that she misses Tedros: “None of this means much without you. I don’t like being apart.” This tonal and narrative shift feels outlandish and farfetched at first. But upon further reflection, it isn’t beyond the realm of belief. Countless divas have repeatedly returned to toxic, bad-boy significant others, from Kevin Federline to Bobby Brown.

The big reveal comes next as Tedros picks up Jocelyn’s now notorious hairbrush:

“Did you say this was the brush your mom beat you with?” he asks quizzically.

“I did.”

Tedros brushes his fingertips along the combed edges.

“It’s brand new.”

At this epiphany of being double-crossed, Tedros pauses in shock. Mouth agape, he stares at Jocelyn, who smirks knowingly. Remember, this is supposed to be the same hairbrush Jocelyn previously claimed her mother abused her with. Thus, on a literal narrative level, its “newness” indicates that her former story of maternal abuse was fabricated.

None of this is spoken out loud, but the implied subtext is overt and easy to parse. With no time to talk about the implications of this revelation, Tedros and Jocelyn jump into a backstage golf cart to ride to the stage. Once there, Jocelyn walks out to her screaming fans and thanks them for their graciousness: “This world can be a cruel and unforgiving place, and there were moments I didn’t think I’d make it, but then I thought of you and your grace.” Her redemption arc is complete—she’s overcome her mother’s death on some base level and is ready to confront her career wholeheartedly again.

Jocelyn then surprises everyone by introducing the “love of my life.” The stage light suddenly shines on Tedros, slightly slouched and hunched like a feeble boy. Jocelyn grabs him by the hand and shepherds him toward the center of the stage: “This is the man who pulled me through the darkest hours and into the light,” she tells the audience, symbolically inviting Tedros to “meet her family.” The crowd screams, the two kiss, the execs (Nikki, Fink, and Chaim) throw a temper tantrum in their suite, and Tedros shyly backpedals from the spotlight as Jocelyn commands, “You’re mine…forever. Now go stand over there!” (Declaring ownership by barking this dominatrix-style order). Bewildered and emasculated, Tedros stands at the wing of the stage; as Jocelyn belts out the opening lyrics of “Welcome to My Family,” it becomes crystal clear—Tedros has become the Sub, and their gender/power dynamics have been completely flipped.

Tedros and Jocelyn ride a golf cart in "Jocelyn Forver."
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

On a surface level, it is a predictably safe albeit appropriately postmodern storybook ending. It is milquetoast and bereft of depth but also harmless, like Tedros’ feeble posture. The same cannot be said for the tendentious hairbrush reveal, which unmasks the whole series as a subterfuge. While many critics predicted a climactic twist that elevated Jocelyn into the role of a conniving femme fatale, few expected the twist to be this doltish or clumsy.

Despite occasionally dopey and harebrained plot scheming, The Idol never felt incoherent. But as The Digital Fix posits, the hairbrush twist preposterously reveals that “Jocelyn lied about her mother being abusive and had been, in fact, manipulating Tedros throughout the season.” As if trying to mimic The Usual Suspects, everything we’ve seen changes with the hairbrush. However, unlike that classic ‘90s flick, everything suddenly makes no sense, as the twist stretches the limits of credulity, forcing one to reckon with illogical and foolhardy storytelling.

On the other hand, I subscribe to the aesthetic arguments that try to remove the requirement of cogency from storytelling. Matt Strohl’s Why It’s OK to Love Bad Movies sharply presents this aesthetic philosophy, positing that there’s “rarely any real difference between the bad movie and the avant-garde masterpiece.” In this philosophical treatise/celebration of bad movies, premade and normative obsessions with narrative coherence are incisively debunked.

To paraphrase Strohl’s position, violating expectations or rules in a film/TV series should not be sufficient for unreflective rejection or critical disdain. The assumption that a piece of work must synthesize itself is a cultural presupposition. Rejecting a work of art on these grounds should thus warrant personal reflection. But where do we draw the line: At what point is a mistake too sophomoric and specious for salvation?

Even when one tries to adopt Strohl’s unconventional charity towards narrative inanities, it is hard not to feel duped by The Idol’s flimsy twist. It is not only littered with egregiously self-defeating plot holes. It is also thematically incongruous:

The Idol‘s last-ditch attempt to make Jocelyn a manipulative girlboss isn’t empowering; it’s harmful, lazy, and completely fails to say anything interesting about pop stardom […] yet with one hairbrush, The Idol has the gall to expect us to believe that Jocelyn has had the upper hand this whole time. You can almost see The Idol creators Levinson, Tesfaye, and Reza Fahim smirking along with Jocelyn as The Idol‘s major twist unveils itself. ‘See? Even though she’s being exploited, she has agency because she’s pulling the strings.’”

First and foremost, this reading has a few biases, including the presumptive reading of Jocelyn as an exploited victim. Unless you read the series as an indictment of her intelligence, Jocelyn is fully complicit and enthusiastic regarding her relationship with Tedros. She welcomes his dirty talk, domineering presence, and sleazy persona and autonomously adheres to his authoritarian lead for artistic and sexual gain. Thus, she was never the victim.

Nevertheless, I agree with its position that by attempting to empower Jocelyn, The Idol’s climactic twist risks painting Jocelyn as purely a villain; even worse, it risks flattening her into a tired stereotype. After all, in a zeitgeist where power is synonymous with evil, the girlboss archetype enters precarious grounds when given a tyrannical position of power. While self-empowerment is morally okay, wielding and manipulating power is not. Putting Jocelyn in charge, The Idol casts her as a nefarious witch.

Thus, the notion that either Tedros or Jocelyn were pulling the strings hurts the “twisted love story” they’re trying to pull off (unless one party is fully submissive to the string-pulling). The real solution would be to have neither gain an advantage. It would have been better to acknowledge their relationship as symbiotically messy. Interestingly enough, Adam Lehrer’s Compact Magazine think piece presents interpersonal messiness as both the solution and undoing of most proto-feminist fantasies:

“The negative reaction to The Idol proves that Generation Woke is not, as midwit conservatives imagine, cavalier about sex. On the contrary, today’s bien-pensant critics are sexual puritans who speak in social science jargon. Women are expected to be, it seems, sexually empowered, but never to actually do anything sexual—which, in practice, always risks being disempowering due to the inescapable messiness of interpersonal relations.”

The last line of this quote is an astute observation about modern gender politics, pointing out how all the talk of empowerment is at odds with the dynamics of impassioned romantic entanglement, where the self gets entwined and lost in the other. By putting Jocelyn on a manipulative pedestal, The Idol falls victim to the thorny pitfall it appeared to be circumventing—the notion that absolute empowerment or control ever exists. Unfortunately, the series compromises its tricky and murky moral/romantic dynamics for a gratuitous smirk—a shocker moment it didn’t need.

Lily-Rose Depp poses as Jocelyn in the finale of The Idol.
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

At the same time, The Idol need not be an endorsement of balanced, healthy, or empowering love. In general, serpentine erotic thrillers are challenging to tie together neatly. Having Jocelyn operate as a femme fatale figure is somewhat cliché, but it synchs up with a long history of erotic thrillers. It was also alluded to throughout, from Jocelyn watching Basic Instinct to her symbolic slow-motion descents down her spiraling staircase, recalling Norma Desmond’s iconic staircase descent in Sunset Boulevard.

In Sunset Boulevard, the narrator reveals that “the dream Norma Desmond had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.” In The Idol, this ending is inverted as Jocelyn’s schemas unfold triumphantly, aligning with Levison and Depp’s recent reflections on the character in a Deadline interview. As Depp put it, “Jocelyn is a very calculated and strategic person […] She knows exactly what she wants, and she’ll stop at nothing to get it. Tedros was her muse, and she got what she needed out of him.”

For me, the twist doesn’t fail because it is too feminist or uncharacteristic; it simply doesn’t work within the series’ fundamental architecture—tonally, narratively, and emotionally. It invalidates too much of what we’ve seen without offering a surrealistic or absurdist counter-reading. It is amateurish and disconnected from its narrative. Its failure is not merely incoherence but also unsophisticated legerdemain—camouflaging bad storytelling via narrative sleight-of-hand. With the hairbrush, nearly every scene becomes disingenuously undermined.

Are we really to believe Jocelyn slandered her deceased mother for sympathy points? Should we assume her grief and mental breakdown during the “World Class Sinner” music video were but a performance of manufactured emotion? Why was Jocelyn vehemently surprised and mad when she learned Dyanne had covertly recruited her to Tedros’ nightclub? Was Tedros craftily seduced all along—starting at his nightclub rendezvous? Did Jocelyn scout his talent and send Dyanne as a plant in the first place? Was she double-crossing Tedros to purloin his talent pool? Were Xander and Leia instructed to lie during the “Stars Belong to the World” dinner scene? (After all, they corroborated Jocelyn’s story of maternal abuse and found themselves berated by Tedros for acquiescence.) And if Jocelyn engineered everything, do we suddenly reframe the emotional gravity and intensity of every previous scene? This would hypothetically be exciting, but it doesn’t vibe with any of the series’ psychological, narrative, or tonal beats.

There is one possible narrative defense/exception: an over-generous reading that might recontextualize the hairbrush twist in a way that reconciles its conspicuous contradictions. Yes, the most available and logical inferences remain flummoxing, muddying the logic of the entire series. But it is hypothetically possible that Tedros threw the original hairbrush into the fire at the end of “Daybreak.” In this case, Jocelyn would have intentionally purchased a new hairbrush for Tedros to notice backstage. Consequently, the hairbrush twist would be an impactful and exponentially more believable gesture. It would merely signal that Jocelyn craved Tedros’ masochistic mentorship again and bought a brand-new hairbrush.

This alternative and shaky counter-reading would tie up every loose end and salvage the scrambled plot. It would reinforce Jocelyn’s reasoning for allowing Tedros back in her life; it would exhibit her shrewd sedition of his pimpish wiles; it would paint Jocelyn as a targeted victim who intelligently manipulated and thwarted her predator; it would reinforce the assumption she was feigning sexual submission; it would keep the backstory about her abusive mother intact; it would give Tedros the narrative space needed to be redeemed while simultaneously dethroned; it would allow Jocelyn to pull a decisive power move, bringing Tedros onstage in a two-faced gesture of personal forgiveness and public shaming; and it would hint at further humiliations (ghoulishly mortified yet complacent in his final moment, Tedros’ obedience foreshadows a future kink, as the two role-play in reverse).

Tedros stares into a mirror in The Idol.
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

It is also interesting to view Tedros’ arc in the context of claims denouncing Abel Tesfaye (AKA The Weeknd) for creatively seizing and arrogating the series from Amy Seimetz. As IndieWire reports, Abel took issue “with the show’s female perspective.” The article suggests he was upset about Seimetz “play[ing] up Depp’s character over [his own].” Abel’s interference may account for the sloppy ending if this is the case. After all, Abel Tesfaye is credited as one of the screenwriters and showrunners alongside Levinson and Reza Fahim. It is, therefore, hard not to wonder whether the twist was an attempt to resolve the conflicting and overlapping visions in a maladroit manner— patching a makeshift ending together out of deviating plot threads.

At the same time, if The Weeknd was on a supposed anti-feminist crusade, the arc of Tedros makes little sense. His culminating bathos is a weird statement to make for a supposed megalomaniac attempting to turn the show into a male-centered vanity project. Far from flattering, Tedros is beaten down, exposed as a fraud, and paraded as an obliging puppet on stage. He ends the season as Jocelyn’s boy toy. As IndieWire diligently investigated and construed, the real issues more likely revolved around aesthetics instead of gender dynamics. It is more likely Tesfaye took umbrage to Seimetz’s “loose, exploratory approach.”

In its thorough breakdown of the behind-the-scenes breakup, IndieWire illustrates how The Idol’s creative complications “shed light on the source of authority in TV productions.” Because Seimetz wasn’t “the showrunner,” her purview over the material was limited. As a hired director, Seimetz’s role was to produce another’s vision. This was a treacherous project for Seimetz, who has distinctly non-commercial directorial sensibilities and is on the record acknowledging she’s “actually really territorial about [her] writing and directing.”

As a result, the reshoots were arguably more a byproduct of stylistic differences than anything. This theory is further reinforced by a recent leak of photos circulating online, which offer a glimpse into the stark tonal contrasts of Seimetz’s version. Whereas Levinson’s vision unleashes the sleek aesthetic of a trendy fashion/hipster magazine (Cosmopolitan, Vice, Vogue, etc.), Seimetz’s vision seemingly replicated the bedroom/girl-next-door aesthetics of poppy teen magazines prevalent during the late nineties/early aughts (Teen Beat, Bop, Tiger Beat, Seventeen, Cosmogirl!).

In one photo, Lily-Rose Depp wears a crop top and a mini skirt, accentuating Britney Spears’ goody-two-shoe innocence and her latent TRL/…Baby One More Time era sexuality. In another, Depp sits on a bed in a gaudily pink bedroom filled with Jocelyn-themed merch and paraphernalia (cardboard cut-outs, posters, mugs, cushions). Resembling an ornate dollhouse, Seimetz’s version shamelessly tapped into the Lisa Frank aesthetic with a playful, hyper-girly aesthetic.

Unfortunately, it was scrapped. Whether it was shelved after just the pilot episode or after finishing approximately five episodes of the initial six-episode series (per Deadline), Seimetz’s aesthetic vision will likely remain an unseen artifact, lost to the annals of time. And with Abel Tesfaye writing the checks and calling the shots (as Indiewire reflects, he was, “for all intents and purposes, the auteur behind The Idol”), any hope of these archived episodes leaking feels slim to none.

This is a bummer, whatever way you look at it. I, for one, would happily watch Amy Seimetz’s vision. It seems like a fully fleshed, alternative telling of Jocelyn—a lurid satire of the bubblegum era of pop stardom. Its concurrent existence would be a potent reminder of how style and aesthetic subtleties can drastically reframe and recolor an entire creative endeavor. It would also be a healthy reminder that art does not need to be critically pinned or juxtaposed with other art. Multiplicity is a good thing.

 Xander, Izaak, Mitch, Mike Dean, and Ramsey stand onstage at SoFi stadium where "Jocelyn Forever" takes place on the last episode of season 1 of The Idol.
Photograph by Eddy Chen/HBO

One of the oddest aspects of the criticism and discourse surrounding The Idol is how it is graded and assessed as if attempting to be unilaterally high-art entertainment, despite its overt attempt to blend high-brow and low-brow genre beats. A prime example of such over-evaluation is this one-star review in The Guardian, which reeks of hate-watching hyperbole: “If sex on screen can facilitate a show this terrible, maybe it’s worth embracing televisual celibacy.”

These hot takes are fun to read in themselves—exaggerated and garish while also intelligent and savvy, they somewhat reverberate the show’s dueling high/low dichotomy. But they’re also ridiculously uncharitable and stuck in a weird hype-distorted vacuum, overlooking The Idol’s layered aesthetic and dynamic style. Many contemptuously fierce takedowns feel disproportionately irate. They feel frankly oblivious to the onslaught of trash perennially released on various platforms and reviewed with exponentially more openness and leniency.

To reduce Lily-Rose Depp’s Jocelyn to a “limp, glazed-over, chain-smoking nothingness” or to impugn Abel Tesfaye’s performance as so bad it deserves to “be tried at The Hague” is a bit much, even for critical camp. Such ridicule feels borderline defamatory and wickedly overblown. Sure, the show’s pulpy, self-satisfied sensibilities could be read as vapid and annoying, instigating over-sensationalized responses. I get that its lead performances were sometimes jarring, atonal, and rocky. But nothing in The Idol was that bad, especially considering today’s streaming content.

Was The Idol doomed by its primetime Sunday night HBO slot—unfairly premiering after two of the decade’s most acclaimed shows (Succession and Barry) went out on high notes with their series’ finales? Possibly. Those were impossible acts to follow. Was it overhyped at Cannes and tarnished by the vulturous, thus receiving outsized sass as backlash? Probably. The lead-up discourse did it no favors. Was it sometimes blasé about topical hot-button issues, notably gender politics (glibly “making the occasional point about how feminism and #MeToo get in the way of a good time,” as The Guardian review complained)? Arguably. It wasn’t by any means an emblem of tact or diplomacy.

But it’s hard to deny The Idol was pretty to look at, entertaining to meditate upon, and easy to watch. It at least roused culture from its slumber, succeeding to some degree by default of ruffling feathers and triggering dialectical bedlam. Sometimes, “bad,” “disturbing,” and “grating” art is not the most enjoyable form of engagement. Still, it makes us question boundaries, norms, and moral assumptions; for these reasons, renegade art is culturally and socially valuable.

In the Compact Magazine piece already referenced, Lehrer argues:

“Sadomodernism—defined by Moira Weigel as ‘denying audiences conventional narrative and subjecting them to pain’—lurks in every frame of Levinson’s projects, even as they’re maxed out with contemporary pop excess. He channels the orgiastic violence of Gaspar Noé, the complicated misogyny of Lars Von Trier, the bourgeois misery of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and (with The Idol especially) the fetishistic and maximalist style of Nicolas Winding Refn—all in shows produced for addictive enjoyment.”

This quote pinpoints the strange interstitial placement of Levinson’s aesthetic within the vastly incongruous canons of mainstream pop culture and provocative auteurism. It makes the case that Levinson is a master manipulator—disguising erudite leitmotifs and cinephile sensibilities in a way that appeals to the general populace. Of course, this packaging of uneasy/unsavory aesthetic tastes (orgiastic violence, complicated misogyny, bourgeois misery, fetishistic maximalism) will polarize many. But many of these topics also force culture to take a hard, cold look in the mirror.

As such, The Idol’s divisiveness and blasé smarminess make perverted sense—insofar as it intentionally defied likability and straightforward interpretations to inflict pain on the audience. It is possible it was striving for a certain kind of aesthetic sadism. That’s why I wanted to have the season end with Jocelyn and Tedros split and separated. I desired a hypothetical reunion in Season 2. I imagined Tedros becoming Nikki’s creative pipeline, working as a talent scout. I foresaw Jocelyn falling into a creative rut and desperately craving the abusive/submissive kink and subsequent inspiration she received from Tedros.

I realize my desire for the finale had a fatal flaw: It failed to wrap things up with any veneer of self-contained finality. Unfortunately, this is an understandable priority in the ephemeral streaming industry where series drop like flies. As it stands, the fate of The Idol is currently unknown. While the ratings have not been extremely promising or sky-high, they’re much higher than the Internet wants you to think. Standing on shaky grounds, The Idol was wise to end quasi-conclusively—giving viewers and the narrative a sense of closure.

Whether The Idol is greenlit or abandoned, HBO has wisely endured the outcries and withheld from making a rash decision. Studios should follow suit and refrain from genuflecting to thinly rationalized online hysteria. Having recently deferred to vociferous backlashes (sometimes warranted, often extorted), they’ve fallen into a cultural pickle. While it is ultimately a business where the majority wins (ratings are everything), displaying servility to mobbish whims is bad for business in the grand scheme. Scrapping any project prematurely is rarely a positive—financially or artistically. It is simply myopic to cede to social media fracas as most art will end up offending some group, disposition, or sensibility.

For now, the mere patience HBO has exhibited is something to celebrate. They may very well end up canceling The Idol due to viewership numbers, the effects of the backlash, or the fallout from the ongoing actors/writers strikes. But by avoiding instant capitulation, the studio sent a vital message— firmly standing behind its artists and their vision. Unpleasant art is bound to hit turbulent waters, and that’s an essential part of the journey. If the destination is anywhere worthwhile, the captain should be willing to go down with the ship. HBO stayed course and that says something.

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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