The Rehearsal Recap: So What Did You Learn at Swimming Today?

The Rehearsal

Season 1 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 5 stars

The Rehearsal

Season 1 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 5 stars
Photo: HBO

In this week’s cold open, we see Fielder and a young Adam acting out in a fake scene: Fielder is a patient, and his fake son is a doctor with some unconventional methods. As we watch Dr. Fart prescribe his dad a dietary regimen of medicinal poop, we are also seeing a more committed performance of fatherhood from Fielder than we’ve seen all season. When the scene is revealed to be a video that Nathan and Adam have shot together, another key element of this episode is established: Fielder grins proudly to himself, but Angela is no longer bothering to conceal her disgust with him. Fielder blames Adam for the video’s concept, but she’s not buying it. This woman is fed up.

Fielder has gone “all in on [his] family” since the last episode, canceling all of his other rehearsals so he can raise Adam right this time. We see this in a montage: Fielder plays hide-and-seek with his son, teaching him to floss and draw and build models. It’s all very wholesome! But there’s a hitch. When this was her rehearsal alone, Angela made it clear she wanted to homeschool Adam with a “faith-based curriculum,” no surprise, given her hardcore Christian beliefs. But now that Fielder, who is Jewish, is involved, their fake child’s education is becoming an issue.

By which I mean it’s an issue for Fielder’s mother. When Fielder’s parents come up for a visit, she pulls her son aside to ask why he hasn’t chosen to raise Adam with Judaism in his life. The fact that Adam is not Fielder’s real kid and this whole thing is a fake exercise is irrelevant; she seems more upset about the underlying principle. Fielder tries to explain that the rehearsal was originally built around Angela’s desires. Still, his mother criticizes him for taking the easy way out, going along with his fake partner rather than dealing with the discomfort of disagreeing with her.

This sparks a revelation for Fielder and for us. He explains that his partnership with Angela is beginning to mirror real relationships from his life, where he often refrains from expressing his feelings to avoid conflict. It’s the most personal and direct disclosure Fielder’s made yet and one of a few moments in this episode where he casually hands us the thematic keys to the series. But there’s a subtextual layer to what he’s saying, too: As he narrates, he seems to be trying to convince us (and himself) that standing up to Angela is his choice and not motivated by his fear of arguing with his mother.

We’re dropped into the type of scene we should be able to predict by now but somehow never loses its shocking eeriness: Nathan having what seems like a real conversation with a person who turns out to be an actor. He’s built a replica of their fake house and brought one of his Fielder Method actors to practice hashing this whole thing out with Angela, even hiring her as a fake nanny in their home to get her closer to her primary.

Fake Angela, predictably, is not into the idea of including Judaism in Adam’s educational plan. Fielder tries to argue that all genuine relationships involve compromise, and she claims that if she were in a real relationship, it would be with a Christian. The whole thing is like a philosophy seminar crossed with a couple’s fight, nested inside a scene study class. And the thing is, neither of them is wrong. They’re just coming up against the limits of the exercise. The world Fielder designed can’t accommodate two different people’s desires at once.

Fielder’s conversation with real Angela goes differently, but it’s just as intense. Instead of debating the nature of the exercise, she just straight-up vetoes the idea of splitting up Adam’s religious education. When she explains why she can’t “participate in Judaism,” I thought of the moment from episode three where Fielder came up against this same problem in Patrick’s rehearsal, trying to balance a participant’s anti-Semitism against the desire to make the simulation as authentic as possible. Back then, Fielder decided to prioritize Patrick’s beliefs over his own, but now, he takes a different tack: bringing Adam to synagogue and eventually to a Jewish tutor in secret.

In voiceover, Fielder explains that his choice to do these things covertly is a good thing since he and Angela can both get what they want out of the exercise. But the argument feels sweaty, a defense that fails to conceal his true motivations completely. As we watch the increasingly elaborate techniques he uses to cover up Adam’s Jewish education — coaching the child through detailed cover stories, pouring way too much water on his head so it looks like he’s been at a swim class — it’s clear Fielder’s actions are driven primarily by his desire to avoid conflict at all costs (and maybe also to avoid having to admit that there are flaws in his system). Ironically, all this maneuvering does add a dash of realism to their rehearsal: Lying this intensely to your partner to avoid an unpleasant conversation is the more common, real-world version of the impulse that, if you let it unspool forever, logically concludes in the conception of this whole show.

But you can only keep up a lie for so long. When the Jewish tutor, a woman named Miriam, catches them using her shower to wet Adam’s hair, Fielder tells her (a part of) the truth. Here, his fatal flaw comes into play again: When Miriam tells him he needs to stand up to Angela, he immediately caves to the pressure, inviting her over to their house to fight the battle for him. This argument goes about as well as you’d expect: While Angela and Miriam spar over whether the world revolves around Jesus, Fielder occasionally chimes in limply from the sidelines, “participating” in the fight without actually being brave enough to step in. Pushed to her limit, Angela tries to explain to Miriam that this whole thing goes beyond religion: “Nathan has a problem with lying,” she says. “He lies a lot.” Nathan blinks, stares at the ground, shakes his head, and says nothing.

Later, nursing a beer in his fake bar, Fielder reviews some recent footage of him and Angela in the house. In voiceover, he explains that he’s having trouble distinguishing between all these layered realities; in particular, he can’t keep track of which version of himself he’s supposed to be when they argue. We watch some tape of one of these fights: His voice is more natural than the stilted tone he uses with Fake Angela, and he seems far less agreeable than the cult-leader version of himself he played for the Fielder Method students. If I didn’t know better, I’d say his frustration seems genuine; at the very least, in these arguments, the veneer of character that usually distances him from his subjects appears to be slipping a little. He laughs at Angela in exasperation, raises his voice with her, sulks, snaps. Maybe this is what’s so unsettling to Fielder about conflict: For a guy who goes to such great lengths to maintain control, he looks like he’s losing it in these moments.

Fielder seems just as confused as we are by all of this; he also notices, reviewing more of his footage, that Angela completely abandons the concept of the rehearsal when he’s not there, encouraging the actors to break character and blatantly ignoring the rules of the universe he has meticulously designed for her. He wants to hash it out with her, which of course, means he’s got to do it with Fake Angela first.

But when we cut to this argument, something special happens. As the tension in the scene ratchets up, Fielder asks fake Angela why she’s even on the show in the first place, and she turns the question back around on him. “Is this silly, or is this something I should take seriously?” she asks. “It’s silly and serious,” Fielder replies. “It’s complicated. Life can be more than one thing, right?” It’s the most unambiguous expression of The Rehearsal’s thesis so far, a perfect explanation of what gives Fielder’s humor its unique, ineffable power: its refusal to be just one thing. Likewise, it’s pretty breathtaking when fake Angela asks whether her life is a joke to him. This is the first time we’ve ever seen anyone ask Fielder this question on camera in a way he can’t use a persona to sidestep. “You’re not the joke,” Fielder sputters, caught off guard or acting like it. “No one’s the joke. The situations are funny but interesting, too.” When fake Angela breaks a lamp in anger at this wishy-washy response, it’s understandable; it might be a satisfying answer to his audience, but to a real person (or a person playing a real person) in the middle of this confounding situation, it’s not good enough.

Nathan and real Angela’s actual breakup is just as revealing as their fake one, though there’s no screaming or lamp-throwing IRL. Angela says she doesn’t feel like he treated her as a collaborator, and he protests that the whole exercise is, in fact, built around her. Again, he’s both technically correct and completely ignoring the reality of the situation. He’s been the designer and director of the simulation this whole time! He even killed the child she’d raised to age 16 on her own and reset the entire thing on a whim. Even though he might have felt helpless against Angela, he’s had all the power in this situation the whole time. When Angela says she can’t see an end to this entire thing, she’s correct; when she leaves, it’s a relief. And when Fielder decides to continue the exercise without her, it feels inevitable. Remember the artwork for the show?

This episode’s final sequence is a neat little epilogue that ties everything up by making it even messier. Miriam visits the house after Fielder has replaced all the Christmas decorations with Hanukkah ones, and for a brief second, he gets to bask in the glow of her approval. But even with all of this effort, he can’t escape the inevitability of conflict: When Miriam starts pressuring him to use his platform to speak out in favor of Israel, he hems and haws. It’s funny to watch him squirm, but it’s also kind of sad; he’s torpedoed a whole (fake) relationship over a principle he may never have believed in the first place and a pattern he can’t escape, no matter how hard he maneuvers. I have no idea what’s going to happen in this show’s final episode, but I know that Fielder is heading into it less tethered than ever to the real world, with all his old habits firmly in place.

Nate’s Lizard Lounge

• Fake Angela is fucking amazing in this episode. Is the Fielder Method the greatest acting technique of all time? Uh oh.

• So many beautiful little shimmers of comedy in this episode: Fielder’s perplexing response to the bible verse Angela reads to him; fake Angela asking her real counterpart whether she feels like the whole exercise has been “healthy” for her; Nathan gazing out the window at the crew members spraying snow around the property; his terrified face in the car when Miriam says she likes to “shoot from the hip.” It’s also pretty amazing to watch Angela’s contempt for Fielder crescendoing — the way she rolls her eyes during the “pot of clothes” conversation is withering.

• Speaking of that argument, it’s so perfect I honestly felt suspicious. Angela’s enthusiasm for Mel Gibson is so perfectly timed, and the moment where Nathan frustratedly asks her whether she knows what sketch comedy is is just chef’s kiss.

• It was a nice relief to see Fielder’s cats twice in this episode — I was starting to worry about them!

The Rehearsal Recap: What Did You Learn at Swimming Today?