This week’s cold open is deceptively gentle, not to mention accidentally prescient. As we watch Fielder setting up a birthday party for Adam, who goes into the house as a 6-year-old and emerges as a 9-year-old, he explains in voiceover that they staffed the event with background actors to save the network a little money. Though we know now that the cost-cutting measures didn’t save jobs, it’s a noble effort — and the footage of the actors, who can’t speak due to union rules, miming their way through this birthday party is a beautiful encapsulation of how things seem to be going now that Nathan has cleared this simulation of any “real” participants.
The next scene, where Nathan is asked by one of the Adams’ mothers to explain to her son that “Judaism isn’t real,” bears highlighting not only because it’s one of the most beautifully efficient eviscerations of a bigot I’ve ever seen on camera, but also because it sets us up for an idea that will become a key part of the episode: that some of the kids Nathan’s been working with are young enough that they aren’t able to compartmentalize the experiences they’re having inside the simulation away from their lives and selves outside of it.
As we cut back to the party, Fielder mentions that one of the 6-year-old actors who played younger Adam kept sneaking back onto the set. His name is Remy, and he doesn’t want to take off his costume or leave the show. As Nathan tries and fails to comfort him, he explains in a voiceover that Remy was one of his favorite fake sons. (You may remember him as the Dr. Fart who prescribed him life-saving poop in the last episode.)
This is the beginning of the most emotionally impactful part of this series and maybe one of the most heartbreaking story arcs I have ever seen on television. At first, it seems like perhaps Remy’s tears are just normal kid stuff; he could just be exhausted after a long day of bonking other kids in the head with enormous plastic balls. But soon, it becomes clear that he does not want to leave the world where Nathan is his father. In their production garage, Remy’s mother explains her son has grown up without a dad and that playing Adam has gotten into his head. Remy has been referring to Fielder as his “pretend daddy” at home, telling his mother that he loves him. She gets choked up relating this story, and I teared up watching her explain it, too. Watching Fielder absorb everything, seeing the gravity of the situation settle over him, the way he squeezes Remy’s leg and tells him he’s sure they’ll see each other again is gut-wrenching and jarringly real. There are no layers of persona or artifice for Fielder to hide behind here; for the first time in this show, we see him go through a situation that has swung entirely out of his control. This is a real child who loves and trusts him; Nathan’s impact on his life is not a game or a scene. The truth cuts through all the show’s layered dimensions of artifice.
All this makes Fielder’s simulated home life feel hollow. His scripted interactions with 9-year-old Adam (who’s older than Remy and had time to develop a hilariously professional ability to compartmentalize his job from his home life) feel “trivial” at best. When the two of them perform a scene Fielder designed to simulate the experience of counseling his son through an episode of bullying, it feels flat, not just because Fielder’s “solving a puzzle of [his] own design,” but because he’s getting his fake son to rehearse the same patterns that got him here in the first place. Now that he’s seen the consequences of that behavior, it’s harder to argue for.
When Fielder goes over to Remy’s house to try and help untangle everything, he’s struck by the level of “detail” (i.e., messy evidence of real life) everywhere: the pool noodle folded up in the closet, the stray retainers, batteries, and laundry baskets. The sentiment is funny, but it’s also a gorgeous inversion; he’s feeling the same kind of amazement we feel when we see how meticulously he’s been able to recreate real places.
Fielder sits down with Remy and his mother on the couch to explain that what they’ve been doing is pretend. His explanation is honestly pretty good, but you can see Remy actively fighting against it; he loves Nathan, and he wants the relationship they’ve been simulating to be real. Like the first time he tried to comfort Remy, this conversation is heart-shattering; I cried the whole way through it. It’s also an emotional turn that feels incredibly impactful after the season’s worth of buildup that’s preceded it. So much of the critical discourse surrounding The Rehearsal has focused on whether Fielder’s methods in this show are exploitative or immoral, but we’ve never seen him come up against the question quite like this. He’s tiptoed up to the edge, particularly in the last episode with his fight with Fake Angela, but the whole thing was scripted and controlled. Remy is real, his life is real, his confusion and sadness and love are real, as is his mother, whose love and care for her son feel incredibly powerful.
When he returns home, Fielder tries several rehearsal-based solutions to the situation, re-running his relationship with Adam using an increasingly creepy series of techniques, including a dummy and an adult man dressed as a child. The simulation is beginning to glitch and sputter; even when he brings Fake Angela back and tries to stop her from leaving, it always ends the same way.
Things begin to turn when he moves outside the scenario. He meets up with Real Angela for some closure; when she says she forgives him, he asks how that’s possible. The bible verse she quotes to him is typically perplexing, but the message still seems to hit: if Fielder can’t change the past, maybe he can do something to modify the present. When he brings the older child actor he’s been working with to Remy’s house so they can play together, it’s touching; when Remy’s mother explains how she recognizes her own resiliency in her child’s face, it feels beautiful and grounding and true. But when Fielder asks her where she got her sweatshirt, I felt a pit open up in my stomach; when he and the child actor get back in the car, and Fielder asks him if he “[got] enough,” I felt the same free-falling, boundary-less blend of thrill and terror I remembered from the very first episode of the show.
The denouement of this episode is perfectly executed and so intricately structured that it would take about 20 more of these recaps to unpack completely, but here is goes. Fielder assumes the role of Remy’s mother in a new rehearsal, using his older child actor as a stand-in for Remy as they act out his journey through the show. She tapes his audition, goes to set, watches the Fake Nathan from the Fielder Method episode act out these scenes with her fake son, and feels the dawning realization that she might have made a mistake. Fielder’s acting in this sequence is the best it’s been all season; he portrays Remy’s mother with a surprising degree of subtlety, confidence, and sympathy. The costuming and makeup are done with a deft, light touch; Fielder has her nail polish and hand tattoos, but he’s not in full drag. His portrayal doesn’t feel comedic or over-the-top; instead of seeming like he’s “in costume” or playing any part of it for laughs, he melts entirely into the character.
When they arrive at the part of the simulation after Fake Nathan has come over to their apartment and attempted to correct his mistakes, Fake Remy starts to cry and Fielder, in character, begins to comfort him. Unlike all his previous attempts to fix things in his show, he doesn’t try to rewind time or change anything that’s already happened. Instead, he delivers a transcendent monologue to his fake son about human fallibility and how his sadness is okay because it means he’s open to the world, others, and love. “Life’s better with surprises,” he says, with such conviction that I believe it.
The final moment — where he reassures Fake Remy that he’s his dad, and the kid breaks character to whisper that he thought he was his mom — contains a whole universe of meaning. The look on Fielder’s face, his eyelids fluttering as it dawns on him that the rehearsal has finally worked its magic, feels revelatory. But the next face he makes, before he moves back into character and hugs his son, is harder to interpret; something about his expression seems almost sinister.
This long shot of Fielder’s face recalls a moment Fielder has drawn our attention to multiple times throughout the series: the look on Kor’s face in the real-life Alligator Lounge as he tried to work up the courage to confess his truth to Tricia. It was that exact look that led him to design Patrick’s rehearsal with an elaborate set of extra emotional stakes, and that addition led Patrick to a revelation about his grief.
It’s not a coincidence that Fielder — as a character, actor, and director — evokes that moment now. The Rehearsal has finally worked its magic on him. But the conclusion he’s reached is that there’s something fundamentally wrong with his method. Rehearsing his way through life prevents him from experiencing it, but it’s also what’s brought him to the heart of this emotional revelation. What we see on his face is the dissonant tension of these two truths, each one real in its own way, refusing to resolve. It’s a perfect conclusion to this season; sprawling and tightly wound, impossible to pin down or simplify. I can’t possibly imagine what’s going to happen next.
• The kids in this episode are all amazing. I want to hang out with Remy (and give him a hug), but the older child actor has his own understated, precocious charm. The scene where Fielder asks whether he’s a good dad and the kid carefully replies that he’s a good scene partner is fucking out of this world.
• Speaking of kids … that shot of Fielder’s adult kid outside vaping made me laugh so hard I thought I was going to die.
• I don’t think it’s the point of the whole thing that Fielder is only able to fully achieve the kind of transcendent absorption he’s been questing after this whole time when he’s in character as a woman, but I don’t know that it’s merely incidental either. One of the key through lines of Fielder’s work has always been his desire to experiment with new ways of becoming someone else, that he can free himself from the strictures of his own anxiety and self-consciousness by immersing himself fully in another person’s life. When you add the element of gender, it brings in a whole new set of questions, issues, and themes. I don’t have any big insights or theories about this beyond the fact that it’s there, and as this season has made clear to us, nothing is included in this show by accident. It feels interesting to me that the most transcendent emotional moment of this whole series comes in the form of Fielder confronting the question of whether he’s this kid’s mom or his dad — and the answer being that he’s neither and both at the same time.
• I know you’re not supposed to see how a magic trick works, but I would eat my keyboard to glimpse the process they used to storyboard, write, and create this show.
• That final shot of Nathan’s butt crack is probably the most effective and necessary use of nudity I’ve ever seen on an HBO show. Amazing work, everyone.