The opening moment of “The Fielder Method” is a funny one — quietly so. As Angela stirs a pot of noodles in the kitchen, she asks Nathan whether he likes spaghetti. Then, after a pause: “When you were young, did you ever hate one of your parents?” As she explains how her anger at her father drove her to drink and use drugs as a teen, Fielder conveys a convincing degree of surprise. “You did acid?” he asks, abandoning his standard flat tone. “You did cocaine?”
It’s a beautifully elegant overture to The Rehearsal’s most intense episode, subtly calibrating our expectations for what’s to come. But we’ll get back to all that. For now, the opening scene dissolves out of our minds as Fielder leaves Oregon for a trip to Los Angeles to start a school to train actors in the exacting, exhaustive technique his rehearsals demand. The exterior has a sign for the school’s name and a prominent HBO logo.
During the first class, Fielder explains the stakes of his work to a room full of attentive actors. As he screens some footage of Kor’s rehearsal for the group, a student points out that they’ll need to follow their subjects secretly. A few people agree: the word “stalking” ripples through the room, along with scattered, uncomfortable laughter. “Yes, yes!” Fielder says, smiling and nodding. “You guys are getting ahead of this, good!” At the end of the class, he gives the actors their first assignment. They are to follow a stranger, observe them, gather as much personal information about them as possible, and then come back tomorrow dressed like them. The group seems uneasy, but if anyone has a strong objection, they don’t voice it in front of the cameras.
This is where the episode takes a turn as Fielder meticulously reproduces (not technically a rehearsal, since it’s already happened) the real-life scene of the class he just taught. This time, however, Fielder has been replaced by a Fake Nathan, while the real Fielder plays the role of one of his students. From this new perspective, Fielder watches himself teaching and concludes that his method makes sense even if the chairs should be arranged differently.
The students arrive in costume for the second day of the Real class and (sitting in a circle this time) share the lengths they went to research their primaries, including watching them at work and stalking them on social media. Fielder praises their diligent work, acting far more expressive and enthusiastic with his new students than we’ve seen him all series. His new affect has an eerie edge; to the actors, Fielder probably just seems like a dedicated teacher, but as viewers, we know it’s a choice and possibly a manipulative one. And it works: his students get increasingly comfortable as they discuss how they were able to coax out personal information from the strangers Fielder refers to as their “primaries.” It’s unsettling to see how easily this transition happens; yesterday, everyone was creeped out by the Fielder Method, but today they’re vocal and enthusiastic, applauding each other for the risks they’ve taken. You can’t help but think of how people get inducted into cults or entwined in abusive relationships, or even how we, as viewers, have become acclimated to the logic of this show.
This trend grows more intense as Fielder places his students in real jobs. Fielder continues his own class simulation as his real-life student Thomas. In the real classes, Thomas is still the most vocally uncomfortable with the Fielder Method. Fielder pulls him aside to ask about his reluctance. “I don’t like lying to people,” Thomas says, his discomfort obviously conflicting with the nagging instinct that he’s being asked to do something fucked up. “Yeah, neither do I,” Fielder says defensively.
To better understand Thomas’s discomfort, Fielder relives the first day of class as him again. This time, he begins to “notice” something new. As the class progresses, he articulates his best guess at Thomas’s inner monologue in a voice-over. He’s excited about the acting opportunity the Fielder Method offers but confused and unsettled by its premise. Still, he’s reluctant to speak up or ask questions for fear of offending Nathan or jeopardizing a potential job.
And here, Fielder shows a new scene: what happens after the students leave the class. A fake production assistant tells Nathan-Thomas he needs to sign an appearance release to be on the show. As he stares down at the release form, Nathan-Thomas’s voice-over questions the contents of the release and hesitates to sign it. He notices everyone else signing, and when the assistant reassures him, “it’s all standard,” he gives in to the pressure and signs.
Here, The Rehearsal explicitly invites us to consider the mechanics of consent — one of the most discussed and debated aspects of Fielder’s work since his Nathan for You days. When watching a Fielder show, you can’t help but wonder how much his subjects know about what’s going on and why they agree to look so awkward and uncomfortable on television (even if Fielder maintains and his stans assert that it’s Nathan who is the butt of the joke). In this scene, Fielder provides a possible answer to these questions by showing us how his subjects succumb to the powerful combination of peer pressure, HBO’s legitimacy, the camera’s mesmerizing gaze, and Fielder’s influence as director, producer, television star, and potential employer.
“Reliving the day as Thomas made me realize there was a whole other layer of his experience I hadn’t considered,” Fielder says. For one gullible millisecond, I felt relief, like when you let out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding. I wondered if maybe the tension of this whole exercise was going to break, like the show’s relentless self-reflexive spiral was going to slow or still or reverse its direction. But of course it doesn’t. “I began to wonder if I was going far enough,” Fielder says. The conclusion is as darkly funny as it is unsurprising. Fielder’s work has everything to do with understanding people’s discomfort and nothing to do with alleviating it.
Fielder brings his students deeper down the rabbit hole with him until the real Thomas is working at an açai bowl place with his primary, and Nathan-Thomas is working at a different branch of the same franchise and living in the real Thomas’s apartment (seemingly without his knowledge or consent). By the time the Fielder Method classes end, the exercise has gone about as far as it can, legally and physically. The students hold a final showcase, and Fielder gives them all diplomas before heading back to Oregon.
Can you believe this episode is only half an hour long? The last ten minutes are their own completely separate, if thematically connected, wild ride. In the sped-up timeline of Angela’s rehearsal, Fielder has been gone for a full nine years. His son is now a teenager, asking for a hug when he comes through the front door. After a pleasant dinner with this teen-Adam and Angela (who screened his calls while he was in L.A.), Fielder takes Adam aside and, asking whether he can speak to him out of character, requests they try the scene of him coming home again with a bit more resentment from Adam, who would probably be pretty disappointed in his real dad’s long absence. Fielder encourages Josh to use a friend’s experience with having an absent father as inspiration. Josh takes the note, rising to the challenge just as enthusiastically as Fielder’s students back in L.A.
This is where things begin to spiral out. Over the next few days, Josh/Adam starts rebelling against Nathan and Angela, beginning to drink and use drugs in an uncanny parallel to Angela’s story about her past from the episode’s first scene. For her part, Angela is the most animated we’ve seen her in some time when she pleads with Adam not to make the same mistakes she did when she was a teenager. The whole conversation goes so badly that later, Fielder visits her room and asks if she would be comfortable resetting the exercise, bringing Adam back to age six so he can be present for his childhood this time. Her guarded, inscrutable tone when she says he should do “whatever [he] think[s] is needed for the show” recalls her agreement to let Fielder join her whole rehearsal in the first place.
The final sequence of the episode is unsettling and frightening and strange, then funny, then melancholy, then funny again. Fielder and Josh act out a dramatic scene where Adam overdoses on opioids in his room. In an Oscar-bait performance, Fielder breaks down the door and holds Adam’s head, screaming for Angela. “I don’t know what’s happening, I don’t know what’s happening to him,” he wails as she looks on in shock. We have no idea how much warning Angela was given for this scene; we don’t know whether the look on her face is genuine or how all of this feels for her, given her personal history.
The first time I watched this scene, I felt queasy and disturbed, my attention clouded by these questions until the end credits. The second time, I felt that way until the paramedics came, when my discomfort was interrupted by the realization that the paramedics were being played by Thomas and another of the students from Fielder’s class (!). By the time Adam jumped up from the stretcher and fled the scene, I didn’t feel disturbed, just disoriented.
The episode’s final scene takes us, again, through a range of emotional textures in jarringly rapid succession: the dramatic melancholy of Nathan gazing up at his wayward son, the cheesy yet somehow impactful moment where Adam comes down the slide as his 6-year-old self, and then the genuinely hilarious image of Josh clambering back out of the slide once the trick’s been accomplished. It’s a head-spinning ending whose layers of seemingly conflicting emotion refuse to resolve into a single meaning. Is this show a comedy anymore? Or is it something else entirely? By refusing to reduce its many worlds to just one thing, Fielder resists handing us an easy conclusion. For all its refracted realities, the show is somehow becoming more like real life in at least one essential respect: Nothing is ever just one way.
• Remember “Smokers Allowed”? It’s my favorite episode of Nathan For You, but also maybe of all TV. If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember it very well, I highly recommend a rewatch; it’s this episode’s spiritual and structural blueprint.
• The nature of this episode’s content makes you extra grateful for its goofiest throwaway jokes, like Fielder’s black-and-white toilet or the shot of the Raising Cane’s cashier thoughtfully typing gibberish into her POS. Even the more darkly funny moments like Fielder whipping Thomas’s nunchucks around his apartment or the brief glimpse of Angela absentmindedly dancing before she runs downstairs are elegantly distributed.
• It’s funny and deeply sympathetic to watch Josh, who’s clearly been directed never to break character, struggle to answer the simple question of what his name is. When you’re so deep in the simulation, it’s hard to know!
• Acting check! I thought the guy playing Nathan in the fake classes did a great job with an incredibly difficult role. All the other fake students were really bringing their A-game, and the real-life class’s final showcase was genuinely impressive to me. Also, Josh seemed committed to his role as a troubled teen, and I loved his guitar work. Great hustle all around, IMO.
• There’s a whole other essay to be written about Fielder’s foray into Thomas’s apartment — the horror-movie music as he approaches the bedroom, the nest of stuffed animals, the poster — but I honestly feel weird commenting on this guy’s place given the way Fielder gained entry to it. I really, really hope that watching this episode wasn’t the first time he found out about Fielder wearing his clothes and getting into his bed.
• However, Nathan probably didn’t actually “live” in Thomas’s apartment. Right? Right???