The Rehearsal Recap: Emotional Stakes

The Rehearsal

Gold Digger
Season 1 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

The Rehearsal

Gold Digger
Season 1 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Allyson Riggs/Warner Media

When we left off last week, Nathan Fielder had decided to join Angela’s rehearsal as a co-parent. How’s his foray into fatherhood going? Well, when he and his fake son decide to dress up as Batman and Robin for Halloween, Angela pulls him aside and explains that she doesn’t celebrate it. “It’s the highest satanic holiday,” she whispers as “Adam” toddles around them trying to get her to dress up as “Batman’s mommy,” Catwoman.

“Okay,” Fielder replies in a voice of naïve astonishment. “I had no idea.” He’s employing a technique he’s been using whenever any of the show’s participants say something off-the-wall: conveying genuine surprise without pushing back, giving his subject some open space to flesh out their worldview. “I thought it was just trick-or-treating,” he says. “Nathan, where have you been?” Angela asks, incredulous. “Not everything is make-believe. Some things are real.”

After the title, the portrait of Nathan’s domestic life continues. We see a montage of him chasing chickens around a coop (holding his upper body completely stiff), struggling to till the soil and lay down pipes to irrigate the vegetable patch as Angela plays with Adam inside the house. Fielder doesn’t seem too happy with this arrangement — when he enters the kitchen and Angela asks Adam “Who’s this?” the kid just shrugs — but what can he do? It’s still technically her scenario, built around her specific desires. Plus he still has a job to do. Outside the house, he’s got more rehearsals to run.

Back at the warehouse, Fielder’s team has built a complete replica of a Raising Cane’s restaurant so a man named Patrick can practice asking his brother for his share of an inheritance. When we first meet Patrick, he’s wearing a necklace with a silver tube of his grandpa’s ashes and a “Punisher emblem” on a chain. “I like the Punisher,” he explains, “because he takes the law into his own hands and punishes the people that wronged him.” He says that his grandfather, whom he cared for up to his death, left him money with one condition: He can’t access any of it if he’s dating a “gold digger.” Patrick’s brother, the will’s executor, thinks his current girlfriend is with him only for the money and refuses to release it.

The first part of this rehearsal we see is a doozy: We begin in medias res as Patrick tells his fake brother that his girlfriend is the opposite of a gold digger. “She’s pretty much a Jew about [money]. You know how the Jews are,” he says before helpfully clarifying, “She penny-pinches.” Nathan, standing by with his trusty laptop harness, perks up at this flash of what seems like a genuine reaction. We’re used to seeing him absorb people’s wildest statements without comment, but in this environment, where he’s comfortable and in control, he’s allowed to respond. If he’s disturbed by what he hears, we don’t see it — instead, he seems genuinely fascinated by the philosophical dilemma this situation poses for him. “To me, that’s an antisemitic stereotype,” he explains, index finger to top lip, thinking hard. “But it is a personal conversation … and I do want you to be yourself.” They decide to keep it in for authenticity’s sake.

The rehearsal goes long, and by the time he gets home, Fielder has missed the chance to read his “son” a bedtime story before the crew climbs through the bedroom window to replace Adam with his robot double for the night. The next day, to make up for the time he’s been missing, Fielder decides to bring the kid to work. If this show were a horror movie, this is where the image on our screens might twitch a little as the simulations begin to cross. Fielder introduces the child actor as his son to all the other actors in the fake restaurant. “Hey, Adam,” they reply, almost in chorus. The show gives us no clue as to whether they know Nathan is in his own simulation.

The workday progresses with Adam blithely eating pickles out of a soda cup as Nathan directs Patrick’s rehearsal with his customary intensity. In voice-over, Fielder explains that reviewing the footage of Kor’s rehearsal has made him realize he’s been “neglecting one key component of every crucial life event: feelings.” While Kor might have mastered the lines and blocking they set out for him, he was stymied by the uncomfortable reality of his situation when it actually hit him. Fielder’s current domestic simulation has made him only more aware of this flaw. “I’m acting like a dad, but I don’t feel like one,” he says, “and that’s a problem.” Before we get a chance to think too hard about that statement, Fielder rushes into his plan to bring real emotions to Patrick’s fake conversation.

So. [Imagine me taking a deep breath here.] To replicate “the feeling of someone who’s withholding an inheritance from him,” Nathan gets the actor playing Patrick’s brother to ask him, “out of character,” whether he can help move a generator at his grandfather’s barn. But the actor has to leave early, so the “grandpa” (also an actor and maybe one of the best in the series so far) curses out his ungrateful “grandson” and asks Patrick if he can stay to help find some gold he once buried in the woods. Patrick is down, and the two men tromp out into the wilderness at dusk to unearth a box of buried treasure.

Fielder lurks behind a tree and watches everything play out. The scene has been embroidered with details meant to mirror Patrick’s own relationship with his grandfather, most notably a moment when the grandpa asks Patrick for help after he shits in the woods. (The elegantly cut flashback, in which Patrick reveals that he was “wiping Grandpa’s ass, dude, while we were watching Dragon Ball Z,” is destined for instant meme status among Fielderheads.) Long after dark, the two men finally uncover the buried gold, and the elder promises some to Patrick. The catch is that, in a week, Nathan will tell Patrick this grandpa has died of a heart attack. Then, before they begin their rehearsal, the actor playing his brother will say he doesn’t want to give Patrick the gold, citing the knowledge he’s gained about Patrick’s girlfriend as the reason.

To recap, in case you’re confused: Fielder has nested a fake situation this man is completely unaware of inside a simulation of real life that he has consented to participate in. Through the simulation he knows about, Patrick has been practicing the “physical and verbal choreography” of a conversation that hasn’t yet occurred. In the scene he does not know he’s involved in, the real “emotional stakes” of that theoretical conversation are being reproduced so he can eventually bring the same emotions to the simulated practice conversation that he’ll bring to the real one it’s designed to prepare him for. Simple!

All these layers of fact and fiction inspire the same heady mix of giddiness, confusion, and anxiety that we felt when Nathan first revealed his perfect replica of the bar in the premiere episode. But this time, the feeling is stranger, stronger, deeper. A precise physical copy is one kind of marvel — the fake Alligator Lounge was hilarious, unsettling, and weirdly poignant because each concrete detail had been attended to with more care than was probably ever put into the original. But what’s being constructed here is a perfect replica of an emotional situation in which the physical details are almost ancillary. Is there a name for this? Have you ever seen anything like it before? I’m not sure I have.

Whatever it is, it works. With all the precise emotional stakes in place, Patrick’s dam of grief seems to break when he performs his rehearsal again. He tells the man playing his brother that the money doesn’t matter and that he wishes they could be closer. He explains that his girlfriend has been helping him become a better man, and he begs for the chance to grieve their grandpa’s death without having to fight over money. “I’m tired of living like it’s the day after he died,” Patrick says through tears. It’s incredibly powerful to watch. Fielder, staring almost unblinkingly at the scene, seems genuinely moved as Patrick tearfully hugs his fake brother and tells him, “I love you.” Whether he’s impressed by the strength of Patrick’s emotion or the effectiveness of the system he’s created, we don’t know.

After this, Patrick never returns to the show; he ghosts the next scheduled session and stops returning Fielder’s calls. “Maybe for some, the rehearsal itself is enough,” Fielder says in wistful voice-over. Not for him, though. For the rest of the episode, we watch Fielder’s new home life grow increasingly freaky: He hires a nanny and attempts to emotionally connect with Angela’s rehearsal using the same goofy, convoluted techniques he has used on others. None of his own tricks — fake photo albums, custom electronic mirrors that age him, instructing his crew to stick vegetables from the grocery store in the garden so Angela can “harvest” them — work on him. “I often feel jealous of others, the way they can just believe,” he says before cutting to a conversation between him and Angela in the kitchen. They’re talking, again, about the satanic origins of Halloween; when Nathan says he looked it up and saw it might be a Celtic thing, she brightly informs him he’s just being tricked by the Devil.

The episode’s final shot encapsulates Fielder’s problem so perfectly it feels almost heavy-handed. As Angela washes the real dirt off her fake harvest, Nathan notices a grocery-store sticker on one of the vegetables and quietly turns it over so she (or we, or he) won’t see it. His rehearsals may be offering others a level of genuine release, but he can’t work that same magic on himself.

Alligator Lounge

• I did the keyword search Angela suggested and found that the “satanic Halloween rituals at Bohemian Grove” thing comes from Alex Jones ca. 2000. A truly vintage conspiracy theory! Also, my algorithm is probably fucked forever now, so I hope you appreciate my journalistic rigor.

• The frog-in-boiling-water quality of this whole project continues to amaze me. I barely batted an eye at this episode’s new perfect-replica restaurant.
The moment Fielder gazes absently at a woman cheerily miming the act of eating a chicken finger might have been my favorite image of the episode.

• The grandpa actor was truly so good. When he screamed, “FUCK ME TO TEARS!” I believed it!

• The moment when Patrick (maybe?) helps Grandpa wipe his ass was the only time I felt genuine discomfort about a line being crossed, though I do believe that whenever you feel that way while watching a Fielder show, it’s worthwhile to consider why you’ve hit that limit only now. Also, we never see what actually happens back there, so I guess who knows? “Two men in the woods, building trust as only men do.”

• When Nathan is on the couch with Adam in his Roots shirt (CanCon!), they’re watching a Christian show called Hermie and Friends, in which a computer-animated worm talks about how bad it is to lie. The detail felt a bit extra to me at first — we get it, the idea of truth is complicated or whatever — but the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated that Fielder isn’t allowed a single moment of respite from the themes concerning him most inside his own glitching simulation.

• The nanny pretending she understands what the enormous countdown clock on the wall is meant to signify is iconic first-day-of-new-job behavior.

• When they have their final conversation about Satanism, Angela squashes it by saying, “Let’s not talk about this around the kids.” Plural! And she’s right — their kid is kids, actually. This show is nuts.

The Rehearsal Recap: Emotional Stakes