This post contains spoilers for The Rehearsal.
What is The Rehearsal? Why is Nathan Fielder doing this to himself? What is the end goal, beyond Fielder having entertained himself with how hard he can mindfuck people into doing his strange bidding? These are questions that have clawed at the critically acclaimed HBO series, pushing the wheel on endless cycles of discourse and inspiring conspiracy theories that the whole show is fake.
But in the reality camp, there are two opposing stances: Fielder is either a manipulative jerk whose schtick is irredeemable, or he’s a comedic genius whose social experiments reveal more than we can imagine about the human condition. In the show’s fourth episode, titled “The Fielder Method,” the show’s devious creator takes a fascinating step toward dispelling the former stance, addressing the moral conundrum at the heart of his strange creation.
In the episode, which aired Friday night, Fielder continues the parenting project with Angela. But then he decides to go on a side quest, opening an acting school in Los Angeles where he can train actors in the “Fielder Method”—I.e. teaching them how to do the obsessive acting work that his show requires, with the hopes that he can actually hire them for The Rehearsal.
Fielder asks his actors to stalk a random person, dubbed their “primary,” so they can learn how to become them. He even arranges for his actors to work at their primary’s job, so they can be fully immersed in character. It’s absurd but surprisingly charming, owing to the fact that actors—a uniquely thick-skinned bunch compared to the everyday folk who typically end up on the show—are game for this kind of ridiculata. It’s craft, in a way!
However, one actor, a man named Thomas, is uncomfortable with all of it. In order to understand Thomas’s hesitation, Fielder takes a most Fielderian approach: turning Thomas into his primary, restaging the first Fielder Method class, and hiring an actor to play himself, Nathan. Being in Thomas’s shoes is revealing (or “revealing,” since it’s never clear what’s real and what’s fake). As Thomas, Fielder “realizes” the premise of the school is confusing, and finds it troubling that the class is being filmed. “Wait, what is this show?” Fielder-as-Thomas thinks to himself. “Is this a show about an acting class? Am I supposed to be acting? Something doesn’t make sense. If you’re training actors for a show, why would you be filming the training?”
He continues, fretting to himself when a producer (also a hired actor, per the show’s credits) rushes the students to sign an agreement form to be on the show. There’s a knowing quality to the scene, with Fielder putting himself in the shoes of the people he‘s toyed with on both The Rehearsal and his previous series, Nathan For You. (Some participants of the latter show have openly said they felt manipulated by Fielder.) Fielder-as-Thomas eventually signs the form due to peer pressure. The scene, highly staged and all too fleeting, is perhaps the closest Fielder has ever come to acknowledging how disorienting his demands are for regular people stepping into his world.
Of course, that window of introspection quickly closes when Fielder decides he must go one step further and live in Thomas’s home. He makes the real Thomas go live in a replica of his primary’s apartment, with two actors hired to play his primary’s roommates. (One of many what-the-fuck moments that remind you this show is a living hallucination.) Thomas is apparently unaware that Fielder plans to move into his apartment, assuming Fielder wants his keys just so he can collect his mail and water his plants while he’s gone. Now, unless you’re in the camp that thinks this entire show is staged (it’s possible!), it’s hard not feel badly for Thomas once you see Fielder treat his residence like it’s just another set.
It’s reminiscent of the apparent trickery of the first episode of The Rehearsal, in which Fielder has crew members pose as gas company employees and go into participant Kor Skeete’s apartment, all so they can secretly map out his home and recreate it in a warehouse. Wildly creepy! But…is it real?