The following contains spoilers for The Premise S1E5, “Butt Plug,” the Season 1 finale
For its season finale, The Premise offers us a “Butt Plug” and whereas I questioned the decision to kick off the series with an episode that attempted to combine a sexual theme with a deeper question of justice in an outlandish way, I have to say that I find S1E5 to be the a transcendent plug for The Premise to stick in its rear end.
The story is simple enough. Eli bullied Daniel mercilessly when they were children. The opening scenes of “Butt Plug” are even set to an operatic score to make clear the grand historical stakes of the affair, along with a blurring of the edges of the frames in these scenes, bringing into focus the weight of what occurs in their centers—juvenile malevolence, with more than a tinge of racism.
Now Eli is older and in dire straights, whereas Daniel has become basically the most successful and richest man in the world. So it goes. And of course Eli feels absolutely terrible about how he treated Daniel when they were kids. It’s not pride that keeps him from asking Daniel from help, he tells Susie, but shame. No one says to swallow your shame.
But he does anyway, sucking it up to call Daniel’s company to set up a meeting the latter is all too happy to accept. He tells Eli to quit his job and spend a year developing the world’s greatest butt plug. Is this a joke?
Yes, but what is brilliant about The Premise S1E5 is that it isn’t at all clear whether Daniel is messing with Eli or not for most of the episode. He even puts a point on this himself before they leave the restaurant—do you believe that he values mercy or revenge more?
But this leaves to the side whether the butt plug is a good idea.
And this is the other striking thing about the episode. As ridiculous as the setup is, Eli truly sells it. As curious as I was about what the result of the meeting would be, I was even more curious at the fact that I found myself being sold on the idea. I want to invest in the butt plug. Keep me away from good salespeople I guess.
Or is it a good idea? Perhaps the facts and stats Eli offers don’t hold up in the real world, and it’s irrelevant anyway because I don’t have any money, but he spins such a wonderful pitch I got sucked up in it. Maybe this is a butt plug that could change the world after all. Maybe Daniel makes a big mistake.
It does not, however, seem like Eli is right that Daniel will regret this deeply, if the closing scene of “Butt Plug” is any indication. He places the titular sex toy in a glass case along with others, indicating that he has played this game any number of times.
Does this imply that the others in the meeting are in on it all along? Is their excitement after the presentation genuine or feigned? If it’s the latter, these are terrible people. If it’s the former these are…terrible people.
They are liars either way—the only question is the directionality of their dissembling. And either way their motivations boil down to some kind of obsequious desire to please Daniel Jung. Not his peers, indeed.
The funny thing is that ultimately The Premise S1E5 has a happy ending. Daniel is happy because he’s gotten one over on his childhood bully. He revels in revenge, or at least I think he does, as he puts his latest trophy on the shelf. He doesn’t value mercy, but has swung around to enjoy the sick pleasure Eli got out of harassing him as a child—the pleasure of putting others down…finding valued in the undervalued.
On the other hand, though, Eli is happy because he doesn’t understand this at all, thinking rather that he has now given Daniel something to feel ashamed of…a different kind of perverse payback. But even if that’s not true, Eli can still believe it and thus take his own kind of enjoyment from the thought.
Revenge is not justice. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But…what if they do?
I don’t think that’s the lesson to draw here, to be clear, or that The Premise is a show much interested in giving lessons at all. This is what feels freshest about it in 2021. It plays with ideas in the space of ambiguity, inverts expectations, occasionally lands a funny joke, and inspires thought.
It would be interesting to watch “Butt Plug” again knowing from the beginning what we know at the end. I suspect it might be even funnier. And perhaps the whole season is worth a revisit now that the tone of the series has become fully clear. I know I’ll be curious to see what BJ Novak et al. get inspired to explore in a hypothetical Season 2.