The following contains spoilers for The Rehearsal S1E5, “Apocalypto” (written by Nathan Fielder & Carrie Kemper & Eric Notarnicola and directed by Nathan Fielder)
If you approach The Rehearsal trying to parse what’s real and what’s not, you’re bound to fail, since (as I’ve argued throughout these writeups), the series consistently undermines the usefulness of the concept of reality. Or, better, it shows how reality is always a construct—it’s not just a portrait of what exists but always depends on an often invisible frame.
This was evident in “The Fielder Method” as Nathan (pretending to be Thomas) wondered about the cameras filming the acting class. What kind of show is this?
And surely we’ve been asking ourselves the same question as viewers all along. What makes The Rehearsal stand out is that it isn’t really a kind of show—it’s unique—and thus the conceptual framework we want to bring to bear on it keeps faltering.
Fielder clearly knows what he’s doing here, and it would be interesting enough simply to see this method play out, with the various iterations and levels of rehearsal that are increasingly at play as the season goes on, but what’s striking is how through all of this pretense and contrivance, there are moments in The Rehearsal when the truth pierces through. And they have an odd tendency to occur when our everyday concepts would label a scene as fake.
In S1E5, Fake Angela lays into Nathan as they rehearse for his conversation with Angela, and she gets to the heart of what’s going on in the relationship between the two, even if this isn’t acknowledged, and even if it is staged. Nathan is in control insofar as this is his show, and the framing of Angela’s rehearsal as a part of a TV show he’s making affects what happens in the rehearsal.
Nathan feigns ignorance of this or is truly naïve (one of those), as he expresses his lack of understanding with regard to Angela’s behavior. But when he confronts her about how she abandoned the pretense of her rehearsal when he went to LA, she mostly bemoans the lack of direction she’s received.
This resonates with how Fake Angela takes Nathan to task for not truly feeling anything, pressing the question of whether he wants to, and digging into him by declaiming that he never will. Nathan responds to this by saying it was a good take and moving things towards another rehearsal of the conversation (suggesting they try something nicer this time), but it gets to precisely how the real Angela has always been wondering what he wants from her.
I’m tempted to say that Nathan is consistently detached from reality, but again, I don’t think reality is a useful concept here. Rather, I’d suggest that Nathan consistently tarries with the conceit of rehearsing—he takes it seriously, and precisely doesn’t treat it as merely pretend. But at the same time, it’s as though his view of himself and his situation is always already external, as when, wanting to know if he’d done a good job teaching his acting class in S1E4, he proceeded to restage it for himself so he could view himself from the outside.
And we should think about the extent to which that’s all of us at this point. Social media isn’t fake, even if it’s not “real” either, but it does involve mediating one’s perception of oneself through the lens of the gaze of the Other. The appearance has superseded the notion of reality it used to be contrasted against. It doesn’t matter if an indiscretion has occurred; it matters if it appears to have occurred and if people believe it did. Everybody knows this at this point, even if some of us like to decry it. Everything is simulation and simulacrum.
Angela knows, and has always known, that she is on Nathan’s show. And even if it is a reality show, everyone knows that involves a certain curation of and framing of reality. In denying her this, Nathan has left her meaningfully without bearings throughout The Rehearsal. It raises all sorts of retrospective questions about her behavior to ponder this.
For example, was Angela’s insistence on raising Adam solely with Christianity (denying Nathan’s request to incorporate some Judaism) a true expression of her depth of feeling, or a matter of her leaning into the character she was playing for the show, who was also herself but always a certain version of herself framed through perceived expectations?
The Rehearsal forces us to think about the reality of who we are, and not just that of the situations we find ourselves in. Nathan’s mom chastises him for not sticking up for himself with Angela, and it’s not because she thinks how they raise their fictional child is important, but because she’s seen him fall into this pattern before in past (failed) relationships. It’s about who he is, and there’s no sharp line dividing that from his performance of a version of himself. One could argue that we are always performing versions of ourselves. Nathan’s mother knows this intuitively.
With Angela out of the picture, Nathan decides to continue “raising” Adam anyway, and he goes full-bore on doing so within Judaism. But we have to remember that Adam doesn’t exist—that kid is an actor playing Adam. At the same time, though, The Rehearsal should get us pondering the whole idea of acting and the difference between performance and pretend.
From one point of view, of course the characters in our favorite TV shows and movies are not real, but again this strikes me as a correct answer to a badly posed question. The impact of a fictional character can be indelible. It can pass down through generations. It can even define the contours of a religion.
So from another point of view, the fact that a person isn’t “real” is beside the point. All you mean is that they don’t have an existence outside of the framing the fictional work provides them.
But neither do any of us, really. We can shift from one frame to another in how we perceive things and are perceived, but even when we’re alone we’re within the framework of our own conceptions of ourselves, tinged as they are by how we imagine others see us.
At the end of the day, maybe it will be fruitful to view The Rehearsal as Nathan Fielder’s elaborate therapy session for himself. As S1E5 comes to a close, it does seem that the show has become centered solely around him. He’s put other rehearsals on hold to focus on raising Adam, and now decided to continue with that project even though Angela has bowed out. Why is he doing this if not for himself?
Of course, the obvious answer is that he’s doing it for us, because this is a TV show being produced so that we can watch it, but that seems like an easy out. The truth is The Rehearsal is all of the things we think it might be—both real and fake, or neither. It brings how we frame reality through our ontological commitments into the picture and puts them on display, thus scrambling our ordinary conceptual distinctions.
The title of The Rehearsal S1E5 obviously stems from Angela’s citing of Apocalypto as her favorite movie (which of course leads to some awkward discussion of whether Mel Gibson is an antisemite). Choosing this word as the title for the penultimate episode of the season is striking to me, though, for a couple of other reasons.
If we look at the roots of the term, an apocalypse is a disclosure or revelation. The word has taken on the sense of referring to the end of the world through a kind of slippage from its usage to refer to a supposed revelation about the eschaton, which would be the event that ends the world. This is not the kind of fact that makes you popular at parties.
Regardless, “Apocalypto” plays in the space opened by both of these senses. The world (which is not what brutely exists but a construct dependent on a conceptual framework) is meaningfully coming to an end, as the defining rehearsal of the season (Angela’s) basically collapses. But what’s revealed is that Nathan wants to continue anyway and the truth that he’s doing this all for himself.
Don’t get me wrong, that just shifts the ontological frame again. The eschaton is always tomorrow, which never arrives, or if one world ends another quickly arises to take its place.
There’s one episode left in Season 1 of The Rehearsal. I don’t know if any of us know whether that might actually be the series finale. I find myself wondering how much of what we’ve seen was planned beforehand and how much stemmed from happy accidents or going with the flow.
I wonder how much of what we’re seeing is Nathan Fielder and how much is a mask he’s putting on to play a version of himself. But the only one who could really answer these questions would be the man behind the mask, and the entirety of The Rehearsal demonstrates that there’s no such thing. It’s masks all the way down.