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Let’s Unpack ‘The Rehearsal’ and Its Bizarre Season Finale

Just what was HBO “docu-series” trying to do, and what lines did it cross in order to do it?

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first thing to know is that Remy seems to be OK. Shortly after The Rehearsal aired its season finale, Twitter followed up with the child actor’s grandmother, who assured concerned viewers that the young performer is “doing amazing.” (She also shared a video of Remy rescuing a ladybug to commemorate his sixth birthday.) Whatever distress we saw Remy endure on camera, we at least have word from a loved one that his life isn’t in shambles.

The update comes as a relief—because of our concern for Remy, and because there’s so much we don’t know about The Rehearsal. We don’t know how much of the story mastermind Nathan Fielder plotted in advance or how much he found in the editing room after the fact. We don’t know the sequence in which key scenes were shot, or how much time passed between them. We don’t know how precisely Fielder scripted some rehearsal scenes, or how much he told his subjects what would happen to them. For example: Did Fielder tell Angela, a woman with a traumatic history of substance misuse, that he planned for their teenage “son” to act out an overdose in front of her? Or did he take her begrudging permission (“Whatever you think is needed for the show, that’s fine”) as carte blanche?

In the absence of answers, all discussions of The Rehearsal take place in a vacuum. Fielder is a longtime fan and practitioner of magic, a field that thrives on the opacity of its methods. In a New York profile that ran before The Rehearsal’s premiere, Michael Koman—the cocreator of Nathan for You, Fielder’s previous calling card—noted Fielder’s admiration for the British illusionist Derren Brown. “He’s a guy who made something where you can’t figure out how it’s done and how it’s so good,” Koman said. “If I had to guess what drove Nathan, it would be to feel like he made something that had those qualities.” By that standard, at least, The Rehearsal is a roaring success. Like Bo Burnham, another artist of technical wizardry and relentless self-scrutiny, Fielder seems committed to letting the work speak for itself.

But what else was The Rehearsal trying to do, and what lines did it cross in order to do it? These are questions that The Rehearsal actively posed throughout its six-episode run, and they remain open headed into a newly announced Season 2. We’ve seen Fielder, in character as the emotional automaton also known as Nathan Fielder, deceive his subjects and refuse to come clean about it. We’ve seen players pressured into signing releases they don’t have time to read. We’ve seen actors Fielder hired call his entire experiment into question, possibly because he told them to. (“You’re saying that we’re talking, but it’s your project. It’s not like I really have a say.”) All of these excerpts highlight Fielder’s inherent power over the proceedings, and prompt us to ask whether and how he’s abusing it. Yet none lay out this dilemma like “Pretend Daddy,” an episode in which Fielder credibly accuses himself of an objectively immoral act: causing harm to a child.

To synopsize The Rehearsal is to descend into madness, but Remy’s plight still requires some context. Remy is one of several actors Fielder has recruited to play Adam, his fictional son. At first, Fielder—unsubtly playing God—creates Adam for the benefit of Angela, a single woman interested in “rehearsing” motherhood. To adhere to child labor laws and simulate an entire upbringing, Adam is played by several actors at several ages, from infancy to adolescence. Remy is cast as 6-year-old Adam; at a birthday party hosted by Fielder, now “parenting” Adam on his own after Angela has chosen to leave, he hands off the Adam role to an older actor named Liam. The problem is that Remy doesn’t want to leave.

Remy’s mother, Amber, tells Fielder that her son has grown up without a dad, and has finally reached the age when he understands that absence. In playing Dr. Fart with Fielder, Remy has lost himself in the fantasy, unable to turn his attachment off like a switch. “He doesn’t want it to not be real,” Amber explains. Fielder himself tries to talk Remy down (“Remember we were making a TV show?”), but Remy remains visibly upset (“I just want to stay with him”). The conversation ends on a relatively good note, but we’ve still been forced to watch a child moved to tears by the whims of a production—and those tears, in turn, folded into a narrative about the adult man who runs it.

Up to this point, at least, Fielder has the excuse of ignorance. He didn’t know Remy’s background, and the issues brought up by his plight are almost inherent to child acting. (Amber admits she’s not sure Remy even understands what acting is.) It’s what happens next that truly brings The Rehearsal through the looking glass and into uncharted territory. Fielder later returns to Amber and Remy’s house, bringing Liam in tow for an ostensible play date. Amber tells Fielder she’s confident Remy will be fine, in part because she sees herself in him. It’s a lovely sentiment, so much so that we barely notice Fielder ask Amber where she got her sweater. Only when Fielder asks Liam if he “got enough” do we know what’s coming: a bravura final scene in which Fielder rehearses a conversation as Amber, opposite Liam in a wig as Remy.

Throughout The Rehearsal, Fielder the character is constantly confronted with the limits of his approach. Relatedly, Fielder the filmmaker refuses, time after time, to give the viewer a neat resolution, let alone uplift. The penultimate episode includes a triumphant montage in which Fielder boldly steps into the role of single parent, but instead of ending there, it goes out on a tense debate over Israel with Adam’s tutor. The result of these dual instincts is that the Fielder we see rarely learns the right lessons from his obvious mistakes.

Every time Fielder encounters evidence that the rehearsals—and his attempts to re-create reality in order to stage them—aren’t having their intended effect, his reflex is to increase his commitment. Most of the people we’ve seen adversely affected by this have been adults. Patrick, a man arguing with his brother over their grandfather’s estate, gets drawn into an elaborate ruse so that Fielder can introduce emotions into his trial runs. Thomas, an acting student, inadvertently lets Fielder occupy his apartment in an attempt to understand him. These incidents were violations of trust, but we could at least tell ourselves that trust was established between two consenting adults—even when Fielder made sure to show us the strong-arming that can go into obtaining that consent.

With a child, though, even that excuse evaporates. Mere minutes of screen time after Remy shows Fielder the potential price of his actions, Fielder is back to using his young charge as a means to an end. He understands he did something wrong, framing his next set of rehearsals as an attempt to avoid the same outcome in the future. But he isn’t able to apply his own insight from a few episodes prior: “When you assume what others think, maybe all you’re doing is turning them into a character that only exists in your mind.” Faced with the fact that Remy is a human being with emotional needs he didn’t anticipate, Fielder turns him into a literal character for Liam to study.

In Fielder’s framework, though, Remy’s confusion isn’t entirely undesirable. The Rehearsal is, at face value, Fielder’s effort to end his emotional remove from those around him. He wants to control his environment so much that he can finally make peace with his lack of control, and tap into a part of himself he keeps locked tightly away. “I often feel jealous of others—the way they can just believe,” he says. (Like how Amber, for example, just believes Remy will be all right.) Of actors, he observes: “They have a way of channeling other people’s emotions that I don’t fully understand.” During an argument, an actress playing Angela hisses: “Do you want to feel something? No matter how hard you try, you never will.” The Rehearsal begins with Fielder testing his hypothesis on others, but it was always going to end with him as object and subject, mad scientist and lab rat.

As awful as Remy’s tears are to witness, they are, in a twisted way, what Fielder has been chasing this entire time. It’s Remy who is fully immersed in the illusion, so much so that he can’t distinguish between performance and personhood. It’s Remy from whom the constructed fiction evokes an authentic response, even if that response is a negative one. There’s a hint of jealousy in Fielder-as-Amber’s final speech to Liam-as-Remy: “I think it’s a good thing you’re sad, because it shows you have a heart,” he says. “It shows that you can feel.”

Remy brings Fielder as close to and as far as he’s ever been from a breakthrough. By assuming Amber’s point of view, Fielder finally articulates what’s wrong with both his tactics (The Rehearsal is “a weird thing for a little kid to be a part of”) and his strategy (“life’s better with surprises”). But he gets there only by ignoring every red flag and clinging to a deeply flawed premise, which may only convince him of its validity. Even Fielder’s epiphany is undercut by The Rehearsal’s renewal. What sounds like a natural end point on its own—an embrace of spontaneity over structure—now reads like a warning sign for what’s to come.

That The Rehearsal is deliberate in its discomfort does not discount its polarized reception. It is possible to exploit even as you critique exploitation; using real actors, especially children, to interrogate the nature of acting invites debate, as does the refusal to provide further clarity beyond what the subjects themselves (Remy’s grandmother, Angela’s awful date) decide to disclose. The Rehearsal’s accomplishments would mean little if they weren’t the result of real risk. But as much as The Rehearsal wants us to follow Fielder down the rabbit hole, it also ends with a final deflation of its, and our, self-serious streak. After that head-spinning soliloquy, Fielder stands up, closing the season with a shot of his own butt crack. Some self-exposure is more literal than others.