In episode six of The Curse (Showtime/A24) titled “The Fire Burns On”, we’re dropped right in on Flipanthropy. Janice (Aliyah Lee) and Pascal (Alexander Adrian Gibson) are killing it with their on-screen chemistry before Whitney (Emma Stone) can present them with their house key, fittingly affixed to an artisanally crafted snake pendant. When asked about it, Asher (Nathan Fielder) with a forked tongue redefines its meaning to represent rebirth. Much like the opening of our last episode, we’re hit with a bad omen. Snakes never mean anything good, but the color palettes in these opening minutes are stunning and good enough to eat. The directorial decision to tantalize our eyes in this dream world is smart. It almost acts as a cold open, but I wouldn’t classify it as one for a reason we’ll soon find out.
Cut to: Reality. The footage thus far isn’t sitting well with Whit and isn’t giving Dougie (Benny Safdie) hope. Even the oversold enthusiasm of the “new homeowners” isn’t enough to make anything worth watching, and the jaunty music only underscores the fakery of it all.
I’m fucking glad that Whitney’s finally seeing the light, though that’s Dougie’s time to shine, which, to me, can only mean letting a bit of darkness in when Dougie’s “talent” is at long last sought. She’s beginning to open her eyes. What the show lacks is personality, and I love that Dougie knows he’s got a goldmine staring him in the face.
Her inherent frustration with Asher is enough to get anybody to tune in and veg out. I love that Dougie knows that to sell a vision, no matter how pie-eyed and utopian, you gotta give the people what they want, not what they think they need, and I would be willing to bet you dollars to donuts that more people watch reality shows for the conflict than for any resolution, real or fake. A staged trainwreck may leave bruised egos, but a real one will leave broken spirits. Now tell me, which sounds more intoxicating to you?
The way Whit bristles about Asher is the secret sauce. The way she lights up when bagging on her recalcitrant wad of a husband to Dougie is like drugs to me. It’s an angle that will give the show more buzz than her battery-powered “Steven”. I love that Dougie remains a goddamn mystery to me. He texts Cara but claims she’s ugly and hates her smoking. He’s honest in wanting a true connection, but also honest in going low for sky-high ratings. He talks ad nauseam about the fatal night but shies away from lingering on the death itself. My fascination with him only grows and the professional union of him and Whitney is brilliant because it’s not a Royal Flush. For someone who conducts themselves in inimical defiance of being held to account, Asher is just as scary if not more than the homunculus of Whitney-Dougie. He seems like he knows where the bodies are buried, and I’m sure for most of his life, he’s been the butt of many japes, so for my money, this power shift still looks more akin to a Mexican Standoff — they just don’t know it.
We get a few key tonal shifts in this episode that hit hard and fast. The first big one comes in the form of Asher at the hardware store with erstwhile co-worker Bill (David DeLao) icing him out, befuddling the fuck out of him. A few of the camera angles in this scene are a little suspicious, and the beat ends on an ominous note, prompting the title… but we’re already over a quarter into the episode! Just when I believe I’ve got a scintilla of the show in my grasp, it finds a way to remain inscrutable.
Whitney and Dougie working in tandem at the Española Fire Department shoot has me excited. It’s certainly a far cry from the start of the last episode, and with both making Asher the butt of the joke, we’re given space to get behind a side. Are we Team Whitney? Team Asher? Together, however bloody this may get, the show has a shot, so are we team Dougie? Or do we want to bear witness to the metaphorical house that the trio built burn to the ground? We’ve already seen Dougie socially scar a literal burn victim. Why not up the stakes with a married couple this time?
Fielder and Safdie keep the stakes high when we see that jeans store thefts are beginning to hemorrhage Whit’s bank account. Couple that with Cara not signing off on her art being used, and not giving a fuck is looking better to her. Her confidence starts to burn brighter with each take, even flirting with a fireman. It’s “good TV”, but Nathan and Benny have no reservations in making us, the audience aware of what the cameras don’t show you, emotion too raw for TV that invariably ends up on the cutting room floor. We all know Emma’s a revelation in this series, but Nathan is bringing it. It’s painful to watch but feels like something I need to bear witness to, much like Whitney’s abject sadness when listening to the Fire Chief describe the “baby drop off”, giving un-expecting mothers a choice. It’s watching the wind go out of each other’s sails, watching the light go out in their faces… and it’s fucking compelling TV.
Our second tonal shift is when we once again get our fair glimpse at Asher’s equipment when he uses the bathroom, this time for a longer duration. Normally I would say, who cares, you see it for more than a second and it’s just another shock tactic, but I honestly feel Nathan and Benny wouldn’t do anything in this show without merit to the grand scheme of chaos, this being the strips of chicken he notices on the sink, naturally accusing Dougie of a prank, injecting even more mystery into Asher’s taxing day.
I still get the feeling we’re getting B-Roll fed to us in some shots. I don’t see why since the B-Roll team caught Asher’s first bad deed they wouldn’t keep the camera rolling on the both of them. It would make sense they would overlook the eyes and ears of the production because of their status, and if this is the case, I give the show major kudos for cluing the audience to a plot point “hidden in plain sight.”
The tension crescendos at Questa Lane, where we see our tertiary and final tonal shift. After the visit from a chiropractor, I’m not entirely convinced Abshir (Barkhad Abdi) is better than when he started. It wouldn’t be a gift from Whitney if her best intentions didn’t fuck you in the ass and equally as disconcerting is Asher’s game of guessing with Nala (Hikmah Warsame), not for her ability but rather for his actions. A single rivulet of blood from a pained and worried HGTV co-host is another image (much like Fernando’s gun in the last episode) that remains seared in my brain. Nathan, you’ve done it again.
At slightly 38 minutes and change, this might be the shortest episode yet, the most whipsawing yet. Nathan Fielder in the director’s chair consecutively for two episodes is a great way to see his scope in a more cinematic fashion. Both episodes, though stand-alone in all facets, exist to me undeniably as a pair. Of what, exactly? Ironically, for all the shit that’s gone down in both episodes, I’d say a pair of Baoding balls.
We’re presented with more mysteries. What’s up with Bill? Could the crew have paid him to ignore Asher? Is the crew in on it? Though I suspected Dougie and Cara making fun of her behind her back (which I’m sure they do, just not in text messages), what are Dougie and Cara to each other? What’s up with that weird racist statue at the mini golf course in Albuquerque? How will Asher’s public torching go?
With Cara not letting up on exposing racist hypocrisy through art, something tells me that Whitney and Asher’s vile “valorization” of Española may be her biggest project yet. This series is hitting even harder now in the understanding that all things could and should be looked at with a finer lens (is that why the title font is so weird?). I’m catching a strong feeling that the devil is in the details, and details overlooked, animal, vegetable, or mineral, can and will do you in.