The focus of the cold opener in the seventh episode of The Curse (Showtime/A24), titled “Self-Exclusion,” is on Nala (Hikmah Warsame), who has it out for bully Josie (Aspen Martinez). Wishing for a foe to fall, especially when it’s from a rope climb in gym class isn’t what concerns me. Kids are kids, and nobody got hurt. Nor is the P.E. teacher (Greg Fernandez) not taking Nala’s side because Josie’s bullying is only verbal, throwing me off. Disheartening? Yes, but that’s just the failure of our public school system. What’s most disquieting is how intent Nala looks while Josie’s on the ropes. It’s a death stare worthy of Kubrick.
Whitney (Emma Stone) comes with her set of baggage, literally and figuratively, when she purchases the horrid wooden Native American statue at the golf course and hauls it right to the doorstep of Cara Durand (Nizhonniya Luxi Austin), who is initially none too pleased. It’s a shameless shill at buying Cara’s signature on the art release forms, and I’m not the only one that’s uncomfortable with this. Cara herself is also very uneasy, given Whitney’s genetic disposition of disrepute.
Stone’s acting in just the face alone when being rejected is some of her finest acting yet without words, and when she finally reveals all that’s plaguing her concerning Asher, Cara simply listens. It’s evident that Whit’s tearing at the seams, but this show has a beautiful skill of imploring me to look at these individuals through a finer lens. Is she being sincere, or is she playing the emotional card for Cara?
My vote is for the latter, especially factoring in how many times she deploys the term “friend” as if to weaponize it, and we go back into her original intent: making Cara a cultural consultant for the show. Money talks, and I believe this is Whitney at her cruelest yet. She’s trying to get an artist to sell out. Freedom and integrity are the true hallmarks and net worth of an artist, and the look on Cara’s face is just devastating as she mulls over the paycheck in exchange for her principled values as an artist, whatever they may be.
While Whitney is looking like slime, they do something interesting with Asher (Nathan Fielder). At his comedy class, he’s ground more into the floor when the lesson on self-deprecation doesn’t land for him. Not only is he verbally being “pantsed” by his teacher Jeff (Doug Montoya), but also unknowingly forms a bond with Nala.
The brilliance of this scene lies in its parallel to the cold open. It’s another instance of someone tamping down years of bullying only to fail when put on the spot, the incompetency of their feckless “saviors” front and center, which also is touched upon when Whitney passes a bunch of roadside protestors, decrying the name 3HO/Kundalini Yoga Community leader Yogi Bhajan.
If you recall, Whitney visited the community earlier this season. These threads that are never dropped only add to the richness of the tapestry Fielder and Safdie are weaving on screen. Yogi Bhajan (a real person) by accounts was a horrible person who eventually died in Española. Since Whitney and Asher are surely no exemplary people in the least, it’s a nice visual cue to their days being numbered.
Smack dab in the middle of the episode, we go from bad to holy shit. If Asher running over what I’ll assume is a strategically placed box in his driveway wasn’t enough, Whitney’s side-eye says it all. Asher’s information to Monica Perez (Tessa Mentus) bore fruit in what is a gorgeously shot exposé on how Whistling River Casino allowed a recovering gambling addict to play and win big before revoking the money.
I get an even bigger hit when the exposé releases footage of the onsite inspector and Asher laughing as recovering addict Joanna Hernandez (Bertha Benitez) welcomes in the demon of intemperance before their very eyes. Whitney’s seen the story, but hard as Asher tries to slither his way out, he just burrows himself deeper in the shit, and Nathan’s performance in this moment is truly haunting.
It’s the inflection of his voice, the timbre, the rhythm. These aren’t aureate lies he’s spilling forth to save his marriage; they’re half-assed, fully-defeated excuses to save his hidebound ass. I agree with Whit: if it weren’t for her, Asher would just be Satan. His ensuing “stigmata moment” wasn’t the show’s most subtle if they’re painting Asher as some “false savior” to Abshir’s family, but it works. I do feel like he’s in a spiritual war of his own as well. No notes.
At Whit’s first real confessional, we get some time with Dougie (Benny Safdie), who is particularly taken by her monologue, especially about the part of not knowing the person you thought you knew. Stone knocking it out of the park isn’t rarified territory in this season, but it bears repeating: she’s simply phenomenal, and Whitney stopping just short of accusing Asher of holding her back makes me ill, but not for the obvious reason of Asher in that footage acting sub-human.
Sure, Whitney’s spoiled, displaying zero growth, especially when enabler dad Paul (Corbin Bernsen) lends her cash. Sure, she’s in a toxic co-dependent (redundant, I know) relationship. Neither of which are good, but as much as I am so Team Dougie, I don’t know that he’s not just using the couple as his magnum opus; why celebrate marriage when he could be at the vanguard of a new form of reality TV: dissolution of marriages? To be fair, Dougie has every right to be pissed off at Asher for not inviting him to Shabbat.
The tertiary Nathan Fielder-directed episode, even in its last minutes, gives us even a few more sludgy moments when we see that it isn’t the network that’s paying for Cara’s employment; it’s Whitney buying her friend under a false premise. I mean, she purchased a Native American at the beginning of the episode. That sort of full-circle poetry is why the show’s never displayed a dull moment.
With Asher taking notes on the recorded argument they had earlier, I’m not sure whether to believe he’s trying to better himself by self-critiquing for the sake of personal growth and learning to accept responsibility instead of being an excuse factory… or just as a means to game Whitney and win arguments. I hope he at least took from the class that emotional intelligence begins with being self-aware.
The final moments of this episode completely knocked me for a loop. Though Nala’s wish didn’t first come true, it does rear its head all the same, coming full circle. Hmm, I also noticed the “C” in the title itself is circular, as are camera lenses. The show never lets up giving me frissons of simultaneous dread and excitement — a fever dream I don’t mind being enveloped in.
That snake charm was more than just on the set of keys to one of Whitney’s abodes in this episode. It’s also in Whitney. Let me find out there is no fucking consultant position. I have a feeling Whitney just bought Cara’s whole artistic identity for twenty stacks, even though Cara might be smarter than to sign an actual signature, but even then, that’s fraud. She’s got her “friend” over a barrel, but what does she care? She got her way.
It’s also interesting for how it’s shot, with the camera lingering inside the bank to zoom in on Whitney until Paul with the audio coming in clear as fuck, as if they were mic’d up. We also get an odd scene of Asher getting made up for his confessional. This particular shot is interesting because it sets up a tonal shift visually. Something about seeing his warped reflection in the house is both funny-looking and creepy, almost like a clown. This is fantastic foreshadowing if his Arthur Fleck moment is in the cards.
The episode is named “Self-Exclusion”, for the voluntary act of a recovering addict signing away their rights to play at any casino for a set amount of time. I curiously think the language of the form itself might be the actual template Whitney uses to get people to sign away their rights. I don’t remember if we’ve gotten a look at Whitney’s form yet. The duo’s cowardly yet brazen tactics to ride roughshod over anybody that stands in their way is sickly poetic, since the most poisonous they are, are to each other.