The fourth episode of Showtime x A24’s The Curse titled “Under the Big Tree” cold-opens on a mystery involving Dougie (Benny Safdie), a clearing, a dropped call from HGTV bearing good news, and two abandoned vehicles, you’re turning up the thermostat in the desert. However, when you add the good brain in this producer’s head and the bad omen of a scorpion, two slips of paper with names and keys to the other two vehicles attached, and a potential ancient piece of pottery, we’re now cooking with gas.
Naturally, Asher (Nathan Fielder) and Whitney (Emma Stone) are beaming with the news that they were picked up for a 10-episode run and naturally, I’m not surprised that Whit takes offense to the network wanting to focus more on the people they are kicking out. At times, I’m not sure if I’m rooting more for her because her myopic nature is just as frustrating as Asher’s bullheadedness.
The whole conversation does seem intimate in how the scene is blocked. The interesting thing is that moments like these in the show give me momentary pause. Amid the jubilation, something brilliant takes place when Whitney displaces her unassuredness in the project and projects that negative energy onto her husband, asking (with trepidation due to his anger) Asher to take a comedy class to up his on-screen appeal because all he can think about is making money. Nobody likes to be called unfunny. To have strangers do that to you is one thing, but to have your life partner agree with them has got to sting, causing Asher to go immediately on the defensive.
He’s not someone that can ever be reached and when you hit a nerve, and he acts like a baby. That sounds like a public figure we all know, but even then, this is a situation played off with so much humanity on both Fielder and Stone’s parts. Against my better judgment, I’m rooting for Asher to take the high road, grinding his molars all the way, but the tense moment only begets a bigger problem when their neighbor Maria (Diana Navarette) informs them of an accusatory client. I adore that this is far from open and shut, with Asher imploring her not to fly off the handle like Buddy Rich because of this guy’s tech connections for the show. Every other tether in The Curse‘s world is frayed, every other nerve shot. Nothing is clean. Every situation that arises in this creation of Nathan and Benny comes at a price and with a lien to the ultimate bank which is the chaotic Universe.
I love that Asher can’t read the fucking room. He keeps digging into Whitney to not harass this accusatory neighbor, going as far as to weaponize her passion by framing the situation as an opportunity to showcase her new design. I believe it’s safe to call Asher a snake at this point. Hey, he fits right in with the ecosystem.
I also love that despite her attempts to connect with the community, Whitney is anything but welcomed. These people are tolerant of her because much like her around Asher; they’re on eggshells… save for Victor (Alexander Poncio) now a (proud?) owner of what I’ll hereby refer to as a “Siegel original”.
Because Vic throwing out the induction oven disqualifies the structure from being passive, Whitney’s passive aggression is just too ambrosial in her “just mind your use of language next time” speech, which is peak managerial (not boss) syntax. It’s something we are loathe to hear, so kudos to the show for incorporating that character richness into the script. I don’t believe Asher’s taken hold of her. I believe she’s forward-thinking, just going about shit ass-backward. Still, she’s now thinking about her version of the long game. I mean shit, we’re only just beginning to unearth her story with her backstory outside of her parents.
Dougie’s story picks up again in grand fashion when he shows up at the first address and it turns out to be a teenager who claims to his mother he bought beer for. Dougie owns up to it and still manages to leave with dignity. The thing is, I believe Dougie. He may be all about exploitation, but that’s the business and he’s at least upfront and honest about it, unlike the “stars of the show.” Ugh. The gag reflex was heavy on that one. It’s an exploitation daisy chain; bring three buckets for this mess.
Oh, we don’t stop there. Asher visits Abshir (Barkhad Abdi) with stuff from the pantry (because he’s too cheap to buy fresh), and we deliciously dive into the cringe when he imposes himself on this family in a most boorish way. Even when Nala (Hikmah Warsame) opens her heart possibly even a little bit to him, Asher’s presence is taken as a clear threat to Pops and Hani (Dahabo Ahmend), and Nathan Fielder does such a bang-up great job portraying someone so oblivious to the damage he can cause. The scene fills me with a lingering dread, like watching an overeager child immediately running to a felled bird’s nest in slow motion. Knighting himself “Uncle Asher” is probably one of the most cringeworthy moments in a series full of hard truths and exposure, so kudos, fellas.
Whitney not getting much warmer of a welcome in her own house (office) when she notices that assistant Luisa (Sidni) and head of security Fernando (Christopher D. Calderon) are becoming friends and is feeling so good right about now. She refuses to connect at all to anything natural of the land because she forces it. She sees race first, person second, and despite her protestations, I’m convinced Fernando’s side-arm will soon become Chekov’s.
I’m thinking that she’ll eventually use Fernando as actual muscle in some capacity, putting his life at risk in more than one way as he’s an ex-convict, and if it goes that way, I’d be happy. It’s not that I’m taking bets on these predictions, but a good show will get your mind going, and this has that in spades. This is especially true in the next scene, where my mind is making connections of Asher having crew hand Freckle (Edward Martinez) do the heavy lifting (just as Whitney had Luisa do such verbally with Fernando), this time with Vic’s former stove which is a parallel worthy of praise. The insouciance with which Asher handles his denting of Freckle’s F-350 door is hilarious but the sick, sad reality is that callous people like him exist in the world, their shameful actions barely given screen time, especially not in reality television, so this is still like a breath of fresh air. Except this environment ain’t friendly.
Asher’s cowardice results in a literal bust, so he wanting Dougie to take Vic out of the show’s narrative in favor of the Juniper Lane couple he wanted to capitalize on post-show airing isn’t surprising. It’s nice that they have him thinking long-term now and, I strangely find myself rooting for that play. Why am I suddenly feeling like I want this win for him?
It may have to do with Dougie, still riding high on their big win of being picked up, apologizing to Asher for bullying him when they were younger, including standing him up and pantsing him at swim meets. Asher meakishly brushing the shit off as japes is a clear sign of trauma and repression… but no time to linger on the past when their presence together is dictating the future of Flipanthropy. Dougie wants Vic. I want Vic.
What transpires next, however, had me very much second-guessing shit when Dougie shows Asher the footage of him being cursed. Each episode thus far has included at least one sharp shift in tone where the awkwardness melts away to reveal the terror of the unknown. The potential supernatural angle is effective but Dougie truly believing he was also cursed to the point it visibly upsets him honestly intrigues me a little more.
The episode winds down brilliantly with Whitney happening upon a white Sikh retreat, which gave me heavy Atlanta vibes in that it’s exploring an oasis, a place hidden in plain sight but unequivocally alien in your backyard. The thing that snaps me back to knowing it’s The Curse is, however, that I can easily imagine Whitney using this as a move to exploit, find peace, or both. Meanwhile, Asher flies in the face of improvement when he acts out at improv and not in the intended way. And ya think you know your neighbors…
Addendum: I feel the piece of pottery from Doug’s dig has a personal connection to him. Lineage or wife, perhaps? Wicked curious to see going forward.