Nathan Fielder has been deconstructing what’s real and what isn’t in our hyper-saturated media landscape for a decade on American television, from Nathan for You to The Rehearsal. In The Curse, he interrogates this further, but also explores what’s real and what isn’t in relationships, in art, and in social justice. Co-creating and co-starring in the show with Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems and Good Time) and playing opposite Emma Stone in her most complicated performance yet, Fielder delivered another unforgettable work of art in The Curse, though it remains his most depressing and probably his most frustrating project yet.
The Curse is probably the most divisive television show of the season. The Showtime series follows a young married couple, Asher (Fielder) and Whitney (Stone), who have been deeply involved with the real estate market in different ways. Whitney has tried to distance herself from her wealthy slum lord parents, despite using their money and their property to create a SJW facade. Asher is incredibly skilled at business and logistics, and knows how to flip and sell property, but is terrible with social cues. The pair take on a vanity project of sorts, a television show about them and their supposedly good work in the community; they hope to sell this eco-positive real estate show, titled Flipanthropy and then Green Queen, to HGTV.
The series just aired its season finale, and likely its series finale, and it essentially goes for broke. The show has flirted with magical realism before — the titular curse placed on Asher by a poor young child who seems to have legitimately psychic powers — but abandons all pretext of realism in the finale, boldly inviting a range of interpretations with an incredibly abstract narrative. What does it mean? What does it matter? Here’s our attempt at an analysis of The Curse.
A Cursed Marriage
- Release Date
- November 10, 2023
- Nathan Fielder, Benny Safdie
- Excellent performances are all on the same weird wavelength.
- Extremely uncomfortable moments take comedy to new levels of cringe.
- A thoughtful and depressing meditation on marriage, personality, and media.
- Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie create one of the most visually unique series on TV.
- The series digresses a little too much and takes on more than it can handle.
A bit of background. The Curse is ultimately a pessimistic study of relationships and love, focused on one complicated couple. Asher has devoted his life to Whitney, though his logical, sometimes shrewd financial side remains for most of the show. Before he was with Whitney, he helped a casino use subtle design tricks to maximize profits, ignoring rules about gambling addicts. He had no friends growing up; he thinks that Dougie (Safdie) was a childhood friend, not realizing Dougie was just his childhood bully. He was cursed with a micropenis, and his sexual fantasies involve other men sleeping with Whitney. More than anything else, he wants to please her, and that seems increasingly impossible given her temperament.
Whitney wants the world to know just how great she is; it’s hard to discern how much of it is posturing and virtue signaling, and how much of it is legitimate but self-branded PR. Her parents are infamous in the real estate industry for what’s seen as exploitative practices, and Whitney wants to go out on her own by first transforming the community of Espanola. She builds “passive homes,” reflective boxes that are pressure-sealed and have no carbon footprint. She hires locals to work at her shops, providing her credit card number to charge in case anyone steals a pair of jeans. She meets with a nearby Indigenous leader to ensure that her work complies with the Pueblo Nation.
These two individuals should not be together, and perhaps that’s the major curse of the show. They’re both capitalists, except Whitney is pretending with all her might not to be one, and Asher can barely keep up with her. Asher downright believes that he’d be nothing without Whitney; Whitney schemes with Dougie, who is producing their HGTV show, to make it seem humiliating for Asher and depict Whitney as a woman in a loveless marriage. Nonetheless, in Asher’s eyes, Whitney is a goddess who can do no wrong; she’s too good for him, and he doesn’t deserve her. So in the penultimate episode of The Curse, when he hears Whitney spout the actual ‘truth’ (or however true a reality TV confessional interview can be), he doesn’t let his anger take hold of him.
Episode 9 of The Curse: “All in on Whitney”
To understand the bizarre finale of The Curse, it’s very important to pay attention to that ninth episode, before the time jump. At the end of the episode, Whitney shows Asher the secret footage that she and Dougie had shot. It cross-cuts interviews with Whitney and Asher within a montage that’s meant to evoke ’empowering independent woman’ vibes via reality TV editing and music. Here’s what’s said:
Whitney: It’s moments like this that make me question if Asher, this man that I married, truly understands me. I mean, every relationship reaches a point where you start to question things. It’s normal. It happens to everyone. But what if the thought doesn’t leave your head and it doesn’t go away? That’s what I’ve been dealing with the past year.
Whitney: Here is this man who is so genuinely interested in me and who I am. He worships me. Who wouldn’t want that? Someone that looks at you like a goddess, kissing the ground you walk on. It sounds like a dream. Right?
Asher: She’s kind, thoughtful, intelligent. She’s the most selfless person I’ve ever met. Everything she does is so true, pure, like she has a connection with the universe or something. She just knows. I feel lucky to stand in her shadow.
Whitney: To know that you hold all the power and that if you left them, they’d be destroyed. When a person is this infatuated with you, do they really see you? Or is it just an idea of you? Are their actions just driven by what they think you want? Or by how they really feel? Can someone love you so much that the real version of you completely ceases to exist? So that brings us to today. When you’re so bound to someone but deep down you know that you’ll never be fully satisfied with them — what do you do? There’s just so much more to me. Maybe it’s time to chart my own course.
After storming out, Asher quickly knocks on the door and re-enters, yet another moment in a long line of his embarrassing and awkward actions. He isn’t mad. He’s flushed, his eyes crystallized in intensity, existing in a moment of terrifying clarity. Asher says to Whitney:
Asher: Everything you said, I was feeling, okay? It all makes sense now. I thought it was some stupid f*cking curse. It was me. I know you. We shouldn’t have sold to Mark Rose, but I still did it, like a f*cking idiot. I don’t need my cell phone, I know I use it too much. No, listen to me. I’ve let my personal shortcomings get in the way of truly making all the sacrifices, making every sacrifice that I need to. I didn’t get the $100 to Nala that night. I lied. I’m a little liar. I’m a terrible person. Don’t you see? There’s not some curse. I’m the problem, it’s not magic, it’s me, okay? I’m a bad person, and I’ve been dragging you down with me.
Whitney: You still want to be with me, after all of that?
Asher: More than ever. Oh my God, you don’t understand. You haven’t seen it yet, but I’m a different man. I’ve changed, okay? I feel it. We haven’t talked about it because there hasn’t been a good moment, but I’m all in on you, okay? I’m all in on Whitney. Whatever it takes, I’ll do it. And you don’t even have to tell me anymore, because I’ll know. I won’t be guessing, because I know you, baby, and if you didn’t want to be with me, and I actually truly felt that, I’d be gone. You wouldn’t have to say it, I would feel it and I would disappear. Rich or poor, I don’t give a sh*t. I love you baby and I believe in you, and I will make this work. Okay? I love you baby.
Episode 10 of The Curse: Green Queen Finale
Now that we’ve gone through some key details, we can glean a bit of analysis and provide a few different interpretations of what happens in the finale of The Curse. There is a time jump, and we see that the HGTV show has finished filming and has aired; Whitney and Asher promote it to little interest on The Rachael Ray Show. Whitney is extremely pregnant and, typical of her character, wonders if her pregnant belly was in the shot and why Rachael Ray didn’t ask about their child.
Asher has been true to his word — it appears that he has killed off whatever parts of himself are still incongruous with Whitney, such as his capitalist mindset. He surprises her by giving away their $300 thousand property to Abshir and his daughters. He smiles dutifully next to Whitney on The Rachael Ray show. He discusses the difficulties of minority artists. He sings to the unborn child in her belly and shines a light on the skin separating him from his son. He installs something in their passive house to make sure that the pressurized interior doesn’t harm the baby. After nine episodes of extreme cringe, the pressure in their relationship has largely been released. Allegorically, however, this does not bode well for Asher.
The Rehearsal Finale: Reflections on Accountability in (Un)Reality Television
Nathan Fielder goes to some darkly brilliant but heartbreaking places in the season finale of HBO’s The Rehearsal, some of which is hard to justify.
Whitney awakens to find Asher staring down at her, sleeping on the ceiling. For some reason, he’s living in a state of antigravity, and no matter what he tries to do, he can’t come down to earth with her. Watching him navigate the ceiling and freak out with Whitney is perhaps an overlong sequence, roughly 25 minutes, but it’s funny and harrowing in equal measure. Fielder gives a phenomenal performance that’s both realistic and very physical, playing a man so lacking in substance that he finally just floats away. Meanwhile, all the commotion sends Whitney into labor. As a father dies, a boy is born.
It’s all an extremely impressive technical sequence, but perhaps the most emotionally and cinematically powerful moment is when Whitney tries to pull Asher down. The pull of their gravity is so different, like repelling (or repulsive) magnets. The force of Asher’s antigravity is too strong, and when Whitney tries to pull him down, she gets lifted. They’re suspended for a moment, half between ceiling and floor, arms interlocked, the realization setting in that they will never be on the same level; the power imbalance is too strong. “I’ve been dragging you down with me,” Asher said in episode nine, but really, he’s been floating up.
Releasing the Pressure: Asher Has No Self
How to disappear completely? Abandon all self and kill your ego. Annihilate your personality. Completely give yourself to something until there’s none of ‘you’ left. That’s what happens to some people in toxic relationships, and it could be said that Asher’s fate is a literal manifestation of this. He tells Whitney in episode nine, “You don’t even have to tell me anymore, because I’ll know. I won’t be guessing, because I know you, baby, and if you didn’t want to be with me, and I actually truly felt that, I’d be gone. You wouldn’t have to say it, I would feel it and I would disappear.” So maybe that’s what happened. He had cut off any last vestiges of his pre-Whitney personality, perfectly comfortable to give away his $300 thousand property. He was no longer him, but an extension of her. She even takes his Judaism.
Maybe, with their coming child, Whitney didn’t have to tell Asher that she no longer wanted him. Maybe she set a silent curse, or maybe the pressure in their relationship simply changed. Pressure is a major vibe in The Curse. It’s a stressful, uncomfortable series which intentionally builds tension but rarely releases any pressure. That finds a literal parallel with the passive homes in The Curse, where everything is pressure sealed. The couple lives in one of the mirrored houses that Whitney had built. You can’t let the outside in, by window or door, or it will take forever to re-calibrate the pressure. You have to live to Whitney’s specs.
With their coming child, a pressure release valve of sorts has been installed in the house, which is what Asher blames for becoming gravitationally challenged. A metaphorical link is thus created between the child and the father. Asher had become as emotionally and viscerally dependent upon Whitney as a baby would be; without her, he was “nothing.” He had as much self-identity as a newborn. So, while he floats up into the atmosphere in the fetal position, like some 2001 space baby, an actual baby is removed from Whitney and presented to her. Call it Asher’s replacement.
In many ways, Asher was cursed with loving Whitney. On the surface (or as he puts it in episode nine, “on paper”), they don’t seem so mismatched. Asher is attractive, smart, mostly loyal, and kind of decent. He knows how to make money, and he knows how to spend it. For many people, he’s a catch. Whitney is attractive as well, a good conversationalist, and is passionate about good causes. But she’s also a hypocrite with little self-awareness, a woman who needs to buy friends and admirers because she’s not very talented and doesn’t have a personality of her own, just an amalgam of social justice causes. She is all artifice.
So why does Asher love her so intensely? Why does anyone fall in love? Like being shot with Cupid’s arrow, it seems like an affliction you don’t choose. The flipside can feel like a curse as well. Recall Whitney saying, “He worships me. Who wouldn’t want that? Someone that looks at you like a goddess, kissing the ground you walk on. It sounds like a dream.” But it can actually be a curse, because you can never return that love. At love’s worst, a partner can beat us, insult us, or lord over us, and we can still love them. Is love a curse? Some people drag us down because the gravitational force of their personality is so strong, but maybe if they didn’t, we’d just float away, because there was never much substance to us to begin with.
The Trouble with Being Born
What else could be the titular curse? In the show’s first episode, Nala curses Asher for something small — he gave her $100 and then took it back, promising to go to an ATM to give her $20. She curses away the chicken in his delivered chicken penne entrée. It’s a hilariously petty and small thing to title a show after. Is this The Curse?
Earlier, we suggested that love is a kind of curse on the beloved and the lover, that Asher is cursed with this. But he’s also cursed with a variety of other things, from his micropenis and a seeming inability to be funny, to his very personality, something which makes him incapable of being Whitney’s perfect match. It’s his personality that Asher ultimately wants to destroy. It’s the thing we’re all cursed with. Whitney wants to be a different person, the person she thinks she could be if Asher was gone, but in reality, she’s a phony hack and even her ‘friends’ don’t like her. Dougie is an obnoxious and cruel person, no matter how hard he tries. Cara is only seen as a Native artist; hardly anybody sees her and her work beyond what she was born into.
A curse is something you can’t control, a hex that’s put on you and causes suffering (society has referred to menstruation as ‘the curse,’ interestingly enough). In many ways, we are all cursed to be ourselves. We can’t control whether we like broccoli or fish, or whether we find something funny or not. We can’t really control why we love a certain work of art or hate it. We can’t control our race, age, parents, and probably our gender identity as well. We can barely control our thoughts. You realize this to a heightened degree in a relationship. We want to change ourselves for someone else, but we’re often cursed to be who we are.
As Emil Cioran wrote in The Trouble with Being Born, “We make choices, decisions, as long as we keep to the surface of things; once we reach the depths, we can neither choose nor decide, we can do nothing but regret the surface.” And then this analysis of The Curse‘s finale, from Ray Rahman of Vulture:
“Look: The real curse is being born and living in this world. Asher is being pulled upward — outward — against his will thanks to a cosmic force he doesn’t understand, much like the crying boy being lifted out of Whitney’s womb during her C-section. Just as his child enters the earth, Asher exits it, floating into the stars in a near-fetal position. ‘Do you want us to see if your husband is here?’ a nurse asks Whitney. Of course he isn’t. Asher’s curse has been lifted, but his son’s is just beginning.”
The Show Is Over
The last bit of dialogue in The Curse occurs between strangers, neighbors who have been watching Asher’s floating predicament. After the firefighter saws off the tree limb to Asher’s screaming protestations and he flies off into the atmosphere, things start to get cleaned up. Dougie and his crew pack up their camera gear, the police get reports, the firefighters prepare to leave. Neighboring onlookers talk among themselves. “Are they making a movie?” one asks.
“It’s the guy from that HGTV show,” a man replies.
“Oh, they’re making a TV show? Huh,” says the neighbor, and the series fades to black. The Curse was always about television, with Whitney and Asher’s TV show serving as the framing device. From the very first scene (zooming into a window from the outside, as the show’s so often filmed), we hear people’s painful experiences but then see them manipulated and exploited to create TV drama. A sick old woman is given fake tears so that she can emote better. Whitney and Asher nod along despite being uncomfortable.
At its most meta, the ending of The Curse is simply about the ending of the television show at the heart of it, Flipanthropy (or Green Queen). Whitney and Asher’s relationship was quasi-decent at the beginning, despite obvious power imbalances. But as the show brought out Whitney’s worst side and Asher sunk to lower depths to do damage control, the cheap seams in their relationship began to show. The idea of their relationship falling apart and Whitney becoming an independent woman no longer dragged down by a man — that became the narrative of her TV show, which bled into life through her and Dougie’s schemes.
But when the network suits at HGTV saw the additions, they remained adamant that Asher stay in the show and that the relationship be strong and positive. And so Whitney changes her tune. She takes Asher bowling and compliments him, plays along with him. The show must go on. In a rare moment of guilt and honesty, she shares the footage she’d been working on with Dougie, and the disturbing truth emerges — Asher doesn’t care; he’ll do anything for her (even get cucked by gravity). And so they do the show.
In the finale, Green Queen is finished, and it doesn’t seem to have performed well. Rachael Ray couldn’t care less about it, and Whitney and Asher remain smiling and frozen in the background of Ray’s show while she eats a meatball and flirts with a cast member of The Sopranos. There is no more show. Mirroring the first episode, Whitney and Asher visit a disenfranchised person (Abshir) and bring him charity (the $300 thousand house). He’s not emotionally demonstrative and overwhelmed with gratitude, like the ill woman at the beginning of The Curse. Except now, there are no tear sticks. They can’t edit his reaction and control his performance into something they’d prefer. There is no more show.
With episode nine, it seemed like Whitney only let Asher into her life for the show. She was ready to divorce and humiliate him, but HGTV wanted them together. Now that Green Queen has aired and nobody seems to care, Whitney doesn’t need Asher anymore. Maybe it’s as simple and sad as that. But perhaps the curse continues with Whitney. As Cioran wrote, “In permitting man, Nature has committed much more than a mistake in her calculations: a crime against herself. Not to be born is undoubtedly the best plan of all.”
The Curse is streaming on Showtime and through Paramount+ or other premium streaming upgrades.
Watch on Paramount+