On Friday, the first season of “The Curse,” Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s cringe horror-comedy on Showtime and Paramount+, came to an audaciously unpredictable end. Three New York Times critics — James Poniewozik, chief TV critic; Alissa Wilkinson, movie critic; and Jason Zinoman, critic at large — discussed the confounding conclusion, the show’s religious themes and the sublime inscrutability of Emma Stone’s performance.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK Greetings, “Curse”-heads! We have seen the finale, and I can now confidently say: lol wut?
Ten uncomfortable, ingenious episodes ended with one of the biggest literal and figurative upendings in TV history (spoilers ahead). Asher Siegel (Nathan Fielder) has his personal field of gravity reversed like a horror-comedy Fred Astaire, hurtling off the Earth to an apparent frozen death in orbit, while his wife, Whitney (Emma Stone), goes into labor and gives birth to their child. All this, and Vincent Pastore cooks meatballs!
I haven’t seen an episode of TV this audacious, confounding and transfixing since “Twin Peaks: The Return.” I haven’t seen a series so thoroughly and unexpectedly shift direction in its finale since … ever?
I have thoughts! But Alissa and Jason, I want to hear your reactions (gut and otherwise), theories (the more cockamamie the better) and interpretations (there will be as many as there were viewers). And if either of you saw this coming, I want you to buy me a lottery ticket.
ALISSA WILKINSON I watched the whole series before it started airing (critics’ privilege), but a friend who was doing the same got to the end first and said, “Well, I did not see that coming!” And I thought, how weird could it be? I watched “The Rehearsal” a few times; I’ve seen “Nathan For You” and “Uncut Gems.” I know how these guys operate.
Wow, was I wrong! The episode starts with what might be the most excruciating bit in Asher and Whitney’s, uh, journey — their appearance on Rachael Ray’s show to promote the now-streaming first season of “Green Queen.” Then they have an oddly philosophical conversation over Shabbat dinner. And then it’s the next morning, and the camera pans up from Whitney sleeping to … Asher sleeping on the ceiling.
The whole episode (and series) ends with Asher spinning in outer space, in a neat recreation of both my worst recurring nightmare and the baby in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and I just sort of let it fade to credits as I stared. That’s the kind of finale that makes me want to start over immediately and figure out what on earth just happened.
The only answer I had is still all mushy for me. But Asher’s loss of gravity and subsequent yeeting into the universe seemed reminiscent of one idea: that of a “rapture,” believed in some sects of Christianity to be the future moment in which Jesus will return to earth and all believers will be spun up into the air and taken to their heavenly reward. This is not in the least what happens to Asher, but it felt like a funny — and also terrifying — reversal. Then, as luck would have it, I had to start rewatching the series to write about it and realized just how rife the show is (especially in the first and last episodes) with references to Asher’s Judaism, to which Whitney has converted and which certainly does not count among its tenets a similar rapture. That could be in keeping with themes in both Fielder’s and his co-star Benny Safdie’s work.
So … maybe that’s a thing? But what does it mean? Please help me!
JASON ZINOMAN The fact Nathan Fielder dramatizes Alissa’s worst recurring nightmare strikes me as a point in his favor. For me, it was a nightmare I didn’t know I had. There’s this idea, often traced to Aristotle, that has hardened into cliché: The best endings should be surprising, if inevitable. Only a mad genius could have found this inevitable. And one could also see it as a cop-out, shoehorning a wild flourish as a shortcut to a big finale. But I love the scale of it. It invites your religious readings. In keeping with the rest of the show, the final float has a disorienting terror, and I admire the big swing of it. And you could also see it as less out of left field than it seems. After all, this levitation answers the question hanging over the entire 10 episodes. Is he cursed or not? That’s the most blunt, literal meaning one could find: Yes, he was cursed. Or no?
PONIEWOZIK Fun fact! There’s a term for the fear of falling into the sky: It’s “casadastraphobia.”
So, when I reviewed “The Curse,” I wrote that it reminded me of Kafka (himself an absurdist Jewish artist who worked in a horror-comic mode). I could not say then that I was reminded because of … this.
Like Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis,” Asher awakens one fine morning in a horrifying predicament. As in Kafka, this magic-realist transformation plays out against the mundane events of ordinary life — a classic sitcom we-gotta-get-to-the-delivery-room scenario — with a combination of surreal slapstick and a sense of severe cosmic judgment for, well, what exactly?
That “what” may be the great puzzle of “The Curse.” (Even more so than “How did they shoot that?”)
ZINOMAN Hot take: Kafka is funnier than Nathan Fielder. As we evoke Aristotle, religion and Kafka, I am reminded of Whitney in the Shabbat scene (which I think holds some clues to the puzzle), who jokes that the way to get into The New York Times is to pretentiously say that your art (this may be a paraphrase) is “a statement on the Holocaust.”
Fielder invites these weighty readings, but I have always found him less of an intellectual artist than an intuitive one. And judging by the finale of “Nathan for You” and by “The Rehearsal,” he is always focusing on weird personal relationships. To me, the levitation was a symbol of the profoundly dysfunctional relationship between Asher and Whitney. It’s played for painful horror. That thunk of him hitting the tree. Fielder spends most of the episode panting and struggling. But there are also heartfelt moments.
I was unexpectedly moved by the moment when Whitney grabs him and tries to pull him down. She is risking herself to save him, and as she rises, he is risking her by holding on. It is an echo of that scene where he struggles to take off a sweater and they both pull on each other until they fall over, which is played for comedy at first. It is also notable that at the end of the last episode, Whitney seems to be trying hard, in her passive-aggressive way, to break up — and fails. Asher clings to her. Here, it’s Asher who tells her to leave for her own sake, to get away from him. Up until then, I would argue that his motivation was not to be a good person or to save the environment or to make this show. Those were all means to the end of keeping her, which proved suffocating to her. One thought I had watching him float into space: Is this her fantasy?
WILKINSON I also thought it might be her fantasy when I rewatched the finale last night. Or maybe something else? At dinner, Asher, who seems to have tried to take on a persona of authoritative mansplaining in the months that elapsed between Episodes 9 and 10, explains to Whitney that with art, “Sometimes you have to go to extreme lengths to make your point.”
Soon after that, they’re in bed, and Asher is singing to Whitney’s belly. “You’ve got a little me inside of you!” he says, then leans over to keep addressing the belly.
At that moment, Whitney looks at him, and the camera holds on her face, and her look becomes inscrutable. But it isn’t hard to imagine a version of what is going through her head: Oh, dear Lord, what have I done? It’s not a far leap from there to imagine her forming the mental words, even if she doesn’t want to, that she wishes he would just fly away and leave her to live her life as the Green Queen. He just drags her down, doesn’t he?
The whole concept of “The Curse” revolves, explicitly, around a curse. There are many ways to come at this. The biblical concept of “the curse” — sort of the villain origin story of humanity from Genesis — says that women will suffer pain in childbirth and that husbands and wives will live in complex friction. Asher and Whitney are also clearly a curse of some kind, part of a long lineage of people like them who imposed themselves onto a place in order to “fix” it and just made it worse. And there’s also the obvious curse from the first episode. I can imagine this being one last curse in the finale episode, which — who knows — might actually be a blessing in Whitney’s eyes.
ZINOMAN Emma Stone is such an expressive performer, and as you point out, Alissa, she has a very inscrutable look that she employs in this show at key moments. It’s blank, devoid of emotion, scary. You see it at the end of Episode 9 before she shows the brutal clip to Asher, and you also see it the night before he levitates. She’s usually performing and a bit hyperactive, but this face feels like a shift in register, and it’s one of the details in her remarkable performance that elevates this show. One last thought, since we haven’t said much about Dougie, who ends with real tears a series that began with him faking tears. The funniest line of the finale to me is when Dougie, a guy who seems to know how to handle very little outside manipulative television, is confronted with the impossible situation of seeing his friend float away, and he says with supreme confidence: “I know exactly what to do.”
PONIEWOZIK So you both hit on a bit of my personal stringboard theory, which is that the key to this solution to Asher and Whitney’s relationship — a deus ex machina in reverse — lies in that awkward scene at the end of Episode 9.
After Asher fervently declares that he is “all in” on Whitney, he adds something that seems glaring in retrospect: “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.”
Does Whitney want to be with him? On the surface, they seem to be in a good place in the finale. But we know that she is a pro at projecting a surface appearance — maybe her look of horror at Asher’s vow of fealty was her true response. Maybe Asher senses her feelings even better than she consciously does. Maybe, as Asher says, the curse is himself — and that is literally, biblically true, not just in a therapy-speak sense. Or maybe the actual curse is that Asher and Whitney are cosmically sundered just as they have found peace.
One thing is for sure: He does disappear.