As “Happiness, Pillow Fight, Imaginary Friend” opens, Forrest MacNeil is as adrift as he’s ever been. (Not literally adrift. He’s been more literally adrift.) “I’ve just been having this recurring nightmare where I shake a Magic 8 Ball toy,” he tells A.J., “and the lifeless head of my victim bobs up into the portal as if to say ‘Outlook not so good.’”
A teenager prescribed antidepressants asks, “What am I, just going to be happy all the time? What’s that like?” and Forrest sways in relief at the assignment. “I mean, it could have been anything!” (It could have been anything, literally anything. It could have been murder. Again.) He heads out of the studio trilling, “I don’t know what’s in store for me now, but it hardly matters because whatever it is, I’ve got to be happy! All the time!”
That’s easier said than done. Maintaining a constant state of happiness is challenging enough “even for someone who isn’t constantly thinking about the human being he killed.” But Forrest maintains his cheer in the face of his co-worker’s stares, Josh’s laziness, and Lucille’s grumbling about sun cancer rates, because “a happy person finds solutions to little problems like the deadly rays of the sun.” Armed with a parasol and a cheering fluff of cotton candy, Forrest sticks to his dogged performance of happiness even when Suzanne arrives to tell him she’s severing his contact and his custody (“Yay!”), even as he’s hauled off (“I get to ride in a police car!”) under suspicion of murder.
Forrest seems relieved, too, to be in prison, if only because it offers a respite from the toils (and tragedies, and traumas) of Review. Then Grant arrives with what he thinks is good news: They’ve been granted clearance to film in jail. Forrest bridles. He thought Grant was there to bail him out, to offer support, to help. And Forrest needs help. “If I’m convicted, I’m looking at life in prison, y’know?”
“But I need you to look at life… in prison,” Grant counters. He shoots down Forrest’s (rational, ironclad, entirely correct) explanation that he needs to focus on fighting the (rational, ironclad, entirely correct) murder charge, spouting the same old empty praise: “Everyone is so grateful for the sacrifices that you make. They look up to you. They’re inspired by you.”
“What Grant was proposing sounded completely unreasonable,” Forrest narrates, “but his argument was compelling.” Under the voiceover, it’s obvious Grant’s “argument” consists largely of flattery… and it works. “Grant had given me the juicer to take prison and turn it into prison-ade,” Forrest says. The metaphor is apt. Grant knows Forrest is more than devoted to Review; he’s intoxicated by it, and even when he knows it’s bad for him, he craves another swig.
Forrest remarks that his next assignment, a pillow fight, differs from most pillow fights insofar as it takes place in a county jail, but he doesn’t stop to think what that might mean until it’s too late. Neither Forrest, the guards, nor the prison psychiatrist anticipate how the scamper of a pillow fight can turn into a melée, but the viewer does, and that anticipation is the signature of Review.
Forrest’s tenacity and optimism are foolhardy, even audacious, but winning. (Not literally winning. Forrest almost never wins, and certainly not the pillow fight.) His tireless affability (and Andy Daly’s buoyant, infectious mixture of reserve and animation) keeps Review balanced on a knife edge between brutality and camaraderie.
Also balanced between brutality and camaraderie is Forrest’s imaginary friendship with Clovers. The assignment comes about in the usual way, as a request from parents worried about their daughter—or, more precisely, worried about their daughter’s imaginary friend: “We haven’t liked any of her real friends, and we’re afraid we’re not going to like this one, either.” But Forrest takes to his imaginary friend with an eagerness and openness that’s easily explained. As he mentioned before the pillow fight, “The life of an accused murderer behind bars is a frightening and lonely one.” Clovers offers Forrest the illusion of connection he so dearly misses—and probably missed even before his arrest. When Review started, Forrest had a loving family life, the affection and respect of his son, and a warm circle of friends and neighbors. That circle has been winnowed down to a handful of colleagues and his father.
In his loneliness, Forrest insists on introducing Clovers to his fellow inmates and demands the same courtesies they would afford him. But fellow inmate Cassius (Ian Roberts) takes over the narrative of Forrest’s imaginary friend, putting words in Clovers’ mouth (“You killed your best friend before this guy, just like you always do?”) and also putting, um, other things in Clovers’ mouth. Soon, Forrest finds himself “locked in a checkers match to control the story of my friend”—and equally soon, “sex with Clovers had become the new prison slang for masturbation.”
The corruption of his innocent imaginary friendship isn’t the toughest test of loneliness Forrest suffers in “Happiness, Pillow Fight, Imaginary Friend.” He’s braced for the pain of his father seeing him in prison, but not for what Mr. MacNeil says. It’s the most honest speech ever seen on Review:
“Boy, it’s been a crazy year, hasn’t it? You picked a fight with that guy for absolutely no reason and got shot and nearly died. Broke up with that nurse in a way that she fired a gun into the house. Then you burned down the house and you broke up with another girl in a way that she fired an RPG and blew up another house. Then you asked me to fire a bunch of arrows at you—and I did! Then you got lost at sea for three months.
I never gave up hope. Through it all, I told myself, ‘Forrest is a good boy, and he always has been.’ But now a man is dead and you’re charged with killing him. What are your values, son? Did I raise you to have values where it’s okay to kill somebody? I hope not.
So I’m out. I just need to take care of myself now.”
As Max Gail delivers Mr. MacNeil’s monologue, his tone shifts from uneasy cheer to a simple resolve (you can see where his son gets both) that makes it all the more heartbreaking. He’s bailed Forrest out, but to save himself, he leaves his confused, confusing son to the care of his imaginary friend. His voice cracks as he says, “Take care of him, Clovers,” showing he’s heartbroken, too.
There’s more heartache in store. (Literal heartache. Not actual, because Clovers is imaginary, but literal.) As Forrest shuffles toward his release, realizing that his father’s (entirely understandable) desertion makes Clovers’ friendship and support more important than ever, Cassius’ gang corners them on the walkway, shivving Clovers repeatedly in his imaginary heart, and leaving him dead on the prison floor. Forrest is bereft; even his imaginary friend has left him now.
Forrest easily abdicates his emotional and imaginative life to others; there’s a reason he lives for Review and through Review. Summing up his experiment in forced happiness, Forrest wonders how much control we have over our emotional life: “Is it something that we receive helplessly like the weather, or is it something we can control—”
“Like the weather,” A.J. interjects pointedly, elaborating, “What if you move to Hawaii?” Forrest scoffs, but he’s missing the larger point. The choices we make construct our circumstances. Moving to Hawaii is a way of controlling the weather—not the weather everywhere, but the weather that touches your life—just as submitting to the vagaries of Review is a way of abandoning control of your emotional weather, of succumbing to the likelihood of recurring storms of sorrow. It’s distressing to see Forrest buffeted by gusts of terrible, consuming guilt over taking a life… but it’s also heartening to see him shoulder his culpability and remorse instead of shrugging it off.
It’s possible that Cassius performed a great service for Forrest MacNeil, though neither of them is likely to see it that way. Forrest has lost his wife, his parental rights, his home, his girlfriend, his other girlfriend, his other other girlfriend, his friends, his car, his retirement fund, his childhood home, his father’s other home, and now his father. He’s been shot and stabbed and burned. He’s been to rehab (twice), in a coma, lost at sea. He’s run away, to be found months later in a crawlspace. But it’s only Cassius’ pretend murder of Forrest’s pretend friend at this most vulnerable moment that opens his eyes to “the utter pointlessness and cruelty of everything that my life had become.” It’s a terrible blow, but a powerful one, and one that might—just might—move Forrest to reclaim his life from the siren that is Review.
- Forrest’s reviews: being happy all the time, three stars; pillow fights, one star; having an imaginary friend, three stars.
- His double lip-smacking as he requests “a sweet, a little sweet treat” is just… it’s just so darned Forrest, it warms my heart.
- “Why don’t the two of you go out and find me a parasol?” “Uh, I don’t know how to do that.”
- “So, ignore all the milk stuff but what’s it like to have a pillow fight, am I understanding what you said there?”
- “My insistence that Clovers exist in the imagination of others had unintended consequences.” Unintended Consequences could be Review’s subtitle.
- As affecting as Mr. MacNeil’s list of Forrest’s hardships is the hushed “Oh, my God” Forrest utters at hearing this long accumulation of losses as a whole.
- Next week is the season finale, and I’m on tenterhooks, as I’m sure plenty of you are, to see what befalls Forrest next and what he does with his blossoming awareness of the emptiness for which he’s sacrificed so much.