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Mel Rodriguez anchors an explosive On Becoming A God In Central Florida

Image: On Becoming A God In Central Florida (Showtime)
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It’s time to talk about Mel Rodriguez, a subtle but essential force of On Becoming A God In Central Florida’s cast. Kirsten Dunst has deservingly dominated a lot of the discourse on this show and its performances, but as Ernie, Rodriguez has similarly brought depth and nuance to a character who could easily just be a punchline. He has all the desperation of Travis but in a less pathetic, more heartbreaking way. He has a lot to be happy about, including his marriage to Bets (Beth Ditto, who is also fantastic). And yet Ernie is a deeply sad person, as evidenced by his late-night waterslide adventures. Because sometimes sadness doesn’t really have a root cause. Sometimes you can have a lot going for you and still want more. Especially under capitalism. Because capitalism has taught Ernie that what he really needs to be happy is more, more, more. Capitalism has taught him to confuse power with hope.

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And so Ernie attempts to use FAM rhetoric to save a man’s soul. He regurgitates the FAM talking points when he finds himself and his friend Victor held at gunpoint by a desperate man in a restaurant. The irony here is that Ernie is using the FAM language for good, which is exactly the opposite of its intent. He’s using it to convince a guy so desperate for money that he’s willing to resort to violence to choose a different path. Ernie doesn’t yet know—and still doesn’t, even when Krystal tries to tell him—that he’s buying into a false system. And his heart is in such a good place that he thinks he’s genuinely helping someone. Of course, it doesn’t help in the end. Another man with a gun seizes the opportunity to shoot the mugger, splattering Ernie in the blood of that soul he thought he could save. Ernie wants so badly for FAM to deliver salvation, for FAM to help communities like the one that congregates for English lessons. FAM his literally weaponized Ernie without him knowing it, forcing him to be an agent who preys on his own community.

On Becoming A God In Central Florida most directly grapples with class structures, but race plays a huge role in systemic inequality, and the show has occasionally touched on it, as with last episode when Krystal observes that all Washingtons are white. FAM relies on a specific construct of the (mythical) American Dream: one that is white, straight, and wealthy. Victor struggles to keep up with his downline and points out that none of the tapes are in English, making it harder for him to work the system. But the show only skims the surface here so far. And it doesn’t help that the only recurring Black characters so far—Judd Waltrip and Rhonda—have been very loosely sketched. Judd is more plot device than fully fleshed out character at the moment, and Rhonda’s even more nebulous. What do we know about her other than her job? The development of her relationship with Krystal has been vague.

“American Merchandise” pulls back the curtain once and for all on FAM. We already know not to trust the Garbeau system, and Krystal has remained wary throughout. But even she doesn’t fully know just how much of a sham it all is until Cody tells her when Garbeau himself revealed to him. The top tier of FAM don’t make money off of the products; they get paid by the profits from the actual Garbeau system. The tapes, the rallies, the bullshit business seminars—that’s where the real money is, and it’s used to pay the folks at the top of the pyramid scheme so they can keep the bottom tiers working for them under a grand illusion of wealth. The scene where Cody reveals this to Krystal is impeccably done, the music creeping along like a horror movie, signaling the shift in tone. This show is so skilled at those heightened moments and finding unexpected ways to unsettle. I bring up the horrors of the show often, but that’s what makes it so compelling. There are real stakes to this pyramid scheme, and the show is committed to unearthing just how dangerous capitalism can be.

The scene following Cody’s revelation about the FAM structure to Krystal hits hard, too. It’s not just that Ernie doesn’t want to hear what Krystal’s saying; he won’t hear it at all. “Without hope, people die,” he says. That’s exactly the scene he just saw: a man who died because he had no hope, because he was so desperate for money—presumably just to survive. Desperation is something that has come up a lot on this show, and FAM positions it in contrast to ambition. Garbeau tells Krystal she’s too desperate in her sales pitch, and the sleazy car salesman from a few episodes back says more or less the same thing.

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But what are these men really saying when they tell Krystal this? That she’s too desperate...to ensure a safe life for her and her baby? Krystal’s goal above all else is to survive and make sure that her daughter can survive, too. “Being broke hurts like shit,” she says. In fact, the episode opens on a childhood flashback that show just how much she has had to navigate life on her own. She literally had to shoot her childhood dog because she didn’t have the money to pay for it to be euthanized and because her mother wouldn’t help her. Krystal will do whatever it takes to take care of her family. She’s a single mom whose savings were squandered by her late husband on a broken sham of a system. And Cody certainly isn’t a viable way out of debt; we learn here that he borrowed money from his mother (Mary Steenburgen, who is always a delight, even when she’s playing ruthless like here) to get involved in FAM. Krystal is still on her own.

And while she struggles with the reality of having to be so self-reliant in life, she revels in the idea of being completely in charge in the bedroom. The way this show explores power dynamics has been a compelling throughline. Krystal literally gets off on humiliating Cody. There’s a striking contrast between the woman we see dominating the hell out of this bumbling man and the way Garbeau and the other men at the charity event treat her. They mock Splashercise, even though Krystal shows a ton of smart business sense. But she doesn’t fit their sexist, classist idea of who an entrepreneur is, so they belittle her, and she leaves the event mortified.

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Meanwhile, one subplot that has been unfolding on the periphery is that of the local news reporter Mirta (Melissa De Sousa). We don’t know a ton about her either outside of her apparent pill addiction, which has been drawn in pretty broad strokes. We learn that she has a daughter who she’s isolated from because of that addiction and that she loses her job at the station. The episode’s ending teeters on a cliff: Krystal wants to blow the lid off of FAM once and for all, calling Mirta and promising a story. Both women seem to be a position to help one another pull themselves out of their current predicaments, but Mirta’s role in the story, for now, feels thin. On Becoming A God In Central Florida sometimes struggles with the bigger strokes of its stories, excelling more when it comes to zoomed-in moments and specific imagery.


Stray observations

  • I really do love the depiction of marriage provided by Ernie and Bets. It feels real and lived-in and sweet, and the tensions that are starting to emerge within it are compelling, too.
  • It’s safe to say Krystal will not be accepting Cody’s marriage proposal at the moment.
  • Krystal’s outburst to Cody that Travis died listening to the tapes is a nice example of the show holding onto its history in a believable way. Travis was a mostly comedic character, but his death was genuinely tragic, and it set the course for the show’s tone.
  • I’m worried about Ernie!
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