Unlike last week, which took us back to when Gwen met Bob, there are no such dual flashbacks in this week’s exploration of the Fosse/Verdon relationship. Gwen Verdon’s beginnings are humble and horrible, raped by the man who would become her first husband, and leaving a baby boy behind as she heads off toward her career.
That tragedy is underscored heavily by writer Debora Cahn, veteran of The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy, and Homeland, and director Adam Bernstein, of Better Call Saul, and Divorce. Maybe too heavily, as the baby’s cries haunt even Gwen’s biggest successes, like the blockbuster opening of Can-Can. She really was pulled out of her dressing room after that performance, and tried her hand at drama with Children! Children! in 1972. As she told The New York Times at the time, “‘Please don’t say that I’m making my debut in a straight play. Rather, it’s the first show in which I don’t sing or dance… If I wasn’t acting in any of those shows, what was I doing?’ she remarked jocularly.”
She’s less jocular when Bob brings up the same point, but even as the scenes with our two stars are spread farther apart, they’re still breathtaking to witness—especially Michelle Williams, in her first TV series since Dawson’s Creek. With Williams’ portrayal, we not only see why Gwen Verdon was so beloved—she’s also representing every woman who has ever had to grit her teeth when her child’s father complains about babysitting. Or had to sit through a squirmingly painful job review. She’s gracious almost to a fault, agreeing to audition like it was her idea in the first place, absorbing criticism from an obtuse director, blithely blinking through Bob’s unexpected intrusion at dinner, consistently exuding such warmth and energy that her agent of course wants to fall over backwards for her. Her strength is astounding—she is notably shaken when she actually makes some magic out of that Children! Children! angel monologue, so much so that it takes her a few silent moments to catch her breath. Gwen’s (and Willams’) core is seemingly so solid, it makes the rare moments when she heats up all the more noteworthy.
There are three main moments when Gwen loses it this episode, and they all involve Bob. First when he, like the Times, is dubious about her acting in a straight play (“When’s the last time you acted?” “An hour ago when you walked in the door, how’d I do?”) Although she’s holding Nicole’s toy wooden sword, and the two are clearly sparring, this conflict is primarily civil, ending with Gwen encouraging Bob to turn the lights off on his way out. He’s trying to woo her to the Cabaret editing room, because he needs her, and can’t create without her, no matter how many other women there are in his bed (and there are so many!)
But Gwen steadfastly sticks to her guns, even dropping Nicole with Bob in the editing room, instead of sticking around herself. This leads to one of their larger blowups, when she finds Nicole alone in the room with Paddy, enabling the flashback to the horrible thing that happened to her as a young girl when she was alone in a room with a grown man. This episode paints Gwen walking away from her baby boy as the defining moment of her life, the pain behind every stage smile. No matter how generous she is with everyone else (that is to say: exceedingly generous) it’s the one thing she can’t forgive herself for. Paddy is clearly harmless, but that’s not the point: He represents all predatory males (with a wolfman movie on TV—we get it, show). Even though Gwen scoffs when Bob suggests a maternal role in Pippin, saying, “I could never play a mother,” that’s really the role that’s defined her life: Her teenage guilt, her efforts to make amends by protecting her second child at all costs.
After all she’s given Bob on a creative, professional level, never asking for even one thin dime in return, he dismisses her request for help with a short response, and callously points out that she never raised a boy. Even on the beach last week when Bob was trying to win her back, he got an “Up yours”; here, the full-on “Fuck you” is well-deserved. We know by the way she says it that Bob has knowledge of her son, and either forgot or is cruelly pointing it out. It’s hard to know which option is worse. By the end of the episode, we are aware of all of Gwen’s demons, which actually just paints her as an even more impressive person, possessing the kind of grace and strength that comes only with survival.
Bob’s full reasons for his behavior are still a mystery, but his demons are on full display: His desperate need to be with someone every night of his life (and not the same someone). The tapping noises imply that his libido is just part of the same ambitious forces that drive him, but why? (I suspect we find out in future episodes.) Although Sam Rockwell doesn’t get much screentime this week unless he’s playing off of the awesome Williams, that opening number is a grabber. When things are going well, Bob’s on top of the world; he’s Fred Astaire, surrounded by an adoring crowd of beautiful girls. (And honestly, I will never not be happy to see Rockwell get a chance to dance.) When things go south, Bob’s clawing at the ground for stability. Even when they were no longer romantically together, Gwen still offered him that life-saving foundation—a combo that helped keep the pair tied until the end of his life.
- Rando Fosse/Verdon-related factoid of the week: What happened to that crying baby: Gwen’s son Jim Henegan Jr., born when she was just 18, also went into show business, on TV series like My Three Sons. He wrote a number of screenplays in the ’60s, and appears as a commentator in the upcoming documentary Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius Of Gwen Verdon.
- This week’s featured member of the Fosse/Verdon inner circle: As much as I want to give this slot to Santino Fontana, who is so awful as Gwen’s abusive rapist first husband this may have ruined Crazy Ex-Girlfriend reruns for me, let’s take a higher road and give props to Peter Scolari, Tom Hanks’ old Bosom Buddies co-star, as Gwen’s adoring agent Mel.
- For the record, Gwen Verdon did lots of “straight” acting later in her career, on shows like Magnum P.I. (as Magnum’s mom, finally playing a mother) and movies like Marvin’s Room and Cocoon.
- Next week: One door (show) closes, another opens.