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On Becoming A God In Central Florida plays a wicked game

Image: On Becoming A God In Central Florida (Showtime)
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“What’s winning?! What’s playing?!” Krystal Stubbs demands to know after abandoning Cody at the couples banquet at the Paradise Cay retreat for silver level FAM Washingtons—the setting of the bizzaro and immersive “Many Masters.” Increasingly, it’s clear that no one in FAM really knows what game they’re playing.

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It’s disturbingly easy for Carole and Carroll Wilkes to decide not to cut the tags off Carole’s pricey new banquet dress merely because Obie Garbeau II tells them to work harder and they’ll see results. Carroll thinks they should be making six figures at this point; meanwhile, they’ve taken out a second mortgage on their “dream house.” Garbeau structures his business like a religion and also like a game, pitting workers against each other quite literally. The couples at the retreat are all in competition with another merely to receive five minutes with Garbeau himself. Couples pour their hearts out on stage, detailing addictions, suicidal thoughts, their lowest lows, all not only buying into the idea that FAM saved them from their sorrows but also selling that idea right back to everyone else. A pyramid system, of course, relies on the idea that its workers will buy what they also sell. At the retreat, they’re all served FAM food.

So what game are they even playing? Carroll and Carole don’t seem to know. They end up scrubbing smashed fruits and vegetables on their hands and knees merely because Garbeau suggests it might lead to Washington gold status. They’re literally cleaning up his mess, one made during a deranged tantrum following a mild heart attack. “Many Masters” is the first episode to really show us the man behind the tapes. As expected, Garbeau is narcissistic and ruthless in the way he exploits the dreams and desperation of others, but “Many Masters” reveals he’s an even more nefarious villain. He truly does think of himself as a god, rules his company like a cult leader, and even believes death is no match for him. He openly admits to owning people’s souls. He’s impressed a bit by Carroll’s (hilarious) display of strength, but it isn’t until Cody literally slaughters a pelican and offers it as sacrifice that Garbeau is truly satisfied. That’s the Biblical level of devotion he wants and expects from his employees. “Winning” in this world is just being Garbeau’s disciple, his pawn to use however he likes.

Krystal does have good reason to leave Cody alone at the banquet. For starters, the banquet, like the rest of the activities at this “retreat,” is a sham. But she also leaves in order to follow Judd Waltrip, the man who interrupted a news segment to claim FAM stole his family and later approached Krystal in the clinic to warn her about the dangers of the company. His presence here is one of the most frightening parts of an episode truly steeped in subtle horror. He pretends not to know what Krystal is talking about and asks her to never speak to him again. He’s wearing a FAM shirt, later seen working on an assembly line packaging Garbeau tapes. It’s not immediately clear if he is trying to take down FAM from the inside. Because then there’s the more disturbing possible explanation: FAM somehow got to him, somehow manipulated him into buying into the system he so recently railed against.

Throughout the episode, I found myself thinking a lot about Sorry To Bother You, Boots Riley’s profoundly unnerving sci-fi-horror movie about an Amazon-like company. Sorry To Bother You uses over-the-top satire and surrealism to probe the horrors of capitalism, and while On Becoming A God In Central Florida doesn’t quite do so with the same proportions, it is operating on a similar level of strangeness. That strangeness though—extended dream sequences that turn violent, smashed fruits, a murdered pelican—is a fascinating way to package the show’s inherent social commentary. Director Daniel Scheinert actually employs a lot of horror techniques in “Many Masters,” particularly when it comes to the use of light and also the rich soundscape of the episode. Humor and horror intermingle in a way much like Sorry To Bother You, as when Garbeau shoves a burnt Hot Pocket in his mouth. It’s funny, but it’s also deeply disturbing.

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This show forces you to look directly at not just the failures of capitalism but its horrors. I wrote last week that dead animals keep being used as imagery on the show, and there’s a connection to be made here between the proliferation of capitalism depending on the destruction of nature. Even Garbeau obliterating fruits and vegetables unfolds like a warning, like a parable. He touts the Garbeau system as something that is natural; his opening monologue suggests that systems like colonialism are natural, too. But there’s nothing natural about any of this; it’s all a toxic quest for power that relies on exploiting people and destroying what is natural.


Stray observations

  • The Cody/Krystal dynamic continues to be great. Her sheer delight when he sticks his head in a toilet is so funny.
  • I do almost feel bad for Cody sometimes, because he so desperately just wants someone’s approval and to be loved. He seems to have mommy and daddy issues all at once. That said, I also get great pleasure out of watching Krystal walk all over him, especially since Kirsten Dunst is so good in those moments.
  • This episode finally gives Julie Benz more to do.
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