“Vex Not His Ghost” (season 3, episode 2; originally aired 7/31/2006)
In which Oliver finds his higher purpose
(Available on Netflix and Amazon.)
The genius thing about the final season of Slings And Arrows is that it circles back around to finish having a conversation it began in the first episode, then mostly let drop as the first season became more about Geoffrey overcoming his own demons to succeed at mounting Hamlet against all odds. Yet go back to that first episode, to “Oliver’s Dream,” and take a look at some of that episode’s preoccupations. Above all else, “Oliver’s Dream” is obsessed with meaning, with the idea that a life in the arts is worth very little if it doesn’t push audiences to think harder, understand better. Oliver has sunk into complacency, and after he dies, the only recourse he has is to return as a ghost that he might battle back against all he had become. Geoffrey, meanwhile, has the ideas but little in the way of focus. He has the ability, but he lacks the megaphone New Burbage will give him. “Oliver’s Dream” is an episode about how, if you are an artist, you will fill your time before you die, about the best way to pursue a life in the arts that will reflect well on you in your obituary.
And to be sure, that idea has come up time and again, particularly in the season two opener, “Season’s End.” But in season three, we really begin to dig in. King Lear, of course, is a death-haunted play, even by Shakespeare’s standards, and that gives the show free rein to simply start questioning the reason its characters do what they do. Is it more important for Charles to spend the few months he has left on making the show as good as it can be or on making the men and women in his company feel less terrified of him, less intimidated by the way he barks at them. Charles wishes to make this performance as good as it can be because it’s literally all he has left. But in his fervor to do that, he pushes away those who are supposed to be his colleagues.
That final scene, in which Charles reveals his cancer and that he has just two or three months to live, is a beautiful piece of writing. Here is something that is too much for even Geoffrey, who knows that the New Burbage Festival simply cannot have an actor die up there on stage, even in a production of King Lear. It seems it might finally be time when Geoffrey steps back from what might be most artistically exciting to make a decision based on practicality. Nobody’s going to come to Lear if Charles Eastman dies during a performance, so he’s going to have to remove him from the play, go after one of those other actors he’d talked to—or about—last week. (And it’s here that my heart fills with joy at thoughts of William Shatner joining the cast for the final four episodes, but alas.) Geoffrey, regrettably, will have to cancel Charles’ contract.
This isn’t a crazy notion either! As Geoffrey points out, Charles needs time to rest, time to settle accounts, time to deal with the thought of whatever is coming next. But Charles, like his director, is selfish. What he wants isn’t what’s best for him—or whatever loved ones he might still have. What he wants is what he wants, and that’s to see out his life with Shakespeare, with the role that Shakespeare seemingly created for Charles in this moment. He doesn’t terribly care about anyone else’s thoughts or feelings on the matter, which is why he never told Geoffrey that he was sick to begin with. And instantly, all of his angry lashing out in rehearsal takes on a new dimension: These are the scared actions of a man who simply doesn’t want to die. Sooner, rather than later, he’s going to run out of time. There will be no more parts to play. He will be past tense.
Except, of course, within the universe of this show, he doesn’t have to be. The final scene is so cleverly written because it ends up blending in something else that seemed less like a storyline than a weird little runner, in which Oliver returns to this plane, but not to help Geoffrey, seemingly. He can’t keep himself in one place at a time, and he keeps fading out, even when he tries not to. Oliver attends therapy with Geoffrey, and he’s struck by notions of expectations that, if set too high, will ultimately lead to us only being disappointed in ourselves, tanking our self-image. Oliver is a ghost hanging onto a world that has moved past him, and that, in some ways, means he keeps fading away. (Think of how little you’ve heard his name this season compared to in the last two.) Soon, he won’t be forgotten, exactly, but he’ll be a safe little trinket, a comfortable part of the New Burbage mythology that’s hauled out at retrospectives and given a proper burnishing. And then he will finally be gone, because he won’t be remembered as he was, in all his idiocy and genius, in all his complacency and longing for something more.
All of this dovetails with that final scene, as Charles reveals his affliction, and Geoffrey hovers on the edge of firing him, and then Oliver—who represents Geoffrey’s creative argument with himself—says that, yes, this could be his higher purpose, his reason to exist. The final bits of dialogue—in which Geoffrey is talking to Oliver but sounds, wholly sensibly, as if he’s talking to Charles—are what take this from simply a very good scene to something sublime. Geoffrey is making a very literal deal with something beyond himself here. He’s wagering against death, in order to bring order to his creative house, and he’s indulging yet another person who could tear his company apart, only this time, they’ll be united against the actor instead of their director. It’s a neat inversion of season two’s dynamic, but it never feels like it. Instead, it feels powerful, haunted.
Though seasons one and two of Slings would be enough for me to wholeheartedly recommend it, it’s season three that turns it into one of the all-time greats. Where the first two seasons are often lumpy with incident, season three’s incidents—even the Bolivian musical group that ends up stranded in New Burbage thanks to a missing medallion and a political coup—all point toward the same idea: Life is uncertain and short. What can you ever do about that? For these characters, what they do best is express, but the act of their expression can end up stepping on someone else’s. The conflict in this season seems to arise from a more urgent place than the prior two, because those expressions come in the face of death, that which is most inevitable and terrifying of all.
Season three’s shadow show (the alternate production that sits in the shadow of the Shakespeare show we spend the most time following) even speaks to this in its own clumsy way. The first few times I viewed this series, I thought the show’s depiction of the musical that Richard and Darren are wrapped up in was meant to be rather a slight against musicals, a way to give the show’s broadest characters a place to clown around together. The more times I watch, though, the more I see both the series’ fundamental respect for the form of musical theatre—the show isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just overwrought, and it’s not hard to see a version of it that works with a director who’s more interested in working with the writer to make it a good show than he is indulging his own whims—and the way that it pokes fun at the raft of hyper-earnest, super-serious “issues” musicals about young people in the big city that sprung up in the wake of Rent. It’s good fun in how seriously it takes itself, but it also pauses to let Richard and the musical’s author be actual characters, in the face of Darren’s buffoonery.
But it’s also doing something far more crafty: It’s taking the characters in the musical and making them the heroes of an underdog comedy we’re not seeing. All they want to do is put on their little show, but they keep bumping into the actors from the classical program, who have the right to certain tables at bars and are unbelievable pains in the ass about bathroom time. In so many other narratives, the success of the musical, should it come, would be the ultimate triumph over the snooty kids who don’t let the musical actors sit at the cool kids’ table. But Slings twists things a step further. Sure, the classical kids might be snobs, but the musical kids are all too often twits, and left unchecked, they will ultimately undermine the whole program. Both types of theatre need to exist. You need the dessert, yeah, but you also need the meal to make the dessert all the sweeter.
Or, in case you missed it, the show hammers this point home in a bravura sequence where Charles recites the plot of King Lear to the gathered company. (Geoffrey has been taken by another of his crying jags.) He lays out the whole tragic story—dying king, duplicitous daughters, madness and grief—even as we keep cutting to the other theatre, where the author of the musical is running through the plot of his show, which has something to do with a drug-addicted prostitute who just wants to sing. (The similarity of this show to Smash’s Hit List, which is presented as legitimately groundbreaking theatre, is rather amusing.) The show often seems to be suggesting these two productions are in conversation across the years, thatLear might have a thing or two to say to Lulu, the aforementioned prostitute. But it doesn’t press its point too finely until the very end.
Charles reaches the end of Lear—all those people dead, all that sadness stranded upon the earth—and he turns to the rest of the cast. What’s the moral? he asks. Well, maybe they can tell him. Smash cut to the musical’s author singing, “You don’t need the needle!” over and over. Charles, of course, is a heroin addict himself, using drugs to get himself through the most difficult, most isolating portion of his life, so the refrain comes almost as a rebuke of him. Yet it’s not, because the show grasps how profound—and how sad—what Charles says is. There are no easy answers in life. There isn’t a moral. Any attempt to provide uplift by forcing one onto, say, the tale of a drug-addicted prostitute will just come off as ashes in the mouth the longer one thinks about it. All that Charles’ recitation of the plot of Lear leaves us with is the certainty that we will all die, that we will all be alone when that comes—whether isolated physically or by our own ravaged minds—and that we will all, sooner or later, fade, until we, too, are no longer able to stay in one place for too long before you can see right through us.
- The choice to make Charles an incredible dick in rehearsals is a really bold one. The story, in so many ways, flirts with cliché—dying man bequeaths his wisdom to a ragtag band of misfits while playing the part he was born to play—that by making Charles a massive asshole, the show is able to buy itself some space to play most of the other stuff in that storyline sincerely.
- Geoffrey and Oliver’s co-therapy (even if the therapist thinks he’s only working with Geoffrey) is one of my favorite threads of the season, and I like how Oliver seems to get more out of the sessions than Geoffrey does.
- Richard’s pass at Anna is so pitiful that it almost becomes sweet, though it never quite does (quite rightly). Anna is Richard’s compass in so many ways, and by doing this, he risks isolating her. At least he gets the best possible follow-up line: “You were nice to me! It made me horny!”
- We also learn that Richard lost his virginity to the girl who played Lucy in that production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown he’s been going on about all these years. It’s nice to see him loosen up a little—and I love how his conversations reminded me of the bull sessions that would take place backstage in my college theatre days—but man, I don’t know if I needed to know that.
- That’s the great actress Sarah Polley as Sophie. I don’t know that the show uses her as well as it could, given how good she is, but she gets some great stuff up ahead, and her work with William Hutt is often very moving. (She’s also the daughter of Michael Polley, who plays Frank, so there’s that.)
- I think I’d watch a show about Ellen and Barbara. When Ellen’s telling the story of her sleeping with her brother-in-law from last season, it almost makes sense.
- Don’t worry. It’s a glee club for the homeless.
Next week: I think we all know what it means when an episode is named “That Way Madness Lies.”