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The finale of “The Curse,” the oddest and most original show on television right now, opens with Asher and Whitney Siegel, the grin-and-bear-it married couple played by Nathan Fielder and Emma Stone, in the midst of a press push for their new HGTV reality series. Last we saw the Siegels, on the previous episode of “The Curse,” they were wrapping up the filming of their show, “Fliplanthropy,” which had put such a strain on their marriage that it seemed like they were on the fast track to divorce. Now, it’s a few months later, and Whitney is pregnant. The couple’s show, which is finally complete, has been renamed “Green Queen.” We watch as Whitney and Asher, nervous and grinning, are live-cast into a taping of “Rachael Ray.”
The Siegels, Ray explains to her audience, are “turning their home town upside down with a new approach to eco-living!” Whitney and Asher are real-estate developers, and “Green Queen” documents their attempts to build high-end, environmentally friendly “passive homes” in the struggling New Mexico town of Española. The houses have mirrored façades, seemingly meant to reflect Española’s indigenous landscape—Whitney sees them as works of art, half complaining and half bragging that she has been accused of ripping off Doug Aitken. But the homes’ energy-efficient plan is also supposed to minimize their owners’ carbon footprint. As part of their project, Whitney and Asher, who are terrified of being seen as gentrifiers, commit to employing Española natives in a couple of new, bougie businesses they bring to a local strip mall. When a shoplifting problem develops at the Siegels’ designer-denim store, Whitney instructs the salesgirl not to call the police, and ends up providing her own credit card to cover the thefts. (“It’s a petty misdemeanor. It’s hurting no one,” Whitney says.) This plan, of course, gets immediately taken advantage of by the shop’s clientele, who take as many pairs of jeans as they can carry, but Whitney tells herself she can take the hit. She might be white and rich, but she’s no “Karen.”
The Siegels’ project resides in the fraught intersection of self-interest and social consciousness. Whitney, the daughter of slumlords, sees herself as a different breed of real-estate entrepreneur. She’s building new homes from whose sale she might extract profit, yes, but, more important, she is building a new and better world, where the injustices wrought by various power structures—racial, ethnic, class-based, environmental—will be ameliorated. Asher, meanwhile, is a somewhat humorless penny-pincher, who attempts to hide his venal tendencies from his wife, whom he sees as “the most selfless person” he’s ever met. (This is Fielder’s first leading dramatic role, and his familiar stiffness is cut here with a touch of sliminess.) And yet the mask often slips, not just in Asher’s case, but in Whitney’s, too. “Española is mine!” she yells at her parents, when they attempt to advise her on what to do with the properties Whitney is developing—which, it turns out, they had originally picked up. (Stone, quite possibly the best actress of her generation, perfectly captures Whitney’s laboriously if barely concealed petulance.) The tension between the Siegels’ professed benevolent intentions and selfish inner selves is one of the show’s through lines. Whitney and Asher want to be seen as good, but they also want to retain their power.
The question of power and who has it infects every interaction the couple have with their peers. There’s Dougie, their manipulative show producer (Benny Safdie, in a great oily turn), who is trying to kneecap their relationship to make for more enticing TV; there’s Cara, a shrewd, deadpan Indigenous artist (Nizhonniya Austin), who withholds and then grudgingly allows the slavering Whitney her approval, for the right price; there’s Abshir (Barkhad Abdi), a make-do squatter living with his two girls, Nala (Hikmah Warsame) and Hani (Dahabo Ahmed), in a property that the Siegels are looking to flip. The interpersonal tallying is unrelenting, if occasionally comical, in a grimacing kind of way—such as when Asher tries to ingratiate himself to Abshir’s stone-faced daughters, whose living situation in his property hangs in the balance, by referring to himself as their “Uncle Asher.”
“The Curse” is brimming with discomfort, which makes sense, considering that Fielder and Safdie are the series’ co-creators. In previous work, including cringe-core shows like Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You” and HBO’s “The Rehearsal,” Fielder has relied on his own maximally awkward personality to ratchet up moments of intense social unease. And Safdie, too, in high-pressure crime features such as “Good Time” and “Uncut Gems,” co-directed with his brother Josh, knows his way around anxious fare. (Notably, Daniel Lopatin, who has scored those movies, also produced the unnerving music by John Medeski that accompanies “The Curse.”) With this show, Fielder and Safdie position themselves as the Frederick Wisemans of imbalanced social interactions: almost every scene lasts several beats too long, a rubber band stretched to near-breaking as the characters struggle with one another for the upper hand.
The show’s titular curse refers to a moment that occurs in the first episode. Nala is selling small cans of Sprite in an Española parking lot, and Asher, aware that he’s being filmed, gives her a hundred-dollar bill, only to snatch it right back once he thinks Dougie’s cameras are off. “I curse you,” Nala tells him, a pronouncement that hangs over the series, ominously. (We later find out that Nala’s curse was part of a TikTok trend, in which kids put “tiny curses” on people and subject them to minor inconveniences—like magically untying someone’s shoelaces or, in Asher’s case, removing the chicken from his frozen dinner, so that he’s forced to go vegetarian for a night.) But as I kept watching, I found myself thinking that the true spell being cast was the airless mire that the show’s characters find themselves in. They are locked in an endless power play to which they won’t fully admit, and in which there are no clear winners. What might get them out?
One morning after the “Rachael Ray” taping, Whitney wakes up in her bedroom and finds Asher on the ceiling. “Ash, why are you up there?” she asks, but Asher doesn’t know. He had fallen asleep beside her, in bed, and woke up floating several feet above her. Like a panicked, herky-jerky Spider-Man, he trawls the rafters, unable to get down. At first, he thinks the problem lies in the environment of the passive home itself, whose high-tech construction might have resulted in a zero-gravity atmosphere. “If I can just get away from the house, I’ll be fine,” he insists, but once he squirms his way outside, he finds himself getting pulled toward the sky, only halted on his flight upward by a tree branch, to which he hangs on like a terrified cat. The realization sinks in: the conditions of the house exist in the world, too. Gravity has flipped, and Asher, for an unknown reason, is being flung out into space. Both horrifying and hilarious, the sudden surrealist flourish opens the series up.
Up to this point, Asher’s status as protagonist followed not from any particular force or virtue but, instead, from the intensity of his weakness. Asher, to use red-pill parlance, is a classic cuck. Early on in the series, we find out that he is a “cherry-tomato boy,” suffering from the very real curse of a micropenis. Since he is unable to satisfy Whitney with his member, the couple use a dildo whom they refer to as “Stephen” to bring Whitney to orgasm. Later, we discover that Asher has fantasies of other men having sex with Whitney while he watches. “You see how hot my wife is? She’s so fucking hot and you’re so fucking ugly. I’d love to see you fuck the shit out of her,” Whitney hears him moaning behind the bathroom door as he masturbates, imagining a former co-worker having his way with her.
Asher dreams of achieving unknown heights of conventional masculinity—at one point, he fashions himself as a “whistle-blower,” leaking information about fraudulent practices at a casino he used to work in, even though he himself, it turns out, was cravenly involved in the wrongdoings—but he is also aware of his own debasement and knows that, in a sense, his chief strength lies in admitting his impotence. Without his wife, he “would have nothing,” he says, in an interview taped for the show, and this imbalance is clear to Whitney, as well, who mostly seems to hate him for it. “Here is this man who is so genuinely interested in me . . . it’s like he worships me,” she says, in her own interview, which Dougie splices with Asher’s, for maximum discrepant effect. Being with Asher, she continues, is “to know that you hold all the power,” and that to leave him would be to destroy him. After Asher sees the footage, Whitney wonders whether he still wants to be with her. “More than ever,” he says. “I’m all in on you. I’m all in on Whitney. Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.” Wiping his wife’s tears, he whispers: “Don’t hide your strength.” Whitney is perturbed by Asher’s admission, but there is a relief in the honesty it conveys. Power and its workings are, finally, articulated directly. Asher is a bottom, and Whitney is a top. Now that the roles are fixed and acknowledged, they are ready to maintain their union and have a child. Asher can also take a stab at doing good without the cameras present, by giving Abshir the house his family has been squatting in. (Though, of course, some things don’t change. When Abshir doesn’t express much gratitude for the gift and quickly asks whether he’ll now be responsible for paying property taxes, the Siegels are disturbed and reassure each other that he must have been too “overwhelmed” to show his thankfulness.)
But can the world that “The Curse” portrays stand such a clear acknowledgment of power? From Asher’s perch on the tree, the answer to that question would seem to be no. As he hangs on to his branch for dear life, begging the firefighters that Whitney has called to throw a net over him and drag him down (“If I let go, I will fly away,” he warns, as they humor him, clearly not believing his odd predicament), Whitney is rushed to give birth at a hospital. “Will someone tell me what’s happening? I’m all alone up here,” she says, reflecting the common fix of being ignored by the medical establishment as a woman. Asher, too, is all alone up there. Dougie, who is on the ground and convinced that Asher is having a last-minute breakdown about becoming a father, flies a drone up into the tree, in order to capture some footage for Season 2 of “Green Queen.” It’s all laughs, until a firefighter chops down the branch to which Asher is clinging, and he whooshes up, tossed into space, like a shtetl man painted by Chagall. High, high above the Earth he travels, the globe growing ever-tinier beneath him. “If I come back I . . . I . . . I wanna come back down,” he cries. He is finally free, but at what cost?
As I watched this ending, I was struck by its reach and ambition. This is a show about very imperfect people, whose attempts to better themselves and the world are compromised at best, and Asher—ineffectual, ashamed, self-serving—is maybe the worst of the lot. But even though the circumstances of his death are cruel, there is something deeply humanistic, even hopeful, about the turn “The Curse” takes. The world might not want Asher’s sudden honesty about who and what he is, and it certainly doesn’t want his altruism, however genuine it may be, which is why he is sent hurtling into the stratosphere—a sign that he has become, if not a saint, then at least the universe’s cuck. But as a sacrifice Asher is finally able to do some real good, by forcing the terrible people around him to realize and admit their own failings. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” Dougie says, sobbing, when he realizes Asher is gone. “Everything I’ve ever done, I was thinking of myself.” ♦