[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “The Rehearsal” finale — Season 1, Episode 6, “Pretend Daddy” — including the ending.]
For six enthralling weeks, viewers of “The Rehearsal” have been circling back to the same question: Is Nathan Fielder’s mind-bending HBO series real or fake? We asked it when the mattress-hoarding, number-spotting Robbin seemed too good to be true, and again when he claimed his edited footage was “completely aimed at making me look bad.” We asked it when Angela took an apathetic approach to her elaborate audition for motherhood, and then questioned the target of our suspicion when it appeared she may have been acting the whole time. We asked it, along with Fielder himself, when Nathan spotted a grocery store sticker on a “freshly picked” green pepper, except only he was able to move on by simply turning the telling vegetable around.
Of course, limiting “The Rehearsal” to a binary viewpoint — real or fake, this or that — already does Fielder’s HBO hit a disservice. Critics have interpreted its storytelling as a meta critique of reality TV and mapped its point of view onto popular science-fiction tropes. Reddit theories, which can read like Fielder’s branching, all-consuming dialogue trees, are particularly dynamic. Individual viewers have surely made unique connections and spotted telling parallels of their own. By itself, the finale episode surfaces questions about Hollywood’s accepted business practices, stemming from the heartbreak felt by Remy and Nathan: Are certain ideas too mature for child actors to tackle? What about children on reality TV? Should Hollywood enforce a uniform code of ethics in casting? Are these really questions stemming from the same show that just threw a silent birthday party filled with background actors to save $15,000?
All of these questions are valid, just as any of these interpretations can carry meaning, and the collective conversation they formed created wild anticipation for Friday night’s finale. It felt like anything could happen. So many times, Fielder had pulled the rug out from under us — and replaced it with another rug that looked just like the first rug — that trying to predict the last phase of his experiment was an exercise in futility. (Imaginative and exciting futility, but futility nonetheless.) And yet, as “Pretend Daddy” so beautifully emphasized, whatever Fielder was hiding, he was hiding in plain sight. “The Rehearsal” didn’t need one last shocking reveal to wrap its extraordinary debut season. It just needed a reality check.
“The Rehearsal” tells audiences what it is from the start: It’s a TV show, and Nathan Fielder is the protagonist. Maybe you see him as an antagonist, or an antihero. Again, the interpretations are limitless, but whether you see him as a real man, a scripted role, or a little bit of both doesn’t really matter. His ethical lapses and squirming sense of humor are part of who he is, and if you’ve chosen to watch the show, you’re choosing to accept those parts of Nathan. For “The Rehearsal” to click, you just have to trust the process — not that the rehearsals are credible experiments or that Nathan is a reliable narrator, guide, or figure, but that the journey is the destination. It’s Nathan’s search for answers that holds the first season together, and the resolution he comes to that makes this “complex emotional experience” so rewarding.
Way back in the premiere, before there were two identical Alligator Lounges in the greater Manhattan area, Nathan frames “The Rehearsal” by saying, “I’ve been told my personality can make people uncomfortable, so I have to work to offset that.” So from the jump, Nathan wants these rehearsals to help him better understand how to successfully function in society. His monotone vocal cadence, perceptive yet dry sense of humor, and standard comportment of quiet observance make him readily identifiable as a man who’s believably clumsy when connecting with others. But he’s not alone. Social anxiety is a relatable fear. The pandemic has only made it more prevalent and, like any good TV show, viewers should have no problem seeing a little bit of themselves in Nathan — a guy who just wants to make friends and strengthen relationships.
It’s his methodology that sets him apart, and the premiere emphasizes how seriously Nathan wants to succeed not just through the remarkable effort he puts into Kor’s rehearsal, but through his reluctance to risk their friendship by telling him the truth. Nathan lies to Kor. Before the fateful trivia contest, Nathan makes sure Kor knows the answers ahead of time, so he can more easily focus on his confession to Tricia. Nathan made that decision for Kor — who insisted winning at trivia was just as important as maintaining his friendship — and when it comes time for Nathan’s own confession, he can’t do it. He’s too afraid Kor will react the way his replacement did in their rehearsal, when K. Todd Freeman (as Kor) said Nathan “fucked this all up” and labeled him an “awful person.”
Clearly, Nathan has a long way to go in learning to form a genuine connection with others. So he kicks things up a notch with his second rehearsal, stepping in as a replacement father figure for Angela’s parenting trial. Over the ensuing episodes, he isn’t just testing to see if he can make those around him feel at ease; he’s finding out if he can be part of a family; if he can be a father. He’s raising the stakes, both for his rehearsals and for himself. While Nathan’s backstory is limited, we know he’s divorced; he tells Kor as much during a protectively choreographed swim session. So again, whether you see him as real or playing a character, it’s easy to identify with Nathan — thinking about having a family is a ever-more-common question — even if his means of finding an answer are unprecedented.
Allyson Riggs / HBO
Initially, Nathan’s only in the house, raising “Adam,” to help Angela, but he’s steadily drawn deeper and deeper into life as a “pretend daddy” until he’s operating solo. That’s where the finale picks up, as a “ninth” birthday party for Adam leads to eerie disappointment (for Nathan), and concerns only stack up from there. First, Nathan is asked to “unravel” what one of the child actors learned during the rehearsal. His mother wants Nathan to make clear what was real and what was fake, and as Nathan tries to explain why it’s “good” the kid was only pretending to be Jewish, you can tell it’s not landing as cleanly as the apprehensive parent had hoped. (That being said, Nathan is absolutely pushing her buttons on purpose, seeing if he can paint a frightening enough portrait of his own faith that she’ll jump in to correct him. She does not, and it’s left to the audience to decide if she’s simply had enough of Nathan’s shenanigans or if she’s really OK with her son believing all Jews are doomed to eternal damnation.)
But there’s another child who poses an even bigger dilemma. Back at the party, we see a younger “Adam” peeking out from behind the curtains after he’s replaced by an older actor. He’s watching the outdoor festivities of what, just a second ago, was his birthday party, and keeps sneaking back for more even though his work was done. Remy, it turns out, is also having a hard time separating reality from fiction, and not just because he likes cake and presents and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He thinks Nathan is his father — or, at the very least, that he could be his father going forward — since he doesn’t have a real one at home. Remy’s mother, Amber, tells Nathan that her son even said, “My pretend daddy loves me,” breaking her heart — and, it turns out, Nathan’s too.
“After that, I found myself struggling to transfer my emotions to the new Adam,” he narrates. He tries to reengage with the rehearsal, but he can’t. It feels manufactured. Illegitimate. Fake. After a check-in with Remy at his real home only emphasizes the child’s bond with his “pretend daddy” — “I don’t want you to be Afin [Remy’s adorable first attempt to say ‘Nathan’], I want you to be Daddy” — Nathan goes into a tailspin. He breaks character with the older “Adam” to make sure he knows Nathan’s not his real father. He forces himself to adopt “a slightly colder demeanor” around Adam, refusing to hold his hand or read him a bedtime story. He tries substituting a significantly older actor to ensure they “never get confused.” He even brings in a child-sized doll, but the crunch of his bending limbs makes it clear this isn’t working either.
Nathan, the character, is worried about permanently damaging an innocent child. Nathan Fielder, the real person, may be as well, or he may simply be worried that his grand experiment is too flawed to finish. Either way, the crisis is real. As the first season draws to a close, Nathan is facing his greatest challenge yet, and he’s reached his lowest point. “How does this keep happening to me?” he asks. “What else can you do when you’re trying your best?”
So rather than continue rehearsing, Nathan reengages with reality. He goes to see Angela and apologizes for accusing her of not taking the rehearsal seriously (and she does deserve an apology). Then, before she spouts enough numeric gobbledygook to make you wonder if Robbin really was her soulmate, she forgives Nathan. Surprised, he seeks that forgiveness for himself and goes to see Amber and Remy. Is she still worried about her son? Is Remy still confused about Nathan’s role in his life? Maybe a little, but Amber reassures Nathan that she knows her child is going to be OK. Nathan, however, remains skeptical, and he falls back on his chosen process to reassure himself: one last rehearsal, where Nathan plays Amber and the former Adam plays Remy. “You may not be able to change what happened, but with enough effort, maybe you can change yourself,” Nathan says.
The joke tied to that statement arrives when he walks in front of a mirror that shows Nathan with long hair, makeup, and a generally female-presenting reflection. But the real response comes when Nathan (as Amber) counsels “Remy” through a “complex emotional experience.” “Remy” is telling “Amber” that he wants Nathan to be his father, and “Amber” is trying to calm him down. In the process, “Amber” tells “Remy” that Nathan “didn’t know what he was doing” and that “he’s not that different from you — just figuring stuff out and messing up along the way.” Then he hits on it: the answer he’s been looking for, and the explanation “Remy” needs. “I think it’s a good thing that you’re sad,” Nathan, as Amber, says. “Because it shows you have a heart, and it shows that you can feel, and you can love, and you can put your trust in others.”
At the start of “The Rehearsal,” Nathan, too, was sad. Nathan was worried. He didn’t know if he could feel and love and put his trust in others. But through the rehearsals, through making mistakes but more importantly making an effort, he came to recognize those parts of himself. Such mistakes thankfully include Nathan recognizing the flaws in his experiment’s broader concept: that rehearsing for everything can keep people from appreciating life as it happens. (“It was a work of art, and it was just real life,” Nathan says when seeing Remy’s naturally cluttered home for the first time.) As for his other oversights, audiences can determine for themselves if Nathan is too quick to forgive himself for putting everyone, not just Remy, through a very public experiment just so he can put a few of his own anxieties to rest, but the character of Nathan — the Nathan who exists in “The Rehearsal” — was always trying to help. He helped Kor, he helped Patrick (from Episode 3), and he tried to help Angela. Yes, he helped himself, but everyone deserves to find happiness, even if they fall short along the way.
“The Rehearsal” is more than just one man’s story. It’s a cunningly edited comedy, a fascinating subset of anthropology, and yes, an insightful dissection of everything from reality TV to gamifying life. But amid the ever-expanding flowcharts and rehearsals within rehearsals, the series needed a core, it needed a throughline, and what better to serve as a story’s beating heart than its central character’s beating heart? Such sincerity may rub some viewers the wrong way, especially if their default position toward Nathan Fielder is uneasy skepticism. But “The Rehearsal” is not “Nathan For You.” It’s not just out for jokes. It’s asking viewers to engage with any of its many directions in whatever way they find meaning and to trust that all of those paths are part of the same journey. The rehearsals are the reality. And that may be the only truth that matters.
HBO’s “The Rehearsal” Season 1 is available on HBO Max. The series has already been renewed for Season 2.