“All Blessed Secrets” (season three, episode five; originally aired 8/21/2006)
In which everything comes out in the end…
It’s easy to say Slings And Arrows is a show about Geoffrey. He’s the charismatic, brilliant director with the bold ideas that sometimes pay off and sometimes blow up in his face. He’s the guy who funnels everything he has into his art, until he nearly drives himself mad. He’s the one who stands for greatness in art, for the continued vivacity of the theatre, and for putting on great performances of great plays. He’s the one played by the devilishly handsome and effortlessly winning Paul Gross. And he’s the one who has the enjoyable back-and-forth with what seems to be an honest to goodness ghost. Yet if there’s one thing Slings And Arrows excels at above all others, it’s the ability to have all of its characters’ actions make sense when viewed through the prism of their own points of view, and when you start to consider the show in that sense, then the series seems to be less and less about Geoffrey Tennant and more and more about another character entirely. You see, Slings And Arrows is primarily the story of Ellen Fanshaw.
I know, I know. Ellen is nobody’s favorite character. I entered this series thinking I would give her her due, but as I got deeper into it, I found myself devoting more time to Geoffrey and Oliver, to Richard and Anna, hell, to Frank and Cyril. Ellen is prickly and difficult. She’s someone who’s lived her whole life up there on stage, and she’s someone who doesn’t see a viable exit from the life she’s led to this point because she’s inevitably brought to the point where she gets older and older, and her profession is one that doesn’t terribly value women over a certain age. As she said back in season one, she gets to start out as the ingénue—like Sophie—then progress steadily in age through great part after great part until that list of great parts winnows down and winnows down to just one: Romeo & Juliet’s Nurse. And after that, nothing. An entire life ground down into dust.
Ellen is at the center of the show’s greatest question, then: Do you choose an actual life, or do you choose a facsimile of life? Is it possible to have both, or does the very act of trying on other people’s lives for size mean you will always find yourself seeking a center, looking for a home where one can’t exist because you invent other homes for yourself on every occasion? There’s a point where Geoffrey comes to her house in this episode to ask her to come back, and she asks him what he wants her to come back to, without stating the choice: their relationship or the play. Of course, he puts the play first. He wants her back for King Lear, even though she’s quit, even though she’s signed a big contract to be in a TV show. But of course he would act that way: To Geoffrey, the play is life, and life is the play. It’s all an interchangeable system, each feeding the other, and he has trouble imagining how someone might see it otherwise.
It’s not good enough for Ellen, of course, who’s listened to Barbara, someone who’s supposed to be a very dear friend of hers, tell her how sad Barbara finds Ellen’s life. Coming up on menopause and no children. In debt up to her ears. Being forced into a job on a shitty TV show. Barbara ostensibly means these words for Sophie’s ears, to warn the younger girl about the pain and heartache that accompany this life, but they’re landing with dull thuds upon Ellen’s heart. Barbara excuses herself to make more margaritas, and Ellen turns to Sophie, eager to insist she’s really a happy person. Sophie, who’s endured so much sadness in this episode that she seems to be perpetually in tears, insists she is, too. But each can look at the other and see the lie.
The play is an imperfect vessel to hold a life. Geoffrey doesn’t realize that, because to him, the stage doesn’t stop existing once you step off of it. When Charles simply becomes Lear late in the hour, one can see how Geoffrey would almost see it as rational (though it eventually causes him to pull the plug on the play for the second time). Because of his mental health and because of his ghostly friend, Geoffrey is forever caught by the hazy unreality of the stage. That’s not the case with his friends and his lover, who all find themselves tormented by Geoffrey’s inability to simply stand up and declare a dividing line between life and art. And that’s particularly the case for Ellen, who wants more than anything to put the two in separate territories and forever finds her friends and Geoffrey wanting to blend the two, over and over again.
What finally causes Ellen to quit is that Charles takes leave of his senses and seems to drift inexorably into the life of Lear, rather than his own, upon which the curtain is slowly drawing. In the midst of rehearsal in the studio theatre, Charles turns on Ellen. He treats her not as an actress in the midst of a rehearsal for a play, as a fellow professional who’s accorded a degree of safety and respect. He treats her as a wounded old man might actually treat one of the daughters doing the wounding. He advances on her. He knocks her down. He keeps her from getting up. It’s a tremendously powerful performance—William Hutt is sensational and achingly raw—but it’s also the last straw for Ellen. The woman who forbade work talk at the dinner table has seen someone take the unreality of the play and make it his reality, and the man who loves her, who’s supposed to defend her, didn’t say anything because he’s scared the slightest thing will topple this already precarious house of cards.
“All Blessed Secrets” toys with you. It makes you think things will work out, that moving Lear to the studio theatre is exactly what will save it, that Richard’s impetuousness will turn out to be a blessing in disguise. What it’s doing is lulling you into Geoffrey’s point-of-view, a place where his insane plans almost always end up working out at the last minute and maybe this one will, too. Charles doesn’t have to push so hard in the smaller space, so the nuances and beauty of his work are more apparent. (Peter Wellington’s camera gets in closer as well, so we can see its intricacies that much better.) Geoffrey has taken a play that seemed as if it might be too bloated in the early episodes this season—laden with unnecessary special effects and an ultrarealistic storm scene—and restored its intimacy. Hell, even Anna gets involved. Good old Anna, who always takes the side of good and right! Even if she’s involved in what’s an incredibly complex lie, designed to fool Richard and the festival, she wouldn’t be wrong, right?
The answer is that life isn’t art. In a play, maybe the humbled actors, now realizing what it is to be the underdogs where they once made the East Hastings company feel that way, would look around themselves and see what they’d wrought, then pull together to make the show even better. In a play, Paul would have realized the torch Sophie carried for him long ago. In a play, Ellen and Geoffrey would have long ago figured out these petty squabbles and settled into something like contentment. But even though this is art from our point-of-view, it isn’t from the characters’ point-of-view. They’re trapped in an unending cycle where things don’t work out, where the happy ending is just over the horizon, never to be attained. The end of “All Blessed Secrets” is perhaps the darkest moment in the whole of the series, as Richard finds out not just that Charles is a dying drug addict but that everyone has been lying to him this whole time. Geoffrey asks Richard if he’s just a “numbers guy,” and there’s no underlining of this point except in Mark McKinney’s performance. Richard has found his own form of artistic triumph. No one will be allowed to call him a numbers guy again.
It’s tempting to try to say the ultimate message here is that life should supersede art, that when it all comes down to it, your life is more complicated and beautiful and resonant than any piece of art could ever be. But that’s not what’s really going on here, and the way we can see that is in Ellen. What brings her back into Geoffrey’s arms, telling him how much she loves him (even if he can’t quite hear her, as he never can), is the fact that he’s done all of this—risked his whole career and the careers of everyone in the play—for a dying old man. It’s such a bald-facedly romantic gesture, all noble and over-the-top, that she can’t help but fall in love with him all over again and he with her, once he realizes she will always come back, not just to him, but for him, that when he needs her, she’ll be there, at the ready, even though old men may heap abuse on her. She realizes in this moment that the life feeds the art for him, and the art the life. And, even more crucially, she sees the same is true of her.
Not everybody can get what they need from the theatre. Barbara, in particular, seems bitter about all of those roads not taken, and Ellen herself has advised at least one young woman to run from New Burbage and pursue the possibility of something beyond the world of the festival. This all gets too often read as the show saying these female characters are departing to chase after the men in their lives. Hell, it’s an argument I’ve made myself more than a few times. But watch these stories again. It’s not really what’s going on. The men they “pursue” aren’t men who are outside of the arts, who live ostensibly “normal” lives as accountants or plumbers. Ellen doesn’t end up with her brother-in-law. She ends up with her director. What Ellen—and Kate and Sophie and all of the others—finds is something Frank and Cyril (the show’s one long-term coupling) have always had: a place to stand in both worlds, an ever-shifting Venn diagram intersection between life and art and a partner who’s willing to keep dancing to make sure their feet stay firmly within it.
Geoffrey Tennant is a more exciting character to follow, even in this episode (which might be the most Ellen-centric of the whole series). As stated, he’s got the big plans and the goofy ghost. What he doesn’t have, though, is doubt, doubt that he chose the right life, even though this life might kill him. All Ellen does, when she allows herself to think (as we see in the gorgeous shot above, morning light filtering through the curtains), is doubt. She doubts herself. She doubts her choices. She doubts her calling and her abilities. And most of all, she doubts her connections to Geoffrey and the festival. Yet she always emerges, back to the place she knows she needs to go.
Early in the episode, Los Perdidos plays a song for Anna about a homeless donkey named Pluma. Nahum translates what they say until they get to the final line, which is spelled out to us in subtitles: The donkey realizes that no matter what, home is wherever you are. (Nahum instead translates this as the song having a happy ending, which it does, because that realization is central to crossing over from youth to adulthood.) We think of a home as a physical space, but it isn’t, really. It’s a series of circumstances, a set of conditions that make us feel safe, that make us feel loved. It’s a well-worn teddy bear or the smell of a favorite meal. It’s the sound of particular birdsong or the padded feet of the cat that hops into your lap. It’s the way she laughs, or the times he looks at you just so. It’s talking until sunrise, then finding a foot beneath the covers, your own stranding against it for just a moment before washing away again, grateful to have found a solid rock amid the vast ocean.
More than Geoffrey, more than Oliver, more than even Anna, Ellen understands this. She may not have children, and she may not have savings, but Ellen does have a family. She has a place she can go, and a place she can grow old, and she has a person to share all of that with. She has a home. To have all of that is to be obscenely lucky and sometimes not even realize it. What makes Ellen Fanshaw the true center of this show is that even when she doubts, she knows. And she will always know.
- I had an incredibly wonderful chat with Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney, that will, ideally, run next Thursday. I won’t spoil what we talked about, but I will say that they revealed something to me about the structure of the series as a whole that sort of blew me away. I can’t wait for you all to read it, as well as all of their thoughts on your many thoughts on the show.
- Okay, okay. I’ll talk about one bit of business. Some of what they said made me think that the Sara and Sophie storylines in seasons two and three might have gone—in modified form—to Kate, had Rachel McAdams been able to stick around. Imagining that made me think that the moment when Ellen and Sophie said to each other that they were each happy could have been so incredibly powerful with Kate on the other end of that conversation (though I generally think Sophie very much comes into her own in this episode, in a way I had, frankly, forgotten about).
- The sequence where Geoffrey explains that Lear is moving to the studio theatre while the East Hastings cast celebrates its big promotion is another bit of fantastic intercutting between the two. There’s a pleasing circularity to this season that really makes it play.
- Poor Jerry. He finally becomes father to a boy, then he takes a bottle in the face and falls to the floor, all because Cyril and Frank were taunting the musical’s author (whose name I somehow can never remember).
- If you’re going to bring Sarah Polley in to act in your show, you’d better have her cry at least once or twice, and “All Blessed Secrets” makes abundant use of her incredibly natural ability to look devastated. I know she’s got an incredible career in direction right now, but I’d love to see Polley take more television roles, where she’d get to build a character over an extended period of time. Ah, well.
- Okay, one more bit: Coyne said that she wanted William Hutt for this part because she had been in Lear with him long before the show ran, and she was always sad the performance hadn’t been captured for posterity. This was, in part, her attempt to do just a little bit of that. And in this episode, it’s obvious why she wanted to: His work is absolutely tremendous, both when he’s raving and when he’s on stage.
- If there’s one thing here that doesn’t really work for me, it’s Richard coming on to Anna endlessly. I absolutely buy that he’s nursed a crush all these years that is coming out in inappropriate ways because of his big success (and the ecstasy use), but it feels a little too transparently like a way to drive a wedge between the two occupants of the business side of the storyline.
Next week: We come to “The Promised End.”