“Birnam Wood” (season two, episode six; originally aired 8/1/2005)
In which Macbeth is a palpable hit…
If I were going to pick one episode of Slings And Arrows for the time capsule, one episode of the show to stick up against every other show ever made, it would be “Birnam Wood.” I don’t honestly know if this is the best episode of the show—the series finale proper is probably that—but it’s my favorite episode of the show. It makes me cackle with delight, thrill with excitement, and smile with sympathy every time I watch it. When I got to the end of “Steeped In Blood” and Geoffrey was telling Maria to call a meeting of the actors not including Henry and Ellen, it was all I could do to keep from going right on ahead and watching this episode. It’s just that good.
“Birnam Wood” works on about three or four different structural levels. On the most basic level, it works as an episode of television, in which our hero launches a daring scheme, nearly sees it cast asunder, then pulls it all together in the end. On another level, it works as a season finale, as a culmination of every single plot this season has been building, even the ones that seemed to have nothing to do with anything. (Even Romeo & Juliet gets a slight attachment to everything else by the end of this episode.) On still another level, it works as a sort of emotional touchstone for the whole series, checking in on everything that makes this show tick and showing off just how well it works when it’s really humming. And on one, final level, it works as something that might have been a series finale, even though I’m glad it wasn’t. You could have ended Slings And Arrows right here, with Oliver asking Brian to get him a drink in the bar, and it would have felt a fitting ending. Indeed, with Cyril and Frank performing “Call The Understudy” over a montage of what’s happened to all of the characters, it feels almost as if this is the last time we’ll ever see them. And what a way to go out!
The centerpiece of this episode is opening night of Macbeth, and I think it might be the longest sustained stretch of theatre the show has ever presented. (Only Hamlet in the season one finale really comes close.) Geoffrey’s mad idea turns out to be using set design and the supporting players to push Henry physically out of his comfort zone, to the degree that when he comes offstage at the end of the play, he slugs his director, so fed up is he. But the audience eats it up. A discombobulated Henry is a Henry that feeds off some of the fear that Jerry felt last week, the fear that Geoffrey proclaimed as necessary to great acting back in “Season’s End.” Henry finds his entrances blocked by bits of stage design. He tries to kill Jerry, but Jerry just won’t die. (Jerry’s final resurrection from the dead is maybe a bit too Friday The 13th, Geoffrey says.) Other actors force him down onto the thrust. And in the most humiliating moment for him, Ellen performs the disrobing Geoffrey wanted, only to find that Henry isn’t wearing underwear.
It makes for terrific theatre. The bits and pieces we see of Macbeth seem alive and enthralling in a way that Shakespearean theatre often isn’t to modern eyes. When I said a few weeks ago that Geoffrey’s Macbeth was the play from this show I’d most like to see performed live, it’s this finale that made me think that. But more importantly, it’s also thrilling television, as all of the pieces of the season come together into a performance that’s at once rousing and deeply emotional. Geoffrey wanted to situate the audience in the head of a man who’s losing his mind, and he accomplishes that only by pulling off his greatest lunacy yet. I had forgotten that the show keeps the true nature of Geoffrey’s plan from the audience until the show actually begins, and that means we’re in the same place as Henry when things start going awry. To always see Geoffrey backstage, grinning like the Cheshire cat, is thrilling for us, but it also makes us see just why he gets so enervated. It would have been easy to make Henry just a stock villain, but this episode lets us see both what a great actor he is and just how terribly he and Geoffrey work together, yet just how much they’ve needed each other to reach the heights they’ve attained here. It’s great stuff.
At the same time, the opening night of Macbeth has cappers to most of the season’s personal arcs built in to the performance, making it even more satisfying. Ellen finally chooses Geoffrey over Henry when the chips are down. Oliver goes out on stage as the ghost in the banquet scene. Jerry gets another moment to shine (and his wife gets to see her husband triumph again). Nahum keeps Ellen locked in her dressing room, then returns to tell Geoffrey that he got it right, resuming his role as Geoffrey’s creative conscience while Oliver is away. Henry’s pompousness is worn away to show the great actor he always was. And Richard and Anna—so put upon and terrified that things would fall apart after the Frog Hammer debacle—get what they’d always hoped for when Sanjay’s predictions turn out to be right: The “youth-quake” arrives. The seats are filled with young people who just want to see some Macbeth. It’s an incredibly triumphant series of events, but it only works because of how improbable it seems, because of how low these people were in the last two episodes.
What’s interesting, however, is that the episode doesn’t end there. It doesn’t even begin there. It would have been easy enough to turn the entirety of “Birnam Wood” over to Macbeth’s opening day, to show a bit of how the ticket sales have picked up, how Sanjay was right, then dive straight into Geoffrey’s plan to save the show, before concluding with that scene between Geoffrey and Oliver where he dissolves their relationship (one of two bits in the episode—the other being Richard’s “promotion”—that suggest that the show was trying to leave a bit open for a third season). It might have made for a more cohesive episode of television—if one that left many of the season’s plot threads dangling—but it wouldn’t have been true to the show’s status as a weird, ersatz modern tale in the style of Shakespeare, with business and plot points that have nothing to do with anything but entertaining us.
Where “Birnam Wood” really succeeds, then, is in how it ties all of the stuff that felt extraneous into the final 20 minutes of the episode. With Macbeth mounted and a hit, the show could have shown all of the characters basking in their victory. Instead, it decides to suggest just how miserable they still are by circling back to the central conundrum Ellen posed to Kate in “Season’s End”: You can be Juliet, or you can play Juliet. You can’t really do both. The way that the series sneaks back into this theme over the last couple of episodes is so deft that I hadn’t even really noticed it until this rewatch. It’s so busy distracting us with, say, Darren being such a crazy person or Frank and Cyril dressed up as chess pieces or that absolutely gorgeous image of the glow in the dark hands swarming in the darkness and slowly spreading paint across naked bodies (to give them definition in the black) that it’s never precisely clear how it’s supposed to fit in with everything else.
But all season long, Romeo & Juliet has been nested inside of the Macbeth storyline in a really interesting way. In fact, look at how similar the way that Geoffrey starts the ball rolling on Darren collapsing and redoing the play in a more traditional way by tricking him into being sentimental about the time they put on Godspell together or by making Darren think he’s really lost it over Ellen. When Geoffrey’s at his creative low ebb on Macbeth, he helps Sarah and Patrick figure out how to play Romeo and Juliet and gets his creative juices flying again. Now, I imagine if Rachel McAdams had stuck around for this season to play Juliet or if the show had stuck away from the rather tired and trite love story between Sarah and Patrick, all of this would have come out slightly more successfully. But there, in the midst of the opening night of Darren’s production, the show circles back around to Ellen’s quandary and the notions of art vs. life it’s been pursuing all season long.
Geoffrey introduces the season’s major corporate sponsor at opening night of Romeo & Juliet (which is closing out opening week), and the sponsor gives a little speech about how his wife isn’t with him, because she’s in the hospital. The two made a point of seeing every production of this show they could get to, and now that she can’t be there, he’s reflecting on all of the times they almost called it quits, how the thought of that now makes him “shaky.” It’s a moment that probably shouldn’t work, because it’s so clearly pitched directly at the main characters, but it does, in spite of itself, precisely because it’s so universal, because it so gets at the way that those who take in art long to see themselves reflected up there on the stage or in the flickers of their screens.
We turn to art because we want elucidation, yes, but also because we want reflection. We want to look at something and say, “Hey, I’ve felt like that” or “I know what that person is going through.” Driving all of art is that hunger to connect, that idea that the artist can say something that will express a piece of themselves but will also reach out and grab us, make us feel something or understand something or simply know ourselves a little better. What makes the employees of the New Burbage festival accomplish all of this isn’t one of the plays or their own work. No, for them, that’s business; that’s what they do every day to make money. No, what makes them understand is some guy standing up and saying how much he misses his wife. Ellen bursts into tears. And she goes to find Geoffrey as she must.
“I hate this play,” she says. “You watch it, and you feel miserable, because you don’t have that kind of passion in your life. Nobody does. It’s a fantasy. It’s irresponsible.” But Geoffrey sees it another way: “I think it’s painfully accurate. Two idiots meet, they fall in love, they're happy. Briefly. Then all hell breaks loose. Happens all the time.” Ellen sees the world as a series of binaries, as choices springing up all around her, because she’s given away so much of herself to what has been her art and her career. But Geoffrey sees it as a series of spiraling possibilities. You can play Juliet, and you can be Juliet. You just have to be willing to find the spaces where art and life intersect, then pull at those loopholes until you find some other way of living your life. It might be harder, doing both, but for people like Ellen and Geoffrey, it might be necessary. The only solace comes both from a job well done and from someone warm to crawl into bed next to. It’s not art or life. It’s art and life.
- Richard’s bottled-water magnate friend (and board member) suggests that Richard be made both business and artistic director, providing us with some nice conflict to plunge directly into season three.
- Even if Anna may have gotten so upset at Lionel last week, she seems impervious to giving up on him, as the two end up making out again by episode’s end. Ah well.
- This episode even provides some great closing beats for character arcs that were way in the background, as when Geoffrey waves to Brian when he leaves the bar with Ellen.
- The show sometimes doesn’t know quite what to do with Ellen, but Martha Burns always has exactly the right way of reading her lines. Listen to how she says, “That was a million years ago, Geoffrey. A million years ago,” or how she so precisely enumerates the amount of back taxes she owes and marvel at her preciseness and acting acuity.
- I wish that tall Goth guy who was so into Macbeth had become a recurring character.
- Okay, one moment I could have done without was Sloane telling Geoffrey and Ellen that they belonged together. That was something the show didn’t need to underline any more than it did.
- “Please come down. Some of them have guitars.” Anna fears the youth-quake.
Next week: Is it time for the final season already?! We turn to King Lear and “Divided Kingdom.”