“Every Inch A King” (season 3, episode 4; originally aired 8/14/2006)
In which Big Dick has a day job…
I have often told those I recommend Slings And Arrows to that the show legitimately gets better with every single episode. The reason I feel quite confident in saying that is because these final three episodes are my favorites of the entire series. They’re the episodes where the show rather takes leave of what increasingly seem like mundane concerns and simply transcends. They are episodes that get at something I’ve only rarely seen approached on television, something that I have to turn to the films of Terrence Malick or Robert Bresson or the very best of the transcendentalist novels to get elsewhere. There is a sense of the ineffable here. There is a sense here, for lack of a better word, of God.
What’s interesting is that Slings And Arrows would never dare say this word. Hints of the eternal are everywhere. Geoffrey attends therapy in a church. Oliver’s ghost seems even more obsessed with his eternal reward than usual. (He even brings up Heaven, Hell, and Limbo in this episode.) Charles is constantly discussing decay and death, and when he’s not, William Hutt’s performance is pushing it right into our faces. The only other TV series that gets at this same sense regularly, at least to my knowledge, is Deadwood, and there, the show is constantly pushing its connection to whatever lies beneath this plane into your face, constantly reminding you that these people are all part of a great, multi-celled organism that looks like a town and behaves like a town but is actually something like an oversoul, one being that turns as slowly as a great steamship but is capable of moving of its own accord. Slings And Arrows never really does that. And yet look at these last three episodes. Look at how they break down.
I want to say that these episodes finally suggest a case Slings And Arrows has been building all along about the perils of the individual doing something to benefit the self instead of the community, as Barbara’s backstabbing of the company of King Lear for her own benefit, as well as Richard’s move to take the festival in a new, less artistically exciting direction in the name of profit (and shoving a troubled show off to the studio theatre), are both portrayed as hideous betrayals. And, crucially, they’re not betrayals of Geoffrey or Ellen or anyone in specific. They’re betrayals of the show, of the company of actors that gives life to these great words. I hesitated above to say that Slings And Arrows was reaching out to talk about the divine, but I don’t hesitate to say that it attaches a sacredness to Shakespeare that’s at once a little naïve and surprisingly tender. This is a great work of art. It must be serviced, but too often, modern life has too little space to service it. And that’s portrayed as a tragedy in and of itself.
Yet the case that this is a show about community over the individual isn’t one I can build with any real conviction, because if I were to do so, it would suggest that the show is about how communities are best when led by artistic geniuses, and that all artistic endeavors that involve more than one person are ultimately trapped between two competing visions of art and commerce. I think all of that is true, so far as this goes, but it doesn’t do very well to suggest that when Barbara turns to Richard and accuses Charles of being an alcoholic, it’s confirming something deep within the show’s soul, because when people made these betrayals in the past, they were usually very much betrayals of Geoffrey or one of the other characters in particular, not of some otherworldly connection dancing between the players.
I keep coming back to two scenes in the episode—well, properly, a scene and a montage. The first is just a lovely bit of writing on the part of Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney. Charles and Geoffrey sit up late at night after Charles’ fall in the bathtub has doomed the opening night of Lear. (Rather than go on with understudy Jerry, Geoffrey opts to cancel the whole show, then can’t deal with making the announcement, thus dumping everything into Richard’s lap.) As Charles and Geoffrey talk about what the former finds comforting about the naturalness of death, the fact that everything must, ultimately, decay and die, Charles’ sightline shifts just a bit, and he’s suddenly talking to Oliver, who abandoned the whole task of getting Charles up on stage in the role of Lear and actually can fill the actor in on what happens after you get run over by a ham truck. Geoffrey tries to interrupt, but he can’t insert himself between the two or get a word in edgewise. They’re off to the races, and it’s at once a horrible omen and a great comfort. Geoffrey’s too far down this path to stop it anyway.
Then Peter Wellington’s camera pulls back, and something interesting happens. In a series of largely wordless shots, we are carried from the three men kibitzing at Charles’ apartment to Ellen and Barbara laughing with agent Chris at Ellen’s place, then to the house shared by the younger actors, who party to celebrate the great success of East Hastings (which has opened to huge acclaim and proceeded to sell out its entire studio theatre run; in the morning, Richard will move it to the larger theatre). Sophie walks through the party, disgruntled as always, oblivious to the fact that her crush and his crush are making out just a floor below. And then it’s the next day, and we’re back to New Burbage.
In and of itself, this montage is nothing more than a transition between night and day, a reminder of where all of the characters are in that moment. Yet there’s more to it. Notice how Wellington’s camera moves gracefully and calmly just beyond the actors. He’s pulled back enough that we can observe them, moving through their natural habitats. The music swirls into a kind of incandescent burble. Everything seems to move just a bit more slowly than it normally would, and the more you look, the more you think, the more it seems to be possible to almost grasp the connections that Charles, perched on the edge of death, is able to see. It’s as if in seeing Oliver, he’s granted us this same sort of gift, to see the way that all of these people—even those we might count as villains as of the next morning—are a part of the same body, the same organism. There is something higher than any one of them, a larger consciousness that moves through them and uses them for its own purposes. To buck against that greater self is perhaps the only sin—as we see when Barbara and Richard do just that—but is also inevitable. Things are always shifting and changing. Connections are forged and broken in an instant, be they between old man and ghost or artistic director and long-suffering administrative assistant. The New Burbage festival is greater than any one of these people, but, then, so is humanity. Both will endure.
It’s a beautifully humane moment and message to plop into the middle of a largely despairing episode of TV, but that’s often Slings And Arrows’ way. In the middle of the chaos, there’s often a still, small voice that carries things forward. The theatre is, indeed, full of shows where the dress rehearsal or final preview was terrible, but opening night was amazing. It’s also full of “cock-ups,” as Frank and Cyril would say, and to focus so singularly on your own career (as even Sophie does) is a way to miss everything that’s happening around you. Better to have the stories, the sense of connection, the understanding that comes with growing old enough to see the world as it actually is, rather than a thing to constantly be beaten into the shape you’d wish it to be.
The creation of art is all about the chasing of that one perfect moment, that one chance some artists get to make something so dead-on that it can’t be argued with, that the audience simply sees it for what it is. In some ways, what Geoffrey is trying to do this season is move beyond even that perfection, to create something so moving, yet fleeting, that it becomes a mirage even as it’s happening. What he wants isn’t to fulfill Charles’ dying wish (though that’s on the docket, too). What he wants is to literally create King Lear, to put a dying actor up on stage and, just once, build a show that exposes all of the death and decay—and all of the beautiful, blessed humanity—that one lucky audience might get to glimpse beyond the surface of the play into its inner workings, into the hearts of the men who wrote and directed it, and maybe even beyond that, into the very center of the human experience, of the universe.
What he gets, instead, is life. Charles is dying, and his infirmities won’t magically go away, no matter how much heroin Geoffrey shoots into his veins. Old men take baths and slip. Ambitious men who see a moment of weakness will swoop in with their own plans, their own shows. Others will do what they can to further their own careers, or will miss the great stories playing before their very eyes. (These final three episodes confirm for me why the light-hearted Frank and Cyril are the Greek chorus of a show that can get impressively dark when it wants to. Nothing is so bad that it can’t prompt a great story later on.) There is nothing Geoffrey can do to stop the inevitable march of time, the fact that all of this stuff is going to fall down onto his head at once. The shows he created may have been beautiful, but his directorial methods have taken too many risks. Here’s karma to push back at him.
Yet in the midst of this great storm surrounding his life, Geoffrey begins to find clarity, as do the other people in his life. Ellen and Geoffrey again point themselves toward each other, as they always do. (The scene where the two sit in the theatre watching the line-through between Charles and Jerry with the affection and ease of an old married couple suggests just how much Geoffrey has missed having her there, a fixed point to keep guiding him home.) Charles finally acknowledges that he is dying, that he can’t avoid it forever. Barbara admits that this is not what she signed on for, that she wants to preserve her career. Ellen recommits herself to the theatre. Geoffrey and Anna have a moment of tiny connection that promises the green shoots of something new. Sophie and Paul don’t yet have that clarity, but they’re young, and the young take time to realize what’s right in front of their noses.
You think you’re not a part of something, but you are. You think that you are you, yourself, alone, sitting in your apartment or house, listening to the weather outside or watching the sun dance through the treetops. You might believe, for a moment, that what matters most is your own life, your own future, your own career. I do every day. But this isn’t really true. The truth of the matter is that there’s this chain, running through all of us, and we don’t always feel it or know it’s there. But it links us, and it pulls us together in ways we don’t understand. Some people call it God, and some people just call it a great mystery, and some simply accept that life is better when it has the possibility to be shared, whether permanently or fleetingly. We are carried along by currents we don’t understand, borne along as part of something greater than ourselves, a thing that can protect and nurture or starve and shut out, sometimes all at once. Things seem hopeless as “Every Inch A King” ends, but the show doesn’t play them that way. No matter what happens, there is something beneath us all. There is always a chance for something shining and new, so long as we live.
- Richard is so beloved by the East Hastings cast that they give him a nickname: Big Dick. Also, when he sleeps with one of the female cast members, he can’t stop giggling, and she’s wondering just what that’s all about.
- Anna’s frequent attempts to get Richard to listen to her about helping out Los Perdidos and/or listen to Maria and the Lear cast about the upcoming train wreck continue to suggest that she’s the unheralded hero of this series.
- I remembered the show making Richard into something of a villain in this episode, but his actions are always understandable. We might not like them, because we side with the Shakespearean players, but the reasons he does what he does are perfectly motivated.
- Geoffrey’s therapy session where he has it out with Oliver is another bit of perfect writing and acting. I particularly like the way the therapist seems blown away to have watched one half of this conversation in his office, like he just saw a particularly amazing stage show.
- Ellen’s agent, Olive Barlow, is a character we’re just now meeting, but it’s amazing how quickly and perfectly the show sketches her in in a matter of lines. Within just a few seconds of her entering the meeting with Chris (late, no less), the performance and script let you know exactly who this woman is, and exactly what kind of agent she is.
- Ellen would be playing an inspector like the one on Prime Suspect—she’s the Canadian Helen Mirren, Olive keeps saying—but one in space. Chris just wants to be upfront about that. The show holds television in even greater disdain than musicals, which should, I think, indicate that the disdain for musicals is all tongue-in-cheek and portrayed through the prism of our point-of-view characters, rather than what the creatives actually believe. This is, after all, a TV show, and not one worth disdaining.
- I’ve been trying and trying to figure out how Los Perdidos tie into the show’s greater Shakespearean picture this season and failing. Any of you have any theories?
- Richard’s complete and utter lack of interest in anything but the huge reception for East Hastings is at once kind of nice—you do feel good for the guy, just a bit—and sadly telling as to his priorities at the moment.
- From how often she tells that story of how she slept with her brother-in-law, Ellen seems weirdly proud of it. Maybe she just thinks it’s one of those cock-ups that makes a great story.
- Finally, a bit of happy news. I’ll be interviewing the three creators of the series early next week, in hopes of having the interview run concurrently with the article on the finale in a couple of weeks. If you have any particular questions you’ve been dying to know the answer to, I’ll try to work them in. We’ll be talking about the complete run of the series, so anything is fair game.
Next week: Everybody scrambles to move the show to the studio theatre in “All Blessed Secrets.”