“Outrageous Fortune” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 11/24/2003)
In which Geoffrey Tennant goes mad, gets better, and takes over…
I’m always amazed by how easily Slings And Arrows builds to a dramatic crescendo, as well as how terrific it is at confronting three of the biggest themes in Western literature: death, love, and finding meaningful work. I probably shouldn’t be so amazed, considering how many times I’ve seen the series now, but I think it lures me in with its comedy, so that I’m unexpectedly moved by a deeply emotional scene that comes out of nowhere, or so that I’m surprised when an episode elegantly stitches together a bunch of plot threads all at once, building to a surprisingly dramatic cliffhanger that is arrived at effortlessly. The thing that makes all of this—the tonal shifts, the stories dovetailing, the dramatic crescendos—even better is the fact that it feels so damned effortless. The show spends two-thirds of its first season getting to the place you know it must go—Geoffrey overcoming his demons to direct Hamlet—but it never feels forced or boring. The story is so confidently told that you simply sit back and let it wash over you.
This fourth episode confronts all three of the series’ big themes in a big, enjoyable stew of headiness, so let’s take them one by one, starting with…
Death: “Are you a suicide risk?” “Isn’t everyone?”—the police officer and Geoffrey
One of my favorite bits of this whole series comes in the scene where Geoffrey is confined to a cell by himself, waiting for the psychiatric evaluation that will free him from its confines. He’s been put there because of the “riot” caused when he burst into Ellen’s house to duel Darren, and said riot has placed the festival on all of the front pages—and not in a flattering way. If ever there was a time when Geoffrey was going to be a suicide risk, it would be right now. He’s, yet again, completely fucked up. He’s made an embarrassment of himself. And he’s gotten no closer to winning back Ellen, which would seem to be the motivation of his that underlies everything else he does. He assures the officer that he’s joking when he makes the above statement, but his belt and shoelaces are taken anyway. He’s alone with his increasingly dispirited thoughts.
Of course, Geoffrey is never really alone. He has Oliver, and even if Oliver’s a figment of his imagination, he’s at least somebody Geoffrey can talk to. The two jaw a bit about most of the things that are important to the show and the episode—offering a small bit of catch-up and offering the revelation that Ellen slept with Oliver, and that was one of the things that drove a wedge in the trio’s friendship—but the apex of the episode comes for me when Oliver offers up a little monologue about what it means to be dead. It’s about what he expected, he says. But more than anything, he feels “forgotten. Like an old phone number.” Death, he tells Geoffrey, is hardly worth the effort. And that’s it. That’s the most concrete dissection we get of just how far down Geoffrey is, and just how hopeless he seems to see his situation as being. The show doesn’t need to make a big fuss of any suicidal thoughts Geoffrey might have. It doesn’t need to say he’s depressed or show him moping about. One line of dialogue from Oliver can cut to the quick and let us know. The writers are confident in their ability to inform us and in our ability to catch on to what’s being said.
Death, of course, is all over the works of Shakespeare, but it’s also present at every moment of Geoffrey’s life, too. It’s no matter whether he’s constantly thinking of suicide; to think of doing it even once is to live the rest of your life knowing that you had that thought in a moment of desperation. What Geoffrey’s incapable of seeing that Oliver can tell him is that death isn’t just the great leveler; it’s the stop sign on his life. Once Geoffrey dies—be it by his own hand or by being run over by a truck full of hams—he will cease to be someone capable of reinvention, of rediscovery. He will, instead, just be that guy who fucked up the New Burbage festival and failed at restoring his sanity. Death puts a period on life, but a moment of real, true desperation and depression can be a comma, a pause before something else begins. And after that moment in the jail cell, Geoffrey begins to rebuild his life. He commiserates with Sloane. He really talks to Ellen for the first time since he returned. He fires Darren and assumes control of Hamlet.
The episode, of course, features another character who’s on the verge of death (or perhaps already dead), that of May, the board head who’s squeezed out in Holly’s coup d’etat. She knows something’s up, but she’s too late to stop it. Yet the show has a great deal of admiration for her spirit. Better to go down fighting for something you believe in than simply give up. Death can be that period that freezes you forever in amber, but the way you die can also rewrite your life up until that point. I can’t say I really noticed May up until this point, but now, I’ll remember her always, fictional character though she may be.
Which brings us to…
Work: “More people listen to the radio than go to the theatre. And nobody listens to the radio.”—Darren Nichols
One of the best ways to define yourself before death is through the fruits of your labors. For most people, this means finding something that holds meaning for them, that can provide for both themselves and their families, then doing that work. So few of us manage to achieve this goal, though, and so few of us do what we truly, truly love. Work can become such a burden and a chore that when we see someone who’s complaining about their super-amazing, awesome job, it becomes that much more irritating. Would they rather trade places with us? Believe me, every time I start to think about complaining about what I do, I realize how many people would just love to get paid to watch TV.
That’s one of the things that’s great about the characters on this show. They may complain about the circumstances of their work—about Darren’s ridiculousness or Geoffrey’s insanity—but they always seem uniquely aware of how lucky they are to be paid to do what they love. They’ve chosen to pursue meaning in what time they have through interpreting Shakespeare for audiences, through keeping words that could have long ago fallen dead very much alive. Notice the difference between what the actors and Geoffrey do and what Richard does. As we learned last episode, what he’d really like is to be a part of the actual shows (and ideally mega-musicals); instead, he’s stuck running the behind-the-scenes operations, much to his disgruntlement. (Holly, on the other hand, seems to have found exactly her niche.)
This episode has very little to do with the characters working—only the final rehearsal (at which Geoffrey orchestrates a free reading of the play) gets off the ground—but it has plenty of musing about what it means to be drawn to this particular life, to the weird, tempestuous family that forms around any stage production. The characters are forced to compromise and come together, to find ways to build bridges, rather than burn them. And I’m always struck by how the series depicts the ways that the shows almost become a kind of shadow reflection of what’s happening on stage. People are falling in love. Old wounds are being healed. Forgiveness is given. Darren may be right. Theatre may be a dying art form, but it’s one that manages to keep these people—and their friendships and relationships—very much alive.
Love: “If you feel the same way now as I did seven years ago, then you’re gonna spend the rest of your life kicking other people’s asses for her, whether you’re with her or not. That’s just how truly horrible life can be.”—Geoffrey
Ellen and Geoffrey are in love. Jack and Kate are in love. “Ducky” and “Lovey” (and I agree with you folks that we should just call them that) are in love. As in Shakespeare, love on Slings And Arrows isn’t something to be sidled up to a little bit at a time. It’s simply a thing that is, a force of nature that overwhelms these characters and draws them together, whether they want it or not. Sure, Ellen might feint at no longer feeling about Geoffrey as he feels about her, and Kate might get a little worried for a second that she’s only having sex with Jack because he’s a star. But we know how these stories go. We know how Shakespeare goes. You can’t fight elemental forces, and when you’re a character on Slings And Arrows, you can’t fight love.
It’s that pulse of sheer, unadorned romanticism that keeps this show so fizzy, I think. As I said at the beginning of this piece, Slings is able to tackle some heavy subject matter, but it never feels particularly heavy. Instead, it feels as if it’s just incorporating all of the things we might feel in our own lives into the mix of these characters’ lives. Yet the opposite is also true: The series never feels so light that it doesn’t have ballast. If the flipside of death is life—and the meaningful work these characters have found in their lives—then the flipside of love is regret, regret for all the wasted years when you stupidly fought against everything you knew to be true.
Yet love is also the flipside of death. It’s the thing Geoffrey is pretty sure still bonds him with Oliver, and it’s the thing Ellen talks about when she admits that one night on stage, she thought she saw her old director waiting for her in the wings. Loving somebody isn’t about a physical act, or even about an emotional one. It’s about creating a third person who exists outside of yourselves—a relationship that’s equal parts of both of you—and then trying to nurture and care for that other person, though you know how difficult that can be. When Geoffrey goes to see Ellen at her house, he gets to her because he comes at these questions through regret, through the expression of everything they once wished for each other. And what’s key to this scene, I think, is that it softens her a bit toward him, too. She allows him, just for a moment, to walk around in the past, without her, to take in the home they once shared and remember everything they could have been.
Jack and Kate, conversely, are just coming together, and there’s a kind of terror to that all the same. There’s a delineation in their love between everything before they have sex—which is a kind of heady euphoria of anticipation, building up to what appears to be a truly awesome time in bed—and everything after, when Kate slowly realizes that even if what Claire said was true, everybody’s going to think she’s only sleeping with this guy because she wants to be with a star. Never mind the force of nature thing; gossip can be its own force. She starts flipping through the scripts, and she realizes just how different their lives are and just how incompatible they seem to be on the surface. There’s the briefest hint of an argument—it’s really a polite discussion—and she leaves.
But we know how this story ends, because we can see how Ellen and Geoffrey are. Jack and Kate are going to get drawn and drawn and drawn together, because that’s just the way it works. There’s no use fighting it, just as there’s no use trying to not be dead. (The attempt apparently only involves being able to manifest as a ghost to one person at a time.) We’ve been telling stories about love and death and work since we were able to tell stories, and we’ve been telling roughly the same stories about them, because we keep having the same experiences with them. Yet there’s a good reason for this: For as much as we’ve dissected these ideas in art, they remain mysteries to us. What happens when we die? Why do we fall in love? What gives us meaning? We can garner answers from science or religion or philosophy, but they’ll never feel truly “right,” because to be in the thick of it is to not know quite what’s happening. And, ultimately, that’s why Slings is able to butt such heavy topics up against such light comedy: Somewhere, deep inside, it understands that it’s all mysterious and all a little bit intoxicating.
- The opening of this episode, with Ellen’s maid coming to the house to clean up after the riot, then screaming when she enters, to be answered by Ellen’s, “Sorry!” is one of my favorite comedic beats on the show.
- For all of the stuff to like in this episode, the way the coup d’etat goes down feels a bit rushed. I think it would work better if May were a better established character, whose fall would feel that much more awful to us, but I suspect there just wasn’t room to do that in six 45-minute episodes.
- I love the little side details in the show, like the gecko that Nahum is trying to feed as the actors arrive for the rehearsal that’s canceled.
- I like the titles of the movies Jack might be in. They sound exactly like a generic action thriller and a would-be Oscarbait movie.
- If you’re not just a little bit in love with Anna after this episode—particularly after she gets everybody out of jail seemingly using only her wits and an orange juice/protein drink—then I don’t know what to do with you.
- Sly Shakespearean commentary: When the reading of Hamlet begins with the scene where the guards see the ghost of Claudius, Geoffrey sees Oliver’s ghost again for the first time since he was in jail.
- The lusty flirting between Jack and Kate prior to having sex is some of the best-written sexy dialogue I can recall. There’s an impish excitement to it, that really does feel like being young and in love, but having not yet consummated that love.
- Sloane really steps up in the comedy arena this week. His anger over Geoffrey breaking that pig is the best.
- Darren might go to Germany. They understand him there.
- I was watching the credits more closely than usual for reasons I can’t even remember, and I caught this glaring typo. Apologies if this is a “unique” “Canadian” spelling, like “colour” or “flavour” or something.
- “You make it sound like an ill-timed fart. I was stabbed!” Don McKellar’s delivery of this line is perfection.
Next week: Everything’s coming to a head as we hold “A Mirror Up To Nature.”