“Season’s End” (season two, episode one; originally aired 6/27/2005)
In which you can play Juliet, or you can be Juliet
When I was a high school sophomore, everybody in my tiny class of 16 had to give a speech about what they wanted to do when they grew up. The speeches my friends gave were largely the sorts of speeches you’d expect for kids from a small town in South Dakota—farmer, banker, salesman, nurse, chiropractor (there were two of these, for some reason). And I, of course, gave a speech about wanting to be a writer. We’re right around 15 years from that point, and most of those people have achieved their own dreams, as have I. At the time, I felt this sort of smug superiority to everybody around me. How was it possible that they could want so little, and I could want so much? And yet here I am, thankful to have a job that’s able to care for my wife and myself, but also wondering what happens when we have a kid, or when she wants to go on to grad school, or if one of us is fired. Will it be enough then? My high school friends are, for the most part, homeowners, with kids and cars and the jobs they always wanted. When my kid comes along, what then? Is this dinky apartment going to be enough?
Sooner or later, every wannabe artist realizes something: The number of people who make enough money at art to not just live on it but live well—as in the whole American dream of owning the house and the car and having the 2.5 kids—that number’s pretty small. And those who are able to accomplish that are often unable to have that sort of blissfully normal life many people long for. There’s been a lot of art written on and around that basic subject. (Here, let’s watch this Stephen Sondheim song that’s about this general topic.) To want to live in imaginary worlds created in your own mind—or the minds of others—is to have to pull back from reality just a little bit, to remove yourself from what’s really happening and throw yourself headlong into something else, at least for a few hours every day. Sooner or later, the choice arrives: Keep plugging away, maybe never having the creature comforts of other lives, or move to a place where it’s easier to live on less money, then funnel creative ambition into whatever local arts scene exists and imagine what might have been. Has the Internet made all of this less stringent? Sure. But it still exists, like it or not.
So what do you suppose happens to Kate? This being Slings And Arrows, I rather assume that she moves to Los Angeles and gets the parts she’s always wanted and has a long, happy marriage to Jack. But it’s also entirely possible that she never acts again. Maybe the choice to follow Jack is the thing that takes over her life. If she never acts again, is that a choice she regrets somewhere down the line? One of the reasons I’d love to see a fourth season of this show—which has been rumored or discussed from time to time but never confirmed—is because I’d like to get answers to these sorts of questions about the intersection between life and art. The romances on the show are often enhanced by the intense emotions that pour out on stage, but how durable are they in the face of dirty dishes and crying infants and car repairs? How are they built to stand up against the cold, harsh light of day?
You can play Juliet, or you can be Juliet, Ellen tells Kate, and this is more or less what she means. She and Geoffrey will choose, at every turn, to play the roles, to be the people who lose themselves up on the stage, and maybe that’s why it’s taken the two so long to find their way back to each other. Kate’s initial choice is to play Juliet, because she could be a great stage actress. (I mean, she’s played by Rachel McAdams, so c’mon!) But after a moment when it seems like Jack’s going to head back to star in his big movie with the flirtatious Cheyenne and do so without Kate, Ellen reverses her advice to the younger woman. Go. Go live that life Ellen will only get to talk about with the women in the old folks’ home someday. Go and be in love. And maybe that will be enough to keep everything else at bay. Maybe Kate won’t need the stage if she’s got someone she really wants to spend every minute with.
I’ve seen some criticism of this storyline, mostly because people forgive it for hastily contriving a way to write McAdams—who’d become a promising movie star between seasons one and two and was about to star in her biggest hit, Wedding Crashers—but still think it’s emblematic of the series weird relationship with women that Kate heads off after a guy. Couldn’t there have been another reason for Kate to leave? (Or, honestly, did we even really need to see these two again at all?) I don’t really agree with these criticisms, because I think the rest of the episode perfectly captures the haunting regret and longing that drives these people. You can play Juliet, or you can be Juliet. But you’ll always want both.
Now, Slings And Arrows is already a show that’s driven by a healthy dose of regret. It’s a series where the main character has one of his most meaningful relationships with what might very well be a ghost of a man he never was able to forgive before his death. Its central romantic relationship is between a man and woman who were split apart for years because she slept with someone else, and he couldn’t let it go. And this eats them apart inside. This is the central regret of their lives. This is the reason they’re both so unhappy when the series begins. And yet when Geoffrey finally sleeps with Ellen again by the end of this episode, well, that’s when he sees Oliver for the first time since the opening night of Hamlet back in the first season finale. To try to have everything is also to constantly have to juggle those things. Or, Ellen says she’ll be there if Geoffrey starts seeing his long-dead friend again, but will she really? How weird would that be?
“Season’s End” is one of my favorite episodes of the series because it recaptures the languid feeling of the series première, but now that we know the characters as well as we do, it’s like slipping back into a comfortable pair of slippers. Nahum is palling around with Geoffrey as Hamlet shuts down to an audience of schoolyard hooligans and old folks. Frank and Cyril are playing old songs on the piano and singing together before retiring to their home. Richard is securing the acting talents of one Henry Breedlove, apparently Canada’s finest and the only man who can carry off Oliver’s long-standing dream of mounting Macbeth. The whole episode—like the whole of the first season’s première—is about getting us to a place we already know we’re going as soon as Moira starts hissing about the cursed play. But the show’s confidence and verve more than carry it through. By the time Geoffrey accepts that this is where he’s going, we’re fully back on board.
“Season’s End” is also pretty great at setting up the season’s major conflicts. We hear all about how great Henry is, but we also see how little Geoffrey wants to deal with him. Richard’s meeting with the bottled water company sponsor nicely sets up the season’s economic stakes (as does Geoffrey’s later agreement to a plan that involves some layoffs). Ellen’s agreement to marry Sloane, followed by her realization that she can’t be with him sets up the re-consummation of the Ellen and Geoffrey romance we’ve been waiting for all this time. And the constant mentions of Macbeth—and not just how it’s cursed but also how difficult it is to stage with all that blood and evil and that psychopath at its center—set up the season’s creative stakes. How is Geoffrey going to get through this with his sanity intact, while also coming up with a way to save the festival economically? Well, he’s probably going to have to turn to Oliver again, because that’s the one place he can find his best ideas. (For her part, Ellen’s pretty excited to do Macbeth, because “Lady M” is the kind of part she wants to play.)
Yet I keep coming back to Jack and Kate, and not just because they’re leaving the show. No, the more times I watch “Season’s End,” the more I think they get at something that’s at the very center of the show but isn’t expressed as clearly as it is in this little storyline. You can have your art, or you can have your perfect life, but you can’t really have the both of them. I have a great life. I love my work, and I love my wife, and I love getting to live in one of the best cities in the world while I pursue that work. But I also go home sometimes and look at the lives of my friends and wonder what could have been. Could I have been happy, like them, with a life that didn’t take me to California, that provided me with all the creature comforts in the world but perhaps didn’t nurture this other part of myself?
As much as we might think we’ve found the life we’ve always wanted, the fact remains that there are multiple lives that split off from this one, multiple branching paths that launch us into other, uncertain futures. The process of getting older often involves learning to be okay with the way those paths are now permanently closed off to us because none of us has a time machine. Kate exits the series because Rachel McAdams needs to go become a movie star, on the one hand, but she also exits because she chooses door B and seems ridiculously happy about it. Sooner or later, it all boils down to a binary, and if you don’t choose the art, that world ultimately rejects you. Slings And Arrows is about people who keep choosing door A, time after time after time after time. And maybe that’s not everything, and maybe they would have found something else. But they can’t not choose that door. You can play, or you can be. And that has made all the difference.
- My wife rewatched the whole series between when I wrote the last review and this one, and I think she ultimately ended up liking this season the best. I’ve always maintained season three is my favorite (and that each episode of this show is better than the last), but we’ll see how I feel this time.
- Frank and Cyril’s song for the season informs us that, sorry, they won’t play Mackers. I do enjoy the song’s way of dancing around Macbeth without saying it.
- Having been around theatre people for a significant portion of my life, I’ve noticed how many of them abide by the Macbeth curse, though it’s hard to tell how many people actually believe in it, and how many of them just think it’s sort of a fun thing to play along with. To that end: Share your favorite tales of the Macbeth curse in comments.
- And while we’re at it, based on Nahum setting up the ghost light, tell us your favorite stories about theatre ghosts as well. (My college theatre’s ghost was named George; some friends and I once captured what we thought was his voice on a little tape recorder. It obviously wasn’t, but it was a lot of fun.)
- The endless close-ups of Moira—who’s “a witch,” in one of this season’s many Macbeth parallels—are some of my favorite bits of direction in this thing. The show really makes this harmless old woman seem like she’s about to destroy everything. I also like how she seems to know that Geoffrey will be putting on Macbeth before he even does.
- I’ve always wondered if there were plans for Kate and Jack beyond this season, assuming that Rachel McAdams hadn’t become a whole thing. Have the creators spoken about this anywhere?
- Richard’s frustrations, first at trying to keep the money rolling in and then at the way that nobody in the company seems to like him all that much, are played for laughs, but there’s also a kind of wearied pity the show has for him at this point. These people have to put up with him, so they might as well get used to his quirks.
- Cheyenne continues the series’ portrayal of Americans as mostly venal idiots. (Not that there’s anything wrong with this!) I like how even Jack seems to get a little bit dumber once she’s around.
- “Oliver Welles is dead! I poured him in a river, and swans ate him!” Geoffrey is always so comforting.
Next week: The great Henry Breedlove arrives, and the second season’s story truly begins.