“Steeped In Blood” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 7/25/2005)
In which Jerry has the night of his life
One of the things that’s interesting about Slings And Arrows—one of the things that sets it apart from virtually every other great drama series of its era, in fact—is the way that it’s structured roughly like a Shakespearean play. There’s a main, driving plot, sure, but there are also lots of other, incidental plots that hang around the edges of the story and sputter to life from time to time, then get resolved in the oddest of ways. If this were a “modern” production, the temptation would be to cut these bits of flotsam and jetsam, but in Shakespeare’s day, these would have been present to service a particularly popular actor or character—a certain director offering his take on Romeo And Juliet, say?—or to toss a bit of romance into the words—the two stars of that play?—or to simply offer the actor playing the protagonist some time to breathe—Anna’s romance with the playwright, or Richard’s encounters with Frog Hammer, or Ellen’s audit. What the show is “really” about is Geoffrey struggling with his mental illness to put on great theatre. But that’s not really accurate. What it’s “really” about is life, in all its myriad wildnesses and complexities.
I didn’t really notice how all-over-the-place this structure could feel until this viewing of the series, perhaps because the show so reminds me of my own days in summer theatre, when there were a million storylines swirling at once all around me, but the main one involved getting that damn show up onstage to give the paying customers a good time. Yet this time through—perhaps because I’m cognizant of the fact that several of you are first-time viewers—I’m all the more aware of the way the show attempts to offer a little something for everyone. Every time the Geoffrey plot gets too dramatic or dark, we cut away to something broad and ridiculous, like Darren commanding Patrick and Sarah not to play their characters but, rather, face forward with flat expressions and read the play with no emotion whatsoever, or like Richard trying to spin his way out of the fact that Sanjay turned out to be a con artist who believed his own horseshit right into a jail cell. Then we’re back to the main plot, and the suspense is still intact. It’s like an exercise in whether or not this kind of structure can work in the modern era.
Now, I’m not trying to say that Slings is the only show in the history of time to have subplots, because that would be madness. Even shows as completely focused on their protagonists as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad take time to give their supporting players something to do. What sets Slings apart is the fact that it doesn’t really have time to do this. It has around four-and-a-half hours to tell the complete story of the production of one play from beginning to end. Even if it were never cutting away from Hamlet or Macbeth, it would still need to leap over great stretches of that period to get viewers from conception to opening night. But it gives over much of its time to subplots that can be entertaining or enervating, but rarely seem to have direct bearing on whatever’s going on in the A-plot. (One exception here is Richard’s plot this season, which is a more or less comedic spin on Geoffrey’s struggle with Henry.) That’s a dangerous gambit in a six-episode season, much less one that has to take time to break for commercials. Any time spent away from the A-plot could make the whole season feel, ultimately, unfocused, could cause everything to spin off its axis until there’s no center anymore.
Season two of Slings is by far the worst offender in these terms. Season one has its subplots, but all of them tie more or less directly into Geoffrey’s return to New Burbage, and season three does a much better job of integrating its subplots into the main arc (as we’ll see when we get there). But season two has a handful of subplots that seemingly have nothing to do with anything, but for the fact that they involve some of the same characters or take place at the same festival. (But for the presence of Darren, the Romeo And Juliet storyline wouldn’t feature a single season one character.) Yet I’d say season two takes many of these would-be flaws and turns them into virtues, and it does so for two reasons.
The first of these is simply that the Geoffrey storyline this season is much, much stronger than it was in season one. The basic conflicts are repetitions of the season one conflicts—will Geoffrey hold on to his sanity long enough to struggle the play into shape, will Geoffrey and Ellen come to an understanding, will Oliver leave Geoffrey alone, etc.—but they’ve all been heightened by the simple fact that the play he’s staging is much more demanding, and he’s a little scared of it and the resonances he sees in himself within the text. For most of this season, Geoffrey is in conflict with Macbeth itself, and if that sounds like an esoteric idea to dramatize, well, the show does a marvelous job of making it work. And once he’s figured out what he wants from Macbeth, once he’s stifled Oliver and found his way to his own vision of the play, then the conflict shifts to be against the man who’s playing Macbeth, forcing Geoffrey to prove to people who’ve all but given up on him that he’s still the best man to lead this company into the breach. It’s a nifty bit of writing, and it reaches its apex here, as Geoffrey forces Jerry—whose storyline has been burbling along in the background all season—to the fore.
One thing “Steeped In Blood” captures perfectly is the sense of terror and hope that rushes through a company when an understudy has to step into a part on short notice. Jerry doesn’t know the part just yet. The clothes don’t fit him. He’s got the soliloquys down, but every time he has to talk to someone, he’s as likely to skip three pages of dialogue as anything else. Yet the company pulls together to root for him, because they need to have a good show, and this is what the director has chosen to do. Even if this unites everyone against Geoffrey, he’s at least united them against something (which he arguably learned from the Hamlet debacle). But what’s even better is that he’s shown everybody that his version of the play can work, even if Henry’s dead-set against it. One of the things that’s great about Slings is that the moments when everybody reacts in awe at something being great generally live up to the greatness. That’s definitely the case here. He might be a bundle of nerves, but for that one night, Jerry is Macbeth, and that’s all Geoffrey needs to pick at the open sore that is Henry’s ego. Predictably, Henry goes into the peace meeting negotiated by Brian with his own certainty that what he wants to do is the right course of action. But Brian lets Geoffrey know his version of the play works, and he shouldn’t let Henry walk all over him, setting us up nicely for the final conflict of the season.
I mentioned there was another reason I think the potential convolution of this season works, and that simply boils down to the fact that I think season two is the best at capturing the theatre festival as an operating festival, as a business trying to make ends meet and often horribly failing. By giving everybody and their dog a storyline, the writers of Slings could have very easily created something overstuffed and difficult to follow on an emotional level. Yet by putting the whole festival in danger, thanks to Richard spending all of the rebranding money on Frog Hammer and thus isolating the usual subscriber base, the series sends the reverberations of that decision throughout the whole company. The second season of this show reaches far and wide, and not everything works, but in its attempt to pull everything in, it also creates a wonderful sense of this setting as a world, a place where people come to work every day and face down their demons. The more compact first and third seasons don’t have that scope or that sweep, and they feel almost tame in comparison.
If that feels like a bit of a wishy-washy explanation, I can understand that. But at its center, Slings And Arrows is about the creation of art, and at its best, art encompasses all of life. For most of the season, the questions of the show have revolved around where art should stop and where life should begin. Should Geoffrey seek treatment if his madness is driving him to such heights? Should Henry risk himself again, after years of ossification? Can Brian overcome his own bitterness to champion what’s best for the plays? These questions reflect directly onto the production of Macbeth, but they also resonate throughout the other storylines. Can Lionel turn Anna into just another character in his work, even if that violates her privacy and her feelings? (And it should be said that Susan Coyne is devastating when Anna talks with Ellen about Annette from Winkler.) Just how strong is the love formed between “Romeo” and “Juliet,” that it might leak out to infect the actors playing them? Can Ellen only be a great artist if she’s not a responsible adult?
And the ultimate example of this might be Sanjay, a dentist from Halifax who one day realized he wanted to be something else and simply set out to achieve that. Now, on the one hand, that’s completely bonkers. It’s something that should never work, and, indeed, the police eventually caught up with him. But for a while, he was everything he wanted to be, and now that his road has taken him to jail, he seems mostly at peace with that. At least he got to live, no matter how preposterous or false that life was. What he’s saying to Richard—poor Richard, who always looks for someone to tell him what to do—is that the life lived without taking a stab at being who you really want to be is a worthless one. What happens up on stage at New Burbage might be entirely fictional, but that it reaches out from that stage into those who are a part of it shouldn’t surprise us. Art wants to encompass all of life, but those of us who are living often hope that our lives might encompass just a little art as well.
- It’s a rather abrupt development, but Ellen seeing her auditor as a sort of ad hoc therapist was the first thing about that plotline I truly enjoyed, and I liked how excited she got at the idea that the auditor had seen her up on stage all those years. Ellen may imagine herself to be someone who’s getting a handle on things, but everything eventually boils down to her ego.
- Oliver takes a back seat in this episode, but I do like how he shows up when Jerry goes out on stage to gloat, then gradually is won over by what Geoffrey is trying to do (though the two still have a big argument after the show).
- I think perhaps I simply don’t buy the chemistry between Sarah and Patrick the way I did between Kate and Jack. I’m down with fluid sexualities and all, but there needs to be significantly more heat there when they’re just hanging out or running lines, and there’s just not. (Though their “rehearsal” last week was pretty hot, so it’s not like they couldn’t turn on the chemistry when it was most needed.)
- The story of Jerry’s marriage being saved because of his work as Macbeth could have felt trite or shoehorned in—as could have the moment when his wife thwacks Henry and tells him to stop criticizing her husband—but it somehow doesn’t, thanks to the actors involved and the general “anything goes” ethos of the episode.
- The show often uses Nahum as a sort of surrogate audience member when it needs to, but it’s tough to tell if he’s so into Macbeth here because he finds it that involving or because he just wants to see if Jerry will fuck up.
- Geoffrey telling Maria he wants to meet with the actors for five minutes is the most muted cliffhanger ever, but, oh, the awesomeness that results from that meeting.
- Emily redeems herself when she saves Jerry up there on stage. “Is this a dagger I see before me?” “NO!” “No!”
Next week: Everything comes to a bloody (entertaining) end in “Birnam Wood.”