Photo: Comedy Central

The hype for “Finding Frances,” the two-hour season finale of Nathan For You was intense, and it seemed insurmountable. Or it would have if this was any other show on television. Nathan Fielder has given us enough stunning moments since 2013 that when he promises something unlike anything we’ve seen before, it would be foolish to doubt him. Sure enough, “Finding Frances” is likely the best episode in a show full of brilliant ones. It was an unflinching look at regret and one’s refusal to move on and accept that things can’t be changed. There were occasional laughs, but for the most part, this was a deadly serious affair. Nathan For You could often be described as hard to watch, but normally, it’s in a cringe-comedy sort of way. This time, the toughest moments were downright painful and unmistakably human.

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The story focuses on Bill Heath, who had posed as a Bill Gates impersonator in a previous episode. We find out that while recording DVD commentary, he had talked to Nathan a lot about a long-lost love named Frances, who he wishes he had married. He explains that his family didn’t like her, and that there was a lot of pressure on him to break up with her. Later revelations prove that to be a bit of a half-truth. Still, he cares about her a lot, and is desperate for closure. Nathan agrees to help him on his quest, and we begin the most ambitious journey this show has ever embarked upon.

There’s a subtle suspense running throughout “Finding Frances,” mostly because we can never tell exactly how noble Bill’s intentions are. At times, he seems like an utterly sincere man looking to undo (or at least repair) a costly mistake from his youth. Other times, he seems like a lecherous old man, and when Nathan asks if he had ever stalked her, he seems a bit dodgy. The truth lies somewhere in the middle; Bill is a deeply flawed man who often seems unaware of how to handle himself around women, but at the same time, his feelings for Frances are completely sincere, and it was hard not empathize with him in spite of his many faults.

The road to Frances begins with Nathan finding the 1957 year book from her high school in Dumas, Arkansas. This early sequence involves Nathan posing as a member of the crew for Mud 2: Never Clean, the fictitious sequel to a real movie that was filmed there in 2012. This is one of the rare moments where “Finding Frances” feels like a normal Nathan For You episode; so much of this show deals with Bill’s feelings for Frances, as well as Nathan’s mixed feelings about Bill, that the brief appearance of a normal NFY caper provides a rare bit of levity to the otherwise heavy proceedings.

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We get some early leads on the whereabouts of Frances, but it never goes anywhere. One particularly amusing bit involves Nathan setting a “57-year reunion” for her graduating class, which a decent number of people actually end up attending. Nathan has Bill pose as a member of that graduating class, going so far as making him wear thick glasses to look the part—unnecessary, but fun, as so many of Nathan’s provisions are. At the reunion, Bill is a hit, particularly when he sings the town song, “I’m A Ding Dong Dandy From Dumas,” but despite charming some of Frances’ old classmates, he gets no useful information about where she is now.

It’s here, around the halfway point that things take an interesting turn. Nathan attempts to hire an escort named Maci for Bill to talk to, but he has no interest, bluntly stating, “You gotta know what you’re sticking it in,” even after Nathan explained that it would be a non-sexual affair (this is one of a few moments where it became harder to empathize with Bill). He decides to meet with her himself and quickly becomes enamored with her. There’s some amusing awkwardness here, and Nathan doesn’t realize that he’s supposed to be discreet when paying an escort, but this is also the moment where the tone switches from covering Bill’s catharsis to covering Nathan’s. There’s no new information about Frances, and Nathan is basically just wandering around Arkansas aimlessly. We frequently watch Nathan engage in increasingly elaborate stunts, and at some point, you have to wonder how much of a toll that takes on him. Here, we see how lonely he is when he doesn’t have any wacky plans to pull off. It’s a remarkably honest moment, especially considering he could have just as easily told this story without including any of his encounters with Maci.

Eventually, we finally do get the lead we’ve been looking for. Nathan locates a gravestone with Frances’ maiden name on it, and we find it belongs to her parents. This leads us to an obituary that lists her current location, in Michigan. Nathan and Bill find her Facebook page, and it’s revealed that she’s married. Earlier in the show, Bill claimed that if he tracked her down and she was married, he would just accept it, but when he’s faced with the truth, he does a complete 180. He now becomes convinced that he can get Frances to leave her husband. He could accept her being happy with another man in theory, but not in practice.

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This leads to some of Bill’s more regrettable behavior, especially when Nathan has him interact with an actress named June, who he has role-play as Frances. He inappropriately touches her leg in one scene, and seems unwilling to look at it from any point of view other than his own. This was the part of the show where I came closest to thinking ,“Okay, Bill is just an asshole,” but he ultimately redeems himself when Nathan has him role-play as Frances, and he learns some empathy, and even admits to cheating on her. My opinion of Bill oscillated quite a bit, but once he admits to his misdeeds, and understands that Frances is unlikely to take him back, he can’t help but appear sympathetic. Embarking on this adventure with Nathan might not have given him the happy ending what he wanted, but it did give him a new perspective about himself.

The two still travel to Frances’ house to meet her, but they never actually make it in. Bill talks to her on the phone and is dismayed when she doesn’t recognize his voice. Eventually, she remembers him, and they share a pleasant conversation, but it’s clear that she’s quite happy in her current marriage and has no interest in rekindling her old flame. It was a relief when Bill accepts this; after all the progress he has made, it would have been brutal to watch him embarrass himself. Instead, he accepts things as they are, and in doing so, displays more dignity than he did at any other point in the episode.

Our story isn’t quite done however. A while later, when Nathan is back to work on his usual life in L.A., Bill shows up. He gives Nathan an expensive-looking dinner platter to thank him for everything he’d done. A bit random, but it’s a nice gesture, and Nathan seems grateful. That wasn’t his only reason for showing up, though; he also inquires about June. Nathan calls her on his behalf, and Bill eventually does meet with her again. June not only forgives his earlier misbehavior, but she seems to genuinely like him, and admires the personal growth he’s made. As imperfect as Bill was, it was still nice to see things end well for him. Meanwhile, Nathan goes back to Little Rock and has another encounter with Maci, who he seems to really connect with. It’s not a perfect ending, but it works nonetheless; even knowing that Macy is a professional escort, when they both say, “I like you,” to each other, it feels like she means it in a way that goes beyond him being a client. The episode leaves us guessing about whatever encounters they might have shared after that, but it ends things on a very sweet note.

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“Finding Frances” was one of the most captivating things I’ve seen on television in a long time. The regret Bill feels about how he left things with Frances, Nathan’s uncertainty about trusting him, the way Bill gets so upset after finding out that she’s married, the way he eventually accepts it, and the surprising moments between Nathan and Maci were all fascinating looks at how we deal with regret, loss, loneliness, and fear. Even knowing Nathan’s excellent track record, I couldn’t help but wonder if “Finding Frances” would match the expectations that had been attached to it. Instead, it wound up surpassing them. Who knows how long the wait for Season five will be, but for now, Nathan Fielder has given us something that will stuck with viewers for a very long time.

Stray observations

  • So, about Bill being a Trump supporter, I’m sure that will make some people less likely to feel for him. I can’t blame people for thinking that way, but I really wasn’t expecting anything else out of a 78-year-old white man from a very red state. The bit in the hotel where they’re watching the debate, and Nathan gently teases him about Hillary being ahead in the polls is both amusing and devastating, though.

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  • “When the bladder’s full, you feel better when you empty it, even though you could wait.”
  • The Boston Red Sox held a reunion of the 2004 World Series team in 2012, because that was the horrible Bobby Valentine year, and they needed something to bring the fans in. That’s the closest comparison I can think of to the 57-year high school reunion thing. Why, yes, I am a Yankees fan. Why do you ask?
  • Loved Nathan’s reaction when the photo-aging expert casually mentions that we’ll all be living in outer space some day.

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  • Remember when Bill is with the hypnotist, and he starts reeling off an old Arkansas football score? Twitter user @non_cognitivism figured out what game he was talking about: