I love the way “Natural Spring Water” expands and contracts. It starts with an overhead shot of a hand holding three capsules containing potentially untrustworthy MDMA Tom got from somewhere unseen. They’re the seeds from which almost everything that happens grows. The fabulous Ella (Emily Barclay) joins the group on her own, but Alan and Mae enter the story directly because Tom’s high. Their first scene ends with Alan hurrying off the phone because he’s so sure he’s reconnecting with Mae while Mae is getting dressed, stopping that reconnection at the first opportunity. That’s what causes them both to rejoin the story toward the end. As the night goes on, things naturally dissipate until the final shot, which gives us another unifying image, Alan’s car come to scoop up the partiers. The rise and fall is how so many nights go.
And “Natural Spring Water” is packed. The banter doesn’t rise and fall. From the moment Josh swallows a pill, the episode is surfing this wave of dialogue. Josh says they don’t all have to take the pill just because he did. “Don’t put this on me, okay? You do what you like.” Arnold says, “I like maths!” The music’s blasting, too. Before Tom finishes his phone call with Alan, just to check on his pal, Josh puts on “Love Is Strange,” and it plays over the shots of Alan’s place. When the call’s over Josh begins the first great musical number of the night, mouthing the Mickey part. Arnold joins in as Sylvia. But here’s the fantastic thing about that. Arnold isn’t looking at Josh. He didn’t see Josh mouth, “Sylvia!” and he didn’t hear it because they’re lip-syncing. But nevertheless, right on cue, Arnold snaps into it. “Yes, Mickey?” The episode races from sequence to sequence: dancing at a dead club, going for a run, riding in an ambulance with hot Evan. Dialogue overlaps scenes, but not just for momentum. There’s a reason we’re watching Alan in the aftermath of a separation as Ella begins her big speech about heartbreak:
“Did you know the reason your heart physically hurts when it breaks is because your body doesn’t understand what’s going on? Your body doesn’t know you broke up with someone. It just assumes you must be in trouble, like, poisoned or something. So it’s like, ‘Oh my god, this guy just ate an apple from a witch. Quick, heart, beat faster. We need action now!’”
That’s part of the rise and fall, too. The only concern at the beginning of the episode is whether Arnold is going to be okay, and Josh is pretty sure he’ll be fine. Instead he turns to Tom and asks, “How are you?” Tom says, “I am so terrified!” and Josh leans in with the exact same feeling. “I’m just so terrified!” After the credits, once the drugs kick in, there’s not a care in the world. It’s so fluid how the episode packs on the pathos. Tom just happens to meet a girl and gets her to kiss him. She reveals she has a boyfriend, and he sucks. Her party hypotheticals get Arnold to reveal he didn’t think he and Josh were exclusive. Alan and Mae bring their separation to the party. That’s how nights go too, gradually, naturally getting weighed down. Not necessarily in a bad way. You can only be carefree for so long.
But I don’t mean to discount the more effervescent part of the evening. “Natural Spring Water” is hilarious, and that period where Arnold is happy and warm is no less substantial than the comedown in the hospital with Ella. How rare to see Arnold so free. And to see him and Josh so in love! They can’t stop kissing. And Tom’s sincerely happy for them. He’s so much better as a friend than a boyfriend. After the “Love Is Strange” number, Josh and Arnold are leaning over a couch to kiss each other, and the camera pans down to see Tom through their bodies. He’s just dancing with the afghan, and then he looks up at them kissing yet again and says, “Oh my god, you guys.” But it’s not about them constantly making out in front of him. It’s so much better. “Let’s go out. You two are perfect. We need to show you off to the world like the royal baby.”
They are perfect, aren’t they? They’re dancing and kissing and cuddling all night. Arnold’s come out, they’re living together right now, Arnold’s making friends with Tom (“He’s Josh’s best friend but he’s my friend as well,” Arnold tells the paramedic over the phone when Tom breaks his arm). But what “Natural Spring Water” hints at so persistently is that they’re in the happy-warm part of the relationship.
In between Josh and Arnold kissing, Alan and Mae break up and Ella and her terrible boyfriend break up. In this beautiful shot against the giant glass windows of Alan’s place, making her look somewhat spectral, Mae tells Josh this isn’t her life. “This is his life.” I don’t know quite what to make of that, but if she doesn’t feel like herself with Alan, then it’s probably best to quit. There’s a reason she didn’t want to marry him. Ella’s relationship is clearer. He doesn’t go out with her, because he doesn’t like her when she’s out. Arnold’s incredulous. “He doesn’t like you when you’re out, like out of the house?” She tries to defend him: “No, just like…yeah.” On top of which he never goes down on her. Well, he went down on her once, the day after he cheated on her. They tell her to go break up with him immediately, which he reacts to like it’s been a long time coming. So that’s two failed relationships presaged by cheating. And now Arnold’s getting technical about the boundaries of his relationship with Josh. The possibilities of time travel as well. You could go back in time to fix things, but the fact is we’re all moving at different speeds relative to one another.
The surf breaks in this montage that cuts from character to character at that point in the evening. It’s not schematic. Some characters say one line, others a handful, others nothing. But it’s fractured, each broken tile contributing to the mosaic. Alan’s part is to say, “I just feel like a fool. I don’t know how I ever let myself believe that I could make her happy.” But Tom has some wisdom for him. Alan did make her happy, he says. It’s just that she changed into a person he no longer made happy. People change, or at least they become more themselves, as opposed to who they present themselves to be. Relationships fall apart. Nights end.
“Natural Spring Water” is pretty Zen about it actually. Josh tells Mae he gets it, and that it’s for the best. He even tells her not to break up with him. Ella has to go through the humiliating trial of telling all her friends they were right about the three years she wasted with that loser she couldn’t see was a loser, but that’s not the end of the world. After three pills, two relationships, and one bone, the mood is down but not out. Nothing is ruined or wasted. This is going to be hard but for the best. Alan flips out on everyone, calling Josh a junkie over one pill, but he’s just upset about his own problems, and the kids are there for him. He cries and blows his nose and recovers. And they all file into his car.
It’s quite a closing image. The main idea is that Josh and friends are kids being picked up from the party (life) by their disappointed dad. It takes them from their wild night out to a very ordered end, like they’re getting back on their conveyor belts. It suggests the episode settling back down into stasis, everyone taking a seat and staying put. And it gets them all together, so for once, for right now, they’re all moving at the same speed relative to one another.
- “Natural Spring Water” is written and directed by Josh Thomas! It’s the first episode not directed by Matthew Saville and it shows. There’s a reason for that, the drugs giving us the delirious, restless camerawork at Josh’s place.
- There are way too many great lines in this episode for me to quote them all. My notes for this one are as long as my notes for The Knick, which is twice as long. But I’ll start with Josh saying, “A bit worried that you think making out with sofa cushions is a big part of what’s about to happen.”
- Big fan of Tom’s “Fabulous” sweatshirt.
- Ella catches Tom’s eye while Josh and Arnold are making out. “I’m here with work friends. They keep talking about CrossFit.”
- I love the shots of the back of the ambulance where Arnold, Josh, and Tom are just cracking up about Ella’s interaction with Evan, the hot paramedic. “Attention hospital: Evan is hot.”
- Arnold: “Okay, um, the first thing you need to understand when you’re talking about time travel is—” Josh: “Here we go.”
- Josh: “I would just love to take charge after a plane crash. That is a dream.”
- Among Ella’s boyfriend’s crimes are that he once abandoned her in line for a roller coaster to get done quicker by going separately as single riders. I’m with Ella on that one. It’s not about getting done faster. Also: “He never goes down on me.” Josh: “I mean, fair enough, you know, I mean, I wouldn’t go down on you. But the roller coaster…”