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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Slings And Arrows: “Fair Is Foul And Foul Is Fair”

Illustration for article titled Slings And Arrows: “Fair Is Foul And Foul Is Fair”

“Fair Is Foul And Foul Is Fair” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 7/18/2005)

In which everybody gets blocked

(Available on Netflix and Amazon.)

The race isn’t against other artists. It’s not against your collaborators or against your enemies or against everybody who said you couldn’t do it. No, ultimately, the race is against perfection, against that unattainable dream of the perfect song, the perfect novel, the perfect play. You may come close, but for the best artists, the joy of creation often goes hand in hand with intense doubt and sorrow. Why do you think so many of them drink so heavily?

As I write this, I’m ensconced in the middle of one of the biggest writing projects of my life. It’s a thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and it’s something I’m finally forcing myself to do. But it’s driving me mad. It’s pushing me around the bend. It’s making me realize the limits of whatever talent I possess and perhaps the limits of just talent in general. I know roughly what I want to say, and I have a vague notion of how to say it, but every time I sit down, the words don’t come out correctly. The platonic ideal is out there. Hell, it’s in my head. But I can’t catch it. The more I try to run it down, the more I realize that it’s a phantasm. To create is often to be swallowed whole by that which you are creating, and I won’t lie and say that I haven’t stared bleary-eyed at a computer screen early on a Wednesday morning, trying to figure out a way to translate my pure emotions and thoughts about Slings And Arrows into words that will reflect some of that emotion to you. And even then, I know I will ultimately fail. The words will only carry a piece of that to you, and then, they’ll be filtered through your own perception. To want to create is to realize that it will never be good enough.

Which is why artists get deadlines. Don’t give an artist a deadline, and they’ll putter around for weeks, making little changes here and there, trying to improve on something that’s probably good enough already. “Fair Is Foul And Foul Is Fair” is all about this relentless pursuit of perfection, but there’s also this intense dread of time running out. Geoffrey has only a short while before previews of Macbeth begin. Sarah and Patrick are in roughly the same situation and have yet to even begin to rehearse for Romeo And Juliet. A playwright named Lionel Train hears actors reading his words—words he presumably believed in at one time—and gnashes his teeth in frustration. Hell, even Richard’s insistence that this is all going to turn out fine plays around with this idea. Subscribers may be cancelling their orders to the tune of $33,400 lost in pre-sales, but Richard insists everyone will come around, because Sanjay insists this will be so. All of these are people trapped up in their own visions and slowly realizing the impenetrability of those visions to everybody else. And that? That’s maddening.

Oliver, of course, doesn’t doubt for a second that his Macbeth will be phenomenal. Of course he doesn’t. He’s dead. His reputation is set. Henry, similarly, doesn’t seem all that interested in breaking from what he’s done in the past with the role, even as Geoffrey seethes at him to follow his direction. (The moment when Henry—told that, yes, he’s going to be stripped naked, the blood washed from him by Ellen, in that pivotal moment in Act I—tosses the rag aside as he launches into the scene is one of the most brazen acts of utterly contemptible defiance I can recall on TV. And it’s just a guy throwing a piece of cloth.) Darren is all too comfortable in his towers of concepts and words, certain that what he’s doing is groundbreaking, when all anyone’s going to want is to hear the words of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, performed well. Season one set up these stakes admirably. Success can breed ossification, can breed the sense that maybe you’ve reached perfection if enough people enjoy what you do, and haughty certainty can do the same. But in the world of creating art, this approach will always run into those who long to push further, to do something truly new, even if they crash and burn. Season two directly pits these viewpoints against each other, and it’s immensely satisfying.

If season one often saw fruitful collaboration between Geoffrey and Oliver when it came to Hamlet, season two is seeing the two of them growing angrier and angrier with each other as Geoffrey begins to recoil at Oliver’s Macbeth, which he believes to feature no recognizable emotion up on stage, the actors overwhelmed by the effects. While I’m someone who believes Oliver to be a literal ghost and not a hallucination of Geoffrey’s, he usually does function as Geoffrey’s creative process externalized and come to life (as I seem to point out every week). This season, then, provides a really interesting twist on this idea. Geoffrey’s searching for a new idea. He can’t seem to find his way past the old and safe ones, and everybody else is fighting him on the few ideas he has had. He’s constantly fighting against the safety of the old, manifested in Oliver behind him and Henry in front of him. He can’t quite get across to anyone what he wants. He knows exactly what to do to fix Darren’s show, because it doesn’t matter, but he has no idea what to do to fix Macbeth, possibly because it does. In other words, what he has is very akin to writers’ block.


This idea manifests in the Lionel storyline as well. Having written the “new Canadian play” we first heard about last season, Lionel has turned up for the start of rehearsals, and with every new session, he becomes less and less confident in his work. This finally bubbles over in a scene where Frank and Ellen, performing one of the play’s scenes, are interrupted by Lionel, who tells them that he doesn’t want them to perform the thing as written. No, no, no. He wants them to tell him the story in their own words, to improvise new dialogue, in other words. But Frank and Ellen—both quick studies with their lines—aren’t capable of even doing this. The lines they come up with are at first the same as what their lines as written are, and after Lionel’s increasing frustration, the best they can do is swapping in occasional synonyms or phrases that mean basically the same thing as the actual line. What Lionel is searching for here isn’t some revolutionary way to improve his play; he’s searching for an answer, for a bolt out of the blue that will let him hear his story in a new way. But it’s not going to arrive. He needs to get out of his own head. The problem with being blocked is that it’s impossible to think about anything but the block.

This is what Sanjay—who has some good advice mixed in with all the lunacy—is getting at when he tells Richard to go crazy. He won’t solve his problems by sitting and fretting and worrying about the advertising campaign that might sink the company. He’ll solve his problems by doing something else for a while, then coming at them from another angle. (Granted, the method that Richard chooses, which involves learning to play the clarinet, just seems to extend his suffering out to everybody else in the office. I love how his squawks fill the soundtrack of this episode.) The same principle is at work when Geoffrey sends Patrick and Sarah on a run. He’s trying to get these two kids to stop thinking so much about their worries about what Darren’s trying to do and start feeling the heedless terror that comes from falling in love. He wants them to stop thinking and start doing, hence the running.


It’s easy to tell someone else to get out of their own head. It’s much harder to actually do it yourself. Lionel accomplishes this—though we don’t see if it’s fruitful—by taking Anna out for dinner. The two have a good time, and it would appear Ellen suspects Anna is now dating Geoffrey. What Lionel needs isn’t to think more about this play; it’s to think more about somebody else’s life than his own, even if that life is one lived quietly on the prairies of Manitoba. The thing about your brain is that you can trick it. If you can distract it long enough, the part that’s hammering away at your problem will likely solve it while you’re not stressing it out. Artist after artist will tell you that they have their best ideas while falling asleep or in the shower or while washing dishes, and it’s precisely because the part of the brain that’s cogitating just needs to be left alone for a while. So the rest of the brain focuses on the dish soap or the shampoo or the softness of the pillow, and then… voilà. It’s there, and it pops to the subconscious, like the morning paper landing on the front stoop. And the relief is like nothing else in the world.

Geoffrey, for his part, lands at his solution in a much more dramatically exciting fashion: Ellen just gives it to him, even though she doesn’t know she is. While arguing with Oliver in front of everybody else, Geoffrey finally receives a dressing down from Ellen, who tells him that it’s terrifying to see him argue with an empty chair. And in that instant, everything snaps into place for Geoffrey. He just knows, and the relief on his face is palpable. He excuses himself to go work, because he’s got the nugget, the core, the fact that his life is Macbeth in a lot of ways. From there, it’s nice to see him with his swagger and confidence back. He gets rid of the ghost of Banquo. He reinstates his old ideas, even if Henry dismisses them. He tosses Oliver aside, because that part of his creative brain isn’t helping him one bit. And finally, he fires Henry, because Henry’s not on board with what he’s doing. (He also doesn’t like how Henry turned Ellen against him, but that’s subtext.) That’s the thing about being blocked. It’s agony akin to nothing else in the moment, but once the block is solved, things fall into place just like that. Boom, boom, boom. Geoffrey Tennant’s back, and he has elusive perfection in his sights.


Stray observations:

  • I said last week that I’m not a fan of the Romeo And Juliet subplot, and you can see why here. I get what the show is trying to do—the power of the text is capable of making the gay Patrick fall for a woman—and I’m actually more favorably disposed to it this time around (since Geoffrey’s exercises seem deliberately focused on getting the two of them to fall in love—or, more properly, trying to simulate the breathless feeling of love in the two—no matter how difficult that might be). There’s real chemistry between the actors, and it’s not like the show doesn’t have certain fantastical elements to it, and the series certainly has lots of fun with the plays crossing over into real life. But those moments are usually little winks to the audience, and this is a fairly major plot point. It’s necessary for what happens in the story going forward, but I wish the show had found a way to do it that didn’t seem to suggest some gay guys are just waiting for the right girl.
  • The Ellen’s audit storyline also takes a very strange turn, as she sleeps with her brother-in-law after discussing how she needs to be a strong, sexy woman up there on stage. I actually quite like the scene that closes out this story—with Ellen calling her sister to wish her a friendly “sorry” for keeping her husband out so late—but the whole thing just reminds me that the series seemed to have surprising trouble coming up with stuff for Ellen to do, outside of being the woman Geoffrey pined for.
  • Henry’s such an asshole, but Geraint Wyn Davies plays him with such an irrepressible grin that you can’t help but see just why the preview audience seems to just love his performance.
  • I love the consistency of the world of this show. It may be small, but it feels real and lived-in. Notice, for instance, how Brian’s sitting in the backgrounds of the scenes at the bar, even though he has nothing else to do in the episode, or how Lionel and Anna go to Yong’s.
  • Darren informing everyone that he had been a misogynist, but then he went to Berlin is so great (and puts me in mind of a great line of dialogue I forgot to reprint last week when Geoffrey tries to dissuade the board from hiring Darren by telling them that he had an awakening in Germany).
  • I’m only just noticing this this time through, but this season really suggests that Nahum had become a kind of surrogate Oliver for Geoffrey in the first episode, then has him constantly bursting in on moments shared between Oliver and Geoffrey in this episode, as if trying to reassert the old balance the universe had come to.
  • Another bit of consistency of universe: The teacher who cancels his order is the same guy from “Season’s End.”

Next week: Geoffrey deals with rebellion on all sides, while Anna’s relationship deepens in “Steeped In Blood.”