Unpacking 'The Curse'
A deep-dive into the brilliant miniseries from Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie.
THIS POST CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR THE CURSE.
The Curse, the absolutely bonkers-brilliant miniseries that concluded earlier this month, is the first collaboration between Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie - but as a pairing, they make perfect sense. Though the tones of their respective prior work are extremely different, what they were actually doing within that work was oddly similar. They are both Masters of the Uncomfortable.
Fielder is best known as the co-creator and star of the Andy Kaufman-esque comedy series Nathan for You. Each episode chronicled the real-world attempts of a consultant, also named Nathan Fielder, as he attempted to help a different small business grow - the schtick being that Fielder’s ideas were always hilariously awful, and the small business owners were unaware that “Nathan Fielder” the consultant was actually an actor named Nathan Fielder (in Fielder’s defense, he was always hired via a Craigslist ad, and who the hell hires a business consultant on Craigslist?). The humor derived from a number of things, including the business owners’ cluelessness and the satirization of capitalist management tactics and reality shows centered on an alleged expert coming in and helping people avert some disaster (Kitchen Nightmares, Bar Rescue, Nanny 911, etc.). But the most magnificent aspect of it, by far, came from Fielder’s unwavering commitment to the bit: he can say these completely ridiculous, embarrassing things with total conviction, thereby creating some of the most hilariously-awkward and tension-filled encounters imaginable (as I said, Andy Kaufman would have been way into Nathan for You). It’s kind of amazing that he got through the show’s four seasons without ever being murdered.
Which is why “Nathan Fielder” would actually have made a good protagonist in a movie made by the Safdie Brothers, of which Benny was, until recently, one half (you may also know him from playing Edward Teller in Oppenheimer). Benny and Josh Safdie’s most well-known films, Good Time and Uncut Gems, are both about total schmucks who are obviously doomed from the moment we meet them. The Safdies’ gift is to wring tension from watching said schmucks make a seemingly-endless series of patently-terrible decisions; we keep wondering when their poor choices will finally catch up with them, and the Safdies allow that pressure to build and build and build until it finally bursts right when we least expect it. It’s a feeling akin to watching an inevitable car wreck in super-duper-slow motion, panic attacks stretched out like victims on the rack for two solid hours (the highest compliment I can pay them is that their work makes me uncomfortable to such a strong degree that I initially missed the amount of the skill it takes to so effectively make the viewer’s skin crawl).
Fielder directed seven of the show’s ten episodes, but the general structure of the The Curse is that of a sadomasochistic Safdie story. It follows Asher Siegel (Fielder) and his wife, Whitney (Emma Stone), who are simultaneously making eco-friendly homes in Española, New Mexico and documenting that process for a HGTV reality show, Fliplanthropy, which is being directed by Asher’s childhood buddy, Dougie (Safdie). And these three are, indeed, total schmucks who are obviously doomed from the moment we meet them, and they do, in fact, make a seemingly-endless series of patently-terrible decisions under the chickens come home to roost.
Whitney’s parents are slum lords, and as you can probably guess from the title of her and Asher’s reality show, she fancies herself an ally when she’s actually a Karen. She lies to herself and others about her participation in gentrification, and while she has converted to Judaism at Asher’s behest, her grasp of the religion is less-than-stellar (she praises Asher for doing a good deed by telling him “It’s a mishegoss,” when what she clearly means is “It’s a mitzvah”). She also designs the eco-friendly homes, which are supposed to be completely self-sustaining - i.e., they create as much energy as they use - and which, tellingly, all have reflective exteriors, kind of like warped funhouse mirrors. At first, you assume that the homes need these mirrored surfaces to gather solar power or whatever, but you eventually learn that, no, it’s an aesthetic choice, not a necessity. Both Whitney and her creations reflect distorted realities.
Dougie is unethical and manipulative, filming people without their knowledge or permission and going out of his way to create drama as fodder for the show. Furthermore, he refuses to take any responsibility for the tragic death of his wife, who perished in a car accident, while he was driving, drunk. Yet it’s clear that he doesn’t truly feel unburdened by guilt. He reveals most of his and his wife’s friends stopped speaking to him after the accident, and when he can’t find anyone to hang out with one night, we see him crying alone in his room. In another scene, he’s telling a date all about his wife’s death. At the end of the date, she wants to order an Uber for herself, but he absolutely insists on driving her home even though he’s had a few drinks… except then, mid-ride, he uses his own breathalyzer to determine that his blood alcohol content is above the legal limit, pulls over the car, and tells his date they can walk the remaining distance. While some would surely find this annoying (given that she didn’t ask for a ride in the first place), the date professes, earnestly, to appreciate his thoughtfulness - and he looks so uncomfortable as she tells him this, you’d think he’d just drank orange juice immediately after brushing his teeth. He desperately wants a genuine human connection, but also will not allow himself to have a genuine human connection, presumably because he feels he doesn’t deserve a genuine human connection… which all circles back around, thematically, to his filming people on the DL and manufacturing conflict.
As for Asher, he’s… well, he’s Nathan Fielder. He makes Larry David look like Emily Post. He is just absolutely incapable of staying out of his own way, and, like Dougie and Whitney, completely lacks self-awareness. He loses his temper with a reporter in the middle of filming an interview, and then tries to get that reporter to not air the interview by offering her a juicy scandal about a Indigenous American-owned casino where he was once employed, and then he has to bend over backwards and stab a former co-worker in the back to get the proof he needs to verify the scandal, and oh did I mention that the scandal involves work he himself did to enable gambling addicts so the casino could profit? Whitney is lying to herself about being an altruistic Samaritan, but Asher might be even worse, because he knows he’s not authentically selfless. He’s putting on an act for Whitney’s sake (and you kinda understand why - it’s implied that she’s not sexually attracted to him, and when their marriage threatens to splinter, she’s the one in danger of leaving, not the other way around).
In fact, the show’s very title comes from a scene where Asher LITERALLY acts for Whitney’s sake, giving an underprivileged child $100 on camera and then taking it back as soon as he (believes) they’ve stopped rolling; the child curses him, and as life starts going sideways for our trio of primary characters, you spend the rest of the show wondering if, somehow, the curse actually worked.
As in a Safdie Brothers joint, these less-than-likable people’s consistently ill-conceived choices build and build and build, like air filling a balloon, until the balloon’s flesh is so taut the viewer feels like surely it will explode soon, which it finally does, abruptly and without warning.
I do not mean to imply that Benny Safdie was the dominant creative force behind The Curse. The series differs from the Safdies’ films in some key ways. Visually, the Safdies’ stuff is very much influenced by Noo Yawk movies of the 1970s - Mean Streets, The French Connection, various Sidney Lumet films, etc. - but The Curse has been filmed as though it were actually directed by Dougie: almost every shot is at a remove, the characters partially obscured by some random object in the frame, as though the cameras might not be invisible to the characters and it’s all being captured surreptitiously. Tonally, it’s also much funnier than cinéma de Safdie has been to date, although that humor will likely induce more wry chuckles than loud guffaws.
And then there’s the manner in which that big ol’ balloon burst finally arrives. I guarantee that you will not see it coming, and I guarantee that it is like nothing in any Safide Brothers movie. I’m not quite sure I understand its meaning entirely, but I am quite sure I’ve been thinking about it obsessively since having seen it almost two weeks ago, which, if nothing else, speaks to its power.
FULL SPOILERS FOR THE CURSE FROM HERE ON OUT.
So basically, about halfway through the final episode, Asher and Whitney are lying in bed. Whitney is now nine months pregnant, and Asher is using this little light to project an image of the Earth onto her belly (a globe on a globe) while he sings to the fetus inside. He looks up at Whitney, smiles, and tells her, “There’s a little me inside you.”
And then, in the morning, Asher inexplicably wakes up on the ceiling.
Whitney tries to get him down, but she cannot. Gravity has inverted for Asher, and there’s no explanation as to why.
Again: there’s no way you saw this event coming. You couldn’t have. The show may have previously pondered whether or not curses can be real, but at no point did it suggest that the laws of physics might be malleable. But for Asher, and for Asher alone, up is now down and down is now up.
And then in the middle of the little conundrum, Whitney, who is nine months pregnant, goes into labor.
Asher is convinced that whatever is causing him to float upwards is coming from inside the house, so he crawls along the ceiling to the front door and tries to get himself outside, but he remains plastered to the top of an archway just outside the front door. Whitney’s doula shows up - a rather large man in a yarmulke - and he pulls Asher out from the archway… at which point Asher immediately flies further up, like a balloon. The doula tries to keep hold of Asher, but he can’t - the force pulling Asher skyward is simply too strong - and so he lets go, and Asher clings to a tree branch, desperate not to ascend any further.
So the doula takes Whitney to the hospital to give birth via C-section while Asher is stuck up in this tree, clinging on for dear life. Dougie shows up and doesn’t believe that gravity has inverted for Asher - he thinks Asher has climbed up the tree as some sort of reaction to being afraid of fatherhood. Asher begs him to call for help, which he does, but not until he has first called one of the reality show’s crew members to bring a drone so they can film the whole ordeal.
The fire department finally shows up, and they don’t believe Asher, either - they think he’s having some kind of mental breakdown - so they saw through the tree branch while he screams and begs them not to, terrified he’s going to float away…
…which is exactly what happens - except he doesn’t float so much as he SOARS, the way one would have leaping from an airplane, but in the exact opposite direction. Meaningfully, his speedy journey into the upper atmosphere is intercut with Whitney’s C-section; the couple’s baby emerges from the womb just as Asher’s suffocated corpse, curled in the fetal position, emerges into space, where it will presumably drift through the cosmos for eternity.
Dougie is completely wrecked and basically carries out the same cycle of behaviors in which we’ve watched him engage since the beginning of the series. He breaks down into tears and starts saying “I’m sorry!” over and over and over again, because once again, he has gotten someone he loves killed… but then, when his fellow crew member offers him a supportive hug, he pushes the guy away and insists he wants to be left alone. Dougie is clearly never going to forgive himself or allow for an emotional connection with another human being. Like Asher, he is now adrift in a sea of nothing, even if his void is a metaphorical one, and not the actual vast black of the universe.
Whitney, meanwhile, does not seem particularly concerned with the whereabouts of her husband. She is last seen in the hospital, smiling gently but warmly after having just held her child for the first time. In all of the time we’ve spent wit her, this, perhaps, is the first and only instance of her being completely sincere and in touch with herself.
Asher and Whitney’s neighbors, meanwhile, rubberneck the aftermath of Asher’s demise, and, knowing about his involvement with a HGTV show, decide it must all just be some stunt for television.
Now, that all happens in the space of about thirty minutes, but there’s a LOT to unpack there. Someone can, should, and probably will write an entire book carefully dissecting all ten hours of The Curse from start to finish.
But it’s clear that Fielder and Safdie are drawing some parallel between Asher’s death and the baby’s birth. Remember - just the night before, he was projecting the Earth onto Whitney’s pregnant stomach. His flying off into space as their baby is born is simply not a coincidence. It means… something.
If you read my work regularly, you’ve likely noticed my obsession with Stanley Kubrick. I apologize for bringing up the greatest director who lived yet again, but… it’s absolutely impossible for me to see an image of someone in the fetal position floating through space and not think of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Especially when the storytellers are drawing such a direct line to a literal newborn baby.
Now. 2001 is very much about evolution - it starts with apes discovering how to make crude tools and weapons, fer cryin’ out loud. And Asher has, during the course of The Curse, very much evolved. Whether that evolution is a net positive or not is kinda up for debate; on the one hand, he wasn’t a good guy, but on the other hand, he has remolded himself to be Whitney’s ideal, so he hasn’t evolved into a good guy so much as he has into a guy who does good things for the wrong reasons - e.g., he gives a poor family as a house specifically “as a gift to Whitney,” not as a gift to the poor family that needs a house. (Which is itself a whole bag of feral philosophical cats… like, do your motivations actually matter? What does the family who can’t afford a home care why someone suddenly gifts them a home? But that’s an entire other discussion.) Point being, if Whitney and Dougie’s arcs bring them closer to being their authentic selves Asher’s arc repels him his authentic self and, ultimately, quite literally the entire world (in fact, the last time we see Whitney, she’s laying down, and the last time we see Dougie, he’s sitting on the ground - they’re both very specifically closer to the Earth, the exact opposite of Asher).
He gets to try again - or, at least, his DNA does. Because as he said to Whitney: “There’s a little me inside you.” And the show has just gone out of its way to create a connection between Asher’s death and his child’s birth.
Whether or not we’re meant to believe that Asher is literally reincarnated as his own child or reborn in a more philosophical sense… there is clearly some connection there.
Such metempsychosis itself may be, in the eyes of the show, a less-than-awesome occurrence.
After our last glimpse of Asher’s body drifting in space, the visual style of The Curse completely changes. Suddenly, everything is seen through a hovering, drifting, kind of omniscient POV - we could very well be seeing things through the eyes of Asher’s soul. We’re back at the hospital; then we’re out the doors, on the highway; then we’re back at Asher and Whitney’s home, listening to the neighbors speculate that this was all staged (even in death, Asher is denied authenticity!); and then, finally, in the very last shot of the show…
…we re-enter the goddamn house.
What the hell does THAT mean?
Well… you could interpret it to mean that we, the viewer, are literally still stuck within this hermetically sealed home that kind of reflects reality but doesn’t, really. Or you could interpret it to mean that Asher’s soul is stuck in the house. Or that the reincarnated Asher is going to repeat all the original Asher’s mistakes. Or maybe it really is just about him getting a second chance; maybe that do-over can only be achieved by returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak. But maybe reincarnation IS the curse!
I don’t know!!! But that’s part of what makes The Curse so incredible. Like a lot of the best narratives in film, television, theater, and literature - like, say, I dunno, 2001: A Space Odyssey, just to name one example - The Curse both tells a satisfying story AND leaves the viewer with a LOT to ponder. Every show should be such a… ahem… curse.