Warning: Major spoilers ahead for “The Rehearsal.”
“What on earth was I doing?” Jewish comedian Nathan Fielder asks himself almost exactly halfway through “Pretend Daddy,” the final episode of “The Rehearsal.”
It’s a sentiment I’ve posed to Fielder through my screen more than once. Whether it’s been watching YouTube clips of “Nathan On Your Side,” a segment from his time as a correspondent on Canadian comedy show “22 Minutes,” episodes of his Comedy Central show “Nathan For You,” or his latest project, Nathan Fielder’s motivations and intentions are always elusive. Through the hilarious and uncomfortable situations that Fielder creates, I find it nearly impossible not to yell-laugh and/or gasp, “Nathan, what are you doing?!”
But when Nathan finally questions his own actions in “The Rehearsal,” the tone is notably different. He has just returned from visiting Remy, a fatherless child actor who played the 6-year-old version of his pretend son Adam. Now that Adam is 9 years old and a child actor named Liam has taken over the role, Remy’s work on the project is done. But Remy is still struggling to parse the reality that Nathan isn’t his real father with his deep desire for a dad. “Listen to me. That is not your daddy. That’s not your daddy, that’s our friend Nathan,” Amber, Remy’s real-life mom, lovingly yet firmly corrected him when Nathan visited. Nathan, too, tried to explain that they were just acting, just “pretending,” which Remy seemed to eventually and reluctantly grasp. Still, the situation is raw with heartbreak. “I just want to stay with him,” Remy sobbed before Nathan left. “I still love Nathan,” he later sniffled into his mom’s arms.
For as much as the persona of Nathan Fielder on TV struggles to understand social situations and successfully interact with others, it’s clear that real-life Nathan is bone-deep in the pain and confusion he has caused this child in the name of creating his TV show.
So, what on earth does Nathan Fielder do? And what, in essence, has he been doing this entire time in “The Rehearsal?”
I think it’s teshuvah.
Teshuvah, or repentance, is the Jewish practice by which we recognize and admit the wrongs we have committed against others and ourselves, seek forgiveness, and work to repair the harm we have caused. According to Jewish thinker Maimonides, the process of teshuvah is achieved through stages of confession, regret and vow.
But, of course, Nathan Fielder never does anything according to expectation, even if that expectation is Talmudic thought. Rather, the second half of “Pretend Daddy” bears witness to Nathan’s own process of repentance — in effect, it’s his own “Fielder Method” of teshuvah, which, though a bit wacky and doesn’t always track one-to-one with Maimonides, includes core components of atonement: care, self-reflection and growth.
Instead of continuing on with his rehearsal of fatherhood as normal, Nathan decides to re-rehearse moments he had with Remy as Adam. “Maybe the best use of my resources at this point would be to figure out what I could have done differently,” Nathan says in voice-over, pensively. “To live these moments again, and see if there was a better path. After all, how can you move on from a mistake if you don’t even know what you could have done to avoid it?”
I don’t believe Nathan’s use of the word “path” here is incidental. In Hebrew, “teshuvah” literally means “returning.” In combination with the Hebrew word “chet,” which is understood to mean “sin” but literally translates as “to go astray,” discussions of teshuvah often center on returning to a path of righteousness.
For Nathan, the first step on his path targets a moment from the rehearsal when Remy-Adam ran into his arms and chirped, “I love you, Daddy,” to which he affirmed, “I love you too, Adam.” Initially, he tries re-rehearsing that interaction with Liam-Adam as Remy-Adam, being more distant to prevent attachment. Then he tries rehearsing with an adult actor playing 6-year-old Adam, which allows him to be fully affectionate but without fear of confusing a child-actor, and later with even just a doll.
Even in the absence of an explicit admission of wrongdoing, I can’t help but compare the constant replaying of this moment to the long confession we say together on Yom Kippur; in each “I love you, Daddy,” “I love you too, Adam” I feel a fist to the chest and can almost hear “For the sin we have committed against you…” in Nathan Fielder’s monotone deadpan.
Interestingly, we do actually see Nathan offer an apology in the episode, but it’s not to Remy. Instead, he apologizes to Angela. (If you don’t recall, Angela was the original subject of the parenthood rehearsal with Adam. However, in episode three Nathan inserts himself into the rehearsal as Adam’s co-parent. This causes enough friction for Angela to leave in episode five, allowing Nathan to fully take over.) After reflecting on his mistakes with Remy, Nathan begins to think about his mistakes with Angela, too, and sets up a meeting with her – another step on his path to righteousness. As they sit together on a park bench, Nathan tells Angela that he was the problem, not her.
“All is forgiven,” Angela, whose entire personality on the show has centered around her evangelical Christian identity, says. She explains to Nathan that she is able to forgive him so easily because of Jesus’ teaching to forgive others 70 times seven. Nathan seems to balk at the idea — not because he doesn’t think he’s worthy of forgiveness, in fact, I think he does internalize that idea from Angela — but because the atonement feels too easily won. In its entirety, “The Rehearsal” suggests that interactions with other human beings take work. As this moment affirms ever-so-Jewishly, so too shouldn’t the full act of repenting and accepting forgiveness?
As Nathan continues on this path of teshuvah, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s not just trying to make up for his actions with Angela and Remy. He’s also trying to forgive himself. (An act of teshuvah which, in my opinion, is highly underrated.) For what? Nathan doesn’t say explicitly. Looking back to the first episode of “The Rehearsal,” Nathan tries to bond with Kor, a man he’s rehearsing with, by disclosing that he has gone through a divorce. It’s evidently a painful subject for Fielder, as he doesn’t go into it further. But in the final episode, as Nathan rehearses how he could’ve prevented Angela from leaving, an actress playing Angela continuously rejects him.
“Why do I always end up here?” He finally says in voice-over. “How does this keep happening to me? What else can you do, when you’re trying your best?”
Maybe that’s what “The Rehearsal” has been all about in the first place: An attempt by Nathan Fielder to try to help others change the outcomes of their lives when he couldn’t do it in his own life; an opportunity to work through an act of teshuvah for himself.
In the somewhat unhinged, but spectacularly poignant final scene of “The Rehearsal,” Nathan has decided to rehearse Amber and Remy’s lives behind the scenes of their involvement with his show. With Nathan as Amber and Liam as Remy, the two reenact Remy forming a bond with Nathan (also played by an actor) and what Amber may have done to help her son heal, giving real-Nathan a new perspective with which to think about all of his regrets.
As Liam-Remy sits on the ground crying, Nathan-Amber bears his soul, somehow combining confession, regret and vow all into one. “That man didn’t mean to confuse you, honey. He just didn’t know what he was doing. You know, he’s not that different from you. He’s just figuring stuff out and messing up along the way. Maybe we shouldn’t have done that show, huh? It’s like a weird thing for a little kid to be a part of.”
“Life’s better with surprises,” Nathan-Amber admits, continuing. “I mean, some things you want to be prepared for, but you know what I mean.”
“But you know, what? It’s OK if you get confused. It’s OK if you get sad, because no matter what you experience, we have each other. And I’m always going to be here for you, OK? ‘Cause I’m your dad.”
“Wait, I thought you were my mom,” Liam-Remy breaks character.
Nathan, now fully himself, buffers for a moment. He processes his slip-up and perhaps the implication that he was so lost in his feelings that he was speaking to both Liam-Remy and to the wounded part of himself. He finally breaks into a smile and tears up a bit.
“No, I’m your dad,” he says confidently, though, as always, I’m not entirely sure what Nathan’s intentions are.
The pair hug, and get up to exit stage left. In one final moment of awkwardness to break the sincerity, Nathan Fielder’s tuchus is almost fully exposed to the camera. Then, the credits roll.
I’m in awe of what Nathan accomplishes in this scene and throughout “The Rehearsal” as a whole. Truthfully, when it comes time for me to work on teshuvah, I don’t often look to halacha or word-for-word instructions on what I should do as a Jew or a person. I’m not convinced that I know any secular Jew, like myself, who does. Instead, I take my genuine feelings of apology and put them to action. Entertainment value aside, I think it’s undeniable that that’s what Nathan Fielder has done. I just hope that on his path of righteousness he finds the forgiveness within that he was so clearly seeking.
Hours before “Pretend Daddy” aired, HBO announced that “The Rehearsal” was renewed for a second season. I don’t think there’s any critic or viewer who can accurately predict what Nathan Fielder has planned next. And right now, though I am excited for more of the show, I’m honestly still reveling in season one. It was so human. It was so Jewish. I think it’s impossible for an act of teshuvah to be perfect — engaging in teshuvah is itself a recognition that human beings are, and will always be, fallible — but goddamn if “The Rehearsal” wasn’t just.