In the sixth and final episode of the first season of Slings & Arrows, the show must go on. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Slings & Arrows.
In the end, the sincerity of this show is really what gets me. It’s incredibly funny, don’t get me wrong, but even the humor itself comes from a place of truth. With maybe one exception, which I’ll get to, but otherwise? Lord, this was such a satisfying finale, one that made me immediately eager to see more of this show.
I love the motif of haunting that plays out over the course of this season. While Oliver literally haunts Geoffrey, the past haunts Geoffrey. The specter of theater haunts Jack. The mistakes these characters made years ago still haunt them in the present. Which is immensely applicable to Hamlet as well, so there’s an element of “Playing the Swan” that works as a story that is directly in conversation with the play that’s being put on as well. It’s here that the show finally tells us what happened seven years prior when Geoffrey had a breakdown during Hamlet. And for the most part, it’s absolutely riveting storytelling. Geoffrey’s intense love for Ellen was shattered when she slept with Oliver (more on that in a second), though I wouldn’t interpret this merely as heartbreak. Oh, that’s absolutely a main factor in what happened, especially since Geoffrey admits that it was seeing Ellen in the wings that triggered his episode. From that point, Geoffrey made one bad decision after another, and seven years later, he is only just barely repairing the harm. To himself and to others! Ellen and Geoffrey were tied up in their love for the theater and their love for each other, and when one of those things broke, it all became a tangled, complicated mess. How could it not? With such intense, personal feelings at stake, this was bound to fall apart at some point.
Which makes the relationship between Kate and Jack so fascinating to me. It’s clear that Jack running away from Hamlet is meant as a parallel to Geoffrey’s journey. Again, the motif of haunting returns. Hamlet haunts these two men. It’s a production that is so well known that it feels larger-than-life, and after Richard’s devastating comments, Jack becomes certain he will never do it justice, that he always was just a pretty face meant to sell tickets. Yet this time around, Kate and Jack don’t make the same mistakes Geoffrey and Ellen do, and that hopefulness is part of why this finale was so pleasing to me. I love that Kate is honest with Jack while still giving him time to vent to her about how he feels. I love that we finally get to see her struggling with her nerves and pulling off a difficult part with style and emotion. The past may haunt these characters, but Slings & Arrows shows us that they’re not all doomed to repeat it.
Which brings me to Oliver. There’s not much here in the text to give me guidance on how to interpret his role in what happened years prior. For the most part, he stays out of the way as Geoffrey deals with years of pent-up frustration and anger and sadness. Which makes sense! I think that was a good decision to on behalf of the writers. And I want to be delicate when talking about this because there is a realness to what we’re told here. I identify as gay, and I had dated girls in middle school and high school. That doesn’t invalidate my sexuality at all. So, I think you can read a sexual fluidity into this, or you can interpret Oliver’s acts as something that happened before he came out. It requires speculation, though, since we don’t have much information to work off of, so the only possible criticism I’d have here is solely on the writing, not on the idea that a gay man had sex with a woman. That doesn’t bother me because I’ve known plenty of gay men who have had sex with women; there are so many reasons why this could have happened. Did the writers necessarily need to tell us why? No, not really, but it would have been nice to hear something from the character himself, who remained weirdly silent about all of this. I don’t know if Oliver will return in future seasons, either, so I was thinking about that as this episode ended. His last two wishes were fulfilled, so there’s a sense of closure here that could mean Oliver is done. So, this isn’t really a criticism so much as something to bring up for discussion, and maybe it will be addressed in the future! In the end, though, I’m not sure it needs to be.
About that sense of closure, though. There is one criticism here that I have, and it’s because there’s a character who, in the end, sticks out amidst the bunch. The characters on Slings & Arrows are immensely complicated with one exception: Holly. While I needed Richard to reject Holly and her ideas, I was still hoping that this episode would reveal another layer to her characterization. It’s rather one-note throughout the show, and up to this point, I understood that. Richard needed to be influenced by someone who pushed him further and further away from the artistic appreciation that Geoffrey had for Shakespeare and this festival. Holly served that purpose and… nothing else. Also, she basically tried to kill May??? And is not really held accountable for it at all??? In the end—if this really is the last time we see her—she feels like a plot necessity rather than a story necessity.
Other than that, though, this episode is exquisite. It is an incredibly ambitious thing to stage a performance within a performance and have it come across as good as it does here, but seriously, that production of Hamlet looked electrifying. As I mentioned earlier, it was so satisfying to finally see Kate do her thing, and RACHEL MCADAMS IS SO TALENTED, Y’ALL. Which is the point! Ellen has to see someone younger than her in order for her character to continue to cope with the fact that she’s aging, that aging in theater often has damning consequences specifically for women that men don’t have to deal with. (Like the line about playing the Nurse, for example.) I am guessing this is something future episodes will continue to deal with, and I WOULD LIKE TO SEE MORE OF IT. So, we’ve got these deeper character revelations amidst the fact that at the last possible fucking second, Geoffrey and this entire cast manage to pull together a spell-binding performance that should not have happened.
And then it’s gone.
And the reviews are exactly as Geoffrey predicted, and Richard cannot describe why the performance was so mesmerizing, and that one production is in the past and all those actors and the stage crew and the understudies and everyone working behind-the-curtain… all of them have to do it all over again. Jack captured something special and intense and personal that night. Will he ever capture that again? Probably not. Theater is fleeting in that sense. The magic that happens one night might not ever happen again. Which doesn’t mean those other nights aren’t magical in another way, to another person.
But it’s all a bit like ghosts, isn’t it?
The video for “Playing the Swan” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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