Once More with Feeling

Is Nathan Fielder the villain of his own Rehearsal?

In The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder gives fans a tour of his own murky morality, but where is this all headed?

The Rehearsal is a deep dive into Nathan Fielder’s subconscious. The show began with a simple conceit: What if you could rehearse a potentially stressful situation to see all the ways it might play out? It was a frivolous yet intriguing idea, perfect for Fielder’s unique brand of deadpan awkwardness. But after Episode 1 delivered on this premise by helping a Brooklyn teacher admit a long-time lie about his education to a friend, the lens turned back onto Nathan as he began investigating family life.

Five episodes later (with just one remaining in The Rehearsal Season 1), what initially seemed like a lighthearted take on anxiety and catastrophization has turned into a grim look at self-identity. Fielder is no longer the creator of realities, but the ultimate troll. With one episode remaining, will Nathan turn out to be the villain of his own rehearsal or is he setting us up for one more twist?

Nathan and Angela

Angela in The Rehearsal.HBO

The backbone of The Rehearsal turns out to be a “rehearsal” of parenthood for Angela, a devout Christian who wants a trial run of raising a child. Nathan formulates a complicated scenario where a sequence of child actors are swapped out to fast-track the growth of her “son” Adam. Initially, Fielder also attempts to find a “husband” to co-parent Adam, but when that fails (while providing the show’s funniest detour), Nathan steps in himself.

The Rehearsal presents Angela as an extremely unsympathetic character. She spouts Satanic conspiracies and makes unreasonable demands — she wants to live in a modern home that also has the ability to go fully off the grid. In later episodes, she ignores her fake parental duties. She’s even accused of anti-Semitism after she refuses to let Nathan teach their child about Judaism. (This might sound serious, but it’s happening in a house that HBO paid to cover in fake snow so a fake family can simulate fighting over whether to celebrate Christmas or Hannukah.)

But despite all this, Nathan Fielder seems determined to portray Angela as the victim. In Episode 4, he instructs the teenage actor portraying Adam to simulate a drug overdose, forcing Angela to relive the trauma of her own reckless youth from the perspective of a parent. In Episode 5, after they disagree on religion, Nathan does the only thing that makes sense in the funhouse mirror world of The Rehearsal: He hires an actor to play Angela in a replica of their Oregon house so he can practice a follow-up discussion.

Fake Angela confronts Nathan in a rehearsal for Angela’s parenting rehearsal.HBO

Fake Angela explodes at Nathan with an Emmy-worthy distillation of everything wrong with his worldview. “Am I the silly part you talk about?” she asks. “Is my life the joke? Do you sit here with your friends at the end of the day laughing at me?” As he tries to explain his reasoning, she knocks over a lamp while yelling “Shut up!” It shocks Nathan. As he looks at the lamp, he breaks character and asks her to try a nicer scenario.

Later, when Nathan tackles the real conversation with the real Angela, the reaction isn’t anything like what we saw him rehearse. Instead of blowing up at him, Angela chooses to just leave the show, abandoning Nathan as a single father (at least, within the fictional confines of The Rehearsal). As she leaves, the camera zooms in on the lamp Fake Angela knocked over in the rehearsal.

The message is clear: Nathan wanted Angela to take the bait and become a villain, but she saw right through him. In a video statement after the release of Episode 5, Angela explained that she left because the show had become more his rehearsal than hers.

Nathan sits on the porch surrounded by Hanukkah decorations after Angela leaves. HBO

With one episode remaining, there’s no doubt that Nathan Fielder is the villain of his own experiment. Fielder is supposed to be a dream-maker. Instead, he’s forcing people out of their dreams and reshaping them for himself.

Nathan baits Angela by questioning her beliefs simply to get a reaction, even bringing in a third party who accuses her of anti-semitism. If you’ve spent some time in the comments section of almost any website on the internet, this should all sound familiar. Nathan Fielder is a troll. And in the internet era, trolls are the villains we come into contact with the most.

Nathan Fielder For You

Nathan Fielder in Nathan For You Season 2 Episode 5, “Dumb Starbucks.”Comedy Central

The Rehearsal doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Before moving to HBO, Fielder starred in Nathan For You, a Comedy Central docu-series where he posed as a business consultant to help small companies by offering out-of-the-box ideas that backfired more often than not. Both shows star the same character: “Nathan Fielder.”

Much like in The Rehearsal, Nathan is portrayed as almost a fairy godmother, entering someone’s life to improve it but actually making them the butt of the joke on the show. The goal wasn’t to actually help these businesses, it was to mine comedy from the struggles of Mom and Pop diners, ice cream shops, and gas stations. (In a recent article, several of the business owners involved said they regret being part of the show.)

The Rehearsal takes the criticism that Nathan For You was a malicious show and stretches it to new extremes. Nathan is no longer someone playing a prank on a frozen yogurt shop by convincing them to add a “poo” flavor. Instead, he’s lording over entire realities. It’s as if Fielder is responding to his harshest critics and daring them to wonder what he might do next.

The big finale

Did the original poster for The Rehearsal reveal where the show was headed all along?HBO

So what will Nathan do next? And, more pressingly, what will happen in The Rehearsal’s finale? Fielder knows he’s becoming the villain of his own show and he’ll have to confront that fact. He could even do it literally with an actor portraying himself (he already has one thanks to Episode 4). Ultimately, “Nathan Fielder” has two options: hang up his Willy Wonka hat and cane, or double down on his vision.

The answer may lie in another episode of Nathan For You. In “The Hunk,” Fielder set out to conquer his own fear of women by creating a fake version of The Bachelor with him as the titular hunk. After experiencing what it was like to have a dozen women compete for his attention, Fielder abruptly called off the experiment, announcing that he’d gotten what he needed and was no longer scared of dating.

Now that Angela is gone from The Rehearsal — simulating real-life Nathan Fielder’s own recent divorce — maybe he’ll decide he’s got what he needed out of this experiment too. Then again, maybe “Nathan Fielder” has saved his cruelest experiment for last.

After all, if there’s one lesson to take from this series, it’s that absolute power corrupts absolutely — even if it’s just power over an HBO comedy reality show.

The Rehearsal is now streaming on HBO Max.