“You wouldn’t do anything good if I didn’t force you to.”
The line, delivered with bitter resignation by Whitney (Emma Stone) to her husband, Asher (Nathan Fielder), may well be the central kernel upon which Showtime’s The Curse hinges. For the quest for goodness—and the attendant motivations for doing and being good—is what animates Whitney; and what is increasingly putting her at odds with her husband-cum-business partner. For Asher, as Whitney tells the camera this episode (!), is only ever interested in the bottom line. He rarely aims to do good (let alone appear so) if it isn’t also motivated by something else. Money, say. Or a good shot. That’s what first got him in trouble in the first episode: his attempt to look good on camera by giving a young Black girl a $100 bill was only ever done to get a shot of him being charitable. And it ended with him being cursed. Or so he continues to believe.
In the time since, he’s continued to try to make (or appear) good for Nala, the young cursing girl who now spends her days trying to will schoolmates to fall during gym class. But that’s long been fueled by a desire to have the curse reverse. Whitney, though, truly believes she’s a good person. Someone who is driven to do good with her money and her business. And now this TV show. Of course, we are inclined to be as wary of Whitney’s motivations but at some level (performative as it may be) she does think she’s a good person.
But we will be the judge of that.
For “Self-Exclusion” asks us to really question who Whitney’s goodness is good for. Mostly through the way she’s working with both her producer Dougie (Benny Safdie) and her artist BFF Cara (Nizhonniya Luxi Austin). It’s from Dougie, for instance, that Whitney first learned that Cara had found a rather racist Native American statue at a nearby mini-golf course. And she uses said information as anyone would: She goes ahead and buys it and then plops it right outside of Cara’s door (while hiding around the corner).
This is deranged behavior for anyone. But such playful pranks are Whitney’s everyday language. We’ve seen her pull these stunts with crew members and even with Asher himself. She’s always toeing the line between the appropriate and the inappropriate, hoping to straddle it to show she knows where the line is but all but cautioning those around her that she knows where she’s not to cross. It’s a way of making everyone around her uncomfortable and maybe—as it happens in this case—anticipate the kind of racist/controversial/needlessly provocative positions she may be attacked for.
Here it’s also a way to talk to Cara face to face and, you know, gently nudge her about the release form she’s yet to sign that would allow Flipanthropy (or is it Green Queen now?) to showcase her work on camera. Cara is still skittish. As she should be, given everything she’s seen about the show (and knows about Whitney’s parent’s predatory practices). But Whitney will not be deterred. Weaponizing her charm and even her own performed vulnerability, she cajoles Cara into sympathizing with her: Whitney shares how she’s clearly lost right now. How her marriage is a bit of a sham. How she hates that all Asher cares about are the financials. How he may be holding her back. How she values Cara’s frankness. How she cherishes that about her friendship. In sum, she disorients Cara, then offers her a kind of no-strings-attached consultant gig all while downplaying the whole release form thing.
Cara is rightly skeptical. And as the camera pans from her to the racist statue Whitney has now gifted her (she couldn’t possibly have left it out in the public; she’d rather Cara turn it into her own artwork), you see her trying to calculate how much of Whitney’s confession (“I’m unhappy in my marriage”) to take at face value. And trying to calculate whether the money she’s being offered is worth the kind of association she’d be making with Whitney, Asher ,and the show as a whole. The conversation may be about how real and vulnerable they are but there’s some canny calculations happening right underneath every line. Whitney, though, seems to have said the right things: Cara agrees to be a consultant (and will think again about her artwork).
At home, Whitney finds even more ammunition with which to feed her rancor. The casino story Asher had been waiting for is finally here: It showed how the casino he’d worked at had willfully turned a blind eye to gambling addicts winning money on the floor (knowing full well they’d be able to keep those winnings). As the local news anchor puts it: There’s nothing funny about this. And yet a shot of Asher (seen from the back) laughing at a gambling addict winning at the slots is front and center. Whitney can’t believe it. She knew he’d witnessed all these illegal practices—but didn’t know he enjoyed himself while doing so. It’s there that she spits the line about him never doing any good unless prodded to do so. Which looks like it’ll become the wedge between the two.
It’s what Whitney most focuses on when she sits down for a proper confessional with Dougie, talking about how she no longer recognizes Asher. Perhaps because they’ve been together for so long: “You start to see these glimpses of a person you don’t recognize,” she says. And, just as with Cara, it’s unclear how much of this is a performance. Is she giving Dougie what he wants? Is she voicing real concerns she has? Is she nicely positioning herself away from him at a time when she can go solo? Is this revelatory or merely for show? Stone keeps us guessing, especially as she’s made Whitney equally clueless and canny, self-aware yet seemingly only when it suits her.
The episode ends with a few more revelations: It seems Whitney is running low on funds (all those credit card charges from petty theft add up, you know?) and is forced to ask her father for some cash. Because, unbeknownst to Cara, it is Whitney who will be paying the artists her consulting fees. Which, surprise, also comes with Cara’s decision to sign the release form, finally! A win-win, apparently. Though what the show will continue to look like as Whitney and Asher’s marriage splinters in the process is anyone’s guess.
- Did you catch Asher looking at his wounded, healed hand as Whitney excoriated him?
- I want nothing else but to watch an extended version of Whitney’s Robyn-scored drive to Cara’s house. Who knew “Dancing On My Own” could so easily lend itself to being the anthem of a woman enraged and frustrated by everyone around her?
- Raise your hand if you know who Rodney Dangerfield is and if you felt personally victimized by that entire comedy class segment—all of which felt a little bit like a The Rehearsal outtake (in all the right ways). Also, it’d take an entire other essay, but it is fascinating how a bit about Asher’s inability to poke fun at his own micropenis (“There’s one thing I’d like to stretch a little bit; my penis”) devolves into a kind of comedy cancellation, no?
- My favorite shot in this entire episode was that of Asher in the makeup chair, seen from the distorted reflected images from their mirrored walls. A perfect encapsulation of the way cameras and other people’s perceptions can warp even our own self-image.
- Speaking of: the Dougie and Asher passive aggressive rivalry is becoming ever more hostile. Seems like Dougie is done being faux nice to Asher, especially since he can’t even get an invite to Shabbat dinner.