Nathan Fielder’s Absurdly Profound Exploration of Forgiveness | Sojourners

Nathan Fielder’s Absurdly Profound Exploration of Forgiveness

Nathan Fielder in ‘The Rehearsal,’ HBO 

In Matthew 18:21-22, Jesus tells Peter to forgive others not “seven times, but seventy times seven” (RSV). Followed by the parable of the unforgiving servant, the passage is a reminder that it’s natural for us to screw up and hurt each other, even when we don’t mean to. For this reason, we should be quick to forgive each other in the face of everyday human mistakes.

This passage is used to stunning effect in the finale of Nathan Fielder’s mind-bending HBO series The Rehearsal, a reality show in which the term “reality” is always up for debate. It also comes from a surprising source: Angela, one of the show’s subjects, whose conservative evangelicalism and oddball beliefs (she aspires to live off the grid, believes Halloween is satanic, and loves Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto) make her an unlikely font of spiritual wisdom.

For regular viewers of the show, a reveal like this is par for the course, and unveils The Rehearsal’s entire reason for being. Here’s the premise: The awkward, detail-obsessed Fielder stages meticulously constructed practice sessions for the show’s participants to play out challenging conversations or life events, all on camera. For example, the first episode introduces Kor, a New Yorker who wants to come clean to his bar trivia team about not having a graduate degree. Fielder helps Kor prepare by creating an exact replica of the bar on a soundstage and hiring an actress to play Kor’s trivia buddy Tricia. It’s an absurd concept; many of the scenarios leave viewers wondering who would want such a thing.

As it turns out, the person who needed The Rehearsal most was Fielder himself. His interaction with Angela in the finale reveals that the whole enterprise is actually an exploration of the inevitable pain humans cause others, even when we’re not trying to, and our need for grace and self-forgiveness.

Spoilers follow

Early on, The Rehearsal establishes itself as one kind of show before shifting into something very different. In the first episode, Fielder maps out each potential conversation to help Kor engineer the best outcome. The process takes some goofy turns, but it works: After many rehearsals, Kor confesses to Tricia in real life; they remain friends, problem solved. The show’s template is set.

Or is it? Episode two brings in Angela, who wants to practice for motherhood in a rehearsal process that dominates the rest of the season. Fielder has Angela interact with child actors, who, over the course of six weeks, live with Angela in a rented house, playing her pretend offspring from infancy to teenager. To expedite the process, Fielder and his crew age up Angela’s “son,” Adam by three years each week, switching him out with an older actor. This ridiculous setup becomes even more complicated when Fielder himself decides to join in, co-parenting Adam alongside Angela.

As Fielder starts “parenting” Adam, his and Angela’s differing religious beliefs — he’s Jewish, she thinks Jews are going to hell — become a point of contention. Angela eventually throws in the towel, leaving Fielder to “raise” Adam alone. Left to his own devices, Fielder plays out scenarios with his “son” over and over again to analyze and self-correct his perceived shortcomings.

It becomes increasingly apparent that Fielder’s reason for doing this — in fact, the motivation behind the entire show — comes from a desire to control difficult situations so no one gets hurt. In the first episode, Fielder tells Kor he’s divorced. That experience, coupled with Fielder’s innate social awkwardness, created a need in him to understand and compensate for any pain he might cause others (interestingly, the show has resonated with neurodivergent viewers for this exact reason).

Which brings us, at last, to the finale, in which Fielder contends with an unavoidable consequence of his actions. One of the child actors playing Adam, a six-year-old named Remy, believes Fielder is his actual dad, and is deeply upset when his time with the project wraps up. Fielder, at the urging of Remy’s mom, tries his best to help Remy understand the situation, but he also keeps going back to consider what he could’ve done differently.

An absurd montage follows: Fielder re-enacts past scenes with Remy with an adult actor dressed as a toddler, with a Remy-sized mannequin, and with a slightly older child actor with a healthier understanding of reality and performance to see if he could have the same emotional connection without having to involve a vulnerable kid. None of it works — try as he might, Fielder can’t figure out how to make the rehearsal experience authentic for himself without including Remy.

Eventually, Fielder visits Angela, thinking her departure might be a partial cause of Remy’s trouble. He apologizes for suggesting that she wasn’t taking the process seriously and asks what he could have done to make her stay. To Fielder’s surprise, Angela forgives him: “Really, just like that?” he asks. She responds with her profound take on that Matthew passage. “If we have to forgive our neighbor that much, and we have to love ourselves like we love our neighbor, then we also have to forgive ourselves that much,” she tells him.

Angela can tell Fielder feels bad about the way things ended, and she’s giving him an out. That act shakes Fielder and seems to help him realize that conflict is a natural part of life — that infinite practice sessions won’t keep us from eventually hurting someone, even someone we love. Instead of re-running what we could have done better, sometimes the only thing we can do is accept what’s happened, ask for forgiveness from others, and forgive ourselves as well.

Of course, like most of us, Fielder both recognizes the truth of this, while also rejecting it. Part of this is by necessity — The Rehearsal got picked up for a second season — but it also seems like the start of a deeper internal journey for Fielder as he switches his focus from controlling others to controlling himself. As Fielder’s audience, we’ve come to understand that the show isn’t about the conflicts he’s trying to fix, but how to address the inevitable pain our conflicts cause. Fielder himself isn’t quite there yet, but it’s going to be fascinating to watch him figure it out.