Happy Friday! It’s the end of the work week (unless your work week ended on Wednesday), and that means it’s time for the Friday Spotlight. This time, we’re just going to talk about one show because there’s a lot to say – the season finale of Nathan for You. Let’s get to it!
Nathan Fielder’s fourth season wrapped up a couple of weeks ago with a singularly astonishing piece of television. Now, we’ve been fans from the beginning, but this show keeps surprising us. On the surface, it’s a semi-reality series where Nathan helps struggling business owners by coming up with bizarre and elaborate plans. One of the earliest episodes had him creating poo-flavored yogurt for a small shop (nobody was going to get it, but people would want to stop in the place to see the poop yogurt and presumably buy something while they’re there), and it’s only gotten bigger from there. This year, he concocted a plan to destroy Uber on behalf of independent cab drivers but then had to trick a driver into marrying him (under the guise of ordering Chinese food) so he wouldn’t lose his green card (Nathan is Canadian) if it went bad.
And sometimes Nathan gets personal, with episodes like “The Claw of Shame” or an ongoing arc about his own loneliness and inability to meet people. Earlier this year there was an episode devoted to him creating a perfect talk show story so he could be a better guest and then enacting every step of it so he wouldn’t have to lie. Months before the episode aired, he told that story on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, and the episode provided the context for this anecdote. And it’s this aspect of Nathan that came to the fore in the two-hour season finale, “Finding Frances”.
Nathan has frequently used an elderly man named Bill in his schemes, deploying him as a Bill Gates impersonator. Bill does not look anything like Bill Gates, but he claimed to be a professional, and so Fielder and the show act like he’s a dead ringer for Gates. The genesis of the episode purportedly came about when Bill recorded an audio commentary for a Nathan DVD release and “seemed distracted”, including taking a seven-minute call about his phone service during the recording. He later admitted to Nathan that he’d been thinking of a lost love named Frances and hadn’t been at his best.
So Nathan decided to help him find Frances. But with Bill’s spotty memory and a lack of public record (Bill didn’t remember her last name, for example), there wasn’t much to go on. And it began like a typical Nathan episode with Nathan bringing in the cheapest sketch artist he could find to recreate her picture using Bill’s descriptions and ultimately going to her high school and stealing an old yearbook while posing as location scouts for Mud 2. (The original had been filmed in town and you didn’t see it. Neither did anybody in town, since fake location scout Nathan insisted that the sequel featured even more mud and nobody questioned it.)
From there, Nathan set up a 57-year high school reunion in order to try to trick Frances into attending. (It didn’t work.) And when they finally found where Frances lived and learned that she was married, this episode became something else entirely.
We learned a lot about Bill over the episode – Nathan even stayed with his niece while they were shooting. Letters from Frances to Bill, displayed intermittently throughout the episode, revealed a different side of him. Yes, it seemed they were in love but Frances frequently scolds him for his temper and talks about his attempts to pressure her into sex. And when he left her for his acting career, she seemed devastated. And spending more time with Bill, well, he’s a little bit of a jerk. He even lied about being a professional Bill Gates impersonator (which should surprise nobody).
And there’s the first of the big swerves. Nathan hires an escort to spend an hour with Bill (in a non-sexual capacity) just to see how he interacts with women. He needs to be sure Bill can be a gentleman. When Bill cancels, Nathan hangs out with Maci the escort for an hour. He shows her an episode of his show because he’s not great at social interaction. And it’s hilarious. But then when he’s hanging out in Arkansas and there’s nothing to shoot and he’s lonely, he calls Maci again. They keep hanging out on simulated dates and their interactions are weirdly sweet as we see a rare glimpse of a happy Nathan. Finally, at her suggestion, he opts for a more intimate appointment.
We see Nathan and Maci in a hotel room, and we have to watch as they make out and it’s genuinely unsettling. Morality debates aside, it’s super weird to see people actually kiss. And while this is happening, we go to commercial and come back as she’s leaving. So what actually happened? We don’t know. They’re not going to tell us.
There’s more great stuff as it goes, including Nathan booking an actress to play Frances for a series of practice scenes after Bill announced plans to break up her marriage to get her back. And after a number of attempts where Bill behaves very badly, Nathan has them switch roles and in playing Frances, Bill actually learns empathy. It’s an astounding moment. Bill’s story climaxes with a strange and beautiful call to Frances that gives him the catharsis he needs without upsetting her. And then in the last scene, Nathan calls a friend to make plans and he goes back to Arkansas to see Maci. But this time, he doesn’t give her an envelope of money. It ends on a drone shot that recedes into the distance as Nathan and Maci become dots on the screen.
The whole thing is cinematic and insightful and hilarious and breathtaking. It’s this amazing piece of television that does so much based on the thinnest of premises. And it blurs the line between fiction and reality to an incredible degree. See, it’s never been clear just how much of Nathan’s TV persona is actually him and how much is a character. When you see him interviewed, Fielder sure seems like TV Nathan, but now we’ve seen how he constructed that Kimmel appearance. How much of Nathan Fielder is a bit?
He talks about TV Nathan as a character, but friends of Fielder have said that the guy on TV is the guy they know. He was briefly married (the marriage ended in 2014) and that was never mentioned on the show but there are a few shots in past seasons where you see a wedding ring. There is very little information out there about his personal life, at least that I could glean from a Google search that stuck to non-creepy levels, so I don’t know if he was married when he shot that fake dating show with the aim of learning to talk to women. That might have been before he was married. He was definitely either divorced or in the middle of a divorce in Season Two when the private detective mocked him for being weird and called him the “Wizard of Loneliness”, a moment that reverberates through the rest of the series as Nathan looks for a human connection.
Sometimes that search is painful – there’s a bit in Season Three where he’s auditioning actresses for a long form play (to be performed in a bar so it can be reclassified as a theater and thus allow smoking), and he has her repeat the line “I love you”. She delivers it with more feeling each time and the Nathan we see on TV desperately needs even this fake declaration. It’s sad and funny and it seems painfully honest. Unless it’s a bit. And we may never know.
Do the Maci scenes just make for good TV? Is Nathan acting? The simple fact that a camera crew is present makes you wonder. I mean, the scene in the hotel room is a three-shot, so there was some setup. Was it a bit? And when they meet at the end, seemingly without money involved, is that an act? It’s two people whose literal jobs are to convince you of things, and I genuinely can’t tell if what I’m seeing is searingly honest or an elaborate simulation.
And it’s weird because it’s 2017 and, well, Louis C.K. Obviously, I’m not going to defend what he did for one second. But the best of his work is rooted in this deep empathy – episodes of Louie and Horace and Pete and Better Things show his ability to see beyond his own perspective, and that is so at odds with how he treated some women in real life. And that’s a dichotomy even his real-life friends don’t know how to address (see Sarah Silverman’s heartbreaking statement). So there’s a break between art and artist that we as viewers can’t even begin to address, but it seems important to try.
We may never know how much of TV’s Nathan Fielder is really Nathan and how much is “Nathan”. Were his meetings with Maci real or staged for TV? Notably, Maci is the only prominent person appearing in the episode not to be credited, which would indicate to me that she is (or was) an actual escort, without larger aspirations as a performer, who didn’t want her real name broadcast on Comedy Central. Then it only makes sense that we don’t know what happened in the hotel room because it could potentially have been illegal. But what about the end? As shot, it would lead you to believe that Nathan found love, and the real-life Fielder has since indicated that he’s seeing somebody but gave no further details.
Ultimately, it may not matter because Nathan for You and “Finding Frances” in particular is insightful and funny and just a really wonderful piece of television. Whether the scenes between Nathan and Maci are real or just brilliantly acted because one way doesn’t make them inherently better than the other. Either way, it’s a work of low-key genius that expands the idea of what TV can do. What may get lost in the shuffle is Bill’s journey – to us, he was basically a human sight gag until now and once we get to know him, we didn’t necessarily like what we found. But that role reversal moment where he learned to see this ridiculous quest from Frances’ perspective was just incredible. We watched the actual moment in which somebody changed for the better, and that’s a rare and beautiful privilege.
Next week, we’re planning on looking at a couple of new streaming Marvel shows, so we’ll see you then. Hope you enjoyed Thanksgiving!