‘The Curse’ Showed Just Enough To Unsettle
2:04 PM EST on January 16, 2024
The strangest scene in The Curse, Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s series about a couple trying to eco-gentrify a town outside Santa Fe for an HGTV reality show, is the one that opens its ninth and penultimate episode. A stationary shot looking out the windshield of what one Reddit user identified as a 2001 PT Cruiser catches Emma Stone’s Whitney Siegel leaving her home on the way to work. As she emerges, the car begins to move, seeming to stalk her before driving past her toward the main road. The scene continues on, that same fixed shot, without any indication of who the gloved driver might be, or why they end up parked in front of the bougie jeans shop where Whitney’s show is shooting. That enterprising Redditor did identify other stalker-y shots of Whitney, apparently from the same car, in earlier episodes. None of this is explained. It doesn’t come up again. It’s just another eerie detail in a show that pushes a sense of awkward foreboding to extreme lengths before its out-of-this-world finale. What was it all about? In one sense, I have no answer, because there is no answer, not literally. All we’re left with is the feeling we get from it, that particularly unsettled sensation.
At the end of the series finale, after Whitney’s husband Asher, played by Fielder, is literally flung up into space, onlookers have gathered to take in the aftermath. “So it’s for TV?” asks one man trying to piece together what happened. It’s all for TV, of course. We are the observers, and observation is everything in The Curse. The series’ voyeuristic perspective—taking inspiration from the original Candid Camera, the show was shot with long lenses from long distances, often through objects and clutter—is what enlivens everything. Like some twisted TV rendition of Schrödinger's cat, the variables of the characters’ lived realities and all their social interactions only exist to the extent we glimpse them, and how we glimpse them informs everything about our understanding.
When Asher jokes in the finale, “Watch it, pal,” to the camera operator from Rachael Ray unhooking a lav mic from Whit’s shirt, the awkwardness surrounding his bad joke and even worse delivery is enough to make you want to crawl into a corner and die. But stepping back, it’s worth considering the reality of that interaction—so far as speculating about the reality of fiction allows—and how each character perceives it. For Asher, ever the neurotic, it’s a moment he’ll probably remember and stew over until his dying day (he won’t have to live with it very long as it turns out). For the camera operator, though? Doubtful she’ll remember it at all. Most importantly, though, we’ll remember it, because we were shown it, from a distance like the creeps we are, with weirdo music scoring the moment. The experience of watching the show, often too palpably uncomfortable to even let out a laugh, is the point. The Curse is about what we see and how we see it.
The what of the show is the characters. Primarily Whit, Asher, and his friend and producer Dougie, played by Safdie. A trio of often well-intentioned, awful people whose imposition on the troubled suburb of Española, New Mexico and on each other serves as the show’s dramatic heart. Aware of their positions of privilege, the characters over and under-compensate, their actions ultimately breeding unintended consequences for themselves and everyone they meet. The satire is often plain. When Whit arrives at the jeans store in an earlier episode to discover a shoplifter being manhandled by police, her social media-influenced horror at the justice system prompts her to make a new rule: instead of arresting shoplifters, the checkout girl should just charge her credit card for the stolen items. If you’ve seen even one movie before, you know how this is all going to go. But for Whit, it’s a terrible shock when, later in the season, an employee from the store shows up at her door with a bunch of friends and guns, ready to take action against the now rising amount of theft at the strip mall. Her attempt to be a Good Person has backfired miserably, not just because it was unfeasible or backed by bad moral judgment, but because it was ill-considered. Whit didn’t take into account the lived realities of the people around her, because she was more concerned with perception than anything material. As the star of an HGTV show called Flipanthropy and the daughter of slumlords, being consumed by perception only makes sense.
The curse referenced in the show’s title comes early, in its first episode, when Asher gives a child street vendor named Nala a $100 bill as B-roll footage for their reality show. He didn’t actually intend to give her that much money, so when the scene is over, and he goes to retrieve the money, she places a curse on him. Whether or not the curse is real is unclear, even in light of Asher’s fantastical fate in the finale, when gravity gets flipped on him and he literally falls upward, into the heavens. Of course, the reality of the curse is hardly the point. The words, “I curse you,” linger over Asher for the rest of the series. The indignities of his life—his social awkwardness, his flailing marriage, his micropenis—suddenly occupy a haunted space in his mind. Is some external force bent on wrecking his reality?
In the penultimate episode, Asher is confronted by another reality. For a chunk of the season, Dougie has been manipulating his stars into providing more drama for Flipanthropy, guiding Whitney toward a divorce, to shake things up. Their marriage feels like a sham anyway, what could it hurt? After first presenting Asher with a straightforward edit of the show, Whit demands that he play the other cut. The divorce cut. Rather than break Asher’s will, the revelation emboldens him. He realizes—decides?—in that moment that he’s the problem, it’s him. His wife is the truest and best thing in his life, and now that he knows her inner thoughts, he is ready to become the man she needs. The fact that he was just presented with two utterly conflicting “realities” doesn’t occur to him. Neither does the fact that he can’t ever actually know his wife’s inner life, or anyone’s.
Zooming out, the same is true of us as spectators. What we know is only what we see, but what we see is mediated, it’s filtered, and it’s fundamentally false. Scenes that go on way too long, allowing us to luxuriate in the natural awkwardness of human interaction, are a choice within a fictional conceit. The characters are but playthings, not unlike the “real” residents of Española, who become the subjects of Flipanthropy. Their internal realities remain a mystery, coloured only by perception. Near the end of the show, when Asher decides to give a house they own to Nala’s family, who have been squatting there for years, he and Whit approach it like a scene from their show. They arrive at the door to be greeted by Nala’s father Abshir, played by Barkhad Abdi, and give him the key and a set of decorative bowls, housed in beautiful mahogany boxes. His reaction? Barely there. Abshir is more interested in whether they’ll cover his property taxes for the rest of the year and how soon they can sign over the house. A friend skulks around behind him, catching Whit’s attention. There’s not much gratitude, or even emotion displayed. When Abshir appears to cry, it turns out he just had some dust in his eye. He’s not going to be a part of Whit and Asher’s attempt to craft a rosy reality for themselves, because he’s not some low-down character needing of uplift from a pair of saviors. He’s his own person, with his own stuff going on.
Asher’s demise in the finale, flying into the sky after waking up on the ceiling, comes just as his wife gives birth to their first child. In the moments after the delivery, Whitney seems perfectly content for maybe the first time in the whole series. Her husband is no longer necessary. He had told her in the episode before that when she no longer wanted him around, she wouldn’t even need to tell him. He’d be gone. And so he’s gone. Flung into space and out of the narrative. The comic-nightmare of his life is over. Of course, the narrative carries on. There’s a child to raise. There’s his friend Dougie, left feeling guilty and despondent over his actions. There’s the city of Española, chugging along in the face of very real economic problems. There’s that mysterious person, the one with the gloves, driving that car. Stalking Whitney? Just another local resident whose proximity to her is just coincidence? We cannot know. The Curse doesn’t give us anything more than what we see and how we see it.