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THE CURSE (2023) - A Complete Series Review

(or: You could have a million guesses, and you'd still never be able to properly prophesy how this wild series ends.)

By Jack Anderson KeanePublished 4 months ago 21 min read

"I can't always tell what's real or not when we're shooting..."


Joke review:

If I had a nickel for every time Benny Safdie co-starred in something that was set around Los Alamos, partially dealt with the ruination of native lands by wilfully oblivious white people claiming to be building something for the greater good, and was increasingly incredibly nerve-wracking to watch…

…I’d have two nickels.

Which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice.


Proper review:

Are you prepared for 10 episodes of some of the most sphincter-tightening, watch-through-your-fingers, suck-air-through-your-teeth, sour-face-wince-inducing television you'll have ever seen, as Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie join forces with Emma Stone to giddily bludgeon and tie you in sadistic knots of abject involuntary spasms of revolted cringe and ever-escalating stress, which all adds up to an endlessly surprising, formally daring, bugnuts batshit crazy, and audaciously enthralling piece of serialised storytelling that upends all preconceptions and predictions you might have had for such a project, ending up as one of the best TV programmes of the 21st century?

Then The Curse is right up your alley!

And that's all I can say without giving away spoilers (inasmuch as you can spoil such a profoundly perplexing show as this).

Now, please enjoy my episode-by-episode reactions and analyses I wrote on Serializd after each episode, as I soon devolve incrementally into further and further derangement, driven vaguely bananas by the show's twists and turns and red herrings making me overthink every little thing I was seeing, to exponentially diminishing and inevitably fruitless returns, before the show blew my puny little mind into smithereens.





Episode 1 - Land of Enchantment

If I cringed any harder, I’d tear my own skin off.

(Also: I was so sure of myself in thinking that the abstract, atonal, oblique, perfectly mood-encapsulating electronic score had to have been done by Oneohtrix Point Never, a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin, back to work his magic on another Safdie Brother endeavour as he did in Good Time and Uncut Gems. Turns out I was only quasi-correct. The original music was produced by Lopatin, but the actual compositional duties were by John Medeski, whom I'm unfamiliar with, but am sure to keep an eye/ear on in future, based on his excellent work scoring this show.)


Episode 2 - Pressure's Looking Good So Far

It’s extraordinary how closely the feeling of mercilessly intense, unceasing cringing I get from watching The Curse mirrors the fear response I feel when I watch an especially scary/suspenseful film. Usually, jump scares break the fear tension in a horror movie, and laughs break the cringe tension in a comedy. But in The Curse, there is no release from the pervasive, tar-thick cringe and discomfort devouring every scene whole. At least in Nathan For You, Nathan Fielder gave you absurdist jokes and sight gags and warm humanity from other people he interacted with, so that the cringe was mitigated and lightened. Here, Fielder and Benny Safdie and Emma Stone give you almost zero room to breathe in the stifling atmosphere of dread they’ve conjured by weaponising cringe into a darkly spellbinding tool of inescapable confrontation of their characters’ hypocrisies and inner darkness.

It’s incredible… but I need a breather away from this show for a day. This is most decidedly not a show that feels good to attempt to binge, and that feels completely by design…


Episode 3 - Questa Lane

There’s something strange going on. Like, obviously the entire show itself is disconcerting and weird on a fundamental level, but I mean there’s an extra layer of strangeness starting to quietly announce its presence more noticeably, creeping into the fabric of what we’re seeing and how we’re seeing it.

Ostensibly, there’s an assumption that there is a clear disconnect between the times when Whitney and Asher are being filmed by Dougie’s camera crew, and when all three characters are filmed by the omniscient third person perspective afforded by the fourth wall we’re watching everything through. This distinction should be straightforwardly represented by the different cameras, different cinematography, and different aspect ratios (i.e. digital handheld cameras the characters acknowledge, shooting in bright lighting, with a full-screen non-letterboxed presentation = the in-universe film crew; the long-lensed, grainy film-emulating, static locked-off cameras the characters can’t see, shooting in natural lighting, with a widescreen letterboxed presentation = the third person POV of the filmmakers making this fictional show for our consumption).

And yet… the driving scenes of Asher and Whitney talking by themselves? We shouldn’t be able to see the seams of how they shot this in reality. This is still in the widescreen film-grain-y mode, wherein the characters don’t see or know these cameras are there. If things were relatively conventional with the manner this was shot and edited, they’d cut around the moments where you can see Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder are clearly being filmed through the windows of vehicles driving alongside and in front of them; they’d try to hide the smudges on the windows, and the dark out-of-focus window edges, and the little suction cups stuck to the window’s interior. AND YET… THEY DON’T!

There are cracks in the filmmaking illusion being allowed to break through the artifice, suggesting something even more fucked up is happening right under our noses that we’re not yet privy to.

The very last shot of Episode 1 hinted at this blurring of the lines between the in-universe and out-of-universe camera crews filming this story, when Asher/Nathan unexpectedly broke the fourth wall by looking directly into the lens of the camera slowly zooming in on his face… the out-of-universe camera, which quickly retreats from his stare and is thrust down out of sight by the unseen cameraman. The out-of-universe camera operator acted like an in-universe camera operator, when theoretically that’s breaking all sorts of rules of established continuity.

And it doesn’t appear to be a fluke, either, because now Episode 3 ends on another character breaking the fourth wall, and staring right down the barrel of the camera, with the added editorialising touch of ending the episode on that shot, IN FREEZE FRAME, to really drive it home.

What does this all mean?

There’s a huge implication it all points to, which is doubly hinted at by the brilliant scene of Whitney and Asher trying to recapture a spontaneous moment of reality into a piece of social media performativity, that leads me to wonder if this is something Fielder and Safdie are gradually gearing towards, before pulling a massive rug pull on us as an audience.

But I dare not think I’m so clever that I’m somehow about to outsmart or predict what’s going to happen on this most unpredictable of shows. Hell, this could be a double- or even triple-bluff on their part! Making you think you see the true thing, only for that to also be a lie! Misdirection and sleight of hand, at its finest!

There’s only one way to find out, though.

Onwards we go…


Episode 4 - Under the Big Tree

So perhaps the curse of the show’s namesake was never about Asher’s curse at all, but instead us and them have been caught in Dougie’s curse all along? (It feels like there’s a Twin Peaks: The Return joke/connection I could make here, but it’s a bit too tenuous at this point, so I’d pull a muscle trying to reach that far. But then again, there’s still six episodes left, and literally anything could happen. If the penultimate episode features a crossfaded closeup of Emma Stone saying “we live inside a dream”, that would be the least surprising thing by this point.)

What is Dougie’s curse? And does it have anything to do with the increasingly overt blurring of the line between what’s being filmed in-universe, and what’s being filmed for the written and directed and acted-out story we’re aware we’re watching?

Questions, questions, questions…


Episode 5 - It's a Good Day

A ruthlessly incisive deep-dive character study of Whitney’s psychology yields the best episode of the series yet.

I don’t remember if it was a detail mentioned in an earlier episode, but the moment Whitney says she came back from California made sooooo much about her click into place.

A spoiled rich kid from California (most likely L.A.) who got her wealth and her supposedly philanthropic house-selling venture handed to her by her parents. Parents she wants to distance herself from because they come with the bad publicity and reputational baggage of essentially being slumlords extorting their tenants, but whom she also wants to be seen as separate from because she doesn’t want to be seen as another rich white woman, using the privileges from which she’s benefited her entire life, to play pretend at doing good for others. She wants to be seen as charitable, selfless, community-minded, entrepreneurial, savvy, artistic, fun, nice, and politically intelligent. She wants to be seen as one of the people, one of the good ones. She wants her white liberal guilt to be assuaged and expunged by her supposedly selfless helping of various BIPOC locals, even if her methods of helping do more harm than good because of her shortsightedness and vanity. She can’t stand those she sees as phoney or ignorant or bigoted, even while she’s as phoney and ignorant and bigoted as anyone else, no matter how much she tries to cloak those attitudes behind platitudes of acceptance and respect for others she has no real intent or interest in actively connecting with. These people are only useful to her for how they reflect the image of herself she wants to project, and if anyone should find the faults and contradictions in her facade, they are to be replaced. No one can criticise her house - her art, her work, the reflection of her soul - in any way, even if it’s constructive and necessary to make it better in ways she overlooked. To allow those criticisms is to admit fault, admit to mistakes, admit to being wrong, and that cannot be allowed to be true. Do away with the dissenters, hire new people to say nothing but good things, make them play pretend in roles she decides look better than the real thing, and do another take that’s less genuine, more idealised, and better befitting the ways she wants things to be, despite any protestations she may make about faking things or abandoning principles. The preservation of her image trumps all other concerns. To Whitney, being seen as good is better than actually being good.

There’s even more layers to unpack if you were to go looking, but this is enough for the time being. Needless to say, however, that Emma Stone is absolutely crushing it in playing this difficult character.

(Also: the casting of Dean Cain is a stroke of genius - not least of which is down to the fact the character he’s playing begins as a seeming caricature of your typical American conservative blowhard, bowing to the presumptions Whitney makes about his politics when she judged his Blue Lives Matter sticker on his car, until her belief in her ability to accurately gauge the character of people around her is shaken to its core by the revelation Cain’s character is both pro-police and pro-Native Americans getting fairly paid for their land. I say Cain’s casting is genius not only because it uses our knowledge of Cain’s well-known holding of troubling conservative beliefs to make us judge him as quickly as Whitney does, but also because it’s remarkable Cain would even allow himself to be subtly mocked in any roundabout way for the kinds of conservative politics he espouses in reality. Did he agree to the role because his minor character shares the same vastly contrasting principles and motivations for holding them, or did he do it just because he never turns down a pay cheque for anything? Who knows?)


Episode 6 - The Fire Burns On


By a goddamn CHIROPRACTOR?!

(Also: that ominous ending shot sure seems to portend Asher getting some horrible infection in his wound from the previously-alluded-to contaminated water. This cannot bode well…)


Episode 7 - Self-Exclusion

I don’t know yet if I was overthinking the angle of “blurring the lines between the reality TV aesthetic and the cinematic film aesthetic” with regards to the unsubtle usage of hidden cameras voyeuristically filming everything without hiding their visually diegetic presence in the fictional narrative.

Maybe I was reading too much into it?

OR… maybe they just want us, the audience, to think it’s not important, so that we stop expecting a twist that makes sense of it, and that’ll be right when they do reveal a twist, and unveil the hoodwinking!

Am I onto something… or is this a whole “the curtains were blue”-type situation my brain has unwisely roped me into?

Only 3 episodes left to find out for sure…


Episode 8 - Down and Dirty

So I need to reevaluate my earlier misreadings of what I thought might have been going on:

1) Barkhad Abdi’s character didn’t die in the chiropractor appointment, but god almighty, the way it looked and felt in the moment, I thought he might’ve died, and his death would’ve compounded the theme of Whitney and Asher - two wealthy white people - interfering in the lives of poverty-stricken people of colour in an alleged gesture of helping them, but ultimately just making their lives worse through their ego-blind ignorance. But that would have perhaps been too obvious and hokey a turn for the plot to take, and too on-the-nose in its heavy-handed symbolism. This is why I am not cut out to be a good TV writer: I’m thinking too simply about how one might articulate these ideas in a serialised narrative, resulting in less nuanced or interesting creative solutions than the ones dreamt up by those more talented and experienced than myself.

2) I was off the mark in thinking that Dougie was being literal when he said he thought he was also cursed. This episode makes it clear (barring any subversions that could arise in the last 2 episodes) that Dougie wants the curse to be true even more than Asher, and Dougie wants to be cursed, because then he can have an outside influence to blame for his misfortunes, mistakes, and the spiralling depression always threatening to swallow him whole. If he can pin the reason for his life’s woes on a curse - some intangible, malevolent supernatural force inflicted on him by someone or something else besides himself - he can avoid taking responsibility for his own actions that forged his self-destructive path. Hence why he’s so desperate for Nala to put a curse on him, because he can point to her as the scapegoat for any future fuck-ups he’s likely to make, no matter how absurd and cruel that is to do to a child.

3) I’ve also been wrong to attribute the eponymous Curse to any one single aspect of the story, literally or thematically. Again, I’m thinking too small. The Curse could refer to many things all at once, not just Nala’s curse on Asher way back in Episode One. So what else could the title encompass?

The curse of overt and covert racism endured by people of colour every single day, from those who are proudly hateful, and those who couch their ignorance in layers upon layers of denial, delusion, and passive/micro-aggression?

The curse of existing in America during late-stage capitalism?

The curse of reality television manipulating the banality of reality into a conflict-riddled soap opera that pits people against one another?

The curse of social media incentivising disingenuous performative behaviour for validation and virality?

The curse of pretending to be someone you’re not?

That last notion certainly lends itself to several threads that have been running throughout the series up ‘til this point, and which have really ratcheted up in Episode Eight.

Whitney pretends to be virtuous, tolerant, talented, and nice, but under the barest modicum of pressure, her glowing veneer crumbles, and the mean-spirited, dead-eyed narcissist within takes over to bite your head off. (In the pivotal scene where Nizhonniya Luxi Austin’s character, Cara, reveals what her teepee art piece from several episodes ago was really about, and the meaning appears to go right over Whitney’s head, the look Emma Stone gives in that moment is chilling in its soulless vacancy. There is nothing behind her eyes right then: no empathy, no understanding, no spark, nothing. Cara’s words just go in one ear, and out the other, and Whitney merely acts like she’s listening long enough for the cameras to get the shot. Whitney got the validating sliver of praise for her art that she’s wanted out of Cara all this time, even though she had to put the words she was looking for into Cara’s mouth to repeat back at her, and now Whitney’s done with her, until whenever such a time comes when Cara can be useful to her mercenary ends once again.)

Asher pretends to be decent, caring, supportive, and generally humane, but his cynical past at the casino, his life-sucking void of intentional humour (especially at his own expense), his insecurity over the size of his penis (and possibly his real sexuality, if Dougie’s prodding “jokes” over that gay men’s porn mag are an intentional implication, which would certainly then add a new contextual wrinkle to the previous instances we’ve been shown of what Whitney and Asher’s unusual sex life is like), plus his penchant for sudden bursts of hostility and off-putting intensity, all point to the dark heart beating beneath Asher’s mask of affability.

Dougie pretends to be a braggadocios TV producer who’s got it all smugly figured out, and who knows when to be responsible with his drinking (what with the repeated usages of his own personal breathalyser to put him and his passengers at ease), but we see the moments when he’s alone with his thoughts, and the bottomless sorrowful depths of his depression, and the guilt for the alcohol-fuelled accidental killing of his wife, all overtake his douchey bro-ish image.

Even Cara pretends to be something she’s not, when she’s around Whitney and other white people who she’s either genuinely befriended, or who have insinuated themselves into her life (Whitney likely being the latter). As she articulates when she reveals the symbolism of her turkey-screaming-teepee art piece at her exhibition (which evidently wasn’t just a satirical scene poking fun at the pretensions of the art world), Cara metaphorically slices off pieces of herself every day for others to choose to consume, or not to consume. She makes herself into a meal for others (but mainly white people) to sink their teeth into, a projected acceptable image that’s made to be palatable for white people, even as it tears strips from her soul every time she feeds herself to the whims of what white people expect to see from her. In this metaphor, it’s up to you to decide if she does this with just her art, or her whole life, which then includes her art, for they are both intrinsically tied. What’s doubly interesting with either interpretation is thinking back to what it says for the different reactions Cara gave in her teepee performance art piece. Whitney, a white woman, ate the slices of Cara’s figurative self, and Cara screamed, tearfully asking “Why did you do that?” But then Governor James Toledo, a Native man, didn’t eat the slices, and Cara screamed anyway.

With only two more episodes to go, where will this intricately woven ensemble character study lead us, and them?

Hell if I know at the time of writing this. But one thing is for certain: this episode’s closing shot, of the offensive Native American caricature sculpture getting tossed in the garbage truck and beheaded by the truck’s crusher mechanism, left this curious hollow in the pit of my stomach at the sight of it, and all the things that quietly horrifying image represents.

The dread for what happens next, with Dougie’s curse on Asher bound to manifest in some awful way, is unbearable…


Episode 9 - Young Hearts

The curse of the title takes on a new dimension that isn’t new at all, but has been lurking in the subtext of Asher and Whitney’s marriage throughout every episode, only to be made painfully crystal clear by Episode Nine’s conclusion: the curse of being trapped in a relationship with the very worst person possible for you.

From the opening suspenseful moment of stomach-dropping uncanny wrongness of form - where the establishing static shot inside the anonymous car turns into a proactive stalking shot following Whitney, before the car, its unseen driver, and the camera shooting through the windshield all drive past her, and go all the way to the jeans shop and café storefront she owns, ready for the next scene, with no acknowledgement of the person who transported our voyeuristic gaze from scene to scene - to the agonising cringefest of witnessing Whitney wilfully attempting to immolate her relationship via the rough cut of Green Queen exposing just how pitifully she’s viewed Asher for their entire marriage, this penultimate episode cranks the horror movie-esque dread up to 11.

But then Nathan Fielder ends the episode with a performance that is equal parts pathetic, deluded, passionate, emotionally fraught, and scarily petrifying in its nigh-on psychotic intensity. Asher has been humiliated and shattered like the shards of reflective mosaic tiles adorning the facade of Whitney’s dream house design, and his response is not to flee, but to double down on his continued disempowerment and grovelling subordination, in favour of propping Whitney up into the fame and acclaim she so desires.

Yet it’s Dougie who asked the most pertinent question of her, just before Asher returned:

“You happy?”

And that was exactly what I was going to write about before he even broached that question.

Because she’s patently not happy, is she?

She wasn’t happy having potential buyers voice their real opinions and critiques of her design, so had them replaced by actors who’ll say whatever she wants them to. She wasn’t happy with the version of the show that came out in the edit as a result of her meddling, all toothless and benign and beigely pleasant, like in The Simpsons when Itchy & Scratchy had all its cartoon violence removed, leaving it a lifelessly hollow husk devoid of life and joy. She wasn’t happy having a private funny moment with Asher in the sweater scene, so she had to (unsuccessfully) recreate it in a video for her followers to see. She wasn’t happy with Mark (Dean Cain) wanting to buy the house when she thought he was an evil conservative, and she wasn’t happy when she found out he wasn’t really as evil as she imagined. She wasn’t happy not knowing what Cara’s art meant, and she wasn’t happy when Cara told her what it meant. She wasn’t happy being associated with her parents, so she changed her surname (for all the good it did in hiding her appearance in photo ops she appeared in with them in the past), yet she still takes their money and operates on land her parents let her have to act out her fantasy of philanthropy. She’s not happy when she doesn’t get what she wants, and she still isn’t happy when she does. (How illuminating that she accusatorily tells her parents: "This is what happens when you raise a child to believe in nothing!")

Narcissists like her are pathologically incapable of true happiness or contentment. They exist in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. A state that cannot be truly satiated by anything or anyone. There must always be something going on, some new mess to sort out to make more mess to sort out, and so on and so on in an endless cycle of making stuff to break stuff. Like dogs chasing cars, or like toddlers crying for a new toy, only to quickly lose interest, drop it, and pine for the next exciting plaything to briefly quell their eternal boredom.

Whitney grew quickly agitated with the rough-cut vision for her show that she said she wanted, and deliberately forced the issue with Dougie to put back in the footage of her slagging off Asher behind his back. She self-sabotaged her marriage to feel something, namely to feel Asher’s upset and anger, rather than his typical sycophancy. When she’s not performing the idealised version of herself she wants the world to believe is real, and is left to stew in prolonged moments of reflection and mundanity, she seeks out turmoil and drama and catastrophe, whether she admits it to herself or not.

But from the look on her face in the final moments, where she realises her attempt to definitively push Asher away has somehow backfired so hard that it’s achieved the exact opposite effect, and made him desperately want to be her slavish welcome mat to forever walk all over, Whitney appears to be horrified at the realisation she’s cursed herself to never be rid of Asher, no matter what she says or does to him…


Episode 10 - Green Queen

What… what do I… what do I even say?

I’m honestly stunned into speechlessness.

The Curse finally snapped into the full surrealist horror it’s always threatened to be from the very beginning, and it has unlocked new nightmare fuel I could never have anticipated this show tapping into.

Where to begin?

Well... there were a bunch of red herrings that didn’t pan out into any of the theories I'd cautiously broached along the way.

The omniscient third person perspective glimpsed in-universe, through hidden cameras and anonymous operators and fourth wall-breakings (now including Whitney at the very end seemingly seeing the watcher(s) monitoring her), didn’t get unveiled as something like, say, the entire series being one big recreation of past events, layers of meta atop of meta, like Synecdoche, New York levels of ouroborostic snake-eating-its-own-tail storytelling. From what I’ve heard about it, this even sounds like an appropriate description of Nathan Fielder’s previous show, The Rehearsal. But that (I think?) wasn’t what was happening in The Curse.

Perhaps it was actually the POV of Asher’s spirit going back through time to view the chain of events that lead to his bizarre demise? Or is even that idea too simplistic and literal? I don’t rightly know anymore. This show has positively scrambled my notions of the rules and aesthetics and boundaries of what a serialised television show can be or can do, in many of the same ways as Twin Peaks: The Return (coincidentally another Showtime production) did in 2017.

What else didn’t turn out to be anything?

The wound on Asher’s hand didn’t get infected by the bad water of Abshir’s neighbourhood.

The mysterious man in Abshir’s house in this final episode, who also looked through the fourth wall, wasn’t addressed again.

Asher probably wasn’t using Whitney as his beard to provide cover for a latent sexuality he was afraid to be open about.

Anything else?

And really, does it matter when this finale is A GODDAMN FEVER DREAM OF SHEER ANXIETY-INDUCING MADNESS?!

Because as it’s come to pass, Dougie’s curse was The Big One to be afraid of all along. Forget the chicken-vanishing shenanigans from little Nala’s tiny curse she gleaned off of TikTok… in a moment of jealousy(?) or anger(?) or drunken spite(?), or all of the above, when Dougie said “I curse you” at Asher, it would appear the curse he had in mind was something to the effect of: “Disappear from Whitney’s life”, or “Be absent from your child’s life like my dad was from mine”, or perhaps most descriptively, “Fly off the face of the Earth.”

I am in awe at how they managed to pull off the uncanny, gut-wrenchingly terrifying visualisation of the concept of Asher having his gravitational pull reversed so that he’s stuck falling upwards. The initial reveal is right out of a blatant horror movie, silently, slowly, patiently panning up from Whitney in bed, to Asher inexplicably lying on the ceiling, then back down again, waiting for Whitney to please open her eyes.

Did they use a mixture of wire work, and/or a locked-off set rotating on a giant gimbal, and/or compositing different plates of Emma Stone on the ground, and Nathan Fielder on the ceiling? It’s the only thing I can think of to make the illusion make sense. But no matter how they did it, it was flawlessly executed for maximum clammy queasiness, creating one of the most unbearably tense episodes of television, and one of the greatest series finales, I have ever watched.

And so the whole series ends with Dougie’s curse coming true, him realising that he caused it when it’s already far too late, Asher flying off into space to icily curl up into the fetal position like a twisted corpsefied version of the 2001 space baby, all the paralleling while his own baby is born without a father, and Whitney is finally without the man who was dragging her down, and for whom she hardly cared as to whether or not he was there to see their newborn son. And beyond them, the locals who saw the unbelievable sight of Asher getting flung into the sky, believe it was just some stunt that had to do with him being on TV.

The omniscient third-person glides through the hospital, out through the doors, all the winding way through town, and ends up at the passive house, past the puzzled onlookers and fire department, just silently making its way towards the house’s open door.

Cut to black. Show’s over.


About the Creator

Jack Anderson Keane

An idiot pretending not to be an idiot.

You can also find me on Twitter (for memes), Instagram (for the pictures), Letterboxd (for film reviews), Medium (for a Vocal alternative), Goodreads (for book reviews), and Spotify (for my music).

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