Season 1, Episode 4: ‘Under the Big Tree’
I rewound the final beat of this week’s episode of “The Curse” immediately after first watching it, and have found myself revisiting it many times since.
Asher is attending a corporate comedy class on the suggestion of his wife, Whitney, a not so subtle hint that he should find a way to be more appealing to audiences now that their HGTV show has been picked up. The instructor asks the group gathered to do something, with no words, that will make people laugh. The results are embarrassing but elicit chuckles. One woman makes a shape with her tongue. Another man pretends to swing a golf club. And then we get to Asher. He’s been waiting with anticipation, and when it’s finally his turn he grabs his ears, contorts his face, and makes a horrible noise. His impulse is so bizarre and unsettling that it gets no reaction from the crowd.
Of course, I found this incredibly amusing, so much so that I wanted to view it again and again, which is maybe the essential conundrum of the character and of Nathan Fielder’s comedy in general. Depending on your perspective, it is either very funny or somewhat horrifying.
This is the land that “The Curse” lives in too, even as it continues to dip further into the surreal. Asher’s little utterance felt like something out of a David Lynch project, as does the cold open featuring Dougie.
The installment spends a lot of time leaving viewers in a state of confusion. It is unclear what is happening as Dougie wakes up in his car, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. He gets the call that “Fliplanthropy” is being picked up for 10 episodes on HGTV GO, but then his phone dies and he is left stranded. The only clue is scrawled on his hand, a message, which reads “under the big tree,” also the title of this hour. We follow Dougie as he begins to search around this remote location. The thought might cross your mind: Is he going to die out here?
He finally finds what he’s looking for under what is actually the smallest tree around, calling himself a “genius” for figuring out what he meant when likely intoxicated. The treasure includes three pairs of car keys, one his own and the others belonging to two people whose names and addresses are scrawled on pieces of paper.
The details of what exactly went down that night remain vague, and are disputed between Dougie and the teen to whom one of the cars belongs. It seems likely that Dougie bought alcohol for some teens and then took away their ability to drive, preventing them from having an accident like the one he had that killed his wife. It is a messed-up form of altruism akin to how Asher and Whitney are treating the greater Española community. Their hearts are sort of in the right place, but what they are doing is also super creepy.
On top of that, all three refuse to take responsibility for their own actions. Asher is still dwelling on the idea of “the curse” and Dougie indulges him, first by showing him the original footage of his first meeting with Nala, which now seems to contain some sort of static sound, and then by explaining that he too has been cursed. How has he been cursed? Well, it’s because he has no other way to explain what happened to his wife. (Except there is another way: He was driving drunk.)
At the same time, Whitney is trying to bury any notion that her actions in Española are harmful to the neighborhood. Shortly after getting news of the pick up of their show — during which the exec tells them to focus less on the people who are being displaced by their development — there is a knock on the door. Whitney hopes it is some sort of congratulatory gift, but it’s actually one of the community members informing her that Vic (Alexander Poncio), who bought one of their houses, is accusing other residents of stealing his packages.
Incensed, Whitney marches over. During her stroll she greets her neighbors by name — she clearly has been trying to ingratiate herself with them for some time. But it is also evident that Whitney gets more out of the interactions than they do. And when she does confront Vic his disinterest in her eco-friendly, community-supporting lifestyle sends her spiraling.
“People like Vic just do not deserve to be part of what we are building,” she tells Asher. Vic probably isn’t a great guy, but their utopian world is getting more exclusionary by the minute.
Later, Whitney strolls into a Sikh community, seemingly drawn in by the faint sound of chanting. When asked by a woman if she would like to join, Whitney replies, “Oh that’s OK, I can just watch.” She stands at the threshold of the room with a pink neon “Always take the High Road” sign, an outsider by choice.
Just as “The Curse” dips its toes into surrealism, it similarly flirts with ideas of spirituality. When Asher tries to talk to Nala and Hani about the “tiny curse” videos, Abshir takes him aside to tell him to quit.
“I had to work very hard for her to stop talking about it,” he says. “And where I’m from we don’t play with that.”
Asher asks where he’s from and does not receive the answer he’s looking for when Abshir replies, “Minnesota.” Abshir explains he doesn’t believe in curses, but adds, “If you put an idea in your head it can become very real.”
That statement is clearly true of Asher. He’s a man possessed. Maybe that’s what explains his gesture in the comedy class.
Notes from Española
Other ways Fielder is funny in Asher’s unfunniness: His air guitar, his “spank you very much” joke, and the old man impression that he does for the girls.