The Curse’s “Green Queen” and the Plight of the Sacrificial Lamb

“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”

—Vladimir Nabokov

In Luis Buñuel’s brilliant The Exterminating Angel (1962), a group of affluent operagoers gather in a mansion for some socializing, a late-night supper, and a little bit of entertainment. But once they’ve enjoyed a piano performance by one of the guests, they discover they cannot leave their hosts’ salon. Nothing dramatic—no barricades, hostage-takers, or force-fields—they just all, as a group, spontaneously decide it’s not time to go home. Nor will that time arrive the next day, nor the day after, nor, it’s suggested, for weeks. Starvation will set in, social niceties will crumble, and a closet full of expensive vases will be turned into impromptu toilets, but for better or worse—mostly worse—some indefinable force of the universe has become intent on keeping these people captive, well past the point of endurance.

Buñuel had no fondness for the moneyed elites. In films like The Phantom of Liberty and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, he concocted viciously whimsical scenarios to expose their greed, self-involvement, and hypocrisy. In The Exterminating Angel he provides no overt explanation for why this particular clutch of people are damned in this way, just an implicit suggestion that some power beyond our ken has espied them, has taken their measure, and has decided it’s had enough.

But, if you think about it, the engine of these people’s torment is much more proximate.

In the first episode of The Curse (2023), Asher Siegel (Nathan Fielder), approaches a young, black, immigrant girl, Nala (Hikmah Warsame), as she tries to sell cans of soda in a New Mexico parking lot. Asher’s been filming a pilot with his wife, Whitney (Emma Stone), for a new reality show, Fliplanthropy, and at the goading of his producer, Dougie (Benny Safdie), attempts to show his generosity by giving the child some money, no strings attached. Problem is, he only has a hundred dollar bill in his wallet. After the B-roll is logged, he summons the child back, apologizes, offers to come back with twenty dollars, and snatches the bill out of the girl’s hand. Without missing a beat, Nala stares Asher dead in the eye, and says, “I curse you.”

At face value, that bit of hexing would seem to be what’s referenced in The Curse’s title. The idea is reinforced when, later in the episode, Asher discovers that his Factor_-style order of chicken penne has mysteriously arrived sans chicken, and upon subsequent questioning, Nala claims her curse—based, she says, on a TikTok trend called “tiny curses,” in which the jinx isn’t supposed to be much more than annoying—was centered on chicken and “spaghetti.”

It doesn’t take all that long, though, for a viewer to intuit that Ash isn’t alone in laboring under a curse. The big difference is that while his appears to involve some kind of cosmic intervention (he later finds the vanished chicken in a firehouse bathroom), others have been burdened with whammies that are more earthbound. The TV show Fliplanthropy is supposed to be a showcase for Whitney Siegel, and her campaign to bring “passive housing”—homes that purport to minimize energy waste—to the poverty-stricken community of Española, New Mexico. It never seems to occur to her that the local Indigenous population may not have much use for the boxy, mirrored monstrosities Whit wants to build (fancying herself some kind of conceptual artist, Whit insists that the buildings’ exteriors literally reflect the community). Nor is she all that eager to concede that she and Ash are so cash-strapped that the funding for her project has come from her wealthy parents, a pair of notorious slumlords. Nor does she pause to consider that the, um, “-lanthropy” part of Fliplanthropy (awful name, that) comes not from supporting local businesses, but from importing the gentrifying likes of a Canadian coffee franchise and an upscale jeans store into the town’s decaying strip mall. Whit is in fact so blinded by her saintly self-image that when a wealthy but conspicuously conservative client (Dean Cain, playing, essentially, Dean Cain) expresses interest in purchasing one of her homes, she can’t see past the Thin Blue Line flag on his car to realize that the man sincerely supports many of the social causes that Whit makes a pretense to care about.

If Whit is the self-deluded model of the just-throw-cash-at-the-problem liberal (when the jeans store becomes the target of shoplifters, Whitney tells the cashier to charge the shrinkage to her credit card, with predictably disastrous results), Fliplanthropy’s producer Dougie is all too aware of the burden he carries. Having fled New York in the aftermath of a drunk-driving incident that killed his wife, he puts up a cocky, confident façade, while attempting to slough off any remnants of the Big Apple by bedecking himself in turquoise. It doesn’t conceal what we see: That he carries a breathalyzer in his car’s glove compartment, and that too often it tests positive; that prior to Fliplanthropy getting the greenlight from HGTV he’s been using his vehicle as an improvised hotel room; and that the weight of his responsibility goads him into such bizarre actions as begging Nala to inflict a curse on him, or lecturing teens on the evils of alcohol, then buying them beers after getting them to turn over their car keys.

Ash has his own issues, aside from the phantom chicken curse. He’s socially awkward and near devoid of a sense of humor—taking a corporate comedy course, the best he can do is to bleat like a goat. He is so devoted to Whitney that he loses his cool on camera when a TV interviewer dares to ask a question about her parents, and then to quash the damning footage offers to betray his colleagues at the Tribal casino where he used to work. The security video he subsequently provides, while succeeding in indicting a state gambling official, also shows him laughing at the plight of a gambling addict. And he’s got a micropenis, the reveal of which leads to a cringey sequence where he and Whit make love via the services of a vibrator and a fantasy stud named Steven.

In short, and to put it as delicately as possible, what we’ve got here is a trio of righteous shits. But it turns out, not all shits are created equal.

Per IMDB, Luis Buñuel expressed regret that he wasn’t able to take the characters of The Exterminating Angel all the way to the extreme of cannibalism. However disenchanted the director may have been with the outcome, the restriction did lead to a telling moment in the film: The trapped partygoers, starved, thirsty—not to mention awash in the stench of unwashed bodies and unflushed excreta—have irrevocably turned on each other. Full-on violence is imminent—as is the potential for, yes, cannibalism—when a flock of sheep, apparently stockpiled by the host on the night of the party for some kind of prank (a bear cub is also somewhere on the premises), wander into the salon. Immediately, the prisoners fall upon the passive beasts, not just as a solution for their hunger, but also as a way to displace the brutality they’ve begun to turn on each other.

Throughout the course of The Curse, it becomes agonizingly clear that the friendship between Asher and Dougie, dating back to their youth, was anything but. As they reminisce about the past, it turns out that Dougie was an especially nasty and emotionally manipulative bully, dispensing cruelties that Ash has transmogrified into typical, childhood hijinks. And Dougie has far from outgrown that malicious aspect of his personality. He scolds his friend for never inviting him to the shabbat observances Ash and Whitney hold, despite Dougie evincing no particular devotion to his faith; leveraging Ash’s curse-induced paranoia, he has a whole roast chicken delivered to Ash’s plate when they dine out; and when Nala refuses to grant Dougie’s self-destructive wish, he jealously watches the oblivious Ash entering his home, while muttering under his breath, “I curse you.”

Most dismayingly, under the guise of drumming up some dramatic tension for the series, he goads Whitney into turning against Ash, a suggestion Whit seems not so reluctant to embrace. She’s clearly chagrined at how Ash’s social ineptitude clashes with her carefully-groomed façade of empathy and social awareness, something not helped when she witnesses the video of him mocking the gambler. (In a reflection of the relationship between Ash and Dougie, Whit also has a lifelong “friend,” Cara [Nizhonniya Austin], an Indigenous artist who clearly sees through Whitney’s bullshit.) A devastating failed pregnancy and Asher’s emasculated role in their lovemaking hasn’t elevated Whit’s opinion of her husband; that her father is similarly graced with an inadequate member may also have something to do with it. (And as an aside, let me just say that while I understand that cringe comedy gotta cringe, the whole micropenis thing may be a little too on-the-nose. Or on the whatever… sorry.) So in the penultimate episode, when Whitney insists Asher watch the confessional where she unsparingly unloads on him, we know that whatever way the relationship ends up—and in this case it’s with Ash tearfully declaring his undying love after watching the devastating footage—her well of sublimated contempt for him is deep, and likely everlasting.

All of which may go to explain the discombobulating events of “Green Queen,” The Curse’s final episode.

[Hey. There are significant spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned, me buckos.]

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It starts out pretty much of a piece with the rest of the series. Approximately one year after the events of the previous episode, Whit and Asher are appearing via remote on The Rachel Ray Show to promote their just-premiered—and pointedly re-titled—series, Green Queen. It doesn’t go especially well, with Whit and Ash delivering frozen grins to the camera while Vincent Pastore cooks meatballs and Ray asks questions that don’t especially allow Whit to present the show, and her life’s work, in the best light. Ash, for his part, contributes little except to ineffectually direct Ray’s attention to Whit’s burgeoning belly. Because, yes, she’s successfully pregnant, and due any day.

Notwithstanding the botched promotional appearance, and Whit’s dissatisfaction that their show—already renewed for a second season—has been relegated to HGTV’s streaming service, the imminent arrival of a little bundle of joy appears to have worked wonders in terms of Ash and Whitney’s reconciliation. Whit busies herself prepping an unpressurized nursery within their passive home, while directing the handyman to conceal the control panel, lest anyone touring the joint get the wrong idea that eco-friendly abodes might somehow be bad for newborns. Ash meanwhile unveils a premature and unusual “push” present to his wife: Gifting the distressed home that the couple were planning to flip to Abshir (Barkhad Abdi), the father of Nala and her sister Hani, all three of whom just so happened to be squatting on the property when the Siegels acquired it. And if Abshir’s reaction to the good news doesn’t quite reach the effusive heights Ash and Whit were anticipating—he delivers clear signals that he plans to cash out as soon as the paperwork is signed and sealed—the couple rationalizes it as just a personality quirk of the man, so overwhelmed is he by their generosity.

Secure in the afterglow of their perceived goodness, the couple bed down for the night, after singing a Hebrew lullaby to Whit’s fetus. In the morning, Whit awakens to discover Ash sound asleep.

On the bedroom’s ceiling.

Something clearly has gone horribly wrong. Or perhaps, from another perspective, something’s gone exactly right, as if the universe has noted Ash’s general lack of gravity, and decided to make his shortcoming literal. Whatever the reason, the Earth’s natural pull has been reversed for Ash and Ash alone, and in a brilliantly surreal sequence—this episode, as with many of the others, was directed by Fielder—Asher and Whitney struggle to decipher what is going on. Ash, not exactly mastering the inverted physics—he keeps falling upwards—thinks the newly unmodded nursery is to blame. Whit, for fear of being caught up in whatever sadistic force has plagued her husband, crab-walks her way out of the building. Complicating matters: Whitney has gone into labor.

Things go from bad to worse. Determined to drive his wife to the hospital, Ash—in a turn that would’ve pleased Nabokov—instead winds up snagged in the branches of a tree. Dougie arrives just as Whit and her doula depart, and just before the fire department turns up. Nobody listens to Ash’s very precise description of what’s befallen him, with Dougie deploying a drone to get some second season footage of what he thinks is Ash’s crisis of fatherhood; while the firefighters follow the playbook for a treed bear, sawing through the branch despite Ash’s hysterical pleading. To the shock of Dougie, the firefighters, and a small gaggle of bemused onlookers, the tree branch goes one way, and Ash goes the other, tumbling up toward the heavens. The last we see of him is as he—or maybe his corpse—leaves Earth’s atmosphere, heading toward the infinite. Dougie—once again realizing his own negligence too late—sobs at the loss, while Whit delivers a healthy boy via C-section, all the while inquiring about her husband. The final shot is of firefighters and neighbors milling around in front of the accursed house, as the camera slowly tracks into the mirrored doorway. Cut to black.

It’s a pretty damn audacious finale, and yet, not all that surprising. As Jordan Peele has successfully explored how the separation between comedy and horror can be a mere matter of degrees, so Benny Safdie and Nathan Fielder—the joint authors of The Curse—manage to take comedy’s natural proclivity for hyperbolics and nudge it over just enough for it to qualify as genre television. It’s there in the ambiguity of whether Nala’s curse is an actual phenomenon or just a figment of Ash’s imagination; it’s there in the weird coincidence that the distressed property Ash has bought is the one that Abshir and his daughters are crashing in. There’s shock in the way the narrative takes a sudden turn to full-on fantasy, but in many ways, the show sets us up for the moment long before it arrives.

The question, though, is why Ash is singled out for this punishment? I’ve read analyses that suggest that, with Whit bringing a new life into the world, the passive house has determined that Ash has become a threat to its perfect balance, so much waste that must be ejected. That may be a part of it, but I don’t think it’s all. Something else is going on, something that reaches beyond Ash’s failures and damns all of The Curse’s main characters.

There is no doubt the show’s main trio are horrible people (Whitney’s artist friend, Cara, who has built a career upon putting her Indigenous heritage up for sale to gullible Caucasians, is better only in the regard that she’s fully aware of the con she’s running). But there’s an aspect that sets Ash apart. Dougie is an alcoholic and a cruel manipulator, forever trying to exorcise the guilt over his wife’s death and forever backsliding into his worst aspects. Whitney is in some ways worse, an entitled rich girl desperate to escape her parents’ shadow (while taking their money), oozing performative empathy for her less-fortunate, Indigenous neighbors while telling herself that her pricey glass houses (hey, I just discovered there’s a metaphor there!) are the key to rescuing her town. (And let me just note here that if you doubted Emma Stone’s Oscar win this year, you need only watch as she navigates the various shades of Whitney’s awfulness. Her spoiled daughter tantrum when her parents try to steal some of her spotlight is, in and of itself, award-worthy.)

Both Whit and Dougie are deserving candidates for the universe’s condemnation, so why just Ash? It is, I think, because both Dougie and Whit are in profound states of denial, desperately seeking any conduit that will siphon off the cognizance of their responsibility. Asher is the perfect target: He mistakes Dougie’s meanness for amiable joshing; he looks at Whit exerting a power dynamic over him and thinks it’s love. He’s guileless and vulnerable—the perfect shlimazel—and it would not be at all shocking to discover that, because of that, Whit and Dougie harbor a deep and abiding hate for him, however repressed. He is their sacrificial lamb, ready to relieve them of their sins.

There’s another thing, though. I’ve been saying that it’s the universe that passes judgement on Asher, but that’s not really true. It’s actually Bennie Safdie and, more pointedly, the person who plays Ash, Nathan Fielder, who have condemned him to the void. Granted all storytellers—filmmakers, writers, etc.—are the puppet masters of their creations, but sometimes the creator’s invisible hand becomes not-so-invisible. Fielder’s filmic career—notably with the “reality” TV series Nathan for You and The Rehearsal (the latter of which was more cringe than even I could handle; I didn’t get past the first episode)—has frequently cast him as the sad-sack target held responsible for his social awkwardness. Like Buñuel toying with his hapless aristocrats, like Nabokov acknowledging the author’s active participation in their characters’ fates, you can sense Fielder casting final judgement on Ash for his spineless acquiescence, banishing him to the great beyond for sins that are not fully his.

It’s a rare situation when you can detect an artist saying, “Okay, this has gone far enough,” to their creation. The Curse is a social satire that indicts high-profile do-gooders for their hypocrisies, but it’s also a demonstration of how the artist can make their presence overt within their works, and speak to the audience directly about their feelings. The best of art forms a bond between creator and spectator; with the likes of The Curse, that connection becomes even more intimate.

Benny Safdie has indicated that The Curse could continue on to subsequent seasons, although it’s hard to figure out how that will happen now that one of its main characters has been evicted from the narrative. Then again, a universe that can suddenly eject a person off the face of the Earth is just as capable of ejecting him back. Had I my druthers, I’d be more inclined to continue on without poor Ash, to see how Whit and Dougie cope with their own curses once their convenient whipping boy is gone. I’m not a TV exec, though, I have no control. Maybe you are, or maybe you just have thoughts about what The Curse’s startling finale means, and what could be in store for its characters in the future. If you do, we have a comments section below, ready for your thoughts. Just be cordial and friendly when you post—let’s restrict the cringe to the TV screen. icon-paragraph-end

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