Title: Who’s Got the Pain?
Worth a Second Look: The Use of the Rehearsal Studio
This episode used the rehearsal studio to show the way intimate spaces—and intimacy, by extension—can be alternately exciting and stifling. When you’re first falling in love with someone, the idea of being alone in a room with them is thrilling, but when things are going poorly, those same spaces that once sheltered a growing attraction can make you feel trapped with no way out.
Bob and Gwen met in a rehearsal studio, and that first meeting changed their lives—and the course of musical theater history. It was a meeting between two soul mates who didn’t take long to figure out that’s what they were; you could see it developing as soon as Gwen realized Bob was choreographing a striptease and as soon as Bob saw Gwen hit that burlesque pose. What started as two people trying to get the upper hand quickly morphed into a dynamic partnership all in the course of a few counts of 8. Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams brilliantly conveyed the initial tension dissolving as they discovered their shared experiences using the language they knew best: dance. With just one pose, Gwen opened the door to her burlesque past, and with one shake of his shoulders, Bob did the same. Alone in an isolated space, they couldn’t hide, but instead of being afraid of the vulnerability that comes with intimacy, they embraced it. They grew more comfortable—with Gwen adding bits of herself to the choreography—creating something together as partners minutes into their first meeting. And the way Rockwell and Williams played the excitement of two people finding a kindred spirit was electric. The moment after she finished the choreography and sprang up in front of him, breathless with exertion and joy, was magical. It was the most fun kind of foreplay—a perfectly matched pair riding the high of love at first dance.
The highs of that scene, though, were matched in brilliant execution by the lows of the moment Bob cornered Gwen in the small room off the main rehearsal studio after she discovered his wife was dying. The heat and playful passion of that first time alone together had faded to the point where Gwen seemed almost like a wounded animal in a cage with a predator. Just like before, they couldn’t hide from each other, but that wasn’t exciting anymore. The shift in tone was breathtaking and brilliant—with even the camera closing in tighter to emphasize the way intimacy can be claustrophobic at times.
The final scene with Bob and Gwen (essentially) alone in a rehearsal studio felt like a mixture of the previous two scenes. It lacked the overt sexual tension and playful energy of their first meeting but it also felt less stifling than Bob’s cornering of Gwen as she got ready to rehearse. Instead, it spoke to the lived-in intimacy of two people who are most at home with each other. As Bob spoke about art being about pain, the close-up on Gwen’s face said it all: She’d made her choice. Alone with Bob—away from everything and everyone else—it was impossible to ignore the singular understanding they had between them and the rarity of their partnership. And no matter how bad it got between them, things would continue to make sense when it was just them in a rehearsal space, away from the other influences and other women and focused on the magic that happened when they were left alone to dance.
Star Supporting Player: Susan Misner as Joan McCracken
As soon as I saw Misner, I yelled at my computer screen, “Sandra Beeman!” Only after watching the episode and doing my research did I discover that Misner is also an incredibly accomplished dancer (who killed it in one of my favorite cinematic dance scenes of all time!), and now I’m devastated that we didn’t get to see any flashbacks of Joan dancing. (Maybe later? Please?) But even without dancing, Misner proved why she was chosen for the part of Bob Fosse’s dying but determined second wife. She has a quiet strength that was perfect for a star who knew that her career, marriage, and life were fading away but who also refused to be seen as anything close to pathetic. Her scene with Williams gave me goosebumps, and the way she shot down Bob’s “It’s complicated” with a deadpan “It’s not” was perfect. I want so much more of this character, and that’s when you know an actor did a good job.
Michelle Williams Moment of the Week: “I can’t take away a dying woman’s husband.”
Let’s be honest—this show already belongs to Williams. Rockwell is doing great work, but Williams is transcendent. It’s like she truly becomes Gwen Verdon in every scene. The way Gwen described Joan in this episode—with every gesture telling you something about the character she played—can be applied to Williams’s performance. So each week I want to single out one moment where she stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away.
This week, I can’t stop thinking about the scene in the small rehearsal prep space when Gwen tried to tell Bob she couldn’t be with him because she saw how sick Joan was. The naked vulnerability Williams projected was hard to watch because it felt so uncomfortably real. Each “I’m sorry” built in anguish until the moment Bob had her pressed up against the wall and Williams delivered what might be the saddest line ever delivered on television: “I can’t take away a dying woman’s husband.” The way she choked out each line, the way her eyes tried to look everywhere but his, the mascara pooling under her eye—each detail worked to make me feel like my heart was being ripped out of my chest as I watched.
And then Williams showed us who Gwen Verdon really is with one dramatic gesture. She’s falling apart, but she knows she has a performance to do, so she gathers herself and wipes her face with an arm movement that travels all the way around her head before finishing with a dramatic flick of the wrist—as if trying to physically erase and throw away what had just happened and transform herself from a broken-hearted woman to a Broadway star in the space of one breath. The character insight in that one gesture is more than most actors convey in their entire careers. At the Emmys, I want that to be the scene they show before her inevitable win.
Dance Nerd Details of the Week: Bob telling Gwen to drop her head on the soutenue and then contract is the kind of dance terminology that I never get to hear used correctly on television. Also, it was fun to see Gwen immediately start adding her only little nuances to his choreography (“She had an itch!”) because that’s exactly what made their work special—each move came from a real place and each dancer was a character with a backstory, not just a dancer. It also perfectly captures what happens for a choreographer in a solo dance lesson when a great dancer feels comfortable and confident enough to make a piece of choreography their own—that joy of seeing art you created mean something to someone other than you.
- I don’t think the episode necessarily needed the scenes in Majorca (except for continuity with the previous episode), but it did effectively contrast the brightness of their relationship’s beginning with the pain of its end. Also, it was a great way to take the theme of intimacy and physical space one step further; they’ve come to another country to separate themselves from the things that have come between them, but now not even physical isolation can repair the broken intimacy.
- My favorite part of the Majorca scenes was the haunting instrumental version of “Whatever Lola Wants,” which reflected that Lola isn’t getting what she wants this time.
- The montage of Bob and Gwen rehearsing and falling in love was edited perfectly. My favorite bits: the close-up on Bob looking at Gwen with pure adoration, the almost unbearably sexy eye contact they hold when she asks him to run it again and he takes his shirt off, and the coy look over her shoulder when she’s tapping her hand against her heart. It’s dance as foreplay in the truest sense of the word, and I could have watched it forever.
- I’m obsessed with the fact that Williams stands in fifth position or with her hands perfectly placed on her hips when Gwen’s at rest. It’s the sign of a true dancer and something that further adds to her masterful performance.
- Of course Williams would have Verdon point her foot perfectly while having sex.
- I’m convinced the spirit of Verdon came directly through Williams in that “Who’s Got the Pain?” sequence—that’s how much she looked like Verdon dancing it. I think I looked exactly like Rockwell’s Fosse while watching that scene—in awe and more than a little bit in love.
I thought this was great before I watched the episode but I’m now convinced your writing on this show is going to be some of your best. This is the show you were meant to write about. It is right for you in every way and I cannot wait to experience the rest of the season with you. Your analysis of the rehearsal space and how it was used throughout the episode is incredible.
Michelle Williams is extraordinary. Every look and movement conveys so much about who Gwen Verdon was and since I’m going into this completely blind, I appreciate how quickly I was able to get a feel for who she was and what made her (and her partnership with Bob Fosse) so iconic.
This show is excelling at making you both understand and feel in your soul why this relationship was both everything to both of these people and completely crushing at the same time. It’s freeing and suffocating but also something they were never going to find anywhere else. That shot of them leaving together to fix the choreography while their significant others were left behind without a word or thought drove home why this melding of the minds was it for them. It’s fascinating and painful and Williams and Sam Rockwell are absolutely nailing that dynamic.
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