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[This story contains major spoilers to the finale of FX and Hulu’s Fleishman Is in Trouble, which released 12:01 a.m. ET on Dec. 29.]
By the time you reach the ending of Fleishman Is in Trouble, you understand that you misinterpreted the title. The big reveal that came in the seventh episode of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s eight-episode limited series showed viewers that Jesse Eisenberg’s Toby wasn’t the Fleishman who was in trouble all this time. It was his ex-wife Rachel, played by Claire Danes.
The pivotal episode provided a new perspective to the story and, by design, it came late in the game — one week before the Dec. 29 finale.
“There was a lot of, ‘I hate her!'” Danes recalls when speaking to The Hollywood Reporter one day after the penultimate episode “Me Time” released, and looking ahead to the show’s ending. “It’s such an impressive magic trick that Taffy performs. Because it is so unanticipated.”
Viewers had already spent six episodes with likable Toby (Eisenberg), a divorced dad who was tasked with figuring out how to work, date and care for his two preteen children after their mother and his ex-wife, Rachel (Danes), dropped them off at the beginning of the summer and never came back. Quickly, opinions formed about Rachel, the Manhattan social-climbing workaholic mom who abandoned her kids for some selfish reason, probably to carry out the affair she was having with her friend’s husband.
But Brodesser-Akner’s flip of the script, which fills in the gaps about Rachel’s whereabouts and history of trauma with the help of narrator Libby (Lizzy Caplan), makes the audience realize they were wrong in their assumptions. As Brodesser-Akner first did in her best-selling novel of the same name, which the series is adapted from, she eventually explains that Rachel actually had a nervous breakdown after “one trauma too many,” as Danes puts it, and spent the weeks away from her family in her apartment, unaware of how much time had actually passed. Not until Libby comes upon Rachel sitting on a park bench does the full picture emerge, showing the audience the danger of believing only one side of the story.
“It is stunning when you do arrive at a deeper understanding of who and why she is the way she is,” says Danes. “It’s very effective. You suddenly feel complicit in some kind of overwhelming bias system of thinking about women in a particular way, and it’s really jarring.”
Here, in a chat with THR about the final two episodes of the FX series, Danes dives into her portrayal of Rachel Fleishman and what helped her to understand the complex character, noting, “I was so grateful that Taffy was able to create room for the expression of that kind of pain.” She also shares her thoughts about the up-in-the-air finale — which, just as the ending did when the 2019 book was released — is sure to remain ripe for debate.
Viewers finally got to see Rachel’s side of the story with “Me Time,” the penultimate episode in the series. What has the reaction been?
I didn’t have my eye on it and suddenly it was happening. It was an event! I was responding to many enthusiastic texts and emails, and it felt great. But it was a surprise because it’s so delayed.
You aren’t on social media. But ahead of this episode, creator Taffy Brodesser-Akner told me she shared with you that people on Twitter were accusing her of not using enough of Claire Danes.
I am off the grid, in that respect. Which is lovely, and also renders me a bit of an idiot in times like these. But I’m really grateful that people really seem to be connecting with it and appreciating it, right? I think so much of the story is about that reveal, that surprise. And it’s very impactful because Taffy does take you to the very edge of your patience, really!
I remember when my best friend in early fall of last year — we were having lunch — and she literally dragged me to a bookstore so that she could buy me this book, Fleishman Is in Trouble, specifically so I could talk to her about the ending. And, I took the assignment. Oddly, the book was in my on-set bag when I was doing reshoots for another limited series that I shot earlier that year, The Essex Serpent. So there I was, transported to this Victorian reality and in my corset, reading and getting lost in Fleishman-land when I got this offer. And I thought, “That is bizarre.” But, I hadn’t yet gotten to the ending. So I was then even more motivated to do that.
Taffy also spoke about the faith you all had as actors with the structure. With Rachel, you had to endure six episodes of people thinking of her as a villain. What was that like to trust this process?
It did require a little internal mettle, I guess. I went to the premiere and was sort of apologizing to all my friends who were there. The show is great; I wasn’t apologizing for that. I felt a little sheepish about the fact that I was onscreen for about 45 seconds, and the 45 seconds are not terribly endearing. And there was a lot of, “I hate her!” Which, ultimately, I think I was fairly comfortable with because that’s so much the point of it. We are so quick on the draw with critical judgment of women in general. And it is stunning when you do arrive at a deeper understanding of who and why she is the way she is. It’s very effective. You suddenly feel complicit in some kind of overwhelming bias system of thinking about women in a particular way, and it’s really jarring.
It’s such an impressive magic trick that Taffy performs. Because it is so unanticipated. Taffy loves magic, by the way, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. She is a great manipulator of people’s attention. So I think I was just so sure of what was coming, that it was almost satisfying to hear them be so easy with their antagonism towards her.
But I remember when I first talked to Taffy, of course on a Zoom meeting because we were still pretty entrenched in the pandemic, and I just said, “I love her!” I think she was really surprised that I was so fervently sure about that. But, I really do. Even in those earlier chapters. I respected her ambition and her drive and I could see her willingness to be a good partner and mom, and be limited in ways that she wasn’t fully aware of or conscious of. And even before the great reveal, I think I intuited what was valuable about her. But maybe that’s just easy to say now.
It is interesting that you were reading the book when the offer came in, but that you hadn’t yet gotten to her reveal. Did you get to her chapter of the story before you took the role?
No. I hadn’t gotten to the end. And I was in a bit of a quagmire, which you are. Or maybe that’s the wrong word. But, you’re in the mud for a long time. It gets pretty frustrating, and that’s Taffy daring as a storyteller, is that she does test you in that way.
With “Me Time,” the audience understands that Rachel is having a nervous breakdown after having not dealt with her childhood or sexual traumas (the latter, from the doctor who broke her water during labor without her consent), and being pushed to the brink as a working mother. You’ve acted in intense roles, but what was the challenge of getting this episode right and was there any push and pull during filming where you felt something should be a certain way?
No, it was not immediately obvious because a lot of it is a little fantastical, right? It goes into the surreal and sublime pretty quickly. So some of it was sort of suggestive and, of course, I wanted to make it as tethered to reality as possible. But speaking of magic, there was a bit of slight of hand at play, because it doesn’t always add up — I don’t know how plausible it really is for her to have lost time for three weeks. But I understood the core of it.
I talked to a few people who I typically talk to, including my bestie who gave me the book; she’s a therapist. I actually talked to a few of her colleagues who specialize in postpartum depression — which I don’t think was the nucleus of Rachel’s trauma, but was very relevant. Then I talked to my friend who is also a really wonderful therapist — they are my go-to co-conspirators — and he was really very helpful and suggested that I start thinking about Rachel as a kind of runaway adolescent. And that suddenly was very organizing for me. That really helped me understand her, emotionally. How she’d always been in a kind of freefall and had never been truly connected to another human being in a way that made her feel rooted and secure. That unlocked a lot for me. Then weirdly a PA, who is a fantastic human and still a pal, was wearing a t-shirt about the movie Streetwise, which is about runaways. It just caught my attention and I watched it fairly early on and kept returning to that as a reference. It was very indirect, but it allowed me to really drop into her in a different way.
And, I mean, I guess I really felt so terrible for her. I was so grateful that Taffy was able to create room for the expression of that kind of pain. Pain that I think is much more familiar for so many people, and specifically women, than we’re often allowed to believe. I do think it’s important to have that rendered and mirrored back to us. Because there’s a lot that we’re supposed to ignore and deny, and just cope with. There’s a lot. It’s a burden I think that we are not so sensitive to because we’re so busy just coping. And Rachel was just… it was just one trauma too many for her. And I think it’s scary to realize that we all might be a little closer to our edge than we think.
You powerfully see her pain in two scenes — first as young Rachel when she is sobbing with the group of sexual assault survivors, and then in more present time with her guttural scream at the yoga retreat. Did you do each of those in one take?
Yeah, I did both of those scenes in one take. But they’re very well-structured. And they were very well-filmed. They were well-written by Taffy and they were well-realized by Jon and Val [Dayton and Faris, respectively, the episode’s directors], which is just a great mercy. I guess, objectively, those are challenging scenes. But they were so well-designed that they kind of naturally elicited whatever feeling that needed to exist.
The scream I really enjoyed. The scream I didn’t have much anxiety about because when do you get to do that? That’s like, not a thing. (Laughs.) That’s not one of those scenes you’re going to compare to another version. I just love the baldness of it. I love how it’s set up, too. That she’s completely resistant; she’s kind of giggling nervously. She’s working real hard to evade and avoid it. And then it allows for this kind of insane catharsis.
I remember one time when I was in my early 20s — this is a bizarre story — but I was playing some parlor game at Gaby Hoffmann’s house, she’s a dear friend, and one of her college friends was being kind of annoying. He was just being disruptive for the sake of it. And something happened where I just stared at him and screamed. I didn’t protest. It was just this animalistic scream. And once it was happening, I was like, “Oh, I think I just have to commit to this.” It was bizarre; it was so inappropriate and I don’t know why that happened, but it did. I think it probably helped me with this because I amazingly had a reference point for it.
After all that emotion and time spent with Rachel, we don’t see her in the finale. In the final scene, when she returns to Toby’s apartment and opens the door, we see her shadow and can’t quite make out her face. What expression were you making?
We filmed a closeup, and I was actually surprised that they didn’t use it. That was their choice. I love the idea that it’s so unclear which direction it’s going to go in [about if Rachel and Toby will reconcile now that she’s back]. And I think that they maybe have a shot at even getting back together? But, that’s probably unlikely? I think that’s just me being a deeply married person myself.
I read somewhere that you and Jesse Eisenberg had the same thought about where Rachel and Toby might go from here after the show ends. Is that true?
I don’t know. I actually never talked to Jesse about that. I think Taffy is pretty sure that they remain separated, and she’s probably right. I was more Pollyanna-ish about it.
Well, you have a lot of empathy for her now.
Yeah. I think Taffy has lots of empathy, too. I think she just has divorced parents, and I don’t.
A version of Rachel and Toby where they are co-parenting with more respect for one another is also a much happier ending than where their story began.
Yes. And I do hope that the crucible that she goes through allows her ultimately to be a more integrated, connected parent. That’s my hope. That’s my dear prayer for Rachel Fleishman. But, we’ll see.
In the finale, Libby (Lizzy Caplan) reveals herself to be not the most reliable narrator because she’s been mixing her own life into this retelling of Toby and Rachel’s story. I asked Taffy and Lizzy Caplan if this ending is even real; I had a Black Mirror moment where I wondered if she invented Rachel and Toby’s final scene just to give the story a good ending. Is it real that Rachel returns home? Do you believe that’s how it ends?
Yes, I think that’s real. But your Black Mirror moment is not unsupported. That’s as valid as anything. I don’t know. I don’t think I can know. I don’t think any of us can know! Everybody is in a slightly better place than they were when this story first started to unfold.
Taffy also shared that she loved working with you so much that she wrote extra scenes for you into the finale, but that you came to her and told her not to mess with the ending, even if that meant only seeing you in this final scene.
She had written other scenes and I just thought it was more impactful if you are left wondering. It was not quite enough insight into how Rachel is now. And I thought what Taffy had written in the novel should remain in the series.
Readers get more inner monologue in the book. By nature of the TV show format, there is more for viewers to fill in on their own. What do you hope the audience takes away from this ending?
I think the big moral of the story is to engage in more self-reflection and less knee-jerk judgment of others. I think that’s the big idea. And, that ain’t no easy project! Who wants to do that? (Laughs.)
Would you be open to exploring a second season with these same characters?
Oh, I think it needs to be what it is. I think it said what it had to say. But I loved everybody I worked with, and we’re all still texting away. They are actual friends, which is not always the case. That doesn’t always happen. And, it’s not always a sign that the project is successful! So I got many gifts from this one. Lasting friendships is a very major one — a massive, juicy cherry on top.
Are there any questions you still have about Rachel or are left wondering?
I’d like to see her rebuild her career. I imagine she’s going to make strides and then regressions. Many of those. It’s going to continue to be a game of Chutes and Ladders for Rachel, but hopefully more ladders. But, I would like to think that she feels a little bit safer in herself now, and that she starts taking some medication and going to therapy. Those are the things I want for her. And maybe a boyfriend — who might like her.
I’m left thinking about the scene where she’s doing the nose strips with her daughter. It’s a brief moment, but it shows how safe Rachel felt with her kids and how much she loves them.
Yeah. There was so much of that just in terms of the shifting of focus, and they were really modest manipulations but fascinating to play. I think it’s really exciting to watch just how the same moments can be experienced so differently. I thought that was a really worthwhile exercise, how we’re always editorializing. And that’s just worth remembering.
Interview edited for clarity.
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Robert De Niro