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Fosse/Verdon’s latest episode is key to unlocking this fascinating, flawed miniseries

The FX bio-show traps Broadway legends in a beach house to ask why anybody would be drawn to Bob Fosse.

A scene from the FX show “Fosse/Verdon” where two characters are outside drinking brandy on the deck of a beach house in the rain.
Trapped in a beach house by the rain, Bob Fosse slowly circles the drain.
Michael Parmelee Photography for FX
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 5 through 11 is “Where Am I Going?”, the fifth episode of the FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon.

Every episode of Fosse/Verdon is different from every other episode. Yes, they’re all about the same characters and circle some of the same themes and ideas. But where the series’ fourth episode, “Glory” — a wild pastiche of Bob Fosse’s most successful year (when he won an Oscar and an Emmy and a Tony) — was big and bold and brassy, the fifth episode, “Where Am I Going?”, is a story about two people whose relationship is poisonous, but who also can’t seem to fight the gravitational pull they have to each other.

Those two people, of course, are Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), who are technically still married when this episode takes place, over a long rainy weekend in 1973 in a beach house with their closest friends. And they’ll remain married until Fosse’s death in 1987.

But they are very much separated. He is with the much-younger dancer Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley). She is with the also-younger-but-not-as-much-younger Ron (Jake Lacy). (Reinking is a real person — she’s still alive, even — but Ron is a composite of various Verdon lovers.) And yet he and she spend all weekend circling each other, sniping and playing power games, arguing and fighting and finally falling into bed. (Technically, it’s a couch.)

By the time the weekend is over, Fosse will have committed to doing both the stage version of Chicago and the movie Lenny, even though doctors have advised he not work for at least a year, after a too-short stint in a mental hospital brought on by suicidal thoughts. Making both of these pieces in the course of a year will nearly kill Fosse, but both will also be among his most lasting masterworks, especially Chicago. That’s showbiz?

“Where Am I Going?” is adjacent to a bottle episode, which is part of its power

Nobody can leave? You just might have a bottle episode! (Unless you don’t.)
Michael Parmelee Photography for FX

“Where Am I Going?” is in a rich tradition of TV episodes that resemble plays more than traditional television. The characters are all confined to the same location, they’re forced to talk about things that are very fundamental to their relationship, there’s some sort of compressed timeframe, and there will probably be one or two blow-ups or hook-ups before everything is over.

“Where Am I Going?” is, thus, kind of in the same neighborhood as a bottle episode — a TV episode confined entirely to a single location, which is usually one of the series’ standing sets. (A classic example: the Breaking Bad episode “Fly,” which is set entirely in the Superlab.)

Since the beach house that gives the episode its setting was entirely constructed just for this episode — and, thus, probably didn’t save the production any money (the primary reason to do a bottle episode) — it’s hard to call it a bottle episode in the technical sense. (Also, there are a bunch of exterior shots that were stitched together in post-production, which are still not exactly the cheapest things to pull off.) But in a spiritual sense, it feels as though it lives just down the street from something like “Fly.”

The show probably needed to get here at some point. Fosse/Verdon has been circling much of its titular subjects’ work as stylistic influences for its episodes thus far, but presenting something that feels like it belongs on the stage is tough to do on TV. “Where Am I Going?” nods to the bottle episode tradition as much as it gestures toward the kind of stage play set in a single home over a period of time that is very much finite but feels infinite. (For example: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.)

Like so many plays in that tradition, “Where Am I Going?” is full of witty people who bounce off of each other in ways that keep you eager to see which sarcastic barb will find its mark next. (I’m particularly fond of Bob and Gwen needling each other for their younger lovers.)

And all of this fiery wit belongs to real people, and they include writing giants like Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz, giving a very underrated performance as the great playwright and screenwriter) and a recently widowed Neil Simon (Nate Corddry, who performs understated grief nicely).

Thus, “Where Am I Going?” has the feeling of spending time with very smart people who both enjoy and detest each other all at once. And it has genuine stakes in what amounts to a battle for Bob’s workaholic soul and Gwen’s career. She knows she needs to get Chicago up and running soon if she’s going to be able to dance in it. She’s got the theater. She just needs the director.

But Ann knows — and disseminates to Paddy, Gwen, and others — that Bob needs time off from work to heal. And Bob really just wants to make his new Lenny Bruce movie instead, because you don’t just get Dustin Hoffman to star in your movie every day. These agendas clash into each other after torrential rains force everybody to stay inside with each other and snipe.

There’s another similarity to those housebound plays, too. Time feels malleable in “Where Am I Going?” The weekend at the beach house is just a couple of days. But it’s also the longest episode so far — and one that bounces backward and forward in time to show, well, where these characters are going and where they’ve been.

“Where Am I Going?” may prove to be the key to unlocking the rest of the miniseries

Bob finds himself drawn back into dark memories from his past.
Michael Parmelee Photography for FX

When FX sent out episodes of Fosse/Verdon to critics, the network stopped with “Where Am I Going?” I always pay attention when a network makes a choice like this — what do they think is enough for critics to know, and what will be too much (thus spoiling future surprises)? And maybe even more importantly, what does a network have ready to show? A show that sends too few episodes might be hiding something down the road. A show that sends too many may wear out its welcome.

What was notable was that “Where Am I Going?” wasn’t quite finished when I screened it before the season began. There were plenty of shots that made clear the ocean and other outdoor environs would be green-screened in later, and there were several moments when dialogue had been clearly patched in, read by producers to fill in gaps when the audio from set was unusable. (TV critics are used to watching screeners in this sort of half-finished state, because the demands of TV production often require that we do so.)

But once I’d seen “Where Am I Going?”, the choice to include it among the episodes sent out made so much more sense. Where the previous few episodes were mostly just about either Bob or Gwen, this one was so much more focused on Bob and Gwen, on the unit of Fosse/Verdon that so dominated Broadway, but also became codependent and all but impossible to understand from the outside.

Indeed, where other episodes are based largely on things that are well-known within the historical record, “Where Am I Going?” is set at an imagined event, where we have no possible way of knowing what would have happened anyway. That gives the episode’s writer, Charlotte Stoudt, room to work in some important back-story (we see for the first time that Bob’s childhood “sexual initiation” by burlesque dancers was a sexual assault that still haunts him) and room to play around with elements of farce, only reimagined as something far darker and more acidic.

But the episode’s core is about Fosse and Verdon and Reinking, on the precipice of the three of them making Chicago together (yes, Verdon and Reinking became friends). When Bob and Gwen sleep together late in the episode, after a woozy, weary late-night argument, it feels less like passion and more like inevitability. They’re going to keep being drawn together. Why keep fighting it? Well, because they know how easy it is for them to destroy each other as well.

Much of the discussion around Fosse/Verdon (well, what discussion there’s been for such a low-rated show) has centered on the question of just how much the show exonerates Bob Fosse for being an artistic genius, despite also being an asshole who used women and pressured them into having sex with him.

On a certain level, “Where Am I Going?” plays into that. It’s by far the most worshipful episode of Fosse so far, and it’s also an episode where he is more or less well-behaved (if you can call cheating on his girlfriend with his estranged wife “well-behaved”).

But the episode is haunted by Bob’s previous sins throughout. Ann is the one girl who wasn’t going to sleep with him in the episode prior — until she abruptly is his girlfriend in this one. Bob and Gwen’s daughter flits around the edges of the party, reminding us of what a shitty father he is. And the show has made very clear that even if Bob’s horrible behavior never manages to destroy him, his inability to curb his appetites will eventually hobble and kill him.

The question of the show, then, isn’t whether we absolve Bob Fosse. It’s whether Gwen Verdon, or Ann Reinking, or Paddy Chayefsky, can absolve him. The historical record says they all did, for as much as they could hate him. And in “Where Am I Going?”, we get a best guess as to what drew people to this man beyond his obvious talent as a director and choreographer. On some level, he was a people-pleaser.

Being stuck in a house with Bob Fosse for a weekend could feel a little like bringing the storm raging outside inside with you. But there’s some part of him that knows what he has to do to please you, to make you happy — to make everybody happy. His inability to stop working, to just step back and be with himself, was what ultimately ruined him. But along the way, boy, there’s something about trying to pull a thunderstorm into your house, into your living room, into your arms.

Fosse/Verdon airs Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern on FX. Previous episodes are available on FX’s streaming platforms.

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