The Big Secret About Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph’s ‘Forever’ We Can Finally Reveal—and Obsess Over
The thing that makes Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph’s Amazon series ‘Forever’ so special was a huge secret. Now that it’s out, let’s talk about its genius. Warning: MANY SPOILERS!
Forever is a wonderful, truly special show. And, until now, TV critics couldn’t tell you why.
Screeners for the new Amazon series, starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen in revelatory performances, arrived with a heartfelt letter from creators Alan Yang (Master of None) and Matt Hubbard (Parks and Recreation) urging critics and journalists to keep all pre-release coverage spoiler-free. Taking a page out of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s handbook, they even sent a list of plot points to keep mum about, ranging from surprise twists to, it turns out, the entire concept of the show.
“We think keeping the element of surprise intact will improve the audience’s experience immeasurably,” they wrote, adding that preserving the experience might allow viewers to, after watching, “take a split-second to reflect before immediately moving onto the other hundreds of thousands of shows available to them.”
And you know what? They’re not wrong.
In the avalanche of TV series we binge through and frantically regurgitate our thoughts on, few have made us stop completely, let alone deeply reconsider our thoughts about, well... life. It was a thrilling experience, which is strange for a show this quiet and meditative. So we decided to wait to write on it until we could discuss the vital secret that makes it so powerful. Now that the show is streaming on Amazon, we can.
Don’t read any further if you haven’t watched the series yet.
Go and watch right now then come back. It only takes like four hours to watch the whole thing. Football games last longer that. This piece will be here waiting for you when you do.
OK. Here we go.
Forever is a series about a marriage. It opens with a very Up-like montage, chronicling the highlights, lowlights, ups and downs, and everyday just being of the marriage between Oscar (Armisen) and June (Rudolph).
The vignette charts the excitement of puppy love straight through to the listlessness of a long-term marriage, ending with a time lapse of numerous trips the couple has taken together to a vacation lake house. First, the trips seem to rekindle something. Then, even that becomes mundane. The whole montage ends with a zoom-in on June staring hopelessly into space, an existential gaze that we all know too well: Is this it?
Desperate to shake things up, she suggests to Oscar that, after 13 annual lake house excursions, they go on a ski trip. It’s a disaster. Oscar dies.
Yes, first on the list of things not to spoil: At the end of episode one, Oscar dies.
The next episode finds June, one year later, still reeling from his death, blaming herself because it was her idea to spice up the relationship. Hoping to rescue June from depression, her best friend suggests she press reset on her life and encourages her to apply for a job in Hawaii. Despite getting cold feet before the interview, she actually lands the job. She takes a deep breath, and bravely steps out of her comfort zone on to the next phase of her life.
And she dies. Spoiler number two.
As it turns out, three-quarters of Forever takes place in the afterlife. (Spoiler three.) Oscar and June are quickly reunited in a weird post-death suburbia, where they live as “formers”—dead people—who can see “currents”—those still living—but the currents can’t see them. What do they do there? Well, pretty much the same thing they did on Earth. But with fewer people around, possibly even less excitement, and more routine.
The same way their marriage was tested by stasis in life repeats again now that they’re dead. Are they in heaven? Hell? Purgatory? They vowed until death do them part, and now death has bound them together again. This is a show called Forever. As Oscar and June continue to navigate their relationship in death—and there are highs and lows just as in life—that very idea is pondered. Is the concept of “forever” a cruel sentence, or is it maybe a privilege?
What, for example, are we to glean from Oscar and June’s deaths? An outsider might observe the sadness in their complacency, sense June’s exasperation, and rule that the relationship was a bad one. But was it really? They take chances to change things. And they die. So is Forever warning against the dangers of leaving your comfort zone, a risk-averse cautionary tale for those with a twinkle in their eye for something more?
Sometimes we may think that we’re stuck in a rut, when really we’re safe in a rut. The bunker of wallowing from which we gaze up, wondering what awaits us outside those walls of routine, may be preserving our existence, not barring us from happiness.
Maybe there’s no danger greater than boredom. Not because boredom is a bad thing, but because it tricks your mind into thinking it is. You spiral. You think you deserve more! You seek it out. And look what the reward—the punishment—might be for such foolishness. Oscar and June die, both after taking risks and taking chances for the first time.
The cruel irony about the afterlife is that it offers the same stasis. “So this is it? We just keep going?” June asks Oscar after they reunite in the blandest of suburbs where they will casually stroll through eternity. “How long does this go on for? What’s the point of all this?” Then comes Oscar’s response, excruciating both in its obviousness and the matter-of-factness with which he delivers it, already resigned again: “Well, what was the point of the thing before this?”
June is faced with the same existential crisis she grappled with on Earth. Will she have to settle again, and for eternity? She felt, in some ways, trapped in a marriage on earth, and now she is literally trapped in the afterlife.
But, spoilers four through 100: she isn’t.
She meets Kase, played by Catherine Keener, another “former” displeased with the lameness of her post-death existence. She encourages June, who is understandably hesitant given the last time she tried, to take a risk again. They escape to another community of formers, where daily life is a bacchanal, vices are indulged, and there is no Oscar. That makes her excited. It also makes her feel guilty.
Is that the bleakest lesson of Forever? That life and death and marriage and love—it’s all underlined by sadness. Even the pursuit of happiness leads to sadness. But failing to pursue it leads to regret—which leads to sadness.
June and Kase are both women haunted by regrets and missed chances. June, in particular, blames Oscar for keeping her from the life she thinks she was owed. But maybe she was just using him as an excuse. Maybe that’s just one of the ways she was taking advantage of his love for her—not mention her love for him, and a reliance on it she didn’t realize she had.
June and Oscar go on a journey in the last few episodes that, for all our spoiling, we won’t reveal the outcome of. But we will share what that journey meant to us.
Maybe two people aren’t meant to be together. Or maybe despite all their rationalizing to the contrary, they really, truly are. This is a show about death, and a couple’s long journey to separation. But it is also incredibly romantic and an impressively honest and deeply felt portrayal of love, in the most traditional sense of the word.
“Forever” sounds terrifying. The certitude of it makes it seem implausible, like agreeing to anything for so long would be a mistake. But maybe there isn’t such finality to it. Forever stands for infinite possibility—in love, among so many other things—and the beautiful thing about Forever is its enlightening idea that such possibility extends through death.
Exactly what that means, however, sadly no one can spoil for us. I guess that’s the point.