One of my favorite things about Nathan for You is how it can reinvent itself episode to episode. Sometimes it’s a small business fixer-upper show, sometimes it’s a character study of loneliness and awkwardness, and sometimes separate episodes just fall into completely different categories you struggle to define. In “Finding Frances”, the 2 hour season 4 finale, we go to that unexplainable territory. Nathan for You goes into something like a mystery documentary, the episode replicates the certain feeling of watching something dramatically dangerous with a score consisting of tense and dramatic piano and strings. I hate to do so much plot synopsis here, but you have to understand all the directions this episode goes in order to fully grasp at how transformative it becomes. If it seems scattered, don’t worry, it’s hard to encompass everything this episode throws at you. It’s one of the few episodes where Nathan has next to no control over what is happening. But by the end, you’ve witnessed something truly monumental. I needed some time to recover and a second watch before I could write about it. I’ve truly never seen an episode of television like this before. “Finding Frances” is at one end deeply unsettling, yet sweet and emotional at the other. Above all, it is a truly cathartic experience.
Bill Heath is a recurring character on Nathan for You, he’ll sometimes help out as a Bill Gates impersonator – albeit not a very good one, but that’s just part of the Nathan for You charm. Bill Heath is a very odd man as you come to find out, as are many of the Nathan for You characters. Behind the scenes over the years, he’s frequently visited the production offices just to spend time, and he’s repeatedly brought up a long lost love named Frances Gaddy. Nathan eventually decides to put his efforts towards finding her as he’s up for any challenge and he wants to help a lonely old man. After all, who hasn’t spent nights pained with regret over someone? They have incredibly little to go on, just the information and description from Bill from 50 years ago. Bill draws a sketch that hilariously looks like a kindergartener drew. Luckily, they know where she went to high school, just outside of Little Rock, Arkansas.
They hit a snag when they can’t get access to the high school Frances went to in Dumas, Arkansas due to the fact Nathan and Bill aren’t parents of students. To work around it, Nathan discovers that they filmed the Jeff Nichols film Mud in that city, and that it was a great source of pride for the people there. (Sidenote: Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite filmmakers) Nathan decides to film a fake sequel to Mud called Mud 2: Never Clean so that the city will give him access to any location he wants. The plan goes off without a hitch. They get a background actor from Mud to be in the sequel and go to the high school pretending to be location scouting. The high school is totally willing to do whatever they want, and they get to take some of the old yearbooks with them for their “props department to look at.” They find her photo in the yearbook, and get to work. To figure out what she looks like now, Nathan brings back Cornelius Lad, an “age progression specialist” he had hired in the past who did a hilariously terrible job. When getting into the Frances job, he goes on about the difficulties of this particular effort, remarking that gravity makes people age and when we all live in space one day our faces will never change. That’s the kind of guy this is.
Nathan discovers Bill lied to him about how long he’s been doing Bill Gates impersonations and that he lied about doing it for a living, so he begins to have doubts about Bill’s honesty with his stories of Frances. When Nathan confronts him about his lies, it gets really unsettling. Nathan asks Bill if he was a stalker, and the way Bill laughs and says no is totally uneasing. He then follows it up with a hilariously creepy line reading “Here I go…digging in again.” as he eats some peanuts.
After hitting another dead end, Nathan decides to put on a 57 year reunion for Frances’s graduating class in the hopes of getting in touch with a classmate of hers who may still know her. They have Bill go undercover as a classmate who has not RSVP’d to the event in the hopes of finding information on Frances. Unfortunately nobody knows where Frances may be, but the whole sequence is pretty hilarious in how much detail Nathan goes into to sell Bill as a Dumas native.
Bill then finds old love letters from Frances at his sister’s house, which solidify the reality of their love to Nathan and ourselves. Bill is infinitely odd, but thankfully not a stalker. Unfortunately, the letters reveal that Bill may have been cheating on Frances, leading to their relationship’s end. Just when you feel safe, the show gets sinister again. The letters unsettle Nathan about Bill’s nature around women. Nathan wants to be sure Bill will act appropriately if they find Frances, so he hires an escort named Maci to go on a date with Bill to see how he acts. Bill declines because he has regressive views of sex workers, so Nathan decides to go to the session himself and see if he can gain any insight from her on someone like Bill. After all, he’s already paid so he might as well.
The sequence is as awkward as you can expect from any encounter Nathan has with a woman. He ends up showing clips from Nathan for You to Maci, and you can totally tell that Nathan is falling for her. He ends up asking her to hang out again and she reminds him of what her fees are, which you can see is crushing Nathan. He ends up booking several appointments. Nathan hilariously remarks on the experience: “It was a little odd to be paying someone for their company, but Maci had a way of making it feel normal.” As the weeks drag on in Arkansas without any leads on Frances, Nathan begins spending more and more time on appointments with Maci, eventually telling her he has feelings for her. You can’t tell where show Nathan and actual Nathan begin and end throughout the Maci sequence. The whole thing is simultaneously hilarious – it has nothing to do with the Frances plotline – and heartbreaking, it’s deeply uncomfortable to watch as you know this can’t end well for Nathan’s emotional state. I wrote a whole column on how Nathan dictates reality with his performance, and this sequence is a prime example of that.
Eventually they get some traction on Frances. They find a Gaddy family plot at a nearby graveyard, and the obituary for the father reveals that Frances was living in Muskegon, Michigan at the time of his death with the last name Munroe. On Facebook, they find a profile for “Fran Munroe” that turns out to be her. Dampering Bill’s excitement is the fact that Frances is currently married. However, Bill remains undeterred, trash talking the husband, and still wants to go to Michigan to see her with the illusion he can still win Frances back. Nathan has his concerns though, and wants to make sure Bill won’t be mean to Frances, so he hires a professional actress in the range of Frances’s looks and age to do some roleplay. June, the actress, flies out and although it takes Bill several hours to do the roleplay with understanding and empathy towards “Frances”, the endeavor is successful.
Now the fated moment has come as they arrive at Frances’s house. Bill, too nervous to get out of the car, decides he should call her first to see if she’s okay with a camera crew coming to her porch with Bill. He calls her, and they end up talking and reminiscing for about 15 minutes and updating each other on their lives. It’s a tender call, no mention is made that Bill is yards away from her. They say their goodbyes and hang up. Although there is disappointment there in Bill, there is more happiness and relief on his face from the closure gained. He doesn’t need to see her, he got what he needed to hear. It’s a wonderful moment of genuine catharsis, one that has spent decades waiting for resolution. The whole episode had been leading up to this moment, but Bill didn’t need the moment to get the catharsis he needed. He did however, need the whole insanity preceding it. This episode is about the lengths we must go to for emotional closure. I almost cried. I don’t want to get too personal, but I related heavily to Bill’s journey. Catharsis only comes when you accept it, not when you want it to.
In the aftermath, Nathan goes back to life as usual working on the show. Bill gets him a serving tray to say thank you. In a weird way, it’s a very personal gift for Bill to give. Bill ends up asking June, the actress who roleplayed Frances, out on a date. It’s a rare sight, Bill actually seems like a human being and like somebody who isn’t unsettling to be around. He’s finally moved on and allowed himself opportunity for happiness. It’s just a beautiful sight to see this guy who was previously racked with guilt and regret open himself up to new chances.
Remember how I said Maci had nothing to do with the episode’s plotline? It turns out she has everything to do with it. Nathan, inspired by Bill’s new outlook, decides to head back to Arkansas to see Maci again. They sit outlooking a construction site, holding hands. Nathan mentions they can turn the cameras off if she wants, and she asks if that would defeat the purpose, that the purpose is to film him. Nathan declines and says they can turn them off. She asks him, “Then what’s the purpose?” and Nathan, the gifted performer he is, has seven different emotions cross his face at once. You can see him contemplating everything he’s ever done, asking himself how much longer he can do this, how much longer he can live his life on camera. It’s a moment that shakes the show’s premise to its very core, you’re not sure where actuality and Nathan’s scripted reality begin and end. They have become one in this place and time. I genuinely thought I might be watching the series finale, you can feel Nathan contemplating ending it all right there. He picks the perfect, most Nathan for You reply – that he would like to get a drone shot of them first because it would look cool. He retains his title as the master of reality.
The first credit in the closing reads “Directed by Nathan Fielder”. I don’t know that he’s put himself as director on the credits before, but it’s so powerful that he made sure you saw it this time. It’s a reminder that everything you see is because he steered reality to that outcome. It’s another thing that makes this episode feel like an ending to the show. You just don’t know where he goes from here. But knowing Nathan, he’ll find a way to outdo himself. He always does.