(Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Idol” Episode 3, “Daybreak.”)
In a scene so subdued and intimate that it feels like an interlude from the standard edgelord taunts of “The Idol,” Jocelyn (Lily-Rose Depp) sits smoking by the window with Chloe (Suzanna Son). Least famous singer and Tedros’ most devoted follower Tedros asks her mirror image of her why she doesn’t sing about her late mother. “I feel like it’s not something anyone wants to hear about,” says Jocelyn. “As if that’s not what they want from me. (…) I feel that the more you let people in, the more reasons they have to not want you anymore.
Jocelyn goes on to say that’s why she’s never sung anything “truthful or anything that really means anything to me.” Given what we later learn about Jocelyn’s relationship with her mother—that she’s supposed to care, that she’s supposed to want to know the real you, that she’s supposed to want to be around you no matter what—this belief makes sense. So does the cutaway to a lingering shot of Chloe picking up a hairbrush and slowly running it through her blonde locks. Hairbrush and Jocelyn’s mother are bound by the same alienating trauma that makes the pop star think no one wants to know her.
At the moment, just under halfway through the 45-minute third episode, Jocelyn’s position stands out mainly because she’s so overtly tragic. Believing that anyone who truly knows you will be turned away from that knowledge is a belief that strikes at the core of what is missing from Jocelyn’s life: She is not only mourning the loss of her mother, but also the person her mother was meant to be: the person which he probably hoped would emerge one day, if Jocelyn became a big enough star or made enough money or won enough awards. Sitting there with Chloe, she doesn’t recognize any of it, but the audience does, and it hurts.
That scene lasts about two minutes. The sting may last a little longer, but it is numb and overridden by what happens over the next half hour. There’s the teenage conversation about what’s more precious: a good song or a child’s life. There’s debate around the dinner table about whether it’s wise to use the leaked photo of Jocelyn covered in cum as the cover of her new album. There’s the second dinner table debate that the only way to make valuable music is through meaningful pain, and of course, there’s the final sequence of Tedros Tedros (Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd) inflicting that pain to Jocelyn, whom she dutifully thanks him for the next morning.
Yes, the moment Jocelyn reveals her blackened self-esteem informs her decision-making in later scenes – it’s much easier to accept abuse when you think you deserve it – but what we put up with as “entertainment” for most of episode 3 it does little to inform us viewers of anything relevant about Jocelyn. Certainly, it doesn’t bring us any closer to her than those precious few minutes spent in a quiet conversation with a friend. What’s left of “Daybreak” exists, I guess, to tickle; to spark the tired, old-fashioned conversation about tortured artists and what “must” be endured for “great” art; to make us gasp and cringe at what Tedros Tedros will do to ensure compliance and shore up his ego; to carry forward a threadbare storyline about a pop star in crisis inch by painful inch.
But doesn’t it really work? Going point by perceived point, the artist’s tortured dialogue is too silly to waste any more time – Jocelyn is plainly right, cult members are plainly wrong, and yet we’re supposed to believe lines like “What you do, what you put into the world, this is the shit that lasts forever. Shouldn’t Leia’s fucking feelings” be convincing? Damn! Have more respect for your main character, if not your audience as well. (And don’t even think about arguing that this is satire : the satire is clever, sharp and funny. This is none of those things!)
Tedros Tedros, well, whatever he does, it’s a joke – and not funny either. Seeing Tedros Tedros acting like a drunk teenager at the beginning of the episode only undermines what he is capable of by the end. For the first 20 minutes, as he noisily masturbates in the dressing room and feebly threatens the male staff, he’s too blatantly dim-witted to be believed. Is this the guy Jocelyn is “in love with”? Is this the guy who’s letting her personal chef get slapped and fired? Is this the guy who can tell his best friend/assistant Leia (Rachel Sennot), “I’m running the show now” — and get zero pushback? Tesfaye continues to “defend” her character by saying that he should be a loser, but we have to believe that Jocelyn (or anyone else) would be attracted to her aura, her magnetism, her intelligence, something.
It’s not until the end of Episode 3 that we get a glimpse of anything resembling effective manipulation, and by then, it’s largely too late. Putting her on the spot, in front of a cheering crowd, Tedros Tedros discovers a key to controlling Jocelyn, and wields it with cruel abandon. But when it comes to the lackluster cult leader, where else can “The idol” go? More pain? More suffering? More bad sex scenes? Jocelyn is already on the verge of losing her song, her record label and her tour. (Jane Adams’ record executive Nikki and her brilliant new dancer Dyanne, played by Jennie Ruby Jane, are all smiles.) Perhaps if the show invested more time in Jocelyn, it could find purpose in her chilling stew of ideas, be that that people want sacrifice for fame or what women feel they have to endure in order to be successful. As it stands, I feel lucky that “The Idol” managed to reach a significant moment.
“The Idol” drops new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and Max.