It was as inevitable as a Judith Light pantsuit that Fosse/Verdon would eventually offer what all great dramas do: a bottle episode. It wouldn’t have been foolish to assume we might get it via a sweaty, prolonged dance rehearsal, or a particularly claustrophobic tech week, or, in the wake of last week’s stunner, Bob’s slow recovery in the psychiatric facility where he was remanded at the end of “Glory.” But regarding the latter, Fosse’s traumatic institutional tenure was actually cut short after only six days, and he’s already both released and refreshed by the time episode 5 picks up. Three months after checking out, Bob Fosse is back in high spirits—drinking, shouting, racing lobsters, watching baseball, wearing jorts! All that jazz.
Centering on a friends’ getaway in Southampton designed to help newly-widowed Neil Simon get through the grief of losing Joan, Fosse/Verdon’s bottle episode keeps its cast larger than the average tight two-hander that’s typical of the trope: There’s Bob, self-prescribing his own doctors’ orders, having a gay old time with Paddy, who’s more or less the same every time we see him, and Neil, who’s doing his best in the weeks since Joan’s passing. Ann Reinking, who spurned Bob on several occasions but has since fallen for his spell and become his squeeze, is also present for the weekend vacation; notably, she’s already bonding with the only Fosse family member remotely close to her age, Nicole (a fact that Gwen will later point out means that Anne is more than just Bob’s average waif of the week).
Gwen eventually arrives, her emotional façade du jour (Your New Girlfriend Seems Nice!) fully intact. She’s accompanied by her milquetoast boyfriend Ron, whom you’ll remember as the man who beat up Bob (then apologized) when Fosse drunkenly crawled into Gwen’s bed. He is played by Jake Lacy, a sweet and charming Hulk of teen-Simba size, but unfortunately, that’s about where the interesting part of Ron seems to end. He has a few lines here and there, any of which could have been uttered by an unnamed Damn Yankees extra, but ultimately, Gwen’s new boyfriend is about as purposefully bland as a pair of character shoes.
That leaves Gwen to take on the role of outsider here, and she enters the fray with a mission on her mind: Chicago. During Bob’s psychiatric stay, she lied to composers John Kander and Fred Ebb that Bob was gung-ho about directing the musical, the rights to which she pursued for a whole decade (it’s based on Maurine Dallas Watkins’ 1926 satirical play) with the belief that Bob would one day direct her in their glorious collaborative comeback. So Gwen heads into her Southampton Rumspringa wielding what she considers undeniably wonderful news that they finally secured a theater for the still-unwritten show—only to find out that Bob is not only unavailable to do Chicago, but that he has no intention of doing it, ever. Squish, uh-uh.
Turns out, he’s deep in the throes of pre-production on a Lenny Bruce biopic which he hopes will explore the darker side of the comedian, as played by Dustin Hoffman. Naturally, Gwen reacts poorly to the surprisingly high priority Bob has placed on the project. In her fashion, she finds key moments to twist the knife that it’s not only the wrong story to tell, but that Bob’s the wrong director to tell it (“It’s not a musical, I can do other things,” says Bob, to which Gwen replies: “But you never have.”). Do Chicago, Gwen pleads at every increasingly-sloshed juncture throughout the night—and when she even spins the conversation to Chicago in the midst of a toast tribute to Joan, that boldness alone should tell you everything you need to know about how critical Chicago is to Gwen.
It helps that Gwen’s not the only person trying to talk Bob out of Lenny. Poor Ann, who seems like an altogether very sweet and lovely person in Margaret Qualley’s portrayal of the star, has confided in Paddy that Bob was prematurely and perhaps detrimentally released from the psychiatric institute and is now actively ignoring doctors’ orders to take at least a year off work. So Ann is left a bit stunned herself when Bob announces that Lenny is shooting partly on location in Miami (and Bob Fosse left to his own devices on South Beach in the ‘70s is not a sound recovery strategy). Paddy helps Ann stress the stress of Bob’s year ahead, arguing that Bob’s Lenny plan may be ill-advised.
Obviously, Gwen is also concerned about Bob’s health, but she doesn’t want to see Bob stop working. There’s a dark side to her Chicago insistence that could betray an interpretation that she isn’t watching out for Bob’s best interests, but that’s only because Chicago is bigger for her. As we slowly learn, what she masks with anger and bitterness is really the fear and panic that Chicago could be her last chance at just about everything. Her last chance at stardom, her last chance at dancing while her body will let her, her last chance at working with Bob before he very well dies from a disease of his own making—and if the show is the phenomenal hit she keeps desperately predicting it will be, Chicago could also be the pair’s last chance to leave behind a monetary legacy for Nicole. That’s where the Joan Simon of it all comes into play, flitting in and out of Gwen’s head all weekend to remind her of Joan’s dying wish that she be a better mother to Nicole (who, throughout all of this, is starting to experiment with alcohol and cigarettes—so yeah, she’s already been left behind a little something by her folks).
So it’s only when Gwen hits on this with Bob, in a quiet early-morning conversation when the screaming has subsided and the booze has been bottled, that he finally agrees to do Chicago, assuaging Gwen’s fear that the end is near for the Fosse-Verdon family. As an added surprise (or not, perhaps) Gwen and Bob rekindle the physical phase of their rocky romance while Ann sleeps nearby. It’s a little dark, but not any more so than the energy flowing through Gwen’s veins this week, and that edge continues in a melancholy conversation Gwen has with Ann the next morning. Gwen apologizes for her tirades, and when Ann (not unkindly) accuses her of excusing Bob’s bad behavior, Gwen confesses that it’s part of Ann’s job to keep him alive so that he can “give you what he gave me.” Ann, like a normal human being, assumes she means their daughter Nicole. But Gwen, with no lack of self-awareness about how insane she’s about to sound, shakes her head: “Not just Nicole… Lola. Charity. Roxie.” Ahh, Gwen Verdon, chillingly channeling both Mama Rose and Gypsy Rose Lee at the same damn time.
And it gets worse. Yes, the weekend was a success, and yes, Neil got by with a little help from his friends, and yes, Bob has agreed to honor Gwen’s dream that he co-write and direct Chicago… but it’s all well and good until he stuns the group with the revelation that he’ll spend the next year doing Chicago AND Lenny at the same time, writing one and shooting the other in terrifying tandem. Cue one of the show’s many doomsday-clock info cards, the first to be truly haunting, that tells the audience that all this takes place exactly 13 months before Bob Fosse’s heart attack.
He, evidently, had it coming—and was the only person who didn’t know it.