After three seasons and 30 episodes, Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) finally had a happy ending on “Physical.” Except in keeping with Annie Weisman’s Apple TV+ series, this ending may not live up to audience expectations.
In fact, Weisman told IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast that the ending could be more cathartic than happy. “She gets what she wants, but to get it she’s on her own,” Weisman said. “I didn’t believe she could get what she wanted and be a partner at the same time. It just doesn’t fit her story. But she is liberated, she is free, no one ties her down. No one is forcing her to be someone she is not. And she has a lot to give and she creates community through her work, and she has found and broken a real female friendship. She has real intimacy, emotional intimacy with friends, but she doesn’t have a partner.”
The series finale (which premiered September 27) finds Sheila deep in the 1980s, eventually becoming a successful fitness guru and lifestyle expert. (In 2023, she’d be absolutely dope on Instagram and TikTok.) But in true “Physical” fashion, we’re first treated to a bit of sleight of hand when Sheila arrives at her beautiful seaside home to have dinner with her Married, on-again, off-again Mormon lover John Beem (Paul Sparks). As she relaxes with a steak and a glass of wine, he encourages her to talk about her day and her work – until she goes outside to investigate a noise and upon her return we realize that the entire sequence is another manifestation from Sheila’s inner voice.
Listen to the in-depth conversation about the entire “Physical” series below.
The audience is already slightly destabilized by the time jump, and John’s sudden appearance causes both confusion (they already had a pretty serious goodbye when he moved to Mexico) and excitement (can these two crazy kids actually pull it off). work?!). But as the scene progresses, a feeling of unease spreads across what is actually an idyllic scene. He even cuts her steak, a moment that particularly appealed to Weisman.
“We don’t do a lot of slow moves on ‘Physical,'” said director Stephanie Laing, who directed 24 episodes over the course of time, including the finale. “The camera is very active and if that wasn’t the case it might be a very difficult show. Because the camera represents what’s inside [Sheila’s] Mind, right? And in this particular scene, [the camera] probably moves slower than we’ve ever moved it.” The effect is startlingly calming, until you realize that Physical has never been a particularly calming show. So why now?
“I hope it feels satisfying,” Weisman said of the reveal, which comes on the heels of the announcement of Sheila’s enormous success. “For me it’s satisfying in the sense that at least her fantasy is no longer very painful and destructive. That at least in her imagination she can do something that feels positive and not destructive.”
Oh yes, that destructive inner voice that so many of us have. When “Physical” premiered in 2021, many people expected nothing more than a seriously comic look at the ’80s fitness maniac, with Byrne in comedic mode as a Jane Fonda manqué. Weisman’s devious goal, however, was to use these trappings to tell a dark, moving story about eating disorders, body dysmorphia, toxic relationships, female ambition and female friendship. Their plan was clear at the end of the first season, but many early reviews missed the point.
“You felt like, ‘How dare you? We thought it was one thing and it was something else.’ Would be a little bit of my opinion on that,” Weisman said when the subject of these initial reviews was brought up. “In some ways the reaction was a kind of implementation of what we thought about the culture…” I would definitely call some of the reactions to Sheila sexist. And you know, I would kind of hesitate to make that claim [at the time] Because as a writer it sounds defensive. But some of the writers have encouraged me lately by simply calling out the reactions for what they really are. And I feel like, you know what? I’m willing to say that too. I think some of the answers [were a] a little sexist, a little: “You are such a beautiful woman.” How dare you be sad? How dare you be mean?’”
Fortunately, the series received what Weisman called a “groundswell of support” that allowed it to tell Sheila’s story for three seasons, which resonated with viewers unaccustomed to seeing their private demons so skillfully dissected and incorporated seen defused in many ways. “Physical” made viewers – women And Men – feel seen.
Perhaps nowhere more so than midway through season three, when Sheila suffers a setback in her recovery that results in her performing in front of a crowd of strangers in just her underwear. The moment is unsettling, both for its comedic horror and for how well we know Sheila and can predict her reaction, and for Weisman it was crucial that there was a relapse at this point.
“What if your worst fear came true?” Weisman said, “You know what? When you’re really exposed and then you realize you’re living through it, it’s like a rebuilding process from there. In a way it’s the best thing that could have happened: just completely expose yourself and you’ve survived.”
All three seasons of “Physical” are streaming on Apple TV+.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, CoveredAnd stapler. The music used in this podcast is from the score “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present,” courtesy of the composer Nathan Halpern.