Krystal Stubbs, the anti-heroine of the faintly surrealist, anti-capitalist satire On Becoming a God in Central Florida, makes a great many mistakes over the first season’s brisk ten-episode run. Some of them—extortion, fraud, the killing and meticulous dismemberment of not one but two state-protected alligators—are criminal. The first and most generative is not: Marrying a sweet, slow-witted former alcoholic by the name of Travis, she mops shit and cleans up vomit at a water park to subsidize their meager income, and turns a blind eye to his involvement in what at first seems to be a business opportunity, and then reveals itself to be a scam.
“FAM,” an acronym for “Founders American Merchandise” designed to trick its members into feeling like a family, is a pyramid scheme selling sub-par goods with a familiar premise—namely the idea that any man, provided he is an American, can be a millionaire. So far, Travis has done little but hemorrhage the family’s money, imperil their benefits, and leave their house in danger of imminent repossession. It is 1992, and the Stubbs’s home is Orlando-adjacent. In their milieu, whatever a man says goes, and whatever a woman says is usually an afterthought. Like a lot of wives married to well-meaning idiots, Krystal has learned to smile beatifically at setbacks, and to hold her tongue as expertly as she wields her mop.
The fact that Krystal Stubbs is played by Kirsten Dunst, her eyes as cool as steel and her eyeshadow the same shade as stonewashed denim, ought to reassure the viewer that she won’t be capable of holding back her ire forever. “I don’t need a millionaire for a husband!” she eventually insists to Travis, on receiving the news that he plans to quit his job in order to get scammed full-time. “I have a child. I need health insurance. I need the mortgage to be paid!” The fact that Travis Stubbs is played by Alexander Skarsgard in a goofy wig, meanwhile, does not prevent him from vanishing from the narrative exactly half an hour into the pilot, leaving Krystal unable to pay for health insurance or their long-overdue mortgage, and presenting her with a dilemma: Knowing that the only way to make their money back through FAM is to enlist another 50 desperate, dead-broke suckers, should she do it anyway?
You know the answer, since she would not be an anti-heroine if she had chosen to go straight. What starts as “just one shipment” ends in a Machiavellian plot that somehow incorporates both water aerobics and serial blackmail. “Travis always said ‘go-getters go get it!’” she exclaims, grinning and dead-eyed, at a rally for FAM members. “Well, I sure as hell went out there, and I got mine!”
Created by Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, On Becoming a God in Central Florida was originally meant to air on AMC, then ended up slated for YouTube, and finally premiered on Showtime last night. It is a black comedy and it looks kitsch and bright as candy; it also deals with income inequality and destitution in a way that cuts close to the bone in 2019, when 40 percent of Americans still make less than $15 an hour. For the most part, it succeeds in making capitalism look evil, stupid, and untenable. FAM is at least partially funded by the sale of motivational tapes, written and recorded by a mysterious self-made billionaire, and backed by music that may or may not be Enya. The mysterious billionaire has the ridiculous name Obie Garbeau II, and an unusual style of dress makes him resemble a spiffed-up Colonel Sanders. (As if we had not already guessed that he was bad news, he is played by Ted Levine, the actor best known for portraying Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs.)
“There is a mighty and transcendent place,” he booms on the recording Travis listens to the morning he decides to quit his job, “where progress is inevitable. A place where the pursuit of happiness is a priority and the right to dream is a guarantee. That place is called America. And God Almighty made this great nation so that you and your business could prosper. Success is in your blood, fella.” What FAM purports to sell is independence, a can-do pioneer spirit that permits subscribers to pursue their destiny as very, very wealthy men and women. Its assertion that jobs are for suckers, and that the word “job” can also be an acronym for “Jerks On Board,” or for “Just Over Broke,” echoes nothing so much as it does a monologue by Henry Hill in Goodfellas: “To us,” the gangster shrugs, rationalizing his existence outside traditional moral codes, “those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead.”
One of the great injustices inherent in making a work of entertainment out of stories like these is the inconvenient fact that scammers, much like gangsters, are typically more interesting and more charismatic than the victims they exploit. Another tale about a scammer published earlier this month perfectly illustrated the conundrum: Rachel DeLoache Williams’s tell-all, My Friend Anna, is a blow-by-blow account of her victimhood at the hands of Anna Delvey, the “fake German heiress” who successfully stole $275,000 by pretending to be rich. The book, studiously attempting to avoid salaciousness, is dry as dust. The anecdotes about Miss Delvey, who calls people “peasants” and is seen whispering “I’m so rich and pretty” to her own reflection, are unfortunately brilliant. “Anna didn’t wait for opportunities, Anna created opportunities,” her lawyer insists at her trial, sounding like Obie Garbeau on one of his motivational tapes.
As soon as Krystal Stubbs decides to lean into the topsy-turvy immorality of FAM, she becomes both less sympathetic and a dizzying joy to watch. Leaving behind her usual propensity for characters who are untouchable, or supercilious, or neurotic, Kirsten Dunst allows herself to look disheveled, to be trashy, to walk and talk like someone who has nothing left to lose and does not give a shit. It seems impossible to me not to be thrilled by the sibilant way she hisses “kiss my asssss” through those singular crooked teeth, or the way she holds her baby daughter and coos—sweetly, like a lullaby—“mommy wants to do viiiiiooolence.”
Hunched over the body of an alligator with a hunting knife, blood on her sweatpants and Juice Newton on the soundtrack, Krystal represents a different, more contemporary take on the American Dream: that of a single mother, working-class and without assets, taking on a system that has stripped her first of money, then of dignity. In Dunst’s mouth, the word “butthead” is streamlined into a deadly weapon, like some ignoble object carved into a shiv. Beneath her, a Barbie-pink ATV becomes a tank that’s ridden into battle. “Krystal Stubbs,” a higher-up in FAM says, darkly, “is a wild horse that needs to be broken.” Unlike Travis, Krystal does not break; the female of the species proves deadlier and more adept at economic warfare than the male, and she prevails by doing ill.
Dunst and Skarsgard played a husband and wife once before, in Lars Von Trier’s apocalyptic manic-depressive fantasia Melancholia, and whereas in Von Trier’s film Skarsgard was more or less the same in sweet, unthinking spirit if not necessarily in class, Dunst’s two unhappy wives could not be more dissimilar. Melancholia’s Justine, who is named after the “heroine” of the novel by the Marquis de Sade, desires nothing more than absolute annihilation. Krystal, who wants above all else to survive, is all Eros, all Id. Reduced to living with her infant daughter in the storeroom of the water park, subsisting on a steady diet of Miller Lite and stolen dollar-hot-dogs, it does not seem particularly unnatural that she might desire a little more security, or that instinct might convince her it is better to proverbially kill than to be killed.
That the Greek surrealist director Yorgos Lanthimos was once attached to direct On Becoming a God makes perfect sense, given the subject matter—the violence of America’s economy, in which exploitation begets exploitation—and the show’s occasionally-hallucinatory depiction of Floridian life. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos took a similarly jaundiced view of American moral values, situating Colin Farrell’s gutless heart-surgeon and Nicole Kidman’s icy wife in a colossal beige McMansion, and then turning that McMansion into something resembling a house of horrors. It would have been interesting to see his perspective on America’s Have-Nots, given the agonizing fate he dreamed up for its Haves.
Still, it may be the case that an American director like Charlie McDowell was the best fit for material as quintessentially American as Funke and Lutsky’s series, and that Lanthimos’s chilly Euro sensibility would not have had the same effect. A scene at the beginning of episode four, when Krystal turns up at the water park to find her boss cleaning up several dead flamingos that have fallen from the sky, springs immediately to mind: In a Lanthimos-directed series, an event of this kind might be treated as a portent, an extended metaphor for the imminence of the world’s end. Krystal, knowing that the laws of nature are unkind, and that the laws of the United States mean she cannot keep her home without continuing do her job, just squints. She sighs and says: “You should at least be wearin’ gloves.”