“I’ll see you assholes later,” Eric Dane’s Cal says in a manner that is somewhere between affection and hostility – or perhaps hostile affection. Such is Cal Jacobs’ piss-laden goodbye in the fourth episode, season two, of Sam Levinson’s Euphoria.
“You made it so that I can’t form an emotional connection,” Cal told his sons just moments prior in the episode, “You Who Cannot See, Think of Those Who Can”. His eyes are turned upwards at them as they stand above him on the second-floor landing. The camera is placed behind his sons’ heads as they look down in silent witness to their dad’s unraveling after decades of tightly wound restraint.
The camera closes in on Cal’s face, “…and I’m an emotional guy,” he utters with his eyes now moving downwards in parallel to his thoughts moving from outward accusation to inward acknowledgment, his sobering admittance brought forth under the sacrament of drunk confession.
Cal Jacobs is the latest embodiment of a narrative trope that has been transposed to a newly refurbished place in popular television shows and films of late. The place is that of the “closeted” and thereby tragic patriarch, whose double life and sexual promiscuities are characteristic of a developmental arrest which, in recent examples of popular media, has begun to presage an actual one.
Such is the case of Frank Tassone, the real-life superintendent of New York’s Roslyn School District, who abused his position to embezzle millions of dollars from Long Island taxpayers. Tassone is portrayed with calculated and tense rage by Hugh Jackman in Cory Finley’s 2020 film Bad Education, but here, Frank’s sexuality doesn’t cause his fall from grace as much as it accessorizes it.
“Out” in life, sharing an apartment with his domestic partner of a similar age on Park Avenue, and appropriately “closeted” at work, Frank’s affair with a significantly younger man and former student named Kyle Contreras (played by Rafael Casal), functions in the narrative as yet another example of his duplicity. Frank’s lies in both his professional and private life are eventually uncovered through agents of investigation, both journalistic and criminal, and are interwoven throughout the film. Indeed, it is the unnamed district attorney assigned to the embezzlement scheme (portrayed by Pat Healy) who will eventually inform Frank’s partner of his infidelity in a bid to persuade him to testify against his spouse.
Both Frank’s embezzlement and his affair are brought to a simultaneous conclusion when he is arrested in the driveway of his and Kyle’s secret ranch home in Clark County, Nevada. In this final scene, police sirens draw ever closer as Frank frantically rushes to tell his lover about the $30k he left for him in the dresser, and how special he is to him. The scene is notably absent of music – a silence meant to envelop the grave seriousness of what is to transpire, like that of a confessional – and Frank’s tone is one of panicked sincerity.
“I’m no good. I’ve been lying. To you. I’ve been lying to everyone.”
The blue and red emergency lights flash upon their faces, mirroring the blue and red lights at the gay bar from the scene prior. At the bar, Kyle finally convinces Frank to loosen up and the two share an affecting dance to Moby’s “In This World”, while the camera circles the two lovers soon to be torn apart.
In the flashback that opens Euphoria’s “Big Bully’s and Little Ruminations” episode, a teenage Cal Jacobs (Elias Kacavas) dances with his crush and best friend Derek (Henry Eikenberry) to INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”. The scene takes place at a gay bar like that in Bad Education. The similarities between the two dance sequences extend into narrative succession, imbuing bittersweet pathos into both scenes. In the scene following Cal and Derek’s dance, which culminates with what we assume to be their first kiss, Cal gets a call from his then-girlfriend, who tells him she’s pregnant. The moment Cal hangs up the phone he begins to cry, grieving lost hope for an enduring romance with Derek and any future akin to what we might call a “queer life”.
Beyond the narrative parallels between the story arcs of Frank Tassone and Cal Jacobs, parallels in their characterization itself also proliferate. Both are cisgender, white, middle-aged, and upper-middle-class – all of which might persuade the audience to empathize with them despite the characters’ clear moral and legal transgressions. Both characters embody the role of the patriarch; Cal in the literal sense, and Frank in the stern vigor with which he assumes his position as superintendent (his tightly kept wardrobe of pressed suits attest to this).
Indeed, both exhibit perfectionism and hyper-concern for appearance, which informs their need for achievement. Frank and Cal are also narratively coupled by their closeted same-sex desire, their strict manner of dress a pathological compensation for their secret lives. In the case of both characters, this perfectionism and need for achievement is flung off along with their “heterosexual” identities, the narrative playing into an oversimplified binary of what it means to be “in” or “out” to lend itself a dramatic sweep. Cal’s decision to come out, specifically, is coupled with his decision to leave his family and indulge in a certain level of adolescent debauchery. The only scene featuring Cal post-coming out is set in the warehouse for his successful real estate business. It’s haphazardly littered with after-party red plastic cups and empty vodka boxes.
This brings us to Cal’s arrest at the hands of his son Nate (Jacob Elordi) in the season two finalé of Euphoria, “All My Life, My Heart Has Yearned for a Thing I Cannot Name”. As the police sirens draw ever closer, Nate holds a flash drive filled with videos of Cal fucking various men and women in seedy motel rooms, all filmed without their consent, incriminating Nate of voyeurism and Cal on at least one instance of statutory rape. These sexual encounters were our first introduction to Cal as a character, and they served as the primary dramatic agent that moved his story arc forward throughout the series. Indeed, when Cal asks his son “What’s that?”, in reference to the flash drive, Nate responds with a telling level of meta-accuracy, “Everything”.
Like the scene of Frank’s arrest in Bad Education, Cal’s arrest is also notably devoid of music – the silence once again serving to emphasize the graveness of Cal’s confessions.
“I fucked up, Nate,” Cal says, “…and there’s nothing I regret more”.
An easy explanation for this trope can be made on the grounds of realism: such stories exist on screen because they exist in life. Frank Tassone is not a fictional character, but a real man who actually did cheat on his spouse and embezzle millions of dollars from innocent taxpayers. What is fictitious about both examples, however, is the pacing of the narratives. In Cal and Frank’s story arcs, their sexuality is characterized as a form of rule-breaking, another transgression against the norms of middle-class respectability that “backed them into a corner”, as well as a possible chance at redemption. It is the deliberate thwarting of this redemption that is intended to complicate the audiences’ feelings – it lends a flair for the tragic and a three-dimensionality to characters we might otherwise regard as outright villains.
Cal and Frank both harbor a cynical disdain for the “rules” that have constricted their lives and kept them in the closet, but theirs is not the only cynicism necessary for the formula of these narratives to work. The formula in the arrest scenes themselves is relatively straightforward; the police function as an instrument of the law, while confession functions as an instrument of ensnarement. However, it is our own compulsion for confession, as well as our cynical resentment towards it as a supposed instrument of redemption, that keeps the closeted patriarch “arrested” and functioning as an instrument of perpetual tragedy.