The first thing you need to know about this week’s episode of How To with John Wilson is that there’s a huge name in the credits: Steven Soderbergh, who served as a consultant. The second is that, because of this guest contributor (but also because John Wilson is also brilliant), the penultimate installment of the series is a bewildering masterpiece.
The episode starts about birds—titled “How To Watch Birds”—but after you’ve seen the episode, your mind will be far removed from any avian-related topics. Wilson is sick of holing up inside his New York apartment all day; and yet, when he goes outside, all he does is scroll through his phone or look at the ground while he walks. He decides to pick up a new hobby to both force him outside and to keep his eyes aimed at the sky: bird watching.
Wilson immediately demonstrates his lack of expertise by heading to the wrong store to buy supplies for his new hobby. Instead of going to, say, REI or another outdoor retailer, Wilson heads to a surveillance store. All he can buy are binoculars. The rest of the shop, the worker tells him, is full of tools used for watching people, not animals. Usually, the man tells Wilson, it’s women who come in here, because they’re looking to lie to the men in their lives. (Okay?) Men who want to bird watch? It’s not the store’s target audience.
On a tour through Central Park with some other birders, Wilson spends about 15 minutes looking for species in the sky before he discovers a loophole: You can just tell everyone that you saw a bird, even though you didn’t. Everyone in this community works under the honor system. Wilson starts telling his new friends that he’s seen a bunch of different birds, and they all believe him.
But Wilson becomes worried that they’ll catch wise to his deceit, especially after he hears about “swallowgate,” in which a birder lied about seeing a violet green swallow and was excommunicated from the birding community. Instead of coming clean, Wilson tries out a polygraph test. He’s able to lie about seeing all the birds that he saw, but some other questions stump him.
“Have you ever lied to someone on your show?” He says no, but the lie detector reveals this is untrue.
“Have you ever lied about something you didn’t actually see?” Again, no. Again, lying.
“Did you ever betray someone you love?” Wilson answers no and, no shock here, this is another fib.
Wilson feels terrible. He needs to come clean to all of us. There’s a shot from the first season in the episode “How To Remember Your Dreams” that he faked for the show, he confesses. When Wilson’s friend sent him a video of poop spewing out of a toilet like a geyser, the filmmaker grew enraged over the fact that he, himself, hadn’t been around to shoot the feces fountain. But because he needed to shoot just one day on a stage to earn a tax credit for the show, Wilson decided to create his own volcanic eruption of fake fecal matter.
Though Wilson expects his friends and family to applaud him for this shot, everyone keeps asking him if it’s actually real. Then, more and more folks start to ask him if certain scenes in his show are authentic. Did he actually meet these weirdos, or is he seeking them out? Even Jimmy Kimmel prodded Wilson over whether or not certain scenes actually happened in a talk show appearance.
In this episode, Wilson has had it with the lies. He decides to make an honest documentary that no one can dispute. His subject will be the Titanic because it “seems like people are really interested in the Titanic these days.” (Note: This episode was created before the whole submersible situation unfurled. Now, people are really interested in the Titanic.) Wilson starts his doc with a simple interview with a Titanic expert who breaks down every aspect of the vessel.
But it’s only minutes before Wilson is back into the world of conspiracy theories. He tracks down Bruce Beveridge, a man who wrote an entire novel about the idea that the Titanic ship was swapped with a sister ship called the RSS Olympic, and that the Olympic was actually the ship that sank. Beveridge’s logic, if you can call it that, is that the Olympic was a faulty ship. According to his argument, the owners of both ships supposedly colluded and sent the Olympic out to crash because it was already not working, and then split the insurance money from the Titanic sinking.
While Beveridge and Wilson cruise (no pun intended) around Tennessee together—Beveridge requested that Wilson come to him, and also demanded that he drive around Wilson’s car—Wilson notices some suspicious messages in his inbox. “You should quit while you still can,” a cryptic email reads. Wilson also recalls that there seemed to be a white van following him around in New York back when he started this Titanic research.
Oh, well. Wilson doesn’t heed the warnings and continues exploring the vast history of the Titanic in Pigeon Forge, where Beveridge takes him to the local Titanic museum. Beveridge once applied to work at the museum, but they turned him down, perhaps because of his controversial beliefs. It’s not like the Titanic museum is doing that great of a job of remembering the tragedy; there’s a virtual, moving photo of Anne Frank in the museum, for some reason. The gift shop sells Titanic iceberg putty and sinking Titanic teabags. Uh, too soon? (The tragedy was over a century ago, but still.)
While Beveridge tells Wilson about what dead bodies smell like and waxes poetic about his favorite member of the Beatles (he can really jump from talking point to talking point), Wilson frets over another eerie email, which demands his presence at a local hotel. The back-half of this episode feels like, well, a Soderbergh thriller. Side note: Remember when this episode was about birds? Me neither.
Wilson has Beveridge drive them (still in Wilson’s car) over to the hotel, but when he approaches the room number he was told, there’s no sign of life. Wilson’s stalker isn’t around. But as Wilson heads back out to the car to fetch Beveridge, things take a complete 180.
KABLUEY! When Wilson is a few yards away from his car, it spontaneously explodes.
That’s pretty much the end of the episode. Wilson tells the cops that Beveridge may have been in the car—scratch that, actually, because Beveridge rounds the corner moments after. Did he blow up Wilson’s car? Did Wilson blow up his own car? In that case, the “honest documentary” has been skewed into a work of horrific fiction. “The world needs illusions,” Wilson narrates. “The next time you think something isn’t true, remember you live in a world where something like that is possible.”
Personally, I prefer Beveridge’s quote about hiding the truth, which he offers to Wilson earlier in the episode. “Only two people can keep a secret—as long as one of them is dead,” he says. Someone’s going to take this car explosion to the grave.