C.W. Longbottom is… So many words come to mind when considering the Mythic Quest character portrayed by F. Murray Abraham. A lush? Inappropriate? Foolishly inflated ego? A writer. But while his presence has been highly additive to a show that continues to showcase the depth of its ensemble and the emotional evolution of those characters in season 2, the whys of C.W.’s personality had not been truly explored until last week’s episode, the aptly titled, “Backstory!”
Set in the 1970s, the episode begins when a young C.W. (played by Silicon Valley‘s Josh Brener) begins work at a sci-fi magazine as a grunt copy editor who dreams of getting published. An alliance quickly forms between C.W. and two other new hires — A.E. Goldsmith (Shelley Hennig) and Peter Cromwell (Michael Cassidy) as they lean on each other for advice on how to revise their stories. But soon, jealousy and ego get in the way as a C.W. misses out on a chance to let A.E. know he has feelings for her and to learn from the feedback he gets from sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov. All of this opens a really interesting window into C.W., the lengths he’ll go to play the game, and the chip on his shoulder that drives him.
“I think they were so smart to key in on this moment of this character who is, in many situations, comic relief,” says Brener before giving a fuller breakdown of the episode and discussing the hand writer Craig Mazin had in shaping his performance. “Great punchlines, over-the-top character traits, and [they] go, ‘but what really makes him tick? How did he become this barely functioning mess of an alcoholic?’ And Craig Mazin, who wrote the episode, is a genius, and some of the most wonderful things that he wrote are in the stage directions and action lines of the episode. He so gets into the head of young C.W., of Carl, and how that internal ambition and drive lead him down a path that has him turn his back on his friends and put himself first, and do something deeply unethical in service of his own ambition.”
Brener gives credit to series star, co-creator, and episode director Rob McElhenney and the set and costume designers that helped ground him in the era as well before joking that Mazin and Abraham did the “hard work” by way of the script and all Abraham had established previously. But gracious and deserved compliments aside, it’s his portrayal of a young C.W. that truly sells the connection to everything we’ve seen from the character so far. That look in his eyes — confusion, scorn — and an air about him that makes it seem like he thinks he’s above everyone he encounters. Brener deserves some credit for those choices, but also for resisting the pull to do a lazy impression of Abraham.
“One thing I knew for sure, was that I was not going to do anything better or anywhere near as good as F. Murray Abraham was going to do it, so doing an imitation was out of the question because I would not be capable of holding a candle to his C.W.,” Brener said. “The only option was to do a different version that was suggestive of or could be an antecedent. I worked with Rob, who directed the episode beautifully, to calibrate how much to suggest, how much to pull back on it, where are those moments where he starts as a slightly rawer, more vulnerable person and then hardens into that pompous ass.”
So many words come toddling out of my mouth when talking with Abraham about the pompous ass that is his character and why he never fully put down the pen and gave up despite the rejections and setbacks we see in the episode. It’s something Abraham admires in C.W. and connects with. But is it stubbornness?
“It’s more than stubbornness,” Abraham says. “What is it that sustains us? There’s another element that no one really discusses. It’s almost something you can’t describe to someone who doesn’t have it. It’s that thing that drives us, no matter what losses we [actors, writers, artists] go through.”
In part, Abraham is talking about rejections and reviews. As he says, he’s endured “quite a few” reviews that are “horrendous” and several that are great, but he adds emphatically, “they’re just setbacks. And they hurt like hell, but they don’t fucking stop me.”
Drawing a line between C.W. and what might be Abraham’s most famous role, his Oscar-winning turn in Amadeus as Antonio Salieri, may not seem like an obvious move on the surface. For one thing, C.W. would never go so far as to own the title of “patron saint of mediocrity,” but Abraham sees some level of similarity in their determination amidst rejection. And he’s spot on.
“The first time we meet Salieri, when he’s in the nuthouse, what is he doing, after all the shit he’s gone through, all the rejection, all of the shame? He’s composing,” Abraham said. “I mean, that’s a wonderful, wonderful moment. It’s never been really pointed out, but I love him for that.”
Is it madness, then? Is it a habit or unfading entitlement to have your art be experienced?
“It’s a fucking madness, “Abraham says. “These are very delicate things, the thing of entitlement. ‘I know I’m good. I know I’m great. Why doesn’t everybody else see that?’”
Brener sees that madness and creative entitlement in C.W. as well.
“I think he crafted a self-image that, no matter what, he is unwilling to relinquish,” Brener said. “You are 100% sure of who you are and are unwilling to change or allow in any other version of yourself. Everybody has to be wrong. That’s the only possibility, is that everybody doesn’t see who you actually are, so you just keep insisting upon and insisting upon it until it’s true. That seems to be what C.W. does, is that he, through brute force, just makes it so by whatever means necessary.”
Is that a good thing or a bad thing, though? To Abraham, it’s something you can sense in some actors when they carry that anger and attitude into an audition. Something that may sometimes keep them from getting work. To Brener, it’s something else.
“I envy that thing. As somebody who is riddled with self-doubt and insecurity, to be someone who is so self-assured and knows that they are God’s gift to writing or God’s gift to whatever art form, seems like it must feel great,” Abraham said. “Although clearly as we see in the episode, it has its drawbacks and its pitfalls. But I would take a couple of swigs of that tonic.”
Everything we see in “Backstory” comes with the gift of feeling revelatory yet obvious when considering who C.W. is. It also leads naturally into the next episode, which returns to the modern setting (while getting Abraham out of the Zoom space to act in person and in front of what he calls “his company”). His scene mate? William Hurt, who plays his old friend and rival Peter Cromwell. The result is a tremendous duel (near literally) that feels more like a play about aging and the stain of bitterness and a lack of fluidity when it comes to accepting one’s own legacy.
Peter Cromwell is no Mozart, neither is A.E., so C.W. isn’t so much jealous over anyone else’s professional achievements. Not to the extent that he feels cheated out of what should be his own, with boundless acclaim and success based on… how much he wants it? The belief that he’s owed it for talents and a vision that he has deemed to be genius while others might not quite see it?
In the modern-day, we know that C.W. is able to live that fantasy through his work in video games, the medium that he rightly predicted would explode into thousands of worlds ripe for narrative exploration. It’s something that gives him the kind of near immortality usually reserved for an Asimov because it’s interacted with and referenced by multiple generations. It is, again, one of the thousands that do that, but we take the victories where we can.
While this episode and the one upcoming are all about C.W., the story also connects so well to the larger parts of the show where legacies are protected and chased, and people maybe spend too much time creating imaginary rivalries or obsessing about ambitions that are hardly defined beyond more and better. This speaks to the idea that C.W. finally found his people and a family, and also the idea that, no matter your age or place in the world, if you’re creative, there’s probably some part of you that’s a throbbing mass of anxieties, nursed grudges, entitlements, chaos, creativity, and madness.