For a filmmaker who purports to be foremost interested in realism, John Wilson has a knack for absurdity. In Friday night's “How to Track Your Package,” the superlative series finale of Wilson's show, a missing parcel first sends our hero to a shipping center—and then when that fails, to a psychic. If you’ve been watching How To for the past few years, this will hardly strike you as an unusual detour. Wilson is the sort of guide who will turn the most straightforward task—say, appreciating wine—into an existential odyssey.
Throughout its three-season run, How To's unpredictability has been one of its greatest joys. In the process of investigating how to cover your furniture, Wilson discovered an effort towards foreskin restoration; during an episode on memory, he chanced upon a man consumed with the Mandela effect at the grocery store. His camera is unparalleled at capturing small wonders, be it a woman in the act of bagging a pigeon or a man dancing atop a moving subway train. Ultimately, How To can be understood as a detective show dressed up as a Kafkaesque tutorial—with Wilson, above all, searching for anything that will make him (and us) say, "Wow." And while the show’s wows often are born from little moments of unexpected comedy, more times than not they naturally lead Wilson back to the most profound subjects.
Like, uh, you know, mortality. How To has, from the start, had the tendency to encounter death in unexpected places—at MTV! Spring Break, for instance, or during Wilson’s quest to find a parking spot—probably as a result of Wilson’s worldview. “Thinking about mortality and grief is baked into the way I perceive things in daily life,” Wilson told me in a Zoom interview, following the finale’s premiere at Rockaway Film Festival last weekend. “I tend to take things to their logical extremes, an mortality is the ultimate question with no answer—and that's what I try to orient the show around.”
Fittingly, the finale gets to The End quite quickly. In a consultation about Wilson’s missing package, the psychic pulls the “death card”—before telling Wilson he has “commitment issues… a lot of commitment issues.” (It's a trait Wilson himself has mentioned in past episodes.) The psychic’s reading turns out to be portentous. A series of dada transitions brings Wilson to Arizona’s Organ Stop Pizza, home of the "largest theater pipe organ ever created." There, Wilson meets a member of Alcor, a leading cryonics organization.
How To loves nothing more than a gathering of niche obsessives, and as fate (or shrewd planning on the part of the show) would have it, Wilson arrives in Arizona just as Alcor is about to have its 50th anniversary party. Wilson attends the celebration, where he surveys the various guests on why they want to be frozen. There is excitement for the future (“If you see the future as good, wouldn’t you want to be part of it?”), sci-fi fantasizing (imagine your head on “a wardrobe of bodies”), and flat-out denial (''I don’t accept that,” one woman says of her father’s death). Many of the people Wilson interviews come off as comically eccentric—but the series, taken in full, gives them context. People, be they Avatar superfans or vacuum enthusiasts, come together and devote themselves to something for connection in the here and now—and also, perhaps, to cope with the ephemerality of existence.
And while Wilson wouldn’t himself pay to have his body and/or head frozen for eternity, he told me that he connected with the impulse. The inclination towards preservation, after all, was the seed of his show. Long before he started making How To, Wilson felt compelled to use his video camera to document his surroundings. “Living in New York for so long, you become used to the tragedy of your favorite thing disappearing,” he said. “I just wanted to get ahead of that and preserve as much as I possibly could visually from my own perspective.”
In the grand scheme of things, Wilson’s archive is a narrow record. But more than truly preserving a period in time, these three seasons of How To are testament to how much there always is to marvel at so long as you have your eyes and ears open. After all, when Wilson first started the show, he worried that the magic moments he was capturing weren’t replicable, that he was catching lightning—or collapsed scaffolding, as it were—in a barrel. But by the show’s third season, he came to trust the process—that if he interviewed enough people and his team spent enough time on the street, they’d find gold. “Once we figured it out, it was just a numbers game,” Wilson said. Along the way, he found that actually, “it's much more common that people have a shocking history or obsession than that they're normal in any kind of traditional definition.”
So, near the end of the finale, when the Alcor member Wilson met at Organ Stop Pizza reveals that, as an adolescent, he castrated himself and “cut some nerves in the penis” to deal with unwanted sex drive, Wilson hopes viewers will empathize rather than gawk. “I feel like if you have a long enough conversation with anyone something like this might surface,” he said. “There are extremes in everyone's lives, and that's why the show speaks to a lot of people—because it's a bit of a mirror to their own eccentricities.”
Wilson, though, ever toeing the line between mischievous and sincere, said that he also hopes that that final interview will help fans of the show cope with How To concluding its run. “So much of the show is about the denial of satisfaction in the city because of whatever strange roadblock to getting what you want here,” Wilson said. “And especially with the show ending, that interview about castration, I felt like I wanted to give the viewers the tools to deal with [the impossibility of true satisfaction] in a way.”
“I never personally felt the urge to castrate myself, but if people are having a really hard time dealing with the end of the show, I gave them the tools to do it.”
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