“Wow, I really underestimated this show,” is probably a thought I should only have once. But alas, and believe me, it’s only because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a TV show, and generally, my expectations for a TV show are at least: this will be a TV show. And with dribbly phrases like “golden era” and “peak TV” ubiquitous in television criticism, we know shows have experimented and pushed past old expectations for the medium. But this is different.
The fourth episode of the new season, “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend is Crazy,” certainly in the early weeks, felt like the season’s best representative. It was an emotional rollercoaster, it struck a perfect balance with altogether too many genres, including horror this time, and moved with a relentless pace. But on top of all of that, while I was watching Rebecca stalk Josh outside his parents’ house, I had this thought that this is exactly the show we would’ve imagined if Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had been canceled after two seasons.
In fact, this is the show we’re always imagining when cancellations cut stories short. In my ever-expanding understanding that I am never prepared to fully comprehend this show, it stands out immediately when we don’t by default expect television shows to pay off. But that’s so much of season three: payoff. And to further my underestimation, 304 happens four episodes in. Though it is a payoff, it it not the payoff. Deeper things are always at work.
For example, this scene here. It’s the twelfth episode, and Rebecca, Paula, Heather, and Valencia are sitting at Sugar Face just shooting the breeze for a little bit, and then their discussion shifts to plot advancement. That’s all. But there’s significance to this mundanity, even that it is mundane. I felt it, that this right here is a sitcom, in such a traditional sense that Heather even brings up the Bechdel Test — this conversation has happened before. And it’s happened before here, which is why it struck me so much.
The girl squad has been meeting regularly, especially in the back half of the season, undisrupted by the major life events that so rocked them early on. Nothing to test the integrity of their friendship or as being alive, so they exist and they live, and so what’s taken for granted on other shows was wrought by achievement here. We can take a breath now, and enjoy those moments in between.
“Hey, girl, how was your pee?”
Let’s not forget that this has been teased at least twice over, in a sense. Valencia’s first appearance in season two is her encounter with Rebecca and Heather at this same donut shop, which is where Rebecca reveals her plan to Heather about Valencia. And after the girl squad is created with the addition of Valencia, we see right away that it’s still incomplete. Up from two, but we still have only three of four at that table.
Funny though, because we weren’t thinking about the girl squad being incomplete in that moment, because that moment was so firmly nestled in the context of its arc. Rebecca was incomplete without Paula. Maybe we didn’t even entertain the idea that Valencia and Heather too were incomplete without her, and vice versa. And isn’t that the mistake we always make, in our lives? But they’ve come together now, with an unlikely community rearranged from more traditional lines of conflict and divide. Each of them played a part, so for me, the question that leads this recap is how did they do it?
In a season of such growth, Heather speaks to the theme of self-actualization not only most directly, as arguably Valencia had already done so previously, but also literally, as she would. Rebecca gives Heather some constructive feedback, and it resonates, as it does with everyone here except Nathaniel. So Heather decides to get her life on track, ducking out of the frame to do so. Cool Heather is a somewhat distant Heather, but we’re nearing the end of that dance we do with perspective, culminating in a jumpcut she initiates.
Coinciding with Ragebecca’s rampage, Heather hits an early character low-point, told she has to soar like an eagle. Heather being a student is something that well-illustrates one of the show’s interesting habits, which is to introduce a significant character detail first as a running joke. Heather likes to say she’s a student to get out of trouble, but what if there was more to it than that? It’s not exactly a commentary on comedy, but it does flout the convention, to simply let running jokes sit, so to speak. Because that’s really the thing, is a running joke is self-evident, or complete. But here, we take it a step further. So less commentary, but that it more so facilitates that recurrent work of deconstructing stereotypes.
So I guess the reason I even mention “commentary” is because a running joke is theoretically minimizing, as you can’t dwell on it. That it’s a shorthand for the shorthand of stereotypes; it makes them benign. If we were Heather’s buddy, we might not think her student thing was an issue, even as it becomes so for her. “Oh, Heather? She loves being a student, that’s her thing.” This is one way immovable problems come to be. Or should I say, if we were Heather’s buddy and also paying attention. Rebecca is particularly bad here, at the moment trying to discredit Josh Chan the lying liar man. You can’t blame her for being stressed out, but Heather is the collateral damage on which the camera lingers.
The Third Roommate
So what does Heather do? We get the sense she does some soul-searching on her own, and has to assert her priorities, as other characters do at various times. As a first step, there’s organization, even, or especially, of the mind.
Can’t hurt she’s become a natural at Home Base. From behind the bar, she can maintain her observing eye, but this stands in contrast to what we’ve seen earlier. And let’s talk about Home Base for a second. The ninth episode is great for so many reasons, and not least of which for its world-building.
“The service here is wack.”
We have this scene where Nathaniel arrives at Home Base and gets as close to indulging in solid food as he had when first we met him exactly a season prior, and immediately recognizes White Josh across the bar. Now, apart from musical sequences, this is the first scene they’ve shared together. There’s a moment where I think “wait, how,” before Nathaniel clarifies: of course he knows Darryl’s now ex-boyfriend, and that becomes the basis of their subplot together. But they get to talking, and Heather appears. She offers commentary and a reminder of her watchful eye, and so you get this sense that this is, like, the watering hole, that when characters come here, they’ll run into familiar faces, and expansion of familiarity across geography is how hatred is defeated, for example. It’s a simple lesson, so what’s important here is that in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, we see the process of the expansion. What it looks like, how characters react to it and interact with each other.
Consistent, then, with the theme of reconstruction is building up settings alongside characters, like Home Base, whose name is taking on more poetry as the series progresses. And granted, this all sounds really dumb because where else are you gonna have characters appear but for settings, but the difference is this cross-pollination with history. That’s the process. So much has changed in West Covina since Rebecca first arrived. Heather, White Josh, and Nathaniel never would’ve met if not for her — Nathaniel was assigned Whitefeather after Rebecca broke the water scandal, while neighbor Heather and friend of friend White Josh met on the party bus. It’s about a strong sense of place, that a location has meaning, and endowing a backdrop with significance takes considerable setup.
It’s a world, and a world is populated. In any TV show, the main characters are gonna encounter priests or therapists or grocers. They could just be that, but in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the priest is Father Brah, the therapist is either Noel or David Akopian, grocers dust potatoes and do cartwheels, Kevin’s smile hides a lot of repressed pain, the popular Casting Call magazine is represented, even this bartender has hopes and dreams. We also have a designated assistant, if you need to berate or threaten some labor out of an arguably not altogether competent employee. It feels like a lived-in place, because there are neighbors.
The various quiet establishment that Heather is attuned to her job smoothly bridges into Heather’s next step, career-wise. Very smooth. In a fun parallel, Heather becomes Kevin’s boss at the same time Rebecca becomes Nathaniel’s. So how does this happen? Kevin supplies Heather with a program targeting people of diverse backgrounds, which sounds roughly like Affirmative Action. This is an Affirmative Action story.
“That’s strike three.”
Heather arrives at the corporate headquarters and sees something I imagine many in the professional world are familiar with. She doesn’t really fit, but why is that really? It’s kind of a culture clash, and Heather may say or do things because she doesn’t feel tethered to a system that efficiently reproduces its crushing sameness and values silence as a function of bureaucratic complexity. Now, common wisdom in so many industries is you have to be in the right place at the right time, luck widely held as the unsung virtue key to career success. But luck is a currency, and with any, there’s socioeconomic divide. To be in that right place, you have to be in the right place.
And as I hope we all understand by now, everybody everywhere at all times is hired based on their gender and ethnicity, no matter it is. It’s an evil but it doesn’t necessarily make anyone evil, because these biases are natural, and were, up until recently, beyond our understanding. That’s why Affirmative Action is a temporary salve on a system wounded by these biases, and until that system is entirely operated on, well, let’s just say it’s hard to estimate the ability of minorities when they’re outside the building.
Heather manages to implement her great ideas because the time and the place worked out to receive them. And these great ideas I think come partly from the brimming ambition induced by existential questions about purpose. It’s something even she has trouble fully understanding, that lightheadedness you get when you realize you’re an adult now. She was in her moment, or she was her moment, and so too was Home Base.
“It’s just, like, so on the nose”
This is not an Affirmative Action story, even though I said it was. It’s just that the calculus of “curtailed advancement for minorities doesn’t fall wholly to the system” cannot come from a deliberative take on the subject matter. This is where the text above the subtext matters in storytelling, and so an otherwise controversial idea can be teased out naturally, without invoking the terminology which riles preconception, not unfairly, in this case.
And speaking of natural, Heather hooks up with Hector, and it just makes so much sense. They’re both effortlessly cool people, whose coolness in fact usually overrides any frustration with their equally effortless immobility. And they’re unfairly pigeonholed in sidekick roles, which makes them keen observers and yet also often surprisingly oblivious. And what I really love about this relationship other than the inherent fan service of pairing off two characters we’ve appreciated individually for two and a half seasons is that they exist with almost no drama. Even when Heather’s pregnant, which is usually when TV characters go into harpy mode, they work through it. Although you wouldn’t guess from this same TV, sometimes two people just click, or at least, do not constantly scream at each other to signify “compelling character studies.”
Again, Heather’s this season was a story of self-actualization. And so, where does this exploration of her inner self ultimately lead? Back outward. She agrees to carry Darryl’s baby, and this more so than anything between Darryl and White Josh, was the payoff to a setup from the previous finale.
I also couldn’t even can’t couldn’t
However, that does leave the Darryl and White Josh relationship as almost an afterthought. They break up, which puts additional stress on the “why,” that being the baby. And we don’t get as much rationale from Darryl why he wants the baby as we’ve had rationales from other characters who have wanted things. We can reason that eventually there’s gonna be an impassable schism in their relationship, and it will be interesting to see how our control group passes through it next season. That leaves their story here more as scaffolding for the big baby macguffin, which isn’t nothing, but did strike a same, curious note throughout.
Of course, the breakup allows us a further insight on White Josh’s insecurities, and his befriending Nathaniel is worth its zero body fat weight in gold. We get a reminder of his childhood demons, and the intensity of discipline all that bullying inspired. And then, Darryl’s journey relies upon the help of others, all those relationships he spent last season grappling with. Mostly Paula, but by now, we understand why he’s someone you’d want to help. Like Rebecca, he’s one of the unifying forces in West Covina, with roughly the same hit and miss rate. In fact, Rebecca puts it into words at one of her low moments.
“You always make me feel better. The first second I came here, you’ve been so nice to me. I’d do anything for you. You know that, right?”
It would be hard to believe that this is the end for the relationship in the penultimate season, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is, as we well know by now, a show that so often flicks your expectations on its cute little button nose. However, I think it’s actually their breakup scene that rings hopeful for their future. They manage to split without verbalizing it, because they’re just that in sync, and they’ve mutually and subconsciously understood it’s the correct choice, at least, for the moment. Even though it confuses White Josh on the mutual aspect of the breakup, this is what healthy communication looks like. It’s so alien.
Paula’s been spending a lot of this series living out her alternate family fantasy, in which she’s unmarried and has an adult daughter. As Rebecca postulates, this may be evidence of an empty life. If there’s a kernel of truth there, it’s hardly a love kernel of truth, but we do see that Paula is not the most attentive parent. It’s not just about Tommy growing up to be exactly like Brandon, but that they and Scott have developed an understanding that Paula intermittently stops caring about them. Now we get that whenever Paula is with Rebecca and it’s all fun, there are people she’s leaving behind.
“There’s a part of you that’s not always here. Why is that? Don’t know.”
The answer to Scott’s query here comes from Paula’s mini crazy ex-girlfriend adventure in Buffalo. She runs into her very first everything, Jeff Channington, and she’s tempted down this road again. They share common interests, which can’t be said for Paula and most people in her life, even Rebecca sometimes. If the show changes to the point it brushes up against retcon, like Mrs. Hernandez speaking, they can just chalk it up to Rebecca’s characteristic insensitivity. That’s goddamn clever.
After a nice inversion of the heroic rescue, Paula reasons she’s been neglecting Scott because she always wondered what her life would’ve been like with Jeff. Here we are back at this moment, which felt so different. As she says, this time, she got to make the choice, where before, she was dumped. Paula, arguably thanks to being alongside Rebecca on her wild journey, is clear-eyed about fantasy men. Jeff is imbued with more meaning than he could possibly contain, and going through with this would’ve been Outlander-style escapism: a temporary fix.
Paula will likely make an effort to involve herself more at home, but conversely, vows to stop interfering in the lives of yet other people, after the fiasco with Darryl. But as Rebecca also discovers, it’s not that easy. The problem for Paula is that people are affected by her interference and absence, and also by a front-facing self she’s unaware of. And so, like Heather, she has to look inward to then look back out, though she does so in conversation. With some help from Rebecca, she’s made aware that she’s the office bitch, which is apparently what Paula’s show is called. Again, there’s been this implicit quality to what’s suddenly become an issue, to where Rebecca thought Paula celebrated the title.
“Karen, shut it down.”
And it certainly looks that way, in retrospect. Here, we have another case of shifting perspectives, though it’s more like expanding perspectives. Paula being tough and self-confident is comparable to the situation way back in the fifth episode the series, where those qualities came as part of a victory, of asserting herself over a very traditional office.
This isn’t to say that later Crazy Ex-Girlfriend makes earlier Crazy Ex-Girlfriend bad by deconstructing it, although even if it did, that would be equally fascinating. Because in 105, the conclusion drawn was that while a professional woman’s righteous anger can be a whirlwind, it doesn’t swallow her whole. And importantly, we sympathize with her position throughout.
“That is not how you play slappy-slaps.”
But now we have further and even conflicting sympathies. It’s not just the direction of the scene, which lingers on the reaction shots of people affected by Paula’s insults, but by this point, we’ve accumulated enough history with these characters that we like them, and so care about what’s derived by the lingering. Two steps. And also, writing and directing in concert.
Paula resolves to do better, and does so by directly responding to Sunil’s complaint about her. As much as I love any instance of Sunil, I wish this resolution played just slightly differently. Sunil wants to be recognized for his work, but Paula can’t or even refuses to do so. In the end, she recognizes his work is good, but did the work improve or was she missing things earlier? Neither really exists in evidence, so it’s almost like she’s just saying “good job.” So I might’ve preferred that Paula had simply revised her mode of criticism, rather than give Sunil the participant award, which needles classic conservative anxiety about the cheapening of the workplace. But instead, I have to conclude it’s that Paula was missing things earlier, and if we make the connecting leap that this is because of preconceptions, then I think it’s okay. For Paula, nothing can measure up to her standards, because they’re so high, even she can’t.
“Oh, no. They’re morons.”
As thematic extension of the lateral criticism of the complex thesis statement “Let’s Generalize About Men,” Paula building bridges this season takes a lot of labor in the form of hard introspection. Empowerment is not a power fantasy. Off this musical number, we might think that this season of revenge against men would see Paula individuate herself from all the relationships Rebecca points out here. But it’s not really like that. Instead, she reconciles her relationships, whether personal, romantic, or familial, and by doing so, we’re asking “who is she” and “who is she in the lives of other people?” And the empowerment consistent with the subversion here is that the answer is these two questions are one in the same.
The process by which Paula reconnects with Sunil and even Darryl is the same as with Scott, it begins with the self, and we see that these men are worth connecting with. They are her society, society being, ideally, less you and them and more a series of relationships, even a network. It’s just a matter of there being parity with each, as Rebecca suggests should be the case between them. We’ll remember this, because it’s the key to Paula’s character, and for now, it’s significant the key is missing.
As “Where’s Rebecca Bunch?” demonstrates, Josh leaving Rebecca at the altar had an effect on West Covina, this small town rocked by a scandal. For Valencia, her business was hurt, unfairly, of course, but such is the game: her name (and face) is attached to a disaster wedding, and that’s all people see: surface details. She should be spending time course-correcting, but still offers to help Rebecca get revenge on Josh. Arguably, it is revenge for her, too, but her anger at Josh is more for the business thing, as she’d truly gotten over him around the time of his engagement to Rebecca. She shows up, because of course she does. Rebecca’s her friend.
And as Valencia says, she’s never had a friend like Rebecca before. The sixth episode of the season might be my favorite of the season. I liked it right away, but on the second viewing, the one-two punch of Nathaniel connecting to his mom and then Valencia breaking down was actually emotionally overwhelming. Valencia begins the episode by blurring the line between support and showmanship, and then makes that line crystal clear. Heather calls her out on it, leading to a memorable solo that ends on a characterizing note which blurs another line: metatext.
Later in the episode, Valencia references this final line, outside the context of a musical number
As we discover, this is Valencia gliding along what’s superficial so as to avoid facing a deeper pain. She wants to believe this situation is as easy as assuring people it’ll be okay, but Rebecca tells her she can’t promise anything, even to herself. What’s that oldest Crazy Ex-Girlfriend refrain, about situations and how they’re something or other? It’ll come to me. But that refrain reiterates across Valencia’s arc here, as we see her repeatedly put off dealing with issues in favor of, again, surface details.
She takes on Rebecca as an assistant because it’ll make her look fancy, she wants to organize classy events for classy people, and this is something Beth recognizes. Valencia feels a lot of shame for her past, which was so defined by Josh, and wants to remake her image by throwing herself in with the fancy and the elegant. But Beth encourages her to instead accept who she is, Joshes and all.
“Come on. He’s a nice guy.”
When we go back and examine season one Valencia, identify what she now looks back on with shame, what we find is ironic: she was ashamed of being with Josh for so long, but she was probably with Josh because they were so celebrated. Being labeled a perfect couple via homecoming king and queen and persisting in that mentality through adulthood, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for self-reflection. Maybe Valencia would’ve wanted something different or even at that time unimaginable. So we have to ask ourselves sometimes, why things often are unimaginable.
Valencia is one of my favorite characters, because not only is hers in part a redemption story, it features such a dramatic change no matter what. And yet, what always impresses me when looking back is how she is always so mean, but this meanness has been completely recontextualized. Her aggression and her vanity is something we enjoy now, but it was deployed specifically and much differently in the first season. And when the creators were making the first season, I have to imagine they were holding their breaths the entire time, because they had to lean so hard on an old rom-com trope.
Remember when Valencia was the wrong woman? The scene of #114 is framed from Josh’s perspective, because we’re supposed to be sympathetic to the idea that Rebecca and Josh are the better match, and Valencia’s feelings, well, they’re incidental. It’s not really in our television-watching lexicon to contain them. Valencia’s to the day maintained this exact quality which two years ago was designed to frustrate us.
“What’s. The. Real. Reason. Rebecca?”
Ultimately, Valencia’s acceptance of her past is an exercise in accepting imperfection. Nobody’s story, whether romance or origin, is perfect, or as planned. And the dance she and Josh do was actually perfect. I loved it. Valencia continues to discover new things about herself, and like Darryl in season one, needs to be adaptable in order to accept herself, and that’s a trait that also faces outward.
She continues to show up for Rebecca, and more personally for her, she reconciles with Josh. And Josh is another one who’s gone through some change, though it’s more like change is happening around him and he’s trying to keep up. He begins the season by, as Hector perfectly summarizes: becoming a priest to avoid an awkward conversation. We’ve all been there.
“I used to like guacamole, now I don’t like guacamole”
He’s using the seminary to absolve his guilt, but when Rebecca inadvertently does so instead, he leaves, in time to be outmaneuvered. It’s a hectic time, and it demands growth. He loses a sense for accountability, and then gains it back connecting the dots between his most serious rejection of Rebecca and her suicide attempt. He wants to make things better in his usual style, washing away the guilt instantly, and he has to learn it’s more complicated than that. Wow. It’s like we the audience are watching stereotypes and preconceptions break down and the characters’ specific preconceptions are breaking down, too. In this case, that relationships are not always an opt-in, opt-out situation. Again, society is a series of inextricable relationships, and can be destitute when those aren’t addressed, but when they are, it can be so much more.
Though we knew at the time, his earliest enthusiasm here was a false happiness, to be improved upon by the end. But my God, this dance sequence is kind of unbelievable. I mean, he looks like he was animated by Pixar.
Speculation abounded going into the premiere, and even afterward. Teased that Rebecca would try litigation, I was excited by the prospect of Josh hiring Audra Levine as his defense. Around that time, it seemed that season three could’ve taken so many different shapes, which is why those first five episodes were such a rollercoaster. Twists and turns, like it was burning up all its story way too quickly. For the record, now in retrospect, I think, “the season couldn’t have been anything else.” Funny how that works.
But my big guess going in was that season three would be taken up entirely by the revenge, which would put this moment at the finale. And yet, by the finale, we’ve experienced so much that would’ve seemed unthinkable in this finale. In addition to Valencia and Josh finding some peace, Rebecca considers him one of the people she’s wronged, in her botched effort to atone for all her sins. She doesn’t go to priest-school, but she might as well have.
Revenge stories, as discussed during 304, never work out. And if it’s a woman’s revenge story, the character’s climactic death reinforces the normalcy of submissiveness. One of the common tropes of revenge movies I’ve seen, especially Asian ones, is that revenge operates in a cycle of violence. And that cycle is going to be broken here.
Rebecca takes her cues from those movies, and seems more interested in the appearance of a woman scorned than figuring out whatever work it entails. It’s a heads-up, as we see Rebecca’s ruin is fully leaning into “crazy ex-girlfriend,” accepting the label after so much rejecting it.
Here, she pours herself into a mold designed against her, and so it was doomed to fail. However, Rebecca’s revenge was a project that galvanized female solidarity. I think that in the end, Rebecca actually gets her revenge, if we’re supposing an equation between revenge and female empowerment, as she does. And part of the victory is the revision, breaking the cycle and taking violence out of it. Rebecca is haunted by her gender-swapped doppelganger, where 304 is reversed on her in the finale. Righting the core wrong in this world which created the label crazy ex-girlfriend, that’s not gonna look like hiding in bushes and hanging teddy bears. It might instead look like building bridges, mending fences, other cliches that cheapen, this time, the virtue of human interconnectedness.
“He’s a male ingenue.”
And to emphasize, it won’t look like Trent. Here’s another character who begins as a running joke, and it was a good one. But they really lay on the accelerator here, theoretically disillusioning Trebecca shippers, at the very least. His transformation from one-off plot device to embodiment of Rebecca’s flaws is impressive by itself, like a hidden dagger up the sleeve, but so rich in the moment for making manifest the antagonism of self-loathing bubbling out of a well-remembered past.
The creepiness is clear, but the line between these two characters is so blurry. So it adds some spice to this question: Does Trent deserve sympathy? Remember when Valencia was the bad guy, or when Nathaniel was the bad guy? There are no bad guys in West Covina, especially since the greatest villain of all is Rebecca. And the mission of the show is to contextualize a person who’s been so vilified, who’s shouldered a lot of unfair blame and shouldered through enough people to take some of that blame herself. With this mission of giving someone a fair shake, we say that the giving of fair shakes is good form, so what of Trent?
Well, he didn’t die, so he’s clearly coming back, as his being and his returning are both touchstones for the show in equal measure: the camera panning to reveal… Trent? One of the running jokes with Trent that hadn’t significantly occurred to me before is his being a benevolent stalker. Not aggressive or violent, and deferentially sexual. I think that’s more out of concern for plot and tone, that Rebecca needs a reason to variously go along with Trent. But it’s also consistent with the theme that problematic behavior often knows how to clean up well and dress up nice. Like in turtlenecks.
“When you are caught, you are killed.”
The crazy ex journey, whether girlfriend or fake boyfriend is a quirky path that always seems to end in murder. Trent fulfills Jarl’s prophecy about revenge movies, but the question is if Trent will learn anything from these same experiences that Rebecca has learned. So this question is still somewhat open. Trent is a work-in-progress, but I think his being uplifted into a fully-realized character from a once-off joke is evidence enough that truly everyone in West Covina will deserve our sympathy.
So here we are, back at Sugar Face, which is girl squad central ever since boba went out of style? As an aside, I do always wonder when sets are either introduced or abandoned in shows. Especially situational comedies, where the backgrounds are often so static as to simply be backgrounds, with no bearing on the situation, and that question inappropriately survives to even this situational comedy, of what real world cause led to Rebecca’s old apartment replaced by the new one, or the exchange of Boba for donuts? It’s not even worth noting that it’s always contextualized by the story, because that’s obvious, but more so, there’s utility beyond the immediate: though donuts are unhealthier than boba for being unhealthier than just about anything, it’s the stage for a fresh start. Like fresh donuts.
Buttload of Cats is somehow more profane than Fuckton
The girl squad is both itself and the publication of a broader idea that’s always at work under the cheery West Covinian sun. It’s about society, that Rebecca’s gang is our most immediate microcosm for the process of connection that we’ve been talking about. The girl squad had its roots in healing, coercive it may have been, and ends its origin story standing in solidarity against men who’ve wronged women. It’s about support.
And that’s part of the note we end on. Early in the season finale, Darryl’s family occupies this exam room, all standing by Heather. Everyone has a role, a reason, a history. But who has to duck out? In fact, who’s been absent in the lives of everyone else this whole season? Rebecca is the final piece. Peaking with our postmodern baby macguffin, we’ve seen what’s possible when people come together, and Rebecca’s been their catalyst, as Nathaniel points out at the end. She challenges people to look inward, but this is most of her relative existence, is being a cipher.
Whether it’s that Valencia’s had to forgive Rebecca to the point of exhaustion, or that we no longer believe when Paula says “I’m done with her,” she does need to finally arrive in the world she’s been architecting. Whatever that looks like, even if it looks exactly like the Rebecca shenanigans of old, I’m so excited. The completion of her journey means so much more than the hero reaching his destination or saving the world or thwarting the villain. She’s carrying with her everyone who identifies with her on any level, regarding mental health, ethnicity, gender, label, and carrying us into a better world sparked by the irresistible idea that we can catalyze ours, too.
We can see how this community of people is developing because so much of their interaction is framed around projects: Rebecca’s revenge, Rebecca’s healing, Darryl’s baby. Paula steps in to assist Darryl acquire an egg. Rebecca steps in to volunteer that egg. Heather steps in and volunteers to carry the baby. Valencia organizes the proceedings. Heather and Darryl, Nathaniel and White Josh, hell, Valencia and Josh: relationships are reexamined or examined for the first time under this new auspice of the stuff that never happens on television. Sure, if Crazy Ex-Girlfriend actually went on for more than its two amazing seasons, Heather and Darryl may have had some storylines together, but I literally cannot even imagine what they would be.
This to me is more than endgame, which makes me all the more excited for what the endgame of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as singular narrative will be. But putting that aside, the forge of West Covina as a utopia, asexual, friend, or otherwise, has been such a beautiful endgame to witness as it’s unfolded across the season. So what about this one last crucial development, who’s now positioned to make this world whole by returning to it whole, which is the ultimate revenge.
Something incredible happens after the fifth episode, which is that the show runs out of story. This is something that TV shows often prance into, with the elegance of a gazelle-catapult, but it’s incredible rather than expected in this case. I mean, collapsing premises is practically etched into the DNA of this medium. A staggering majority of shows broadcast are canceled before they reach what quickly becomes a fanciful notion: completion. Upon 306, I wondered what the rest of the season and the series would be like.
The back half, considerably more mellow than the first, mostly focuses on Rebecca and Nathaniel, and this is a significant part of her journey I couldn’t predict coming off season two. We can be cynical about it, and by we I mean I, and say this is the inevitability of male and female leads. But there I go again, underestimating the show on the basis of its admittedly wobbly medium. Rebecca’s back-and-forth with Nathaniel here not only reflects the teasing of the first half, it revises it, and it’s not so much about Nathaniel any more than being a crazy ex-girlfriend was about Josh. It’s the question, as hashed out in Dr. Akopian’s office, of whether or not Rebecca can believe she deserves love.
I hadn’t necessarily been too intrigued or engaged by the Rebecca/Nathaniel courtship as it played out in season three, but it’s just because Nathaniel has to be an almost blank ideal candidate. In order for Rebecca to develop her aptitude for a relationship with anyone, Nathaniel has to be that anyone, lest we add too many variables to this scientific experiment. However, with the very last number of the season, we revisit his moral compass, and I can see him as a fundamentally broken person. I fell for it again: a character with a perfect shell is reintroduced with a perfect shell, but of course there’s something deeper going on. And of course, when there’s broken people on television, you imagine that relationships are part of healing that.
Ruth Gator Ginsburg
Nathaniel, if we remember, established his morality early on: a kind of ruthless impartiality, especially in business, as was the case with his budget deadline. Though he fires George for the purpose of intimidation, these new employees are just names on a spreadsheet. So when Rebecca and Paula bring in enough new business to satisfy the budget, nobody needs to get fired. As is the essence of capitalism, what’s lost here is the human element, and so the mechanical distance of “names of a spreadsheet” is exactly why Nathaniel can be so remorseless in firing George. Like Valencia, this is the essence that doesn’t change, no matter how soft he’s gotten. In fact, the essence and the softness are related.
We’ve been exploring Nathaniel’s relationships with his father and his mother, we see his body-related insecurities flare up, we witness his everyday life, especially his friendship with White Josh, which was a real “Duh” moment for me. With all of it, we see the origin of his underlying issues, and then, how they impact his adult life. We add another dimension with “Nothing Is Ever Anyone’s Fault,” his response to those issues: at constant odds with them, he is the inescapable product of his upbringing, and as a result, the bad things he does were practically predetermined. He is just the instrument, and that amorality as Rebecca identifies it is wholly consistent with his mechanical distance. Here, it’s distance from consequence.
It’s ironic, because whenever he talks about Rebecca, he admires or recoils at how she’s changed him. Clearly, he can transform, and appreciates that he has. So the question that’s prompted by describing the cycle of toxicity as cosmic and ancient, is will they be the ones to break that cycle? They’re evidently subconsciously aware of it, and in the end, Rebecca decides to give it a shot. Boy, does she.
“I plead responsible.”
Now, sometimes, you have a situation where the resolution to a story satisfies the theme better than it does the continuity of the characters or the world. A debatable example is Lt. Daniels at the end of The Wire, who turns down a major promotion because he’d owe someone for it, and doesn’t want to be in anyone’s pocket. Given the themes of battling a dishonorable system, this is the right storytelling move. But if you existed in-universe next to Daniels, you might ask why he doesn’t take the job anyway, because surely someone worse will take it in instead. His rejection is where the expression of the point lives.
And here, Rebecca decides to finally take responsibility for everything she’s done that nobody asked for, but did she have to do it while on trial for murder? And let’s pause there, too, just for a moment. Even on certain prestige HBO programming, the people we like aren’t held accountable for their actions like this. Among the roles we’ve seen occupied by engaging characters, one role that hasn’t been filled out is the police. Except they have, as kind of a feint. The officer in the first season could be overcome with some quick thinking and if you start talking like an anime character. Not very threatening. And so, an instance like this, standing in contrast, and along with the occasional reminder of Rebecca’s history with law enforcement, has this discomforting quality which pokes reality into our escapist fantasyland.
We’ve seen Rebecca and Paula trespass and hack and surveil, and we’ve assumed nothing will come of that. In the show that leaves absolutely no accountability stone unturned, this will be part of the final test. The world that Rebecca helps create for her community still needs her, in as many ways as she exists: Rebecca as friend, Rebecca as catalyst for change, Rebecca as feminist icon, and finally, Rebecca as someone who’s done that discomforting work of having fully accepted herself.
“You ruined everything.”
So yes, thematically, Rebecca needed to take responsibility at that exact moment. And the stakes being so high tells us she’s committing to it. We have the two sides set: Nathaniel supplies her a fancy Los Angeles criminal defense, if she admits to being insane, using her history and her diagnosis as an out. Or, she accepts all of it, and faces the legal consequence. What cinches it is Paula’s arrival in the courthouse. Just seeing her means a lot for Rebecca, so let’s try to unpack what’s going through her mind in this moment.
At this point, it’s hard to say that their last fight was the most catastrophic relative to all the others, so the point is that there’s a cumulative effect. What’s so heartbreaking is Paula saying she doesn’t believe Rebecca can change, and it’s effective because there’s truth to it. Like in some revenge movies, or even gangster movies, events set in motion by the cycle have a habit of coming back, and that’s how you get trapped. In this case, it’s not Rebecca’s fault that Trent is back, but at the same time, it is.
“Turn them over in five. They’ll be ready in ten.”
At the end of the season, Rebecca finds herself where Josh was at the beginning: looking for the quick fix to avoid an awkward confrontation. She writes out a list of sins and hands them to each person she’s wronged, and this demonstration of mechanical distance, names on a spreadsheet, is our setup.
Perhaps in response to Rebecca’s claim that Paula’s life apart from her is empty, she’s spent the season filling it out, building and renewing trust with all the people in her life. She confessed her stalker sins to Valencia, truly welcomed Scott back into her life, patched things over with Sunil. But then she’s faced with Rebecca, who she can’t trust. Rebecca’s like a shark ever circling, and it’s meaningful because we’ve been setting the metrics throughout for what Paula expects from a relationship and also, what she deserves, for being long-suffering and because she works at it.
And so what Rebecca sees in this moment is the person she’s most wronged, over the last three seasons. There’s a reason beyond the abstractions of love and family that can be clouded by social messages and criminal socializations, it’s the human consequence of Paula being hurt, and that becomes a greater consequence than any the judge can serve up. The iconic blue dress is scarier than the orange jumpsuit. It’s what has Paula lying in bed, reminiscing when Rebecca leaves her time and again. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend begins on the note of the label, something manufactured at the farthest point from human contact, and now promises to bridge the final gaps between people. The final bridges — there is no goddamn way to speak with a utopian inflection and not sound like a total dork.
Now, it’s hard to reduce the relationship down to Rebecca eternally disappointing Paula, because as has widely been noted, there’s toxicity on both sides. Overall, there’s multidimensionality between the two, and so my biggest question right now for season four is about the nature of Rebecca and Paula’s relationship. Another one of the impressive mechanisms of the show is to introduce something compelling, like our devious duo, then show why it’s not 100% great, and then, consistent with other areas like Heather’s observational comedy or Valencia’s villainy, provide a meaningful answer. And each step of that process feels like the main event, rather than a layer of significance. It’s also the rare show that’s intricate in its construction but doesn’t show you its clockwork. That’s our job.
Season three ends incredibly bittersweetly, and Rebecca’s trembling, tired, and hopeful eyes are the image which now to me defines it in retrospect. It’s so bold to have staged this image, so ambitious to have laid the groundwork to optimally reach it, leaving me with that confounding feeling I get so rarely from media, that I don’t know exactly how to feel, but that’s okay. I can just leave it, let it be, because its being is something wonderful. Though I didn’t realize it, season three has been this battle between light and dark as they cloud or blind Rebecca along her journey. There’s hope throughout, glimpses of redemption between what was previously intermittent darkness, but which now eclipses, holding there like the eyes of creepy children in old paintings.
In my mind, after season two, I had the rest of the series mapped out. As mentioned earlier, I thought season three would end on this note, the character low-point, and then season four would be about her getting help, and they could satisfactorily call it a show. The new dimension carved out by the back-half of the third season, where Rebecca is found to be inextricable from her community, and this community posits the intersections of introspection and solidarity, of individuality and relationships, it’s just honestly so exciting. It’s so much more than what I’d predicted, and even its setup has taught me so much via narrative harmony from creators with invaluable perspectives and astonishing talent. I don’t know if we’ll see the final payoff, the final bridges, but if I’m left to imagine for the time being, it’ll be that same underestimation. That’s partly my fault, but it’s also the show’s, for being so goddamn good.
Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 02/17/2018