Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Season 4 Recap

So, I was really unsure about how to condense or even identify my feelings on the fourth season, because it was such an unexpected turn that it left me without much I could personally square. For the most part, it’s just beyond my critical ability, and I actually prefer that. That was my very first experience with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, back in season one, that this is a show speaking a new language; it’s a puzzle and suddenly so much of my energy is being directed toward solving it. And that’s where this YouTube channel comes from: pure excitement over something so novel and as I discovered, so deeply layered it rewarded analysis. I think that reward still waits for me on the other side of a true deep dive on the fourth season, but it just hasn’t been enough time for me, and I’m more than happy to linger in this space where it remains mysterious and kind of baffling in both good and bad ways. To be honest, this season was frustrating as it was surprising, maintaining everything that made past Crazy Ex-Girlfriend so wonderful except, in my opinion, for one thing: a strong sense of direction.

But before we get into it, I just wanted to mention that this video is brought to you by Jojo’s Gofundme, not literally speaking, but promoting this fundraiser is why I’m back here for one last ride. First of all, thank you to everyone who’s already seen this and shared it and donated — it means so much to me and affirms that this fanbase is one of the good ones. It’s like, horror movie fandom, and then Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and that’s pretty much the only non-toxic fandoms I’ve encountered. I guess that’s just to damn with faint praise. You are so non-toxic. But really, I do appreciate it, because it sucks to be in a situation like this, to say the least. The link will be in the description if you haven’t seen it, and I thank you for your time.

But speaking of a sense of direction, can we get back on track here or what? Now, I don’t think I’m the only one who developed theories about the ending maybe from the very beginning. I thought Rebecca was gonna do X, Y, Z, and that belief can prove problematic when she actually does Y, X, Z, or what have you. But she didn’t really. My thought was Rebecca was going to really start working on herself, and that’s where we arrive by episode 18, but almost everything preceding that felt like experimentation or wandering where I felt there should be mission, a strong sense of purpose propelling her through this journey. So while Rebecca and Audra finally reconcile and Greg comes back and all these amazing things happened, I was so often wondering what was going on, and how what I was seeing would ultimately relate to the mission.

But I don’t want to spend any more time on the negativity, I mean, what’s wrong with me? In part because I’ve wondered if it’s only temporary anyway. As my podcast cohost Donovan pointed out, I felt ambivalent about season two after that closed, and it’s probably my favorite season now. Again, my apprehension of this season is limited, owed I think to a real zigazow season as well as to my ever attenuating ability to criticize media. So give it some time, and with a proper review of the season and the series as a whole, I’m sure my evaluation will be fairer. My current less than superlative feelings about season four certainly don’t affect my enjoyment of the show itself. Episode 18 could’ve cut to black and displayed a picture of myself with “You’re a dck” over my face like a Matt Damon movie poster and I still would’ve felt like “This is home.” West Covina was my television home for three years, and I miss it a lot. I watch a lot of TV shows, and I’m affected by a lot of them — easily won over perhaps; I cry a lot these days — but nothing has reached me like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has.

So what I do want to focus on instead, now that we have the complete picture, is one of my favorite of the show’s themes: homecoming. Rebecca begins this season in jail, and is trying to figure out how best to return home. That takes asking a lot of big questions, like “What can I do for the people around me?” “How can I right the wrongs of my past?” “What do I even want to do?” I think that last one in particular will ring true for a lot of recent post-graduates in the Crazy-Ex audience, and even for me, it was maybe too real. Rebecca has this revelation late in the show that she doesn’t know who she is, or what she wants out of life. And some people might think, “Oh, come on, Rebecca, you can’t be asking these questions now,” but in my experience, that’s exactly when you’re ready to answer those questions: when you feel like it’s too late.

I think being a guy made me very confident in my choices about my life path from the start. So a lot of what I’m dealing with right now is the consequence of decisions made by a dumbass who wasn’t old enough to drive or see a PG-13 movie — me, in all my confident glory. I said, I want to do this with my life, and my choice of college, field of study, eventual relocation, was all based on that. And now I’m an adult, and I’m not only rethinking things, but questioning where that confidence even came from. I know now it creates blindspots.

On the other end of the spectrum is Rebecca, who’s hardly had a confident day in her life that didn’t involve some sort of criminality. She’s extremely insecure to say the least, but the delay in her asking that big question comes from the process of first freeing herself of others’ expectations. That was the work of the first three seasons. Everyone she met in West Covina wanted her to be a certain thing, just as she wanted them to be certain things. Rebecca’s arc there suggests that’s the part we have to get past with people. Because when Rebecca tries to play those roles other people have cast for her, something always goes wrong. It’s not really her, and that’s how she’s left with the question only at the end: who is she, then?

But again, it takes a process to get there, and really the thing that is to me the most profound about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is how she finds and shapes this society around her as part of that process. So let’s talk about that. For one, Rebecca replaces her emotionally abusive mom Naomi with Paula, who doesn’t necessarily become her mom, but fulfills a lot of those functions. That’s one major vector. Then there’s the squad, which overlaps with the Paula vector but was its own thing. Here, Rebecca is having friends, which is a lot more difficult than you anticipate before adulthood, “having friends.” Finally, there’s the men in her life, specifically her dad and then the romantic prospects. This vector is her gateway to releasing herself from those external definitions we were talking about (for example, the title of the show), and finding herself.

Naomi is an interesting character because she isn’t a stereotype, which shouldn’t be weird because it’s this show, but it is weird, at first blush. Like with everyone else, Rebecca goes through an arc with her mother, a breakthrough that challenges her old preconceptions. It’s nice. But as we see, it’s nice the way this moment is nice, where we’re becoming emotionally invested in something we’re not supposed to. The show will later rap us on the knuckles for that emotional investment, but that eventuality is impossible to imagine now. Naomi is a complicated character because parent/child relationships like this are complicated. Although I knew enough not to ask, I still wondered, when actually confronted by a similar relationship, why the child in question wouldn’t just leave. Of course, they’d want to when some horrible transgression is uncovered (drugging milkshakes), but then there’s that breakthrough moment, and these two things create a cycle that make it impossible to “just leave.” You want to have a parent. That’s generally what I get from people with troubled relationships with their parents.

And not only do Rebecca and Naomi have old friend chemistry, even such a damaging transgression like this came from a place of love and concern. Naomi doesn’t know how to express her love, and that’s pitiable, but she also wants to strictly regulate Rebecca’s development, and that’s more easily identified as “bad.”

Contrast this with our introduction to Paula, who is throughout the first season specifically the sassy supporting raccoon character. Paula offers unconditional support, and we problematize that almost immediately. It’s nice to have a friend like that, who encourages and supports you, just as it is nice to have a friend you can conveniently ignore and keep secrets from. Doesn’t that rob her of selfhood, Rebecca? Just who is Paula, is definitely one of the show’s most intriguing questions. But with her support, Paula is everything Naomi is not, at least as far as Rebecca is concerned. The relationship is, like so many things, a fantasy. Watching it become a real friendship is one of the most rewarding arcs of the show.

One of my favorite things is when Rebecca and Paula can simply be, you know, just be friends, apart from drama, and that’s one of those capital F feminist things, the depiction of female friendships. We have Clerks, two Clerks, and only recently are we starting to see some other kinds of Clerks. Remember that scene in Neighbors where the guys talk about Batman and the girls talk about, well, have a look for yourself. I mean, that was so odd to me because the Bechdel Test had by 2013 passed into its “We’re so over this” mode. Sometimes we still stumble on the most basic basics, and that’s why the depiction of female friendships™ will always be important.

So what does Rebecca have to do to actually be friends with Paula? Well, from the very beginning, the problem is listening. I am sure you are the friend in every friendship you have who listens, the one who lets the other vent after a long day. And I’m sure you’re that friend because whether or not that’s true, I bet everybody believes that of themselves. Because you know what? Listening sucks! That’s why we make podcasts and YouTube channels, so I can just blah, blah, blah at you all day and what are you gonna do? Like, comment, and subscribe? I fucking dare you.

Rebecca doesn’t listen to Paula, but Rebecca is more observant than maybe we give her credit for. She picks up on Paula’s victim complex, which is something that I also really understand. When you get into that sort of tangle with someone, where they text you and you’re like “Oh, fuck, here we go,” you almost don’t want them to ask how you are because then that fucks it all up. We have roles, and you’re the asshole. Yeah, that’s not good.

God, but Paula is just such a fascinating character study, starting from the top-down as a deconstruction of the sidekick. She is interrogating why she is drawn to this support role, and the reasons are sad. She doesn’t feel fulfilled by her life, so she needs Rebecca and will take all of her shit so long as she can scheme and unearth hidden talents that are always frightening. So the answer for Paula is to turn back to her life and figure out why it’s unfulfilling, and once she no longer needs Rebecca as a salve for that, maybe she can start seeing her as just a person.

And isn’t that a recurring theme in the show, people loosening others of their prescribed functions and learning to see them as people? That’s an incredible lesson. I think for Rebecca, it works a little bit differently, where she has to sort of wake up to what she’s doing to Paula, and when she starts getting help, she feels like she can finally make time for a friend.

But then Trent happens, right? Another recurring theme is that Rebecca always feels the consequences for her problematic behavior, and in this case, the moment she’s confident enough to be an actual friend to Paula, all the lies catch up with her. And that drills down on it: honesty. All Paula wants is for Rebecca to be honest with her. And I think we see the greatest expression of that in the eleventh hour, so to speak, when Rebecca lets Paula in on her most private self, one she’s probably been secreting away from the world ever since Naomi first told her it was unbecoming.

Who is Paula to Rebecca at this moment? I mean, she’s a whole person, right? She can trust her because she knows her, because she finally let go of that old, partly-conscious preconception and allowed Paula to become, in her mind, real. So I guess it’s sort of the same thing. Rebecca concerns over the nature of their relationship in this scene, which is kind of an echo of an earlier one. Here in season two, Paula confronts Rebecca with being the sidekick now that she has Sunil who does not have those same expectations of her. But here in season three, she’s taking a similar position — without the accusation. At this point, she’s almost resigned to it, and Rebecca is finally able to say, “No, that’s not how it should be.”

And speaking of female friendships, it’s now time to talk about probably my favorite element of the show, which is the Friendtopia. To date, my Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Facebook chat is still called Friendtopia in honor of Friendtopia. You got Rebecca, you got Paula, Valencia, Heather — that’s the dream team. But it wasn’t always the dream team. I’m still just so impressed by Valencia’s character arc, and that’s a weird reaction to have, being impressed, which just sounds patronizing, but it’s just such a radical shift, and something I know I’ve spoken to before, so I hazard to reiterate it.

I will just say that in the beginning, Rebecca and Valencia are positioned against each other, and it’s familiar in an almost indicting way. It plays right into our expectations about what this relationship is supposed to be, and Rebecca later becomes determined to make it not that. And while we’re always suspicious of her motives, I think even she is surprised that she comes to genuinely value Valencia as a friend, rather than as a conduit to absolving her guilt.

Heather also begins as a familiar sort of character, and like Valencia, initially exists as an extension of Rebecca, as far as we the viewers are concerned. Where Valencia is the rival, Heather is the best friend. It’s a little bit different from the jump, because Rebecca has just met her, and Heather doesn’t at first want to be friends. And to be honest, her instincts were pretty good, because she’s about to be emotionally neglected by Rebecca even as they’re living together.

Heather’s arc is all about growing up, and Rebecca provided a much needed mirror. I really like how that plays out, because part of Heather’s character is a kind of haughtiness that is ironically completely organic for such a womanchild. She, like Greg, kind of looks down her nose at everyone else. And while this is arguably a negative trait, I’m glad that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend isn’t a show about correcting traits like these in women, which would run counter to the thesis as we might infer from the title. Heather is able to look at herself with a more critical eye because of Rebecca, but that doesn’t mean her feelings about Rebecca have changed. She’s more empathetic, more mature, but in improving these parts of her, she remains Heather. As a whole, the show walks a tightrope of differentiating when behaviors are in need of correction, and when they’re unfairly scrutinized by society.

Rebecca creates the Friendtopia with good and bad motives. There’s the guilt, which is frankly the only thing that ever motivates me to do decent things, but the guilt comes from a solipsistic place. “Of course Paula feels bad because she’s not getting her daily dose of me.” So she tries to collide these worlds, and things go pretty badly. So how do we go from this (206) to this (306)? Valencia says that she’s never had a friend like Rebecca, and I think that’s our answer. No matter what the motive, Rebecca is, like she says, a unifier. She brings people together, subjecting herself to unimaginable indignities to facilitate these relationships. It helps make the people around her feel included. Everyone has their different experience with Rebecca, but the result is always the same, a closing of the circle.

One of the things I really liked about the most recent season of Mindhunter is how emotionally mature the romantic subplot felt. Though eventually there was major conflict, there were so many opportunities for one character to overinterpret or disregard the potential for understanding because they want the other to know they feel slighted. You see that a lot on TV, which by nature manufactures moments like those, but these two characters weren’t like that. For Rebecca, just imagine what it takes to get to a point like that with Josh. I mean, Josh. Like with Valencia, not only does Josh change so much, but our perception of him is constantly changing.

Rebecca and Josh are able to even the board, and then pursue romance again but with the whole plot flipped. He’s now courting her, but the plot truly has been flipped. He says something very telling, that he needs to be with Rebecca to feel like he has a direction in life. He may have genuine feelings for her, but he’s viewing her the way she viewed him, as this sort of passport to normalcy. Then we have Nathaniel, who began the season as Rebecca’s partner. As we see, he’s someone who’s still living under circumstances decided at a younger age, decided by his father. He’s still a lawyer, and I heard somewhere that you probably shouldn’t be that.

Where does Nathaniel end the series? Far from West Covina. He went home, too. And that’s why I wasn’t really excited about the prospect of Greg coming back. For me, West Covina was as much a place as an idea, which is probably the worst thing I’ve ever said. And that idea as previously mentioned was, you know, utopia-inflected. And part of a utopia is that you can opt out, as Greg did. So I’m glad someone finds their place outside of West Covina, because it fulfills this bizarre head logic.

Greg comes back because he’s always coming back. On a nice final note for the character, the guy who felt perennially trapped by his hometown finally doesn’t want to leave, and it isn’t because of a woman. I think that’s the interesting thing about the three dates, the love quadrangle, and the show as a whole — even though it keeps us guessing till the end, these people really aren’t supposed to be together. For a romantic comedy, that can be kind of a hard pill to swallow. We usually equate happy endings with personal fulfillment, and of course, that led to the belief that for women, this is the only way to be fulfilled. It isn’t true for Rebecca, and it isn’t true for these three guys, either.

And so, I think the ending makes a lot of sense, and does a lot of lifting. It has to conclude the show as romcom deconstruction and as reconstruction. It’s not just that you don’t need a man, as a platitude. It’s worthwhile to see Rebecca’s almost existential confusion, because I’m sure there’s an expectation to be stronger than that. Yes, you rejected how society defined you, your acceptance of which is a requirement for being considered “normal,” yes, you carved out your own society instead, but now you’re just left to hang. This is where that society comes back and helps her cross the finish line.

After I said I was gonna post two videos for the channel, I sat down and thought about what this one would be, because I didn’t know. My first thought was something like The Legacy of Rebecca Bunch or Once Upon a Time in West Covina, but then something happened and the whole “Once Upon a Time” thing is no longer cool. It would have been about the impact of the show on us and on TV and everything. That already exists, on Paste, if haven’t checked that out. Assuming I could have thought of all these points, let’s just say it says everything I would’ve said.

So all I have left to say is this: part of the appeal for me with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that it did the work so often missing in science-fiction; it rendered in detail and function a better world. For those of us who are scared of a more equal future, or rather, for those of us who let those fears govern our attitude and behavior, watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is like a preview into that future. Rebecca’s West Covina is not only a diverse place, it stems primarily from the minds of women. This is a world that some women somewhere are comfortable with, and if you can be comfortable with it, too, then there’s nothing to be scared of. Do you believe in the happiness felt by these characters, the catharsis in their endgame? Do you think you could feel a similar way, even while accommodating this world?

To me, that’s so important in storytelling, and it’s rare. We don’t often see perfect societies like this in media, because then there’s no conflict. Fortunately, with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, those two things can exist apart from one other and be appreciated individually. Of course, it is Rebecca’s journey that takes us through West Covina, teaching us how to find in ourselves that better person who can come home to a place like this.

Video published on 09/29/2019


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