Paula With a Thousand Faces | Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Analysis


If Greg sometimes felt like the alternate protagonist of season one, Paula is the stealth alternate protagonist, and that’s all-too appropriate given that her arc is about emergence and actualization, and a womanhood many people experience and embody. Of the many spotlights shone by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, this one may be the most unexpected, and overdue.

And in fact, for me, Paula’s been one of the most difficult characters to analyze because I don’t have the language, even more so than usual. For one, there’s that balance of ‘women who are mothers are not defined by motherhood’ and ‘motherhood should not be dismissed,’ and that’s made defining Paula, as a preliminary step, challenging.

Yes, Paula’s a mother, she’s a working woman, she’s a best friend, she’s a sidekick — and so I think, it isn’t important to think about her as any one of these things, but all of them at once and more. And this is her character arc throughout the first two seasons, that she evaluates the roles she plays, and even creates new ones.

This is another example of the story department having their cake and eating it too with deconstruction and reconstruction. With Paula, we can criticize roles we think are outdated, spotlight roles which have been disparaged, and promote roles for the future. And in this, her multidimensionality is the constant, in the face of what’s seemingly default on television when it comes to characters like Paula..

But I have to be careful at that moment, as things are not good just because they’re so much better than other things, especially when those other things are shit, they’re good because they educate and entertain, even in a vacuum.

So today, I want to talk about the many faces of Paula, and her transformation, which says so much about the trials of women in America, and across the world. This will take us though about five phases, beginning with the hints we get of Paula before and during the first episode.

Phase I: BR (Before Rebecca)

Sometimes I think about the occasional scene where the office is gathered in the conference room, with Darryl at the head of the table and Paula somewhere off to the side. If you were coming in and seeing this for the first time, you wouldn’t by default presume that Paula is one of the main characters. First we assume that ‘person type’ even denotes story, and second, by and large, we don’t care about a number of these person types or their stories. And maybe that could change.

Before Paula meets Rebecca, she’s the valued paralegal at Whitefeather and Associates, a married mom with two sons, with at least one co-worker she considers a friend. An early conclusion we draw about Paula before the arrival of Rebecca is a simple one, that she’s bored.

This comes out at the end of the first episode, where, in comforting Rebecca for the very first time, Paula mentions how she wishes she’d been brave like that in her younger days. Maybe she would’ve made different decisions, and become somebody else.

As we’ll see later, it isn’t so much about regretting being married and having kids, because those are very important to her, but more so, it’s about a freedom of self-expression. We see how eager she is to go into Spider’s, or the Dress Barn. Her language in these moments is so interesting, it’s almost millennial-like, and as culture ever changes, I think we find it isn’t so much ‘children don’t grow up anymore,’ but that adults are very much children at heart, and only the brave among us are willing to admit that.

Paula becoming that somebody else is captured in “Face Your Fears,” where the opposite of bravery would be fear, and starting out, maybe the notion of baby steps is overridden by pure excitement. Although advice with the spirit of ‘fly out of a window’ hits stumbling blocks in practice, Paula’s convinced of its efficacy.

In the end, Rebecca throws a successful party, and Paula confronts the principal, and both of these things are accomplished with the two of them together. Feeling invincible enough to perhaps ‘swim right after eating’ is a goal, and because of that requires a process. The aspect of the song relevant to the character is not its lyrics but that it’s being sung by Paula to Rebecca — for fears to be faced, support may be in order.

A kind of sequel to “Face Your Fears” is “His Status is… Preferred,” which includes lyrics like: “waiting to be upgraded…” This hunky industrialist, played by Cedric Yarbrough is a similar kind of fantasy as Josh is to Rebecca, being a matter of expectations. A fling with a stranger from out of town should ideally proceed without baggage, but Calvin brings quite a lot, and Paula’s then able to recognize him as a real person, and perhaps, too, the sadness was a turn-off.

This is another example of facing a fear, of living life, anything to combat the boredom. And so ironically, it’s Rebecca who comes in and makes the right call in the end. Support and providing a moral compass should be the constant running through a friendship, no matter what that friendship is about. And that’s the interesting thing, of course, that this friendship is about something, it hinges on a mission, which we’ll touch on later.

One of the pleasures of going back and revisiting the very first episode is spending almost the entire runtime with Paula as the villain. We see a side of her that’s entertaining but short-lived. She immediately distrusts Rebecca because of a bad first impression, and that’s how she’s able to see through the lying.

Granted, Rebecca on paper doesn’t match the reality of the situation. Here’s a Harvard and Yale-educated lawyer moving across the country to work in this one horse town and in this firm which could always be more ambitious, and these discrepancies irritate Paula’s antagonistic inclination. “Because you lied to me,” sure, but Rebecca also provided a blank canvas for Paula to characterize her with — Rebecca in this moment is a snooty lawyer from New York, without the feelings or personality which might keep one from violating her privacy.

This, for Paula was a project, the finale of which was crashing a party and publicly embarrassing this woman. When Rebecca’s reality comes out, the project is improved upon. With the “West Covina Reprise,” Paula’s goal becomes “I’m gonna help you get Josh.” And that’s a big statement with lasting implications on the show. It’s “I’m gonna help you be a crazy ex-girlfriend,” but that also requires “I’m gonna help you,” and both of these things are explored in depth. The positives and negatives, the effects each have on both characters.

Phase II: Rom Com Mom

As we move into the second act of the first season, which is anywhere from episode two to episode four, the Josh part of the equation overshadows the help part. It is entertaining, but maybe that’s part of the problem.

The episode “Josh is Going to Hawaii” is interesting as kind of a capstone to the two episodes previous, which increasingly used the language of Hollywood film toward emotional victory. Rebecca faces her old nemesis, marches on a courthouse, inspires the masses, and although ultimately loses the game, she scores the moral win. And then kisses Josh.

That was “Los Angeles,” and in “Hawaii,” all of that forward momentum is called out for what it is — progress, but in the name of stealing someone’s boyfriend. And so, part of this deconstruction is also seeing Paula for what she is, in this episode where the metaphor is brought to surface.

Rebecca rejects Paula’s help and flies 3,000 miles away. Upon her return, the dynamic has changed, but it took a lot of effort. So we might wonder why it was so hard, why they couldn’t recognize the dynamic was bad for them?” Well, that’s the thing with relationships like this. I hazard to characterize this one as ‘toxic’ necessarily, but once you’re inside one, it can be hard to see out. That’s a wispy thought, though, it’s inaction — we see here how that works, because with this comedy duo, Paula is becoming Rebecca’s surrogate mother, and Rebecca Paula’s surrogate daughter, filling important voids in the other’s life.

Or partially filling, anyway. It’s true that Rebecca doesn’t always hold her end of the bargain, and if we’re theorizing as to why, she provides a suggestion herself early on.

Almost right away, there’s this sense of arrested development with Rebecca, and the brief but meaningful flashbacks to her childhood might explain why, these scenes which always play like triggered memories. In episode 108, Rebecca confronts her mother about that childhood, and Naomi rationalizes that she wanted Rebecca to be tough.

However, the parenting was such that it led to self-doubt deep into Rebecca’s adulthood. We see a variety of symptoms of this self-hatred, from her tiny reactions to bad jokes she tells, to when it’s tied up with full-blown depression. Part of anxiety and depression I understand is genetic, but it takes a certain socializing environment to foster its development, which in turn impedes on Rebecca’s development.

So part of Rebecca’s relationship with Paula is about recreating and revising the mother-daughter relationship, and they do so using a kind of millennial language. But unlike with The Mick where that was about making something so often depicted as alien, logical, this is about exploration — millennial and youth as new and scary, but most importantly: shared. Without knowing all the rules yet, they tumble through their relationship, which feels like a journey because, again, it has that mission.

And this leads us to a poignant moment between Paula and Rebecca, during the closing arc of the first season. Paula continues on this crazy ex-girlfriend mission, despite Rebecca’s insistence on Channy Bear sleeping with the fishes. After the wedding dress debacle, Rebecca confronts Paula to bring their recent miscommunication to a head.

The friendship is as fun for us as it is for Paula, but the twist here, or the twisting knife, is the thought that it may not be based on anything substantive. That it never had legs, any more than a summer camp romance.

That’s a really heart-breaking idea, and I think I’ve thought about it with every friendship I’ve ever had, the paranoia that comes from self-loathing. “Surely, one day they’ll get their act together and move on. I would.” Rebecca’s attempts to prove this isn’t the case is similarly sad, making her assault on the pie shop a desperate measure.

In season two, the friendship is put through the ringer and does grow beyond Josh. Missions may be a relatively unhealthy approach to the interpersonal, which could be our metric for how Paula and Rebecca revises Naomi and Rebecca. Until the very end of the second season, Naomi is still intervening on Rebecca’s behalf, in the name of her interpretation of Rebecca’s happiness.

And that’s where we might have to ask questions. Who really knows what’s best for a child? A parent, who isn’t living the child’s life, or a child, who’s a child? Between the two, there’s no immediate answer.

But one problem we can pull here is either one believing they know definitively what’s best, and thereby closing themselves off to collaboration. So, what problem-solving the season one Paula and Rebecca relationship does is move toward a better collaboration, and that speaks to adaptability, which is so crucial. And it works — after discarding the sidekick role in the first season finale, what does Paula open the season two premiere with? Questioning Joshbecca, which Rebecca doesn’t take so well. She’s not on the same page yet. Paula is breaking beyond, and this takes us to the next phase.

Phase III: Death to Rom Coms

Paula and Rebecca’s protagonist-sidekick relationship is painfully transfigured into a friendship, and that takes a rejection of romantic comedy unreality. It all comes to a head at the end of episode 206, where the pair really let each other have it. Aline Brosh McKenna’s work has been described as “dramas with jokes,” rather than full-blown comedy, and I think this is why we have moments like this. It’s the payoff to a lot of build-up, and in turn lays storytelling foundation in itself.

Let’s take a look at the arguments here, which support the later instance of “You Go First,” where it boils down to self-involvedness versus passive-aggressiveness, two qualities which would be at odds. Paula maintains that Rebecca’s been too busy for her problems, and to see if that’s true, we go back to episode 204 and remember this moment where Rebecca tries really hard to be interested in Paula’s life, while at one of her lowest points. Rebecca’s level of concern is ambiguous, but what interests me here is Paula’s relief when Rebecca sinks back into her own problems.

That is too familiar. It’s hard to know when you’re the main character between a friend and yourself, but you are painfully aware when you’re the supporting character. And not every friendship is like that, but when you are stuck in a sidekick role, it’s hard to not be resentful, to not let things bubble under the surface for a later, ungraceful bubbling over session.

The answer then isn’t some revelation, it’s literally just Rebecca being there for Paula too, being Mr. Mom, and she does so at personal expense. Season two is marked by a lot of compact, economic storytelling, and episode 208 does the work of multiple episodes. Instead of a time investment on Rebecca’s part, it’s both about not going after Josh and owning up to a potentially friendship-ending mistake, two things built up over the course of a frenetic episode.

This solves both of the criticisms they have about each other, and is the fruit of proving that relationships can and should be malleable to an extent. It’s spoken to in season one, where in that moment of existential worry for Paula, Rebecca takes the mother role, and it’s really sweet. And then in season two, she literally takes the mother role, and even if it doesn’t go as planned, the responsibility exists between the lines, and the dark crowds at Spider’s.

The genre transfiguration begins proper in season two, but is put in place at the end of the first season. Rebecca’s fling with Greg pushes Paula to the brink, and in “After Everything I’ve Done For You,” it’s revealed that Paula’s gone to extraordinary lengths. All the sitcom silliness and plot holes — how did they run into Lourdes in the grocery store, why did Jayma invite Rebecca to be a bridesmaid — are reified by the unfortunate undercurrent of obsession.

In season two, Paula’s unexcited by Rebecca and Josh because of the strong suspicion Josh doesn’t respect her, and this gives her some distance to reflect on that earlier obsession. Instead of attempting healthier choices however, Paula just stops. The answer doesn’t have to be as big and dramatic as the problem was, although she does look for a replacement.

And it comes from Scott, which I think is interesting. Rebecca’s bouncing off of walls somewhere, and while Paula’s relationship with Scott has improved so much, he’s still someone who doesn’t really understand Paula’s professional world. That might be part of why she brushes off his suggestion at first, and this is also something I completely understand, that maybe it’s too obvious, it’s just too easy an answer.

But sometimes the answers to our biggest questions are right in front of us, and that can be ironically stultifying. I’m one of those people who’s thought about his career and his future his entire life, and that creates some resistance to deviation and suggestions from other people on what to do. My attitude was, “I know best, because I’ve been thinking about this all my life, all twelve years of it.”

There may very well be an implicit question forever dangling over women like a certain mythical sword of a certain mythical Damocles: “why don’t women take a more active hand, why don’t they just push through that glass ceiling? I mean, it’s there. You’ve identified it. That’s half the battle. Step 3, profit.” And so in response, this moment is the first in the line of very relatable challenges to women changing stations. Paula opening herself up to a life-changing idea is difficult, and then the heretofore invisible obstacles summarily line her path. Which is to say, when she thinks about this prospect, suddenly elements of her life rearrange themselves in a defensive line — she has to break out of a status quo. Scott attempts to pick up some of the housework and that doesn’t seem feasible. Paula looks for support from a friend and that’s even more impossible. And finally, she gets pregnant.

And I love how the pregnancy as obstacle comes from an earlier clearing of an obstacle in her life. It’s this horrendous cause and effect, that perhaps nothing gold can stay, but Paula rejoiced in revitalizing her sex life with Scott in the season two premiere. For one, this goes to show that marriage isn’t the end-all rhetorical defense against unplanned pregnancies, that the response isn’t about morality or anything, it’s about making the best individual choices.

And these choices, these conflicts, they may not be easy to talk about and share. “Maybe This Dream” takes place in Paula’s head, and so while Darryl and Maya the Millennial miss out, we the audience are treated to a revelation.

Phase IV: Working Girl

It’s hard to appreciate “Maybe This Dream” more than you do when you see it because it’s funny and tragic and beautiful and disgusting, but then you hear it performed live, as recorded on probably an iPhone, and it sounds basically the same. I just don’t understand sometimes, how people are so talented.

The number is about hope in the face of absurd opposition, and so this song, this thesis, is taking on gender inequality. We learn Paula’s been told her dreams are useless from childhood, which we can connect to the note about her father’s mantra. That’s a pretty bad thing to say to one’s daughter, but it doesn’t come from nowhere. Dystopian scifi sometimes flirts with women becoming baby farms, from literature all the way down to Gears of War, and let’s not say that the resultant commentary is always worth it.

There seem to exist excuses for men and society to so easily reduce women to this biological function, and that becomes a problem. In the 70s, it became a fight. And yet Paula’s story, her anxieties about next steps, it rings true today. Some things haven’t changed, and there’s are reasons for that, which should not be.

Even though I hear that only 16% of companies offer paid maternity leave, I feel even the prospect of ‘employees could get pregnant’ creates this phantom liability which contributes to discrimination in the workplace. Any excuse, right? Part of Title VII’s pregnancy-related protections theoretically run counter to this potential discrimination, suggesting there’s always another way. “If the employer allows temporarily disabled employees to modify tasks, perform alternative assignments, or take disability leave or leave without pay, the employer also must allow an employee who is temporarily disabled because of pregnancy to do the same.”

However, pregnancy can pose actual logistical problems, and we see this with Paula. On the verge of fulfilling her dream, she discovers she’s pregnant — a discovery of sorts preceded by a slow resignation. Paula strikes me as the kind of person who never wins the raffle, who just knows, no matter it is, it’s not gonna happen for me. She knows she’s pregnant long before the test comes back, and how could she not, given what her father used to tell her?

And indeed, she chooses to lead instead of breed, if we want to indulge in that language, and even if we’re indulging in that binary for now, because there’s something there. Is that really how it breaks down? Obviously, you have the Old Americana vision, the nuclear family where the man puts on his fedora and strides out the door to work, and mom stays home with the babies and the kitchen.

Leading and not breeding, so to speak, exists in response to that, but then has the adverse effect of reducing the legitimacy of motherhood. I guess a solution to this impasse refers back to that conclusion drawn by Title VII, that there’s always another way — Paula’s multidimensionality, motherhood alongside professional actualization. That, however, is a laughable notion to some, an ever-receding brass ring because that Americana’s left a legacy, no matter how attenuated. It’s still there.

This is a very difficult problem, and I think in part, that’s because it requires all of us acting as the solution. To where fatherhood is made freer, more emotional and domestic, for example. So at that point, we think: how did we get here? Why are things like this?

The thing about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that it contains levels of feminist discourse, from the 101, with off-hand mentions of the Bechdel Test and The Second Sex to sharpened criticism toward commercial feminism to direct references to hot button talking points. It’s a diversity, where as best as any one story can, the writers canvass the broad field of feminism and gender inequality, but they also provide an additional level, one conducive to reaching the heart of these acute problems.

Solving the dream-crushing burdens of motherhood, of workplace inequality, all the way up to the stigma and complications surrounding the crazy ex-girlfriend may begin as they have in reality, by addressing symptoms — legislation, in some cases. However, for these problems to be entirely vanquished and to not leave that kind of legacy, the underlying issue of deep-rooted sexism needs to be addressed.

What if men cared about women’s issues as much as women do? More than we do about religious convictions or the status quo? That’s the mathematical solution, so we might work backwards from that, from making those issues all of our issues because other people’s lives should matter just the same. As of now, women’s issues are women’s issues and men’s issues are issues, so we’re not there yet, and it won’t be easy. It isn’t some kind of movement, either, it’s just about recalibrating one’s individual interpretation of the world.

This recalibration might begin by seeing the world from a woman’s perspective, and as obvious as that is, it’s extraordinary how little, as a society, we do that. That’s why books like this exist and why Rachel Bloom tweets about the clitoris. And honestly, women’s sexuality is a good place to start, specifically because of how uncomfortable its mention made a few of us just now. Lyrics about a vibrator breaking appropriately speak to mundanity — but it comes as a shock for the rest of us because it isn’t a dick joke.

It’s a starting point, and this very important conversation can start anywhere within each of us, if it hasn’t already, with almost any kind of beginning. It’s just about being open to something new, and taking apart the stigma of something could be a rewarding first step. And I mean, that was a roundabout description of ‘normalization,’ but that word didn’t occur to me in all that time, because maybe the process is supposed to be kind of invisible. Here’s something, and it just becomes normal. Vibrators, the clitoris, pregnancy, each of these things that at the earliest light we called Lilith.

Paula decides to move forward with her career, but the difficulties don’t end there. Rebecca’s seemingly moved on, and Scott sleeps with Tanya — who is not Misty from shipping, mentioned in the first season.

Having gone out of chronological order, we already talked about how both of these problems are addressed and arguably solved by Rebecca’s intervention, who simply wants Paula’s friendship back. It’s not some big, terrible scheme, it’s not a complicated thematic tangle. She just wants her friend back, and that becomes one of the show’s most earnest, honest driving forces.

And like with anything honest, there’s a darkness there.

Phase V: Relapse

Looking to the future, we close out season two with Paula and Rebecca in an interesting space. Initially, Paula’s excitement over Rebecca and Josh comes in part through filling holes in her life. Now that those holes are being filled, it’s just about being happy for a friend. With the blinders removed, Paula sees how crazy ex-girlfriend mode looks scary and dangerous.

But the sweep of romance barrels through the both of them, captured with stunning rage in “What a Rush to Be a Bride.” Rebecca deciding to marry too quickly means also that Paula’s back on the crazy ex train too quickly — surely, the inertia wouldn’t last, but then Josh breaks Rebecca’s heart in a way we’ve never seen. Rebecca doesn’t yell, she doesn’t burn things, she just gets really quiet and focused.

That’s progress, though as a victory is comparatively understated after finally cutting ties with her father. Is this Rebecca coming into her own, or simply coming into a new kind of problematic self? The question of how Paula will render support is just as ambiguous, because the idea of support in relationships is a complicated matter. Just as roles change, relationships survive by being adaptable.

In Conclusion: Being There

And so, by talking through a number of these roles Paula comes to discard or occupy, we see that many of them regard relationships, which is kind of reductive. Especially if we’re talking about women characters, that sort of track is one to be wary of.

However, relationships are the micro of society, in a number of ways, ways which, again, are so obvious to everyone else in the room but pretty profound to me. I think society can sometimes be too abstract, and that’s how we start telling other people’s stories and even ourselves exercise the psychological shaping made use of by militaries since the dawn of war — when we’re made to see people as cardboard cutouts, as fantasy heartthrobs, as snooty big city lawyers, the scope of our prospective reactions to them becomes limited, basic, dangerous.

Thinking about society from the inverse approach is the more difficult of two paths, but extrapolating from the starting point of interpersonal relationships, making that a parameter, seems logical enough. That everybody is someone’s something, and could be yours too; there should be no reason why the opposite true, and we should investigate the reasons why the opposite is often true — all the manufactured barriers, where do they come from, who do they benefit? But more to the point, the people we care about and do things for provide a measure against the abstract.

Paula is part of Rebecca’s society, and that means she’s a mentor, a confidant, a wing-man, all sorts of things. And she demonstrates that art and process of being there, of what it takes to maintain society on this micro level.

That it’s a learning experience is additionally inspirational, because so much of Paula’s journey is about self-healing, and so we see how that’s a requirement to being important in someone else’s life. It’s the old one to one between love and self-love. Ironically, or maybe not, this is a conclusion we also reached about Rebecca, that she needs to be her real self for Paula to fully accept her, during that time she was dodging the big question about West Covina.

The ease to which we might draw comparisons shouldn’t be confused with they’re the same person, but there are universal human issues addressed by the show and this duo in particular.

Video published on 05/01/2017

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