Light Spoilers for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Mad Men, Party Down, The Office
If a TV character leaves a show without having died, we’ll always wonder if they’ll return, and sometimes even if they did die, especially if we have such a powerful emotional connection to them. For people who watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the idea that Greg was endgame is as reasonable as it is prevalent, and I say ‘most people’ because I read a headline that Greg left the show before I saw episode 3, so it was never my experience.
There are enough little pieces and inertia leading one to believe that Greg and Rebecca were ‘endgame’ — whether it’s Greg’s leitmotif and general POV, or fans’ desire, or narrative satisfaction as the only alternative to Josh, thus circumventing the title. Outwardly, the only wrinkle comes from the business side.
Real world logistics helping to shape the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend story is something we’re familiar with, whether because this is such a specific case, or because the creators have been very open about the process. The move from Showtime to the CW partially influenced the tone, with “Feelin’ Kinda Naughty” evolving out of “I Want to Grow a Dick and Fuck You.” And then of course, there’s the matter of performers coming in and out, and the high profile case is Santino Fontana, who plays Greg. Is this is a case where the writers had to adjust the story to accommodate that change? And if so, does that mean things would’ve gone differently between Rebecca and Greg?
To answer that, we check to see if the overall narrative still functions, and more realistically, since the show’s not over, if Greg’s character arc is truly complete. In that, also, if the arc of Greg and Rebecca is complete. So that’s where we begin, that question of what could’ve been.
Well, why did their relationship fail? Was it contrived? Are we left with a suggestion of further development? Upon her return from the bumper sticker store, Rebecca decides to make healthier choices by way of dropping the unhealthy ones, an improvement from her related strategy in episode 4. And like in episode 4, this leads her to an ill-fated fling with Greg. So that’s interesting, that it comes from Rebecca’s conscious rejection of crazy ex-girlfriend mode, seeing Greg as the healthy and normal alternative to Josh. Again, it’s reasonable, that the binary is set that way in our minds.
Their relationship is great for the three days they’re having a sex marathon, but we get the first hint that something is off with Greg’s strange disaffection. Rebecca is taken aback, and it’s expressed as her discomfort with a shift in power dynamics. Rebecca no longer has Greg’s “Settle for Me” adoration, and Hector is on hand to feed the anxiety.
What’s going on is that Greg doesn’t want his heart broken again, because it’s happened so many times. He also loves Rebecca, as we know, and these two things are at odds. He keeps the relationship simple. It’s just sex, even when both of them want more. But they make do for a while, and Greg’s happiness, which puts everyone off, is novel.
At the peak of his glow comes the arrival of Rebecca’s UTI. “I Gave You a UTI” is a particularly fascinating instance, in addition to being a great song. Male heterosexuality is pretty gross — its competitive nature leads to strange, intricate systems of value, to the point where it makes a kind of sense a guy would interpret his girlfriend’s UTI as a mark of ‘awesome sex.’ Rebecca’s certainly uncomfortable and not in the mood to sing along, but she’s also genuinely amused by his high spirits.
And so, while this is the happiest the two are in repose, there’s a lot being left unspoken. Greg initially shows concern for her UTI, but as soon as Rebecca says she’ll take care of it, he’s out the door. Rebecca’s mind is a really busy place — she needs someone to remind her about the immediate present, so it’s not surprising she ends up in the hospital, and this reads as the price of this kind of detached relationship. They’re leaving issues to bubble under the surface, but this was only an early warning.
Of course, it’s a lesson we should know by now because Greg speaks to it directly, and this is a lot of what his relationship with Heather proved. The dissolution of their romance wasn’t so much that Greg is as obsessed with Rebecca as Rebecca is with Josh to the point where he can’t form a healthy relationship with Heather, but rather that his denial of feelings for Rebecca because he doesn’t want his heart broken was the ticking time bomb that eventually exploded in everyone’s faces. While Greg is the chief victim of Joshbecca, Heather is the victim of Gregbecca.
And so, without having dealt with their individual insecurities in the way a couple might, they’ve left themselves open to a huge vulnerability upon Jayma’s wedding. Why did everything fall apart there? Speaking to those insecurities, a lot of it must be laid upon Josh’s shoulders.
After seeing Josh in the hospital visiting Rebecca, Greg has to reconcile the understanding that Rebecca will always find her way back to summer camp. The resulting behavior immediately clashes with Rebecca’s fantasy expectations for the evening, where her man is less prince and more uncaring bad boy, which as the show notes is something so tired, it’s not even worth the ridicule.
But this isn’t really Greg being Greg, is it? He’s pushed into this state by the encroachment of the increasingly jealous and anxious Josh. So what if he had played it more cool? What if when Rebecca confronted Greg, he said what he meant to say? Well, if Rebecca hadn’t felt reignited feelings for Josh on the edge of commitment to someone else, demonstrated by the jewelry store scene, which is another tremendously well-acted and directed in an underrated episode, they might’ve worked through something, like adults.
Josh voices his concern about it at the wedding, saying Rebecca’s sweet and Greg is dark. How true is this? As we know, Rebecca is quite dark, and so this is something else Josh and Rebecca have in common, which is the tendency to presume on behalf of somebody’s character. I think, when Rebecca looked over at Greg on the couch, her subconscious presumed something of him, as it had all along and would continue to. Being the healthier alternative doesn’t necessarily make him the healthy alternative. Ultimately, the Greg we see is not the Greg Rebecca sees. Ironically, we might both see ‘fantasy guy,’ but that of course is a huge target on the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend bullseye.
Before we get there, we need to talk about why that’s been a difficult point. Like Jim Halpert, Michael Bluth, and Adam Scott in Party Down and Parks and Recreation, Greg is a familiar archetype, but from modern television, which isn’t put on blast by the show like the fairy-tale archetypes of other characters. So we naturally gravitate to him and read him as a point of identification rather than criticism, when, I believe, all characters are meant at some point to be observed — we are meant to earn that identification without television shorthand. We become Rebecca, and we stop being Rebecca, and we become Rebecca, and in this paddleball of existential quandary, we learn how to deal with our own issues. But for a lot of us, that kind of identification stops before Greg, and so, TV and film has not adequately prepared us to read Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
In this, I’m not saying that the character should’ve been reduced so that it’d be easier for us to criticize rather than identify, but we might have that curious case of ‘did the creators do the job too well?’ Let’s remember Salvatore Romano from the early seasons of Mad Men. Here’s a supporting character who was incredibly sympathetic, and had his own story arc, but vanished without any payoff.
That’s not strange for Mad Men, which arguably comes from the Sopranos school of payoffs are for the movies, and this is television damn it, television, but the difference with Sal is that we were invested in him way more than the other characters who also vanished. The character was written too well, or the story focus lingered on him strangely, I don’t know. So is this what’s going on with the incredibly sympathetic Greg — was he too good by accident?
He is certainly very sympathetic, and that’s part of it. I would say he’s downright heartbreaking, even in an episode where he barely appears, like “That Text Was Not Meant for Josh.” And that comes from the performance, the writing, and also the discretion of the camera. He all but gives the Jim Halpert reaction shots, and so when Rebecca blows into Home Base and plops down next to Josh, we catch his reaction in a shot so quick it’s almost like we weren’t supposed to see it. We have the connection with Greg in this scene because he’s the only one here who sees what’s going on between Rebecca and Josh and knows that it’s wrong, as we do.
For media studies people, Greg is a valuable lesson in the ability of film to enter and exit the headspaces of characters. Film as a medium in some part simulates our reality, but there are cuts — our eye is drawn to specific areas in space in a way it wouldn’t be in reality. And so, it takes only the tweaking of angles to see someone’s else’s point of view even when they’re not elucidating it, and that’s a powerful tool made use of by a show all about the points of view of ‘others.’
Returning to the relationship, theoretically, Greg provides Rebecca a nice counterbalance to Josh, SIlas, and Robert because Rebecca seems to identify Greg as human, and this is the part I contest, that he’s not Rebecca’s healthy second choice because he’s never been fully realized in her eyes. Even if he’s not an archetype she’s been dreaming of all her life, he’s still a man who must fulfill this impossible role. The end of his arc brings everything to center between the audience and Rebecca, simplifying Greg in her eyes.
When Rebecca gets a certain way, you can hear it in her dialogue. Moving her wedding up to two weeks from now prompts an “All right,” from Josh, to which Rebecca squeals and exclaims, “I knew you’d say ‘all right’!” which is Rebecca making romance mountain out of romance molehill, and it’s comparable to an earlier exchange, when Rebecca meets Greg on the bridge by chance.
She says she’ll return at magic hour, and if he’s there waiting, she’ll know it’s meant to be, and they can walk to that adorable mom-and-pop Italian restaurant and begin their fairy-tale romance, to which Greg clarifies: “The Olive Garden?”
That back-and-forth is a microcosm of the show and its many layers. It’s structured as a comedic moment, with a punchline at Rebecca’s expense, but it also speaks to how Rebecca transforms the world around her.
During her love triangle entanglement, Rebecca begins to draw an equation further, reducing Greg and Josh to symbols — karate for Josh, alcohol for Greg. Josh is the “man of her dreams,” and Greg is a “reasonable alternative,” and we all love an underdog.
Rebecca and Greg have really good chemistry, and this is not shared by any of her other romantic relationships — the coercive but unthreatening Trent, the non-committal Josh, the worker bee Nathaniel. Rebecca and Greg get each other, they get along, and most of the bonds they form are over shared trauma. After a while, the relationship becomes this kind of ‘just fucked up enough to work,’ something quite advanced and practically a conspiracy given everything they’ve done to each other which they’d never share with anyone else. And what this becomes is the both of them being dark together, standing out against the backdrop of sunny West Covina.
That level of connection seems like it would really help Rebecca, but the zingers and insults come from broken places on both sides — this connection cannot be if the two are going to work on themselves. But that’s kind of depressing. That part of healing would reduce in them behaviors we like and so maybe they come out Stepford Wives on the other side?
The thing is, Greg’s darkness doesn’t necessarily speak to a truth, because it’s less darkness and more detachment, making him the perfect straight man to the fall guy of West Covina. Because of this, he’s slow to emotions, as we see in the first season with his mom, with his school — he talks about wanting to move on, but through Greg we see how making changes in life begins with changes made in ourselves. He’s unable to be realsies with his emotions, and overcomes that in recovery for alcohol addiction, when the show is stripping away the sitcom veneer.
Rebecca comes along and she changes people lives, and what she does for Greg is push him to the limit until he breaks and recovers. She is his rock bottom in human form. So while not a pleasant journey, he finds peace, and so this is the ultimate version of if you love something let it go. For it to work, it could not be — Greg and Rebecca expressed their love without actually expressing love, and that’s poetic and strangely beautiful. A relationship without a relationship, and so that also reflects on the show as a whole and Rebecca’s arc rather than just Greg as a character.
So what does it mean, thematically, or character-wise? Because with Darryl and White Josh, theirs is a really entertaining and progressive relationship, but it has no bearing on the plot. So thematically, they provide a control group for healthiness. So what of Greg and Rebecca and their relationship without a relationship?
Part of it is the exercise of a character realizing the problem whose existence they’ve been denying, and acting on it — the way Darryl had done before, Paula concurrently, and Valencia later. And another part I think is casting ambiguity and reality onto Rebecca’s central dilemma of ‘why do people leave me?’ Sometimes it is selfish and horrible like Silas, sometimes it’s justified like Greg.
This is for when we, the audience, are identifying the actual causes of Rebecca’s misery, in essence, parsing the difference between ‘evil drug dealer’ and ‘the abandoned nation.’ It’s a lot more nuanced than that, and this actually does the job of Redistribution of Blame to the point where we can, if we care to, identify it in ourselves. We did not abandon Rebecca as a child, but maybe we abandoned her– or whoever in your own life– for reasons, reasons we thought were good. Understanding that emotional violence doesn’t always come from malice or even deliberate choices is huge — ‘that it can come from us’ itself comes from our identification with Greg.
We had to sympathize and even empathize with him for this part of the social commentary to click together. It couldn’t just be abstract, but we may always regret that Greg was the one who had to embody it, making him the sacrificial lamb regardless of any real world shakeups. He had to leave, because he had to leave her, but he also had to leave just like Jim had to leave, and Henry had to leave. In the first case, he never did, and it was weird, and in the second case, he did, and the show ended.
So the leaving makes complete sense, but it doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of a return. Could Greg come back and restart the relationship, once he and Rebecca find where they need to be? Sure, because just like with Nathaniel, the arc is complete. Nathaniel’s role in season 3 will have to be pretty different, because there’s no Joshbecca relationship disaster to accelerate. Like with Valencia, the roles these characters play are pretty elastic, so I have no doubt that Greg could inhabit a new role should he ever return.
I think for now, Greg says a lot with his absence, and it doesn’t ultimately matter who Rebecca ends up with, if she ends with somebody — it’s arbitrary, so long as that person makes her happy. It could be Greg, it could even be Josh. I don’t personally think she’ll end up with anyone, but the point is that Greg returning would only be additive. It wouldn’t be an answer to a thematic void. There’s no loose thread there… just sadness.
When Rebecca lists all of these guys who’ve abandoned her, they are made to be equal. Given my emotional state during the finale and hardline adherence to Rebecca throughout, I was like yeah, fuck those guys, and you can hear me say as much in a recap where I conclude that Rebecca’s basically not to blame for her problems. As people pointed out, that’s not what the show is saying, because that does take away a woman’s agency in her life choices.
I have to remember that we’re not always supposed to take Rebecca at her word, but we might here in this instance because we could think, well, “they had to simplify because the actor left, so he gets grouped in with Josh and Silas, just so that he’s mentioned.” But I think it’s very deliberate, and it makes sense. If we take the text for the text and Rebecca as the unreliable protagonist of sorts, the truth is still there, and the book is closed.
What isn’t there is Rebecca’s love for Greg, and I’ve read first-hand accounts that this relationship means a lot to people. That’s a problem that can’t really be solved by thematic logic. I guess it’s just that, like in life, hearts are broken along the way. Your own broken heart was by design, and while that may be cruel, it does make for compelling television.
Whether or not he fulfilled the showrunners’ original intention, I believe that the character of Greg fulfilled the role in the story as set up by everything that had come before. He’s on hand to express through an emotional rather than intellectual response the effects of Joshbecca. He’s another one who does some introspection at Rebecca’s arrival, he helps Rebecca and Josh dismantle the love triangle, and perhaps most importantly, he invites us, with his plentiful inviting, to think, “Maybe I did that too, and there’s a Rebecca in my life I’m not even aware of, because what I did was for our mutual benefit.” Nothing’s ever that simple, and I think that’s a hell of a thing for one and a half seasons.
Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 05/10/2017