In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks’ highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend’s ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother’s (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It’s to the show’s credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.
Rebecca’s downward spiral has been excellently foreshadowed and fine-tuned so that each story beat is emotionally resonant and consistent with the characterisation that has been such a delight for two and a half seasons. Perhaps most importantly, it’s bruising without feeling like it’s beating any of the shows characters up, proving that television can be bracing and prickly at the same time as being compassionate.
When we were first introduced to Rebecca she was similarly in-flux; her life was going according to plan, she was about to be made a partner in a prestigious New York law firm and secured a sought after apartment in the city, but she was emotionally unravelling. Heavily medicated and looking to a billboard advertising dairy products for spiritual guidance, she stumbled into Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), an old boyfriend from summer camp who barely remembers her. When he tells her that he is moving back to his hometown, West Covina, California, she decides to follow him under the guise of being transferred through work, which she manages to justify by getting a job at a small, failing law firm that is grateful for her expertise.
It’s a wacky premise, made wackier by the fact that the show is a musical with elaborate costumes and dance sequences. Often outrageous songs like “The Sexy Getting Ready Song”, “Oh My God, I Think I Like You”, and “Let’s Generalize About Men” slot into razor sharp discussions about anxiety and depression, gender politics and abuses of power. This should make for tonal whiplash, but it rarely does, partly because the songs are uniformly excellent pastiches, but mostly because each song folds itself around an emotive and culturally relevant thesis statement.
For example, “Let’s Generalize About Men” is a riotous ’80s female empowerment anthem that both celebrates and criticises the ways in which groups of women push the men in their lives into broad stereotypes, suggesting that this is cathartic but also robs them of making genuine emotional breakthroughs with their partners. Without the construct of the characters being performers the songs have to spring from the characters emotions, they have to shed a light on their inner lives in ways that dialogue can’t and they have to provide an emotional wallop that justifies the break from the show’s reality. Happily, the musical interludes are always instructive and often teach the audience how to understand the show.
Take “Sexy French Depression”, a song that’s a criticism of the French New Waves’ tendency to glamorise depression effectively reducing it to a mere aesthetic, which says more about Rebecca’s desire to mould her depression into something that makes her more sexually viable to Josh than any dialogue could. It’s why the show never feels staunch or didactic; the songs soften the blow on some thorny, difficult subject matter.
This is why it’s relevant that Rebecca only sings one song in the recently aired “I Never Want to See Josh Chan Again” and that it’s sung through a drug induced haze. Rebecca, the show strongly suggests, has lost the ability to construct new personas for herself; her depression has closed the narrative avenues that she has been so desperately exploring through the show’s history to the point that depression is her predominant character trait. In the third episode of this season, “Josh Is a Liar”, it was revealed that Rebecca had previously been in a romantic relationship with a professor and, after being rebuffed by him, set fire to his home. It’s a piece of exposition that’s revelatory yet inevitable and proves that she has been in a constant state of personality reinvention; by refusing to acknowledge her own mental illness she has forced herself to try on a revolving wardrobe of personas. It’s as if she has been archiving her personal history in hopes that the archive will someone be destroyed and she will be able to begin anew. It’s a beautiful and painful representation of a feeling that I suspect many of us have had; that if you just run far enough away from yourself you will eventually disappear.
Yet still it’s a shocking moment when in the middle of “I Never Want to See Josh Again” Rebecca’s mother opens Rebecca’s laptop and sees that she has been searching the least painful methods of suicide. It lands like a hammer, practically smashing anything that precedes it to pieces. It’s not out of place, especially as Rebecca’s behaviour has become more erratic and her options more limited, but it still plays with the harshness of a record scratch. The stakes are clearly established, and the stakes are life or death. This is what makes the show so special and such a thorough exploration of mental health disorders; it’s so finely calibrated to Rebecca’s inner life that depression isn’t treated as something for her to “get over”, nor is it handled in a lesson-of-the-week sermon. Instead, it’s an imbedded part of her life and one that the show constantly reminds us will be something for her to wrestle with forever; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend argues that there is light at the end of the tunnel but its miles away and that the light is a good and safe life, yes, but it’s not a perfect one.
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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend isn’t shy in suggesting that Rebecca’s gender, and the roles that society have constructed for women, are actively detrimental to her emotional and physical wellbeing, something which shouldn’t be subversive yet feels like a revelation. The episode “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy” sees the show turn into a parody of movies like Fatal Attraction and Swimfan, which see fit to gain catharsis and audience excitement from the violent deaths of mentally ill women who dare to encroach on domestic bliss. Rebecca, frustrated that her friends won’t help her lash out at Josh for leaving her at the alter, takes a leaf from the Sharon Stone playbook and begins systematically ruining his life. The narrative of the episode fairly accurately reflects the movies that inspired it; even to a climactic confrontation in a public place. Josh chases her down, fearful that she will hurt his mother, and nearly pushes her into a construction pit. But it’s revealed that Rebecca just wanted to be around Josh’s mother, the threat she posed was merely a nostalgia for a life that she never got to live. Rebecca does bad things in the episode, she gets her ex-fiancée fired, but when she desperately begs Josh to tell her why he left her at the church, it’s hard not to plug into her bewilderment and heartache, especially knowing that Josh is aware of Rebecca’s struggles with mental health.
For a show that’s so obsessed with movies and television this raises a relevant question; what archetypes and frameworks can Rebecca possibly fit into? Romantic comedies tell women that the quickest route to emotional wellbeing is through romantic union, but she tried that and her sense of security was ripped away from her without explanation or apology. She couldn’t be the villainess of the sex-thriller because her emotional vulnerability made her plight something to empath with, not destroy in a final act fight. The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as “crazy” than to offer them help or understanding. It’s a gendered term that can be applied to almost everything the characters do – yet it’s only ever truly thrown at Rebecca. Rebecca is “crazy” because she is sad, because she is jealous, because she feels hopeless. This season pretty fantastically argues that if the world stopped seeing her as stereotypically “crazy” and instead offered her help with a very real problem, many people’s lives would be made richer.
Rebecca, with all her sharp edges and need to be loved, is a difficult person to build a television narrative around because she is nearly impossible to suggest a happy ending for. This makes the show so rich and so big-hearted; it offers compassion to someone who finds it nearly impossible to extend compassion to herself. It’s a show about discovering what you can and cannot build your life around. The last song of “Josh Is a Liar” is called “The End of the Movie”; as Rebecca wanders the streets contemplating her life, Josh Groban sings “we tell ourselves that we’re in a movie, each one of us thinks we’ve got the starring role”, which is such a neat metaphor for Rebecca’s struggle; there is no movie that will support the complexity of her thoughts and feelings; it’s unbearably sad, like the rug being pulled from under the audience.
At the end of “I Never Want to See Josh Chan Again”, Rebecca takes a tub full of anti-anxiety medication and downs a glass of Merlot. As she drifts in and out of consciousness, the flight attendance rushes towards her and Rebecca finally asks for help. Not help to get Josh to love her, or to get a job promotion, or to change her personality; just help to cling to a life that she, just moments before, felt was unliveable. It’s a truly moving moment; a punch to the gut, a fragile sign of hope and it’s well earned.