This week on Dear Television: Lili Loofbourow and Irene Yoon talk through the third season finale of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. There are spoilers in here, so if you haven't seen the episode, "Nathaniel is Irrelevant," please do so, for your own sake!
LILI LOOFBOUROW: In honor of the CW officially renewing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for a fourth season, we decided to have a yak about the season three finale and where we think the show is headed next. We also love this tremendous show deeply and consider Rachel Bloom a genius. And yet we were both … troubled … by the finale. Is that fair to say?
IRENE YOON: Totally. Paula’s song, “The Miracle of Birth,” at the top of the episode was one of my favorite moments all season. Everything from the costumes and set to the lyrics and Champlin’s delivery carried the show’s signature stamp of brilliantly over the top and uncomfortably on point at the same time. So it seemed strange for the episode to end in what felt like a rather uncoordinated jump to grounding epiphany, storyline wobble, and series cliffhanger all at once!
LL: There are issues! They might be genuine problems, or they might be hints at where the show plans to go next. SHALL WE COMMENCE?
IY: Yes! Let’s talk first about how Crazy Ex-Girlfriend usually handles finales. I want to love the trajectory that the three finales collectively suggest for the show, but I’m a little uneasy. Season 1 ends with a bewildered and vaguely horrified Josh Chan cuddling Rebecca as she waxes poetic about their love story finally taking off (in the backseat of a car, as love stories do). Season 2 ends with Paula and Rebecca holding hands, flanked by Valencia and Heather, in a reconfiguration of the thwarted wedding scene as they vow to destroy Josh together. Season 3’s “Nathaniel is Irrelevant” ends with the camera moving between close-ups of Rebecca and Paula in the courtroom. Both Nathaniel and Josh are in the room, but it doesn’t really matter. Paula silently conveys her approval and forgiveness for Rebecca as the latter pleads guilty—in a bewildering twist—to the attempted murder of Trent.
With its four-season arc (Rachel Bloom recently confirmed the fourth season as its last), the show seems to be building up to some apotheosis of Rebecca and Paula’s friendship, finally outside of the auspices of scheming for or against Josh Chan. I just wish the grounds for this moment of seeming self-awareness and mutual recognition weren’t so troubling! Namely, why on earth would pleading guilty to attempted murder by reason of insanity or pleading guilty to attempted murder by reason of needing to be, like, a better person in general be the only available options?
LL: Yes! This does seem extreme.
IY: The choices double down on the narratives of Rebecca as the under-medicated and over-invested ex-girlfriend (who, as others in the episode remind her, has shown up at a party where two of her ex-boyfriends are and thrown one of them off the roof) or the evil, scheming, dark-haired villain fueled by criminal intent. We’ve been there and done that a couple of seasons over—by the end of season three, it feels like there should be another option—from both a legal and a narrative perspective.
Also, why would Paula nod approvingly at her best friend unnecessarily pleading guilty to attempted murder? It doesn’t seem quite the proportional response to their friendship issues, but maybe that’s the point?
LL: Like, atonement, you mean? Something like that?
IY: Atonement maybe, but the show also seems invested in flagging the resolution’s own insufficiency (or excessive sufficiency? over-sufficiency?) in an interesting way. There’s so much in this episode and in all of the preceding seasons, that seems set up to make us read this courtroom scene as a moment of personal triumph for Rebecca and Paula, but it feels very purposefully off-kilter and weird.
LL: Off-kilter and weird is right! I’ve watched the finale three times now, and I agree with you that the moment Paula and Rebecca lock eyes feels pregnant (heh) with meaning: to the extent that Paula acts as Rebecca’s conscience here, it’s clear that they’ve mutually decided that this is, indeed, the Right Thing.
Which is, as you point out, ludicrous! (I had the same fears you did—I worried that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had literally lost the plot.) But having rewatched it twice now, I think—this is my gamble—that the show knows exactly how ludicrous this solution to the problem of Rebecca’s malfeasance is. I suspect, in fact, that in preparation for a fourth season that’s ostensibly about recovery, the finale is making a point about the faux-epiphanies both our heroines are prone to—and the massive overcorrections in which they repeatedly engage.
These are both characters who struggle to Take Responsibility™. And I think the show is trying to figure out what true responsibility means within the really egregious frames we use to talk about love in this culture.
IY: Yes, absolutely! I really like that reading. It reminds me of the excessiveness of Rebecca’s affair with Greg’s dad—and the strange persistence of its spectre on the show. Her epiphany can’t stop with her recognizing that she and Greg shouldn’t be together. She needs to take it a very large and toxic step further and to berate herself publicly for it—including putting it on all three lists of wrongs she committed against Nathaniel, Josh, and Paula, respectively. The transgression didn’t really belong on any of their lists, much as it didn’t really seem to factor into any of the plotlines that followed its occurrence, but Rebecca insists nonetheless “everyone should know.”
LL: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend started out satirizing a certain script about romance; specifically, the way men always talk about their “crazy” ex-girlfriends. The brilliance of that parody was its double-edge: yes, it proved that the “crazy” ex-girlfriend in question—our Rebecca—was in fact charismatic, professional, intelligent, and lovable. But she was also excusing a million kinds of inappropriate behavior and justifying herself by referring to our culture’s toxic scripts about love.
In other words, this was always a send-up of both the kind of man who dismisses his exes as “crazy” without examining his own complicity. But it’s also a send-up of the woman who uses LOVE and a particular kind of manipulative femininity to indulge her worst impulses.
By the S3 finale, Rebecca—as the credits to this season neatly illustrate—has somehow come to occupy every position in this toxic love script. She’s the vengeful fury, the sex kitten, and the dude. (The Trent parallel really drives this last bit home.)
But the “crazy” label definitely lost some of its ironic edge this season. Granted, the “craziness” Rachel Bloom set out to satirize might not be exactly real by the end of Season 3, but Rebecca does have a diagnosis. She has Borderline Personality Disorder, and the show’s portrayal of her messy progress and messier backsliding has been entirely believable and a little hard to watch. Rebecca is willing to do as much homework as you want her to—that feels so right—but in her real life, she just keeps making mistakes. Frankly, I’m not sure “mistakes” is even the right word, especially given how much Rebecca and Nathaniel’s song lampoons that framework. That she repeatedly threatens to kill herself and blame George in order to get him to do her bidding isn’t a mistake. It’s an obvious index of how destructive and manipulative she remains. Despite the occasional sincerity of her efforts (her decision to break up with Nathaniel was heartbreaking) Rebecca hasn’t actually been in recovery. She’s been in denial.
And this episode did, after all, take the trouble to remind us of exactly how awful Rebecca has been.
IY: So true. The episode seems to want to call attention to both how awful Rebecca has been and how her behavior marks her distance from the more sincere (if fewer) moments of reckoning with her mental illness. I also like thinking of the unevenness as quite intentional here in light of the longer arc of the season and show—especially where the messiness of her (non-)recovery is concerned.
The title of the finale recalls episode 6 of the season, “Josh is Irrelevant,” where Rebecca comes to terms with her friends in the aftermath of her suicide attempt. The echoes seem particularly, well, relevant.
“Josh is Irrelevant,” like “Nathaniel is Irrelevant,” features a moment of reckoning and apology. While Rebecca is in the bathroom playing the music video viewing scene of the S3 Theme Song (cue: fury, kitten, dude!), Paula, Heather, and Valencia worry that she might be attempting suicide again. The four share a poignant and difficult moment in which Rebecca apologizes for the terrible things she had said to them earlier and the stress she’s causing now and admits that she can’t promise that she won’t ever try to kill herself again, as much as she wishes she could--one of the most powerful moments in a season dedicated to facing squarely difficult and painful aspects of mental illness. The first apologies Rebecca makes in the season finale, however, are not nearly so organic or heartfelt. Convinced that she’s begun hallucinating images of Trent as a manifestation of her guilt, Rebecca types up blanket confessions focused on alleviating her own feelings of guilt rather than responding to the hurt she caused her friends unbeknownst to them. Everything in the scene seems a little imbalanced and more than a little weird.
LL: Exactly! It’s the opposite of a true apology! She’s gambling that confessing will save her sanity. It’s really not about them.
IY: And their reactions variously underscore that. While Rebecca has done pretty awful things to everyone—including, significantly for an episode that ends with her in an orange jumpsuit, threatening the lives of people Josh and Nathaniel care about—Josh demonstrates little response to the news that Rebecca possibly tried to have his grandfather killed and father deported except eventually to punch Nathaniel; Nathaniel’s vague surprise and annoyance that Rebecca put a hit on his girlfriend subsides rather quickly. In this moment, indeed, Nathaniel and Josh both become somewhat irrelevant.
Paula, however, having read that Rebecca lied to her to get her help, rushes out of the room in a tearful rage and calls off their friendship in toto!
LL: Right, and the thing about that is that no one’s reaction here scans. The very idea that Paula’s grudge about being lied matters more than attempted murders and deportations is … well, crazy. We get it: lady-friendship matters more than any man. But this is a garbled way of delivering that message. At this point in the finale, the show itself seems dazed and lost.
IY: Yes! And the reprise of the “X is irrelevant” construction shows that we’re drifting away from anything like moral clarity rather than moving toward it. The revelation that registers as a moment of clear-sightedness and self-possession in episode 6, comes off as well, muddled and confusing in the season finale. Rebecca’s declaration of Josh’s irrelevance in episode 6 more or less sealed his irrelevance for the rest of the season: it was right. As much as I love Vincent Rodriguez III on the show, Josh is irrelevant. Instead of a similar organic declaration about Nathaniel here, we have the strange unspoken exchange between Paula and Rebecca in the courtroom.
If Rebecca’s attempts—often disproportionate, self-destructive, and unnecessarily extreme given the circumstances--to demonstrate her love and devotion to her various beaus are out, is the conclusion of season three just another disproportionate, self-destructive, and unnecessarily extreme attempt to demonstrate her devotion to Paula instead?
LL: Right, maybe this is the latest instance of her tendency to inappropriately overlove. (Kind of like how she tried to prove her love for Nathaniel by finding his “sister”?)
IY: Totally. And we have, of course, been alerted to the dangers of both overloving and easy substitution through none other than the attempted murder victim, Trent. As Trent likes to point out repeatedly to Rebecca—and as the show likes to point out to us through his repetition of her songs in a variety of refrains—he’s the crazy ex-boyfriend to her crazy ex-girlfriend. It’s in part Rebecca’s gnawing sense of guilt that this is the case that prompts her to confess her sins to Paula, Josh, and Nathaniel. But, while the season repeatedly demonstrates her willingness to contemplate endangering Josh’s family and Nathaniel’s girlfriend, she always stops short of actually allowing any of it to happen.
LL: Right. She actually does have brakes.
IY: Whereas a deranged Trent is ready to plunge a knife into Nathaniel when Rebecca runs up to them. Rebecca schemes and creates various artificial situations to convince Josh to spend more time with her; Trent actively and repeatedly blackmails her, physically marching her around her office in an uncomfortable and unwanted performance of their relationship. As deeply flawed as Rebecca is, she isn’t quite Trent.
LL: That’s a really good point.
IY: In the opening scene of this episode, where Rebecca dreams about brushing her hair in the afternoon light before her mirror, she sees herself transfigured into Trent doing the same. The fact that the opening scene calls explicit attention to Rebecca and Trent’s hair was notable given how the season opens with Rebecca dyeing her hair dark brown to indicate her vengeful rage for Josh (“I know, my hair is dark so I look evil, but I’m wearing white so it’s ironic”) and ends with Trent in an absurd orange-y wig trying to murder Nathaniel because of his vengeful rage for Rebecca.
Weirdly, the effect of the dream scene’s lighting renders Rebecca’s hair closer to the original light brown, and Trent’s an approximation of the deranged orange to come. So while the scene overall seems to suggest the doubling of their narrative arcs (and less-than-balanced tendencies toward attachment) that’s been heavily underscored by the use of both instrumental and sung refrains of Rebecca’s songs via Trent, there’s also a sense of a key divergence here when they’re examined side-by-side, literally under the same light.
LL: THIS IS HIGH-QUALITY THEMATIC HAIR ANALYSIS. I AM CONVINCED. (At some point, we ought to mention the perfection of Paula’s hair in “The Miracle of Birth” too.) You know, I wonder whether this imperfect parallel between Trent and Rebecca works is a clue re: how to read the other broken road maps in this episode. Take that amazing song of Paula’s (aka one of the most spectacular things to have ever happened on television). It lays out in excruciating detail everything Heather will undergo, but almost none of it (except for the bloody show) seems to accurately reflect Heather’s experience. She’s reading magazines throughout and sweaty but unbothered after giving birth. The same is true for other projected arcs: Trent’s Instagram story scheme doesn’t go the way he thinks it will. Neither does Darryl’s project of having everyone in the room for the delivery. Basically, nothing in this episode follows the carefully-explained plan. The messiness seems deliberate, in other words. It’s thematized, baked-in.
IY: Totally. And the stakes of baked-in messiness are really interesting where Trent as a character is concerned. Trent figures, on the one hand, as an absurd convenience for any sticky plot point, hauled out from one full body cast to move things along before being shoved (literally) into another, and on the other, as the physical embodiment of the violence and harm of Rebecca’s machinations. The last episodes of the season do make clear the ways in which Trent’s presence, in all of his obsessive and threatening behaviors, is a byproduct of Rebecca and Paula’s scheming around Josh.
LL: Trent is such a problem. I can’t work out whether he’s a useful foil or a caricature who isn’t granted the sympathy Rebecca gets, or both? I do think it matters, from a purely pragmatic POV, that Rebecca did push him, and endanger his life, and that she can admit that she did without revving up the excuse machine. Pleading “responsible” is a step that does genuinely matter--morally, even if it’s legal nonsense, and even if it’s a massive ethical hyper-correction. I’m betting that the show has a handle on this, though, and my evidence that it does is the arc we see within Nathaniel and Rebecca’s last song, “Nothing is Ever Anyone’s Fault”:
Before I knew you
I did bad things and didn’t know why
But now, I know you
And I’ve learned to look inside
I understand what makes me
Frightened and sad
So yes, I still do bad things
But are they actually bad?
I love this articulation of how Rebecca and Nathaniel are basically substituting another toxic cultural script--the self-justifying self-help epiphany--for the love narratives Rebecca’s trying to leave behind. That lethal slippage from healthy introspection to nihilistic self-justification is definitely a tendency in America. And it’s one a diagnosis (like Borderline Personality Disorder) can accelerate in people built like Rebecca and Nathaniel. Labeling ourselves can become a way to shirk real responsibility. I love that the show confronts that, and I take these lyrics as a promise that it’s going to keep thinking through these metaphysical conundrums. Here’s hoping the next season tracks Rebecca’s smart and difficult climb out of this, her latest (terribly relatable) trap!
IY: I love that reading! It also makes so much sense insofar as the wobbliness of expectations in the courtroom scene between Rebecca and Paula is emphatically set up by the surprising reversal of Rebecca and Nathaniel’s “love” song. Nathaniel had gotten awfully nice and sympathetic by this point in the season, and, as you pointed out, Rebecca’s choice to break up with him earlier on was indeed heartbreaking. So the slide into gross self-justification in the guise of an impassioned love song was quite a surprise, though maybe it shouldn’t have been, given their joint cheating and plotting of murders and deportations, etc.
On the flip side, the show’s done a remarkable job of developing Paula and Rebecca’s friendship as one that is deeply loving and deeply flawed. I’m not sure what the next and final installation of the series holds, but I share your optimism that Season 4 won’t disappoint with any oversimplified substitutions of female friendship for romantic relationships with men or of accessible labels for messy responsibilities.