Last night’s episode of The Comeback would’ve been a great one for Valerie Cherish to break out her terrible Woody Allen impression. Because last night it seemed that Val finally learned the value in not wanting to belong to any club — in this case, the successful-showbiz-people-who-are-self-serving-and-full-of-shit club — that would have her as a member.
“The reviews are in! The reviews are in!” Val begins the episode, doing that thing where she hides off-camera and asks Jane if she’s ready to start rolling, then promptly makes a boastful a-hole of herself. So right from the start, our heroine’s got her work cut out for her before she undergoes what I think is her most compelling metamorphosis toward a more authentic self. I know that sounds Oprah-y, but that’s exactly how I see it: Val standing up for herself, but only as much as she needs to (meaning, not in a diva way); Val stating unequivocally how various people and situations slight and lessen her; Val being a person, basically. She showed glimpses of these qualities in season one — punching Paulie G., and that time when she insisted on listening to the music she wanted to in the car, licensing costs be damned — but by the end of “Valerie Cooks in the Desert,” Val becomes a more vibrant, vital, tough, interesting human being, someone any one of us would enjoy the company of, perhaps even admire.
Val’s housekeeper notes that she doesn’t like the unflattering photo of Val that appears alongside the New York Times’ review of Seeing Red, and Val laughs off her comment by saying, “That’s because I’m acting.” Considering how her appearance in the dailies freaked her out last week, this is a score for authentic Val. She’s starting to get it! (Note: When Mark reads in the Times review that Val “is quite a revelation as Mallory Church, a narcissistic, self-destructive, fading former television star,” Val’s response to the camera is, “Yeah, they get it.” Granted, that beat can be read as one of her many self-serving moments, but I thought it also showed how comfortable she’s become with acting as a craft that can explore and expose humanity’s less complimentary characteristics, not acting as an opportunity to be seen in an idealized way by lots of people.)
Val’s next step toward awesomeness (for lack of a better term, although that’s the perfect word to describe her eventual lashing-out at Rob and Shayna) comes when Mickey has his fight with the bowl (for lack of a better term). We could of course see (hear? smell?) the fart-poop bit coming a mile away, and the reaction shots of Val and Rada were a gimme, but what I found interesting was that Val didn’t make a huge deal out of it — not to Rada while it was happening or to Mickey afterwards. Yes, the whole thing made for an awkward moment between her and Rada, but Val quickly and easily empathizes with and forgives Mickey once he’s out of the bathroom.
It was around this time in the episode that I started experiencing trepidation and dread, a number of times over, that something awful was going to happen. Was Mickey gonna die? (I’m still thinking this may happen before the end of the season.) Was Mark going to be caught with another woman? Or will Paulie be caught doing heroin, or worse? My stomach remained clenched for most of the episode in fear of some horrendous, big moment like that. Of course, I’m glad it didn’t happen — mostly because The Comeback repeatedly surprises me in its insistence that it is a show about little moments, tiny tragedies, nothing grandiose.
In fact, the closest we get to a shocking moment in this episode is Val’s run-in with … Gigi! (I was considering as a title for this recap “OMGiGi!”) I have been wondering all season if we were going to see sweet Gigi and was so delighted to see her that I completely forgave the show for making her moment a HELLO OBVIOUS METAPHOR for what might happen to Val if she continues to care first and foremost about her relationship to Hollywood. (I mean, even obtuse Val gets said metaphor immediately afterwards: “Wow, that’s a cautionary tale. That’s what happens, though, you know, when you make show business your whole life.”)
Having said that, I always felt like Gigi was a kind of shabbily treated character in the first season, and I think she got a bit of that here, just in the pile-on of, Look, she’s fat! Look, she’s one of those fat chicks who eats her groceries while she's grocery shopping! Look, she’s one of those career-first lonely girls who has to adopt to find love! This is a minor quibble, and on the whole, I thought the out-of-nowhere Gigi scene was kind of brilliant; it reminded me of the scene in Fargo (the movie) where Marge Gunderson has that super-awkward get-together with her old high-school classmate. And for me, the takeaway of this scene wasn’t Val deciding she’ll make Mark dinner after all (because of course she’d do so after meeting her Ghost of Hollywood Future). The takeaway was the empathy she showed for Gigi and her genuine attempt to try to make her feel better and put her at ease, much like Val did earlier for Mickey’s digestive issues.
(One more thing about the Gigi scene I just have to note: So you’re telling me Val doesn’t recognize Orange Is the New Black, but Pretty Little Liars she totally knows?)
So that brings us to the desert, and when I say the desert, I mean let’s jump right into the rollatini/Ron scene. God, it was so satisfying, and I know you don’t need me to tell you why it was satisfying, so let me just point out a few minor beats from that scene that jumped out at me. First, before Ron arrives, Jane is coaching Val through her beef-rolling, and there was just something about the tone in Jane’s voice. It was so friendly and sweet and encouraging, and it really made me feel like this rollatini had provided her and Val with an opportunity to transcend their work relationship and build more of a friendship. (Yet another sign of Val’s maturation.) Second, I’m so glad Val said of Shayna’s “I’d like to invite you to set” routine, “They probably teach you that in AD school,” because from the first time we met Shayna, I have been wondering about that choice of words. (Like, does any AD talk that way in real life? Or do they all talk that way in real life?) Also, watching Shayna’s blank stare during Val’s dressing-down, I’m starting to think she’s a sociopath, but that’s neither here nor there.
When Val finally gets to Mark’s darkened house, my feeling of dread returned; I was sure that a woman was going to look out the window that Val broke with her pebble. (Clearly, Jane was barking up the same tree, tellingly asking Val, “Do you even know he’s home?” To which Val replies even more tellingly, “He’s home. He’s home. Stop it.”) But again, the plot hews to the smaller significant moment. Val won’t show her reality cameras what she writes to Mark. This is the reality show that Val wanted so badly, she was working with a crew of college kids six weeks ago and crashing the Chateau Marmont for a shot at getting it on the air. Wow.
The note: “Marky Mark, I was late. Hopefully not too late. I love you. Valerie.” Val, you did finally arrive way late, but the good news is now you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.
And on top of all this, this episode was so funny! See below.
The Comeback’s Best Comebacks
Mark: How is [the review]?
Val: [after miming locking up her mouth and throwing away the key] I highlighted the parts about me.
Mark: [reading the Times] “She brings to her character a complexity and a here-yet-unforeseen—” Geez, someone went to Yale.
Val: Nothing will be wasted.
Mark: Except another hour I spent driving here for no reason.
Val: Everybody loses.
Val: Didn’t test well?
Rada: No, we don’t test at HBO.
Val: Wow, really isn’t TV, it’s HBO.
Paulie: Everyone’s playing themselves now. Matt LeBlanc is Matt LeBlanc.
Val: Matt LeBlanc isn’t getting down on his knees and giving you a blow job … that I know of.
Billy: Hashtag, red is the new orange. You know, from Orange Is the New Black.
Val: Billy, now you’re just saying colors.
Paulie: BobTV.com? That’s better than the New York Times. That’s better than The Hollywood Reporter.
Val: Oh, you read that one?
Val: I’ll make the dinner plans. After all, I’m the wife!
Mark: Oh, you’re on camera.
Val: Oh, that’s what lamb looks like. [Ed. note: I see this as a callback to Val’s “hams are heavy” remark from the episode where she gives Seth Rogen a ham.]
Gigi: A root canal — that’s on the list, too, but I never have any time off.
Val: Sure, you know, but — teeth are important, FYI.
Val’s GPS: You have arrived at your destination.
Val: Have I?