As this season’s theme song makes abundantly clear, society sends mixed messages about what it means to be crazy — and so does Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The show has always been forthright about the fact that Rebecca’s “crazy” is a real, diagnosable case of anxiety and depression, but it can sometimes be glib about discussing that truth head-on, preferring to mock depression via French New Wave cinema or manifest anxiety in the form of a wisecracking younger Rebecca. But this unflinching episode changes all of that. And though it certainly has moments of humor, it’s also painful to watch.
Rachel Bloom has written about her own struggles with depression, and she and CXG co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna are aces at nailing the small situational details of Rebecca and Paula’s simultaneous collapses, from all-day naps to unwashed hair to constantly replaying bad memories (and bygone good ones) on loop. It’s also good at shading that depression comes in different varieties: While Paula is essentially going through a crushing “breakup” with Rebecca that she’ll overcome, Rebecca is going through something far worse. An early signal is that she hands over complete control of her life to Naomi, who’s simultaneously delighted and overwhelmed with her sudden power. Until she finds a list of “least painful” ways to commit suicide on Rebecca’s computer — a moment that knocked the breath out of me, and I’m sure many other viewers.
Naomi has always been one of the show’s most challenging characters, in part because it’s never clear whether she’s more driven by genuine love for Rebecca or a selfish need for Rebecca to reflect well on her. Because Tovah Feldshuh is a superlative actress, I’ve tended to lean to the “Maybe She’s Not Such a Heinous Bitch After All” side of the equation, though I admittedly don’t have my own Supremes equivalent to back me up on that.
But I have to admit surprise at the willingness to cross the line of having Naomi outright drug Rebecca’s drinks, especially because it was a “twist” that seemed so obvious from the start, and I figured the show was likelier to surprise me. To Naomi, it may have been a necessary measure to keep Rebecca alive, but even Feldshuh’s considerable acting talents can’t fully sell that reasoning. Naomi trying to outright commit Rebecca would have been a more interesting (and morally complex) storyline, and one that would have allowed her to flee without pushing Naomi’s character over the line from domineering to outright scary.
Back in West Covina, person having the scariest experience might be poor Cornelia Wigfield, the highly professional, responsible lawyer tasked with filling Rebecca’s shoes in the highly unprofessional, irresponsible halls of Plimpton, Plimpton, and Plimpton. From the moment her sensible shoes cross the threshold, she ends up living out a sort of reverse It’s a Wonderful Life experience, absorbing everyone’s realizations that their lives wouldn’t be the same without Rebecca. Darryl is desperate for advice to navigate his baby-related rift with WhiJo, Maya is rudderless without a feminism mentor, and even Jim is despairing under the false impression that he and Rebecca had some serious chemistry.
Cornelia’s only ally is Nathaniel, who manages to hold onto his above-it-all posture until he gets misty at a swim-up bar, reminiscing about how much he’s learned from Rebecca. After all that build-up, Cornelia’s goofy bossa nova mini-number “I Feel Like This Isn’t About Me” is light and cute, but mostly feels like a throwaway to fill some kind of musical quota. At least she’ll be able to spend plenty of time on the Copacabana with her fat HR settlement.
On the upside, it’s nice to see Paula come into her own for a change, considering how much she’s gone through with her abortion, Scott’s cheating, and Brendan’s ongoing bad behavior. Of course, a few rounds of Fancy Fairy Funhouse and a quickie vacation aren’t going to solve the issues she faces as both actual mom and office mom, but Paula’s a stronger and more interesting character when her happiness and her interests aren’t completely centered around Rebecca. It’s nice to see her being the first to try to get past her relationship with Rebecca and move on.
But Rebecca, by episode’s end, is completely stuck: unable to go back to West Covina, unable to stay at home, and too enervated by depression to “buy things or do things get things or do things or say things or face things.” So instead of having a realization on the plane, as with the last time she ran away from West Covina, she hits bottom, deciding to chase the merlot she receives from a kind flight attendant with a heaping handful of Naomi’s anti-anxiety pills.
I’m of two minds about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend deciding to showcase Rebecca’s suicide attempt in full color. On the one hand, it’s a real issue that many people struggling with mental illness face, and it’s certainly not out of character for Rebecca, who nearly flung herself off a cliff when Josh ditched her at the altar. More importantly, Rebecca does realize her mistake and ask for help (though I found the Help/Hope flight attendant call button to be a bit hackneyed, and would have preferred the show just played it straight).
On the other hand, this isn’t a silly soap opera where murders and suicides are the norm. It’s a relatively realistic show that saves its outlandishness for the musical numbers, and Rebecca is a very real-feeling character with whom a lot of viewers deeply empathize. I applaud the show for wanting to address the genuine hopelessness and suicidal ideation that a lot of people struggling with depression face, but I think depicting Rebecca actually attempting to kill herself, as opposed to just weighing it, might have been a case in which its willingness to talk about the hard stuff goes too far.
I have no doubt that Bloom and Brosh McKenna, who are known for doing their homework on issues like alcoholism and bi erasure, went about writing this storyline as responsibly as they could, in terms of not promoting suicide to viewers who might be in a similar state to Rebecca’s. But as someone who’s struggled with these issues myself, I found the episode’s final minutes outright disturbing — and that feeling has been difficult to shake, days after air. I don’t think I could watch it again. I want to reserve some judgment until I see how the show handles Rebecca’s recovery, but I’m not convinced that utilizing a graphic suicide attempt to perform a hard reset on a character’s story arc was worth it.
• If you’re struggling with your own feelings after watching this episode, please do take advantage of the services that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers. They’re at (800) 273-8255.
• Though people will likely come away from this episode remembering its denouement, it does have some very funny moments, especially with Maya acting as a human stand-in for the many Tumblrites who will be devastated by a possible Darryl-WhiJo breakup. “You guys are literally #goals, I cannot with you guys. You are the best humans, you give me all the feels.” (By episode’s end, they resolve to go to a yurt to take ayahuasca, so at least their relationship healing is on-brand.)
• Another Maya gem, when she invites Cornelia to a vagina refresh retreat: “We sun ‘er, we steam ‘er, we put crystals in ‘er.” Esther Povitsky is always great, but she really brings much-needed levity for this episode.
• Also much-needed: some gratuitous shirtlessness from Nathaniel and Jim. Paula freaking out over how ripped Jim is cracked me up.