Here’s something I never thought I’d say: I empathize with Valerie Cherish. I have been where she was last night, fighting for a relationship even after it had veered astray to an embarrassing degree, only to ruin things when I couldn’t get my actions to line up with my intentions, which I swear were honorable and even somewhat selfless. But I’m optimistic that both she and I will (or, I’d like to think, have) wound up in a better place precisely because of our screw-ups.
Let’s jump right into the scene at the restaurant. First Jane ambushes Val on the sidewalk, insisting that she has to film Val’s imminent tête-à-tête with Mark. It became quickly obvious that Jane and Val are switching places on us, symbolically and morally. Val is now the one who cherishes (hey!) her privacy, reluctant to play by the rules of the reality (sorry, Jane; ”docu-series”) genre, while Jane is almost gleefully willing to compromise the integrity of herself or anyone around her for the sake of unlocking a very specific, tantalizing career achievement, the prestigious HBO doc. I found it noteworthy that after Mark figured out he was being taped, Val’s explanation included, “Jane needs this. I don’t.” And then later on, when Mark was railing against the cameras, he made sure to implicate Jane as well by telling her, “I hope you win whatever you’re trying to win.”
So Jane’s fast falling into shallow careerism, but Val still hasn’t all-the-way reached the level of self-awareness and maturity she needs — because she does, ultimately, decide to put on that mike. Whether that’s because she lacks the internal fortitude to stand up to Jane, or because she’s still lured by the validation of the camera, or because she thinks Mark will ultimately understand her choice to film their meeting, I’m not sure — and besides, none of that really matters. (Although seriously, if you have to covertly film him in the first place, do you really think that later on, he’ll be cool with finding out and having that footage broadcast?) What matters is that while we may see how far Val’s come (her intentions), all Mark can see is her actions, that she wore “a fucking wire.” Point: Mark.
And yet, then there’s the fight while waiting for the valet, where Val stands up for herself in what I thought was a very commendable way. I mean, clearly their couples’ therapy hasn’t really kicked in yet because their discourse is heavy on the antagonism. (Mark: “You know what?” Val: “No, do you know what?”) But Val’s examples of what she’s done for Mark’s sake felt valid to me, especially the part about making sure Francesca ate, which was a wonderful callback to the first season. Francesca being “not an eater” was a running joke back then — and you know, so was Val. And you know, I think she knows that, because I nearly clutched my pathos-drenched heart when she said, “No one? Really, not no one, Mark. Because I believed in me. I’m not no one. That’s not nice. Maybe you don’t think I’m someone, but I have a birth certificate that says I am.” The wide-eyed look of hurt that Val shoots at Mark before saying these words may have been Lisa Kudrow’s single finest acting moment in 20 years.
I wanted Jane to jump in during this fight and save Val, to finally reclaim her humanity-first beliefs and not worry about ruining her footage and just do … something. Barring that, I’d take a shot of Jane that offered some clues or context as to why she’s not jumping in and doing something. I’m okay with the fact that I got neither, because The Comeback has become a master class in teasing a certain narrative moment, then hedging on it and letting the viewer stew in the tension that not delivering that moment creates. I wanted to know more about Val and Mark’s ski wedding, and his affair, and her abortion, and what, precisely, Mark was referring to when he told Val, “Go cry in your tub again.” I learned more about their marriage from those tiny moments than I ever have before. I want Mark to know that Val wants him at the Emmys because she wants him, although I wish Val had come up with another way to phrase that besides, “I don’t know how to explain your absence.” Then again, maybe I don’t, because like I said above, maybe Mark and Val’s marriage is supposed to get screwed-up. Maybe even if they patch things over and grow to understand one another better, what’s left is that Mark really doesn’t want Val to be successful, to have her moment, to change or grow or ask for more from the relationship.
Okay, now let’s talk about Mickey, a.k.a., “he whom you have called.” Yes, I still keep thinking Mickey’s gonna die. I worried he was dead when he fell asleep on Val’s couch, and I was convinced one of the camera guys (Cricket? Hawk?) was gonna lean over and check to see if he was still breathing. Instead, that’s what Val does later at his apartment. Yikes, naked people! (One week, the broad humor comes from Mickey’s digestive issues; the next week, it comes from his doughy butt and his gigolo’s impressive “it,” as Jane calls it. Poor Mickey!) Other than the shock of all this, my favorite part of the scene at Mickey’s apartment was when Juan and Mickey said good-bye. It felt kinda legit, like they actually got a kick out of each other and enjoyed each other’s company even though theirs was a transactional encounter. It was telling to find out that Val had never been to Mickey’s apartment before (even though she had a key) and wonderful to see how she took the news that Mickey’s still able to have drunk sex when he needs a little pick-me-up.
Jane, meanwhile, is stoking drama in Val’s car and setting up ridiculous drive-by shots and chasing after naked guys to sign release forms. For shame, Jane! By the way, I couldn’t help noting that Val and Billy discuss a blow-dry bar on Sunset Boulevard. Not because of the blow part (ha-ha) but because suddenly The Comeback is beginning to feel kinda Sunset Boulevard–y to me. Like Val is Norma Desmond and Mickey is her loyal, enabling butler, and Paulie G. is Joe Gillis, the down-and-out screenwriter who reluctantly stakes his career comeback (hey!) to this possible train wreck of an actress. Is that just me? It’s okay if it is.
So that just leaves the social-media press junket, where — after some rib-tickling diversions, like the guy in drag and the old lady with the Seth Rogen crush and the BobTV.com guy — we get the tied-up-with-a-bow takeaway of the episode (if not the season and the series), courtesy of that nerdy blogger dude (no, not that one; the other nerdy blogger dude): “Mallory represents show business and Mitch’s hatred for that part of himself that craves the spotlight, the way his body craves the heroin … It’s not a showbiz story so much as a human story, [about] being addicted to other people’s version of ourselves.” Val replies, “I wish I had you six months ago when I was laying in bed thinking, What does it all mean?” Her answer is cutely self-effacing on the surface but meta as hell in its context.
“Mitch is Mallory, right?” That’s the nerdy blogger’s final question. Not coincidentally, we then see Mitch for the first time as he gets on the elevator with “Val and the circus.” No one’s got an extra spot on the guest list for Juna’s big party. But he doesn’t get hot under the collar like he usually does when he feels slighted; he grins and bears it, which has been Val’s standard m.o. And then we hear the ominous closing-credits song: Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” Is the song meant to comment (in lyrics and/or tone) on the Freaky Friday nature of the Jane-Val and Mitch-Val transformations? Is it another way that Kudrow and Michael Patrick King are playing with us, setting us up for something horrid that probably won’t ever happen? Does it mean that Val’s about to suffer another personal or professional downfall in the season finale? Seriously, what the hell’s gonna happen in the finale? It feels like I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life.
The Comeback’s Best Comebacks
Mickey: I have had so much radiation that every time I pass by a VCR, it plays the movie Silkwood.
Val: Meryl Streep. “A dingo ate my baby!”
Mickey: That’s not Silkwood.
Val: Uh, no. That’s my Meryl Streep, though.
Jane: I’ve never liked meat.
Val: Is that a lesbian joke, Jane?
Jane: We’re not doing that type of TV thing. We’re doing an HBO doc.
Billy: Brad Goreski is gonna hand-deliver the dress. Why on earth would he do that if there were no cameras?
Jane: They went through a lot of trouble to get me access to the … thing.
Billy: The awards show?
Jane: Yeah, whatever.
Billy: Damn it, why did they send bread?
Val: This isn’t that MTV show with the candid cameras.
Jane: … Punk’d?
Val: Punk’d! It’s not Punk’d.
Jane: You’re worried about Mickey.
Val: No, I’m not worried.
Jane: You just said you were worried.
Val: That’s just something you say.
Jane: Has he ever not shown up before?
Val: Jane, stop looking for drama. I’m not worried and the light was mostly yellow.
Jane: Isn’t that out of the way?
Val: We’re in L.A., Jane. Everything’s out of the way.
Juan: You can’t show my dick on camera.
Jane: We can if you sign a release.
Bob of BobTV.com: Did Paulie have that much sex?
Val: Does anyone?