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The True Love Story of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Photo: Greg Gayne/The CW

The low-key and sober finale of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend suited a show that was always knowingly at war with itself. Written by star Rachel Bloom and her co-creator and co-executive producer Aline Brosh McKenna, it put its romantically obsessed heroine, Rebecca Bunch, at a crossroads where she felt she had to choose among three great loves, then let her choose a fourth option: the art that she’d been creating in her mind but never thought about manifesting in reality.

This was a nifty example of a show eating its cake and having it too. It felt optimistic yet psychologically credible. A heroine breaks a lifelong cycle of romantic/sexual addiction and decides to work on herself, and in the process, falls hard for a new love, the greatest of all, and one that will never let her down: her art. But at the same time, the finale gave the audience a taste of fantasy wish-fulfillment. We know what a brilliant performer Rachel Bloom is because we’ve been watching her be amazing for four seasons, so we can picture Rebecca eventually becoming Rachel Bloom, or at least West Covina’s version, even though it’s been established that she’s never formally studied music and can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Titled “I’m in Love,” this wrap-up hour was reminiscent of the finale of The Americans in one signficant respect: It gave viewers an ending they could not have predicted, and that probably didn’t initially feel as satisfying as whatever they’d been imagining in the run-up, but that felt right once you sat with it. It’s the kind of ending that Rebecca’s therapist, Dr. Noelle Akopian (Michael Hyatt), might have approved of, had it wrapped up a TV series she loved rather than a case study she’d been participating in. It says that happiness is possible for troubled people if they work hard on understanding themselves and figure out how to identify and thwart their worst tendencies, but at the same time, it shows its heroine barely starting the next stage of her life. (Channeling David Chase at Holsten’s, the episode cuts to black before Rebecca can perform her first original song.)

And it avoids anything that might’ve implied that Rebecca could find contentment by embracing even a mild version of the fantasies she’d been clinging to all these years. That’s what that dream sequence with Dr. Akopian (which wasn’t initially identified as such) was about. It was a modified A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life scenario, with the main character glimpsing alternate futures with different lovers: the guy who inspired her to move to West Covina in the first place, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), and then abandoned her at the altar; her boss-turned-partner, the daddy-dominated lawyer Nathaniel (Scott Michael Foster); and her once-volatile and glum but now more well-adjusted ex-boyfriend Greg Serrano (originally played by Santino Fontana, but recast with Bloom’s college classmate Skylar Astin). But in each scenario, Rebecca saw herself as unhappy whenever her man left the room. “Romantic love is not an ending, it’s just a part of your story,” Rebecca tells the audience gathered for an open-mic night, after a daring one-year time jump that at first seemed like it might be a tip-off that we were watching another dream sequence.

It was a fragmented, at times purposefully disorienting way of navigating a minefield of conflicting impulses. CXG was a madcap workplace sitcom and borderline-screwball romantic comedy, with satirical musical numbers stirred in. Its heroine was as deeply screwed-up and repetitiously self-destructive as Don Draper, another antiheroic protagonist whose contradictions mirrored those of the supporting players. As on The Mindy Project, most of the plots were about how the heroine’s unrealistic expectations of life were shaped by the happy ending-obsessed popular culture she’d been raised on (Disney fantasies and rom-coms, in particular) and the traumas she’d suffered as a child (her parents’ divorce, and her subsequent near-abandonment by her dad).

The series was as attentive to the details of real-world human psychology as Mad Men and its progenitor The Sopranos, and in retrospect that element is the only part that could be described as realistic. Nevertheless, the temptation to embrace fantasy in the show’s final hour must have been powerful. A part of me wanted Rebecca to end up with one of those three guys—preferably Josh, only because I’ve seen so many movies and read so many books where people end up marrying their first great love and living happily ever after. Nobody wants their show to say, “That cliche you adore, and that we also adore, is harmful, and we cannot in good conscience provide it here,” but they had to, after four seasons of warning viewers that the unrealistic, unhealthy scenarios endorsed in romantic comedies, pop songs, and Disney princess musicals are part of the behavioral conditioning that gives people permission to keep crashing and burning.

“You’ve ruined everything,” Rebecca sings to herself, in the single greatest number from season one. She keeps ruining everything again and again and again, never realizing until afterward that she keeps remaking the same mistakes with only the details changed.

And then, at long last, there’s hope.

How fitting that the only sustained performance in this musical series’ final episode, formed around the idea of an 11 o’clock number, is set in what Rebecca describes as “an abstract theatrical space” on a revolving stage. The outfits Rebecca wore at key moments in her odyssey twirl around her as she slowly pirouettes in place, looking the audience in the eye while performing a medley of her greatest self-justifying and self-flagellating hits. After a while, she brings her best friend Paula (Donna Lynn Champlain) into her dream space, with a finger-snap ease that’s like a shared joke between the show and its audience. The bare-bones decor exposes the artifice of this show’s clever musical numbers, and connects nicely (and subtly) with the way Rebecca’s therapy sessions effectively take her behind the scenes of her own conscious mind. When Rebecca goes into musical fantasies, she’s having lucid dreams that decode their own meanings. The only thing she lacks is the ability to sense that a decoding process is taking place — and grasp that the mental process of creating a musical number is empowering as well as insightful, and lets her feel as if she’s in control of her own life. Whether she really is or isn’t in control doesn’t matter, because the function of art, like therapy, is to help us understand life, not direct it. The revolving stage, which becomes a clock face when viewed from overhead, sums up the circularity of Rebecca’s compulsive behaviors. Art helps her step off the merry-go-round. She doesn’t end up with any of the three men that she considered the great loves of her life, but she’s figured out that she’s an artist.

That’s not the happily-ever-after ending Rebecca moved to West Covina for. It’s better.

The True Love Story of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend