Four years ago, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sang and danced its way to West Covina and into our hearts. As played by series co-creator Rachel Bloom, heroine Rebecca Bunch was a mess, a toxic wreck of a human being who was actively stalking someone — but the show surrounding her was so sparkling, so simultaneously joyous and acerbic, that it was nearly impossible not to love it, and to love Rebecca too.
(Actually, it was apparently not impossible for most viewers, because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was consistently one of the lowest-rated shows on television. But I couldn’t help but love it — and maybe you couldn’t either, if you’re reading this.)
Now, at long last, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has come to its natural end, in defiance of the forced conclusion its rock-bottom ratings may have predicted. After enormous amounts of therapy, an antidepressant prescription, extensive soul-searching, and more song-and-dance routines than I can keep straight, Rebecca has finally taken the last steps toward answering the question she asked herself in the premiere: What does happiness look like?
In the series finale, “I’m In Love,” which aired Friday night on the CW, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gave us an answer. And it doesn’t look quite like any of the answers Rebecca has tried out before.
For Rebecca, happiness is friends, and happiness is an avocation. Happiness is not a job. And happiness is definitely not a guy.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend looked like it was building a classic love triangle — and later, quadrangle. Then it threw them both out the window.
The ostensible endgame of the show leading into the finale was that Rebecca was going to have to pick one of her three love interests. While sweet childhood crush/stalking victim Josh and ambitious-but-reformed Nathaniel both made decent showings for themselves, the show was tilting its hand heavily toward newly sober Greg — whose evolution was so dramatic that he got recast entirely — in those last few episodes.
But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s heart was never quite in this particular love quadrangle, which it approached with an air of tired resignation, both in Rebecca’s reactions and in the meta jokes it built around the plotline. That comes in sharp contrast to the love triangle Rebecca found herself in at the beginning of season 2, to which she reacted with self-absorbed glee. “At the center of the triangle is lil’ ol’ me,” she purred, in full Marilyn Monroe getup.
This time around, when Rebecca went back to her love triangle dream theater to hash out her confusing feelings for Josh, Greg, and Nathaniel, she was palpably sick of the whole deal. “I thought all this drama was back in my past,” she sighed.
“Joke’s on you, bitch, you’ll never be free,” her three suitors replied in unison.
And when Rebecca decided to clear things up once and for all by going on one last date with each of the three guys, things just got even more exhausting. All three of the dates were pretty solid! All three of the guys were not only extremely good-looking, but also, at this point in the show, after several seasons of development, basically good people!
So then, you could be forgiven for asking, what is the point of all this angst? Greg, who came last on Rebecca’s rotation and whose date was the most deconstructed of the three, seemed to have a slight structural edge, but honestly, you could have made a decent case for Rebecca to end up with any one of the three guys. Which meant that the love polygon couldn’t serve its traditional story function of telling us exactly who the main character is going to be.
Traditionally in a love triangle, both of the rivals represent one possible character path for the protagonist, so when the protagonist chooses a lover, they’re also choosing a self. Is Jane Eyre going to be morally correct but cold, like St. John Rivers, or is she going to be passionate and wild, like Mr. Rochester? Is Katniss going to be violently rebellious, like Gale, or is she going to lean towards peace, like Peeta? Is Bridget Jones going to live a life of hedonism and little respect with Hugh Grant’s Daniel, or is she going towards the more classically romantic option of Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy?
When Crazy Ex-Girlfriend premiered, it seemed like it was creating just that kind of love triangle. Josh represented Rebecca’s self-delusions, and Greg represented her true self, and she would eventually reject Josh and find love with Greg.
Four seasons later, it’s clear that that’s no longer the case. Josh and Rebecca have hashed out their baggage into a reasonably functional and friendly dynamic. Greg and Rebecca have plenty of toxic baggage of their own after Rebecca slept with his dad. In season two, Nathaniel stepped into the picture; he too went through such an elaborate evolution that by the end of the show, he too seemed to be positioned in such a way that he could represent Rebecca’s true self, too — and so could Greg, and so could Josh. The options were all open.
Then, in its final hour, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend completely threw out the classic love triangle structure. It rejected the idea that our identities can be symbolized through our romantic choices.
And it was so satisfying.
Rebecca didn’t need to find a guy to be happy. She needed to find herself.
In the series finale, Rebecca puts her love quadrangle aside and turns to her best friend, Paula, for help. She needs to find the thing that makes her happy, Rebecca explains to Paula. Then she drifts off into a fantasy musical sequence about her dilemma, as is her wont.
That, Paula says at once, when Rebecca comes back down. That’s what makes Rebecca happy. Fantasy musical sequences make her happy. Putting her feelings into songs makes her happy. To be truly happy, Rebecca has to embrace who she truly is. She has to write songs.
The show lightly seeded this idea a few episodes ago, when Rebecca tried to find happiness by joining a community theater troupe, only to realize that she couldn’t stand the misogyny of the classic American songbook. To update matters for her modern sensibilities, Rebecca lightly rewrote a song, and the montage in which she did so showed her in a state of delighted, productive absorption that we’ve never seen from her before. It was, to put it in a musical theater metaphor that Rebecca would appreciate, very “Finishing the Hat.”
Back then, Rebecca’s love quadrangle almost immediately distracted away from how much fun she had with her songwriting. Her two indulgences were literally opposed to each other: Rebecca was musing out loud about how much she had loved rewriting that song, and how much fun she had had rewriting it, when Josh interrupted her by blurting out that he was in love with her.
What the series finale suggests is that Rebecca’s quest for romantic love has always been a distraction. Love is an important part of life, and romantic love is great, but no single relationship could make Rebecca whole. What she needed was to find the thing that nourished her, the work that she could do that made her happy.
Once Rebecca found songwriting, it didn’t matter that she came to it late and that she might not ever be good enough to do it professionally. What mattered was that she loved it.
“I’m In Love” is an okay episode of television and a terrific series finale
Taken outside of its larger context, “I’m In Love” is a perfectly fine episode of television. It’s a little bit clumsy in places — Rebecca’s Speech Of Exposition, in which she explains exactly what all of her friends have been doing over the course of a one-year time jump, I’m looking at you — but the emotional payoff is enormous. But as a series finale, “I’m in Love” is incredibly satisfying.
Back in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s pilot, when a desperately overworked and unhappy Rebecca ran into Josh Chan on the streets of New York, you could almost see the process by which she projected all of her desires onto Josh’s sweet, dim face. She made Josh the solution to all of her problems, because that’s what every romantic comedy she had ever seen told her she should do: If she could find the right guy, she’d be happy.
“I’m In Love” demonstrates that the problem with Rebecca’s quest wasn’t that she chose the wrong guy to project her desires onto. The problem was that no one guy was ever going to heal her or make her whole. That’s why the classic love triangle model of storytelling didn’t work for her.
Instead, Rebecca found happiness by changing her life. She left her terrible, soul-crushing job for something easier, and then she left law entirely to do work that paid her bills and didn’t make her miserable. She found friends, and she slowly groped her way toward a genuine connection with them. And now, finally, she has found an avocation.
Together, those are the things that make her whole, that have taught her how to love herself. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, this is what happiness looks like.