'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend': To Life, To Life, To Suffering

The show takes a smart, sensitive look at how we sometimes ensure our own sorrow — and how we can stop those patterns of pain

[This post contains spoilers for the January 13 episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.]

An identity is a story we tell about ourselves. Some of those stories are true and some are not, while others flap in contradictory courses depending on the context, like a sail in a storm. Some are immovable, even beyond death; some are fleeting whims we try on like a costume. Many of those stories are remembered, but a remarkable mass are probably imagined, brought to life by hopes and fears so profound that they become a part of us. Often such stories are helpful, anchoring or buoying us as we figure out how to exist in the world. And sometimes they corrode through us, creating an emptiness within.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Season 1 theme song tells two stories about Rebecca (Rachel Bloom): the one she’s happy to recount (that she moved to West Covina, California, to flee her terrible corporate life in NYC), and the one she’d deny a little too forcefully if anyone suspected it (that she moved across the country to reunite with her summer-camp boyfriend, whom she hadn’t seen in a decade). True love has always been the CW musical-comedy’s end point, though not for Rebecca and sweet dimwit Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III). Instead, the will-she-or-won’t-she that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend dangled in front of us for the last two years is actually whether or not Rebecca will finally learn to live with herself without wallowing in fantasy and self-delusion.

Last week’s “Will Scarsdale Like Josh’s Shayna Punim?” practically shoves our protagonist toward a happy ending until she reverts to the rut of forced smiles and night crying she’s used to. A series highlight, the episode illustrates how Rebecca keeps herself doleful by clinging to her identity as a Sad Person. Unlike her Jewishness or her depression, Rebecca’s sadness is a choice — a story she’s told herself so many times that she’s forgotten it isn’t real. It’s a smart, sensitive look at how we sometimes ensure our own suffering, and how we can stop those patterns of pain.

“Scarsdale” centers on Rebecca and Josh’s visit to her hometown on the occasion of a relative’s bar mitzvah. Josh is apprehensive about the trip: Rebecca’s mom isn’t his biggest fan, and he’s pretty sure that he’ll be called “Oriental” at least once. But he’s served well by his faith in himself as an easygoing bro, instantly making friends with all of his girlfriend’s friends and family. Rebecca, too, carries out her self-fulfilling prophecy: that she won’t have any fun because she comes from a family and especially a people who have only known distress. “People like us [Jews] only know how to be miserable,” she tells Josh. Later, she patronizingly informs the rabbi (Patti LuPone), “Jewish people’s DNA is literally imprinted with our past trauma,” while imagining the bar mitzvah guests bringing up the Holocaust every five seconds in the musical number “Remember That We Suffered.” Rabbi Shari refuses to have any of it. “A people is not responsible for your life; you are,” she chides Rebecca. “And if you hate yourself, it doesn’t matter how great your boyfriend is. You’ll always be unhappy.”

Who is our protagonist when she isn’t manic or unhappy? Rebecca herself doesn’t know — she only knows that she hates her. An adventure awaits; there’s so much for Rebecca to discover about herself. But the unknown is intimidating and journeys are arduous, which is why it’s understandable that when she’s given a chance to stay in her comfort zone, she essentially puts on her pajamas and hides under the blankie that is Josh.

The farcical proposal scene in her therapist’s office — because what’s more romantic than getting engaged in front of your shrink? — undoes much of the progress Rebecca had made, but it doesn’t feel like too great a loss. Even if it’s repressed in the outer recesses of her brain by thoughts of “fairy-tale” romances, Rebecca now knows that she needs to update her sense of self, and that who she’s thought of herself being in the past is keeping her from who she could be in the future. At least she knows that a path out of her anguish exists, even if she’s not taking it right now. She’ll change her story when she’s ready to start telling new ones.

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