(This post contains full spoilers for the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend series finale, and for the show as a whole.)
“Romantic love is not an ending, not for me and not for anyone else here. It’s just a part of your story.”
These are the words Rebecca Bunch tells her open-mic night audience near the end of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend finale, “I’m In Love!” And they clearly make up the thesis statement that Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna were offering their TV audience at the conclusion of this four-season story.
In this home stretch for the great, weird musical comedy, two things were happening at once. First, Rebecca was torn between ex-boyfriends Josh, Nathaniel and Greg, all of whom had — like her — grown much healthier emotionally since the time they were together. Second, Rebecca was beginning to question what she wanted out of life besides romance. She quit the law to open a pretzel shop, she gave community theater a try (then got fired for daring to change a Broadway legend’s sexist lyrics) and seemed adrift on a deeper level than her inability to decide on one guy.
The series started with Rebecca’s irrational pursuit of summer camp ex Josh and spent a lot of time on her various romances and breakups. The back half of this final season (starting around when Skylar Astin was introduced as a transformed version of Greg, who was played in the first two seasons by Santino Fontana) put a lot of emphasis on the love quadrangle (which led to a brief reprise of one of the show’s best songs). And last week’s penultimate episode saw her going on three Bachelor-style dates with each guy to decide between them once and for all. So a viewer couldn’t be blamed for assuming that “I’m In Love!” would be about Rebecca and the winning beau riding off into the sunset together (possibly on the bike from the final season’s “Meet Rebecca!” theme song).
But Crazy Ex has always been more about Rebecca Bunch’s inner life than her romantic one, even in those early days when every decision she made related to her stalking of Josh. The series’ title went from ironic to serious as she entered therapy and was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. (Between this series and You’re the Worst, we’ve lost a lot of great dramatization of mental health issues this week.) The Rebecca who arrived in West Covina was a user who could be unbearable to be around. By the end, she was… well, she was still a headache even to the people she loved (blurting out Daryl’s secret pregnancy news, for instance), but she had also transformed the lives of the people around her by urging them to take leaps they’d never have considered without her pushy, impetuous presence.
The series probably could have ended on Rebecca picking a Team — most likely Greg, who unsurprisingly felt like a brand-new character with Astin in the role, and thus didn’t have the baggage with Rebecca that the other two shared — and it would have felt nice if not hugely true to the spirit of the thing. Instead, the title “I’m In Love!” ends up referring not to a guy, but to the songs Rebecca has had in her head since the beginning. What was once a familiar dramatic device — and a way for Bloom and co-songwriters Jack Dolgen and Adam Schlesinger to flex their impressive muscles when it comes to pastiche — became a literal part of the text at the end.
Rebecca has a series of interconnected dreams in which she gets everything she wants with each guy yet still isn’t happy. Her dream self explains that she doesn’t know who she is, which leads her best friend Paula to press Rebecca on this very question. As has happened so often over the run of the series, Rebecca disappears into musical fantasyland for a medley of some of the show’s previous theme songs and other greatest hits, all in an abstract theatrical space slowly filled with the costumes Bloom wore in each number. But something is new this time. Paula is aware of the way that Rebecca can drift off mid-conversation, prompting Rebecca not only to tell her about the songs in her head(*), but to find a way to bring her into that fantasy space. And a delighted Paula — whose life is better in almost every way since Rebecca’s arrival — declares that this is the thing Rebecca should be focusing on right now rather than picking a boy to kiss. At the open-mic night, we learn that Rebecca isn’t there to talk about the guy she chose, but to play her friends one of the songs she’s written after devoting herself to the craft over the past year.
(*) Rebecca’s explanation includes an in-jokey reference to how “the show” shares her POV, which explains why other characters not only get songs to perform like “Man Nap” and “Don’t Be a Lawyer,” but often get to do them in scenes where Rebecca isn’t present (like “This Is My Movement”).
For curiosity’s sake, I recently made a Twitter poll about which guy Rebecca should choose: Josh, Nathaniel, Greg or none of the above? I had long felt like the ol’ “I choose me” ending would be most appropriate in terms of both theme and Rebecca’s messy history with these three dudes. More than half the voters agreed. But there were also interesting replies from people arguing that a conclusion in which Rebecca opts to keep working on herself sends the message that the mentally ill can never really find happiness, because they’ll always be engaged in that process.
This isn’t where “I’m In Love!” goes, though. Rebecca’s choice isn’t about her condition. She’s been in a good emotional place since breaking up with Greg and recommitting herself to therapy, and recent interactions with the guys didn’t seem to be pushing her off the wagon again. This is purely about Rebecca wanting to focus on this project without being distracted by a relationship. And the final scene even leaves open the possibility she could get back together with Greg (who is, to the dismay of Rebecca-hating White Josh, still single) whenever she feels confident enough in the state of her music to go looking for love again.
The point of all this isn’t that Rebecca Bunch is incapable of having a healthy romantic relationship. It’s that the woman we met four years ago was convinced that romantic love was her only path to happiness, when in fact the situation was much more nuanced than that. Rebecca finds another path that’s been in front of her this whole time. And for the moment, it’s all she wants.
When the final season began in October, I wrote about the many ways in which Bloom and Brosh McKenna had managed to make Rebecca lovable in spite of all her exasperating behavior. The songs were the final, and in many ways, most important factor. They showcased a Rebecca who was more talented (it’s long been a nice touch that actual Rebecca is clearly meant to be less gifted than she is in her fantasies), more positive and more unpredictable in a good way than her real-life self. And just as they offered Rebecca an emotional release valve whenever things were growing unbearable for her, they did the same for us. This was a smart, funny, endearing and insightful show, and it would have been even without those brilliant songs. But the music was always what made Crazy Ex-Girlfriend truly special, and it felt right and true that the story would ultimately lead not to Rebecca Bunch telling her audience the name of the boy she liked, but announcing, anxiously but optimistically, “This is a song I wrote.”