“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend protagonist Rebecca acknowledges the unhealthy nature of her actions while blatantly excusing said actions time and time again. She knows better, and she doesn’t.”
“I thought that when you loved someone it just fixed everything and made your life great” says a characteristically bewildered and wholly self-involved Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) in the second-season Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s episode “Will Scarsdale Like Josh’s Shayna Punim?”
“That’s a lot to put on a human being” replies a kind and wise Rabbi Shari, in a brief (but unsurprisingly) memorable appearance by Patti LuPone.
“Yeah, but he’s not a human being. He’s Josh Chan.”1
The stereotype that women are “crazy”—specifically, that men characterize women they interact with romantically as “crazy”—is perpetuated in pop culture and personal interactions alike. Snooping through phones, internet stalking, wild jealousy, erratic mood swings, and unhealthily obsessive love are treated as distinctly, almost innately, feminine compulsions. Men are taught to anticipate and be wary of those women. Women are taught to avoid any action or reaction that could result in them being labeled as that girl. Well, not all women. Rebecca Bunch of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has no interest in avoiding the actions that epitomize the “crazy” girl: She exemplifies the trope, outwardly denies it, shoves it in the audience’s face, and somehow makes us love her anyway.
We meet Rebecca as she settles into her late twenties as a brilliant Harvard and Yale graduate, a massively successful real-estate lawyer in Manhattan, and a deeply unhappy woman struggling with depression and anxiety. After being offered a position as partner at her firm, Rebecca has a mental breakdown in an alleyway and is confronted with a physical sign literally pointing at the metaphorical sign she’s been waiting for: her visiting ex-boyfriend from childhood summer camp, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III). They speak briefly and, guided by her mental distress and predisposition for romanticization, Rebecca soon decides to abandon her life in New York to explore a future in California. To be more specific, she moves to the suburb of West Covina, California—Josh’s hometown—and the future she envisions is a life spent with him.
As one might assume, things do not go seamlessly for Rebecca. While she easily secures an apartment and position at a quirky local law firm, our antiheroine soon discovers that winning Josh’s heart without exposing her impulsive move and subsequently coming across as an obsessive lunatic is not as simple as she had hoped. Her acute awareness of the possibility of her “true love” seeing her as a crazy ex-girlfriend is evident as she cunningly (though often sloppily) attempts to avoid outing herself or her antics at all costs. Well, all costs that don’t include avoiding said morally questionable and outrageous acts in the first place. Here lies the tension that holds the “anti” and “heroine” aspects of her character together: Rebecca is aware of how she comes across and acknowledges the unhealthy nature of her actions while blatantly excusing said actions and resisting changing her habits time and time again. She knows better, and she doesn’t.
The first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, co-created by Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, establishes Rebecca’s mental pathology with sharp commentary, witty musical numbers, dramatic irony, humor, and a small sliver of hope. Shortly after moving, Rebecca discovers that Josh is in a long-term relationship with the beautiful and vapid Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) and immediately stalks and obsesses over her new “competition.” She befriends her coworker, the eager and repressed mother-of-two Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) who romanticizes Rebecca’s passion for Josh and plots alongside her to get the two of them together. Rebecca also meets Greg (Santino Fontana), one of Josh’s best friends and a well-meaning yet self-destructive bartender. The two share a real spark, not that it’s healthy, but Rebecca is unwaveringly focused on winning the unavailable Josh.
During this first season, she sneakily tries to pull information out of Valencia, orchestrates a party to manipulate Josh into becoming her friend, romantically and sexually uses Greg to get closer to Josh, performatively tries to alter her reputation by doing good deeds for positive attention, stalks Josh’s family members to get herself invited to Thanksgiving so she can outshine his girlfriend, follows him to summer camp, breaks into his home, deletes messages off of his phone, enters therapy, ignores everything her therapist (Michael Hyatt) says, begins dating Greg, and eventually cheats on Greg with Josh (after Josh and Valencia become engaged). All of this is undercut with a few biting songs per episode, from “Settle for Me” to “His Status is . . . Preferred,” and “I’m in a Sexy French Depression,” which illuminate mental states and offer the inner monologues of each character.
Rebecca is a tough lead to stick with and stand behind, but between her trespassing, stalking, manipulation, and overall poor taste, the audience is fed moments of deep sincerity and human struggle. The musical numbers hilariously showcase just how conscious Rebecca is of her own backwards and unhealthy process, even if she doesn’t see it as ultimately negative (anything for love!). Other songs depict the wish fulfillment and breaks from reality Rebecca and other characters experience in their minds to work through relatable issues, from getting ready for a date to alcoholism. When they cannot confront their own pain or delusions, these songs offer an opportunity to express intense emotions while simultaneously weaving in parodies and criticisms of popular music tropes, sexist constructs, and the often ridiculous nature of the plot. The mix of slapstick, crude, and dark comedy is visceral and gives the audience a glimpse into the ways all of the characters in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend avoid, examine, and conceptualize their daily lives.
Rebecca’s mental illness is touched on, but, rather realistically, her illness and related propensity to dismiss her mental health keeps her bound to toxic coping mechanisms and relationships. Rebecca may be unconventional, self-serving, and destructive, but she is never malicious. In the first episode, she manically throws all of her psychiatric medication away and, later in the season, the audience is privy to flashbacks of her childhood, involving abandonment by her father, a controlling and critical mother, loneliness and neglect at a young age, and deep insecurities related to identity. While Rebecca may never admit where her fantasies come from, we see that she’s been forced to live in her own world and has adopted societal markers of success and happiness, mainly passionate love, as her own personal goals. Her experience of first love at summer camp with Josh, more than a decade before their chance reunion, stuck with her because she didn’t have many other moments of genuine love to hold on to. Rebecca has a great deal to work through and is seemingly incapable of holding herself accountable, and, still, the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend maintains the dangling possibility that, with her intelligence and the guidance of her healthier friends, she can crawl her way out of her own pernicious process.
Season 2 actively teases this possibility, only to repeatedly go the way of Tony Soprano—that is, Rebecca Bunch may be getting to know herself, but that sure as hell doesn’t mean she’s changing. After cheating on Greg with a cheating Josh, Rebecca fully falls into her new relationship and avoids the red flags popping up. Whereas the first season’s theme song addressed Rebecca’s dialectical thinking (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: That’s a sexist term!”)2 and inability to admit her own delusion (“It happens to be where Josh lives—But that’s not why I’m here!”),3 the second season dives head-first into her fanciful, childlike perspective on her new relationship with the man of her dreams, singing:
I’m just a girl in love
I can’t be held responsible for my actions
I have no underlying issues to address
I’m certifiably cute and adorably obsessed!
They say love makes you crazy
So you can’t call her crazy
’cause when you call her crazy
You’re just calling her in-love!4
During this second chapter, Rebecca’s greatest transgressions arguably occur outside of her romantic relationships. She neglects Paula by being completely self-absorbed and unavailable in Paula’s own times of crisis. Greg, who was already struggling with alcoholism, begins his road to recovery and nearly relapses when he learns that his best friend and ex-girlfriend betrayed him. Instead of respecting Greg’s boundaries, she pursues a friendship and puts a relationship back on the table. Rebecca romanticizes Greg and becomes infatuated with the idea of a love triangle, only to be thwarted by Greg and dumped by Josh after she feigns a pregnancy scare that pushes him over the edge. After this, Paula discovers she is legitimately pregnant and has an abortion while an absentee Rebecca gets a makeover and “rebrands” herself to get back at her new exes. She insensitively hunts Valencia down so she has someone to complain to and stalks Josh’s new girlfriend, going so far as to run over her cat. Near the end of the season, Josh returns to Rebecca and she denies him at first, contemplating leaving their past in the past. She even goes back to therapy and admits she needs to be alone for a while to figure out who she is. It is in this moment that the audience’s hopes for Rebecca’s health and personal development reach a peak. She is allowing her awareness to line up with her actions and is potentially learning to curb her impulses. But just moments later, Josh proposes and Rebecca says yes immediately, squashing all notions that she was finally growing up and getting a handle on her mental health. Near the end of the season, she cheats on Josh with her boss and, instead of admitting it, decides to rush the wedding. No lasting change—Tony Soprano all over again.
Rebecca Bunch is not merely flawed; she is pathologically inclined to self-absorption, delusion, and an inability to acknowledge and learn from mistakes in a cycle of dysfunction. She is clearly powerful and incredibly smart: She has an IQ of 164 and is capable of solving problems efficiently in and out of work; she gives healthy advice to those around her when she isn’t directly involved in the predicament or distracted by her own issues. This is what makes her all the more infuriating and repellent to the audience. We know she can do better. Even with her mental illnesses, she has all of the money and access she needs to improve her life, but she refuses to do the work. Rebecca vacillates between playing the princess and the witch, the victim and the persecutor. She blatantly ignores and hurts those around her, the same people who support her unconditionally, and numerous episodes often pass before she begins to admit any responsibility. In most instances, she only apologizes to alleviate her own guilt and convince the wronged party to trust her again so that she may use them in her next scheme. Many promises are empty. Her awareness and intelligence, while great, keep her from hitting rock bottom—she is so resilient and impassioned that she’ll, potentially, never be forced to change. Based on what the viewers have been offered in these first two seasons, I would wager that, if significant change does occur, it won’t be simple or easy.
And yet, in the Season 2 finale, “Can Josh Take a Leap of Faith?”, when Rebecca is left at the altar, we hurt for her. This is an imperfect character with many redeeming, entertaining, and lovable qualities. She is a smart woman who believes in something, who we’ve seen fight for what she wants with all of her power and energy. When she can, she helps her friends and clearly loves them deeply. Rebecca is generous with her money, strives to be kind, and does not seek to cause any harm (aside from the occasional revenge plot). She exercises her imagination, indulges in her fantasies, and strives to make her reality match up. Earlier in the finale, we learn that she fell in love and had an affair with an older, married Harvard law professor. The harsh breakup resulted in attempted arson, her expulsion from Harvard Law School, and her own stint in a mental hospital. In this moment, we are handed the appropriate content needed to understand and empathize with just how ill this woman is and can subsequently re-process her actions in the past thirty episodes. Her past by no means excuses her destructive and unhealthy choices, but knowing where’s she’s coming from allows us a clearer look at her neurosis and arguable psychosis. We cannot compare her to “normal” people with “normal” experiences and “normal” mental health. The crazy becomes less casual and more pathological. Her positive attributes become all the more powerful, her negative attributes more forgivable.
From an entertainment perspective, if watching Tony Soprano feeds the hyper masculine, violent, immoral urges of the viewer, Rebecca Bunch quenches their feminine, conniving, passionate, and unstoppable thirst. She represents all of the things many people, especially women, have at one point or another wished they could do in interpersonal relationships but never enacted. Her antics are hilarious and her solutions, while typically understandable, are generally childlike. Rebecca regularly creates wild scenarios about her desires and the emotional turmoil in her psyche, and then she desperately strives to make it her reality. She is the ultimate “crazy” girl, that girl, and she is still likable and worthy of love. It’s undeniably entertaining and, arguably, comforting.
- <em>Crazy Ex-Girlfriend<./em>, season 2, episode 10, “Will Scarsdale Like Josh’s Shayna Punim?,” directed by Alex Hardcastle, written by Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, and Sono Patel, aired January 13, 2017, on The CW.
- <em>Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,</em> season 1, episode 2, “Josh’s Girlfriend is Really Cool!,” directed by Don Scardino, written by Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna, Rene Gube, and Sono Patel, aired October 19, 2015, on The CW.
- <em>Crazy Ex-Girlfriend</em>, season 2, episode 1, “Where is Josh’s Friend?,” directed by Marc Webb, written by Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna, Marc Webb, and Sono Patel, aired October 21, 2016, on The CW.