Often, when someone says an episode of television is subdued, they mean it’s a little lackluster. It’s not bad, just perhaps muted, or tentative, or somehow restrained. As a result, ‘subdued’ feels like an odd word to choose for an episode of television that includes a the line “bitch get out of my way bitch” and two Ds, but subdued it is, and for once, that feels wholly appropriate (and not because it’s lackluster.) How do you come back from an episode like the last one? When you’re Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, you do so gently, and thoughtfully, and with a song-length series of poop jokes.
It’s a wise choice, the one that credited writers Aline Brosh McKenna, Rachel Bloom, and Ilana Peña make with “Josh Is Irrelevant.” There’s no Grey’s Anatomy rush through a hospital, not even a glimpse of the drama aboard the airplane. There’s no puking, no terrified phone call, no fevered drive to the emergency room. The only clichés here are intentional. There’s a soaring ballad, but in it, the word ‘duty’ pulls double-duty; there’s a perfect musical theater number, but it includes a chorus of voices in one’s head; there are two guys bringing clichéd gifts, but each means something different. In lieu of drama, “Josh Is Irrelevant” simply shows us how the characters we’ve come to know react to Rebecca’s suicide attempt. That group includes Rebecca, and her reaction ties right into her first D.
Courtesy of the aptly named Dr. Damn (Jay Hayden, and yes, he’s credited as Dr. Shin but I don’t care, he’s Dr. Damn forever), Rebecca now has a diagnosis — and it’s one that Dr. Akopian (the always terrific Michael Hyatt) doubles down on in one of the episode’s best scenes. Two and a half seasons in, Rebecca (and her audience) finally has a name for what she’s got, and if the first D sends her into a spiral, the second one is sobering. That’s what I mean by subdued. For all the great work and focus on the ensemble cast, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has always been the Rebecca Bunch show. Episodes often match her tempo. Think about the frenetic quality of “Josh’s Girlfriend Is Really Cool,” which is home to “Feelin’ Kinda Naughty,” or the capital-D (but not that kind of D) drama of “All Signs Point to Josh... Or Is It Josh’s Friend?,” which begins with a production number and ends with a pell-mell race to the airport. Her tempo is our tempo, and “Josh Is Irrelevant” is no exception.
That’s so, so smart, because it works on two levels. Rebecca needs time to recover, so the show gives her that time — and the audience is likely to need that time, too. In a time when people find and watch shows at their own pace, can you imagine bingeing “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy” and “I Never Want To See Josh Again,” then barreling into another episode that intense? That’s part of what makes this “subdued’ hour so quietly effective. Once again, we’re matching her tempo, and with the exception of her jubilant pre-diagnosis belter (in which the tone appropriately shifts) and her anxious race to Dr. Akopian’s (another tonal shift), the tempo is slow, gentle, and sad. Not even the threat of an axe to the face can really shift things. It’s a chance to catch one’s breath, and acclimate to the new reality.
The person who has the hardest time with that is the newly irrelevant Josh Chan. His choices here strongly mirror those he made at the beginning of season two, when he made Greg’s recovery all about him, then let his guilt dictate his behavior, rather than the needs of the person who has hurting and likely to be more hurt. That’s exactly what happens here, from the showing up at the hospital to the Sugar Face meetup with Hector to that final approach with the puppy. It’s about his feelings, his story, his guilt, his defensiveness, and his need to feel like he’s absolved himself. It’s precisely the kind of thing Josh Chan would do, and has done, over and over again. Little though his role may have been here, this may be the most important episode for the character to date, because it makes Josh’s patterns incredibly clear. He always does what’s going to help him escape something dark, sad, or ugly. Now he’s without that outlet, and it’s tough to predict what might happen next.
Valencia also manages to make Rebecca’s recovery about her, but it’s in a less insidious (though no less selfish) way. One of the things that’s most impressive about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the way in which the show treats its characters with empathy, even when they’re behaving badly. They don’t pull punches, and there are no kid gloves. When Valencia records that first video, there’s nothing particularly off-putting about it. She wanted to do something personal, she wants to help, she tells the truth and does so delicately. But the sense that you’re a part of something positive when life is particularly dark and scary can be intoxicating, and before long she’s inspiring people. It comes from somewhere good, but it’s bullshit. So what does she get? A song about shitting.
It’s also a song in which Valencia reveals that she “rarely poops,” and that’s a perfect and funny character detail, but it’s also a great connection to the moment in which Valencia finally falls the hell apart. Rebecca’s often been pretty terrible to Valencia, but it’s easy to understand why the latter would say that this friendship is a first for her. And so she’s all blocked up, emotionally and digestively. It’s funny and weird and sad, and Gabrielle Ruiz handles it brilliantly. She also, at long last, gets a solo number that’s wonderful from start to finish, tenderly sending up earnest singer-songwriters like Sara Bareilles with a solid vocal, a committed comic performance, and that perfect angelic smile at the end.
Hers is one of several great performances here. Bloom and Donna Lynne Champlin are, as usual, great together and great on their own. Erick Lopez lands a number of solid punchlines and one great moment of physical comedy. Vella Lovell continues to nail Heather’s detachment, which only lasts until someone needs her (that axe moment is wonderful.) Pete Gardner? Perfect. Vincent Rodriguez III? Great. And Scott Michael Foster? Best episode yet.
It’s a perfect B story, completing a quartet of wildly different reactions to the near-loss of Rebecca. Josh and Valencia turn inward, but for different reasons. Paula and Nathaniel want to reach out and help, but they’re each held up — Paula because she can’t help, because there’s nothing to be done but let her friend heal, and Nathaniel because his own trauma won’t allow it.
And at the center of it all stands Rebecca Bunch, a supposedly crazy person who sounds pretty sane. She’s not telling herself any stories, but she’s got a workbook, and wherever the show goes from here, it’s likely to feel pretty different. That’s how big, life-changing moments often arrive come to think of it. There won’t be trumpets. There’ll just be friends, and workbooks, and putting one foot in front of the other.
- “So leave, without wafting.”
- Glen-Gary-George Award: I’d love to give this to the unseen Denise/Bernice, but that seems like cheating. Instead, Johnny Ray Meeks, cheers to you. Kevin sobbing outside Dr. Akopian’s office was one of the best and weirdest jokes in an episode fill of them
- “I just feel like I inconvenienced a lot of people.” That’s a hell of a way to signal how long the cruel things that people we love tell us can linger.
- “In third grade she cut off my rat tail because I sat at her desk once.”
- “I live in a famous murder house, you think I don’t have an axe?!”
- “Don’t worry about me. I’m a cat guy now.”
- Costume designer Melina Root always does great work, but that yellow dress was a work of genius. It looked so sunny and light and wonderful, until it became the saddest sundress of all time.
- Edited to add: Wanted to share this from commenter Rafael Penguin (good lord, please let that be your real name): “I’m a psychologist who specializes in treating BPD, and this is one of the best fictional portrayals of the disorder that I’ve ever seen. The language used to describe the diagnosis was even in line with DBT, one of the most effective treatments for the disorder. Really impressed!” So, add another point in the ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend treats mental illness with a great deal of thought and dare’ column.
- Never forget.