Suspense is a powerful tool. It’s great when it’s used in a heightened, blood-pumping way, as in a great car chase or a complicated heist. It’s sometimes even better when instead of being jolted through a thrill ride, you’re simply left waiting for the other shoe to drop, like watching a wreck in slow motion. And yet often the best surprises are the ones that you don’t see coming, but which in hindsight seem inevitable. There’s no build-up, no dawning sense of dread or joy. It just arrives, and you can’t believe you didn’t see it coming.
So Rebecca’s donating an egg, and no, she hasn’t given it any thought. What’s great about the final moments of “Nathaniel Gets The Message!” is that this revelation isn’t filed away under ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It, ultimately, could be either. It could be both! But if nothing else, it’s certainly an impulsive act, and impulsive behavior is one of the things on the checklist that finally convinced Rebecca that her new diagnosis is right on the money.
In this episode, credited to Elizabeth Kiernan Averick and directed by the show’s Emmy-winning editor Kabir Akhtar, Rebecca isn’t the only person to take two steps forward and one (or more) step back. Josh gets a job (and presumably, as the song says, gets the fuck out of his mother’s house) but spends the episode lying and embarrassed. White Josh and Nathaniel — who, speaking of inevitabilities you don’t see coming, are a perfect pair — do what seems like a healthy thing in focusing energy off their respective breakups and onto themselves. Yet what they’re actually doing is denying both reality and heartbreak, and while release finally comes, it’s public and messy and that’s not great.
But it’s Rebecca’s recovery on which the story hinges, and one shirtless weepy dance number aside, that’s where most of the episode’s heft lives. There are steps forward. Brief as it is, Rebecca and Nathaniel’s breakup scene is a killer, Rachel Bloom playing Rebecca’s heartache and discomfort to the hilt while Scott Michael Foster plays the one of the two emotions required for humans: confusion. It’s not pleasant, but it’s the right call, a decision made by an adult who’s self-aware enough to recognize a dangerous pattern when she sees it. Then she does what Rebecca nearly always does, and takes the first appealing idea and runs way, way too far with it.
In the show’s 100th (100th!) song, Rebecca gets a new thesis statement — for this hour, at least. “Without Love You Can Save the World” is a little bit Godspell, a little Indigo Girls, with a Donna Lynne Champlin-provided dollop of “Seasons of Love.” Whatever else it is, it’s also joyful, funny, and (intentionally) totally misses the point. This may not be the best song in the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend canon, but it’s perhaps the most purely Rebecca: she latches on to an idea, and takes it so far that she completely bypasses the thing that might do her some good. It’s not simply that she could have done something brilliant in over 10,000 hours, but that she could have cured leukemia. It’s not that without love, she can care for herself and find meaning in giving to others. It’s that without love, she can save the world.
Bloom has said that this ditty “feels very much like a song that we couldn’t have done in the first two and a half seasons,” and that’s easy to see. It’s difficult to believe that anyone watching Rebecca on the party bus could have ever imagined she’d get to this point. It’s evidence, not that any regular viewer would need evidence, of real growth in the character. Season one Rebecca couldn’t have made this assertion. Season two Rebecca would never, ever have done so. In the first half of season three, that sort of exuberance or joy would have totally eluded Rebecca. And until very recently, it would never have worked as a group number.
“Without Love You Can Save The World” is a testament to the deliberate, graceful way that Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna, and the rest of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writers have built their fictional bench. It doesn’t include the whole cast — most of the Whitefeather team sit this one out, and the absence of Scott is particularly notable — but it does include characters that, not so very long ago, were compelling but not all that deeply drawn. Remember early days White Josh? Remember the Hector of yore? Remember when pretty much all we knew about Heather was that she was a student, or when all we knew about Nathaniel was that new, hot, and terrible? Remember Valencia, who’s so good at yoga? Over the last two seasons and change, the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend team has made each and every one of these fictional creatures more complex and layered and funny and worthy of empathy than one could have… well, not imagined. More than one would have reasonably expected. It’s a hell of an achievement.
It’s on display elsewhere, too. You want depth? You want a deep back bench? Let’s bring back the grocery store people, and give them moments that actually hit. Let’s bring back Hunter Stiebel’s Marty, and give him tons of punchlines, but also give him a chance to deliver one of the two biggest emotional blows of the hour. Let’s make sure that in the line that lands that blow, that he gets to deliver multiple beverage-related puns. Let’s be the show that makes that possible. Hunter Stiebel is to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend what Lois Smith was to The Americans: here to deliver the goods, and get out. If that’s a wrap on poor o’ Marty, I will be sad but unsurprised.
But while Rebecca’s story may be the main event, and her impulsive decisions — to volunteer for Valencia, to crash Grandma’s toast, to donate that egg — the driving force, it’s the B-story that most clearly illustrates how well Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has developed its supporting characters. “Fit Hot Guys Have Feelings Too” feels neither as important or as complex as its counterpart, and perhaps it’s appropriate that the 101st song doesn’t top the 100th. But it’s good, and funny, and based in real emotions, and for all of these men — and for Nathaniel in particular — it feels cathartic, honest, and yes, deeply silly.
Still, it’s White Josh who delivers the second big emotional punch of the hour. Nathaniel’s going home with a girl on s scavenger hunt. Josh bounces back from those tears right quick. But White Josh is going home alone, because his heart is broken. Acknowledging what you’re really feeling, following your instincts, letting yourself be sad — these are all steps forward. It’s not suspenseful or thrilling, accepting reality. It just happens, and then there’s whatever comes next.
- “Everyone warned her!”
- Gabrielle Ruiz does a great job of making sure Valencia’s struggle is clear, too: she wants to be supportive, she really wants to be supportive, but for the love of god, this is her business. At a certain point, patience wears thin.
- Darryl also takes a step backward here. On the upside, I loved his poker-playing drag.
- “We’re only human!” “Are we, though?”
- “She comes in every Thursday and buys a single peach. Strange woman.”
- Shout-out to Grocery Clerk with Half an Eyelid (and to actor Ben Siemon), one of the great minor characters in the show’s history and an early GGG-award winner. He didn’t win this week, though, that toast was a thing of beauty.
- Glen-Garry-George Award: cheers to the getting-married girl, but this one goes to Hunter Stiebel. Rule: if an actor is compared to the great Lois Smith in a review, said actor gets an automatic win on the GGG.
- Incorporating into my life immediately: “Come on, you sexy dum-dum.”