Paul Welsh?! (Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW)

He’s so normal! I’m in love.

The writers of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are great with recurring bits. There’s “I left my wife for a prostitute,” “Period Sex,” Waze, and many more, probably stored safely in a giant envelope labelled “TOP SECRET.” But none of them has proven more fruitful than Trent, the fake boyfriend turned blackmail-induced boyfriend turned ex-boyfriend who cooks like a dream and is a total nightmare. He’s an incredibly useful tool (pun not intended, but let’s leave it) who can help accomplish all kinds of things in the story. Need to upset the power structure of the show? Give Trent a long-nurtured unrequited love. Want to give Rebecca an ethical or moral dilemma? Make Trent unexpectedly useful during a complicated court case. Eager to throw a metaphorical molotov cocktail into the plot? Give Trent an envelope stuffed full of damaging information and stand him in front of Josh Chan.

He’s the swiss army knife of recurring bits and characters, and his most useful narrative function isn’t even listed above. Trent’s best quality is summed up in a line from this episode: his presence offers some hot Rebecca-on-Rebecca action. Paul Welsh is great, and some of the Trent jokes have made this writer laugh harder than almost anything else on the show (see that line at the top for one example), but the real power of The Trent is that he’s the male Rebecca Bunch, give or take some natural charm and the occasional burst of self-awareness or conscience. That’s been true from the start, but his appearance here takes that to a whole new level, and it’s his arrival that acts as the impetus for an episode that essentially throws the season as a whole in a blender and serves it to us as a concentrate.

It’s all here. The horror movie sounds. The desperate, hurtful lies. Paula’s desire to leave the black-ops days behind, and Rebecca’s willingness to manipulate people whenever she needs to cover her ass (remember her forcing George to help her by bringing up her suicide attempt over and over again?). The girl group showing up to each say “supportive girl thing.” The strangely foreboding Covina Inn and Suites. Through Trent’s actions and Rebecca’s, we get a fast, intense rewind on what Rebecca’s done this season, and what she’s experienced. It goes back further than that, too, with Valencia reminding Rebecca that pursuing a guy in a relationship hasn’t gone well for her in the past, and “Yeah, it’s never drugs” pulling Anna and her poor cat back into focus. Every episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend calls back to others, but this one really goes for broke.

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Yet it doesn’t feel stale. Far from it, in fact. It’s not as though this is some sort of greatest hits episode or a narrative victory lap. What it offers is perspective on who Rebecca Bunch is, what she’s done, where she’s been, and what she has to accomplish. The Rebecca who stood in front of Nathaniel’s apartment stood on a precipice, displaying growth and self-awareness while revealing how far she still had to go — but here comes Hurricane Trent, the turtlenecked Ghost of Christmases Past, Present and Future all wrapped into one. He’s a stalker and a Dream Ghost, a mirror and a plot device, a comic figure and a nightmare and a person who says “that was so mean” in a way that matters. Empathize with the woman who stood in front of that door, the story seems to say, but let’s not forget the rest of it. And let’s not pretend that she and Trent can’t be held responsible for their actions.

Right, it was Trent’s fault.

All three of the songs in “Trent?!” are winners in my book, and each in a different way. “Buttload of Cats” is funny, strange, and a hell of an earworm, skewering a trope while leaning into it in a way that’s quintessentially Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. “Back In Action” plays like a direct descendant to both “Textmergency” and “You Go First,” and not just because of that unnecessary guitar solo, but because they’re songs of turmoil and desperation. And “I’m Just A Boy In Love” is so funny, so strange, and so perfect for this episode, because it’s the most direct reminder possible that Rebecca does, in fact, have underlying issues to address, and that there are some seriously weird tropes in the rom-com genre. Genderflip Sleepless in Seattle, and it becomes a psychological thriller.

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Of all those songs though, perhaps the one that’s most relevant is the one we don’t hear.

When Nathaniel tells Rebecca she’s a good person, my mental jukebox immediately flipped back to season one, to a woman whose own guilt and shame send her into an incredibly defensive up-tempo ditty. It’s denial, in pop-song form, but Rebecca’s been doing a lot of workbooks, and denial doesn’t really seem to be her thing anymore. This time around with Trent, there’s no attempt to convince herself that this could work, and excepting one pedicure and some appetizers, no acceptance of his attempts to bribe her into live. And when Nathaniel says she’s a good person, she does not agree. Not even a little.

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Television is full of comedies that are in on the joke, but few, if any, are as good at using that self-knowledge to help tell the story. As we head into the season finale, credited writers Dan Gregor and Doug Mand move the story forward in a way few could have predicted while checking every eminder one could possibly need off the list. It’s a place-setting episode in which no time is wasted, featuring a plot device who’s also a vessel for theme who’s never treated as merely a function of the story. It’s funny and sad and strange, and firmly positions Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in the place to which it always returns: on Rebecca Bunch, who’s not just a girl in love, and who damn well knows better than to pretend otherwise.

Pookie out.

Stray observations

  • Here’s the explicit version of the cats song. It is very funny.
  • Paul Welsh does not qualify for the G-G-G. The episode is called Trent, so he’s in too large a role to qualify. But he’s so good here, so funny, so perfectly exactly funny-scary-weird-sad-almost-lovable, that we’re going to do this instead. George has to go back to being ignored, because...
  • The Trent Award: “Heeeeeere’s jaundice!” That’s Dan Gregor, who co-wrote the episode.
  • Valencia and Josh’s sub-plot totally works for me, because it dovetails so neatly with Rebecca/Trent in one fundamental way: it’s about how Valencia is totally a Josh, but sure likes to pretend otherwise. Also, DJ Disc Joshy is hilarious.
  • “It’s an afghan!”
  • “She does like when I refer to it as a sorting hat.”
  • “I said blam!”
  • “You know how I feel about clowns and trains.”
  • “You know, for a blackmailer, he’s decent on consent.”
  • “Please, Janie. None of your friends are hot enough to be on Riverdale.
  • “I LOOK LIKE THE HOST OF A NICKELODEON SHOW!”
  • The Royal > The Maya. Sorry, girl.

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