“You walked around being so sick... toughing it out on your own. You know you don’t have to do that.”
From the earliest scenes in “I Need A Break,” there are symptoms. Warning signs. The audience, with their excellent vantage point and all the cameras helpfully pointed in the right direction, isn’t alone in noting the signs. Along the way, friends, loved, and actual medical professionals keep saying it, directly and indirectly: “You’re not okay right now.” But the only person who can take real care of you is, in the end, yourself. Help is out there, but you have to accept that help, or things could get bad, fast.
Pick one of tonight’s storylines, and that paragraph applies.
Written by Ilana Peña and directed by Jack Dolgen (one of the show’s longtime writers and songwriters, here making an impressive directorial debut), “I Need A Break” weaves its two storylines, seemingly unrelated, together so gently that it’s possible to make it quite far into the hour without realizing how inextricably they’re linked. Paula, the first person to duet with Rebecca on this show, winds up in a different kind of duet with her here. The chorus: “I am totally fine, what the hell is your problem?”
You could put that another way. Two other ways, actually: “I’m not sad, you’re sad,” and “I’m not sick, you’re sick.” In the latter storyline, Paula has four separate people tell her, none too gingerly, that she looks like hell. They all want her to take it in the wrong way, because they all want to get through to her, so that she will get it handled. To Paula (and to lots of people, this writer included), getting it handled isn’t an option, because there isn’t time. There’s always one more section to read, one more to-do to check off, one more task to un-delegate because it’s just simpler to do it yourself. She denies and delays and comes up with inadequate work-arounds until she can’t anymore, until her husband brings her to the doctor, and even then, she’s just there for whatever will get her back to work most quickly.
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And it’s a heart attack. Of course it is. Donna Lynne Champlin is terrific here—helped buy a gnarly makeup job and a lot of primrose oil, but terrific all the same—showing us a woman resigned to her fate, even actually ensuring that life remains that way. It’s sometimes much easier to accept the status quo than to change it, and taking care of yourself can be a difficult thing to prioritize. That’s especially true when caring for yourself means giving something else up. You don’t need time, you need to volunteer. You don’t need sleep, you need to be a lawyer. You don’t need group, you need love, and you definitely don’t need medication, you need Raging Waters.
Dolgen also wrote “I Never Want To See Josh Again,” which, like “I Need A Break,” deals with a significant, upsetting mental health struggle in Rebecca’s life. As with Paula, the signs are there from the beginning, right down to a quick mention of Rebecca recently asking to stare into Greg’s eyes for 20 minutes (think about her wearing the Stanford T-shirt last season). But unlike Paula, Rebecca sees a professional almost immediately. She just refuses to listen. She takes it personally. She seems to actually embrace the very things about which she’s warned. “Let’s go down a slide backwards” is one of the most covertly dark jokes in this show’s dark, jokey history. Things start out sunny, but not okay, and it only gets worse from there—and sometimes in recovery, that’s how it is. If you don’t keep doing the squats, you lose strength.
Greg notices, and does his best to reassure her, but again, you can’t force someone to take care of themselves, or to hear the love with which you’re speaking. “I Need A Break” is loaded with songs—music is one of the ways Rebecca copes, so it makes sense she’d need a lot of it here—and Greg’s is particularly exciting to watch, both because it’s Skylar Astin’s first solo number on the show, and because it seems as though we’re watching it through two lenses. Sometimes we see it in the spirit with which its intended, and sometimes we see it as Rebecca does. He hates everything, so he hates being there, so he hates her, so they should just leave, so he doesn’t want her anymore, so he’s a dick, so he’s just leaving like he always does. The “But you” is excluded from the rhyme in the song, and that seems to be the piece she keeps missing.
So Rebecca snorts some ibuprofen, smokes some stale weed, and heads out to cut in line, eat tacos, and make some bad decisions. The evening’s second song, “I’m Not Sad, You’re Sad,” is a bit Lily Allen, a bit Lady Sovereign, and (as pointed out to me by A.V. Club contributor Kate Kulzick) a bit “Friendtopia,” without the friends. That last one is, obviously, particularly upsetting—it contains all the bluster of “All citizens must watch Hocus Pocus” and none of the actual camaraderie. It musicalizes the impulsive, destructive decisions Rebecca knows can stem from her illness, if untreated.
Two failed passes and a stolen taco later, we arrive at the third song, a ballad that falls into the smallest of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song categories: The songs that are exactly what they seem (“You Stupid Bitch,” “Rebecca’s Reprise,” “A Diagnosis,” and the reprises of “Face Your Fears” and “Hello, Nice To Meet You”). Like a few of those, her song about Mr. Tyler Darkness is surprisingly funny, while springing from someplace deeply wounded, and it presumably floats through her head all night as she waits for Dr. Shin to turn up.
But even the hard discoveries of the evening don’t get her to accept that last piece of help, one she rejects based on prior negative experiences. Here’s where the beautiful structure of Peña’s script really comes into play. It takes the experience of sitting and telling Paula all the things that she herself needs to hear for Rebecca to accept that it doesn’t need to be this hard. Bloom and Champlin are excellent in their scene together, and Bloom even moreso when, sitting alone in her apartment, she pops open her prescription and a workbook. Dolgen swings the camera slowly around the table, making sure we see that she’s alone, but also that her large autumnal mural looms behind her—something happy, something given in an act of love and friendship, something that’s only there to bring her peace, or joy, or contentment. It’s a beautiful ending to a beautiful, hard to watch episode.
Acknowledging that mental health is a lifelong project is one of the most honest, responsible, and ultimately hopeful things that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does. This episode does it better than any other we’ve seen to date, and while often upsetting, it’s uplifting as well. People backslide, sure. But they frontslide, too.
- Some terrific Ilana Peña news!
- GGG Award: Speaking of Ilana Peña, she’s also the poor put-upon Taco Girl, who shares this week’s GGG with Dan Gregor, the other Dr. Roth.
- Finale news, if you missed it.
- That’s a hell of a Springsteen impression, and the guitar bit was excellent.
- Champlin and Bloom are predictably excellent, but so are Steve Monroe (Scott), Astin, Scott Michael Foster, Vincent Rodriguez III, Michael Hyatt, and Jay “Dr. Damn” Hayden.
- Nice little appearance of “I Gave You A U.T.I.”
- The leather jacket she “got on sale” with the security alert tag still attached would seem to indicate that Rebecca is still trying to fill the hole inside her by shoplifting, though at least she’s moved on from unitards.