Photo: Robert Voets (The CW)

In the series premiere of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca Bunch moved to West Covina, California, changing for life for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with Joshua Felix Chan (so weight, right?!) The lie that mattered most was the one she told herself, one she could believe even as Paula called her out on its foolishness. In the second season premiere, she told Josh some lies and herself even more, convincing herself that everything was great and that they were on the same page, while Paula saw Rebecca’s situation, and her own, for what they really were. In the third, she put on a costume, emerging from a dark hotel room as a beautiful scorned butterfly whose quests for revenge would prove fruitless—and Paula, Valencia, and Heather all saw it for what it was.

Now she’s back, ready to “do penance,” the only one who can’t see the act for what it is. The more Rebecca Bunch changes, the more she stays the same.

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That’s not to say that “I Want To Be Here,” the final season opener of this great series, is in any way dull or repetitive. It revisits familiar beats, decisions, patterns, and motifs, but it does so because that’s Rebecca, and that’s Josh, and that’s Nathaniel. They all fall back on old habits, bad habits, because that’s what’s easiest, and people usually do what’s easiest. But while there are always steps backward, sometimes there’s a step forward, too.

Things can get better, if you put in the work. This season seems likely to be all about the work. But as “Dr. Man Akopian” (Manneqkopian?) wisely says, “Don’t worry—it will take a long time.”

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Recovery always does. In this case, that reassurance is meta-textual—for the first time since its first season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has an 18-episode order, rather than the 13 of the last two seasons—but it also seems to be something of a warning. Recovery takes a long time, and more often than not, it never ends. Rebecca Bunch turned a corner when she said, “I plead responsible,” but she didn’t suddenly become someone else. And no matter how much progress these characters have made toward becoming better people (good persons, if you will), they’re still the same people. People who sometimes have more in common than they think.

There are elements of “I Want To Be Here” that feel a bit clumsy, particularly in the nimble take-backsies of so much of the third season finale, but the parallels between Nathaniel, Josh, and Rebecca—and the last-minute relapse of one Paula Proctor—are not among them.

This isn’t the first time Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has plopped some of the same choices, patterns, and habits on one of Rebecca’s suitors (and suitees). That’s Trent’s function, after all. But watching Nathaniel and Josh each walk a path previously trod on by Rebecca (though through different means) is something more akin to what the show once did with Greg. Josh Chan once made Rebecca feel like glitter was exploding inside her. That was alcohol for Greg. Nathaniel sees himself reflected in a Bowie knife, as Rebecca once did, then throws himself into a situation that’s supposed to make him feel better by causing him nothing but pain, as she did as the star of Swimchan. And Josh, aware enough to recognize his own unhappiness, once again goes looking for something to blame—a diagnooooooooosis!

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It’s not that Rebecca and these men are connected in some deep, star-crossed way. It’s that they’re a mess, because almost everyone is a mess, in some way.

Rebecca’s path, too, is a familiar one. No, she’s never been to prison (actually, maybe she has? The arson?), but what it means to her and how she behaves should feel familiar to anyone who’s watched the show with only half an eye. Finally convinced of the harm she’s been doing Valencia, she course-corrects by trying to force a friendship; any good that comes of it occurs when she sacrifices what she wants to do what’s right by Valencia instead (in taking the blame for Paula). Determined to do right by a friend she’s neglected, she offers to babysit Paula’s son, then immediately gets wrapped up in obsessing about her maternal nature and Josh Chan and chicken soup until whoops, she’s lost a child at a nightclub. Determining that she isn’t healthy enough to have a relationship, she vows to be alone, then convinces herself that her months-long affair with Nathaniel is just a casual, harmless thing with no emotional consequences for anyone.

So Rebecca goes to prison to punish herself and temporarily contents herself with reveling in her own misery. But then someone (GLOW’s Britney Young) says the word “theater,” and her penance once again centers on her own story, the narrative she sees unspooling before her, a fantasized version of herself that has no connection to reality, or to the women around her.

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I’d bet good money that the majority of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s faithful—those that are also musical theater geeks, anyway—called “Cell Block Tango” the second Rebecca got arrested. That makes “What’s Your Story?” the least surprising musical number in the show’s mostly surprising history. But it still pulls the rug out from under the viewer in the way it’s implemented. Yes, the visual gag is genius, but the conceit—that Rebecca would find a way to boil the women around her down to the ways in which their stories did or didn’t suit her own idea of what life should be—even more so. Who listens to that song and thinks about theater groups for the incarcerated? Who hears that song and says, “I know, let’s talk about privilege,” and then says, “I know, let’s talk about the people who think that talking about privilege is enough?”

It’s a great, funny, depressing, surprising, fiendishly smart number. As a harbinger of things to come, for good and ill—good for the series, maybe not so good for characters whose progress is always tempered by the setbacks they bring on themselves—it couldn’t be more excited.

It’s the beginning of the end for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but they haven’t begun to slow down. Ra tah tah, indeed.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend coverage! Hector is totally a Charlotte.
  • That was co-creator and showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna as the irritated prosecutor. Hi, Aline!
  • More on the music next week.
  • I’m so glad this “friendship” between George and Nathaniel has continued, not least because Scott Michael Foster and Danny Jolles are so funny together. And of course George loves ska.
  • “Sounds like I worked it in organically.”
  • Paula threatening Trent is bad, no?
  • Zip zap zop can burn in hell.
  • George Award: For those just joining us, the George award (which used to have a much longer name, but which started out as the Hector Award) goes to the person whose brief contribution to the episode makes the biggest or most memorable impression. Welcome back, Grocery Clerk With Half An Eyelid and actor Ben Siemon! I just about choked when you popped up.
  • “I’m just a regional manager” is the new “I’m a student.”
  • The tent-throwing is a perfect visual gag.
  • If you haven’t had the pleasure, check out Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s interview with Erik Adams.

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