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The Comeback: “Valerie Cooks In The Desert”

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“Women in this business are not allowed to cry.” This line from Gigi (Bayne Gibby), the former Room And Bored writer that Valerie runs into at the grocery store this week, resonates throughout “Valerie Cooks In The Desert.” No matter how much suffering Valerie endures because of Seeing Red, she can’t ever show that she’s displeased or hurt by her treatment. She just has to deal with it because she’s lucky to have this break in the first place, and during the time she has this break, it will always take precedence over everything else in her life. Valerie’s marriage is in a tailspin and she knows it, but she has a commitment to Seeing Red that is just more important right now, and she can’t risk jeopardizing the biggest opportunity of her lifetime.

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Continuing the trend of Valerie getting regularly humiliated on the set of Seeing Red, this week she is brought to the desert, tied up, and thrown in a car trunk with tape over her mouth. She’s forced to repeat this scene over and over again due to technical issues, and it worsens to the point where she’s not just bound in a trunk, but bound in a trunk with live snakes. The Comeback has never been a show that cared much for subtlety, and this episode is especially direct in terms of symbolism and commentary. Valerie’s predicament in the car trunk represents her experience on Seeing Red, a situation that started bad and has only gotten worse, but nothing is bad enough that it could force her to step away from the project.

While Paulie G. is getting private massages in his tent instead of writing pages, Valerie is panicking about her marriage. She had to cancel dinner plans at Nobu because of the surprise Saturday reshoots—although it’s very possible Valerie was informed beforehand but didn’t remember because, as she said last week, she rarely has any idea where they actually are in the shooting schedule—and needs to be done filming by 5 P.M. if she’s going to make it to dinner with Mark. After all of the recent stress she’s put on their marriage, she knows how important it is to keep this dinner date, but her marriage is at the bottom of the list of priorities for the Seeing Red crew. They expect her on set when they want her, even if they don’t have the script pages, and they don’t give a shit if she’s in the middle of preparing beef rollantini for a dinner date with her husband.

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As a middle-aged woman in Hollywood that isn’t a huge star, Valerie has very limited options: She can be compliant and suffer whatever indignities are thrown her way. She can cry and show that she’s not capable of handling the pressure of this business, even though crying as a reaction doesn’t necessarily mean that at all. Or she can get angry, stand up for herself, and be labeled a bitch (or worse) by the people she works with, a stance she took on Room And Bored that led to her playing the “self-destructive and mean” Mallory Church. She goes with the last option when she’s called to set in the middle of her meal prep, lashing out at Ron and Shayna because she’s tired of having her time wasted.

The problem is that any display of strength for Valerie has an attached display of weakness. To others, she’s not standing up for herself and her needs; she’s throwing a tantrum. Valerie needs to know that she’s being heard, and while the crew hears her, they’re not listening. She can scream as much as she wants, but ultimately she’s being a difficult actor that is getting in the way of their filming, and the only response she deserves is a middle finger from Ron as he rolls away. Would a male star be treated the same way? We don’t know because Valerie is the only actor we see this week; Seth Rogen isn’t having his time wasted with reshoots. Sure, the fact that the process has been so easy for Seth can be attributed to his status as a blockbuster movie star (and that he was only signed on for two episodes of The Comeback), but it’s not hard to draw conclusions based on gender regarding the discrepancies in the treatment of the two actors.

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Valerie does eventually cry this week. She can be hurt, but the hurt that makes her cry isn’t the fault of anyone else. It’s pain that she brings upon herself, and that realization is what springs the tears. When she shows up at Mark’s dark rental home at 11:30 P.M., she leaves him the dish of beef rollantini and a note that is heartbreaking in its simplicity:

Marky Mark,

I was late.

Hopefully not too late.

I love you

Valerie

This entire situation is her fault. She could have just followed through with the cease-and-desist order and forced Paulie G. to change the character of Mallory Church, but she had to let her ego and her hunger for fame get in the way. She was given the opportunity to stage her comeback, she grabbed it, and now her husband is living in a separate house, making plans with the woman who found his new home instead of his wife.

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The beef rollantini is a metaphor for Valerie’s marriage, something that she tries to make work in the midst of overwhelming pressure from her career, and while she ultimately delivers the dish, it comes so late that it doesn’t make a difference. Valerie will eventually get around to her marriage, but it’s sidelined the moment her career gathers some momentum. When she’s jonesing for fame, the considerations of others completely evaporate, and Seeing Red has had a greater impact on Mark’s life than any of Valerie’s former projects, literally forcing him out of his home so that Valerie can have more attention. The damage is huge, and beef rollantini isn’t going to fix it. Stray dogs end up eating Valerie’s entrée, and it’s very possible that her marriage meets a similarly depressing fate after this episode’s final scene, a moment so serious that it doesn’t get a music cue.

It’s a shame that Lisa Kudrow wasn’t recognized by the Golden Globes this past week, because she is doing the work of her career on this season of The Comeback. This season has forced her to find humor in some incredibly dark material, and giving her a meatier storyline with Mark has pushed her to mine the emotional depths of Valerie. We’ve seen Valerie constantly putting up this façade of strength and confidence, and while it’s been consistently tested, we rarely see it completely crumble the way it does at the end of this week’s episode. We’ve never seen Valerie as raw as she is when she starts to cry after leaving the note for Mark, and it’s a moment of defeat that hits especially hard after she stands up for herself in the desert.

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It’s important to remember that we rarely see the “real” Valerie on this show. She’s playing a part whenever she’s on camera, and Kudrow is able to make that distinction very clear. There’s an overly aggressive energy to Valerie when she’s performing, and while there’s often some very real emotion underneath that performance—her meltdown this week, for instance—there’s still that artificial push behind her behavior. Part of what makes Kudrow so brilliant is that she’s able to make this all appear completely natural for Valerie; it’s not an intentional choice on Valerie’s part, just an instinct that kicks in whenever she’s on camera. That instinct is overwhelmed by her emotional reaction to the situation with Mark, stripping her of that performative quality and revealing the very real pain she is experiencing in the moment. It’s one of Valerie’s most tragic moments, and her sadness resonates in everyone watching it, including Jane, who is especially somber as the credits roll.

In the aftermath of the recent The Newsroom controversy involving a female writer that was forced out of the writers’ room for disagreeing with Aaron Sorkin’s approach to a campus rape storyline, The Comeback’s handling of women in the entertainment industry feels especially important. And it’s on HBO, immediately after The Newsroom. Here is a show that is directly addressing the pressure that women in Hollywood face, and on the week of The Newsroom’s finale, it brings back the female writer perspective that Gigi introduced in season 1. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

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Like Tom Berman, Gigi is someone whose career hasn’t taken off the way she wanted; she’s making money writing for Pretty Little Liars, but she doesn’t have anyone to share her wealth with besides her dogs and she doesn’t find her work on ABC Family creatively satisfying. She made a female-driven comedy pilot for HBO about a woman that wakes up four times larger than she was when she fell asleep—depressingly titled Who Could Love You?—but Girls was picked up instead, likely because there can only be so many female-driven comedies on any given network at any given time.

The depiction of Gigi is one of those times that this show goes overly broad to make a point, but in the end, Gigi’s scene still makes one hell of a point: women in this business are not allowed to cry. Women are not allowed to show weakness or vulnerability, even though the system puts them in a place where they are constantly made to feel weak and vulnerable. Valerie isn’t allowed to cry, but when she does this week, it exposes a new side of her character that adds considerable dramatic weight to The Comeback’s second season.

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Stray observations:

  • The premiere of Seeing Red is very rushed. You’d think this show would make a bigger deal about Valerie finally seeing herself on HBO.
  • I can’t help but feel that Paulie G. would make things easier for himself if he actually communicated with Valerie. The whole review fiasco this week could have been avoided if he made it clear to Valerie that he doesn’t want to know about reviews. Granted, that may not actually stop Valerie from telling him, but it would at least let her know concretely that he has no interest in hearing about them.
  • Mickey’s loud shitting is the writing turning to the lowest common denominator for comedy, but at least the script finds a way to incorporate it into the plot.
  • Andi’s Broadway Bares baseball cap is a wonderful character detail, giving just enough info to help the audience piece together a backstory for her: she was probably a Broadway dancer that made the transition to the screen, then started learning what goes on behind the scenes and found a passion for directing.
  • Matt LeBlanc is mentioned this week, which makes my head hurt. I don’t know if I like The Comeback making any references that explicitly bring Friends to mind.
  • “He’s funny. Shoots heroin. I smell an Emmy.”
  • “That’s why you need actors. To elevate.”
  • “We’re livetweetin’ the show and every vote counts.”
  • Billy: “You know, from Orange Is The New Black?” Valerie: “Billy, you’re just saying colors.”
  • “Matt LeBlanc isn’t getting down on his knees and giving you a blowjob.”
  • “Last thing I need is to look like a nosy neighbor or a serial killer.”
  • Valerie: “What can you do with beef that’s fun?” Mickey: “(Giggles.) No comment!”
  • “There are no real dragons in Game Of Thrones.”
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