The reality show being filmed by Jane’s camera crew in the first season of The Comeback shared a name with the HBO series, an optimistic title that heralded the return to stardom for an actress that had fallen far out of the limelight.

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The documentary being filmed by Jane’s camera crew in the second season of The Comeback is tentatively titled The Assassination Of Valerie Cherish, which tells you everything you need to know about the direction this series has taken. It’s no longer about a woman trying to reclaim the fame she desperately wants. She firmly has it back, but at what cost to her personal life? At what cost to her soul?

“Valerie Faces The Critics” jumps forward two months to show Valerie’s life after the conclusion of Seeing Red, revealing that she’s been nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy series, is making the talk-show circuit again (appearing on CBS’ The Talk), and living by herself. Mark is still out in the Palisades, and while she may tell the women of The Talk that she’s still married, she’s definitely separated at this point. It looks like she was too late at the end of last week’s episode, and communication with Mark has been limited to their therapy sessions, which is at least encouraging because it shows that they’re trying to work things out, even if under some extreme restrictions.

Valerie breaks the rules by calling Mark for help with her letter of recommendation for Tyler, who has decided to go film school after all, but that’s just an excuse for her to set up a secret dinner date with her husband. And it would be secret if Jane didn’t get involved with her cameras, realizing that this is a big moment in Valerie’s story that the audience is going to want to see. Valerie doesn’t want this to be filmed and doesn’t want to wear a microphone, saying that she can just tell Jane about these events after they happen, but Jane knows that this dinner will have much more narrative impact if it’s shown rather than recounted. “We are so, so close to having something so special about you,” Jane says, appealing to Valerie’s ego. “Please don’t back away now.” Valerie doesn’t, and she potentially delivers the killing blow to her marriage by listening to her producer.

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This episode’s title suggests that Valerie’s meeting with the critics is the main event of the story, but it’s her dinner with Mark that delivers most of the emotional weight. Jane and her camera crew have become major players in the disintegration of Valerie and Mark’s marriage, and writers Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow achieve nail-biting dramatic tension by putting Valerie in a position where she’s hiding the recording from her husband while trying to mend the relationship that was partially broken by cameras invading their home life.

Because this is The Comeback, it’s more than likely that Valerie’s deception will be discovered, and the tension builds the longer Valerie and Mark’s conversation goes on. Valerie is doing well until Mark brings up his affair and her abortion, sending her into a panic where she starts fidgeting with the microphone in hopes of shutting it off inconspicuously. She’s not successful, and Mark jumps out of his seat when he realizes what’s going on and shouts, “You are wearing a fucking wire!”

Those throwaway details about an affair and abortion shouldn’t be glossed over. Those two facts directly relate to Valerie’s roles as wife and mother—two of the most traditional life expectations for women—and the events compromise both. An affair is proof that Valerie can’t please her husband the way a wife should, and an abortion is an active rejection of motherhood, or at least that’s what Valerie is afraid the public will think when they hear this information. As someone that is trying to carefully tailor a specific image of herself for the public, Valerie doesn’t want her dirty laundry out in the world, and while the affair and abortion aren’t things that factor into her professional life, they have an effect on how the world looks at Valerie as a woman. She doesn’t ever want to face that kind of judgment, which is why she works so hard to cultivate her public persona.

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Mark has every right be angry about Valerie’s wire, and that’s a big reason why this scene works so well, especially when the couple leaves the restaurant to fight in the parking lot. They end up arguing about who has had to suffer and sacrifice more in their marriage, and they both make valid claims. Valerie’s career has affected their marriage in different, stressful ways: Mark had to play Valerie’s cheerleader when she was emotionally and mentally obliterated by the Comeback reality show, and his home was taken from him during her most recent Hollywood dalliance. Mark shouldn’t have to deal with this invasion of privacy, and that’s the real trump card in this argument.

Valerie can talk about how she played the loving wife that publicly praised her husband and the attentive stepmother that made sure Mark’s daughter ate her meals, but at the end of the day, she gave her husband a lot of unnecessary anxiety by inviting cameras into their home. She can be forgiven after the first time, but when she does it again a second time, and makes the experience even more of a hassle without showing any consideration for the others in her household, Mark comes to the conclusion that Valerie’s love isn’t worth the trouble of being married to her.

But maybe Valerie shouldn’t be married to a man that doesn’t respect her professional ambition and isn’t willing to be flexible with the needs of her career, which becomes trickier to navigate as she becomes older. Mark doesn’t consider an Emmy nomination to be that big of a deal, but he’s always treated Valerie’s celebrity aspirations as flights of fancy. As a TV star, being an Emmy nominee dramatically increases your profile, and Mark knows enough about the industry to know that an Emmy is a big deal—This is a guy that got excited about going to the Golden Globes—but he’s diminishing Valerie’s accomplishment because he has a generally diminished view of her job.

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Valerie’s work that she gets on occasion isn’t as valuable as the work Mark does every day to give them a life of privilege, and while Valerie may not express how that hurts her, she is acutely aware of that damaging power dynamic. This comes through in a great mini-speech from Valerie after Mark tells her that he was there for her when no one else was:

‘No one’? Really not ‘no one’ because I believed in me. I’m not no one. That’s not nice. Maybe you don’t think I’m someone, but I have a birth certificate that says I am. Maybe you should talk to the Television Academy, ‘cause they think I’m someone. They think I’m someone!

Mark never really took into account Valerie’s personal strength and how much work she had to do to keep herself moving forward after every new Hollywood hurdle. People like Mark and Mickey are valuable for helping Valerie keep up her motivation and enthusiasm, but ultimately it’s up to Valerie whether or not she takes those steps toward success. And she’ll take those steps. She’ll walk as long as she has to, and now that she’s closer to her goal than ever, she’s not going to stop.

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Why does Valerie want to reconcile with Mark? Is it because she misses her husband and wants him back in her life, or is it because she doesn’t know how to explain to the press that her husband isn’t with her at the Emmy Awards? When she tells Mark that she still wants him to come to the Emmys to keep up public appearances, he responds: “Are you even in there anymore?” Valerie plays a character when she’s in front of the cameras, but is that persona becoming the dominant one? Is Valerie losing her true self as she approaches stardom? One of the common things said about addicts is that they stop acting like themselves as they become more fixated on their addictions, and that’s what Mark sees happening to Valerie. (Hence the Seeing Red tag line: “Hollywood: Be The Heroin Of Your Own Story.”)

It’s fitting that Lisa Kudrow would be gunning for an Emmy in the episode where Valerie is stressing about the Emmy Awards, giving an incredibly complex performance as Valerie struggles with juggling her personal and professional obligations. Valerie Cherish is such a meaty role, the kind of unapologetically dedicated, deeply flawed character that a female actor rarely gets the opportunity to play. And The Comeback show is aware of that. When a journalist asks Valerie about the limited female roles in Seeing Red, Valerie responds with a list celebrating the range of roles women do play in the show: TV star, waitress, therapist, stripper, crack addict, and mother. This isn’t a new criticism about HBO and its treatment of female characters—although it’s been much better about female representation in its comedies—but the fact that it’s coming from an HBO series makes it remarkable.

Valerie Cherish has given Kudrow the opportunity to explore her range more than any other role she’s had, and not just her range as an actress, but as a writer. She’s co-written four of this season’s episodes (compared to the two episodes she co-wrote in the first season), and has shown an immense talent for balancing comedy, drama, and social critique in those scripts. This season may be only eight episodes, but it has packed a massive amount of material in that space, taking Valerie Cherish’s story in directions that could never have been anticipated. While it would be great to see Valerie’s story continue after this season, and the changes in Valerie’s status quo open up a lot of narrative possibilities for the future, it’s enough that the show has come back so strongly and maintained that level of quality as it delves deeper into these characters and their relationships.

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Stray observations:

  • Jane is in a much more antagonistic role this week, clashing with Billy over his plans to have Valerie followed by Entertainment Tonight on Emmy night, and pushing Valerie to put her marriage at risk so that Jane can get the best footage for her documentary. She has good intentions in that she wants to expose how Hollywood damages the personal lives of actresses, but in pursuit of her agenda. she’s become a part of that harmful system.
  • It appears as if the show is foreshadowing Mickey’s death, but I’m hoping that plot thread ends with this week’s fake-out when Valerie goes to Mickey’s home after he doesn’t show up to do her hair. He’s not dead, just lying naked in bed, exhausted after a night of heavy drinking and hooking up with a stranger named Juan, who appears in all his full frontal glory to make everything really awkward.
  • Mickey moved in to his apartment in 1993, and I imagine he hasn’t done anything to it since then except put more pictures on the walls.
  • I’ve never been to the kind of social media junket detailed in this episode, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the scene, but those critics sure do sound like the kinds of voices you see all the time online. They’re total caricatures—specifically the older woman obsessed with the show’s representation of women, the younger man that tries to prove how smart he is with his questions, and the bearded man in make-up that wants to know what makes Valerie “fabulous”—but I recognize a lot of those caricatures.
  • This week’s ending music: Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” which closes the episode on a foreboding note that makes me wonder if Paulie G. is going to die in next week’s finale.
  • “I have had so much radiation that every time I pass by a VCR it plays the movie Silkwood.”
  • Jane: “I’ve never liked meat.” Valerie: “Is that a lesbian joke, Jane?”
  • “Tyler Beck is an inspiration!” No he’s not, but this week we do get a bit of an explanation for his character’s role in the narrative, playing the kind of spoiled, entitled person that is perfect for Hollywood.
  • “I hope you win your Emmy. I hope you win your big goddamn prize. Jane, I hope you win whatever the fuck you’re trying to win. I hope all of this was worth something.”
  • “I hope you win. That’s all you really care about.” Next week’s episode is called “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants.” Make of that what you will.
  • “Not worried, and the light was mostly yellow.”
  • “Red, I have a lot of problems. That has never been one of my problems.”

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