The first season finale of The Comeback always felt like the start of something bigger. It ended with Valerie reclaiming the stardom she desperately sought, but what happened next? How was she impacted by the edited reality of her reality show? Was Room And Bored a success? Did Valerie’s “comeback” mean a legitimate return to cultural prominence for the actress? The show’s second season, arriving nine years after the initial run of episodes, answered all these questions, taking advantage of the show’s time off the air to put Valerie in a more precarious position than ever before.
Valerie was devastated by her reality show and Room And Bored was a failure because Paulie G. was hooked on heroin the entire time. Valerie’s professional career over the past nine years consisted of a few guest spots, an infomercial, a lot of student films, and an aborted attempt at being a “Real Housewife”; she has little cultural significance except to a small cult following consisting primarily of gay men. Mark had an affair, she had an abortion, and their marriage hasn’t fully recovered from all the stress of the last decade. Things are not going well for Valerie at the start of the second season of The Comeback, and those desperate circumstances set the character up for a project that humiliates her in painful new ways, invades her personal life, wrecks her marriage, and garners greater rewards than anything she’s ever worked on.
“Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” isn’t a perfect episode of The Comeback, but it is a perfect ending to Valerie’s story. The first part at Juna’s party is a bit clumsy, putting Valerie in uncomfortable situations with former Room And Bored costars that serve a purpose in the narrative, but aren’t entirely necessary. Juna (Malin Åkerman) pulls Valerie to the side to talk about Mickey’s health and how she was hurt by the way Seeing Red portrayed past events, emphasizing Mickey’s deteriorating condition and the ways that Valerie’s professional work continues to damage her personal relationships. Chris (Kellan Lutz) notices the cameras around Valerie and immediately starts to flirt with her, going so far as to sexually proposition her on her front door step, a temptation that tests Valerie dedication to her husband.
These moments serve a purpose, but those purposes have already been fulfilled by other aspects of the story. This episode could be a truly outstanding half hour, and the material at Juna’s party distracts from the meat of the plot, which is Valerie’s Emmy day experience and whether or not Mark and Mickey are a part of it. That said, there are still some very strong moments at Juna’s party, and it’s interesting to see how Valerie fits into the Hollywood world when she’s the center of attention. She’s greeted by applause when she enters the party, but she immediately wonders who everyone is clapping for. This is clearly something that doesn’t happen to her when she comes to Juna’s annual Emmy bash.
It’s great to see Åkerman back in more than just a walk-on role, especially because she’s grown so much as a performer since the first season, and like Damian Young and Robert Michael Morris, Åkerman’s interactions with Kudrow have a real sense of history behind them. These characters may not see each other often—they used to get dinner once a month after Room And Bored ended, now the Emmy party is the only time Valerie knows she’ll actually see Juna each year—but the two actresses bring a level of compassion and sincerity to their performances that reveals these women really do care about each other, even with the extended periods apart. Because this season of The Comeback didn’t spend much time on the finished Seeing Red episodes (and almost no time on the fictionalized Juna character), Juna’s issues with how the show approached her character don’t hit as hard as they could, but her talk with Valerie is very affecting when she shifts focus to Mickey and Mark.
Juna is legitimately concerned about Valerie and her relationships with the men in her life, and that shows in Åkerman’s performance. There’s a great moment when Juna gives Valerie an overly long hug after hearing about all of her personal woes, and while the majority of the shot is spent on Kudrow, who is cycling through multiple emotions as Valerie struggles to cover up the pain and fear she’s feeling, there’s one shot of Juna that radiates calm and understanding and kindness. Juna may only be in town for three more days, but when she says she’ll be there for Valerie whenever she needs her in that time frame, you believe her. That’s not the case with Lutz’s Chris, who offers a similar promise to Valerie, but offers it with a smarmy attitude that suggests he’s only saying this now because it’s his opportunity to cash in on Valerie’s big moment.
Once the episode jumps to Valerie’s Emmy preparations, everything clicks into place. It begins with Valerie practicing her Emmy acceptance speech over and over while she eats whatever she can find in the fridge (because she doesn’t get a chance to eat anything at Juna’s party), a callback to the “I don’t wanna see that!” kitchen scene from the very first episode of The Comeback. It creates the impression that this is a ritual for Valerie: over-rehearsing lines while stress eating before a big day. She won’t ever need to use that canned speech, though, and she’s all the better for it.
The kitchen scene isn’t the only callback to the show’s first episode. Valerie had to deal with plumbing issues back in the pilot, and this week, a pipe bursts in the wall of her garage, sending a wave of urine and fecal matter down her driveway. Brad Goreski shows just how big of a Comeback fan he is by falling into this stream of shit—leading to a shirtless Goreski carrying Valerie to her limo later (yay!)—but the plumbing issue is important to the plot because it forces Valerie to go next door to ask her neighbor if she can use his shower to wash off her feet. Some of Valerie’s most uncomfortable moments are when she’s dealing with people that could care less that she’s in Hollywood and won’t treat her any differently because of that, and that’s what the scene with Aman is all about.
Valerie has never once introduced herself to the man, even after using his lawn to set up lights for Seeing Red filming, and now she expects him to help her in her time of need because she’s an actress nominated for an Emmy. But that’s not important to Aman. What’s important is being respected and feeling welcome in his neighborhood, and he never got that from Valerie. Like a lot of this show’s one-off characters, Aman is pretty broadly drawn, but he represents the thing that Valerie really needs to focus on now that her career has finally taken off again: personal relationships. When Valerie runs into her old director acquaintance Jimmy Burrows at the Emmys and tells him about her separation and how she feels that Mark should understand that this is important for her, Jimmy corrects her: “Yeah, yeah, it’s important. But it’s not as important as that.” “That” meaning her marriage. “That” meaning her friendships. “That” meaning the personal relationships that will give her strength and confidence when the thrill of that Emmy wears off.
“And if you do win,” Jimmy adds. “Hold on to that Emmy. And everything else.” These words resonate deeply for Valerie, and they stay on her mind as she finds herself without the two men closest to her during this monumental event. Billy and Jane are with her, but they’re not interested in Valerie. They’ve become monsters competing for control of Valerie’s image; Jane is now a part of the system she used to be fighting against, exploiting a female subject without consideration for how this work impacts the subject’s life, and Billy, who has always been a part of that system, is now more deeply embroiled because he has a successful client. Replacing Paulie G., Billy and Jane have become the villains of The Comeback in this last leg of the season, fixating on their own agendas to the point that they stop thinking about what is best for Valerie. These aren’t the people Valerie really needs in her life. These aren’t the people that are going to care for her when she’s down.
This season has been foreshadowing Mickey’s death, and writers Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow want viewers to be thinking about that heading into the episode’s climax. Juna is worried about Mickey’s lack of enthusiasm and passion when he’s always the life of the party, and his new medication gives him nosebleeds that prevent him from attending the Emmy ceremony. That’s just one of the dark clouds hanging over Valerie’s head as she gets ready for her big day. Another dark cloud is her marriage, currently in shambles. Mark doesn’t answer any of Valerie’s calls inviting him to Juna’s party—his favorite event of the year—and he gives his Emmy ticket to Tyler in a truly cruel move. And then there are the actual dark clouds in the sky, showering Valerie’s Emmy experience with ominous rain. The script sets up disappointment and death and a potentially very depressing ending, which makes Valerie’s final moments of triumph all the more inspiring.
During Emmy host Conan O’Brien’s opening monologue, Valerie gets a text message from Mark saying that Mickey collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, and she has to choose between staying at the awards show, where she is a favorite to win in her category, or going to the hospital to see her sick best friend. She takes a moment to weigh the options, but with Jimmy’s words ringing in her ears, Valerie knows what she needs to do. So she gets up, shimmies out of the aisle in her Vivienne Westwood gown, and heads out to be with her friend. It’s a defining moment for Valerie, who has put her career before others for the entire series, and the importance of that decision is highlighted by a huge shift in the show’s visual style.
With Jane and her camera crew inside the auditorium, Valerie walking into the lobby of the theater is the first time she is not being filmed during the course of this series. As such, the direction changes from the hand-held documentary look that has defined the show to a more cinematic approach that is closer to the traditional HBO aesthetic. Director Michael Patrick King frames the first shot to heighten the impact of this visual transition, zooming out to show the vast emptiness of the space and how small Valerie is in relation to the surroundings. That kind of distance was rarely achieved with the documentary-style direction, which was always up close in a way that sometimes felt too close. There’s an invasive quality to this show’s camera work, which has proven immensely effective for moments of discomfort and embarrassment, but also makes The Comeback a very difficult show to watch at times.
The visual shift pulls back to give Valerie some space, and it’s a smart move that allows Kudrow to modulate her performance for a different kind of filming style. There’s something so hectic about the hand-held recording, and having those cameras around puts Valerie on edge because she always needs to perform. Without any cameras around, Kudrow is able to tone down the anxious aspects of the character and show what Valerie is like during moments of contemplative solitude, and the direction has a specificity that works to reflect the emotional life of the character in these moments. There are some striking visuals of Valerie walking in the rain in her Westwood gown, but my personal favorite shot shows a very vulnerable Valerie sitting in her Uber car, trying not to cry as rain pounds on the hood of the vehicle. The shot is from outside of the car, and Kudrow’s emotion in that moment radiates far beyond the vehicle’s frame, combining with the melancholy weather to create an atmosphere of despair and sadness that is thankfully a big misdirect.
When Valerie arrives at the hospital, she learns that Mickey is doing fine, and that his medication is working and shrinking his tumor. That’s one win for Valerie. Mark is shocked to see Valerie in Mickey’s hospital room and never expected her to come after he sent that text, and Valerie putting Mickey before this huge career moment is exactly what Mark needed to see to regain faith in his wife. “There you are,” Mark says to Valerie, a succinct denial of his claim last week that her true self was being overtaken by the character she put on for the cameras. That’s another win for Valerie.
Valerie may not be at the Emmy Awards ceremony, but she’s exactly where she needs to be when Sean Hayes announces that she is an Emmy winner. It’s easy to imagine Valerie getting up on that Emmy stage and thanking the Television Academy and HBO and Paulie G. and Seth Rogen, but forgetting Mark and Mickey, the two people who deserve the most thanks. Watching the ceremony from Mickey’s hospital room, Valerie is keenly aware of the two people that got her to this point, ending the series with a poignant statement about the importance of personal connections in a world where people are motivated by professional ambition.
The final shot of the series shows Mark and Valerie walking down the hospital hallway arm in arm, and the camera lingers on that hospital hallway as the credits roll and The Association’s “Cherish” plays in the background (the same song played at the end of the first season finale). It’s an uplifting, yet austere, way to say goodbye to Valerie Cherish, sending her and Mark off together into a brighter future while reminding the viewer of the fragility of human life. The Comeback is about one woman trying to relive the fleeting glory days of her past, but this season has put more emphasis on how important it is for Valerie to retain her personal relationships during her journey. An Emmy is a piece of metal that sits on a shelf. Mark and Mickey are the real rewards in Valerie’s life, and she needs to cherish them while she still has them.
The Comeback has not been renewed for a third season, and probably won’t be judging by the second season’s ratings. HBO has expressed interest in giving King and Kudrow more work if they have another Valerie story they want to tell, but if “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants” is the end of Valerie Cherish, it is one exceptional conclusion. If there was a third season of this show (next year or in another nine), I would be excited and watch it because this second arc has been so strong, but I don’t ache for more after tonight’s episode. This season has just been immensely satisfying on every level, coming back after nine years with a story that is sharper, smarter, and more scathing, and an ending that wraps everything up beautifully. Kudrow, King, and the rest of the staff have accomplished an incredible feat, and while not many people may have watched it, I predict that The Comeback’s fan base will be expanding for quite some time as people discover the brilliance of this season.
- Paulie G. is all but absent from this episode except for one small appearance, but that moment is very telling. He walks toward the podium to accept Valerie’s Emmy Award in her absence, but he doesn’t make it to the mic as he’s shooed away by Sean Hayes. Part of me wants to know what Paulie G. would say and hopes it would redeem him in some way, but another bigger part of me is happy that he never gets the opportunity to say anything that would offer redemption. The ambiguity of his intentions in that final moment works very well, continuing this season’s strong work fleshing out Paulie G.’s character without diminishing his scumbag qualities.
- You know what show could make great use of Lisa Kudrow’s talent? The Good Wife. Make it happen, TV gods.
- I love seeing Valerie’s intensifying panic during her conversation with Juna. No matter how hard she puts up that mask of strength, she can’t hide her true emotions, but those feelings come through at different times in different ways.
- Has Kellan Lutz had some cosmetic surgery? I feel like he may have had his eyes and nose done. Also: is there some kind of procedure that gives you bright pink lips?
- That girl that keeps taking pictures of Chris makes me laugh so hard. I love her expressionless face as she snaps picture after picture.
- I miss Trophy Wife. Hollywood really does not give middle-aged women a break.
- Valerie Cherish does not do back door.
- Valerie’s competition for the Emmy: Laverne Cox, Sofia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Anna Chlumsky. That sounds about right.
- “I hate an awards show in the rain. It’s just wrong. Such a downer.”
- “I look like my mother if she’d ever been to China.”
- Jane: “No, it’s fucking bullshit! You’re nominated!” Valerie: “I thought awards didn’t mean anything.”
- “Despite the box office and the glamour, Hollywood’s really just a small company time, and you’re on the team.” Valerie Cherish’s greatest delusion?
- “I think there’s a boy over there who looks like he could be Tilda Swinton.”
- Valerie: “You didn’t sleep with anyone.” Juna: “Well only people I wanted to.”
- “It’s HBO. Not that many people are going to see it.”
- “I don’t wanna say that!”
- Aman: “What’s my name?” Valerie: “You don’t know your name?”
- “Of course my man’s showing up in the end. It’s Hollywood!”
- “I could have done with like 10,000 less needle close-ups.”
- “I’m a filmmaker!” This line makes me appreciate Tyler’s story this season.
- “Good cover. That’s a pro.”