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“Valerie Is Brought To Her Knees” is one of The Comeback’s most harrowing episodes, bringing the discomfort up to new heights as Valerie begins her first days of shooting on the set of Seeing Red. As the title suggests, this episode is all about Paulie G. finally getting the opportunity to put Valerie in her place, and thanks to the freedom presented by prestige television, it’s a far more degrading situation than anything Valerie had to deal with on Room And Bored. The humiliation of unflattering tracksuits and cupcake costumes feels like the good old days after seeing Valerie put in the middle of one writer’s fucked up sexual fantasies, and the final moments of this episode are easily some of the hardest to watch in this series’ history.

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And that’s a great thing. The Comeback is at its best when it hurts, when it creates such a strong emotional reaction that it can be hard to keep your eyes on the screen. It was difficult to watch Valerie demean herself with Aunt Sassy material back in season 1, but the degradation in season 2 is more personal and more painful as a result. This is the first episode that really dives deep into the Paulie G. and Valerie relationship, and the amount of power that head writer/director Paulie G. has in this situation spells disaster for his leading actress.

The events at the end of the episode hit even harder because the start of the script puts Valerie in a positive light, showing how eager she is to jump back into a new show despite the aspects of the production that aren’t in her favor. Her trailer smells like a “rancid washcloth,” she can’t keep her entire crew, and scene 27, “the blowjob,” imbues the entire process of those first days on set with a sense of dread that only intensifies as the episode builds to its titular moment. The smell is the first indicator that this process isn’t going to be what Valerie dreamed it would be, and the stench gets worse as Valerie starts to feel the pressure of filming a television series that is unlike anything she’s ever attempted in the past.

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When this show really puts Valerie through the wringer, her advantageous relationships with others become even more important. The audience needs to know that there are people in Valerie’s corner, and Mickey is always going to be the person that is cheering her on the hardest. He’ll also freely express his disgust and anger, feelings that Valerie prefers not to show because she doesn’t want to look ungrateful for the cameras. So when Valerie is told by line producer Ron (Brian Delate) that the show’s budget can only support one hair dresser and that she has to choose between wig stylist Mickey and wig applier Marianina (Rose Abdoo), she takes a financial hit by saying she’ll pay for Mickey’s services from her own pocket.

The wig is the most important thing because it’s a physical reminder to Valerie that she’s stepping into a role that isn’t herself—even though the similarity of the wig and her natural hair is uncanny—so she needs Marianina there to make sure the wig is properly applied. Valerie recognizes that Mickey’s role on the crew is superfluous, but she needs him there for emotional support, so she’s willing to pay if that’s what it takes to keep him around. It’s a small plot point that reveals just how important Mickey’s friendship is to Valerie, and she’ll desperately need him as she mentally prepares for scene 27.

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Paulie G.’s relationship with Valerie had creepy sexual undertones in season 1 of The Comeback—big events that come to mind are Paulie G. simulating sex with Valerie in the writer’s room and his lascivious staring when Valerie revealed a pin-up poster of her younger self—but those undertones are aggressively brought to the surface in Seeing Red. After learning about the blowjob scene, Mark wonders if Paulie G. has a thing for Valerie, and while she shrugs off this suggestion, Valerie needs to know what exactly has prompted the writing of this scene.

Paulie G. clearly doesn’t want to explain his creative decision to Valerie, but she pushes him and pushes him to the point where he’s forced to break it down in detail. Part of that pressure comes from the presence of Valerie’s cameras, which are chronicling the actress’ worries and how the show-runner reacts to them. Seeing Red isn’t just Valerie’s comeback, it’s also Paulie G.’s, and he needs to show that he can run a show when he’s in full control. If he’s not behaving properly, Valerie’s cameras will catch it, and he doesn’t have heroin to numb him to that stress this time around. So he chooses to be honest, instead. After much pestering, Paulie G. explains that every time Valerie asked him to write her a better joke or turn out a better script on Room And Bored, he would think, “Blow me,” so that’s what he wrote.

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In an absolutely brilliant casting move, Seth Rogen plays himself on this series, appearing opposite Valerie as Seeing Red’s Paulie G. stand-in, Mitch. Bringing on a movie star of Rogen’s caliber makes Seeing Red feel like a true HBO project, and his presence on the series reveals a lot about Paulie G. and Valerie’s characters. The fact that Paulie G. has chosen Seth Rogen to play Mitch says a lot about how he views himself; Rogen is typically cast as the lovable schlub that is rough around the edges, but ultimately endearing, and while some of that character description fits Paulie G., words like “lovable” and “endearing” certainly don’t. Not only does Paulie G. choose an actor that has built a career on creating sympathy for unlikable figures, he chooses one that is also a skilled improsiver, so Rogen’s own wit bleeds into the part to provide an automatic punch-up to the script.

On Room And Bored, Valerie had an ally in the cast in Juna, the rising star actress/musician that had a genuine appreciation for Valerie’s experience in the industry. Valerie tries to recreate that bond with the actress playing April, Seeing Red’s Juna stand-in, but the beautiful blonde woman is more interested in what’s happening on her cell phone screen than making a personal connection with her co-star. (I love that people ignoring others to check their phones is becoming a motif on this series. That’s a bad enough problem for people not in the entertainment industry, so I can’t imagine how prevalent it is in Hollywood.) All hope is not lost, though, because Valerie has Seth Rogen on her side, and he won’t let “Gingersnaps” do anything that’s she visibly uncomfortable with.

Seth Rogen is wonderful in this episode, bringing an immense warmth to the set of Seeing Red that helps to defuse the loads of tension between Valerie and Paulie G. His behavior is even more admirable because Valerie’s over-eagerness could have so easily driven Seth to the same frustration felt by the show-runner. Unfortunate timing means that Valerie hand delivers flowers to Seth when he pulls up at the front gate of the studio lot (and spills water on his crotch in the process), and a joke made by Seth asking Valerie to have breakfast ready in his trailer prompts her to send Tyler out to buy the celebrity a ham. Her intentions are good, but Valerie has no idea of how this makes her look; thankfully, Seth sees the intentions and takes everything in stride.

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What makes The Comeback’s second season so captivating is that it puts Valerie in a legitimately challenging role, and not just because it involves a blowjob. Improvisation has become commonplace in television, particularly in comedies, and Valerie has no skills in that regard. Paulie G. knows this. He allows Seth to riff however he likes because he’ll get gems like “wash the network jizz out of my eye socket,” but Valerie needs to stay exactly on script. And when she does try to improvise, it’s a disaster. At the start of scene 27, after Mitch asks Mallory to walk over to fellate him, Valerie turns to the camera and says, “Walk? It’s been a long day, why don’t you just rape me?”

But Valerie’s inability to improvise isn’t the only reason Paulie G. wants her to stay on script. Ultimately, Seeing Red is Paulie G.’s chance to put Valerie Cherish in his darkest power fantasies, and he doesn’t want her to have any agency here. He’s in total control, and he’s going to take advantage of that to make Valerie feel like shit. And because he’s working on HBO, he can really accentuate the depravity of these situations. He forces Valerie (in her Aunt Sassy tracksuit) to stand next to two young, naked, buxom women for an immensely awkward 60 seconds, and that visual of Valerie between the two women is one of the show’s most stark representations of how Hollywood objectifies women.

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The tension of the situation grows as the shot is held, but once it’s over, Seth Rogen helps everyone relax by making a joke about how they’ve all just met his mother and sister. He’s here to make things easier for Valerie, and she needs that when the writer and director wants to make this as hard for her as possible. That rape line indicates to Seth that his partner has a lot of problems with the scene, and he uses his movie star clout to make the experience less traumatic for Valerie. Reinforcing the idea that this project is tied up in Paulie G.’s desire to sexually punish Valerie for his Room And Bored experience, Seth is directed to push Valerie’s head down for the blowjob, but the actor is able to convince Paulie G. to take the scene in a direction that makes Mitch less despicable while making Valerie more comfortable.

“Valerie Is Brought To Her Knees” ends with exactly what the title promises: Valerie on her knees, her head between Seth Rogen’s thighs, motionless and facing the camera to show her distress in this moment. Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” plays in the background as we see Valerie discovers just how challenging this project is going to be, and while it’s a disturbing situation, everything about the conclusion combines in a way that perfectly balances comedy and drama. Rogen’s overacting contrasts with Valerie’s total stillness to make the blowjob hilariously pitiful, and building the relationships between the two stars and their writer/director throughout the episode brings outstanding depth to the final scene. It’s hard to watch but at the same time it’s impossible to look away, and that’s what The Comeback is all about.

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Stray observations:

  • Why is Tyler on this show? Is he supposed to be this season’s Francesca substitute, showing how the younger generation reacts to Valerie? He’s certainly not adding as much as Francesca did, and I don’t understand why Jane hasn’t made an executive decision and fired him.
  • Cast list for first day of Seeing Red filming: Mitch, Mallory, April, Coke Whore, Sexy Woman 1 and 2.
  • Jane feels uncomfortable filming the naked women, showing how her experience as a documentary filmmaker has made her more sensitive to how Hollywood treats women. She also comes after Paulie G. for the blowjob scene, revealing that she’s become more defensive of Valerie with this project, as well.
  • Names Valerie gets wrong this week: Seth Rogen (“Seth McFarlane”) and Shayla (“Shayna”). Not too bad, although the Seth McFarlance slip is really rough.
  • “Y’know, for an actor, I think, um, they’re frequently asked to step outside their comfort zone. One time, I had to play a—a brunette with migraines.”
  • “Completely different hair, completely different people.”
  • “It is fun for people to see us zipping around the lot.” Who are these “people” that Valerie loves to mention?
  • “I knew this thing was low budget. They got you working the front gate, too?”
  • “Where would I even get a ham?”
  • “Hams are heavy.”
  • “You got me a ham! Based on the very light, offhanded comment I made.”
  • “I knew you were a brand new director and somehow an old hack at the same time.”
  • “Haven’t done sexy since I made out with Alan Thicke in that Growing Pains flashback.”
  • “Valerie, I’d like to invite you to set. We’re ready to do the blowjob.”
  • “I’m selling it, right? Said the asshole movie star.”

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