Rebecca Bunch is going to jail. This is the culmination of a turbulent period in the life of the musical-theater-loving lawyer who left New York City to start all over again in West Covina, California (but not because her ex-boyfriend Josh lived there): an aborted wedding, a brief Fatal Attraction phase, a retreat to her hometown, a suicide attempt, a borderline-personality diagnosis (“A diagnooooosis!”), and a recuperation that truly seemed on-track until an unstable blackmailer with a taste for turtlenecks resurfaced and attempted to stab the new man in her life—and so Rebecca pushed him off a roof. That’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s third season in a Rebecca-centric nutshell (overlooking an eight-month time jump, a surrogate pregnancy, and Josh Chan’s dalliance with the priesthood), one that ends in a courtroom, an orange jumpsuit, and co-creator Rachel Bloom’s character pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
But as the old song goes, the situation is a lot more nuanced than that. As co-creator and showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna reminded The A.V. Club at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, “The real through-line is not pleading guilty, but it’s pleading responsible”—which is how Rebecca initially addresses the charge against her. That notion recurs throughout the first episode of the CW series’ fourth and final season, though Rebecca being Rebecca, it’s through extreme overcompensation: As she shuffles her way into lock-up, she repeats to herself “I deserve this.”
“Becoming a more responsible, enlightened, awake person is really what that storyline is about, and less about legal status, but I mean obviously that’s such a high-stakes way of doing that,” Brosh McKenna said of the predicament that at least allows Rebecca to live out her wildest Chicago fantasies. “I was really attracted to the idea that she gets a chance to plead insanity and that she doesn’t because that seems so thematically on-point with what we were doing—that her mental illness would provide her possibly with an easy way out, which she doesn’t take.”
Asked about the importance of this turn in Rebecca’s story, Bloom answered, “For better, for worse, this is her finally taking responsibility for not only her life but her happiness.”
“She’s trying to really marry the internal and the external, what she wants with how she lives her life, and there’s a lot of struggle. There’s a lot of ‘two steps forward, one step back’—or ‘one step forward, two steps back’ sometimes.”
It’s a proper starting point for the end of a TV series that blends the euphoric highs of musical and romantic comedy with the harsh emotional and psychological realities of its perfectly imperfect characters. Rebecca’s mid-flight overdose last season was a thoroughly deglamorized depiction of a plot point often played for shock and sensation; just as the writers didn’t let their protagonist take the easy way out in front of the judge, they’ve refused to treat her diagnosis as some magical cure-all.
“It isn’t anything but a way to identify a strategy for feeling better,” Brosh McKenna said. “It’s a beginning of a long road.”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s road is one that’s always had an end in sight: The creators conceived the series as a four-season arc. “This is a story about a finite time in a woman’s life,” Bloom said. “We’re not telling the entire life story of Rebecca—we’re telling the story of this moment in time.” In a final act revolving around recovery and starting from scratch—the very things Rebecca was seeking when she left New York—Bloom and Brosh McKenna have set out to bring things full circle, reprising songs and bringing back as many characters as they can. “I really like taking thinking of, like, themes from the first season and twisting them on their head—that’s very fun for me,” Bloom said.
One of those familiar faces will no longer resemble himself: Rebecca’s ex-flame Greg Serrano, who’ll be played by Pitch Perfect alum Skylar Astin, rather than Santino Fontana, who originated the role. It’s an unorthodox casting move and a playful metaphor for the way people change over time—the Greg who finally shipped off to Emory College in season two is not the Greg who’s returning to West Covina. “We wanted it to come full circle back to the first season,” Bloom said. “And then we also thought, ‘Oh, well, at this point if we were to bring the character back, something would have to be fundamentally different because Rebecca is fundamentally different and he would be different in similar ways.”
How do the creators hope their series is remembered? “As something that was consistent,” said Brosh McKenna. “Three or four episodes in, when it was clear our ratings were horrible, I said, ‘Look, I don’t know that we’ll ever make a show that has very high ratings, but I think we have a shot to make one of those shows that’s remembered in the long run of TV history as something that was special and good.”
Bloom’s response: “As something that took musical theater, which is an American art form and commented on it, but also used it to further story, and advanced it. A show that deconstructed tropes in a really cool way, from a female perspective.”
No matter how the show, its characters, or its themes linger in the popular imagination, Brosh McKenna knows there’s one number from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that will never leave her head: “The First Penis I Saw.” “It’s so catchy,” she said. “If we’re talking about the music, on my own, I’ve found that’s the one I’m going to cue up first.”