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In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, women can grow, regress, and grow some more

The show understands that people with mental illness or life setbacks, like Rebecca Bunch, don’t magically get better with one narrative arc

“I’m the villain in my own story,” sings Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch in a parody of The Little Mermaid’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” towards the end of the first season. She’s finally starting to realise that all of her actions – her spying, manipulating, selfishness – maybe aren’t adorable personality traits or symbols of how in love with her teenage camp romance Josh she is, but things that directly affect everyone else.

Of course, that realisation wasn’t enough for Rebecca to change her behaviour forever. The show follows Rebecca as she moves from a high-powered law firm in New York to a small role in West Covina, as she attempts to make Josh leave his girlfriend for her. Over two seasons she lies, schemes and cheats to get what she wants. Week after week, Rebecca is sitting in therapy, ignoring every word her therapist says and doing whatever she wants, validated from the snippets of guidance she chooses to hear.

But in season four, after three long years of often unrepentantly selfish behaviour, Rebecca is finally holding herself accountable. She’s visibly growing; her interactions with Josh are less erratic, her friendships are more equal, her actions thought through. Possibly, if this were another show where her actions were the ones of an unrepentant bitch, it wouldn’t feel so rewarding. We love to watch villains: in a world where women have to be well-behaved, it can be cathartic to see well-manicured women move through life without remorse. But it isn’t realistic, and although realism maybe isn’t the priority in a show where people burst into song, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has always aimed to deal with issues like mental health realistically.

In episode four of season four, “I’m Making Up For Lost Time”, Rebecca reconnects with a shoddily retconned-in younger half-brother. Realising she needs to make it up to everyone in her life, she sends him a letter and lets him stay with her in West Covina – only to learn that he is a scheming, lying, mini-me who is only using Rebecca as a place to crash while he auditions for a play. Seeing herself in him, Rebecca doesn’t shun Tucker, but embraces him – calling his mother (calmly, despite hating her) and getting him a therapist because it’s what she needed at his age. She’s trying to not only fix her own mistakes, but prevent Tucker suffering with ignorance about his own issues, as she did.

In the same episode, Nathaniel embarks on yet another scheme in an attempt to win Rebecca back – for once not impressed by his lack of morals, she rejects him; claiming that they’re “not good for each other”. It shows genuine growth, and comes from seeing her own mistakes reflected back in her brother. She isn’t perfect now though – in the same episode, she breezes over an employee trying to talk about their estranged mother, but she’s learning.

Her friend and colleague Paula, too, who has been the victim of Rebecca’s selfishness but who has been guilty of her own, learns in this episode that she needs to pay more attention to her children. It isn’t a new lesson for Paula, but it’s part of a larger trend of growth for the characters; Josh, previously so stunted his own mom had to force him out of her home, has begun attending therapy and is seen repenting for his past selfish or immature behaviours in ways that don’t involve running away to become a priest. Heather, now fully graduated, gets married to Hector in season four for health insurance purposes, but they appear to be fully in love. Nathaniel has finally realised that he’s in love with Rebecca and is attempting to make it work. It isn’t only Rebecca who is finally allowed to grow, but she is the one perhaps with the most work to do.

“Rebecca has one thing right: she is the villain in her own story. But she’s the hero, too”

When making a musical TV series about mental illness, it might have been easy to make it way too whimsical and fail to explore any kind of issues. Or, to make Rebecca too sympathetic as our protagonist, our relatable character. We should feel sorry for her, angry with her behaviour, and teeth-jarringly cringe at the continuous wrong decisions.

Rebecca’s behaviour, at times, could put her in the trend of TV bitches who monumentally redeem themselves. Her actions are usually reserved for villainous women: the cheating, lying, scheming, and complete ignorance to anyone’s feelings or anything other than what she wants. The characters who, throughout TV history, haven’t been given anywhere near enough justice. If Rebecca’s character were less nuanced, we might find her chewing bubblegum and wearing a velour tracksuit while typing on her phone in acrylics. Were she less relatable, she’d be The O.C.’s Julie Cooper, constantly oscillating between trying to ruin Ryan Atwood’s life and begging for forgiveness. She’d be Desperate Housewives’ Edie Britt, trying to fuck everyone’s husbands before showing just how scared she is. She’d be a capital B for Bitch who we learn to feel sorry for. She isn’t the first badly-behaved woman to learn that actions have consequences: Julie Cooper is ostracised by her friends and loses her house, and Edie Britt ends up dying young and alone. Both are allowed to just about redeem themselves, at least in the eyes of the audience, but rarely are these women allowed to be so completely forgiven, or their characters so fully explored.

But while Rebecca’s actions might at times put her in that trend – more overtly in season three, when she intentionally becomes a femme fatale by dying her hair dark and attempting to be as diabolical as possible – there is something softer about her. And finally, in the show’s fourth and final season, Rebecca is feeling the full weight of accountability for her actions and her selfishness. For three years she has breezed when her friends speak, ignoring that they’re struggling to graduate or that they’ve had to have an abortion. She has broken into people’s homes, she has spied and lied and cheated and blackmailed her way across West Covina. But after spending time (not much time) in prison for the “attempted murder” of Trent, she’s finally starting to grow.

The real turning point for Rebecca came not in this season, but in season three, when she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and overcame her impulse to run away from treatment. She started to unpick the reasons for her moods and behaviour, learning to live with her disorder; something Rachel Bloom and the writers were rightfully praised for. The handling of Rebecca’s diagnosis; giving her one, handling it sensitively, and showing that she could be treated, gave viewers something else to relate to. And avoiding the temptation to diagnose her with something “easy”, something sympathetic and already represented like anxiety or depression, and giving Rebecca one of the most stigmatised and misunderstood disorders, was a bold decision in itself and one that allowed viewers with the disorder to see themselves in Rebecca.

Rebecca has one thing right: she is the villain in her own story. But she’s the hero, too, because as season four centres Rebecca without men and shows her learning curve, we realise that she is, as we all are, the protagonist.

Nobody’s actions are free of consequences, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend teaches us that nobody is beyond repentance: Rebecca has hurt her friends time and time again, through a misunderstanding of her own mental health as well as anything else, and armed with knowledge she’s making it up to them. Far from dissatisfying, it’s the ultimate reward for sticking by a character for four long years in which they’ve seemingly only gotten worse; constantly learning lessons only to take three steps back. It’s frustrating, sure, but it’s real: recovery and learning aren’t linear. Were Rebecca a real person, she’d fuck up again throughout season four and then for the rest of her life, as we all will. But the reward is in the small places where we find space to grow.