From the moment the opening bars of "West Covina" first hit our eardrums in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's pilot last fall, the award-winning CW comedy has been on a not-so-subtle mission to subvert viewer expectations and deconstruct problematic stereotypes promoted by countless well-meaning but unrealistic romantic comedies.
Co-creators Rachel Bloom (who also stars as lead Rebecca Bunch) and Aline Brosh McKenna have routinely embraced these tropes in the name of flipping the script to expose the inherent flaws of this type of fantasy existence. With the departure of Santino Fontana's Greg in "When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone?," the latest trope to fall victim to the show's pointed writing is the notion that a happy ending must involve two people who love each other embarking on a relationship, and that any other outcome means failure. Also: cheesy airport chase scenes.
The episode opened with Rebecca rushing to the airport -- like so many fictional men and women have done before her -- with the intent of stopping Greg in the name of love. She pleaded with him to stay in West Covina and abandon his dreams of escaping a city that beat him down repeatedly until he ultimately bottomed out and became an alcoholic. Her actions were selfish but also understandable; we've seen this scenario play out a hundred times before and it usually ends the same way: with the person willfully ignoring the obvious arguments supporting their departure and agreeing to stay.
But Rebecca's reasoning was largely based on the idea that the universe was giving her signs she and Greg should be together after her short dalliance with Josh (Vincent Rodriquez III) didn't pan out. Luckily for Greg, ever the practical one in their friendship, he didn't buy into her delusional fantasy. "I want to believe that," he told her, "but that's not how life works, Rebecca. There are no signs. Life doesn't happen to you. You make decisions. Right now I'm deciding to move forward with my life." And then after one of the show's best musical numbers, Greg got on the plane.
As frequent consumers of popular culture, we've been conditioned to believe that love conquers all, that chasing someone down just as they've given up and decided to move on is a romantic overture that is enough to fulfill us and fulfill them for a lifetime. It's a nice dream, one that can get many of us through the dark and lonely nights when the only thing we have to hold on to is a cold taco and a glass of whiskey. But it's also an unachievable fantasy, and one that Rebecca unfortunately operates in on a daily basis.
And so Rebecca believed the universe was telling her she and Greg should be together despite all the obvious reasons they should not, like the fact their relationship was a disaster literally from the start, when she took home another man on their first date. But for Greg, a fan favorite but logical character who's upheld the nice guy side of the show's main love triangle -- if you can really call it that -- since the pilot, Rebecca is a powerful trigger for his disease and thus poses a real threat to his newfound sobriety and stability. This is why his decision to leave West Covina to achieve his dreams of attending Emory University, while incredibly sad for fans of the character or for fans who 'shipped Greg and Rebecca together, was imperative for the show and its underlying theme of finding happiness to succeed. It's something Bloom and McKenna decided needed to happen and needed to happen now.
"Greg is very much... the nice guy who's overlooked. That's a trope. That's a Jon Cryer, that's a Tom Hanks, that's a trope that's been in rom coms a lot," explained McKenna at a recent press screening. "There comes a time when if you play that too long, people start to seem like they're not smart, and they're not understanding their circumstances, that the genre is dictating their circumstances more than the characters are. ... And so there was a limited number of times that we could have him go back to the well of trying, trying, trying."
We've been trained to seek happy endings in stories and more often than not a happy ending means the central couple ends up together. But for a series intent on breaking down such clichés, this wouldn't ring true. "For us this is a happy ending for Greg," said McKenna, "because he's moving on to something that from the second we've seen him, he's wanted to do. ... He's an addict, so he's in recovery, so he knows that every day is going to be a process, but he is confident that he's going somewhere that will be better for him and that she is a trigger for him."
Now, of course we want Greg to stay in West Covina and rekindle his relationship with Rebecca. That is what we've been conditioned to do. But even so, for an entire season Greg was the only alternative to Josh, a good guy but still never a viable love interest despite the time the show invested in shaping him to be more than just an unattainable fantasy for Rebecca. Greg embodied the nice-guy-who's-right-under-her-nose-the-entire-time trope, and in that regard, it wasn't just easy to root for him, but it made sense to root for him and for his relationship with Rebecca. Somewhere there may even exist a version of this world in which they, removed from all their baggage and having achieved their goals, could potentially be happy together.
But that is not this world and that will likely not be this world for a while -- at least so long as the show exists in its current state, for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's success relies on its characters being stuck in a state of purgatory and seeking fulfillment.
"[West Covina is] a place where everybody there is stuck in some way," said McKenna. "They may be physically stuck there, as Greg has been, they may be psychologically stuck there in certain ways, as Darryl [Pete Gardner] was last year. They're all in certain stages of stuckness, and what we thought was interesting was to take the guy who you might think was the most stuck and to have him change his outlook in life. Once he does that, he's able to do what he's never been able to do before, which is leave."
So while Rebecca's journey may have been our jumping off point -- being unfulfilled in New York led her to West Covina in search of the happiness she last felt during, and thus attributed to, her relationship with Josh -- each of these characters is searching for their own version of happiness. For Greg that meant escaping West Covina. Now that he has a real chance to change his life, it's hard to root for him to remain in a city that beat him into submission for our own selfish desires or shaped-by-fantasy notions that happiness is achieved only through two people falling in love. It's difficult to see Greg depart the series forever, especially now that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is in the midst of yet another run of strong episodes. But loving Greg as a character beyond his potential as a romantic lead and wanting him to be happy allows us to root for him to actually get on that plane.
Everyone deserves to be happy and not everyone equates happiness with being in a relationship. And that's not just OK, it's also the way it should be.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs Fridays at 9/8c on The CW.
Additional reporting by Malcolm Venable
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