The Overwhelming Kindness of 2019’s Female-led Television Finales

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The following article contains spoilers for the final episodes of Broad City, You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Fleabag.

In the past month, four beloved television shows have aired their last ever episodes: Broad City, You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Fleabag. The timing was coincidental (we must assume, otherwise the separate networks would be responsible for widespread emotional devastation). However, all four shows, which focused on messy cycles of self-indulgence and self-destruction, chose to end with understated optimism and unconventional growth.

The central women of these shows – the hedonistic Abbi and Ilana, the self-destructive Gretchen Cutler, the overachieving Rebecca Bunch, and the sardonic Fleabag – are all notably flawed, and giving them the kindest send-off is almost shockingly generous. These sympathetic, imperfect transitions to adulthood speak to an ultimately hopeful worldview underlying shows that rooted their humour in a painfully relatable despair. Even when the behaviour and situations became atrocious (comically, tragically, or both), these women got some version of a happy ending. It’s an almost revolutionary act of sensitivity and kindness that enhances, rather than undercuts, the mental health struggles, grief, literal and figurative separations, and the aimless immaturity of young adulthood that is both lampooned and celebrated throughout these shows.

Not all shows conclude with universal reconciliation or redemption either; while Rebecca gets to tell everyone – even the sceptical White Josh – how much goodness they bring to her life, Fleabag is probably never going to be a big fan of her new stepmother, and Gretchen seems to firmly banish her toxic parents from hers and her child’s life. This recognition comes with a quiet maturity and self-awareness that subtly illustrate that a satisfying conclusion is not always without its rough edges.

It’s important to note that, as a fair few Fleabag think pieces and Twitter takes have rightly pointed out, these women are all white and comfortably well-off. Yes, Abbi and Ilana may be bouncing between retail and temp work but have parents that can take them to the theatre; likewise, Gretchen might be drowning in credit card debt but her privileged upbringing allowed her to get in the situation in the first place. And Rebecca Bunch starts out as a New York barrister – enough said. These bittersweet transitions to adulthood are not rendered less poignant due to their demographic limits but expanding the diversity of such stories – starting in the writers’ room – is a necessary step to keep television fresh, relevant, and representational.

“Me and you, we’re still going to be us.”

Broad City was the first to end. After five seasons of outrageous exploits and temporary responsibilities, Abbi and Ilana are in separate cities, pursuing their personal dreams and career goals of visual artist and therapist respectively. While the first four seasons deal with topical issues and millennial anxieties (season four’s ‘Witches’ masterfully exploring societal trauma through physical comedy), no tangible changes are made to the lovable duo’s chaotic lives. The fifth and final season, however, explores what it means to grow up from the moment it opens with Abbi’s thirtieth birthday. As the season progresses, both women reckon with what they want from life while simultaneously avoiding it, stealing glances at ‘next step’ career and educational paths in the few moments they spend away from each other. Abbi ends up landing an artist residency in Boulder, Colorado, and Ilana is accepted to grad school in New York City.

Unsurprisingly, their secrecy backfires. Ilana – who had instantaneously, reactively rejected a renewed relationship contract with Lincoln after he suggested family life in the suburbs – planned her life around access to Abbi. Therefore, her overreaction when Abbi breaks the news to her during a performance-art version of Macbeth (because where else would it happen in this show) is both hilarious and heartbreaking, rooted in genuine panic while comically embarrassing Abbi and the fellow theatre-goers. Abbi repairs this rift the next day by showing Ilana her poop over FaceTime (theirs is truly a special friendship), but things never bounce back to normal – the anxiety of the unknown permeates their moving preparations and drug-fuelled alley parties. Eventually, they part ways in a manner that sums up this painful, necessary relationship development: Abbi tries to sneak out, Ilana refuses to let her go without a ridiculous, lovingly made survival bag, and then the latter locks herself out of her apartment as her friend speeds away in a taxi.

The final scene picks up a few months later, when Abbi sends Ilana a picture of the horrifying/cute hairless cat out for a walk in Boulder, prompting a phone call from the two friends. Their conversation sounds much like their previous interactions – minus the physical proximity – but also reveals a changed dynamic: they may no longer be each other’s ride or die, and that is okay. Their bond is constant – if now supported by healthy boundaries – as they thrive in their individual paths and passions. At the very least, when the apocalypse inevitably comes they have planned to meet in St Louis.

“Every day we choose”

You’re the Worst followed the next week. This unconventional rom-com’s fifth and final season revolved around Jimmy and Gretchen wedding planning following an engagement, break up, and make up (in that order), leading up to the wedding day while throwing in fast forwards to a future where the protagonists did not seem to still be a couple. The show certainly hints that this union is ill-advised: Gretchen begins abusing veteran housemate Edgar’s prescription medications and loses her job, terrified to tell a fiancé who is either willfully ignorant or more oblivious than possible.

And at the eleventh hour, the most romantic twist of all results in an abandoned wedding. Jimmy finds out that Gretchen outsourced her wedding vows because she could not honestly promise forever. After a massive fight, they both end up walking out of the wedding to their favourite diner. There, Jimmy suggests that they commit to each other each day, only for that day, until perhaps they do not choose each other anymore; Gretchen accepts. It is a future and solution that works for them, at least for the moment – there’s no guarantee of a happily ever after with clinical depression, but a day by day commitment keeps the slate fresh and the door wide open. Fast forward five years and they have a child, continued relationships with their friends and chosen families, and what seems like happiness. Underscoring the final montage with the Mountain Goats’ gloriously chipper, nihilistic ‘No Children’ perfectly captures the joy, changes, challenges, and anxiety of lives that seem improbably successful. Everyone seems to be doing okay, even if Gretchen’s depression beats away in the background.

The show ends with perhaps the darkest reminder of these lives’ impermanence, as it cuts back to the diner where Gretchen starkly reminds Jimmy that she might jump in front of a train one day, and he cheerfully replies that he will swiftly move on. And then they go back to their pancakes and eggs in relative peace. The audience has seen their future – at least the next few years of it – and know it will be okay. However, Gretchen’s brutal honesty, as well as a cheeky symbolic release from the confines of marriage, allow her to support her new family and get the support she needs as well.  

You loved that play”

The day after You’re the Worst aired its final episode, Crazy Ex Girlfriend reached a conclusion that celebrates its eponymously maligned anti-heroine’s overactive imagination, while believably setting her on a sustainable, successful path. Unlike her previous flights of fancy into musical theatre, Rebecca’s imaginative abilities do not serve the hamster wheel of self-judgement and external approval she has been caught in for the previous four seasons. The larger-than-life relapses and vicious cycles are replaced with an acceptance of the choices she makes and the people she has in her life – devoid of any romantic attachment but surrounded by a supportive community.

This reveal comes after a one-year time jump from the penultimate episode’s three dates with her three beaus; Rebecca is in a bar, at a Valentine’s open mic, surrounded by the West Covina community she unwittingly built but with no boyfriend in sight. She has given voice to her musical theatre fantasy world by inviting Paula into her world, and then with the latter’s encouragement, she has taken up music lessons for her own enjoyment and fulfillment. By finding life and passions outside of external expectations and attachments, Rebecca forges a sustainable identity other than that the show foisted upon her.

The meta-theatricality of Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s finale may feel a bit cheap – perhaps because many of the show’s lazier songs leaned too heavily into this conceit – but this storytelling embraces the show’s most ridiculous musical elements and the validity of Rebecca’s coping mechanisms/creativity. With a knowing wink and boundless empathy, Rebecca’s ‘crazy’ side is held in equal regard to the balanced, caring friend she has become after putting in the work for her mental health. Lastly, and fittingly, her final Valentine’s day open mic performance and tribute to her friends is surprisingly understated – the credits roll before she begins her first in-universe song – as compared to the show’s flamboyant opening. At last, there is a sense that Rebecca has found an independent voice, self-acceptance, and possibly even peace that had been missing ever since ‘This is what happy feels like’.

“It’ll pass”

A mere three days after Rebecca bunch began her first live-in-universe song, Fleabag left her father’s wedding and waved goodbye to her friendly camera confidante. She has had a hell of a few years, with her best friend dying, an ill-advised crush on a very unavailable priest, and all manner of family drama. The final episode culminates with her father’s wedding to the most awful stepmother since Cinderella’s that somehow goes without a hitch, considering that Fleabag slept with the priest the night before, the stepmother-to-be is cruelly insistent on rooting out any scene-staging and attention seeking, and her sister Clare has just admitted to her miscarriage and desire to leave her dysfunctional marriage.

Instead of stresses coming out at the altar, these family changes are dealt with in the periphery, relegated to the kitchen, attic, side alley, and bus stop. After observing and quietly aiding her family’s personal realisations and growth, Fleabag confesses her love to the priest as they wait for the bus. The act is both selfish and selfless – an expression of desire and impossible hope without any expectation. His reply – ‘It’ll pass’ – signals that his heart is in the exact same place, confirmed when he tells her he loves her too. Fleabag’s heartbreak is palpable, and for once she does not run away from it. Instead of deflecting it with her trademark irreverence, her statue theft and the directions she gives to the fox reveal an honesty in the wit she no longer needs to hide behind.

Fleabag moves past destructive, impulsive, impossible relationships – both familial and romantic – and empowers herself and her loved ones to live bravely (Clare to leave her husband, her father to become physically and emotionally un-stuck before the wedding, and herself to admit her foolish, doomed, unavoidable, and most importantly, very real love for the priest). Additionally, as Angel Lloyd states in her review, the fact that Fleabag can leave her audience confidante/crutch/escape behind speaks to her growing strength and self-awareness. She saves herself and forges her own path, bearing her past bereavements and poor decisions while no longer letting them define her. Strikingly, it is the only one of these four shows that does not employ some sort of flash forward to show that our heroine is okay. The audience must instead trust Fleabag’s resignation and courage as she owns her tragedy and triumph.

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The world is terrifying, unforgiving, and overwhelming. It seems harder than ever to reach traditional adult milestones and less certain if young adults even find meaning in these goalposts. These shows reflected many of these struggles and neuroses through equally cutting humour and honesty, never offering their five female protagonist easy solutions (at least not mentally or emotionally – financially is another matter, as mentioned above). While the certainty of a happy-ish ending is impossible to give in real life, giving these five women contentment – perhaps redemption – feels like a radical rejection of cynicism and a celebration of humanity in this uncertain world. Their stories are over, but it is hoped that the sensitive, realistic, and ultimately hopeful handling of adulthood in the face of human flaws and foibles continues in twenty-first-century television.  

by Carmen Paddock

Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie

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