A Character Analysis of Rebecca Bunch’s Best Friend and Partner in Crime
Paula, Paula, Paula. I love her so much, I know her so well. She’s one of those middle-aged women who followed the rules and did what they were supposed to do. They got married, had kids, sent them to school, worked at an ok job to help support the family, married a decent guy, and it was all fine. She didn’t have much in common with her kids, but she loved them. Her job wasn’t fulfilling, but they needed the money. She loved her husband, but life was too busy for them to actually connect much anymore. And as she reached middle age, she felt like life was passing her by, like she needed something more, just for her. Happens to us all right around 40. But she didn’t want to admit that to herself out loud yet, didn’t want to be selfish and upset the family order. Enter Rebecca Bunch, exciting young single woman, the potential daughter she never had, with an exciting life Paula could live vicariously through.
Paula spent season 1 working out her pent up need to have fun and do things for herself. She finally let out all the sides of herself that had been buttoned up tight while she devoted herself to being a wife and mom. Paula may complain now that the friendship was one-sided, but she orchestrated much of S1, right from the start. She wanted to live out a fantasy, a romance novel, just like she practically said straight out to Rebecca at the end of the pilot. She kept that going for as long as she could, and as long as she needed the fantasy. She got to be the matchmaker who helped make someone’s dreams come true, and she didn’t really pay much attention to the needs of the other people involved. She was willing to encourage Rebecca’s unhealthy obsession, break up Josh’s relationship, ignore her own husband and children, and hurt Greg to keep Rebecca focused on Josh.
I’m not saying Paula’s a villain or a bad person. We just caught her at a difficult time in her life. Midlife crises are so common they’re cliche, but it’s an especially difficult time for women. For one thing, the fact that women legitimately struggle with choices and change, as opposed to being unreasonably hormonal, is barely acknowledged. Women are expected to be more compliant and dutiful than men for their entire lives. Paula was a good girl, was self-sacrificing, and forgot to make sure her own needs for fun and joy were taken care of, because we’re taught that’s self-indulgent. Scott had the West Brovinas for his own fulfillment outside of his normal responsibilities, but Paula doesn’t appear to have had any hobby or major passion before Rebecca. By choosing Rebecca as her method of dealing with her initial crisis, she could still tell herself that she was helping someone else, rather than putting her own needs first. It took a full season for Paula to figure out what she really wanted for herself, and to build up the courage to reach for it. Even then, she needed both Scott and Daryl’s support to face the risk.
Now that she’s in law school, Paula faces the issues of being an older grad student. The last few episodes have been partially about that. The laws of grad school are that you feel superior to everyone else based on the vast knowledge of the universe you’re acquiring, and your brain is so stuffed with that new knowledge that you can’t think about anything else. This is also so common it’s a cliche, it’s just that most grad students are single and in their twenties, so they don’t risk driving many important people away with their temporary attitude. Paula is a wife, mother, friend, and employee, though. She’s struggling with how consuming her studies are, how much she loves school, and how full the rest of her life still is. It’s a tough place to be, and it’s tough to find balance. I’ve known many women who went back to school at that point in life, just like Paula. Some managed to juggle everything, some ended up divorced, some quit school again, and some ended up changing everything in their lives, from their career, to their spouse, to their lifestyle or which part of the country they lived in.
The show seeems to be setting up the potential for all of those possibilities with Paula. I love Scott dearly, but I’m finding myself hoping that they bring back Calvin Young, Paula’s sophisticated, rich admirer from S1 episode 7, at some point in the next season or two. Let her get settled in law school, develop more self confidence as a future lawyer, and then bring back her own fairy tale prince. He seemed way out of her league in S1, but if she were a professional in her own right, with the added experience of the world she’s gained through her friendship with Rebecca, maybe that wouldn’t be the case anymore. Let’s give Paula her own love triangle!
At the end of the pilot, after she’s stalked Rebecca throughout the episode while trying to discover Rebecca’s secret, Paula says: “What you did for love, for true love… the sacrifices, the money that you walked away from. No, no, no. You’re not crazy, and you’re not stupid. You know what you are? You’re brave. And I wish that I had been as brave when I was your age. Okay, you want this to be a secret? I get it. But, I’m here now, and you are not in this alone. I will help you. Let me help you, because we can win it. We can win it! We can win the whole thing, okay?”
And the episode ends with a romanticized version of West Covina, from the show’s true OTP.
That scene revealed revealed so much of Paula’s character: her natural care taking, her drive and ambition, her intelligence, her tendency toward low self confidence, her romantic nature, her regrets about her own life, her need for something new and exciting to focus on, and her ability to get carried away with a plan (or dream, or scheme, whatever). So, now we’re in S2 and she’s helped Rebecca “win” Josh away from Valencia, then moved on to her own big dream of law school.
But the part that seems like it might still be unresolved to me is this:
“You know what you are? You’re brave. And I wish that I had been as brave when I was your age. Okay, you want this to be a secret? I get it. But, I’m here now, and you are not in this alone.”
That almost sounds like Paula has a big secret in her past, something she wasn’t brave enough to follow through with at the time. Did she want to go away to a big city, like Rebecca, Josh and Greg all have? That would partially explain her lack of respect for Greg in S1, when he was still stuck in his home town, just like her. Did she have a secret love that she couldn’t have for some reason, someone she wishes she’d taken a leap of faith for, the way Rebecca followed Josh? Did she actually settle for Scott, the way Greg asked Rebecca to settle for him? Paula was instantly dismissive of Greg and supportive of Rebecca’s quest for her long lost “true love,” no matter the obstacles, no matter how self-destructive her obsession could get at times. Until Rebecca caught Josh. Then Paula woke up from the spell, as if her need to right whatever might have happened in her own past had been met by Rebecca “catching” Josh. Since then she’s seen herself as a realist again, going for her own big, but attainable, dream, throwing out things that don’t fit with her new image of herself.
Besides being a mainstream, American, unfulfilled wife, mom and paralegal, did Paula also have something in her past that she was hanging onto? Was there some unrealized dream that left her full of might-have-beens? What is she still working through? Where will her next chapter take her, and which characters will she stay close to along the way? I’ll be watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to get the answers to those questions.