One of our leads snags the part of Marilyn, while the other recreates the star's fatal overdose. Guess which is which?
Here’s the last thing I wrote in my notes while watching Smash‘s fittingly exasperating finale: “Guhhhhhhhh.” And you can quote me on that.
Why am I so frustrated? Firstly, Smash has a nasty habit of telling rather than showing. Throughout the season, we’ve heard characters praise Karen’s mysterious star quality. This quality is apparently inexplicable — which is convenient, since it saves the show from having to justify why everyone in the universe looks like they’ve seen the face of God whenever Karen opens her mouth to sing. (Maybe that’s why Katharine McPhee always keeps her lips slightly parted.) We’re asked to believe that there’s simply something about Karen that makes her perfect for Marilyn without ever once seeing evidence of that something. And since we can see that Ivy sings and dances just as well as her rival, the idea that Karen’s got some enigmatic talent makes even less sense.
This problem is exacerbated by another glaring flaw: Ivy’s complete character assassination. Back in my recap of Episode 4, I worried that Smash was stacking the deck in Karen’s favor by transforming the sweet, likeable Ivy we once knew into “a catty, cruel diva hellbent on making Karen miserable.” 11 episodes later, Ivy is even worse — she’s now a hot mess who screws up onstage, pops pills with abandon, and indulges in spiteful revenge sex just because she can.
Ivy’s final, desperate, selfish act not only strains credulity but also renders the character totally unsympathetic. The moment she takes those pills — and yes, we don’t see her actually consume them, but do you really think she just put the dolls back in the bottle? — Ivy becomes the equivalent of a snotty kid planning to teach his mom a lesson by running away. There’s no way to feel for Ivy here; instead, we’re left resenting her for trying to steal the spotlight on Karen’s big day.
And what, by the way, is the lesson of the entire Karen/Ivy opposition? That trying is bad? That if you’re not born with some intangible essence, you might as well give up on your dreams altogether? Honestly, part of me hopes that Ivy kicks the bucket backstage before Season 2. If nothing else, it’d allow Megan Hilty to ditch this show for better material.
Like I said before: Guhhhhhhhh. But hey — there’s more to this show than Perfect Karen and Screwed-Up Ivy. And not everything about the finale made me want to shake my fist at the heavens while yelling “WHYYYY?” Take, for example, the episode’s zippy opening, which easily establishes the tension filling the Bombshell crew. Their next preview is in just 12 hours, but they still haven’t chosen a new Marilyn. Karen is the understudy, but understudies never get rehearsed in until after previews; Ivy, on the other hand, knows the entire part. How will the creative team choose between them? This looks like a job for Derek’s patented Hallucination Method.
NEXT: Terrible Ellis, you’re fired!
The director examines Rebecca’s old Marilyn costumes, which helpfully look just like the duds we’ve seen in dream theater sequences throughout Season 1. As he touches each dress, he remembers Karen or Ivy performing a particular number. Finally, he comes upon the last frock: the purple dress Karilyn has been wearing in his
Prednisone-fueled fantasies. Karilyn, her face beatific, her arms outstretched like the Holy Virgin herself, appears once more. Instead of wondering whether he should see a neurologist, Derek decides to let Karen be his star.
Of course, there are a few complications. Amazonian Rebecca is about eight feet taller than Iowa, so none of the costumes are going to fit. And Karen hasn’t actually performed any of these numbers as the lead before. Luckily, nobody will care if Karen needs some extra time: “Everyone loves you here,” Julia tells her as they prepare to start rehearsing. She’s exaggerating only slightly: Ivy is giving off some serious stank from her sad perch in the third row.
Eileen, meanwhile, is trying to salvage the show’s press by singing Karen’s praises to our old pal Michael Riedel. “It’s a grand old theater story,” she explains. “Movie star goes out, understudy goes in!” She forgot to include one thing: the scheming underling who finally gets his comeuppance. We still don’t know why Terrible Ellis started loving Ivy a few episodes ago — but his desire to see her as Marilyn is so great that he bum-rushes Eileen and tells her that the team has made a huge mistake. The precious part belongs to Ms. Lynn!
Eileen is not amused. She sharply tells Ellis that he doesn’t get a vote, then asks him to go fetch some coffee. That’s when our weasely little Eve Harrington wannabe takes a running leap off the deep end. “I didn’t get Rebecca Duvall out of your way so you could ignore me again,” he tells Eileen with the steely smirk of a 130-pound serial peanut concealer. Yes, it’s true — ’tis he who slipped the wicked legumes into the Smoothie of Ill Fortune and Kale! Ellis thinks that this attempted murder should inspire Eileen to promote him: “I am a producer,” he says smugly.
“You are fired is what you are,” she replies. Oh, friends, let us savor this moment together. Deliverance has come! Ellis is practically twirling his mustache as he exits stage left, vowing that we haven’t seen the last of him before disappearing in a puff of smoke — but if Smash‘s new showrunner has any sense, he’ll see that Terrible Ellis and his J. Crew wardrobe stay gone for good.
Let’s get through this Julia business as quickly as possible. During a pause in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” rehearsal, Michael quietly confesses that his wife — did anyone know or care that her name was Monica? — left him when he told her about the affair. Julia listens and sympathetically touches Michael’s arm, timing it perfectly so that Frank sees the whole thing and storms out. Oh, Lord — how old are these people?
NEXT: Chekhov’s engagement ring
Don’t worry; that arm touch doesn’t destroy Julia’s marriage (again). After following him outside the theater, the lyricist tells her husband that while she can’t fix what she did, the two of them can learn to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Hey, that sort of sounds like song lyrics! Time to put some words to Tom’s melody.
Remember how Linda pointed out that Rebecca’s costumes are all wrong for Karen? Well, somehow, the sparkly dress Marilyn wears during her big USO number fits Iowa like a glove. As Karen practices “Wolf” — such a great song! — Ivy glowers from the wings. By contrast, Derek and Dev gaze adoringly at their girl. (Yes, Dev is now allowed to watch rehearsal. Why? Because KAREN, that’s why.) When the number ends, Ivy approaches Derek and tries to get some closure. All he’ll tell her is that Karen “just has something that you don’t.” See Page 1 for why that is utter bull. What nobody else knows is that Ivy has something Karen doesn’t: the engagement ring Dev left in her room. Cue Dramatic Chipmunk sting.
Karen overhears Eileen tell Derek that Iowa isn’t prepared enough to play Marilyn. Then her day gets a whole lot worse — she walks into the dressing room and finds that the ring has been placed with her stuff. Ivy immediately ‘fesses up to her dalliance with Karen’s fiance. Proving that she’s really taking a one-way trip to Crazy Town (population: Ellis; Michael Swift; that nutty investor/rock musician who disappeared once Eileen got his money), Ivy thinks now would be a good time to give Karen relationship advice: “Men are men, and a traditional guy like Dev — bought you a ring, took you to dinner, asked you to marry him — it’s very Joe DiMaggio of him.” Yes, a traditional guy like Dev, who only proposed after he nearly cheated on you, then did cheat on you. True love!
Karen confronts Dev, who apologizes for being awful and immediately takes a train to Washington DC. We never see nor hear from him again. Kidding! He says some weaksauce stuff about how they’ll get through this before Karen goes back onstage, where Eileen is ready to tell her that they’ve decided to put Ivy in the show instead. But Derek heads her off, declaring that Karen will be Marilyn — because, as he puts it, “I am an artist and a storyteller, and this is my vision. And no one is going to get in my way. If you want a hit, then be quiet!” Wait, did Julie Taymor ghostwrite this episode?
NEXT: Karen’s hero’s journey, from crisis to confidence
Tom and Julia’s emergency songwriting sesh isn’t going so great. He’d like to add in some gospel organ music to make the finale sound more triumphant; Julia hates the idea. Tom responds to her criticism by petulantly stabbing his keyboard with two fingers, like some crabby baby robot. It’s all too much for Julia, who soon starts crying. “It’s such a good musical! And this is a disaster,” she sobs. You’re half right, Jules! Oh, and then she throws up. In case we didn’t understand what this means, she spells it out: the last time she threw up was when she was pregnant with Leo.
Karen is so flipped out about Ivy and Dev — whose names, together, almost spell Evildy, which must mean something — that she rips off her wig and runs out of the theater in the middle of rehearsal. It’s the wig removal that really gets to Bobby, who gossips that this act is paramount to quitting. Before long, Derek tracks Karen to the costume room, where she’s sitting mournfully in her underwear. I, too, always strip when I’m feeling particularly despondent. After a brief psychoanalytic pep talk (Marilyn had her heart broken too!), Karen’s ready to take the stage once more.
Ivy, of course, doesn’t know that yet. She meets most of the creative team, all dolled up in Marilyn’s “Let’s Be Bad” dress and wig. (What’s the wig budget on Bombshell? Does it exceed the scarf budget?) Tom, Eileen, and Julia have all bestowed their blessings… when Derek emerges from the wings, followed by Karen in her own Marilyn wig and that emblematic purple dress. “Sorry,” says Karen coolly. “I was just a little upset about something.” Boom, roasted! Please, Karen, continue to have a spine and some sass, and I’ll stop being so hard on you next season.
There’s just one thing that could make Ivy feel even worse — a surprise visit from her mother, the fabulous Leigh “Bernadette Peters” Conroy. Leigh’s come all the way from The Nutmeg State to watch her daughter’s big Boston debut. Alas, tonight, tonight, just isn’t Ivy’s night. She sadly reveals the truth to her mom, then starts stripping the Marilyn parts of herself away. Ivy, you tried your best, and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.
And now we’ve arrived back at the beginning — the long shot that opened the episode, in which the camera plays the part of Karen running around backstage before asking, one last time, that we let her be our star. The preview begins. Every musical sequence — “Mambo”! “Lexington and 52nd Street”! No baseball number, which is a shame — comes complete with a reaction shot of Ivy scowling backstage. Karen’s voice is beautiful, and she’s moving with confidence and ease. But I still think Smash failed at making us understand why Derek thinks she has something Ivy lacks.
This time, the show continues past Marilyn’s suicide scene. As Michael Swift sings a sad “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” reprise, Derek sidles up to Karen, who’s waiting in the wing. “Whatever happens next,” he tells her, “don’t doubt you’re a star. And I do understand love.” If his love for Karen Cartwright transforms Derek from a philandering jerk into a one-woman man, I will eat my hat. (Look, I ate a hat!)
NEXT: The big finish
It’s time to see the fruits of Tom and Julia’s madcap labor. Karilyn, clad in another perfectly fitted sparkly gown, takes center stage and begins her final song: one more catchy, soaring Shaiman-Wittman tune called “Don’t Forget Me.” The lyrics are a little goofy — if you see someone’s hurt, or are singing “Happy Birthday,” think of… Marilyn Monroe? — but we can chalk that up to Julia having written then just moments ago. In any case, Karen sounds wonderful — and the audience agrees, bursting into applause as Karen hits her key change. Meanwhile, Ivy’s packing a handful of downers — and, well, we all know what’s going to happen next. So much for not ending a show with a suicide.
One last, flickering set of Footlights
– Why have I never noticed until this moment that Bobby sounds exactly like Michael Urie?
– New opening title card! Because previews have officially begun — not counting that Rebecca Dubacle — we’re starting with a bit of “Let Me Be Your Star” instead of a tune-up. Do you approve?
– Ellis deserved to be fired purely for wearing that crimson abomination of a suit. He looked like a douchey Willy Wonka.
– Please note how Eileen holds her phone upside-down while speaking with Riedel the first time. Anjelica Huston can hold a phone however she wants, damnit!
– “I’m not running away from you,” Julia tells Swift. “I’m running away from myself.” She is clearly a writer.
– Similarly, some of the new lyrics in “Wolf” don’t exactly work: “Seeing all you GI wolves gives me an idea / Tell Hollywood that I’m staying in Korea!”
– But the words aren’t all bad! I loved how Ivy phrased her last question to Derek: “If it was going to be a nobody, why not me?”
– I’m happy that the finale featured a little more of Ann Harada’s Stage Manager Linda, Smash‘s secret MVP. Linda would never rip off her wig in the middle of rehearsal.
– Also in this episode: Jerry, who escapes without a martini facial, and Nick Jonas, who gives Eileen back her Degas. Katie, unfortunately, was busy saving a whale who’s in trouble.
– So who’s the father of Julia’s baby? Frank? Michael? Ellis?? No, wait: the baby IS Ellis! He’s just hiding in Julia’s uterus!
– During Derek and Dev’s last confrontation, the director starts to sound a little too Phantom of the Opera: “You need to back off and let me get her through this. This is who she is. She’s mine now.” No wonder Marilyn’s last song is a reworked “Think of Me.”
Well, that’s it for me — I’m all Smashed out. It’s been a blast to cover this show for you, and I’m hoping to see you all again in Season 2. In the meantime, go speculation crazy: Think Ivy went through with her Marilyn-style overdose? Will Karen be able to hold onto her lead role? Will next season bring Bombshell to Broadway, or find the team working on an entirely different show? And finally, where do you think Terrible Ellis scampered off to?
(Did you check underneath your bed?)