Critics have been arguing, for a few seasons now, about what some have called the decline of Liz Lemon. While NPR’s Linda Holmes lamented the TGS head writer’s devolution from woman to “needy little girl who is eternally terrified of displeasing [Jack Donaghy],” Sam Adams at Slate went so far as to claim that the character is veering ever closer to “dumbass Homer Simpson” territory. Both The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum and Flavorwire’s own Caroline Stanley mounted defenses of Liz Lemon, the latter pointing out that critics’ personal prejudices about Liz were getting in the way of their appreciation for 30 Rock while Nussbaum argued that the character has always been “a strange, specific, workaholic, NPR-worshipping, white-guilt-infected, sardonic, curmudgeonly, hyper-nerdy New Yorker.”
Last night’s episode, which found Liz finally surrendering to the bonds of matrimony, confirmed the opinion I’ve held for a while: All of the writers above are partially correct, because there are two Liz Lemons. There’s the pathetic, cheese-binging, terrified-of-sex woman-child stumbling around in the playpen of TV sketch comedy writing, desperate for the suspiciously flawless guidance of her über-capitalist boss. This side of Liz has always existed in some form or another; it’s just that last season, the all-around weakest in 30 Rock’s run, relied on this clownish figure far more than its predecessors. But lazy writing never managed to kill the Liz Lemon critics (not to mention all manner of overworked cosmopolitan women) love. Even last year, she shone through every now and then with a brilliant one-liner. And what has made the show’s final season appreciably better than the few that came before it is the return of a protagonist canny enough for us to care deeply about. That’s the Liz Lemon who got married last night, in an episode that managed to contain both a sharp jab at marriage plots and true happiness for our heroine and her groom, Criss Chros.
It isn’t a momentary flight of romantic fancy that brings Liz and Criss to City Hall, where they take a number and fantasize about delis. No, Liz gets married because she wants — and has always wanted — to adopt a child. After learning that even her repulsive ex, Dennis Duffy, and his trashy new wife, were able to adopt a child (who they call “Black Dennis”) merely because they’re married, she realizes it’s finally time to take the plunge. “Let’s get married like every other idiot on Earth,” says Criss.
Liz is determined to suck any bit of romance out of the occasion, announcing that she plans to get married in a sweatshirt and no bra. “Weddings aren’t about love,” she tells Jack, who wants her to have a big wedding. “They’re just a giant industry that preys on gender stereotypes to make adult women spend a ton of money and act like selfish children.” She’s right, of course — and this monologue reaffirms that she’s still capable of being the Liz Lemon feminists fell in love with, the one who’s too pragmatic and ambitious to relate to so many cultural expectations for women. What follows is a brief parody of cable TV’s endless wedding shows and the words “phallocentric fairytale grotesquerie,” in 30 Rock’s great tradition of couching real social criticism in subtly pointed, laugh-out-loud absurdity.
But, as we find out at City Hall, Liz isn’t entirely immune to the wedding-industrial complex. On the heels of a delightful, reliably odd flashback to a failed make-believe childhood marriage to a stuffed animal she called “Saul Rosenbear” and a glance around the room to find many couples who are actually thrilled to be getting hitched, Criss claims to have forgotten his ID and hauls in Dennis and his wife to witness their union. That’s when Liz has a minor breakdown and concedes that she isn’t entirely without wedding fantasies.
This exchange is one of the best, not only in 30 Rock’s history, but in the history of the Liz Lemon character. “A tiny little part of me that I hate wants to be a princess,” she tells Criss. “Liz, it’s OK to be a human woman!” he tells her. She replies, “No, it’s not! It’s the worst, because of society!” This is what’s most important and encouraging about Liz: She’s an avowed and, in many ways, successful feminist, but she’s not so perfect as to be above the influence of cultural expectations (or the limitations of her own eccentric, sometimes even misanthropic, personality). That’s not to say she’s unworthy of being a role model, just that her imperfections make her a real person, too. As a woman who’s been in a relationship for almost a decade with no reason for or intention of getting married, and who nonetheless teared up when Ben Wyatt proposed to Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, it’s an understatement to say that I get it.
In the end, Liz Lemon gets the wedding she — not to mention her nervous, critical fans — deserves, and Criss’ smart trick proves that he might just be worthy of her. With Liz dressed as one very specific princess of Star Wars fame, the couple exchanges makeshift rings that are actually gang jewelry from a police auction, as Jack reads from Ayn Rand and Tony Bennett serenades the small crowd. It was one of the weirdest TV weddings of all time, but also one of the sweetest, and maybe even my favorite.