UnREAL Recap: The Ivy League Devil

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Shiri Appleby as Rachel, Gentry White as Romeo. Photo: Bettina Strauss/Lifetime / Unreal 2 North Productions In.
UnREAL
Show
UnREAL
Episode Title
Guerilla
Season
2
Episode
3
Editor’s Rating
4/5

The domino effect comes out in full force during this week's episode of UnREAL, as everyone must adjust to the whims of the new showrunner, Coleman "The Ivy League Devil" Wasserman. Quinn astutely manipulates MMA fighter Brandi, which leads Coleman to give her control and yank power away from Chet. This also leads to Brandi angrily jumping on Darius for being eliminated. That, in turn, reveals Darius may be hiding an injury — just as Rachel suspected. "Guerilla" harnesses these intertwined consequences to serve UnREAL's bigger purpose: to satirize and revel in the same guilty-pleasure antics as Everlasting's real-world counterparts.

The episode's most interesting developments tie back to two crucial themes: the ways women grapple with power, and the false images people project especially in regards to racial politics. Early on, when discussing the major on-set change over a shared cigarette, Quinn and Rachel have an illuminating exchange:

Quinn: If I was a man, they wouldn't be doing this to me. I'd be wearing sweatpants, scratching my nuts, and boning 22-year-olds.

Rachel: Hot 22-year-olds.

Quinn is right. She's smarter than Chet, who wants to turn Everlasting into a mix of "Miss America and American Ninja" as soon as he grabs a bit of power. He's like a 14-year-old boy whose toys came to life. Quinn, on the other hand, is perfectly calibrated for the world of Everlasting. And Coleman knows this. As he tells Rachel, he only accepted Chet's awful pitch because of his friendship with Gary and because he wanted to give him the rope he'd hang himself with. That's smart, sort of, but it also wastes a ton of money and sows chaos on set.

Until Quinn gets the reins again, she's stuck under Coleman's watch. Quinn is far more in her element; she understands what Everlasting needs more than either man does. Coleman looks down on it as "vapid" television, and he's never even run a show himself. Meanwhile, Chet wants to make the sort of dating show that Michael Bay would love. Nevertheless, Quinn's comment to Rachel underscores an important difference between these two women: Quinn isn't a feminist. She isn't trying to dismantle or change the sexist system. She only wants to benefit from it. She wants to gain power, then control the men that have misused their own.

Just look at the language she uses. After deciding to produce Brandi and Chantal to gain favor with the network, just see how she gloats. She grabs her crotch, exclaiming, "I'm so hard right now." Just listen to her earlier insults to Coleman: "Have your balls even dropped yet, or do we still have that to look forward to?"

Quinn's bravado manifests itself in language that wouldn't be out of ordinary in the boardrooms where American Psycho takes place. This isn't a front for Quinn: She's adopted these masculine traits to win. And this doesn't mean she's a gender-switched version of a similar male character, either. Her understanding of people's emotional weaknesses is culled from years of learning how to navigate a world that, as a woman, seeks to keep her powerless.

Also, it cannot be stated often enough: Constance Zimmer is amazing in this role. Whenever she walks into a room, she acts like she owns it. Her energy and physicality is a layered portrait of what happens when women buy into the lies about autonomy fed to them by the patriarchy. The writers of UnREAL know Quinn is a monster. But she's a fascinating one.

"Guerilla" certainly proves as much when Quinn uses her difficult childhood — she grew up off a dirt road with no friends and an alcoholic father — to get close to Brandi. Rachel tells Coleman that the story is true, which makes me even more curious about their relationship. How does she know such intimate details about Quinn's life? UnREAL is smart enough to avoid the tired trick of revealing this backstory to soften Quinn, or let us see her cry out of sight from others. The show lets women be monsters.

Of course, learning about Quinn's childhood doesn't make it easier to forgive the ripple effect of her manipulations. Brandi pulls Chantal down during the obstacle course, which could have really hurt her. And then, Quinn does one of the most dastardly things to date. After having a one-on-one date with Brandi, Darius is called into Quinn's office. Alongside Quinn, Dr. Wagerstein, and Rachel, we meet a new character. Quinn introduces her as Brandi's mother.

This twist spins the scene in a startling direction. Darius seemed as confused as I was. Earlier, Brandi spoke in great detail about growing up in foster homes, about the abuse she endured. She even revealed cigarette burns on the inside of her arm. Was it all a lie? Quinn wants Darius (and the audience) to think so. For a moment, I believed her. We learn later that Brandi's "mother" was actually just a woman from central casting. What an ugly, underhanded move. It works wonders: Brandi's exit-ceremony freak-out is one for the ages.

Given her deft manipulation, it's easy to see why Rachel would be drawn to Quinn. She has a steeliness and a confidence that Rachel lacks. Still, Coleman is still right to ask Rachel, "Why are you still here?" In so many ways, she's outgrown Quinn. Rachel was the one who brought a black suitor to Everlasting. Rachel is the one whose work is consistently undervalued. She's too talented to be here.

Rachel tells Coleman that she chose to stay because she put so much time and effort into casting a black suitor. I don't really believe her, though. I think Rachel can't leave because she's addicted to the emotional extremes that Everlasting provides. Maybe she even feels she can't exist without that chaos. Given that struggle, it's no surprise she ends up making out with Coleman. Things don't look so rosy for that relationship.

Rachel's greatest strength lies in her ability to peel back glittering emotional façades. She's got an innate talent for encouraging people to reveal their weaknesses. Coleman witnesses this firsthand when she gets him to talk about his ex-girlfriend. Scenes like that one are also what makes UnREAL dynamite. We get to watch the archetypes we expect — the wifeys, the tough girls with damaged pasts, the power-playing producers, the southern debutantes — become human. They become far more complex than they initially seem.

Those complexities are apparent in the way the season has approached its black characters. Darius proudly refuses to be used by Chet or Quinn, although he and Romeo now side with Quinn and Rachel, even moving back into the mansion. When he visits Chantal in her fake on-set hospital room, sealing the scene with a kiss, he looks directly into the camera. Rachel, sitting just outside in front of the monitor, can't help but smirk. Darius knows who's watching. He knows how to win people to his side.

And then we have Ruby's perplexing contradictions. Her integrity is a major obstacle if she wants to win Everlasting. Putting on fake eyelashes seems like too much for her character. I'm a little uneasy with the ways UnREAL equates her social-justice causes and "wokeness" with a disinterest in or incompatibility with typical feminine behavior. Can't a woman desire to embody both at the same time? Yet, Ruby's discomfort with the markers of fetishized femininity make her interesting to watch. Can she navigate an environment that privileges the very same qualities she shuns?

It leads to a bundle of conflicting interests: Why does Ruby stay if she won't play the game? Yes, she dropped out college. But why waste her time? I'm not sure I buy Jay's argument that she genuinely likes Darius. Putting on the red dress borrowed from Yael is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, she'll take Jay's advice and use her considerable intelligence to stand out. Otherwise, she's bound to be cut.

"Guerilla" ends with an important illusion ruined: Rachel's loyalty to Quinn. It also provides a too-neat role reversal from last week's episode. Instead of Gary seemingly complimenting Rachel to high heaven, only for it to be revealed he's talking about Coleman, Quinn is the one who must deal with his latest sucker punch. Coleman continues to hold the keys to the kingdom — plus a new sports car, thanks to Gary's largesse. Quinn just made one of the best episodes of Everlasting, but Gary still takes her aside and deals an emotional blow by revealing Rachel's betrayal. With this out in the open, will these women ever be on good terms again? Or will this be another bit of motivation for Rachel to finally stand on her own?