UnREAL Recap: Black Lives Matter

Monica Barbaro as Yael, Kim Matula as Tiffany James, Karissa Tynes as Jameson, Megan Tandy as Chantal. Photo: James Dittiger/Lifetime
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Editor’s Rating

With this episode, UnREAL wades into the fraught conversation about how black lives are threatened and snuffed out by the forces meant to protect them. In many ways, being black in America can be a death sentence. This is something Rachel and Coleman know, which leads to the havoc at the center of "Ambush." The way they use this knowledge reveals a sad fact: Despite their high morals of wanting to revolutionize television, they're trading in racist tactics, even if the show never explicitly calls them out as such.

As Jay says to Rachel when he realizes the full extent of what happens, "This is not your story to tell." It's the same exact line I thought to myself as I watched this episode, which is directed by series co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. UnREAL has black writers, but that doesn't absolve the show's misguided handling of race.

Let's step back to the beginning. With Darius rightfully angry at how things are going, he invites Romeo back into his inner circle. It's a smart move. Rachel likes to pretend she cares, but like Quinn, she's really just looking out for herself. (Of course, she doesn't see it that way.) Darius needs support, and support means Romeo.

The events of "Ambush" are set in motion during a disastrous date with Chantal, when she opens a locket that contains the ashes of her dead fiancé. After those ashes promptly blow into Darius's face — great timing with the fan, Jay! — Darius has had enough. He's done being controlled; he won't be made to look like a fool anymore. He may have had a chance at love with Ruby, but that same spark doesn't exist with the remaining girls. So, why not have some fun instead? When he and Romeo come across a tipsy Yael and Tiffany, they decide to take an on-set Bentley for a joyride. With Coleman's support, Rachel calls the cops about the "stolen" Bentley so they can film the fallout.

They both know the danger they're putting Darius and Romeo in. But the only thing they care about is the television they want to make. They see this as an opportunity to advance their careers; it's another chance to tell the story. Rachel can dress up her actions as radical, but like many white people before her, she's exploiting black suffering for personal gain. Her racism just wears a liberal face.

When Darius and Romeo are pulled over by two cops, things quickly escalate. It's interesting to see how Darius's celebrity fails to protect him from the expectations thrust on him as a black man. He mentions who he is, flashing that charming smile, but since he doesn't have an ID and one of the cops doesn't seem to know him, it doesn't get him out of trouble. The second cop notices Tiffany's drunken antics in the backseat, making matters worse. Things devolve into Darius being manhandled by one of the cops, the pain in his back evident in his wincing expression. When Rachel decides this needs to stop, she runs out from the bushes where Coleman, with camera in tow, urges her to stay. This frightens the cop into taking out his gun and firing. It isn't Rachel who takes a bullet, though. It's Romeo.

We see a shot of Romeo lying on the ground. A bullet wound in his abdomen, his eyes glazing over, staring at nothing in particular. This moment isn't powerful because of the narrative lead-up or Shapiro's obtrusive stylistic flourishes, which feel different from UnREAL's typical look. It's powerful because of the real-life tragedies it evokes.

Romeo doesn't die, at least not in this episode. Even if he survives, the damage has been done. It's hard to see how UnREAL will make us fully sympathize with Rachel again. It's hard to believe that Darius would ever stay on Everlasting. It's weird to see such minor fallout from such a significant choice. Yes, Coleman loses his job as showrunner to Quinn. Yes, everyone panics. Yes, Rachel is falling apart. But what about Darius? Beyond Jay briefly tearing into Rachel, it's as if Romeo's brutalization only causes pain for white characters. We don't get to sit with Darius; we don't learn how this affects him at all. The moment doesn't have the weight it needs, which makes the story line feel exploitative. This should have been the focus of the episode, but with Adam returning, I knew it never would be.

Each important story line is interrupted to bounce to the next plot point, ultimately producing an uneven episode. Booth tells Quinn he's falling in love with her (and that he wants biological children with whomever becomes his partner), but he's cut short when she gets a call from the network about Romeo's shooting. We're teased about Yael's motives when she approaches Adam, and again at the end of the episode when she decides to record Jeremy's conversation. Rachel's heartfelt plea to Coleman that she does want to change — which gets a chilly, quiet response — is interrupted by Madison telling them about Darius and company jettisoning the Bentley. This narrative tactic happens over and over again. Have the writers forgotten how to craft the show with the elegance we saw in the first season? Is the loss of co-creator Marti Noxon to blame?

The love triangle between Adam, Coleman, and Rachel is the real thrust of the "Ambush." Adam is, of course, some great eye candy. Hearing Quinn say, "Every woman in America wants to screw the sadness out of him" is pretty hilarious. The other crew members talk about Adam like he's a piece of meat. But just as the police-brutality story line is shortchanged, so is Adam's return. There are so many interesting directions this might go, especially since Adam reveals his myopic dedication to win back Rachel's love. Unfortunately, the story line doesn't work as well as it should.

Quinn allegedly brings Adam back to guide Darius and spice things up, but she really wants to drive a wedge between Coleman and Rachel. She wants him gone so she can seize her show back. Quinn tries to accomplish this in a number of ways: She scares him by talking about how Rachel is always a bomb ready go off, using her illness against her; she encourages Booth to offer Coleman a project without poaching Rachel; and she brings Adam back to touch a nerve, which almost works. There's a great moment when Rachel goes to Adam to tell him she's happy and doesn't love him. Things turn sexual, if only for a moment. But Rachel, despite being tempted, wants to stay with Coleman.

Of course, Coleman's cutthroat instinct to put Romeo and Darius in harm's way casts him in a different light. As do his sharp comments about the drama and exes always nipping at Rachel's heels. For much of the episode, I didn't think Adam was much better. He pretty much ignores all of her protests about wanting him gone, as if he knows what's best for her. But in an instant, these men will have flashes of sincerity that flip my expectations. Adam and Coleman may not like each other, but they do share something in common: They don't understand why Rachel is still at Everlasting, why she's still working under Quinn.

Adam: Do you hear yourself? Wake up. This place is a vortex of evil and dysfunction turning everything it touches to shit […] It's ruining your life.

He's lashing out, but he's also right. Hearing Rachel defend her work made me realize that she probably doesn't believe the lies she's peddling, but she has to. She's addicted to the chaos. If she left Everlasting, she'd be questioning everything she has ever known. By the end of the episode, though, it's clear she can't continue on this path for much longer.

Once again falling apart, Rachel holes up in one of the crew trucks when Adam finds her. She doesn't have the energy to work and feels extreme guilt over what happened. He tries to be there for her, but she isn't receptive. It's telling that she admits they did love each other. She says there was a small window of time when he could have "saved" her. Interesting choice of words, no? Here's the thing about knights in shining armor: They will always fail you because they're the kind of fiction that a show like Everlasting peddles. The idea that Rachel wants to be saved by her romantic partners has been nagging me all season, so it's curious to hear it finally vocalized. Adam leaves her alone, but decides to wait just outside — apparently, he's still willing to play the knight. Moments later, though, she doesn't turn to him to be rescued. That's a job for her mother.

When Quinn saw Rachel with her mother, a look of fear crossed her face that was so profound, I knew things would get worse. She doesn't even get to relish her showrunner victory to Coleman's befuddled face! The episode ends with Rachel in a mental facility, looking like a shell of herself. Chaos has enveloped her life. Will her mother help her regain control, or is this another mistake that will hurt her?