UnREAL Recap: Mommie Dearest

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Constance Zimmer as Quinn. Photo: James Dittiger/Lifetime
UnREAL
Show
UnREAL
Episode Title
Fugitive
Season
2
Episode
8
Editor’s Rating
3/5

This episode is a mess. There's no other way of putting it. The problems of UnREAL's second season are front and center in "Fugitive." It presents several important revelations, but none hit as hard as they should. It has no emotional resonance — only drama and ridiculous twists that drown out any chance for grace. There is so much going on, and so much is underdeveloped, I'm left questioning the future of this show. Can UnREAL rebound next season? Of course. But it needs to figure out what kind of show it wants to be. Instead of subversively skewering expectations and turning archetypes into fully fleshed-out characters, it has given into its baser instincts. UnREAL has become the kind of show we expect of Lifetime: soapy, ridiculous, and vaguely exploitative. The last trait is especially apparent when it comes to race.

Last week, I criticized the writers for focusing on Rachel's white guilt in the wake of Romeo's shooting, a tragedy that she set into motion. This episode may be even worse; it doesn't seem to care about the shooting at all. All that potential commentary on race is forgotten in the face of more soapy drama. It's infuriating and offensive that UnREAL would tease such a heavy subject matter, with a story that's so ripe for exploration, only to ignore it this week. Do we learn about Romeo's current condition? Do we even see him? Nope. Do we learn how Darius feels? Not really. "Fugitive" doesn't give us a single moment of reflection with him. How does he reckon with Romeo's shooting? Was he scared for his own life? How did the conversation go with his family? What else is he experiencing, besides surface-level anger? This isn't just bad drama. It betrays an inability to craft the internal lives of characters of color. And it gets worse.

While Quinn — newly minted as showrunner again — and the rest of the Everlasting crew scramble to find Darius after he goes missing from the hospital, we find out he's decided to meet someone from his recent past: Ruby. In a sketchy-looking diner, he apologizes profusely to her. He says that he's done with Everlasting, that recent events led him to realize a few things. He loves Ruby and wants a life with her. She responds with a good question: What would that life look like?

Ruby: "You told the world I was too demanding. That I was a sassy, stuck-up bitch. […] You told the world I wasn't a love story.

One of the season's biggest issues is that the contestants haven't been well-developed, which makes it hard to get invested in who wins Everlasting. Even Ruby isn't as fleshed out as last season's contestants. Her characterization is rather superficial, leaving Denée Benton to do the heavy lifting with her empathetic performance. I am glad Ruby didn't jump at getting back with Darius; he's pretty much ruined her life and embarrassed her on national television. Apologizing without witnesses isn't enough, even if he does love her. It's weird when Jay arrives, though: Ruby is the one who lets him know where Darius is. Does Darius try to go after Ruby? No.

If you removed their scene together, it would be like Ruby isn't even in the episode. It calls to mind something I've noticed this season: Characters and plot lines feel like they're on entirely different TV shows. Jay tries to convince Darius to come back and marry Tiffany. He says Darius needs to stop fighting against the machine and let it work for him. After all, what options does he have now that his football career is pretty much over? Jay makes a convincing argument, but Darius returning to the show seems remarkably against his self-interest. Romeo nearly got killed thanks to the actions of a producer!

You're probably wondering why Darius's football career is over. Since the last time we saw him, he got the surgery on his back and it didn't fix anything. Yes, it happens offscreen. That this monumental decision is treated with such cursory interest says a lot about how UnREAL thinks of its black characters. In many ways, the show has come to embody the same shallow progressivism that it tried to critique Rachel of last week.

Before Darius rejoins Everlasting, we get to spend more time with the four remaining contestants. They still don't feel like real people. You'd think that after last week's events, they'd find more to do with Jameson, the black cop whose name I keep forgetting. Meanwhile, Chantal actually believes she and Darius connected when it's been obvious for some time that Tiffany is the front-runner. Even though Chantal gains immunity, has Quinn's support, and wins an overnight date, Darius cuts Jameson the moment he returns and decides to go on the overnight date with Tiffany instead. I guess his love for Ruby doesn't matter that much. Does UnREAL think it's daring to put Tiffany and Darius together? Perhaps, especially after she kisses Chet out of nowhere when he offers her a show of her own to get in the good graces of her powerful father. When he asks her what the kiss is for, Tiffany answers, "You know I have daddy issues." And yet, that isn't even the episode's most cringeworthy development.

That low point goes to Yael. When Coleman catches her on his office computer snooping, she reveals something I expected for awhile. She's a reporter. How wasn't that discovered during a background check? Apparently, Yael is working on an explosive piece about Everlasting — and thanks to Jeremy, she knows the truth behind Mary's death from last season. She even tries to get Coleman to work with her. By doing this, Yael embodies one of the most pernicious, sexist myths in pop culture: the super-hot journalist who will screw and screw over anyone for a story. That woman doesn't exist, despite showing up over and over again in film and television. UnREAL has gone from critiquing sexism to somehow embodying it.

The first season of UnREAL wasn't perfect, but it was exciting television, full of great characterization and a cohesive vision that laid the groundwork for what should have been a better sophomore season. Major things keep happening in these episodes, but each story line feels underdeveloped, if it's not promptly dropped first. Like whatever the hell is going on between Booth and Quinn. Why does she suddenly decide to stay with him and have kids? And, of course, there's everything happening with Rachel.

Coleman saves her. Isn't that what she's wanted lately? To be saved? To have someone prove she isn't too broken? Coleman gets Rachel out of the hospital, despite her mother's protests. Coleman and Rachel even say "I love you" to each other. Dr. Goldberg's relationship with her daughter has always been fraught and unhealthy, but medicating Rachel to the point where she seems like a shell of herself is downright abusive. Unfortunately, Coleman's love is called into question when he brings a heavily medicated Rachel back to his on-set office. A camera clearly positioned in front of the couch signals that he's up to no good.

Coleman goads Rachel into telling her side of the story. This is their chance to still have what they planned, despite Quinn and the network burying the footage of Romeo's shooting. The moment he asked her about Mary (and we later learn she unloaded the truth offscreen), I began to believe what Quinn has been saying all along: Coleman shouldn't be trusted. When it's revealed he'll work with Yael, I felt terrible for Rachel. Who does she even have anymore?

Even more critical, the season has continuously hinted at a tragedy in Rachel's past. We finally learn the extent of Dr. Goldberg's inabilities as a mother when Rachel tells Coleman the truth. She is barely able to look at him. She's just a mass of nerves — perhaps afraid what Dr. Goldberg said is true. As she says to her daughter in an earlier scene, "No one will love you if they find out."

Here's the truth: At age 12, Rachel was raped by one of her mother's patients. Instead of caring for her, though, Dr. Goldberg blamed Rachel. She chose her medical practice over her daughter's well-being. Dr. Goldberg became Rachel's primary caregiver as a way to protect this secret, overmedicating her, switching diagnoses, and warping Rachel's mind to protect her own career. It casts everything we know in a different light, including how protective Quinn can be of her. It also adds dramatic weight to the brief confrontation we see between Dr. Goldberg and Quinn.

After telling Coleman about this secret — a secret that could easily destroy any sane person — Rachel says, "If you want to run away it's fine, if I'm too broken." It's a moment that cut me deeply. It's a glimmer of the emotional honesty we don't see in the rest of the episode. Maybe there's hope for this show after all.