With only one episode left this season, it’s pretty clear that UnREAL won’t fix the mistakes that have been deeply embedded into the show. At this point, UnREAL embodies the kind of show Lifetime is known for — vapid, exploitative, hinged upon splashy twists with little follow-through or emotional honesty. In other words, UnREAL has become exactly what it hoped to skewer and subvert.
Where did it all go wrong? That’s the question we’ll all be asking once the dust settles next week. I have my own theories, partially drawn from details in a New Yorker profile of showrunner Sarah Gertrude Shapiro that dropped in June. That article positioned Shapiro as a feminist auteur, but this season has been a great case as to why television should shirk the auteur label.
UnREAL still has a lot going for it, perhaps even too much. Story lines are dropped before they gain any emotional resonance. Characters act wildly against type to fulfill the need for more drama and higher stakes, even when their behavior doesn’t make sense. This happens to pretty much every character in “Espionage.” After seemingly not giving a damn about race relations and how he would look to his black audience, Darius instructs Jay to get Chantal to drop out of the show. “Black women all around America will hate me if I cut Chantal for Tiffany,” he says. You’re really just realizing that now?
There’s an interesting story line in this idea: Darius could have been the kind of black celebrity who believes his fame and fortune buffer him from damning racial critiques. But UnREAL hasn’t made him a consistent character at all. What does Darius really want, besides support for his family and a sportscasting gig? Even that fades in and out of focus. Didn’t he just try to win back Ruby, only to forget about her and commit to Tiffany because of her father? That choice is weirdly dropped within the episode, too.
By the way, if you’re expecting to hear about Romeo, you’re out of luck. It’s almost like he doesn’t exist anymore, which makes the racial issues of this season all the more damning. Darius and Tiffany had sex in last week’s episode, but now he’s acting cold toward her. Why? This leads her to decide to get with Chet. Why? Not only does she have daddy issues, she apparently doesn’t love herself. Who in their right mind would want to be with Chet?
There’s a particularly gross moment in which Tiffany asks Chet, “You want a taste?” And then he goes down on her on the balcony, overlooking the date between Darius and Yael. UnREAL shows no sign of dropping the budding relationship between Chet and Tiffany, even though it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like the writers realized Chet wasn’t screwing anybody, and they hit Tiffany’s name on a dartboard. Quinn also feels oddly unlike herself, pivoting from giddy excitement about the prospect of life with Booth to an ugly fallout when she’s told by the doctor that she’s unable to have children. There’s something poignant about her screaming, “I wanted a choice!” after wrecking the control room and bloodying her hand. Nevertheless, this plot twist has zero development. Just when we start getting invested in Quinn’s relationship with Booth, it ends.
And then, there’s Everlasting. The final three contestants — Chantal, Yael, Tiffany — have been unable to make me really invested in their stories. I don’t feel like I know these women at all, especially compared to last season. The lives of those contestants felt truly interwoven with those of the crew, including Rachel.
Let’s talk about Rachel. What the hell is the show doing with her arc? Are we supposed to just forget that she nearly got Romeo killed? It certainly seems like the show forgot about his existence. Are we supposed to forgive her because we learned about her past tragedy? Last week, UnREAL dropped a bombshell about Rachel’s relationship with her mother: When she was 12 years old, Rachel was raped by one of her mother’s clients, leading to the fraught dynamic we see between them today. I’m not even going to touch UnREAL’s black-and-white framing of mental illness, or the use of medication as treatment. That deserves its own essay. “Espionage” just doesn’t reckon with what we’ve learned.
Except for Coleman’s white-knight routine, that is. Quinn has been proven right about his motivations, but they still don’t quite make sense. We first see him almost gleefully going through the footage of Rachel’s confession, which she made fresh out of the mental hospital while she was still drugged up. Rachel quickly figures out that Coleman isn’t being upfront with her, and tells him straight-up that she won’t betray Quinn, even though it might mean putting her own reputation and life on the line.
Unswayed, Coleman keeps trying to get Rachel to agree to take down Quinn and Everlasting, making grand pronouncements about the life they’ll lead together. It’s a typical white-knight routine; I’ve seen it happen to a lot of women. When you open up about your issues, some men will subconsciously interpret that openness as a needy cry for help. But Rachel actually wanted this, right? A man to swoop in and save her? She essentially said as much when Adam came back. (Remember that?) But on the other hand, Coleman is obviously attracted to Yael (out of nowhere!), and they continue colluding to take down the show.
After listening to all of two seconds of Yael’s recording — the one in which Jeremy confesses about the dirty, behind-the-scenes incidents of Everlasting — things take a turn. Yael makes a move on Coleman. Why? Apparently, she has an unexplained, one-sided rivalry with Rachel.
Coleman: You know I’m with Rachel, right?
Yael: Sure, you are.
When they kiss, it casts everything between Coleman and Rachel in a different light. Does he really even care about her? Or is all just a means to an end? If that’s the case, it doesn’t really fit with what Coleman did before he learned the truth about Yael.
Madison oversees what happens between Coleman and Yael, using it to make a dig toward Rachel that sets off a chain of events. This pushes Rachel to get back into Quinn’s good graces. Haven’t we see this story line before? Rachel messes up, Quinn covers it up, and she has to fight to get back to producing the show. Rachel’s revenge is so juvenile, it borders on parody. After making sure that Yael is wearing a white dress, she poisons the food on her date with Darius, which leads her to soil herself before they finish dancing. Yael’s humiliation will be shown on televisions everywhere; it shows just how underhanded Rachel can be. But seriously? That’s your revenge? It’s the kind of thing a 14-year-old boy would dream of.
(Also, the whole “Hot Rachel” moniker is infuriatingly sexist. The show hasn’t critiqued it at all. And why is Yael so eager to get with men who Rachel has been with? Why is she so competitive with Rachel?)
Of course, the rivalry isn’t really over. After Coleman comforts Rachel and she seemingly agrees to take down Everlasting, he finds Yael and has sex with her. Sure. Fine. Whatever.
But not so fast! Rachel finds Quinn mid-breakdown, smashing up the control room to cope with the dissolution of her relationship with Booth and her inability to have kids. It’s an interesting role reversal: Hand bloody and makeup smeared, Quinn isn’t the one who has it together for once. And there are a few great, tender moments between Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer. I loved seeing Quinn’s exuberant pride when Rachel gets back at Yael. I loved hearing Quinn talk about how she cares for Rachel and misses her. And, yes, it’s great to see Quinn tell Rachel she loves her … but it would have been even better if it was developed properly. If UnREAL had focused on Rachel and Quinn all season, these moments would have landed with the force they need.
Sure, Rachel and Quinn are finally teaming up to take down Coleman. Yes, it will be fun to watch. But will it have much of an impact? I suspect it will be another fleeting thrill in a season full of them.