Spoilers ahead for season two of UnREAL.
In its divisive second season, UnREAL has included everything from police brutality to mental breakdowns to a car crash that may have ended the lives of two of this season’s antagonists. When the dust settles on the sophomore outing of UnREAL, there will be a lot of discussion about where it went wrong. But the great performances and Rachel-Quinn dynamic continue to be compelling, and some of this interview may make fans curious about where things will head in season three. Vulture spoke to creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and executive producer Stacy Rukeyser about whether UnREAL was successful in tackling race, how the show handles mental illness, where it fits within the discussion of auteur television, and what’s next for Rachel.
The finale ends in a way that parallels last season’s ending with Quinn and Rachel laying down on set, thinking about everything that’s happened. But this time, Jeremy and Chet, of all people, are between them.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: It was definitely a conscious decision to parallel that moment, and it’s so that now, the four of them are sort of indelibly bonded and at the bottom of the well that we’re going to have to dig them out of.
It seems like Quinn and Rachel are in a better place, and it’s really interesting to see how Quinn is more of a stable parental figure than Rachel’s own mother. Where do you think their relationship is going to go from here, and are they even on stable ground?
Stacy Rukeyser: I mean listen, they’re never on stable ground. You’re right, that as complicated and messed up as their relationship is and has been, I do think that she’s a better “mother” to Rachel than her own mother. She’s still a fuck-up mother, but she’s at least much less fucked up than her own real mother. But now they’re in a situation that is made complicated by this rogue act that Jeremy has done basically. And I understand it from an emotional standpoint, from Jeremy who is desperate to find his way back into the family and to find his way back in with Rachel, but now what are the ramifications of that? Does Jeremy feel this is what Rachel wanted him to do?
We had a lot of discussions about the scene between Rachel and Jeremy. Was she coming to him purely just to unload and say, It’s over, we’re all going to jail, or was she either consciously or even subconsciously producing him? And did she want him to do something about it? What I believe is that even if, whether consciously or unconsciously, she was producing him in that scene, I don’t think she ever imagined he would do what he did and run them off the road. Her shock at the end is genuine, but I think he may have a certain expectation out of Rachel, or out of Rachel and Quinn and Chet, and how do you navigate that, because now he’s done this thing which did sort of save the day, but at the same time was totally fucked up. Chet, and certainly Quinn, first and foremost, they take care of their work family and they take care of the show, and I will be interested to see how they do that moving forward. It’s incredibly fraught between Rachel and Quinn, and that that’s what’s interesting to us. It’s this incredible bond, and yet with all of these incredible complications. Once they’re on steady ground, we should probably just end the show.
I can’t even imagine them on steady ground.
SGS: I will say that we do feel they’re better together than apart, and we don’t want to do another season of them fighting. This was really the season that proved to them that they’re better together than apart, and while there are always going to be up and downs and power struggles, we want to see the Quinn-Rachel team in action for season three.
Yeah I definitely agree, they’re far more interesting and powerful together. I am curious with the whole Jeremy and Rachel dynamic — Rachel has touched on the fact that she wanted someone to save her, and in a weird way, Jeremy has. Is there a possibility of them getting back together or even just being friends, especially since they haven’t really worked out their issues?
SR: Those are all interesting things to explore. I certainly don’t think that him running Coleman and Yael off the road makes everything fine between him and Rachel. It’s like when your dog or your cat drops a dead bird at your feet. As horrified as Rachel is by what Jeremy has done, he has also, in a sense, saved the day, and saved her, as you say. And that’s very complicated to have those feelings in addition to [the fact that] this is the guy who beat her up. And yet she has her own responsibility — I mean she humiliated Jeremy. Not that this justifies him beating her up or anything, but their relationship is very, very complicated and fraught. If Jeremy wants to try to find redemption with Rachel, that is certainly a path he can go on. I don’t think that this is the magic bullet, but I certainly think that’s what he’s trying to do.
Mental health and mental illness, especially with Rachel, is a big factor this season, and I’m curious when and how it was decided that Rachel being raped at 12 by one of her mom’s clients was the reason why their relationship is such a mess. Was that something you knew you wanted to do going into this season, or was it something that developed over time while you were in the writer’s room?
SGS: It was something that we knew going into the season, and what we really felt like was the heart of Rachel’s struggle was the betrayal of her mom. Obviously what happened was terrible, but really the idea that her mom had told her you can’t tell anyone the truth and that she wasn’t lovable. What we wanted to explore with that was the idea of feeling damaged and feeling unlovable, and what we want to work on with her moving forward is showing that she’s completely lovable.
Why did you feel that was that an important aspect of her mental-health arc this season?
SGS: Because I think that the show as a whole is asking, Is love possible? And going back to the first episode of season one, where she breaks Britney down, who’s the villain, and accuses her of feeling or being unlovable, that’s a core question for this series: What does it take to be loved? Is it that you’re hot enough and smart enough and have a fancy enough job, or is it that you’re a good person, or is it that you have compassion? What does it take to be lovable? And I feel like that really is at the core of all of these characters.
Interesting. That sort of harkens back to what happens with Darius in a weird way, where he decides to choose true love with Ruby over the more stable option of being with Tiffany, which would bring him some sort of success. Why did you decide to bring Ruby back?
SR: This was always planned as the arc for Ruby, and the true-love ending for Darius and Ruby. That was in the initial pitch for the season to the studio and the network. We think of her as the baby bird to protect, as Faith was in season one, and it’s great that Darius — who is a good person and, yes, started to get sucked into the Everlasting machine and the practicalities of what you need to do to repair your image or create some career for yourself if you can’t play football anymore — ultimately pulls himself out of that and stayed true to himself and his heart. It’s nice to see that as a balance with all the machinations on Everlasting.
SGS: There’s also a moment with Ruby that talks about the question you brought up before about being lovable, like when she comes back and asks Darius if he’s okay, and he says “you’re the first person who’s asked me that in weeks.” It’s sort of this question of what is real love, and it’s not really about being hot enough or having a fancy enough job, it’s about actually being compassionate enough to connect with another person.
Why did you decide to get Tiffany and Chet together? That seemed a little out of nowhere, and I’m curious.
SGS: So gross! So gross!
Yeah that’s what I really mean. It was so disgusting. I was like, Girl, please love yourself. What are you doing?
SGS: One of the sound techs and I were screaming. I was like, “Nooo! It’s so gross!”
SR: But I love that that’s the reaction that you had. That you were saying, “Girl, please love yourself.” Because we totally get that. We try to get inside these characters — and I’ll speak separately for Tiffany and Chet — and why this would happen. Tiffany’s been on this journey where she has a very complicated relationship with her own father — right from the beginning thinking that he’s the reason that she’s there, that he’s using her as some sort of marketing tool to hook up some kind of contract with Darius. Of course that turns out not to be true. But the fact that she thought that it was indicates some deeper problems. And this idea that she talks about [how] she is arm candy for her father is very interesting and fucked up on a lot of levels. And then she goes through this process.
One of the things that’s also so fascinating for us is how insecure these girls can get. Girls who are strong, smart, sane people to begin with. You’re trapped in a house alone with these girls and this guy and no phone and no internet and no books and no magazines and your singular focus is win this guy, which is such a strange thing anyway, and how that can play on your emotions and your insecurities. When Chet comes along and is being kind to her — albeit he’s using her kind of in the beginning — but when he’s offering her some solace, how she responds to that … it’s incredibly sad. But again, I try to understand it from inside the character. And for Chet, Chet has been going on his own journey this year and trying to figure out who he really is and what he believes about being a man and who he wants to be and slipping sometimes — I think that that’s just part of his messy journey.
Switching gears a bit — race has been at the forefront of this season and has drawn some mixed reactions from critics. I’m curious — with the whole shooting story line, it seems like you decided to focus more on Rachel failing to be an ally and living up to her own standards as a feminist. Why did you choose that as the main point of the story line, which is again reflected with Coleman and that whole reveal about his documentary?
SR: So you know, when we decided to do this story line — and even when we just decided to have a black suitor — we always knew this was a story that we were telling through the prism of two white, female producers, Quinn and Rachel, and even more so through Rachel: a white, female producer who has great aspirations for what she wants for her life. Just on a personal level, at the end of the first season, Quinn has destroyed her hopes of this relationship with Adam and so we really had to look at why would she come back to Everlasting. Certainly there are the overarching things — this is her work family, where else is she gonna go, it’s empowering to have a place where you feel you belong and are good at your job, as horrible as that job makes you feel. But given what happened between her and Quinn, we felt her being promised a promotion to showrunner, and then having the opportunity to make “history” with the first black suitor would be very appealing to her, and that is the reason she would do that.
And of course, you know, by episode seven, which is the shooting, things are wildly out of control, emotionally as well as story-wise. She’s wanting to prove something to Coleman, as well as to herself. We always knew that that story was not just a police-shooting story. We weren’t telling a story even necessarily about those things happening in the world — we were talking about it through Rachel and what she wanted and what she was trying to do, and how off-base and fucked up she was in her actions to create that. As Sarah always says, we have Jay say to Rachel, “This is not your story to tell.” So it’s fair that many people are saying to us, this is not your story to tell either, and like I said, we weren’t telling it as a straight-up police-racism story. But for us, and with UnREAL, these are our characters, and this is the prism that we always have to tell our stories through.
There’s been a lot of discussion amongst critics about this idea of auteur television, which seems to have risen since directors like Steven Soderbergh and Cary Fukunaga have made it to television and made an impact on the medium. How do you feel about this idea of auteur television and where UnREAL’s place is in this conversation, especially since you seem to have far more of a collaborative show and writer’s room?
SGS: I’m a huge of auteur television. I love a very strong point of view and very strong voice. But I came into this show with a short film that was the little chrysalis for the idea. But it wasn’t practical to make this show that way. I had no experience in television. I needed a ton of help in terms of figuring out how to write television. And it’s a huge show in terms of plot. So the writers’ room is vital to that. We have a really wild writers room. We sometimes are sort of like, “We don’t want to let anybody in because they might get hurt!” And there are a lot of people that feel super-passionately about this show. There are a lot of people really invested in this show.
I went to SXSW with it, and I had the option to make a feature, which I could have done and had a totally singular voice, but that is not what I wanted to do with it. I wanted to go really big and do something flashy and pop-y and kind of mainstream. I’ve been so lucky to have the people along the way that have become now like the other auteurs of this show with me. So, yeah, I’m a huge fan of auteur television. That’s just not exactly what this is.
Sarah, how did you feel about getting a chance to direct this season, and do you want to direct more episodes going forward?
SGS: It was amazing. It was so incredibly satisfying and exciting, and it was so great to be on set with the cast. Working with actors of that caliber was great, and it was super, super fun. I think for me, it’s actually really important that I prioritize the writing in season three. Unfortunately directing takes me out of the writers’ room, and I think that if there’s a way we can work it out that’d be great, but I feel like it’s most important that I’m in the room for writing.
Was it a conscious decision to have a few female directors this season? There’s you, there’s Shiri Appleby, and there are a few others I noticed, which is awesome.
SGS: That was deeply conscious. That’s like a lifelong obsession. Lifetime is really committed to getting women behind the camera, which is one of my favorite things about working with the network. They actually have started a program called Broad Focus, where they are hiring women who’ve come out the program I went through, which was the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. We ended up having four out of six directors [that] were female, and that is a stunning ratio for television.
What were you favorite moments from season two, or the moment you’re most proud of writing?
SGS: I really love the moment where Rachel is coaching Madison on how to interview and take down Chantal in the first episode, and then Madison barfs. That’s very much about the battle for Rachel’s soul, as [UnREAL director] Peter O’Fallon always says, and what it is in terms of where we are with Rachel’s soul — that she’s willing to corrupt another young person was really important to me, and I thought it was a really good moment.
SR: Mine is in episode ten. It’s the scene when Rachel is saying to Quinn, “I screwed up with Coleman. I told him some stuff that happened in my childhood,” and Quinn is like, “What are you talking about? He tapped your phone. He tried to send me to jail. How did you mess it up?” And she starts to tell her, and Quinn says, “All of that stuff that happened made you who you are, and you’re perfect.” I just love that moment between our two girls, as it were. I love that sentiment and I love that true team.