After a season of unusually high highs and some notably low lows, Monday night’s Bachelorette looked like it was heading into familiar finale territory. Of the final three men, there was one Rachel Lindsay was unlikely to pick, one it felt like she should pick, and one it seemed she probably would pick. Given that probable outcome, the last episode of this season was shaping up to be a standard Bachelorette ending — disappointing, but in a shrug-worthy sort of way.
It was disappointing all right. But rather than the “well, what can you do” ending that seemed most likely, last night’s Bachelorette finale was a jumbled, weirdly paced, remarkably confusing mess. It threw out the formula for how a Bachelor finale usually works, apparently in an effort to bring some more reality to the typically surreal (or just straight-up unreal) “reality” show. When this franchise throws out the formula, it’s often exciting. Or at least mildly entertaining. Instead, last night’s Bachelorette finale was just bewildering and succeeded in tarnishing both the fairy tale the franchise tries to create and the authenticity the finale struggled to portray.
It’s useful to remember what the typical finale structure looks like, because last night’s episode threw out the playbook. Rather than save the live postgame analysis for the final hour, which is what usually happens in these three-hour extravaganzas, Rachel’s finale threaded the live commentary throughout all three hours. The audience at home, the live studio audience, and Rachel all watched a scene from the finale at the same time. Then, Chris Harrison repeatedly turned to Rachel sitting next to him on a sofa, and asked her to break down what’d just happened. As soon as we saw her eliminate Eric in Spain, Eric on a studio set in Los Angeles walked out to talk about how he felt.
The result was weirdly uncomfortable. If the Bachelorette is designed to look like a princess’s fairy-tale love story, this was like watching the princess sadly kiss a suitor good-bye and then instantly turn around and talk about how she’s processed those feelings, several months after the fact. It was a study in whiplash, asking the audience to repeatedly leap back and forth between past events and present day, between highly edited package romance and live studio discomfort.
This was only a part of the episode’s jumbled structure, though. The bigger departure from the norm was when, two hours into the three-hour marathon, the episode “spoiled” the ending. The typical Bachelorette ending involves two men walking toward a proposal setting, telling the Bachelorette they love her and want to marry her, and then waiting as she either accepts or rejects them. Instead, Rachel and Peter went through a sad, fumbling, and frustrating breakup the night before final rose ceremony. Rachel wanted a proposal; Peter insisted it wasn’t necessary and they weren’t ready. They couldn’t work it out and ended things in the weird, amorphous, inconclusive, and frustrating way real relationships do often end.
So Peter, a fan favorite, was left weeping into his sweater in a hotel lobby while Rachel walked away, extremely upset that he couldn’t commit to her. And then, with barely a moment’s notice, Peter walked out on stage next to Rachel and they had to hash things out once more, this time on live television, next to Chris Harrison, in front of a disappointed studio audience. This happened before anyone saw the footage of Rachel and Bryan’s ending, before we watched Bryan propose and Rachel happily accept. There was an hour to go, but apparently we all already knew what was going to happen — Rachel would get engaged to Bryan, and that’d be the end.
The Bachelorette finale was so strange because it kept trying to combine its patented true-love falseness with something that looked suspiciously like authentic heartbreak. And in the end, neither the formula nor the authenticity came off well. The show’s formulaic romantic ending with one guy quickly lost its appeal because Rachel’s connection with the other guy seemed so genuine, both in the pre-taped finale events and in their palpably tense live interactions. No one wanted to believe in the fairy tale because it just did not seem like the princess was ending up with the guy she really wanted.
At the same time, the very authentic things going on between Rachel and Peter on Chris Harrison’s sofa were surreal precisely because of their authenticity. In spite of the clear evidence in front of them, many viewers simply would not accept that they were watching the end of Rachel and Peter. Twitter commenters kept insisting that there’d be some twist at the end. Rachel might realize her mistake and tell Peter she loved him anyhow, perhaps? Or maybe she’d at least turn Bryan down? There had to be something, because there was an hour to go, and here was Bryan winning, as more than one Twitterer put it, “by default.”
But no. Bryan proposed to Rachel, Rachel accepted his proposal, and there was nothing to be done except watch them get handsy with one another and talk about how happy they were.
Like many Bachelorette finales, it was frustrating. But it was frustrating in a way that is unusual for the franchise, and almost entirely because of how weirdly the finale was structured. Most Bachelor content is designed to paper over the fractures between its fairy-tale format and the more complex, less satisfying reality. By intercutting the pre-taped footage with live commentary, this finale highlighted those fractures. Again and again, the clearest thing about the episode was how much distance there was between what fans wanted from the formula, and what was actually happening between these people.
It’s hard to know why the episode was edited this way. Maybe producers knew that not picking Peter was disappointing, and they wanted to get the Peter/Rachel part over with in the hopes that the Bryan ending would feel fully separate from what had come before. Rachel’s proven herself to be an unusually strong Bachelorette, capable of speaking clearly about herself and the franchise — maybe the producers hoped that with more time to explain what was going on, Rachel could make fans see that she’d made the best choice for herself.
Or maybe Peter’s being groomed for the next Bachelor? If that’s the case, though, Rachel did the franchise no favors; a repeating theme in Rachel’s live conversation with Peter was that she thinks he’s a bad fit for the Bachelor experience.
This is not the first time a Bachelor franchise finale has broken the typical mold. Brad Womack famously refused to pick anyone in his first season as the Bachelor because he just didn’t feel enough of a connection to propose. Jason Mesnick used his After the Final Rose sitdown to explain why he’d made the wrong choice and beg the runner-up to take him back. But in those instances, the broken formula actually served to reinforce the underlying myth — they departed from the show’s norms for the sake of true love. (Or because there just wasn’t enough love, in Brad’s case).
Whatever the truth is between Rachel and Bryan or Rachel and Peter, last night’s episode did not look like a formula broken for the sake of true love. It looked like true love sacrificed at the altar of formula. Even though Rachel insisted at one point that she had other concerns about Peter, the dominant narrative was that they broke up because he wouldn’t propose. Because, in other words, he wouldn’t adhere to the formula. The winner didn’t look like the best match for Rachel; thanks to the editing of the episode, the winner came away looking like a winner “by default.” He won because he was willing to follow the rules.
It’s rare for a season of The Bachelorette to produce a couple who looks like they’ll actually make it. It’s rarer still for the show to produce a couple who seem like they could’ve made it, if only they hadn’t been on The Bachelorette together.