Shiri Appleby as Rachel.
Ending the second season of UnREAL with a car crash almost seems too on the nose. Yes, it might very well kill off the show’s two most obnoxious new characters, but it also serves a more appropriate purpose. That’s what this season has felt like: a terrible, bloody wreck we’ve watched in slow motion.
Early on in “Friendly Fire” — after Coleman used Rachel’s mental-health history to insult her for the umpteenth time — I realized I didn’t give a damn about these characters anymore. They no longer feel like real people. They’ve become mere vehicles for drama and surreal twists. The failures of UnREAL in its second season — and it certainly has failed — aren’t singular. Much will be made about how the show fell apart, what that collapse represents, why good shows double down on their faults the second time around, and how raised stakes often undermine the reasons why audiences watched in the first place. The failures of UnREAL are indicative of larger issues in pop culture about representation, diversity, and the perils of labeling a show as a feminist triumph before it proves itself worthy of the title.
The finale wastes no time, beginning as Rachel and Quinn barge into Coleman’s office with security to confiscate everything. They’re making sure dirt he has on Everlasting will never see the light of day. That he would keep everything in his office is just the first of many dumb decisions characters make in “Friendly Fire.” This scene sets the tone for Coleman and Rachel’s soured relationship: Neither of them comes out looking all that great, but Coleman is worse by far. He doesn’t feel like the same character anymore: He’s smug, condescending, and such a ridiculous villain I’m surprised he didn’t grow a mustache to twirl. We learn Rachel called Coleman’s ex and discovered the lie that really broke them up. Remember his award-winning documentary about Cambodian sex workers? Apparently he paid off some Asian extras to impersonate these subjects. It was all faked. Coleman is not just a contradictory ally hiding behind liberal talking points — he’s downright exploitative and disgusting. Although the episode never really digs into what it means.
Armed with this new dirt, Rachel and Quinn have some leverage, though it’s obvious Coleman won’t go away gently. In many ways, Coleman’s characterization contradicts itself. Why is he so determined to bring Everlasting down? Didn’t he care about Rachel? He repeatedly makes fun of her mental-health struggles, yet seemed invested enough to get her out of that hospital. It just doesn’t make sense. But not much does in this finale.
“Friendly Fire” offers some strong performances and a few good moments — I especially love seeing Quinn and Rachel work together — but it’s not enough to distract from the glaring issues. Even though the Everlasting finale eats up a chunk of time, Darius’s story line feels disconnected from the rest of the hour — and even worse, it feels like an afterthought. Of course, he knows nothing about Quinn’s master plan to outdo last season’s suitor humiliation on live TV.
Jay: What happened to true love?
Quinn: That’s over. I want to see a bitch bleed.
And so, Quinn lies to Chantal and Tiffany, manipulating them both to believe that Darius will propose during the live finale. (Which ends up creating weird plot holes and leaps of logic.) They bring their families, pick out rings, the works. It’s funny how Tiffany’s father has been built up this entire season and he gets not one line of dialogue. There’s even a moment when Quinn and Dr. Wagerstein laugh at Chet’s expense, noting his resemblance to Tiffany’s father. Watching this play out made me realize one of the season’s core issues: a startling lack of empathy. The characters have no empathy toward anyone, even themselves. UnREAL has embraced a cruelty that spared no contestants. (Except for Ruby, sort of.) They started as archetypes and they remain so.
The finale isn’t just badly written — it’s downright retrograde. Tiffany has daddy issues and breaks up with Chet! Chantal and Tiffany walk down the aisle separated by a curtain, totally unaware of each other! Oh look, they have a cat fight! So many twists and turns, such little regard for characterization.
With some help from Jay, Rachel gets the ending she always wanted. Just as Darius tells Tiffany and Chantal he can’t marry either of them — in front of their families and on live TV, mind you — Ruby appears at the end of the aisle. No wedding dress, of course. She has the common sense not to accept Darius’s marriage proposal, which he does on bended knee. But they decide they’ll give each other a shot away from the cameras, and kiss to thunderous applause. Chantal and Tiffany’s rejections are left as footnotes. Everyone congratulates Rachel. Even Quinn says, “Guess it turns out you were the showrunner after all. History made.” In a weird way, this finale works to absolve Rachel — she got a black suitor and a black wifey on Everlasting. It’s a landmark moment for the show, one that we’ve never seen in its real-life counterpart. These two might even actually love each other.
But doesn’t it matter that Darius was the season’s most inconsistently written character? Or that Rachel got Romeo shot? It’s worth noting that showrunner Sarah Gertrude Shapiro hoped to use the police-brutality story line to critique liberal allies. That goal is an issue in and of itself — and then the show doesn’t even follow through on it, considering how quickly the story line disappears.
Romeo appears in the finale, by the way. There’s no real reckoning for him, aside from the moment when he cuts off Rachel after she tries talking to him. Why would Romeo feel safe coming back to this place? Why didn’t he sue them? Why did Darius stick with Everlasting? America’s exploitation of black bodies is extremely fraught territory, and it’s often reflected through pop culture. How many TV shows and films utilize black pain solely for white characters to learn from their mistakes? The second season of UnREAL doesn’t just fit into this history. It’s one of the most misguided, noxious examples in recent memory of how white liberals can inadvertently embody the very same bigotry they try to critique.
Things get worse when the finale turns toward issues of mental illness. Everything that happens with the Coleman-Yael-Rachel love triangle is infuriating in its leaps of logic. Or maybe I should call it a love square, since Jeremy is back in the picture, looking worse than ever. Coleman visits Jeremy in some grimy bar to recruit him to take down Everlasting. This proves to be a miscalculation: Once he hears what happened with Rachel, it’s obvious that he cares about her. It’s a strange turn for his character: In the season premiere, he belittled Rachel for her mental illness just as gleefully as Yael and Coleman do in this finale. Now sympathetic to her plight, Jeremy doesn’t just tell Rachel the truth about what’s going on. He goes a step further: When she can’t figure how how to discredit Coleman and Yael or stop them from going to the press, he gets them into a potentially fatal car accident. He’s directly responsible for their crash.
Let’s be honest, though: Nearly every character has called Rachel “crazy” as an insult. That behavior isn’t rare. Quinn tells her there is nothing wrong with her — sure, screw Coleman and his disgusting insults! — but Rachel does have issues, and she has to deal with them. Mental health occupies many states between relative normalcy and being completely out of your mind, and everyone on this spectrum deserves to be treated with humanity. UnREAL doesn’t realize that. So, instead of dealing with Rachel’s issues or pushing her toward recovery, “Friendly Fire” chooses to elide them in odd ways.
The finale ends as a parallel to last season’s closer. Rachel and Quinn sit outside on set, exchanging weighty glances. But this time, Chet and Jeremy sit between them. All four carry the burden of what Jeremy did to protect his work family. All four have racked up quite the body count. Quinn and Rachel are in a better place, but I’d hardly call them united.
A few weeks ago, I suggested that UnREAL could still regain its footing next season. Looking back at the show’s many failures — a lack of interiority in most characters, the mishandling of racial issues, the appalling framing of mental illness, and the cheap way the Yael/Coleman story line seemingly ends — I’m not so sure anymore. That glance between Rachel and Quinn seem to say it all: Where can they go from here? It’s a question I have for the show itself.