As per usual, last night’s Bachelor finale was an unnecessarily lengthy three-hour paean to Bachelor success, Bachelor Nation, the trials of choosing between the final two, and true Bachelor fairy-tale love. Somewhat less typically, though, while “the trials of choosing between the final two” was focused on current Bachelor Nick Viall, everything else on that list — the success, the Nation, the fairy-tale love — was pointed toward someone else entirely. It was as though the whole painfully long run-up was just preparation for the final 25 minutes, when Chris Harrison gleefully brought out newly crowned Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay.
Even that fact is a little odd. We’ve spent an entire season laser-focused on Nick. Would he finally find love after taking so many dang swings at it within this franchise? What kind of woman was he looking for? Did his heart ever really heal after Kaitlyn? So there was the show, with a brand-new lord and lady of the Bachelor manor, a shiny new couple to parade around and show off and use as proof of the franchise’s power … and a huge chunk of time is devoted to someone else.
There are two pieces to this puzzle. (It is not a complicated puzzle.) First, and most depressingly, Nick and Vanessa. After many hours of footage and lots of dates (at least one of which involved puking) and hometowns and Corinne-induced sobfests and romps around Lapland, Nick decided that Vanessa was his one true love. It’s clearly the relationship Nick was most invested in — he did choose her, after all — but by the time they got in their seats on the After the Final Rose sofa, things between them do not look great. Vanessa sat down by herself first, and when quizzed by Chris Harrison about how things have been going, she uttered many phrases like “some days have been easier than others” and “things have been tough” and “we’ve had our moments.” There were far fewer iterations of “boy, I just love that guy so much and I am so thrilled to have found him.” She mentioned that “some days have been easier than others” more than she mentioned Nick’s name.
It did not get better when Nick came out to join her. They sat next to each other. They may have held hands occasionally. But by their own admission, by Harrison’s line of questioning, and by the complete defensiveness of the whole situation, it was excruciatingly clear that these people were thoroughly, completely, done. Maybe not done with each other, not quite yet. But they were patently done with everything to do with having been on The Bachelor.
So this is one big, obvious reason why The Bachelor pivoted, as hard and as quickly as it could, away from Nick and Vanessa and onto something else. Whatever the truth of their relationship, Nick and Vanessa were so far from producing a simulacrum of joyful togetherness that the better option was to look away as soon as possible. The producers pulled out Rachel like they were trying to perform a Men in Black–style memory erasure procedure on the Bachelor Nation as a whole, and in case you didn’t quite fall for it, Harrison also whipped out some Trumpian “who’re you going to believe? Me? Or your lying eyes?” rhetoric. “Obviously this show works,” he said. “We are actually good at what we do, believe it or not.” Do not look at the couple in front of you! Avert your eyes! Allow us to present you with a shiny alternative!
Happily for The Bachelor, Nick and Vanessa’s unconvincing romance actually dovetailed quite nicely with the franchise’s other dominating interest: self-promotion and self-congratulation, in the context of their first black Bachelorette. Any hope of popularity or attention for Nick and Vanessa was gone from the moment Rachel Lindsay was named Bachelorette, and the red fiery eye of Bachelor Nation swiveled away from them and onto a far more interesting subject. Still, in case you hadn’t yet warmed to the new beloved object of the franchise’s favor, the finale framed the end of Nick’s story like some busywork that had to be dispensed with before they could show off the real stuff.
The narrative of the night could so easily have been “guy who failed at this so many times finally succeeds!” Instead, thanks to Harrison’s incessant bumpers around each commercial break, the narrative was “please, please, just stick around for the end when we show you something truly historic!” That historic something? The franchise was so anxious to dispense with Nick and Vanessa stuff, so desperate that we look away from the tension and unhappiness and onto something else, that the producers literally manufactured a fake Bachelor mansion on the soundstage so they could start the new season right then. Gamely, Rachel stood and greeted four of her suitors, acting out all the weird motions of limo day. Just out of camera range, Chris Harrison stood by, ready to leap back into the center of things at unnecessarily regular intervals and congratulate everyone on how great it all was.
If one reason for the swift and celebrated ascension of Rachel Lindsay was to distract from the overly tense couple who just wanted to get back behind the curtain, this mock-up of a season premiere was the other. As Linda Holmes so astutely observed when Lindsay’s Bachelorette-dom was first announced, Lindsay herself is an important indicator of what the show will look like next season. But the identities of her suitors may be just as fascinating: Will the series, as Holmes puts it, endorse “Certain Unspoken Ideas About Compatibility” and cast the season with a slate of mostly black suitors? Or will it pretend to be “race neutral” and instead once again reinforce Other, Also Troubling Ideas of who should be on TV, who should be the next Bachelor, and what heroes “should” look like?
Rachel’s dominance over this season finale suggests a need for the show to pivot away from a remarkably underwhelming final couple, yes. But it also betrays a reflection of audience anxiety, imagined or otherwise. It’s a black Bachelorette! What will the show even look like?! Will this hoary, morally bankrupt series still look like my beloved franchise? Yes, The Bachelor hastened to answer us, as quickly as it possibly could. See, here, we’ve already provided Rachel with an equal number of white and black suitors. It’ll still look like the Mansion. A gorgeous woman will stand there and greet dapper, occasionally awkward, occasionally goofy men. Chris Harrison will still butt in. Your fears are unfounded.
Thus endeth Nick’s Bachelor season, with excitement hopefully stoked for next season, any lingering audience apprehension hopefully allayed, and Nick and Vanessa hopefully swept under the rug.
But it’s worth noting — if the intention was to convince its audience that things will be exactly like they’ve always been, those few minutes of preview may well have backfired a little. Just as it took very little observational acumen to see how underwhelming Nick and Vanessa are as a couple, a person paying almost no attention could still have seen how lame and comparatively uncomfortable the two white suitors looked in comparison with the two black men who walked out onto the soundstage. In spite of The Bachelorette’s best intentions, the status quo may get rattled after all. And if Nick and Vanessa’s clear unhappiness is a sign of what the status quo looks like, there’s ample reason to hope that’ll be a good thing.