You’d be forgiven for thinking that Monday night’s UnREAL season finale doubled as a series finale. Although the Lifetime satirical drama has already finished filming its upcoming fourth season, the end of season three finds its major characters in surprisingly good places: Rachel gets the cabin of her dreams, Quinn returns to Chet, and Jeremy finally ditches the toxic workplace that is Everlasting. But when UnREAL returns for its next season, don’t expect those happy endings to stick: Rachel will be drawn back to a very different version of Everlasting, an “all-stars” season modeled on Bachelor in Paradise. I spoke with UnREAL showrunner Stacy Rukeyser about the roller coaster of emotional manipulation in the season-three finale, Everlasting suitress Serena’s decision to remain single, the show’s feminist aims, and what fans should expect to see in season four.
In the season finale, Quinn gets back together with Chet, Jeremy is totally over Rachel, and Rachel finally gets her cabin. Was it meant to be a bookend for these major relationships?
In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. Like, this is the end of the road for Jeremy — his character is not in season four.
For Quinn, so much of her arc for the season was about getting her empire. At the end of last season, she found out that she couldn’t have kids and she preemptively broke up with her boyfriend. That, to Quinn, was all fine because her career was really banging. But when we started this season, her career and reputation had really taken a hit. We’ve talked a lot about how women in Hollywood don’t recover from flops or embarrassments or scandals like that in the same way that men can. So she came to this season more determined than ever to create her empire. But she had to decide if that is enough for her. It’s not until Chet makes that big declaration at the end of the finale that she even starts to think about needing some kind of human connection beyond her relationship with Rachel. So, she shows up on his doorstep.
We wrote many, many different versions of what happens between Chet and Quinn. I can tell you a couple of little tidbits — there was a version where they actually ran off to Vegas and got married.
Oh my God, that would have been intense.
So, that’s not happening! For that idea, she was drunk and you can see on her face that she’s going like, “Holy fuck, what did I just do?” We didn’t go down that road, but she does at least show up on his doorstep. Whether it’s a crazy idea or not, she goes to him. And I do believe that there has been an undeniable connection between Chet and Quinn for the whole series. I don’t want to spoil too much about what happens in season four, but I do think it’s an exciting moment that in that moment she decides, “Fuck it. I’m going to Chet.” [Laughs.]
What about Rachel?
We talked a lot about the ending of the season for her, and so much of it was about the ending of the season for Serena too. For us, the ending for Serena can be read in a couple of different ways. On the one hand, neither of those guys has been necessarily been “perfect” for her. But what does that mean? What is perfect? No human being is perfect. How do you know when you’re settling and when you’re just making the compromises that are part of any real relationship? That’s a very, very hard thing to know, particularly in today’s world. There is this tyranny of choice and that’s what we really wanted to communicate. She feels triumphant because she’s not “settling” for either of these guys, but then she’s back on Tinder and she’s flipping through and there’s this endless choice. I like that dichotomy of, “Is she incredibly triumphant?” or “Is she doomed to be alone forever?” because she’ll never know what’s right and what to choose.
Rachel messes with Serena’s head in the finale. This is a woman she brought to the show with honest intentions to help her find a husband — and yes, it was also to make a point about women to Quinn. But I think Rachel really did care about Serena. It’s just that she gets to a point in that finale where her entire world is rocked. She has gone on this journey of self-discovery this season, and then she finds out that this great shrink, Dr. Simon, had a camera in her truck and that he’s in love with her. It’s just incredibly destabilizing. Of course, Jeremy really tells it like it is, too. She’s had a piling on about the state of her life, so she pushes Serena’s most vulnerable buttons.
Do you think Serena is right about Rachel? That she wants everyone to be as unhappy as she is?
One could argue that is exactly as Serena suspects. It’s because Rachel was feeling so shaken and vulnerable in her own life that it was hard for her to see Serena be happy. And that, to me, is an extension of the internal conflict and struggle that has existed within Rachel from the pilot. There is a darkness in her, but she also hates herself for it. She knows it’s wrong.
And then, of course, you get to the Quinn and Rachel scene. Quinn loves Rachel so much. No matter what she does to her. No matter any of the bad things or the manipulations that Quinn has done to Rachel. I firmly believe that this is the love story of the series. She cares very deeply about Rachel, she means those things that she says, and she does, in fact, want Rachel to leave if that is what is going to make her happy. The actual scene of her arriving in her cabin, I will say, it was originally shot as an alternative ending when we did not know if season four was going to be picked up.
Yes. There’s a completely other ending where she decides to stay at work, even after all of the stuff that Quinn had said to her. But when we saw the alternative ending, it felt very satisfying from a storytelling perspective that she was even able to get out for however long it is — because yes, there is a season four. [Laughs.] We know that Rachel Goldberg is gonna be coming back to work, but it felt like a very interesting place to take this character. What does it feel like for Rachel when she’s lying on the steps and looking at that beautiful space? She’s out and that’s what she’s said she’s wanted all along. Or is it? Is that really what’s gonna make her happy?
What can we expect of Rachel’s arc going forward?
Well, I would not underestimate the things that Dr. Simon says to her in the season finale. Dr. Simon is not just talking about the rape that she suffered as a child, he’s talking about the things she has done at Everlasting, including whatever part she had in being a party to covering up the fact that Jeremy killed two people. Those crimes, for lack of a better word, are ringing in her ears, with what he’s saying. That is ground in even further by what Jeremy says.
Jeremy was always Rachel’s fail-safe, in a way. She could do whatever and he always still loved her. Now, finally Jeremey is saying, “No, not anymore.” It’s not just that he’s saying, “You’re a bad person, Rachel.” He is realizing the things that he has done, who he has become, what he’s gotten away with, and how he’s gonna have to live the things that he hasn’t paid for. So, she doesn’t have him. To be told all of those things and have those frightening, horrifying things ringing in your head while you’re all alone in the woods … that’s not a great place to be. I think that it can create a lot of panic in someone like Rachel Goldberg. I think anybody who follows Shiri Appleby on Instagram will know that she’s blonde for season four.
I wasn’t expecting that!
Yeah, it’s not platinum blonde, but it’s blonde. I think the decision to dye her hair is coming from this place of panic, and we’ll take it from there.
One of the most dynamic additions in season three was Tracie Thoms as Fiona. In the finale, there’s a very surprising moment between Fiona and Madison: As Madison pitches her pilot, she starts to undress and Fiona doesn’t stop her. It’s a really thorny moment in light of Quinn and Fiona’s exchange about “matriarchal bullshit.” What was the impetus behind that?
Well, it’s definitely matriarchal bullshit. [Laughs.] I mean, that part’s true. And there’s no character on UnREAL that’s ever just good or just bad. Of course, we don’t know if [Madison] gets further and [Fiona] is like, “Okay, that’s far enough. You can stop.” Or if they end up fooling around. We’re not planning a relationship between Fiona and Madison next season. I’m not sure I even want to tease what Madison is doing next season, but you will see what her pitch with Fiona ends up with.
The show plays around with this idea that you can hold on to these very feminist ideals, but sometimes when confronted with how that plays out in real life, you fall very short.
Which has been fascinating to watch this season, whether it’s with Fiona or even with Serena, because I viewed her ending in the limo a little differently.
Oh, yeah? Tell me how it hit you.
I think Serena is a deeply unhappy person. Obviously, she’s a powerhouse at work, but she has a really hard time making decisions in her personal life. And now she’s in the back of this limo, flipping through a Tinder-like dating app, and she’s like, “I don’t even know where to go from here.” I think it’s interesting how all these characters don’t live up to their feminist ideals. That’s one of the aspects of the show I find both infuriating and intriguing, especially since it can be difficult in real life to live up to your ideals.
I would also say, just in terms of feminism, it’s a lot clearer how we’re supposed to be at work and what we’re supposed to do than it is what we feminist women are supposed to be doing in our personal lives. You say she doesn’t know what she wants. I think that’s absolutely right. I think a lot of us don’t really know what we want because it’s hard to know what is the best choice.
At first I was annoyed with how things played out for Serena, but I think it’s true to how indecisive she is about her personal life.
Can I go back to Tracie Thoms for a second?
I just really give her her due. This season was about how women treat other women at work. I was always really, really proud of the moment when Quinn finds out what Madison has been doing and she’s not angry. She’s trying to help her. Yes, Fiona rejects Quinn’s offer to work together and that’s hard to hear. But in the end, she does help her. While there can be trouble and betrayals along the way, it’s really nice to see women actually helping each other at work because that happens a lot too. It doesn’t get as much airtime, I think, but it’s been my experience and it’s certainly what I try to do. When we come back in the fourth season, Fiona will be the president of the network.
Oh, that’s gonna be fascinating.
As a network president, there are certain compromises you have to make with your ideals. Not every show on her network is going to be that high-end content. She’s responsible to a big corporate company and a board who want ratings. So, what are the compromises that you have to make, even with your own integrity? That is something, of course, that we’ve been dealing for the whole series. Fiona is going to get her own taste of that.
I heard Everlasting will have a Bachelor in Paradise vibe next season with returning characters. Can you talk a bit about how Everlasting will be in season four?
It’s actually Everlasting All Stars. I wish it was in paradise because that would have meant we could film someplace like Fiji, but it’s not. It’s in the same mansion, but it’s Everlasting All Stars. We have some of the characters coming back. I don’t think this is a secret because it’s been on social media — August is coming back, Alexi is coming back. And some people that I don’t want to say, but people from previous seasons.
I’m very curious about who else might return.
Yeah, I don’t want to spoil all of that. With Everlasting All Stars, it’s a little bit of a different format. The challenge is more of like a Survivor-type challenge — some are physical, some are mental, people are fighting against each other every episode. It’s all about couples, too. In the elimination ceremony, you’re choosing who you want to be with that night, and they all do actually spend the night together. So you’re coupled up at the end of each episode, basically.
Oh, that’s gonna be messy.
You described Rachel and Quinn as the show’s real love story. What can fans expect in season four?
Well, Quinn has made this choice to be with Chet, and Rachel is on her own journey. They are each concerned for the other and that brings some conflict because they’re making choices that the other does not necessarily agree with. But at the end of the day, to use the Grey’s Anatomy term, they are each other’s person. And that’s what you do when you love someone. Even when they make choices that you don’t agree with, you try to help them and support them — and maybe try to change their mind. There’s always going to be some conflict between Rachel and Quinn because that’s just the very nature of dramatic television, but that love story, that’s not gonna end.
Is there any particular moment from season three that you are most proud of?
For Rachel, I am glad that she has taken the time to confront her past. She’s cut ties with her family. She’s alone in this cabin. It’s probably the best thing for her — I don’t know if it is or not — but I’m really glad that she went on that journey. I’m also proud of it, frankly, from a writing perspective and a showrunner perspective. There was a lot of criticism in season two for things that were thrown out there and not really dealt with and I can imagine another showrunner saying, “Let’s just forget about the fact that she said that she was raped when she was 12 years old.” And I think many people were hoping that we would do that. [Laughs.] But I was just like, “Look, it’s out there. We’ve already opened that box.” My belief is that you have to deal with it honestly and really look at the emotional and psychological consequences. I’m glad we did.
This interview has been edited and condensed.