A few minutes into the The Bachelor’s finale Tuesday night, I finally realized what this season reminded me of. Two episodes earlier, finalist Cassie Randolph had declared that although she loved Colton Underwood, she couldn’t handle the pressure of being on the show, of knowing that he would want to propose to her right away. She wasn’t sure she was ready, and she didn’t think it was fair to Colton to stay on the show if he wanted marriage and she wasn’t sure, so she dumped him and left. Distraught and overwhelmed, positive he only wanted to be with Cassie, Colton immediately did the same thing. He bolted. “I’m out,” he declared, and then he performed a departure in the most dramatic way he could, physically exiting The Bachelor’s preset shooting location by hopping over a fence. It’s a segment The Bachelor has replayed dozens of times.
I watched the footage of Colton hopping the fence one last time, and as Colton and Cassie began talking about how they’d “left the show,” how they’d thrown out all the rules, and especially as Colton talked about how he was choosing Cassie over everything, I figured out why this all felt familiar.
The Bachelor finale reminds me of Black Mirror.
It’s a specific episode of Black Mirror from the show’s fourth season, an installment called “Hang the DJ.” (I am about to spoil this episode.) The premise of the story is that two people, Frank and Amy, go on a date and it goes really well, but they’re informed by a mysterious alert system that they’ll only be together for 12 hours. They say good-bye and we watch them date other people, and date each other again, and then be forced to separate once more, with every relationship dictated by this strange externally imposed countdown clock. At the end, they realize they’re living in a bizarre, rigidly enforced romance system that will never make them happy, and the only thing they can do is to climb the enormous wall around their community and escape. When they do escape, we discover that they were a simulation being run inside a dating app. Digital Frank and Amy’s escape was how the algorithm matched their real-life counterparts; only people who loved each other enough to choose escape could make it as a true love match.
This is exactly what made Colton’s Bachelor season so compelling, right down to the dramatic wall-scaling exit. Rather than the typical season-ending tension of Cassie versus another woman or Colton versus his own indecision, the closing beats of the season were framed as Colton and Cassie versus The Bachelor. Colton’s decision to say good-bye to the two remaining women so he could pursue Cassie could very easily have come off as toxic. It’s very rarely romantic when a man chases a woman who’s dumped him. It is at best presumptive; at worst it’s seriously scary. But when Colton sat down with Cassie again, he managed to thread that very tiny needle. He told her he loved her and that he wanted to be with her, but he instantly lowered every stake he could think of. They did not have to get married, he told her. They did not have to be engaged. All he wanted was a chance to exit the simulation with her and see what their relationship looked like outside of The Bachelor.
Colton and Cassie were still on The Bachelor, of course. In case anyone forgot this, the producers made them rappel down a cliff to get to their date location, a classic Bachelor antic guaranteed to heighten everyone’s adrenaline levels. But all of the normal rules were gone, and the familiar Bachelor tropes — the family meeting, the fantasy-suite card — were turned inside out. Cassie had all the agency, which seemed like a simple enough role reversal until you watched it play out with Colton’s family, with the fantasy-suite card, as she struggled with her own confusion. No one quite knew what to do with a Bachelor who’d said good-bye to all of the women and was now begging, with as much chill as he could muster, for one to take him back.
And when Cassie did say yes — a conditional, “We are just dating” kind of yes — the “Cassie and Colton versus The Bachelor” narrative peaked. The two of them made traditionally snugly eyes at one another, and then they cheerfully kicked the producers out of their hotel room. That little bit happens all the time; many a fantasy-suite scene has ended with a couple jokingly closing the door on the crew’s cameras. But this time when they did it, you could see all the producers in the shot, smiling and agreeably shuffling out the door, laughing and joking when they realized Colton and Cassie still had their mics on.
Whenever we’ve seen visible producers on The Bachelor in the past, it’s because something Bad and Exciting has happened. Producers typically appear onscreen when the production is desperately trying to wrangle someone back into place. Producers showed up to calm down Shawn after he learned Kaitlyn slept with Nick; they often appear when someone passes out or threatens violence; they even show up in bloopers, different kinds of problem moments that have been edited to look funny. I hadn’t realized how acclimated I’d become to the image of a serious, soothing, “Let’s just take a step back” crisis-mode producer until I saw this scene in Colton’s hotel room, where the production staff looked like a relaxed bunch of people who knew that managing the situation was no longer their job.
Staged or not, the cheerful producers leaving Colton and Cassie’s hotel room felt like the amicable bookend to Colton’s fence jump. The couple was still on The Bachelor, but they walked away from the fundamental premise of the show. Rather than a sign that production was trying to wrestle the participants back into their places, the moment when those producers exited Colton and Cassie’s hotel room felt like an admission that the jig was up. The normal rules had dissolved. They had exited the simulation.
This Bachelor season was not perfect. The intense focus on Colton’s virginity will always stick out as gross and childish, and the weakest moments in these final episodes were the ones that featured Chris Harrison leering at the chance to symbolically hold up a bloody bed sheet. It was still the most entertaining season the show has had in a long while, and that’s because after nearly two decades, The Bachelor gave itself the villain edit. It cast the production as a big bad pressure cooker that would’ve ruined these nice kids’ chance at love, and when we got to the happy ending, it was because Cassie and Colton had successfully kicked the villain to the curb. After 23 seasons, watching The Bachelor’s own premise become a slain dragon is pretty satisfying.
It’s hard to know what this will mean for the future of the show, but I have to believe The Bachelorette’s next season will be an effort to shift things back to normal. It’s fine for one person on one season to smash the game and walk away, but everybody? Every time? The glorious “Hang the DJ” move of exiting the system only works if there’s a functioning system for people to rebel against. Still, as Chris Harrison shifted his attention to newly crowned Bachelorette Hannah B., he intoned, as he often does, that there are no rules to follow and Hannah can do whatever she wants. It’s the first time I’ve almost wanted to believe him.