bachelor nation

We Need to Talk About Barb

Where the main mystery of a Bachelor season is usually who the Bachelor picks, the real mystery of Peter Weber’s season was “who is his mom crying about?” Photo: Courtesy of ABC/YouTube

Sometimes Bachelor finales are about break-ups. Sometimes they’re about surprising reunions. Occasionally they’re just regular, boring-but-nice endings where the couple who gets engaged sit on the sofa and explain that they still love each other. But in every case, the finale is always focused on two or three people. It’s an episode about the Bachelor, about the person who won, and about the runner-up. Sure, if the story was particularly dull that season, the production team will add in lots of extras, like returning Bachelor couples, previews of Bachelor in Paradise, longer segments with the upcoming Bachelorette. But the core of it stays the same: Bachelor, winner, runner-up.

This week’s Bachelor finale was different. Yes, the bulk of the story was focused on the winner (Hannah Ann Sluss) and the runner-up (Madison Prewett). But the best, most dramatic Bachelor stories are about three people, and for the first time, the fascinating and messy threesome at the end of the season didn’t really include the Bachelor. Instead, it was original winner Hannah Ann, runner-up-turned-winner Madison, and … Barb. Bachelor Peter Weber, largely rendered mute in the final moments of his own season, was sidelined in favor of a much stronger and more interesting personality: his own mother, Barbara.

From the start, one of the most obvious and important truths about this season of The Bachelor has been that Peter Weber, airline pilot and Bachelorette-alum, kind of sucks. This isn’t especially useful as a way to distinguish him from previous holders of the Bachelor title. Most Bachelors suck at least a little, and the broad strokes of Bachelor suckiness are often roughly the same. They do not communicate clearly. They fail to distinguish between genuine interest and self-promotion. They request emotional transparency, and then often punish it when they receive it. But like snowflakes, each Bachelor is sucky in his own distinct, bespoke way, and in Peter’s case, the problem was not that he was clearly a jerk, or that he was unable to listen to the women. The issue was his own debilitating lack of self-confidence and self-knowledge.

It was evident from the very first episode. Bachelor producers, knowing exactly what buttons to push, made sure that the Bachelorette who’d very recently rejected Peter showed up in a prominent position, overshadowing all the other women and creating questions about whether she might stay around for the whole season. Peter clearly hoped that might happen. And however much he tried to tell the other women that he was over Hannah B. and excited about the future, his entire demeanor screamed “I am conflicted and don’t want to be honest with myself or anybody about how I feel!”

By the finale, Peter’s inability to make a strong choice and especially his refusal to think clearly about himself culminated in a real morass. On one side, Hannah Ann, a sweet, clear, thoughtful, loving young woman who, surely not by coincidence, had almost exactly the same name as his ex. On the other side, Madison, who took the one thing Peter was most known for from the previous season (sex in a windmill four times) and turned it into an immense hurdle. She refused to go to the Fantasy Suite, but more troublingly, she turned Peter’s sexual experiences with the other contestants into an act of betrayal. This would be fine if Peter had been able to see that they were ill-suited, but his deep lack of selfhood meant that her concern became an opportunity to sublimate himself, rather than face their incompatibilities head on.

Peter lacked the force of his own convictions, and didn’t know himself well enough to be the powerful figure at the center of his own show. But power abhors a vacuum, so someone had to step in and fill the void.

Enter Barb. In essence, producers have been teasing Barb’s role as the central figure of this show from the very beginning. Footage of her sobbing and begging Peter to “bring her home!” has been the most frequent and dramatic part of the show’s promotions, including “coming up on” teasers and advertising clips. Where the main mystery of a Bachelor season is usually who the Bachelor picks, that promotional device meant that the real mystery of Peter’s season was “who is his mom crying about?”

She was crying about Hannah Ann, as it turns out, and her despair and fury that Peter couldn’t see how superior Hannah Ann was to Madison instantly became far more compelling than Peter’s own feelings about either woman. Peter may have been the Bachelor, but Barb became the main character.

The finale sealed the deal. After proposing in the final rose ceremony, Peter had broken up with Hannah Ann, and the question of the live finale was whether he’d be asking Madison to take him back and whether she’d accept. In previous seasons where something like this has happened (particularly in Jason Mesnick’s season), the live camera has focused intently on the participants’ faces, eager to catch every wince and glare as they try to work it out. But in this finale, even after Peter admitted he still loved Madison, and Madison came back out to say that she wanted to give it another shot, there was no rapturous audience applause. The camera did not stay focused on them. There was no relief of the tension, because no one knew what Barb thought.

Rather than anything to do with Peter, Hannah Ann, or Madison, the most dramatic parts of the finale were between Madison and Barb, after Chris asked Barb how she was feeling. It’s almost always the contestant’s role to say that a finished episode doesn’t show everything from behind the scenes, but here it was Barb, explaining with some frustration that the episode hadn’t shown Madison keeping them all waiting for three hours, without apology. Then in a reality twist far more devastating than a woman turning down a romantic partner, Barb thrust in the knife. “Chris, [Peter’s] going to have to fail to succeed,” said Barb. “Everyone that knows him knows that it’s not going to work.” Nothing Peter or Madison could say got the audience back. In the end, with no easy smiling resolution, Chris Harrison brought upcoming Bachelorette Clare Crawley onstage and tried to look to the future.

Peter Weber’s lack of consistency and self-awareness throughout the season meant that he was a truly unappealing Bachelor. But at least the franchise found someone to fill the void: his own mother.

We Need to Talk About Barb