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The Bachelorette Is Best When It Breaks All the Rules

Photo: Craig Sjodin/ABC

One of the best and worst things about the Bachelor franchise is that there absolutely are rules for how the game is played. There are roses and certain kinds of dates and eliminations, sure, but there are other rules, too. You’re not supposed to say “I love you” too fast. You’re not supposed to sleep with people right away. Above all, you are supposed to trust this process. It’s a journey, and you’re not supposed to declare the journey’s done when you’re only a few episodes into the season. But the other crucial part of the rules is that everyone is supposed to deny the rules exist.

This is the situation The Bachelorette found itself in this season, and it’s playing out in fantastically dramatic, over-the-top ways. Clare Crawley, the season’s original lead, has been ousted from her position as chief rose distributor and replaced with Tayshia Adams, who first emerged from a swimming pool in a teaser at the end of the previous episode and is now in the process of assuming the lead.

It’s a revealing turn of events for The Bachelorette, not because of what it says about Clare, about Tayshia, or about any of the men who are now trying to swiftly change gears and start the process of falling madly in love with a totally different person. It is, however, revealing of the Bachelorette producers. Not only did they choose Clare rather than casting a woman of color to start with, they also had no problem with Tayshia’s introductory shot, that sexy exit-from-the-pool scene that could easily have been scored with exciting announcement trumpets or the gasps of a watching audience. (The Bachelorette has often used live reaction shots in similarly dramatic reveals). Instead, Tayshia’s arrival in the season was scored with horror music strings, casting her position as an evil rival who’s come to take Clare’s position of power. It is, to put it mildly, an unfortunate choice.

The bigger thing of note, though, is the way Clare and Dale left the show. At first, last night’s episode was the best The Bachelorette can be. There’s nothing more tantalizing than when the franchise’s rules start breaking down, and Clare’s insistence that she wanted Dale and no one else was the kind of grand romantic gesture that Bachelorette producers hope for in their wildest dreams. It was similar to one of the franchise’s other high-water marks, the moment when Colton sprinted away from the production team and scaled an astonishingly high wall in order to pursue Cassie, who wanted to leave the show. In both cases, the pleasure comes from that unspoken rule book being cast aside. This franchise is at its most fun when players resolutely refuse to participate in the game.

But The Bachelorette could not fully loosen its grip on those dang rules. In the ecstatic aftermath of Clare declaring her feelings and Dale confessing his love for her, there were some truly lovely moments. They slept together, and they both seemed genuinely delighted by everything that’d transpired. It would’ve been a wonderful opportunity for them to embrace and drive off together in one of the production’s big black SUVs. Chris Harrison could’ve done a big check-in special with them toward the end of the season to really nail down the true love narrative. The Clare and Dale story, improbably fast though it was, seemed like a sweet, happy thing for two people who just wanted to be in love.

Enter Chris Harrison. In the immediate afterglow of that night together, he informed Clare that congratulations were in order. They’d completed all the steps of their journey together, so the only thing left to do was to get engaged. Right now. Yes, engaged to be married. Even though they barely know each other. Clare seemed dubious, confessing to the production team that she was worried about pressuring Dale into something he didn’t want to do. When Chris Harrison told Dale he’d be expected to propose, Dale’s face had all the enthusiasm of a man contemplating a giant leak in his roof.

But that’s how the rules go on The Bachelorette. When you get to the end of the journey, there’s supposed to be a proposal. Skipping most of the middle steps of the journey did not absolve Clare and Dale of meeting this requirement, and what was meant to feel like a romantic culmination of a complex, developing relationship instead felt like a final boss Clare and Dale had to defeat in order to be allowed to leave the game together.

They did it. They completed the proposal. Clare seemed delirious and a touch manic, while Dale looked completely shell-shocked. Even better, from a TV perspective, was that once Clare and Dale had been ejected from the game, Tayshia could enter and stir up all the rule-abiding drama that Clare had refused to participate in. But that sudden, stark reassertion of the rules for Clare and Dale left an otherwise fun, blissfully distracting episode of TV with a sour aftertaste. The rules of the show only work when they stay very well hidden, and the scaffolding of a reality TV season is an invisible framework that just happens to be supporting an otherwise natural, endearing love story. If the rules start to feel restrictive — too sudden or inappropriate — it’s much better to just chuck them all together. It’s great that Dale and Clare seem happy together, and it’s even better that the franchise now has another person of color as the show’s lead. But Chris Harrison should’ve let them leave without forcing them to put a ring on it.

The Bachelorette Is Best When It Breaks All the Rules