I knew as soon as I saw the warning about this episode of UNREAL containing images relating to race relations and police brutality in the U.S. that we were in trouble. This is 2016, not 1996. Not every gymnast needs to be an all-arounder. You can specialize. You can just be really good at bars or beam and your contribution can still matter. Along these same lines… maybe leave the black lives matter stuff to American Crime…? Or like… a cop show? Idk, an arena where that storyline would be more inclined to live? But nope. This week, in what Lifetime called “the most provocative episode yet” (and they might have been right, but it was provocative for the wrong reasons), UnREAL covered Black Lives Matter, mental illness, and the worst stereotypes of white feminists all in a single bound. Adam flies back into town (Quinn called him, remember?) and surprises Rachel in the middle of the night when she’s mid-coitus with Coleman (who I still. Do. Not. Like, you guys.)
We have definitely moved on to the 2nd maxim in the “money, dick, power” wrist tattoo of season 2 — both Quinn and Rachel have roped in quite the bedfellows and are enjoying the fruits of that labor. However, once Adam gets back their chemistry is apparently so strong that Rachel can’t seem to even walk past him before tripping and falling directly onto his loins, and the two start having secret workplace sex almost immediately despite Rachel claiming adamantly she is “with Coleman,” which… really? Really. In 2016, in this day in age, in the entertainment industry, in Los Angeles, Coleman is really the kind of guy who sleeps with a girl once or twice and is like “sure totally let’s be in a relationship and call each other boyfriend and girlfriend and plan our future together?” Call me cynical, but I call Bumble — oops, I mean bullshit — on that. But Rachel is really into this and thinks they have something special, which she tells Quinn later on in the episode before punctuating it with “he’s so much more than my boss, he invited me to his cousin’s wedding. On Martha’s Vineyard.” In my head I responded “oh, so he’s my worst f*cking nightmare, you’re right, way more than your boss, my bad.”
Adam tries to follow Quinn’s orders and come between Rachel and Coleman until an uncomfortable climactic scene in the back of the wardrobe truck where Rachel admits she loved Adam and was broken when he left and maybe had a nervous breakdown literally right in front of him…? Rachel calls her mother to come get her and winds up in a psychiatric facility at the end. I’ve suspected all season that UnREAL might be driving towards this moment for Rachel — the moment when she has a psychotic break and all her questionable behavior up until this point gets excused as symptoms — but the problem is it feels like the show has been driving Rachel towards this climax without any control or finesse, kind of like that speed skater in D2: The Mighty Ducks who didn’t know how to stop. The seeds of mental illness this season for Rachel have been planted in a way that makes the audience sit in judgement of her, and I’m not sure that’s doing anyone any favors. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on the CW is another show that tackles mental illness in a young woman over the length of a whole season, and part of what makes their execution beautiful is the fact that the writers set out to make the audience empathize with the main character, not judge her; so when she acts “crazy,” it’s even more uncomfortable for the audience, because it forces us to examine that which is “crazy” in us all. With Rachel in this season of UnREAL, it’s just been a slow, painful descent into madness that’s been awkward and uncomfortable to watch.
Quinn, meanwhile, is living a string of romance movie scenes with John Booth. At one point, clad in spa robes in a wood-walled sauna, he tells Quinn he might be falling in love with her (where are all these single men in LA who are ready to jump in with both feet after three or four dates? Or rather, “dates?”) The most heartbreaking moment in “Ambush” was when Rachel goes full teen rebellion on Quinn, accusing Quinn of being obsessed with Rachel and telling her to pay more attention to her relationship with Booth and get her own life. While she may not be wrong — Quinn’s choke-hold on Rachel and determination to see her as the younger version of herself could be unhealthy for Rachel because she can’t go her own way — that scene still had me like:
Nobody, including Adam, is quite sure why he’s back, but they’re all rolling with it anyway. Adam is incorporated into this week’s Everlasting challenge, giving the girls some hot tub advice in very necessary nut-huggers, and helping Darius see through his post-Alabama resentment to pick a date that week. He takes Adam’s advice and picks Chantal, the beauty Queen with the dead fiancé. They go on a fake gondola date in a boat Madison found on Craigslist and shit gets real when Chantal scatters her finacé’s ashes on the shore of the fake lake. They go in Darius’ face. He and Romeo get home from the date more than a little turnt and go joyriding with some of the contestants to blow off a little steam. They take the Everlasting Bentley and Rachel and Coleman decide to stir up some publicity by calling the car in as stolen. Darius, Romeo and the girls get pulled over. The situation escalates quickly and Coleman and Rachel film in the bushes as Darius and Romeo get unnecessarily roughed up by the cops. Rachel feels compelled to stop, despite Coleman’s protests, and runs out from the bushes. The cops start shooting and Romeo gets hit. He ends up on life support in the hospital. In a last-minute turn of events that proves I was 100% right about shady Yael this whole time, she calls Jeremy to come rescue her from the intersectional failure of Everlasting and, as they’re about to have a no-holds-barred convo about what really goes on behind the scenes, she starts recording their conversation on her phone.
Is UnREAL announcing its candidacy for President or something? Is that the reason for this sudden heavy-handed parade of social justice issues? Last week it was workplace assault and sexual assault. This week they tried for mental illness and Black Lives Matter. If someone gets an abortion next week, I’m starting to look for campaign posters, because the show will officially have gone all over the map. I appreciate any artist who takes their position seriously and tries to use their artistic platform to promote activism and social change, but UnREAL this week just face-planted. As Jay so eloquently put it when he confronted Rachel about putting Darius and Romeo in danger (one of the only moments of the Black Lives Matter storyline that felt grounded, organic, and impactful): “This is not your story to tell.” Jay’s speech to Rachel brings up questions about ally theater and flaws of white feminism that awkwardly reverberate behind the camera too in an episode written and directed by white women.
Over the last couple of weeks, this show dealt with sexual assault and rape culture and the reasons it’s not reported in a visceral and very honest way that I thought still rang true to the world of the show. That was not the case with this week’s Bentley incident. This felt contrived, forced somehow, like it was a discussion being started because it was a convenient time for the writers to start it — which again, for an episode neither written nor directed by any people of color, is inherently problematic on a larger intersectional scale. I am a little surprised at Marti Noxon for not hiring a co-writer or director of color for tonight’s episode, especially given the backlash her sister-in-law Jenji Kohan is still experiencing for the diversity fail on this season of Orange is the New Black. While I admire the UnREAL writers for acknowledging an important global conversation about our human community, I think this episode was a tonal misstep and I just hope the show comes back full circle to what it does best: biting satire aimed at the ridiculous ways in which mass media informs our perception of gender and sexuality, because that’s an important conversation as well, and one to which UnREAL has already contributed an enormous amount. This week I graded UnREAL the same way the judges scored Simone Biles after falling off the balance beam at the Olympic trials; yes the score’s a little inflated, but I have faith that they can do better than that. Everybody has a bad night… right?
Season 2, Episode 7 (S02E07)
UnREAL airs Mondays at 10PM on Lifetime
Ellen is a writer mostly because she can’t be a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Ellen Duffy | Contributor