This week’s episode of UNREAL reminded me how many storylines this show juggles — sometimes to its detriment — and also how complicated Rachel and Quinn’s relationship really is. Quinn and Chet’s power struggle reaches its ugly height, and Chet challenges Quinn to a duel. They’ll each shoot their own version of the show and see which one the network likes better. Quinn agrees, despite Rachel’s protests, and chaos ensues. Chet drafts Jeremy as his director and starts shooting Everblasting, his version of the show which is little more than booze-induced frat-inspired Bacchanalia, right on top of Quinn’s perfect fairytale that, deep down, she knows the network really wants. Quinn struggles to maintain a titanium grip over her set, despite the fact that the show is literally divided, and we see that Quinn and Chet’s egos are too big and too powerful to realize their rivalry is now hurting the welfare of the show.
Team Chet’s going down in flames when Chet corners one of the contestants, a pretty blonde whose dad owns the football team Darius’ contract is up for negotiation on. After casually sexually harassing her, Chet suggests if she wants to edge up her “wifey” image and go home early, she should sleep with Darius’ friends. So Tiffany does just that, or tries to anyway, and she seduces Darius’ manager Romeo. Quinn catches them on camera just as Tiffany’s about to give Romeo a blowjob and she sends Rachel in to break it up. Later, in one of the most well-built scenes of the episode, Quinn and Chet face off and she schools his ass on the Everlasting formula and his own commitment issues at the same time.
Meanwhile, Chet and Quinn’s feud sends Rachel on her own dark journey — one that meets a surprising then very disappointing end. At the beginning of the episode, Rachel opens a care package from her mother, who’s worried about her, that contains some medications. She discards the pills and continues working, even though everyone around her can clearly see Quinn’s demotion has negatively affected her. On set, Quinn continues to be controlling, abrasive, and cruel, taking a little too much delight in how much Rachel hates when they call Yael “Hot Rachel.” After Tiffany heeds Chet’s advice and she and Romeo go rogue, Quinn criticizes Rachel’s job performance in the control room and, in the ultimate Disney villain move, leverages whatever confidence Rachel had left with the calculated statement that she thinks Rachel’s mother might be right, she might be too delicate for this line of work. Rachel, still too under Quinn’s spell to realize Quinn’s working her, buttons herself up and gets back to work. Jay finds her having a cigarette later and they fight. Rachel finally realizes Jay’s right; Quinn will never let anyone else take the reins on Everlasting. She’s given the best years of her life to this show and you’ll have to pry it out of her cold dead hands. Rachel’s codependent relationship with Quinn is the most heartbreaking thing about her this season; she clearly can’t see that Quinn’s not mentoring her at all. She doesn’t care about Rachel, she’s just exploiting Rachel’s gifts for her own personal gain. Rachel may value Quinn as her mentor, but to Quinn, Rachel is disposable, and this is the truth that hurts the worst.
Fed up with the notion of a lifetime doing Quinn’s bidding, Rachel pulls a total sealth move and goes to Gary, the f*cking network president, y’all. She snitches on Quinn and Chet, saying they’ve trained her so well to run Everlasting, but their personal conflicts are getting too in the way and she can’t produce while they’re on set. The next day, to Rachel’s horror, Gary solves this problem by sending in some Pointdexter Douche named Coleman Wasserman, a social media celebrity with no qualifications whatsoever to run the show. Coleman approaches Rachel, who somehow manages not to rip him limb from limb, and confesses he knows Rachel was the one who went to the network — and therefore knows this didn’t work out the way she planned. He smiles a creepy little smile and says “this is gonna be fun.”
Meanwhile, back in the contestant pool, we’re slowly starting to get to know our bachelorettes. Beth Ann gullibly lets Rachel talk her into meeting Darius in her Confederate Flag bikini, which shocks Darius and also angers Ruby, Everlasting’s token “Blacktivist,” who angrily spills the beans to Beth Ann that the suitor this year is black. Jay corrals Ruby and is totally honest with her and says he feels terrible about what’s happened to her — that the promises Rachel made Ruby to get her to come back were all a lie and in all likelihood she dropped out of college to probably get sent home 2 or 3 weeks in. Jay, in a similar move to what Rachel pulled last season, promises Ruby he can get her to the finish line but only if she listens to him 100% and ignores Rachel completely. Beth Ann, meanwhile, tries her best to get a fresh start with Darius, who turns out to be her favorite quarterback. The best she can do is make her Confederate Flag bikini disappear — literally take her top off on camera — along with a somewhat heartfelt apology couched in inherently racist justifications that somehow works? Okay, I guess Darius is a boob man. Wow.
Yael, aka “Hot Rachel,” is increasingly paranoid that she’s not getting enough face time with Darius. Despite being a competitive swimmer in college, she “falls” into the pool at the end of the episode and Darius must swim in to catch her. Later, she corners Madison to sweet-talk Madison into sneaking her extra face time with Darius. Yael, it seems, is holding it down private school style: she’s more than willing to lie, cheat, and brownnose her way to the top if looks and talent aren’t enough. Tiffany, whose father owns the team that’s Darius’ biggest competition, at first wants nothing to do with the show or with Darius because of the biases growing up in a football family has bred in her. When Chet suggests sleeping with Darius’ friends as a way to get cut, she jumps at this perhaps a little too eagerly when she gives Romeo a blowjob like, right the f*ck away. Later on, when Tiffany realizes she jumped to conclusions about Darius and the two of them seem to have a nice chemistry brewing, we’re left to wonder how long before her tryst with Romeo (which Team Chet caught on camera) resurfaces to rain on this parade. When we get around with eliminations, all our new favorites (and maybe not-so-favorites), Beth Ann, Yael, Ruby, Chantal, and Tiffany all make the cut. Graham creepily tells the girls who have been cut he’s having a party at his place: Quinn orders everyone over walkie to shut that party down and lock Graham in his room.
Finally, it seems as though mousey little Madison’s starting to come into her own. She appeals to Rachel to help coach her to become a better producer. After the mesmerizing-yet-revolting interview Rachel coached her through with Chantal last week, Madison’s hungry for more action. Rachel starts diverting some her way, sending Yael to Madison after Yael inquires about getting more face time with Darius and telling her Madison is “a genius.” Slowly but surely, Madison’s starting to become Rachel as Rachel becomes Quinn.
Rachel and Quinn’s relationship in “Insurgent” serves as a cautionary tale to women in any corporate sector, not just Hollywood: that it does no good to compete against one another or cut each other down, because the (male) architects of the good old glass ceiling will do that enough. We will always have to wrestle for power over what we’ve created with less qualified men who climb up the ladder way faster to rungs we never knew existed; that is the story of women in the workplace. This episode also speaks to the reasons behind the scarcity of true female mentorship: many women are quick to say they’ll lift each other up, but when the protege’s skill set or potential surpasses that of the mentor, things get cutthroat fast, because resources and opportunities are limited for women. We live in a world that makes us feel inherently pitted against each other.
My biggest disappointment with UnREAL this week, and perhaps this season in general so far, is (believe it or not) its portrayal of the men. They’re all moustache-twirling Big Bads to the point where it feels two-dimensional. Chet in particular is the biggest example of this; his dialogue flip-flops between ignorance, casual sexual harassment, and outright misogyny, and even our new nepotism hire friend Coleman Wasserman has a very sinister air about him when he makes his late entrance this week. This show is an important cornerstone of Lifetime’s re-branding efforts and I don’t think the message their new brand wants to send is one of feminism that hates men, because gender programming negatively effects men too, and yet it’s tiptoeing close to that territory. I’m not saying men like Chet and Coleman don’t exist; they do, they’re like cockroaches, or pigeons, they’re entitled and they’re everywhere. All over town, every town, in every industry. And I’m not saying make them likable, by any means. This is not a “what about Chet” lament. I actually have a hunch that, given the power dynamics that gender has already put into place for the audience, making the male characters on UnREAL more three-dimensional will likely make us side with Team Quinn even more. In abstract terms, terms in which Chet, Gary, Coleman, and even Darius are not characters, but icons representing their institutions, their actions all make perfect sense. But the gift of UnREAL is the way it artfully weaves in and out of the abstract, reminding us how hard it is to reduce human relationships to some abstract analogy because: humans. The team behind UnREAL is obviously woke as f*ck when it comes to issues of gender we face in the world today; I just think some more nuance amongst the male characters will make the line between pedagogy and storytelling feel less blurred.
“Do you think I ran around yelling at you all those years for fun?”
“What we need right now are wet panties.”
“It takes an iron spine and a steady hand to do this job.”
Season 1, Episode 2 (S01E02)
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