UNREAL Review: “War”

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Airtime: Mondays at 10PM on Lifetime
Episode: Season 2, Episode 1 (S02E01)

TB-TV-Grade-A

Tweetable Takeaway: [email protected] S2 starts out strong, taunting the sophomore slump


Mondays don’t feel as Mondayish anymore now that UNREAL is back, am I right? Only this breakaway hit can fill the hole that the end of every RuPaul’s Drag Race season leaves in my TiVo queue (and by “TiVo queue” I clearly mean “heart”).  This season of UnReal promises to tackle issues of gender, race, and class, and the writers kick this party off with notably beating ABC itself to the punch and casting a black Bachelor. I’m sorry, what’s that you said? A show known for its no-holds barred satire promises to tackle the topics of race and gender in Hollywood? Sign me up!

money dick power

The season opens with Rachel and Quinn getting matching tattoos that say “Money dick power” while wearing killer all-black outfits that reminded me immediately why UnReal will be the reason I eventually cave and open a RentTheRunway account. On their way out, Rachel ignores a call from Adam before she and Quinn jump in a car en route to Vegas. Quinn’s given Rachel a promotion and Rachel’s now the showrunner on Everlasting, with Quinn in Chet’s old role. (Chet, it seems, is somewhere in the wilderness getting adorned with war paint and hunting cloven wildlife with a spear.) The girls get to Vegas and throw a penthouse rager (oops I mean “have a meeting”) with the Everlasting execs, their new suitor, and his manager, who Rachel definitely has sex with during the party. Rachel and Quinn’s “big idea” they drove to Vegas to pitch is that the new suitor for this season of Everlasting, Darius Hill — who, like his manager, is black. “Not too black!” Quinn is quick to the network president with the show’s trademark merciless humor: “Football black!” Turns out Darius stands to benefit from the publicity too; he’s trying to shake off a nasty PR misstep in which he called a female reporter a bitch on camera. Gary, the network president, isn’t totally buying Quinn and Rachel’s idea — despite Quinn’s excellent sell in the face of a champagne-and-coke hangover, a small and painfully sentient step above a lobotomy — until Quinn promises him a list of contestants that seem way too good to be true. And they are — when the girls hang up with Gary, Quinn informs Rachel that those contestants don’t exist yet. Rachel must go find them.

On set, Jeremy (who apparently found all those pounds Chet lost in Patagonia, just saying) is causing trouble for Rachel. She finds out he called her mother and told her she was manic and having a hypersexual episode. There’s no love left between these two and Jeremy seems uber-surly about Rachel’s ascent to showrunner, but damn boy you really gotta call her mom? We meet our crazy crop of contestants, starting with Yael, a preppy twentysomething who could be Rachel’s little sister — and who we’ll come to know as “Hot Rachel,” (in what I like to think is an overt nod to how alive and well ageism is for women in Hollywood.) Then there’s Beth Ann, the “hot racist” Quinn promised, who’s jailbait in a confederate flag bikini. London’s a Pakistani woman with possible links to Osama bin Laden, Ruby is the blacktivist Quinn promised Gary — and who might drop out in favor of graduating college, and Chantal, a nice, pretty black girl who Quinn’s put in the same room as Beth Ann. Jay confronts Rachel about her and Quinn, calling Rachel an abused wife for going back to Quinn after she blew up Rachel’s life last season (not a totally unsound analogy, though, real talk). Jay refuses chase Ruby, their “blacktivist,” down and convince her to drop out of college to be on the show, asserting that he still has a moral line, so Rachel will do it herself. She finds Ruby and convinces her using a magic potion of statistics, manipulations, and admiration and we remember holy shit this chick is amazing at her .

Chet finally shows his face and surprises Quinn in her office, who’s less than pleased to see him. Chet’s fresh off a tribal retreat in Patagonia, where he claims to have had an epiphany about his purpose in life and how he went astray. Since he was anointed a chief in Patagonia, feels it’s time to come home and re-claim his tribe — and that tribe is Everlasting. Quinn, who’s been running the show since Day 1 and has spent more time with it than most mothers in her socioeconomic bracket probably do with their children, will have none of this, and it looks like our first season-long power struggle is born. Meanwhile, Jeremy continues to make Rachel’s workday a living hell by announcing to her (and the rest of the entire crew) that “Hot Rachel” is at the top of The Kill List, which is a list of girls who are getting cut from the show and are therefore fair game for the crew to sleep with (can I just say I’ve never worked in reality but I *totally believe that is a real thing.*)

At the house, our “hot racist” Beth Ann is already kicking and fussing, trying to get Madison, the pigtailed PA who is now a , to switch her roommate. Madison brings a room switch solution to Rachel, who humiliates her in front of the other producers and tells her to start a fight between Beth Ann and Chantal instead, after breaking Chantal’s spirit for a soundbyte. In this exchange we see Rachel will stop at nothing to manipulate people into giving her the results she wants. She’s become Quinn, but even colder, because Quinn at least allowed herself the soft spot of her relationship with Chet last season, and it seems as though Rachel’s cauterized her emotions entirely.

UnReal q&r

Turns out watching someone else run her show is harder for Quinn than she’d anticipated, and she hovers over Rachel like a car salesmen near closing time. She makes Rachel walk Madison through an interview with Chantal that almost breaks them both. Rachel hardly bats an eye. “How’s it feel to be the puppeteer?” Quinn asks her former protege. “Are you kidding? I feel like God!” Rachel tells her. Jay, quickly emerging as our voice of reason this season, watches this exchange with concern. After Chantal leaves, Madison runs out of the frame and vomits and Jeremy films her.

After a brief snafu in which London, their “terrorist,” refuses to wear a head scarf, Everlasting is ready to roll — or so we think. When sleazeball host Graham opens the door to Darius’ limo, nothing’s inside except a ringing phone. Quinn picks it up and finds Chet on the other line, who’s essentially holding Darius hostage until the girls relinquish control of his show. Quinn and Rachel go retrieve Darius together. Rachel finds out from Romeo that Chet and Gary made Darius a way better deal, including a sportscasting contract, and Chet gives Quinn an ultimatum: the only way they’ll get Darius back is if they make it a hot tub party put all the girls in bikinis. Quinn tries to negotiate, but Chet holds firm; in a concisely symbolic moment, Quinn realizes the only way she continue to generate professional momentum is if she compromises her values, knowledge, and experience to abide by her male boss’ rules. She agrees and ultimately takes the show back from Rachel, saying that Chet has declared war and promising her it’s just until they navigate their way out of this crisis. Rachel’s angry at Quinn for not trusting her and even angrier for lying to her about Chet; at the end of the episode, it looks like declarations of war loom ominously all around.

My favorite thing about UnReal has always been its ability to cut contemporary feminist theory with just enough sparkling satire and pop culture references to make it easily digestible, and it looks like Season 2 will continue this tradition in spades. The opening of the show shows Quinn and Rachel acting exactly as men in their positions would act — hemorrhaging money, partying hard, and using men for sex in a somewhat objectifying way, which Romeo confirms himself at the end when he accuses Rachel, probably not falsely, of treating him “like a walking dildo.” “War” throws a little bit of a clusterf*ck of gender double-standards at the audience, leaving us to sort through the rubble of our own biases. Rachel’s a first-time showrunner in charge of a multimillion dollar franchise with a lot hanging in the balance who works hard and plays hard. On a man her age, that lifestyle might at worst get her a bad reputation amongst support staff, but Rachel has her ex calling her mother with reports of “hypersexual activity.” Behavior that’s easily digestible on a man can be twisted into a red flag for mental illness on a woman. (Can you tell I really missed this show?)

Another genius satire-laced feminist “f*ck you” that looks like it will continue throughout the season is Chet’s ridiculous homecoming. He  is delightfully detestable in a whole new way this season, a feat in itself for the UnReal writers. The language and analogies involved in Chet coming home, particularly his epiphanies about how women need to be nurtured and provided for and men need to go back to the basics of protecting their tribe is classic patriarchal doctrine hung on some kind of hipster-Flinstones hanger and I for one am eating up every bite of it. When he talks to Darius and Romeo about how he “let the girls run his show” for a bit, it was an exaggerated reminder of the subjugation most women experience in the workplace every single day. Our male coworkers will always be able to bond together over the shared experience of walking into a room and automatically taking charge, a luxury that we just do not have.

There’s a lot of discussion amongst contemporary feminists about language: some advocating to disown it and some advocating to reclaim it. Women using terms like “slut,” “whore,” and especially “bitch” to refer to one another has been a topic of discussion amongst gender academics for some time. I mention this only because this is where we see the cracks in Rachel’s veneer in this episode, through which glimpses of Season 1 Rachel in her “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt still shines through. Throughout the episode there are a handful of moments when Rachel gets called a bitch and the way Shiri Appleby expertly plays the nuances of each exchange shows us Rachel’s infinitesimal but significant internal arc. At the beginning, when Quinn’s trying to sell Gary on Darius as a suitor and blow off his recent scandal, she tells Gary right in front of Rachel that Darius meant “bitch” as a term of endearment. She says it to Rachel all the time. Rachel’s hung over, apathetic, and plays along. Then, when Darius playfully says “bitch, please” to her in the Everlasting limo — the same phrase that caused his PR nightmare — Rachel still laughs and plays along, but this time we can see the effort. She’s not faking it, per se, but her conscience is starting to gnaw at her. This sets up her reaction to Jeremy calling her a bitch at the end of the episode, and we see deep down maybe Rachel isn’t so apathetic after all. And maybe part of her even believes it. Rachel is still not as desensitized to the misogyny and moderate sociopathy in the industry as Quinn is — deep down, she still knows what they’re doing on Everlasting is wrong.

Speaking of Quinn, I’ll just leave these here:

Quotable Quinn-isms:

-Chet:”May the best man win”

Quinn: “She usually does.”

-“Here’s to booze and fancy clothes.”

-“If we fired everyone we had sex with, we wouldn’t have a crew.”

and finally, the piece de resistance:

“I am the Queen of the frickin’ fairies and I need you to get out of my fairy-fort. NOW.”

mic drop gif

All in all, I’m happily buckled up and ready to roll for another season of this smart, savvy show. Many people last year referred to this as a sleeper hit or a surprise smash hit, but I knew the first time I read the pilot ages ago that Lifetime was sitting on a powder keg with UnReal. In terms of season arcs, I’m excited to see the three-way power struggle between Quinn, Rachel and Chet — though to an extent I wonder if those stakes are just last season’s stakes wearing upperclassmen uniforms, and I hope Quinn and Rachel stay on the same team. My one criticism of this episode is I wish we got to see more of one or two our contestants. I get that this is a show about what goes on behind the scenes, but the pilot did such a fantastic  of making us invest in a core group of contestants and planting explosive seeds for the rest of the season. The reveal of Anna’s bulimia in the pilot was especially lovely, and I feel like we got no real equivalent of that in “War.” Madison’s interview with beauty queen Chantal revealed character, but it revealed more about Madison than it did about Chantal. I’m hoping next week we’ll learn more about our contestant pool. In the meantime, I’m just over here waiting in line for a “Money dick power” tattoo.

TB-TV-Grade-A 

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Ellen is a writer mostly because she can’t be a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Keep up with all Ellen Duffy’s reviews here.
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