“We killed somebody, didn’t we?” Rachel, a producer on the Bacheloresque show Everlasting, asks Quinn, the show’s executive producer, in the final episode of UnREAL’s first season.
Quinn is taken aback. “Yeah,” she replies, after a pause. She pauses one more time. “Let’s not do that again.”
If you haven’t been watching Lifetime’s dark satire of dating shows and reality TV and pretty much the entire romance industrial complex, I won’t say who was killed, or who the killer “we” may have been. The “we” in question is unclear anyway. And that, actually, is part of what makes UnREAL so well worth watching. The show, by turns sassy and sardonic, revels in its own ambiguity. It takes the tired tropes of the reality show—which are also the tired tropes of the soap opera, which are also the tired tropes of the melodrama—and freshens them.
In the show’s first season, someone, yes, gets killed. Someone, yes—actually, many someones—gets cheated on. There’s lying and behind-the-back-ing and power struggling and lawsuits and horseback riding and bulimia and British aristocracy and sex in trailers. There’s manipulation and vulnerability and a deep belief in romantic love and an even deeper mistrust of it.
UnREAL is a fiction about a fiction about reality; as such, it would have been easy for its writers to focus on the ironies embedded in that format. The stuff of The Bachelor (and The Bachelorette and Married at First Sight and My Fair Brady and Dating Naked and all the other shows in their vein) is, after all, eminently mockable. The “Rose Ceremonies”! The “Fantasy Suites”! The candles! The talking-head interviews with contestants! The cryings-in-the-backseat-of-limos! The drama both intensely human and ridiculously manufactured! “Let’s give them something that they want,” Quinn tells her crew in UnREAL’s pilot episode, going on to list as elements of that “something” ponies and princesses and romance and love, and going on after that to remind everyone that “it’s all a bunch of crap anyways.”
But UnREAL doesn’t just mock the conventions of treacly dating shows. It meets those shows on their own terms, focusing, in particular, on one element they all share: They are, maybe more than anything else, mysteries. Highly stylized and ritualized mysteries, yes, but mysteries nonetheless. Who will the Bachelor(ette) pick at the end of the show? What surprises will transpire when strangers find themselves, suddenly, married to each other? UnREAL takes the uncertainties at the center of the marriage plot—will they? won’t they?—and infuses them into its own production. There are not only ambiguous outcomes, but also ambiguous relationships and ambiguous power dynamics and ambiguous character motivations. You’re never quite sure who’s on whose side, or what the line is between honesty and manipulation. The characters themselves are never quite sure, either.
At the center of it all is Rachel, the woman who first appears in UnREAL wearing a “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt, and who professes to be participating in the morally questionable behavior that is apparently required of a good Everlasting producer only under duress. Who, despite the talent she has for that role, insists that she would rather be producing “a show about women who have careers and actually talk about them” and/or “saving AIDS babies.”
What does she really want, though? Is she a hero or an anti-hero? “You know how I always used to say that the show is bad for you, and how it brings out the ugliness in you?” Jeremy, her on-and-off love interest, asks her in the season’s final episode. “I was wrong, Rach,” he says. “It’s you that’s ugly.”
Is she? Is everyone else, too—all these writers and producers and executives and shooters and actors-in-the-guise-of-actual people, all these participants in a charade that, week by week, both celebrates and cheapens romantic love?
The show doesn’t say. It does, instead, what the best literature does: It leaves itself open to interpretation and argument. It asks its audience to think, and analyze, and come to their own conclusions. It makes a point of its own ambiguity.
In one of the final scenes in last night’s season finale, Rachel—having been betrayed (or maybe protected?) by Quinn—collapses in a chaise next to her mentor. They’ve just been joking (but maybe not joking?) about the fact that they probably shouldn’t murder someone for the sake of the show. Rachel stares (and maybe glares?) at Quinn. There’s a long and pregnant pause. (Maybe even a literal one, Rachel having slept with at least two guys on set and UnREAL being, on top of everything else, a soap opera.) Rachel’s stare is intense. The silence is awkward. The whole thing starts to become just slightly painful to watch.
“I love you,” Rachel says, finally. “You know that, right?”
Quinn is taken aback. “I love you, too,” she replies. She pauses again.
It’s a strange moment, and a compellingly confusing one. Was that a gesture of forgiveness from Rachel? Was it a confession of friendship and sisterhood? Was it a simple acknowledgment that Rachel and Quinn have become, on top of everything else, accomplices?
Or was it, as the vaguely menacing tone of the whole thing might suggest, a threat?
We don’t know. We won’t know—for a while, and maybe ever. All we can do is think and theorize and, of course, tune in next season.