UnREAL's Surprisingly Sober Look at Violence

The Lifetime drama, having explored gender and race, trained its focus on abuse and assault in its most recent episode.


This post contains mild spoilers for the most recent episode of UnREAL.

In last week’s episode of UnREAL, Lifetime’s dark satire of The Bachelor, the videographer Jeremy—having lost the job he’d worked for years to win, and having tried to drown his frustration in many, many beers—unleashed his anger on Rachel, the show’s antiheroine and his ex-girlfriend. He yelled at her. His anger escalated. And then: He hit her. Hard. She stumbled; she fought back. He hit her again, even harder. Had Chet, the show’s resident mens’-rights activist and the unlikeliest of saviors, not intervened, it’s unclear what else Jeremy might have done. He might have hit Rachel again. He might have raped her.

The episode ended with violence both committed and curtailed, which meant that the tension that carried into this week’s show was not whether something would happen, but rather how people would react to that something having been done. It was a fitting cliffhanger for a show that has taken a ripped-from-the-thinkpieces approach to television production: Jeremy unquestionably assaulted Rachel. The real question—the only question—was how characters would assess that violence, what emotional and psychological toll it would take on Rachel. The rippling effects of one hard fist bringing its force to bear against one soft body.

The answers were, to the show’s credit, subtle in their manifestations. Monday’s episode of UnREAL, “Casualty,” billed itself as a Very Important One, and it was—but what ultimately distinguished the proceedings was a small, simple fact: Nobody questioned Rachel’s account of events. Nobody excused Jeremy’s participation in those events. His wrongness in the situation, in every sense of “wrong,” was assumed by all involved, Jeremy included. He was, as such, summarily fired, and effectively banned from the set of Everlasting, UnREAL’s show-within-a-show.

But the focus here was Rachel. Who went through a series of notable stages—anger, denial, acceptance—throughout the episode, and who, in her insistence that she was totally fine, revealed herself to be very much not. What was best for Rachel, all things considered? Should she seek therapy? Should she rely on medication? Should she turn Jeremy in to the police, or should Everlasting—whose producers, after all, have a murder on their hands—handle things internally?

“He can’t get away with this,” Rachel told Chet.

“He didn’t,” Chet replied. “I fired him.”

“I just don’t feel like we ever report anything around here,” Rachel said, “and I’m not just gonna be another silent woman. So I’m just gonna go to the police.”

For the moment, she has not gone to the police. She has opted instead, as Chet advised, to keep it “in the family.” (Jeremy, as Chet pointed out, knows “where the bodies are buried”; the remaining staff of Everlasting can’t risk him sharing that information with authorities.) But during an episode otherwise frenzied with all manner of over-the-top dramas (surprise pregnancies, surprise proposals, brandished shotguns), UnREAL kept its gimlet eye trained on its (anti)heroine. Quinn curtailed her own budding romance to come to Rachel’s aid. She used the word “trauma” in discussing Rachel’s experience.

In a way, that focus on Rachel—her experience, her needs, her recovery—acted as a compensation for another assault that occurred during UnREAL’s first season: the rape of the Everlasting contestant Maya by Roger, the suitor Adam’s best friend. UnREAL, summoning that narrative nebulousness that often surrounds real-world incidents of sexual violence, kept its own depiction nebulous: Both Maya and Roger had been drinking. The rape itself was not depicted; all audiences saw was Roger drunkenly coming on to Maya, Maya resisting, and a door closing. On reopening, Maya was crying.

She was, indeed, raped. As Natasha Wilson, the actress who played her, told Zap2it, “She was totally taken advantage of. Her being drunk was completely exploited.” And yet, as Wilson explained, “We wanted to make sure it wasn’t an aggressive rape situation, because we wanted to demonstrate that it can occur even when someone says no but they don’t say it like, ‘NO!’, they say, ‘No, no, I’m really not, this isn’t what I …’”

UnREAL’s latest depiction of assault takes a notably different approach: Here, the show allowed no vagueness about what had happened to Rachel. The violence was terribly, uncomfortably evident. Rachel and Quinn talk a lot about, in their leadership roles in Everlasting, using television to make a difference in the world; “Casualty,” in its way, was UnREAL having that same effect. In the all-too-real world, after all, the kind of certainty the show’s characters embraced on Monday is often hard to come by. Many people still question victims of violence. Many still blame them. Many still accept drunkenness or anger as justifiable excuses for that violence. UnREAL’s characters, however—people who are morally bankrupt in so many other ways—rejected those attitudes: They condemned Jeremy. They saw things as they were. Rachel’s was a “NO!” that was loud and clear and, all in all, productively unambiguous.