Quinn, Constance Zimmer’s steely reality-TV overlord, told both of the two final contestants on the Bachelor-esque dating competition Everlasting that they would be picked as the winner that night. In reverse shots, the camera alternated between the would-be wives reacting to the news of imminent victory with giggles as Quinn’s face remained a mask: intended to convey warmth cut and businesslike briskness, but letting through glimpses of what the Unreal viewer has come to realize is pure disdain. “That’s unbelievable!” one of the women said to the news she’d be married that night. Quinn’s reply was pure, delicious camp: “It is unbelievable, isn’t it?”
Meanwhile, Rachel, Shiri Appleby’s deputy producer, tried to placate Yael, a booted-off contestant who’d recently been subjected to spectacular national humiliation. “Can we just be honest for one second?” Rachel said during her apology, her eyes scanning around the room as they always are. “It’s probably just a lot of internalized misogyny. Like, I hate you because I really hate myself. I’m a feminist and this is what I do.” It was a classic Rachel move: self-deprecation delivered with an unintimidating slouch and the pretense of leveling. This time, though, her target was an undercover reporter with a major grudge, and she didn’t buy it: “No, don’t you Sarah Lawrence me.” It was the kind of psychological jujitsu match that Unreal, at its best, exists to provide.
Rachel’s line of attack in that scene evoked the very first moments of the series, when she took a morose limo ride to the set of Everlasting wearing a t-shirt that says “this is what a feminist looks like.” Back then, Rachel’s reluctance to partake in the retrograde spectacle of women fighting for a man’s affection—a battle made bloodier because of enormous amounts of manipulation and dishonesty from the producers—was a genuine source of conflict for the show: She worked there only because she was being blackmailed. But for season two, Rachel leaned in enthusiastically, motivated by professional ambition (she and Quinn got “Money. Dick. Power” tattoos in the premiere) and the do-gooder goal of getting the show its first black suitor.
The overstuffed, incoherent plot that then unfolded betrayed the fact that Unreal used social consciousness in exactly the way Rachel used the notion of feminism to manipulate Yael: as a brute tool and nothing more. Domestic abuse, rape, overmedication, mental health, fertility, and police violence against people of color all made brief appearances seemingly only to add momentary shots of drama and generate headlines about the show. Character motivations would pivot wildly over time, and plot lines of seemingly huge consequence—like when a black man was shot by cops—just faded away.
In last night’s finale, the suitor, Darius, proposed marriage to neither of the final two socialites standing before him but rather summoned back Ruby, a Black Lives Matter activist he’d clicked with before unceremoniously banishing a few episodes ago. The twist resulted from massive deceit, but it landed with emotional weight that it had started to seem like the show could no longer deliver: After so much cynical mockery of the notion that real human connection might result on Everlasting, here was something like earnest love. Even Quinn seemed moved. The engineer of the coup was Jay, the likable and put-upon black producer who pled for more empathy throughout the season. But it was exactly the outcome Rachel had once, highmindedly, hoped for. She’d gotten so mired in drama that her principles—like the season’s supposed interest in race—had faded from view.
Elsewhere, the episode flashed some awareness of where Unreal had gone wrong and might right itself. Rachel’s boyfriend, the hotshot producer Coleman, was outed as full villain, having even fabricated the human-trafficking documentary on which he’d built a career. The fact that Rachel got this info at exactly the right moment, and the notion that its revelation only strengthened his desire to expose the crimes behind the scenes at Everlasting, were, typically, not very plausible developments. But the end result—Coleman and Yael’s death by car crash engineered by another unstable Rachel ex—is just the necessary, if outrageous, outcome that justifies sloppy TV logic. Coleman himself nailed what would be gained by his departure when dissing Rachel on the way out: “Quinn and all the other vagabond, misfit orphans who work here, they are the only people who will ever accept you for the broken, damaged, vile person that you are.”
The prospect of those “vagabond, misfit orphans” working together as one fearsome machine of manipulation—rather than constantly being turned against each other by cartoonish outsiders like Coleman—is reason to hope for the future of Unreal. When Quinn and Rachel are on their game, and to a lesser extent their compadres Jay and Madison, it’s like watching Tatiana Maslany switch personalities on Orphan Black or Lena Headey sneer and drink wine on Game of Thrones: a one-of-a-kind performance packed with enough intrinsic entertainment value to fuel an entire show. “We don't want to do another season of them fighting,” creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro told Vulture, hearteningly.
One problem: The final shot last night was of Rachel and Quinn relaxing on chaise lounges alongside the oafish, tiresome love-interests/antagonists Jeremy and Chet. Get those two guys into another doomed car, let Rachel and Quinn work their dark magic, and season three of Unreal might return the show to demented glory.