I have been trying really hard to trace the differences between this season of UnREAL and the last one. Early last season, Rachel made Anna look like the villain, taking advantage of the contestant’s grief after her father had just died. Rachel did this because Quinn was dangling a $2,000 bonus in front of her, and her roommate was threatening to send out her embarrassing love letter to Jeremy if she didn’t come up with the back rent. The best part was, Rachel destroys Anna with the edit, gets the bonus, but it’s too late: Her roommate had already sent out the letter to everyone on the Everlasting staff anyway.

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So from early on, the m.o. is set. Rachel will do horrible things on Everlasting, but ostensibly for the right reasons. Even with the jam she’s in with her roommate, she hesitates handing over the damaging tape of Anna to Quinn. This season, both Quinn and Rachel appear to be led around by nothing else but The Show. For Quinn, it’s power, her creation, revenge against her former partner of 18 years. Maybe Coleman’s right, maybe Quinn and Chet are dinosaurs who really can’t go anywhere else. Maybe that’s why UnREAL appears to be set on turning her into the show’s real villain.

And, Coleman offering her a glimpse of an Everlasting-less future is probably what made Rachel jump on him last week. She is trapped in this dark, cocoon-like insular world. Think of how few daytime shots there are on this show, especially for Rachel. The Everlasting control room is lit only by screens. The bright nighttime shots, like the pool, look splashy and glossy; Rachel is never there, but scrunching away in the shadows somewhere. Even when there is a daytime shot, like the football,game, it’s rare enough to appear surreal.

For Rachel, Everlasting is literally the only place where she feels safe; why else would she keep coming back there after breakdowns? She is aided in this effort by Quinn’s frequent reminders that she’s about to crack, and that she really couldn’t survive anywhere else. Rachel also probably still longs to take the show over from Quinn, as she was promised, after being yelled at by her for so many years.

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So we see what these two women have invested in the show. We may even understand why, then, Quinn would cackle at the image of Darius, obviously hurt very badly, flat on his back on the fake football field. Quinn could destroy Darius’ career, but Rachel might even be worse, because she could ruin his entire life, under the duplicitous guise of trying to help him with that epidural. When really, Quinn and Rachel are both manipulating to try to keep the show in their own hands (and the hands of their sidekicks this week, Chet and Coleman). It’s a hard road to watch for Darius, a character that we’ve come to care about over the last few weeks: He’s definitely more swoon-worthy than bland Adam, and honestly appears to just have everyone’s best interests at heart as he takes care of his family and his entourage. Which makes Rachel’s fatal blow even more crushing: Splitting up Darius and Romeo, ostensibly the most important relationship in their lives. Romeo just can’t believe she’s done such terrible things for a TV show. A TV show, that sadly, functions as the biggest/only thing in her life.

Some newcomers to the Everlasting game are quickly getting up to speed, and a little more savvy. Hot Rachel zeroes in on poor, sad Jeremy, undoubtedly angling to get the best shots from him, and more of a scoop on the show. (Some have suggested that Yael could be the Bachelorette type-character for season three, which would be awesome.) Even Ruby slyly sidles up to Darius to get him to open up, hiding the cameras from him. We’re well aware of what Quinn and Rachel’s motivations are, and really, are we going to see Quinn take down Rachel by taunting her about her mental health issues every episode? We could use some more contestant scenes, to show what they’re in this for (even Beth Ann, what the hell). If Ruby really wants Darius, this seems like a dumb way to go about it; he’s already said he can’t handle dishonesty, and she just straight-up lied to his face. But at least it was surprising, which is what we tune into UnREAL for in the first place.

We also, at least, got a hint of backstory about Quinn with the death of her father. We already heard about her dirt road past, and this kind of childhood, coupled with Chet’s betrayal, make it understandable why Rachel’s betrayal may sting her most of all. Rachel said she had her back, but did not. Quinn is many things, but she’s hardly duplicitous. She yells at the girls to cry for cash, and they comply; they all know what the deal is. Rachel may be even more dangerous, because she pretends to be their actual friend. Quinn feels betrayed, but when Rachel got the show taken away from her, by going to Gary she probably figured she was making the same pay that Quinn would make herself. The fascinating part of UnREAL is that there’s so much artificiality, both in front of and behind the cameras, that no one can tell what’s true anymore. (Hence the name.)

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So for Quinn, this latest round of defeats topped off by idiot Chet stealing his own baby, means that her internal fortress is more impenetrable than ever. But we don’t get that same strength from Rachel. Even when she fronts it, we don’t believe it. This is helped along by Shiri Appleby’s admirably dense portrayal, like how wounded Rachel is when Romeo points out that she’s never really known what it’s like to have someone who’s there for her, like Darius and Romeo have. And it’s true: She doesn’t. Her mother tried to psychoanalyze her and medicate her. Jeremy did not really appear to interest her. And her supposed bestie reminds her how close she is to cracking nearly every chance she gets. It’s small wonder that Rachel searches out Coleman at the end of the episode, finally finding someone to have that beer with. But there’s not much evidence that he’s trustworthy yet, either. Basically, when it comes down to it, all Quinn and Rachel have is the show, and that will never be enough.

Stray observations

  • Fun new feature for the back half of this season: Contestant MVP Of The Week! (Maybe it was the football.) Some good options this week, with London, really, trying her damnedest and throwing up on shoes and becoming the latest contestant to rip off her mic and storm out of the set after being eliminated. But I have to give it up for Ruby, for kicking it up a notch. Jay must be so happy.
  • Random speculation: Darius gets really hurt (or even better, comes to his senses) and leaves the show. Adam is pulled in as a mid-season replacement. Well, at least he’s a known quantity, and his unanswered phone call to Rachel in the first episode this season still makes me wonder…
  • Speaking of showrunners, I wonder how much Marti Noxon’s focus on Girlfriends’ Guide has affected this show. Without her, I think we’ve lost that tether to some sort of moral base, what with Brandi getting emotionally demolished last episode and Darius physically hurt in this one. Quinn and Chet don’t know the extent of Darius’ injuries, and still encourage the girls to attack him. But Rachel actually knows that he could become paralyzed with the epidural. Again, for a television show.

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