The Bachelor, now at the end of its 16th season, has become a world unto itself, a self-sustaining factory of meaning and codified interactions with the absolute minimal resemblance to the real world needed for it to still be recognizable as a human creation. It’s a world where “one-on-ones” involve helicopters and ziplines, “group dates” are a routine activity, and women are stripped of their surnames, sometimes allowed a single last initial. By the time a finale comes around, the sound bites and talking points have been so repeated, re-repeated, and reflected back through the tabloids that so gamely plays along, that they begin to become indecipherable outside their own hyper-produced cocoon.
In tonight’s finale alone, the following weighted vagaries are dropped: “I’m so vulnerable right now.” “Our relationship blossomed earlier.” “I had walls up.” “I can see myself with this woman.” “I’m trying to open up.” “Thank you for opening up.” “Thank you for being so vulnerable.” “I feel a little vulnerable, yeah.”
Clearly, vulnerability, specifically in women, is the dilithium crystal that keeps the USS Bachelor running—and which gives it the creepy, sadistic tinge that keeps audiences coming back, for better or worse. There’s not much difference between the mainstream appeal of The Bachelor and any number of TV movies about serial killer/rapists that you might find on Lifetime on any given night. The hilarious, baffling difference is that in the Lifetime movie the women run away screaming from danger before being butchered before our eyes. On The Bachelor they fling themselves at it, then beat themselves up over the personal shortcomings that led to their fate from the cushy confines of the Rejection Limo.
The Bachelor has always been all about the women, and with one of the most uninspiring leading men in recent memory at the center of it all, even more of the narrative burden this season was shifted to their aggressively bronzed shoulders. Floppy-haired winemaker Ben Flajnik (himself a former contestant and rejectee, as nearly all of the Bachelor/Bachelorettes are these days) may have been our Bachelor, but season 16 was the Courtney show. The two-faced, baby-voiced, almost certainly sociopathic model from Santa Monica was the frontrunner and lightning rod of the show, and watching this season became less about how the women were getting along with Ben and almost all about how they were getting along with Courtney. With her willingness to shit-talk the other girls and openly gloat over every small victory, she was a producer’s dream; and therefore given leeway to break the sacred rules of the show on numerous occasions, whether it be sneaking out to skinny dip with Ben in Puerto Rico (ew,) or stage a fake wedding complete with minister during her hometown visit (amazing.) The women all wondered to each other how she managed to “pull the wool over Ben’s eyes”; they had already succumbed so fully to the idea of How Things Work On The Bachelor that when an attractive woman who takes her clothes off just happens to find herself in Ben’s favor, the collective reaction is not “duh,” but rather, “She can’t do that!”
Those who protested loudest were picked off one by one, a lesson to everyone watching that nothing comes between a man and his potential model girlfriend. One reason that finalist Lindzi found herself in the position of Default Good Girl to Courtney’s endlessly more fascinating villain was that she probably made the least noise. Even when asked by Ben’s mother and sister about Courtney in the all-important family meet ’n’ greet tonight, she remains diplomatic, merely calling her “quiet” and “different.” That kind of magnanimity works great if you want real people to like you in the real world, but it makes for pretty boring television and it certainly doesn’t land you on the cover of Us Weekly. Meanwhile, Courtney, who has been wearing her halo ever since the women were allowed to live on their own outside their mobile communal horror house, also plays nice around the Flajniks, but drops enough hints into her confessional interview to reassure us that she is still the same insanely competitive nutjob we have come to know and love. (After being informed by Ben that she had gotten his family’s stamp of approval, her reaction is to sigh “This is so great for me!”)
And so we come to our final days in Switzerland, and as expected, the two-hour episode is a little anticlimactic. The tabloid hall of mirrors that surrounds every cycle of the Bachelor usually manages to spoil the winner long before the finale airs, but even if it hadn’t, anyone following the show could see Ben’s decision from a mile away. At this point, Courtney’s touching scrapbook of their Bachelor memories is just beating the dead horse that is their inevitable engagement (By the way, where did she get those impressive wide shots of the two of them at the temple in Belize?) And in the finale’s final moments, as Ben slips one hunk of a ring onto her finger on—where else?—the top of a mountain, I had the strange sense that I was watching footage that was at once new and obsolete. Anyone who has stood in a grocery checkout line in the past two months would find it impossible to watch the events of the finale unfold and be completely in the moment; we’re all just waiting for the reunion show, which we know will contain information much more relevant at this point. Ben’s actual decision is secondary or even tertiary; we want to know what Ben thought of Courtney’s behavior around the other girls, and if they’re still together, and what was with those photos of him making out with other women that were all over the Internet last week?
It’s a bizarre, temporally unmoored kind of television, and there’s nothing else quite so simultaneously earnest and obsessively self-reflexive on the air right now. And even though Courtney broke many of the rules of how one is supposed to do The Bachelor, by the time she sits across from Ben and Chris Harrison in front of the After The Rose studio audience, she’s just another jilted former Bachelorette, the latest in a long line of people to realize that they had just willingly participated in probably the most surefire way to humiliate oneself and/or fall out of love with someone in our modern world. And yet, people still show up to play. And the viewers keep tuning in to watch, even though we're all very well aware that nobody is actually going to find love here. Is it really possible for anyone to go on The Bachelor for the right reasons anymore? There’s so much about that question that’s besides the point that you may as well ask if it’s possible for anyone to watch The Bachelor for the right reasons.