As enjoyable as UnREAL has been in its first season, many (including myself) believe the show took its first major misstep with last week’s episode, “Fly.” After many tasteless promos pushing the fact that “You don’t want to miss the last 30 seconds!”, the episode ended with the suicide of Mary, the unstable single mother with a young daughter and abusive ex-husband. Having Mary literally slip out of Rachel’s grasp, after becoming unhinged due to Shia’s swapping out of her meds, swung UnREAL from the bitchy fun zone into an extremely dark territory. The question this week: Can UnREAL bounce back?

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The interesting premise of UnREAL has always been: What really happens behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like reality show? So this week we get to explore: What in the hell would happen if a contestant committed suicide? Honestly, things appear to progress in a fairly orderly fashion. The network’s legal team immediately starts circling the wagons, as you’d expect. The remaining contestants accuse each other of not crying hard enough, and have group-therapy sessions with the on-site counselor. The producers, in a unsurprising self-preservation strategy, try to cobble together footage that will make it look like the abusive ex-husband is at fault. Shia, in a shocking turn of decency, confesses to the meds switching, earning herself hotel-room lockup. Her delusional self still maintains that this death is not her fault, even though she lied to Mary’s own sister about her mental state, because Quinn and Rachel are the ones that brought in Mary’s destructive ex-husband to the show, upending whatever thin stability Mary was still grasping.

Besides the juicy behind-the-scenes stuff, what has been so absorbing about UnREAL from day one is how it shows exactly what people are capable of. Are all the evil twists and turns worth it if everything works out for the best in the end? Rachel manufactures a suicide note that will both get the show out of hot water and help keep Mary’s daughter away from her abusive father, who has previously broken her arm. Her ploy is so effective that even Mary’s sister is on board, making Rachel the “savior” of the episode title.

Mostly when I watch UnREAL, I find myself concentrating on the good and bad parts of people, refreshing in a television universe where heroes and villains are usually on solid, opposite sides of each other. Here, characters are complex enough that they refuse to be easily categorized. Quinn has done evil things, but sticks up for her staff; she just sends Shia home when she easily could have sent her to the police. Adam calls Rachel a monster, then relents. It’s telling that Rachel and Adam finally turn to each other in this episode after six weeks of buildup. I think they cling to each other as they are alone on-set as two people who are trying to do the right thing, but have very high stakes for their own survival. It would almost be easier to be someone more hard-hearted like Quinn, who doesn’t appear to care (although she does at least cough up a hug for Rachel at the end). But Rachel and Adam are very aware of the ramifications of their actions. Although Rachel is great at her job, it seems like such a destructive and toxic environment for her to be in (and she lives in a truck!). UnREAL’s first episode, “Return,” is even more shocking now, because knowing what we know, why would Rachel choose to go back there? If it’s, as she says, just to see Jeremy, I’m not buying it. Having that kind of power over people’s lives must be intoxicating, but, as we saw with Mary, playing with people’s lives has extremely grave consequences as well.

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UnREAL came back as about as far as it could from last week. Amazingly, Everlasting will continue to shoot, and is back in production after kicking off by being “supremely screwed,” as Quinn says at the beginning. A show that on its surface appears to push the concept of “everlasting“ love is instead a multi-tentacled monster angling for nothing else but more viewers and higher ratings. The hurdle for Rachel and the others is that they have to wrangle these actual humans in front of the camera. Mary’s death shows what happens when unscrupulous people like Shia get so charged up over their “girl” winning, they cross an irretrievable line. But for Quinn, for Rachel, for Adam, for the 170 people the show employs that Quinn refers to, this show will go on, despite this horrific collateral damage.

Stray observations

  • The girls know something’s wrong because there are no cameras outside by the ambulance.
  • “It’s the network, so keep it upbeat, but remember, somebody died.”
  • Rachel is worth five crashed Ferraris.
  • “I’m not a grief counselor for God’s sake… I’m English!”’
  • Still can’t care about Rachel and Jeremy’s hookup, sorry.
  • Ditto: Chet leaving his pregnant wife for Quinn, yawn.
  • Worst person on UnREAL this week: Always a tough call, but I’m going to have to go with murderous Shia: “I delivered a win.” “No you didn’t, you delivered a body.” I really hope she’s gone for good, even though on this show that seems iffy.
  • “They want the truth like I want pube lice.”
  • Remaining contestants after Maya’s departure: Faith, Grace, Anna, Shamiqua. Just from amounts of screen time, Anna looks like the inevitable final contender.
  • The sublime Joshua Alston is taking a well-deserved break this week, but will return next episode. Thanks for letting me sit in on my favorite new show of the season.

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