Every week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Caroline Framke get together to talk about Lifetime’s splashy scripted drama UnReal. This week, we’re talking about "Fugitive," the eighth episode of the second season. You can catch up our previous coverage of the series here, and/or discuss this week’s episode in the comments below.
Caroline Framke: After "Ambush," last week’s bizarre and exploitative episode — which I can’t even say was "about police brutality," since Romeo getting shot just ended up being a sidebar — I was really hoping UnReal could take a deep breath and steady itself.
I hoped it could find meaning in a harrowing scene that felt thrown in just to grab headlines. After all, we saw UnReal avoid disaster before, when season one had a mentally ill contestant kill herself, and the following episode give that horrific event an appropriate and compelling weight.
That was not, however, the case with this week’s "Fugitive." This episode takes everything that happened last week — Romeo getting shot by police, Rachel handing herself over to her psychiatrist mother, even Jeremy spilling the show’s secrets to contestant slash undercover reporter Yael — and sets it on fire, gleefully watching the chaos go up in flames, because isn’t that more fun?
Maybe it would have been in season one. But at this point, season two is such a colossal mess that I have no idea what kind of eleventh-hour twist could possibly justify the gigantic pile of storylines the show set ablaze.
The episode’s big reveal is an absolute catastrophe
Let’s get this out of the way first: Everything involving Rachel in this episode was a hot fucking mess, even with the extraordinary Shiri Appleby doing her absolute best to make it work.
Watching Coleman, her mother, and Quinn fight over how best to handle Rachel — like she’s radioactive garbage — as she sleepwalked around the set in a drug-induced haze was hard enough, but the episode’s final reveal of why Rachel and her mom have such a contentious relationship was so poorly done that my jaw literally dropped.
So: One of Rachel's mother’s patients raped Rachel when the girl was just 12. Her mother has been covering it up and feeding her daughter drugs for years, telling Rachel things like, "No one will love you if they ever find out," and, "No one wants to deal with that kind of damage," in the same breath.
I know UnReal was trying to make me angry with that, but I don’t think it was counting on me placing the blame less at the feet of Rachel’s mother than the show itself for revealing this huge detail like it was some shocking twist.
It would be one thing if the show had built to it, if there were any sense that this trauma was always part of Rachel’s character. But when Rachel blurts it out to Coleman — Coleman, who filmed her in a catatonic state because his illusions of journalism need watering — it comes out of nowhere and builds off nothing.
Based on how UnReal has treated other major issues this season — not to mention the fact that the season only has two episodes left to go — I have little to no faith left that this show realizes the magnitude of these revelations. By the time anyone can process the aftershocks, they're already earthquakes.
There’s some decent stuff in "Fugitive" — most notably everything with Darius, Ruby, and the woefully underappreciated Jay — but to quote the ever-prescient Tyra Banks: Oh, UnReal. We were rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!
UnReal has lost sight of its three most important characters
Todd VanDerWerff: What's fascinating about "Fugitive" is how it has utterly no idea what to do with Rachel, Quinn, or Chet, who are arguably the show's three most important characters.
Shiri Appleby is doing her best to make Rachel make sense, but Constance Zimmer and Craig Bierko seem increasingly at sea. Such is the peril of shock-based storytelling.
The truth is that there's probably more good than bad in "Fugitive." The Darius storyline finally got some much-needed time and focus, and the twin scenes with Ruby and Jay actually felt like they were engaged with everything that had happened to him over the course of the season.
And I'm even somewhat interested in Coleman and Yael trying to burn Everlasting to the ground. (I might even be on their side at this point, even though I know this is a transparent attempt to push Quinn and Rachel back together in time for season three.)
But the Rachel reveal is so awful that it's hard to escape its gravitational pull. Putting a rape in a female character's backstory is such a hard-to-handle idea that even The Americans had trouble working it into its generally excellent tapestry (arguably, it took the better part of two seasons to do so). That UnReal treats it as a soapy reveal is ludicrous.
But the same is true of Quinn's sudden desire to have a baby. Quinn grappling with thoughts of motherhood once she's met a guy she could see building a life with is, I guess, a storyline that could work. But what we've gotten here is Quinn essentially saying, "I don't know, I'll have babies, I guess?"
At least Chet still has his dog.
Caroline: I’m straight-up floored that the same episode of this show featured the two female leads revealing both a secret rape and out-of-nowhere baby feelings. Those are, to be frank, clichés I thought UnReal might be above using so casually. There’s a chance both these stories will get the consideration they deserve, but from where I’m standing, it sure looks like UnReal worked from the reveals backward rather than letting the characters drive these particular revelations.
And like you said, Todd, this show is maybe particularly frustrating to me, because when it’s good, it’s good. I’ve been waiting all season for Jay (and Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) to get his due, since he’s been just about the only decent Everlasting producer all season. His pep talk to get Darius back on set was masterfully delivered, especially since Darius was smarting from Ruby’s (completely understandable!) rejection.
But it’s hard to get invested in individual stories that are done better when everything around them is so shaggy — and when there’s no reason to believe that they’ll stick around longer than a week.
Maybe this season needed a different point-of-view character
Todd: I've been thinking about ways UnReal could have structured this season to be better, and I realized in the Darius scenes (particularly when they intersected with Jay and Ruby) that borrowing something from HBO’s The Night Of might have worked.
The Night Of, in case you're unfamiliar, is a series where an accused criminal enters the justice system and ends up having his life intersect with a bunch of different lawyers, cops, etc. And presumably, each season will have a new accused criminal as its protagonist but will feature some of the same lawyers and cops.
So what if we followed Darius this season, and it was told from his point of view, as he encountered Rachel and Quinn and the others, and we could slowly realize the bad decisions he was making as he chose where to cast his alliances.
Because the behind-the-scenes stuff in this season is just so haphazard and random, isn't it? The commotion over who the showrunner is stopped wroking long ago, and this episode all but throws in the towel when it opens with Quinn essentially delivering a long info dump about what happened in the wake of last week's police shooting, rather than, y'know, showing us those details.
I had hoped this episode would crystallize a bunch of stuff about this season, just as the episode following Mary's death crystallized a bunch about last season. But no such luck. We're off the rails.
Caroline: UnReal's unraveling (see what I did there) does feel like a combination of not having a firm grasp on what this season's basic structure would be and drawing inspiration from all the messiest moments from season one.
I've seen some talk online about every episode this season feeling like the one in season one in which Mary killed herself, and while I don't think that's quite fair, it's hard to deny that the show has definitely prioritized the surprise twists more than anything else.
Seeing Everlasting through another perspective like you suggest could have at least helped propel this season in a new way. And if it wasn't Darius — whom the writers have only sporadically expressed an interest in exploring, unlike Adam in season one — it could have easily been undercover reporter Yael from day one.
Imagine seeing all this through her eyes, as she was trying to both provoke and investigate Everlasting's producers, becoming more and more disillusioned.
Hell, now I wish Yael had teamed up with Darius instead of Coleman, who showed off some truly gross instincts this week.
Todd: We've been waiting for the other shoe to drop on Coleman for so long that I'm almost disappointed it did. It's not like he was a better character when he was impossibly good, but his decision to throw in with Yael feels less like he's been pushed to do it and more like the plot needs him to.
Really, that's true of so many things this week, up to and including Ruby's rejection of Darius (a moment that at least worked because the actors sold it).
Somewhere inside of "Fugitive" was an episode that not only worked but clarified the season as a whole. But the show's increasing commitment to shocking us has led it to a place where nothing is shocking and nothing feels organic either. It's the worst place UnReal could possibly be. Bring on the final two episodes, I guess.