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 discussing "Espionage," the penultimate 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.
Todd VanDerWerff: "Espionage" should have been the season two premiere.
Obviously, I don't literally mean that. It would be weird to start a season of UnReal with just three contestants remaining on Everlasting, and at least some of the Darius storyline pivots off all of the crazy stuff he's been through since he made his ill-fated decision to join this season of UnReal’s show-within-a-show.
But "Espionage" is the first episode we’ve seen all season where it felt like Rachel was making decisions and choices. It was the first episode where Coleman's maybe-a-villain-maybe-not status made any sort of sense. It was the first episode where Quinn's quips made me laugh. It was the first where the big twists felt earned. And it was the first episode where I felt like I understood the contestants even a little bit.
Yes, it had some awful Chet awfulness. And yes, it had a bunch of story beats that probably could have been handled more cleanly.
But it more or less felt like the UnReal we knew in season one, and I'm grateful for that. If it had actually aired in season one, it would have fallen toward the lower half of an episode ranking, but these sorts of episodes that layer on character development and have fun with the idea of the show's world are so necessary to everything it's trying to do, and season two has been far too thin in that regard.
That, by default, might make "Espionage" the best episode of season two. Right?
Caroline Framke: Right.
After several episodes that tried to do everything significant all at once, "Espionage" finally focused in on the elements of UnReal that used to be the show’s best beats. I even felt invested in Everlasting — finally! — as Jay and Madison fought to keep their girls in, while Rachel quietly wreaked sophomoric havoc with her allegedly "hotter" counterpart.
But as we could’ve guessed, "Espionage" got so much better once it let Quinn and Rachel be Quinn and Rachel.
Quinn and Rachel: together again at last
Caroline: I don’t mean that they always have to be vicious or a team to work. I mean that Quinn and Rachel spent most of season two spinning further and further out from the heart of UnReal, but they are the heart of UnReal, so their relative absence created a vacuum the season never figured out how to deal with. (Who else would fill that void? Chet? Coleman? Come on.)
I think it’s important that "Espionage" managed to be this season’s best episode without surprising me once. It’s obvious when the episode opens on Coleman watching footage of a catatonic Rachel spilling secrets — as if he’s watching his favorite soap — that the episode will end with Rachel realizing what he’s capable of and turning on him.
But the way the episode gets there is still so much more compelling than anything else UnReal has tried to shock us with this season.
Todd: I was having a discussion with some friends a couple of weeks ago, and they were defending the season's general messiness by saying that season one was also messy.
And that's true. You and I have made that point a number of times before.
But where season one was messy in a compelling way, we've argued that season two is messy in, well, a messy way. And the reason is that season one centered everything on the toxic, endlessly layered relationship between Quinn and Rachel.
It was, in a lot of ways, a female spin on Hannibal. Quinn functioned as the dark temptation, trying to get Rachel to abandon her own mental well-being to create the great art both women knew she was capable of. Rachel tried to cling to her mental health, while knowing she was going to slide.
The show could overcome literally anything because of this relationship, and because Rachel was caught between the constant push and pull of what she knew was "right" and what she wanted more than anything.
Season two has largely sidelined all of that in favor of endless dithering, and each time it has tried to make the story about Rachel again, it's done so either clumsily or irresponsibly … and sometimes both.
But "Espionage" is so good because you know that Rachel is scheming, and you know that Coleman is finally going to see what she's capable of, and you know that a showdown is coming. It's built perfectly, and even though what happens amounts to one of Rachel's more minor escapades (in that getting Yael to shit herself isn't the worst thing she's ever done), it's still nice to see her flirting with her worst self.
Had "Espionage" been episode five or six, I’d be much higher on this season as a whole. Plus, then we would have avoided all of the police shooting stuff!
Finally getting to Quinn and Rachel versus Coleman improves this episode so much
Caroline: Speaking of the police shooting stuff, for as good as "Espionage" is, it largely sidesteps that plot entirely. And it’s telling that the only references to the shooting come from Quinn and Coleman, who both refer to Romeo being shot in relation to how it affects the two of them. (They never even mention Romeo’s name.)
But yes, I loved everything Rachel did in this episode. It was thrilling to watch her face grow harder and more resolute, until she let it crack just enough to convince Coleman he’s safe from her wrath.
More surprising to me is that I really buy everything Quinn did in "Espionage." Part of that is due to (Emmy nominee!) Constance Zimmer, who plays Quinn’s rage, frustration, and reluctant heartbreak perfectly at the moment when her doctor tells her she can’t have children. (Or at least that’s what I’m assuming based on her reaction; we didn’t actually hear the call.)
But part of it is also just that Quinn is now a part of Rachel’s narrative again, finally. She has a real connection to Everlasting beyond just wanting to rule it, and I could go on, but really, I just can’t wait to see her and Rachel take Coleman down. I’m real sick of watching him justify his invasive condescension with white knight platitudes — and while making moves on Hot Rachel, besides!
Coleman thinks he knows what he’s dealing with, but even after all the Everlasting dirt he’s heard, he has no idea.
Todd: I think it's telling that most of the stuff that's happened in the last several episodes has largely been sidelined as just more stuff that everybody had to deal with, or stuff that could have done Rachel in were it not for Quinn's ability to smooth over problem areas. (This is pretty hard to believe, but I'll go with it.)
But the way "Espionage" eventually boils down to Quinn and Rachel versus Coleman almost makes the entire season fall into place as a tale of two women battling against not Chet’s obvious patriarchal bullshit, but rather the kind of guy who believes he's helping and instead just makes things even worse. In particular, Coleman’s assurance that Rachel could go and stay in a facility where she could finally get better was delivered with perfect, dripping condescension.
I'd wager that the show skewed away from this idea (which was introduced very early on) because it felt too similar to what happened in season one, but it's just different enough to feel satisfying. Yes, when Coleman finally sleeps with Yael, it's sort of ridiculous, but it also feels like everything the show is trying to say in an over-the-top nutshell.
In the world of UnReal, men are always going to have the power but also always be weak. The show works best when it's examining the weakness of its hero, while also showing that her inherent strength (and the strength of her mentor) are what Everlasting (and maybe America) needs.
I got a little glimpse of that in "Espionage," and it almost made me hopeful that the show can get itself back on track in time for the finale, even with all the wreckage strewn about.
Even a satisfying episode couldn’t get free of the season’s problems
Caroline: For all our relief over this episode, though, there is still an aspect of it that ties into the … confusing … way this season of UnReal has handled Everlasting itself. Every contestant who’s still in the running — Chantal, Tiffany, and Yael — has lost whatever semblance of personality they had to better serve sexy twists.
This season started out with Chet try to turn Everlasting into some Girls Gone Wild nightmare, by making the contestants meet Darius for the first time in their bikinis or running an obstacle course in their bikinis. But even when Chet lost that battle to Coleman, and even when Coleman lost his showrunning position to Quinn, the instinct to sex up the contestants for pretty much any reason has still been the way this season of Everlasting has gone.
It would be one thing if the contestants each had their own compelling arcs, but they’ve rarely evolved beyond their loglines, and now, their stories are almost all about sex — and yes, I think it’s weird and ill-advised for that to be the case in the season with a black suitor. (Which, while I’m at it: Darius was basically a non-presence in this episode, amazing red suit notwithstanding.)
In the end, "Espionage" felt the most like the UnReal we got so excited about in its first season, and it left me more excited for next week’s finale than I ever thought I would be. But the problem with trying to ignore all the threads that didn’t work earlier in the season is that they bleed out into the rest.
"Espionage" made the right call in leaving UnReal’s recent pitfalls behind, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t still lurking.