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 "Friendly Fire" the 10th and final 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: "Friendly Fire" is about as good of a finale as this season of UnReal could have possibly had.
I wouldn’t say it’s a great episode of television (though I mostly enjoyed it). But it more or less wraps up all outstanding business from season two, then seals it off in its very own quarantine zone, where it can't escape to infect future seasons.
When you watch a bad season of television, there are a bunch of questions worth asking. One is whether the bad season has just revealed flaws that were present all along but that were obscured by novelty in the past. (For a good example of this, see the Fox thriller 24, whose sixth season was bad, but in a way that pointed toward the badness that had always existed within the show.)
And this is certainly somewhat true of UnReal. The show has always been a soap, but at times season two seemed to tilt all the way into soapiness, in a way that wasn't exactly becoming.
Another question worth asking is whether future seasons can escape the bad season's gravitational pull. And at least in this case, UnReal season two has been so successfully sealed off from what's to come that the finale might as well have ended with co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro coming out to say, "Hey, listen, we know a lot of this didn't work, so we're just never going to speak of it again." And if season three can return to season one's quality, or even just get close, most of us will probably be happy to join her in that.
But I also thought the finale was enjoyable on its own merits. I can already hear you grumbling about Jeremy, Caroline, but I loved the way the final scene cut between that overhead shot of the car crash that claimed Yael and Coleman's lives and then Rachel, Jeremy, Chet, and Quinn contemplating the stars. These are all wrecks, just of very different types.
Does this finale acknowledge season two’s scattered storytelling?
Caroline Framke: Of course I have grumbling to do about Jeremy — whom I almost straight-up forgot about, such was his non-presence this season — but I’m more interested in the potential reset for season three you identified, which is definitely UnReal’s best scenario at this point.
The trouble for me comes with the fact that I’ve lost trust in this show’s ability to distinguish its great moments from its needlessly splashy ones. I want to believe that Shapiro and company ended season two more dubious than when they started it, but I just can’t be sure that’s the case, given this finale.
Yes, they gave Darius and Ruby the happy ending they’ve deserved all along, and (literally) killed off a couple of plots that didn’t work, but it’s been such a mess getting to this point that I’m wary of saying this finale’s seemingly cut-and-dried dismissal of the stories that didn’t work are indicative of UnReal itself admitting they didn’t work.
That final sequence really was something, though. Ending on Rachel, Jeremy, Chet, and Quinn looking up at the sky wasn’t an ideal contrast to season one's final shot of Quinn and Rachel — admittedly because I could do without Chet and Jeremy forever — but I can’t deny it was powerful. There’s something desperately sad about the fact that Quinn and Rachel spent all season trying to stake their claims on both Everlasting and their own lives, only to end up bound to the same trash men they started with.
Todd: See, I think this finale was, almost entirely, UnReal's self-commentary on its own troubles in season two. Including Chet and Jeremy in that final shot is essentially owning up to the fact that the show is stuck with these characters as much as Quinn and Rachel are, because Lifetime’s executive suite apparently consists entirely of Jeremy's number one fans.
That commentary happened throughout the episode. Think of all of Quinn's early lines about how hard it is to keep viewers invested, how you have to keep upping the game and doing crazier things. Or think, even, of the emphasis on true love, about as pure an emotional expression as you could think of and one that the characters on UnReal are apparently incapable of processing.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not sure I want to see UnReal go full soap, and I'm afraid that's the only way forward for it after this finale. There are so many terrible things that could happen next. But consider, say, Quinn's stunned silence after the Darius and Ruby twist (which came out of nowhere as much for us as it did for her), and you can still catch a glimpse or two of the show we first fell in love with. They're just going to need some more coaxing to come out.
Happy ending aside, Darius and Ruby (and their faithful producer Jay) deserved better
Caroline: A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the idea that season two of UnReal might’ve been better served if it filtered everything through a perspective other than Rachel’s. At the time I suggested Yael, our Intrepid Gal Reporter, but as this finale wrapped up, the answer came to me so clearly that I felt dumb for not seeing it before.
All season long, the only producer who’s given a single shit about using Everlasting’s first black suitor for good is Jay. Even as he chased his cash bonuses, he produced the hell out of every segment he could get his hands on — and, yes, fell for Ruby just as hard as Darius did in the process. When Jay (via the wonderful Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) started crying at Darius and Ruby’s reunion, I surprised the hell out of myself by tearing up right alongside him. Jay believed in their love, even when the show kept forgetting it existed.
And to be blunt: If UnReal wanted to do a season that hinged on race, it could’ve used someone other than Rachel as its conduit. The police shooting storyline remains an embarrassment, made even more stark in the finale by Romeo returning to the set to do nothing but make sure Darius marries Tiffany. But buried in the middle of that ill-advised shitstorm, there was one line that made perfect sense: Jay’s furious, heartbroken admonishment of Rachel with, "This is not your story to tell."
Jay could have — and should have — had a larger part in this season. His investment in the Darius and Ruby love story floated in and out of relevance, but he could have given UnReal’s glancing attempts to discuss race some actual weight. I hope season three gives him enough to do, because from where I’m sitting, he’s the only Everlasting producer I’d trust with anything anymore.
Todd: Really, so much of what went wrong with this season would feel more minor but for the weirdo detour the show took in episodes six, seven, and eight, when it decided to tackle topics like police violence and rape. It was like it felt the need to suddenly be important, instead of understanding that its discussions of how American television flattens portrayals of gender and race into stereotypes are already meaty enough.
Instead, imagine if those three episodes had been devoted to developing an actual relationship between Darius and Ruby. The idea of something real happening within the confines of Everlasting, and Jay attempting to protect that at all costs, was always one of the season's best ideas, but the show constantly undercut it or let it get in its own way.
Some of this was just that the season didn't have a great idea for what to do with Rachel and Quinn, the ostensible protagonists. By having both of them working on Everlasting in much the same context as they did in season one, UnReal was essentially forced to repeat a lot of season one's emotional dynamics. Thus, it tried to top them with lots and lots of Big! Shocking! Moments!
But that's not what the show needed. Instead, it needed to settle down and dig deeper. For as much as, say, the second season of Mr. Robot (UnReal's forever twin, considering how close they debuted to each other and how thematically similar they are) has drawn complaints for nothing happening — and even though those complaints have been occasionally justified, that show is really, really doing its best to explore its characters.
Could UnReal have used a similar approach? Undoubtedly. Instead, season two will at best go down as a misfire when the history of this show is written.
Where the hell do Rachel and Quinn go from here?
Caroline: If there’s anything I don’t want to see UnReal reset in season three, it’s the state of Rachel and Quinn’s relationship at the end of this finale. They’ve never been as close or as destroyed as they are right now, which is an interesting situation for them to be in. UnReal now has the chance to push both characters beyond their two default settings, in which they’re either worst enemies or the "hot bitches in charge."
Quinn, in particular, ends this season as a different person than she was when she started it — something I thought might be impossible, given Quinn’s generally unfailing commitment to being Quinn, in all her diabolical glory. Though her brief love affair with Ioan Gruffudd's rich fanboy wasn’t especially inspiring, it at least shifted her character in a way that seems unlikely to disappear.
Quinn loved, and she lost.
Watching her see Darius and Ruby transcend all the cynical Everlasting twists she threw at them just by loving each other was more devastating than I would’ve expected even just an episode ago (in large part thanks to Constance Zimmer's ability to squeeze out tears through steely resolve). Quinn should be a different producer next season, which could be great, if UnReal doesn’t immediately wave away her evolution in season three.
Todd: Yes, if Zimmer is somehow nominated for an Emmy for this season, as she was for season one, then the finale would make a logical episode of her to submit for consideration. She gets to be steely and just a little bit broken in it, and I think that's a good place to have her live in when season three begins.
If I had a wish for UnReal season three, I guess it would be for the show to somehow figure out a way to restore some of its ambivalence about its ultimate belief that Everlasting is worth doing. Season one suggested that Everlasting was an all-consuming monster, and while season two did the same, it rarely was such a beast for Quinn or Rachel, the two characters we're most bound to.
In season one, it felt like Everlasting might swallow Rachel alive at any given moment. Season two really lost that feeling, because she had made her choice to live with it in her life.
But that decision ultimately didn’t lead to much internal conflict. And that was the season’s biggest struggle. For as much external conflict as it forced upon Quinn and Rachel, it wasn't backing up those external conflicts with the internal conflict they both struggled to get a handle on in season one.
What's good, however, is that Rachel and Quinn are both still vital characters. It would be easy enough for the show to get back on track when season three begins. But if it's going to do that, it has to recommit to a big idea: Everlasting is going to be the death of these women. And do they welcome that? Or not?
Caroline: Both Quinn and Rachel’s relationships to Everlasting have changed, but your guess is as good as mine regarding where they go from here. My gut is telling me they have to embrace that inevitability, given that they both ended this season believing they blew their only shot at happiness.
(I‘m less convinced than they are; John was charming but didn’t fully understand Quinn, and Coleman was a selfish narcissist who steamrolled Rachel on the regular, so those wouldn’t have been such happy endings, really.)
Even if season three of UnReal decides to pretend that much of season two didn’t happen, it can’t afford to ignore the shifts within its characters — and if Quinn and Rachel’s final, ambivalent looks in "Friendly Fire" are anything to go by, they have realized the very same.