Reality TV has always been at its best when it acknowledges it’s a construction, and on last night’s Vanderpump Rules finale, viewers got one of the most riveting and raw episodes in Bravo history.
For those uninitiated, Vanderpump Rules is a 10-year-old spinoff of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills that follows the front-of-house staff at a West Hollywood restaurant owned by former Housewife Lisa Vanderpump. In recent seasons, the show has sort of chugged on as its most senior cast members have moved on from the restaurant server life and settled down in Valley Village with their respective partners, babies, and dogs. But this March, halfway through the airing of its current season (season 10), a shocking affair between two unlikely castmates took the show back to its messiest heyday.
One of those settled-down couples was fan favorite Ariana Madix and the famously vainglorious Tom Sandoval, who lends his name to the handy portmanteau “#Scandoval,” which describes the following events: After dating for nine years, Sandoval was revealed to have been cheating with Madix’s close friend, former beauty pageant participant Raquel Leviss, for seven months. Madix discovered the affair in March after finding videos of the pair FaceTiming each other on Sandoval’s phone; the world found out just two days later when TMZ broke the story. (For a full explainer, read Alex Abad-Santos’s extremely extensive rundown.)
Cheating, it should be mentioned, is practically the backbone of Vanderpump Rules; its inciting incident was SUR waitress Scheana Shay apologizing to Beverly Hills housewife Brandi Glanville for being her husband’s mistress. Scandoval was different from the many other times reality TV stars have cheated on their partners with someone in the same circle because of how it affected the trajectory of the show itself: What’s a show about a friend group to do when the friend group breaks up? At what point is sacrificing your personal life to the altar of fame and money worth it? And when your life implodes, do you owe it to the show to agree to film immediately afterward?
Celebrities sometimes reference their “cycles” of work: if they’re doing promotion for a new album or film, for instance, versus lying low and staying out of the public eye to avoid backlash due to overexposure. Reality stars have a cycle, too. On Bravo, shows film for several months before taking a six-ish month break until the show airs on TV. About halfway through the show’s airing, they’ll film a reunion episode where all the cast members sit around network overlord Andy Cohen, spill their thoughts on the drama that went down months ago, and crucially, address the public’s reaction to it.
When Sandoval and Leviss began their affair, season 10 was still filming, although the cameras weren’t there to catch the action, only vague whispers that were quickly waved away by everyone involved. By March, when Madix discovered the truth, the show was already about halfway done airing. It had already been edited together, with each of the characters’ narratives neatly tied up. But in a move that Bravo only reserves for world-shattering news, producers picked back up the cameras and began filming again within two days of the story breaking. Executive producer Alex Baskin told Variety, “They got us all of the necessary approvals and clearances so that we could tell the story in real time. That’s why what you’re seeing is pure verité.”
What aired during last night’s finale was the result of that slapdash effort to catch the drama on tape. And boy, was it dramatic: We see Sandoval and Madix, still stuck living in the same Valley Village house, sit across from each other and unload the contents of a decade-long relationship and the enormous betrayal that ended it. Madix speaks with heart-wrenching emotion, managing to deliver extraordinarily clear-headed words from someone who’s just watched their whole life explode.
During the conversation, she explains that just because Sandoval was going through what appeared to be a mid-life crisis didn’t mean that he could excuse the fact that he had an affair with one of her best friends (this may sound rather obvious to most people, but Sandoval is, as viewers have seen over the past decade, someone who needs this spelled out for him). She reminds him that she stood up for him before he had the money and the fame that Vanderpump Rules brought, and that Leviss has a history of chasing unavailable, famous men. “You got a little bit of money, a little bar, a little band, and then this girl is gonna act enamored with you,” she says. “Because that’s what you want, huh? You want someone to just gas you up. That girl is searching for her identity in men. She has no identity of her own. Willing to stoop so low as to fuck one of her best friend’s life partners. And that someone, you think is a good person you should be around?”
It’s so soooo disappointing and sad to see Tom continuing to try to gaslight Ariana, make this entire thing about him and his feelings and continue to have any regard for his life partner’s feelings. I’m SO happy Ariana isn’t letting him off the hook for any of it #PumpRules pic.twitter.com/Z3RSbrsBsF— Daily Bravo (@dailybravomail) May 18, 2023
Then, at the end, came the dagger: “I regret every moment that I stood up for you, defended you, supported you. You’re worth nothing. And I want you to feel that deep in your soul. I want you to hear those words coming from the mouth of the woman that fucking stood by you and loved you and was ready to build the rest of my life around you. I regret ever loving you.” Viewers described watching the episode as “the Bravo Super Bowl;” Vulture’s Brian Moylan compared it to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or a Tennessee Williams play.
Though most of the meat of the episode had been teased beforehand by Bravo in the form of several different trailers, what viewers didn’t get to see until last night was how often in the episode the cast openly referenced the fact that they were on a television show. Because none of them expected to be filming at the time, they had to discuss the events that happened outside the filming cycle: a suspicious comment Schwartz made at BravoCon, Shay shoving Leviss post-Watch What Happens Live, the real-time reactions to social media outrage (including the thousands of Yelpers leaving 0-star reviews on Sandoval and Schwartz’s new bar). They reference attending “the finale party,” meaning the party that was supposed to neatly tie up season 10 and act as the original finale episode, then having to restart filming. One cast member, Lala Kent, is shown wearing her own merch that read “Send it to Darrell,” a reference to her own reaction to a note Leviss’s lawyer sent about Kent’s statements on social media about the affair.
The show also referenced the fact that after shooting a single scene with Sandoval in which neither appear to show any real remorse for their actions, Leviss stopped answering phone calls from producers or cast mates. It was later reported that after filming the reunion, Leviss had entered a mental health facility; as Erin Corbett argues, Bravo fans could stand to be a little more thoughtful with how they treat cast members on their favorite shows.
Reality TV exists on a spectrum, from the extremely staged and scripted (Laguna Beach, say) to the almost uncomfortably raw (Intervention). Most Bravo shows fall somewhere in the middle — the relationships and dialogue are real and unwritten, but some of the storylines may be hammed up for maximum drama. Though many fans at first believed Scandoval was all a ploy to get us to keep watching a show whose best years were probably behind it, no amount of writing, acting, or editing could have put together the episode we witnessed last night. Ultimately what viewers got was a rare peek inside the lives of reality TV stars acknowledging they are reality TV stars, and grappling with this extremely strange dynamic. I couldn’t look away.