UnREAL S3E2: Shield

by thethreepennyguignol

Now,  I know that UnREAL (God, that stylised title is already getting exhausting to type) can’t spend all of it’s third season promising us that it knows what it did wrong in it’s second like it did last week, and I don’t want it to. At some point it has to strike out and be it’s own thing, and this second episode, Shield, is certainly an attempt at that.

This week, the show is taking a look at what men find attractive, as Serena (our Bachelorette-but-not-really-because-that’s-copyrighted) displays her cocky skill in a game of poker where she crushes every single guy and finds them almost all turned off by her open enjoyment of her success. This leads into behind-the-scenes machinations as Chet, Quinn, and Rachel grapple for dominance over whether Serena should sacrifice her hard work, intelligence, and ambition to seem less threatening to the men, or whether she should stick it out and risk turning them off.

Now, I’m sure that any woman who’s been in a het flirtation can recognise some truth to the way this show lays out what men want from women – yes, Chet is blunt, but he’s not entirely wrong when he says that men have been basically conditioned to want a woman who plays second fiddle to them and superficially seems to intently value every single one of his opinions and ideas, and I like how fucking straightforward the episode is about it. There’s a distinct but familiar ugliness to watching Serena debase herself by playing the blonde bimbo idiot to keep the men interested in her, even if it does transpire that she’s been playing Chet with a similair game. I’m hoping that this season will end with her realizing that, as she states at the end of this episode, “men are idiots” and that she actually doesn’t require one to be happy and fulfilled as society as told her. I was a little dissapointed that they went for the obvious, tropey choice of having one of the guys see through her act and ask her to drop it, but hope springs eternal for this storyline.

It’s what this sets up for the other women, though, that makes this plot intriguing: a perenially horny Rachel is pissed that Serena is undermining her feminist vision for the show, and acts out by causing a huge fight between the guys on camera, not before blaming everyone but herself for her problems and enjoying some intense flirtation with a couple of the male suitors. My favourite flavour of Rachel is this aggressively forthright, eternally irritated one, and this episode had that in spades, so kudos, even if her flirtations feel a little too pointed and soap-opera obvious. That said, I’m into Madison calling her out with the “maybe she’s having her breakdown early” line.

Quinn is where it’s at this week (and every week, to be fair), however, stealing the episode right out from under everyone else as she spirals out into an alcoholic state while trying to keep the show and herself together, after confrontations with Chet and Rachel that underline how much she feels she is lacking in her personal life. She declares herself Rachel’s muse as she begins to skid out of control, and there’s something ominous about that: the muse-artist relationship is something really grim in practice (see: the excellent I Love Dick for a female-centric deconstruction of the trope), and the fact that Quinn is dressing her codependent, deeply unhealthy relationship with Rachel as artistically justified and important is a reminder of how starved she can feel for real connection: yes, it’s a little over-the-top to have her fucking Rachel’s love interest at the episode’s close to prove a point to herself, but I’ll hold back on real criticism till they do something with the story. Constance Zimmer does barely-contained disintegration with such skill that almost anything featuring Quinn is a joy to watch and I’m seriously pulling for her to land the Emmy this year, because there’s no character like Quinn on TV and she deserves recognition for striking out into new territory the way she consistently has.

So yeah, when I put it all together like that, there’s plenty good going on in UnREAL at the moment, with the female suitor offering a chance to take a look at gender roles in a different, interesting way. But I guess I’m still a little hesitant from the mess that was last season, which I also felt started well and then spiralled out worse that Quinn ever could. I’m in this for the long haul, because I love Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby way more than is healthy, but sometimes it feels like UnREAL has trouble keeping it’s tropey melodrama on the (fictional, Everlasting-related) cameras and out of the potentially-incisive backstage drama.

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