UnREAL S3E9/10: Codependence/Commitment

by thethreepennyguignol

I think the most frustrating thing about this season of UnREAL has been all the unrealized potential. Because, with the two-part finale behind us (entitled Codependence and Commitment, for those who liked that kind of thing), it’s hard not to look to the beginning of the season for all that the third season of Lifetime’s reality-TV based show promised.

In all fairness, if you take the notions put forth in those episodes (Rachel tries to become a better person, Serena represents a feminist rebranding for the show, and Quinn grapples with her place as a woman inside the industry) and were to just jump to this finale, I guess you could argue that UnREAL has followed through on a few of those ideas. Quinn has ousted Gary and replaced him with a close confidant, as well as getting back together with Chet. Rachel has returned to a life of manipulation and is searching for connection and failing to find it at Everlasting, driving her away from the show once more. Serena, instead of settling for one of the men the show demands her to, rejects both and ends Everlasting in the back of her car alone, going through Tinder. It’s obvious that some people in that writer’s room saw a strong throughline for this season, about the place of women in showbusiness and the effect of that on these women in particular, and attempted to build a decent story from the ground up based on those ideas. But the path that brought us here has been too inconsistent, too patchy, too uneven, and so even though season three closes on a higher note that the rest of it’s third act, it’s still an unsatisfying story as a whole.

Like I mentioned a few episodes ago, UnREAL this season is more about Quinn than anyone else. And there is a degree of elegance to the denouement of her plot this week, as she topples Gary and uses her newfound power to put women at the top of the network. Even her ending back up with Chet, while predictable, feels like the natural next step for the two of them, as they’re doomed in this Sisyphean hellscape to always end up back together, the only people mad enough to stick it out with their respective true selves. In fact, I would argue that this is the most Quinn we’ve seen Quinn in the last few weeks; calculating, cold, but not an indiscriminate monster. As she bids goodbye to Rachel, there’s a flicker of her warmth kindling somewhere; but this Quinn doesn’t jibe with the one who basically through a literal child under a literal bus a couple of episodes ago, and for that, it winds up feeling unearned, despite Zimmer’s constant brazen commitment to the role.

Rachel and Serena’s plots end up wrapped up in each other again, as Rachel tries to produce the perfect finale in the face of her personal life going to pieces. Shiri Appleby does calculated callous disassociation like no-one else on television, so when Jeremy rejects her again and tells her that she has ruined his life (and finally acknowledges that he murdered two people last season – in fact, he refers to Rachel “making [him] a murderer”, which is a backdoor pilot for UnREAL: True Crime edition, if I’ve ever seen one) and her psychiatrist admits his personal obsession with her, she kicks into high gear and starts ripping apart everything she can as calmly as possible. There’s something tragically poignant about her trying to befriend and then seduce a random crew member on Everlasting, as her attempts to emotionally bond with someone end in her falling back on the only kind of connection she truly feels safe in – sexual, and watching her throw the season of Everlasting into reverse as she convinces Serena to give up on both the remaining suitors is peak Rachel.

Again, this specifically is a good end to her season-long arc (from lying face-down in the lake as Quinn tries to bring her back to lying face-up on the front step of her cabin in the woods after Quinn gave her permission to leave), but the road we took here has been such a rambling mess that it doesn’t feel cohesive or satisfying – yes, that could be a reflection of Rachel’s own complex journey dealing with her mental health and trauma, but UnREAL is so wrapped up in the reality TV drama it professes to critique that it feels less deliberate than it should or could. Not least when it has to tie into the diabolical Jeremy plot, which never felt addressed the way it should have been.

Serena comes out of this episode the best, as she finally seems to come to her senses and realize that this is all batshit insane and that she doesn’t want to marry some guy she met on a reality TV show and cuts the deal at the last minute, live on TV. Her arc this season seems to have drawn a pretty straight line from “conflicted feminist icon” to “unconflicted feminist icon”, but it still begs the question as to why she would come on to Everlasting in the first place. If she was really so poorly-invested that a three-minute chat with a strung-out Rachel was enough to change her mind, how are we as an audience to believe she ever really wanted this at all?

And in general, this episode is just a mess of plot points and character work that seems weird and off – Jay tells Rachel that he broke up with his boyfriend to pursue his affair with Alexei, which just isn’t what happened (his boyfriend dumped him). Quinn institutes her backstabbing BFF as head of the network after she tried to throw her under the bus, which doesn’t fit with the ruthless, calculating Quinn this season has been trying to sell us. The entire plot with the Everlasting psychiatrist and his relationship with Rachel has been creepy in the laziest way, backburnered to give us a bad guy to bring back for next season, if Jeremy doesn’t kill him in a car crash first. It’s rushed and weak and seems more interested in the Next Season On tease at the end, which shows Quinn with a baby and Rachel as the Suitress on the next season of Everlasting.

It seems like each season of this show is keen to put the last one behind it, and that always gives UnREAL the sensation of being oddly groundless. This season taken as a piece on it’s own has had it’s up and downs but has scraped by as passable overall, but when taken as part of the wider show, it feels too small, failing to take on the enormous mess left behind at the end of the second season and really overcome it in a convincing way. And I can’t help but wonder if season four will do the same, forgetting this season ever happened so it can focus on Rachel with a blonde blowout while it debates the feminism of reality television once more. But, feminist or not, it’s hard to come up with a convincing reason to come back for season four, when season three felt so lost in it’s own vacuum, ignoring it’s past and as a result never really finding it’s feet.

That’s the end of my UnREAL recaps for this season! If you enjoyed them, you can read them all again here, and you can also tune in to my Riverdale recaps and my Carrie recaps too. And, as ever, if you enjoyed these recaps and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon and checking out my other site No But Listen!

(header image courtesy of Vulture)