Up until Monday night’s finale, the most dramatic thing about this season of The Bachelor was debating just how boring it was. Arie Luyendyk, the blue-eyed, graying-haired race-car driver, who had appeared in an earlier season of The Bachelorette, anchored a throwback season in which nothing much happened as he (relatively) studiously went about finding a wife. Going into the finale, Arie had narrowed the field of his future wives down to two: the blond, laconic Lauren B., a quiet, shy woman whose every line on the show could be contained in one blog post, and brunette Becca, a publicist from Minnesota with an upbeat personality and confident manner who said comparing herself to Lauren was like “comparing an apple to a starfish.”
Arie was expected to choose between these two women Monday night, but from the moment the episode began, with host Chris Harrison telling a live audience “whether he knows it or not, Arie is about to become the most controversial bachelor in history,” it was clear more was in the air. What followed was a typical Bachelor finale, in which Arie became engaged to Becca, until the show introduced a newfangled Bachelor innovation, in which it aired unedited, dual camera footage of Arie breaking up with Becca weeks after their engagement because he still had a hankering for Lauren. Bachelors have changed their minds in the past, but perhaps responding to the charges of dullness leveled against this season, the producers decided to turn this into an event, setting up an L.A. weekend for Becca and Arie, specifically for the purpose of Arie breaking up with her.
The whole thing made for insanely great and awful television. The Bachelor has persevered for decades despite failing at its stated mission—marriage—because it always gestures toward real mating norms, norms that its cartoonish and hooey-eyed approach sometimes brings into great relief. In this case, we got a spotlight on the atrociousness of the self-identified “good guy” and the narcissism and self-obsession inherent in a kind of individualism that treats doing whatever the eff you want as a moral act, instead of an abrogation of basic decency.
Arie wanted to break up with Becca on television, because he thought he owed her that, and it’s true, in normal adult circumstances, it is polite to end an engagement with a face-to-face conversation. These are not normal circumstances. In speaking with Becca, and then in his insistence that they keep talking, Arie showed himself to have been utterly brainwashed by The Bachelor’s whole malarkey ethos, in which doing something sexually mercenary—dating a harem of women at the same time, for example—is reframed as a romantic quest. Arie has to do this, dump this woman on television, because it just wouldn’t be “fair” to her if he didn’t follow his heart, the only heart that really matters.
Many Bachelor cycles ago, I wrote about the season Arie previously appeared on, and the Bachelor or Bachelorette’s self-defeating habit of splitting the final contestants into the one who is “appropriate” for them and the one they are attracted to. (This is also how the show is edited.) Inevitably, the Bachelor(ettes) doubt their tawdry chemical connection with its reek of sex, even though it’s much more reliable than any other bond formed in the distorting hothouse of a reality show, and so choose, in the parlance of UnReal, Lifetime’s Bachelor satire, the “wifey.” This doesn’t quite scan onto Arie’s choice this season, because Arie didn’t appear to have chemistry with Lauren, so much as protective instinct, but in picking Becca, Arie did make the “logical”—his words—companionate choice. Becca was a women he knew he could have an entire conversation with—truly, the low bar Lauren couldn’t clear—while Lauren was the blank slate upon whom he could sketch all his ardor. Then, after getting engaged to Becca, he was overcome with Bachelor’s remorse.
It’s true that Arie wouldn’t be doing Becca any favors by staying with her if he didn’t love her, and Becca accepts this premise. She takes his announcement extremely well. It’s a joke that classy doesn’t really mean classy anymore, but in the cheeseball context of The Bachelor, Becca is as classy as AP bio. She understands where Arie is going from the start, slips off her huge engagement ring—the cameras don’t quite catch it—and says, “I hope you find what you want. It’s clearly not me.”
The Bachelor has turned crying into a kind of cat-and-mouse game, with it playing the cat and the contestants playing the mouse, but where the rules are: If the cat sees the mouse cry, it gets to eat its soul. Becca wants to keep her soul and so gets off the couch to go get her suitcase, telling Arie to go away. As Arie follows, looking for benediction, a clearing of his conscience, Becca does an impressive job holding onto the appropriate emotion: anger. “This is a really shitty thing on your part,” she says to him, holding her face up to the ceiling, so her tears don’t spill over her mascara. But neither Arie nor The Bachelor is satisfied with anger. They need the breakdown, the hurt, the emotion, all of the tears Becca is sobbing off-camera, in the bathroom, as Arie knocks and asks “Hey, are you OK?” No, dude! She’s not!
Arie forces Becca to sit down with him on the couch, so he can clarify what she already knows. Under the guise of making her feel better, he has her say, “My future was ripped away. I love you and I want you to be happy,” so that he can reply, “I can’t give those things to you if I’m in love with someone else. … I know talking to you in person in this way seems cruel, but I want you to move forward and I want you to know how I’m feeling.” This is textbook breakup misbehavior: If you’re the dick, have the decency to be the dick. Their exchange ends with a scene that could not be improved upon by the most brutal satirists, as Becca keeps asking Arie to go, and he just won’t leave, sitting on the couch, waiting, waiting, waiting for her to—what?—give him one last look, a hug, a goodbye, some closure. Finally, he says, “I’m going to go now,” and then sits there for more endless seconds, until he finally walks off, so uncomfortable not being the nice guy—he has become an idiotic, menacing one.
By the time this exchange took place, I was hollering at my screen: “LEAVE!” I’m sure that’s what the producers wanted. The whole episode was beyond canny. The decision to use unedited footage would have made this a buzzy episode in and of itself, but it was a choice that fit the material: Only at full length do we get to see the accruing aggression of Arie’s attentiveness, the way his hanging around becomes so unappealingly claustrophobic. It also made the most out of the material, stretching what might have been a five-minute sequence to 20 minutes, while milking Becca’s relative restraint for all it was worth, getting to be unquestionably “real” and lighting up social media with an “innovation” in a long-running franchise.
Chris Harrison, an emotional succubus posing as an empath, could hardly conceal the glee in his voice when he told the audience, “To say this is trending and blowing up social media right now is a gross understatement.” If you ever wanted to hear what the cat who ate the canary would sound like pretending to be a concerned adult man, listen to Harrison this episode. After Arie told Chris of his plan to break up with Becca, the live audience let loose with a smattering of boos: They were for Harrison as much as Arie, but Harrison brushed them off. It’s not every day you get to see the host of a show throw its star under the bus, but that’s what happened here, the show giving Arie the least flattering (un)edit it possibly could. Harrison poses as sensitive, but he can barely suppress his manic excitement: He’s got a hit on his hands! (Harrison has previously insulted UnReal, in which the host character is presented as a clueless dolt, but after an episode like tonight, it really feels like this presentation is more than he deserves. He’s not a dupe, he’s a ghoul.)
At the end of the episode, Chris interviewed Becca briefly, asking if she’d like to see Arie. She wasn’t sure. Well, Chris informed her, handing her a crap sandwich like it was a gift, she doesn’t really have a choice! Tuesday night, The Bachelor will be back, with a whole other special about the fallout from the finale. It will surely be amazingly awful, awfully amazing television that I look forward to gobbling up. And at the end, for all her trouble, Becca will probably get the gift of being next season’s Bachelorette. Nothing makes up for being embarrassed on TV like getting to pay it forward.