On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most anyone has ever needed to be distracted, tonight’s episode of The Bachelorette arrived with the nation collectively hovering somewhere around 12. Thankfully, the episode on offer, which had been built up for weeks as an incredible spectacle, was, like so few things in this life, not overhyped. Instead of saving her last rose for the finale, Clare Crawley, this season’s bachelorette, fast-forwarded through the normal arc of a season in a 36-hour period, racing from confession of love to fantasy suite to engagement in a mad dash that was as engrossing as it was ill-advised. Distraction, granted.
Crawley is a series regular. She first appeared in 2014, on The Bachelor’s 18th season, where she scandalously had sex with bachelor Juan Pablo before telling him off in the season finale, and has since shown up in two seasons of Bachelor in Paradise and Bachelor Winter Games. She’s a known entity to viewers and producers of the franchise: high-strung, reactive, vulnerable. Purely from a bring-the-drama-perspective, she made sense as the new season’s lead, but without opening the Pandora’s box of likability too wide, she’s not quite a fan favorite. Her needs and wants throb too close to the surface. Watching her is to toggle between empathy, judgment, and embarrassment—the wince, the eye roll, and the blush.
Wincing, eye-rolling, blushing—all were required during the two-hour episode. In the weeks leading up to it, the show had seemed like it might be doing Clare a little dirty. The drama, to quote Bring It On, had been broughten, but so seemingly had a proto villainess. From the moment Clare laid eyes on Dale, a light-skinned Ken doll with the confident and optimistic affect of a motivational speaker, she felt the big feels, but the show seemed to be pushing her closer and closer to him, even while suggesting that she was too ensorcelled with him to play the game. Prior contestants have had strong preferences from very early on, but the show hid that from the audience. Now The Bachelorette producers were claiming that Clare’s only-have-eyes-for-Dale mindset was particularly problematic, a fact that became clear to them when Clare made like Kelly Taylor and gave herself a rose on a group date. But was that really true, or were they just trying to make Clare look bad?
Bachelor Nation has been abuzz with speculation for weeks. Why was Clare being given a “bad edit” and made to look more difficult than other past contestants? Why was she being pushed toward Dale, instead of steered away from him? Why were they treating the couple as if they were doing something wrong, instead of what the show says it wants them to do? On this episode, the producers addressed all of this criticism and almost fully exonerated themselves simply by presenting: Clare “hold my beer” Crawley.
The show had laid the groundwork, prior to this season, by repositioning Clare as both decisive and in a hurry, though at first they used nicer words like “empowered,” “willing to speak her mind,” and “39 years old.” Clare is the oldest-ever bachelorette by seven years, and in trumpeting this fact, the show has been self-aggrandizing and paying a backhanded compliment: Clare and the franchise are both so brave for showcasing a woman knocking on 40 without a ring. When a particularly heinous contestant stalked off the show, his parting shot was “I expected more from the oldest bachelorette in history,” turning what had been barely subtextual into an explicit insult. If the show laid the track, though, Clare did the rest, hurtling through a series of starry-eyed decisions at light speed.
After the first of a series of tête-à-têtes with host Chris Harrison, Clare came to the conclusion that she couldn’t continue as things were, feeling about Dale as she did. The show then orchestrated a private night for the two of them, the first time they had ever spent any significant time together alone. It was here that Clare regaled Dale with the story of her parents’ marriage: They met once, and then her father traveled cross-country to propose three weeks later. You could see why she might believe in love at first sight. For a first date, it was good. They seemed to connect about real things, like the death of parents. But to viewers who knew what was coming, it wasn’t just a first date; it was the reason Clare had walked away from a whole reality show. And Dale, glassy-eyed though he was at times, understood as much. Without ever seeming quite as enthusiastic as Clare was, he matched her every escalating confession. She had huge feelings for him, and he did for her. She thought she was falling in love, and he felt love when he first saw her. She actually was in love—and so, by the next morning, was he.
And yet Clare continued to race ahead of Dale. Having disrupted the regular course of the show, confessed her feelings to Dale, had sex with him, and broken up with the rest of the contestants, Clare jumped on the softball Harrison lobbed her way when he asked her if she was hoping for an engagement. Of course she was. Cue the genuinely and purposefully hilarious juxtaposition of Dale saying he knows he and Clare are on the same page and he’s feeling “no pressure,” with Harrison knocking on the door to tell him Clare’s expecting a proposal. (Harrison, who specializes in taking things as they come, came as close to making Jim Halpert face as he ever has before watching and enabling Clare to do her thing.) Having willed it to happen, Clare then sobbed her way through an angsty few hours, fearful that her new man “will not show up” to the totally rushed, fabricated, and pressure-filled circumstance she has put him in. Clare talks a lot about how much emotional work she has done, but one senses there is more to do—and Dale, instead of slowing the whole thing down, met the pressure of the moment. He showed up and got down on one knee. (It is, after all, just a Bachelor engagement, and no one expects those to last.) When he tried to stand, she pushed him back down again. She needed that ring on before he could rise.
On The Bachelorette, as in a casino, the house always wins: There is no on-screen drama that does not work in the show’s favor. But this whole incident was even better for it than most hubbubs. Not only does it allow the show to effectively deliver two highly rated season finales in one season, it burnished the series’s regular way of doing things. Compared with Clare and Dale’s blitzkrieg courtship, finding a husband over multiple weeks of a reality show seems positively sane, if not downright old-fashioned. The Bachelorette delivered a rush-job engagement that even it seemed to know was a little far out and ill-advised, but came out looking squeaky clean. You can bet against Clare and Dale—and the good money should—but never bet against The Bachelorette.