In the first thirty seconds of last night’s Season Two UnREAL premiere, “War,” the pecking order for the new guard of Everlasting was immediately established. Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer) brand their skin with a statement of purpose that reads: “Money. Dick. Power.” They’re on top of the world, fresh
off taking a victory lap with equally sleazy network heads, and scheming their next massive ratings takeover with the help of an all-star quarterback.
But it’s anything but a clean break after last season. Rachel has taken her rightful place as Everlasting’s showrunner, even as she crumbles under the pressure of last season’s multiple implosions with former suitor Adam (Freddie Stroma), ex Jeremy (Josh Kelly), and her own fragile sanity. The show is about to be ground zero in a power struggle between Quinn and her grubby ex-lover/boss Chet (Craig Bierko). And even the most morally compromised minions are starting to rediscover their conscience confronted with the scorched earth philosophies of Quinn and Rachel.
In “War,” the mind games and its consequences are no longer surprises. The facade of a fancy mansion and preening host have faded away to reveal the claustrophobic machinations of puppet masters tucked away behind monitors and earpieces. It’s a vicious start to the season, but one that’s already unfolding new layers to a show that’s long thrived on the juxtapositions between genuine emotion, behind-the-scenes conspiracies, and acidic social commentary.
The best place to start with the new season is the new suitor. Like last season’s Adam, Darius Hill (B.J. Britt) is another hapless celebrity who’s forced into damage control mode after an unfortunate incident. But UnREAL is too bold to merely play with the caricature of a playboy pro athlete—Beck’s a star quarterback with a squeaky clean image, with the exception of that one time he lost his cool with a female reporter on national television. He’s levelheaded, and transparently sincere, but it’s clear he’s in over his head, faced with the master tacticians who are engineering the next nine weeks of his life.
But Beck’s celebrity is so peripheral for the savvy manipulators of Everlasting—his selling point has always been his race. As Quinn colorfully argues, “He’s not black, he’s football black” to a panicked network exec in a defining summation of the character’s general glibness about political correctness.
Quinn and Rachel are hedging that millions of viewers will tune in to see a black man in the white monopolized world of reality television. From the word, “go,” Rachel and Quinn are working every cynical angle from luring black activists away from graduating college with the promise of larger platforms, to enlisting a young woman whose greatest claim to fame is a viral Instagram where she sports a Confederate flag bikini. But aside from setting up these potentially explosive conflicts between contestants with differing ideals, or just straight up racists, UnREAL’s treatment of race informs the dialogue with a very different gravity.
Last season, the Faith storyline offered a strong, understated treatment of LGBT issues like repression, coming out, and the manicured media treatment of same-sex relationships, but that storyline was also tangential to the main storyline. This premiere refuses to make race merely a part of the story, setting the table for multiple branching storylines that are completely based on arbitrary racial clashes, and racial perception.
It’s undoubtedly more audacious, and possibly more dangerous to center a season around such a complicated (and easily broad) subject, especially when you’re playing with characters who are already prone to generalizing statements like “Hot racist, black power activist, clergy, and a terrorist” when describing their contestants, but whether this season succeeds or fails, it’s trying something entirely different than the first season.
After a contested friendship/mentorship that consisted of blackmail attempts, mental breakdowns, and thwarted love affairs, Quinn and Rachel are closer than ever in “War.” At least they appear to be. As seen through the ignored phone call from Adam at the beginning, it’s unclear where Rachel and Adam stand after their climactic getaway plans were stamped out by Quinn and the powers that be. And if there’s still bad blood between them, it’s unspoken.
Last season, Rachel may have questioned Quinn’s judgement and instincts, but that line has disappeared, and been replaced by an unflappable competitive drive. The new Rachel has easily adopted all of Quinn’s monstrous tricks of the trade, even as her words are so cruel that they’re making her underlings gasp.
Quinn and Rachel may finally be in a place of power, setting up honey traps for the unsuspecting women, but it’s only a short period before a newly clean and masculinity-obsessed Chet has returned to try to wrangle the reins away. After being fired from his own show and convalescing in Patagonia on a “Paleolithic lifestyle retreat,” he’s back to reclaim his show by any means necessary. With a newfound fire and an obsession with phrases like “generation of wimps and bitches,” he’s a message board away from a modern MRA, and he’s not afraid to play dirty.
He may have been easily outmaneuvered in the first season, and it remains to be seen how his power play with Darius will actually work out, but both Quinn and the show as a whole are keenly aware that his gender has an influence that can’t be discounted. It’s still early, but it’s clear that not even sexual harassment suits can stop an ensuing struggle for control.
It’s a bit of a stretch to call anyone on UnREAL any variation of innocent, but the emotional peak of “War” arguably comes with the coaching of the young, deeply naïve but budding manipulator Madison (Genevieve Buchner), a character whose past season seduction of Chet was equally inevitable and sad. In a producer’s role after leveraging Chet’s sexual harassment into a promotion, she nonetheless lacks Rachel’s knack for deceptive emotion, cluelessly first asking if they can move the strategically placed Beth Ann, the “white supremacist,” and Chantal, the black debutante, to different rooms, and then stumbling her way through her first interview. Rachel is quick to show her the proper way to incite chaos, and make quality reality television in the process.
Pulling the strings, Rachel prods Madison to pick at Chantal’s interior scabs, namely the recent death of her fiancé in a car accident. It’s a perfectly modulated scene as the blubbering Madison can barely contain her emotions, and clumsily tries to lead Chantal’s responses. Soon though, Madison is preparing Chantal for the kicker of “Why are you single?” like a lamb to the slaughter. Like the best UnREAL scenes, it’s a moment of genuine pathos for a brand new character, but also reflective of the layers of the writing as it deepens the tangled arcs of both Rachel and Madison.
Rachel and Jeremy weren’t quite the “Sam and Diane” of Season One, but they certainly played their share of “will they/won’t they,” even if Jeremy didn’t realize he was part of a love triangle until it was nearly over. Suffice to say, he’s not real happy with Rachel, and unafraid to act like a misogynistic boor, and undermine her leadership in front of the rest of the crew. After interrupting a meeting to ask about the “kill list”—a list of people set to be cut who the camera men have permission to sleep with—he continues to go on about Yael, who he dubs, “hot Rachel” before going into an extended rant. Powerless to punish him for fear of sexual harassment repercussions, Rachel is forced to stand down.
Later, walking over to Jeremy and his goon crew’s trailer, Rachel makes a Khaleesi-level power move, asking, “Who said they wanted a kill list?” before firing them on the spot. Walking away, Rachel turns to Jeremy before saying, “It turns out being a sexist man baby has consequences.” It’s a great moment in the episode, but it signals something more significant. If there was a trace of the tenuous Rachel of Season One, it’s not there anymore. And in her place, is someone who makes the unpopular decision without a second thought.