Near the end of "Treason," this week's episode of "Unreal," London (Sunita Prasad), the Muslim contestant who was goaded by Madison (Genevieve Buechner) into drinking for the first time, is booted off the show, and she flies into righteous anger at how she was exploited ("I'm just a drunk Muslim, huh?") and lied to for ratings. As she storms off, Madison, the mousy PA-turned burgeoning Rachel-in-training, directs the cameraman to "follow the drama." It's a moment that underlines the strongest dynamic in "Unreal," one of exploitation of the decent and unwitting, often by someone we previously viewed as fundamentally decent. "Everlasting," the show-within-a-show, brings out the worst in people, pushing people with consciences to become master manipulators and their pawns to self-destruct (just like Brandi did last week).
It's all over this week's episode, starting with the difficulty with Darius' (B.J. Britt) back injury, which is far more serious than he let on. His image rehabilitation, it turns out, is also an audition to find a sportscasting job after the show, and his back is bad enough that another bad hit could paralyze him. Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Coleman (Michael Rady) try to find a second opinion to calm Darius and his cousin/manager Romeo (Gentry White) down, but no dice: it's a serious problem, and she and Coleman have to arrange that the upcoming powderpuff football game doesn't injure him. They arrange to take Darius and Tiffany (Kim Matula), the "wifey" and football heiress, out of the game and into commentator roles, but Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Chet (Craig Bierko) learn of this and, in an effort to sabotage Coleman's showrunning role, arrange for the girls to tackle Darius and injure him.
There are a few side stories in the episode, neither of which I think work particularly well. In the first, Chet has kidnapped his infant son and wheels him around the set while ignoring questions of how, exactly, he got ahold of him when he's in the middle of a bitter custody dispute with his wife. There are a few funny exchanges that come out of it, from Quinn calling his son a "caterwauling ball of flesh" to Jay's (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) plain reaction of "ew, is that a real baby?" But for the most part, it's a distraction, an excuse to at least temporarily get rid of Chet as the police haul him off for kidnapping at the end of the episode, and a way to humanize him (he wants a connection with his son and makes an appeal to team up with Quinn in love and work again) without changing his sleazy appearance much. It's all a bit too rigged.
That's the same feeling I had with the news of the death of Randy, Quinn's father and a character whom we have not seen up to this point. Again, it leads to at least one choice comic exchange — Madison broke the news and is worried that Quinn will remember her as the girl who went down on her boyfriend and told her her father died. "I think she was just starting to like me!" Rachel's response: "She wasn't, Madison." But if the death of Quinn's father was meant to humanize her (she says he was a drunk and a creep and advises that his state be burned down) and parallel her relationship to Chet, it feels overdetermined and ineffective considering how little we know about that relationship.
More effective is Quinn's frosty relationship with daughter-surrogate Rachel, which has always been exploitative and abusive but tinged with at least a bit of genuine affection (last season did end on the two admitting they loved each other). With Rachel's betrayal, that's now down the tubes, and Rachel's attempts to comfort her after her father's death and explain her decisions fall on deaf ears. "You stabbed me in the back," Quinn says a few times, accusing Rachel of making a power grab instead of the rational decision to save the show from Chet and Quinn's war of attrition. Quinn's not wrong to feel betrayed and hurt, with her voice sounding choked when she accused Rachel of not really caring about her. But she crosses a line when she does what she does best and hits Rachel's weak spot. "You need me behind you, guiding you, pushing you, propping you up so you don't crack. But you'll always crack, Rachel. You're unstable, ungrateful, and you cannot make this show without me." Zimmer nails the monologue, sounding venomous, bitter and pained at once, and Appleby's reaction is equally great, in close-up with a slight, defiant smile and tears in her eyes. "Watch me."
Quinn and Chet cross another line as they try to exploit Darius' injury, something that pushes her further into full-on villain territory when she grasps that this might flat-out paralyze Darius. Rachel, who's promised both Darius and Romeo that she'll protect the suitor/athlete, is left hung out to dry after London, drunk for the first time after Madison manipulates her and encouraged by Chet, initiates a tackle and dog-pile on Darius that exacerbates his problem. Rachel's already in hot water with Romeo, who can see past the concerned exterior (and the attempted seduction, which he brushes off) and see how she's going to exploit his cousin and best friend. Quinn sees a potential ratings bonanza and a way to get rid of Coleman and Rachel as Darius is taken away in a stretcher.
The only way for Rachel to thwart Quinn and save Darius' run on the show is a dangerous epidural that will take away the pain but make him more susceptible to further injuring himself. Rachel has played several roles in the first half of the season so far — the New Quinn, the Progressive Showrunner with Higher Ideals, and the Concerned Producer — and she leans on the last one as she exploits Darius' concern for his family (including Romeo) if he injures himself further. She's convincing herself that she's doing the right thing for him and for the show at the same time, but it's risky, and after Darius dismisses Romeo (who's furious about the epidural), he's left with someone who's maybe concerned about his well-being but is definitely more interested in keeping herself in power on the show by any means necessary. That puts Darius in danger, and while it stops Quinn's more openly awful plan for him, it also further damages her relationship with Quinn, who walks away, bitterly remarking that Rachel "can make the show without me" and that she's done with all of the "garbage people" in her life, including Rachel along with Chet and her deceased father. Quinn may be a monster, but she looks totally lost by the end of the episode.
The episode ends with a trio of hookups: in the first, Yael (Monica Barbaro), the savvy contestant referred to by the crew as "Hot Rachel," flirts with Jeremy and leads him into his truck for a night alone, stealing his keys in the meantime. Yael is turning into the low-key secondary villain in the cast, and a wildly entertaining one. She's Rachel without the humanizing self-doubt, Rachel if she were more willing to throw away her feminist ideals to win by any means necessary. At the same time, this is Jeremy, the boring love interest from last season who turned into the vindictive, obnoxious sexist ex this season. It's a more interesting fit, and it's a lot of fun to see Yael play this idiot.
Purposefully less fun is the romance between Darius and Ruby (Denee Benton), the black activist who stayed on in spite of all the crap she has to deal with because she seems to genuinely like Darius. Darius has shared intimate moments with Brandi and Chantal with the cameras on, looking to the camera to signify that he's doing this because he has to, not because he wants to. With Ruby, he first checks to make sure the cameras aren't around, then makes a genuine connection to her. "I don't like what this place is doing to everybody...it's making me care too much about what other people think" she says, and he's able to turn it into a joke when she includes him in "other people" ("Well, that's OK"). He admires her strength and admits that he wants to make his own decisions for once instead of letting other people, even Romeo, make them for him. "So do it. Be that guy." It's a sweet moment, but we remember that he's still being manipulated by Rachel...and by Ruby. As the two kiss, we see Jay in the background, eagerly directing for a close-up. She might really like him, but she's still willing to play him.
So what, then, to make of Rachel and Coleman's relationship? The two have won something together, and they lean on the hood of the official "Everlasting" sports car while drinking beer together. "Are we doing this, Wasserman?" she asks as she raises her eyebrows before they kiss. The camera cranes down to the license plate, "EVERLSTING," taunting us, asking us to question whether or not the connection is real or a power play from one, or the other, or both. In a show full of back-stabbings, it's hard to believe that there won't be one here.
-I really like B.J. Britt as Darius. He's far more charismatic and less typical than last year's suitor, the Very British Adam, and he seems more genuine. It makes his manipulation, especially by someone we've previously liked, far more painful.
-Jay asks if Rachel's feminist sensibilities are hurt by the stupid powderpuff football costumes. "No, not today." "Who are you? What would Hillary say, Rachel?" Sometimes the show's attempts to connect to current events are kind of clunky, but this did make me laugh, suggesting that the feminist ideals of the characters, though real, are skin-deep and icon-heavy.
-Darius and Tiffany really play well off of each other in the brief time they have as fellow sports commentators for the abandoned powderpuff game. I'm betting on the final choice coming down to her and Ruby. My gut feeling got stronger when, after Quinn directed the women to cry harder and promised a one-on-one date to whoever cried the hardest, they seemed far more reluctant than the others.
-The other girls left at the end of the episode: Chantal, Yael, Beth Ann, and Jameson, who we haven't really heard much from at this point.