There's a principle of organized chaos behind a lot of reality TV — stick diametrically opposed worldviews or personalities into a room together and watch them go at each other, making life a living hell for everyone around them but heaven for the show's creators, who expertly manipulate them. Chaos spreads, though, and last night's episode of "Unreal" sees things getting out of hand behind the scenes long before "Everlasting's" contestants get a chance to attack each other, with warring creators and an insurgent (the episode's title, even) Rachel (Shiri Appleby), who's torn between taking over the show and the fear that she might spiral again, or that she may become the new Quinn (Constance Zimmer), for worse.
But first, the war: Quinn, cynical as she is, sees "Everlasting" as a place to sell romance, a prince meets princess fairy tale. Chet (Craig Bierko) sees a chance to turn "Everlasting" into "Everblasting" (no, really), with the sex and partying turned up to 11. The two choose to shoot and edit their own versions side by side to see which does better. Rachel, at Quinn's behest, tries to organize a blow-up between black activist Ruby (Denee Benton) and Confederate flag bikini-wearer Beth Ann (Lindsey Musil), which Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) tries to undermine. Chet prompts Quinn's favored contestant, Tiffany (Kim Mutala), to hook up with Romeo (Gentry White), best friend of suitor Darius (B.J. Britt) as a way to get off the show (the daughter of a football team owner, she's none too happy to learn that the suitor is a football player and assumes her father set this up).
As one can imagine, it gets wilder from there, all while Rachel is dealing with the bad news that she's not going to serve as showrunner this season, at least not as long as Chet is making things difficult for them. She's sent a care package from her mother filled with pills to help with her depression, which she immediately tosses in the trash to get back to work. With Quinn in her ear ("Where are you, my pretttyyyyyyyy?"), she has no time to rest, her resting exhausted face be damned.
First up is her attempt to convince Beth Ann to go through with the Confederate bikini. Through years of working on "Everlasting," Rachel has become a master manipulator, but her timing is off here: she's able to convince Beth Ann to put the bikini on in front of Ruby, but the blowup happens behind the scenes. Beth Ann defends her Southern pride and whitesplains to Ruby ("You might be ashamed of your heritage, but I think the suitor is going to appreciate my honesty"), only to get the news that only Ruby knew up to this point: "You dumb b----, he's black." Jay pulls Ruby aside to tell her that going to war with Beth Ann is exactly what Rachel and Quinn want, that they lied about Darius asking for her specifically, and that she'll be cut early in the run...unless she trusts him. Jay has always been one of the more conflicted producers on "Everlasting," but he has a purpose this time, both to win for Ruby and to exploit her for his own gain. His eyes cast downward, his voice like a Svengali, he'll "make it my personal mission" to get her the win.
Jay's advice works for Ruby: she doesn't react on camera to Beth Ann's bikini while everyone else whispers amongst themselves about the bikini (a white contestant to a black one: "I'm offended for you") and Quinn loses her cool in the control room ("Why isn't the blacktivist saying something?"). They manage to get a good image of Beth Ann running away as Darius is introduced, but Chet further sabotages it with loud music (which they can't edit around, something he didn't know after 14 years on the show because he's an idiot) and Darius' bros dancing with the girls. Director Peter O'Fallon frames Rachel between Quinn and Chet like a kid between fighting parents, one dragging the show's "Pansy-a-- Cinderella b-------" while the other mocks Rachel's concern about the show falling into chaos. Her vision is closer to Quinn's, and she's emboldened by Chet recruiting her eminently unlikable ex and current director of photography Jeremy (Josh Kelly) by appealing to his sexism, but she sees the show going up in flames because of both of them. "This is gonna look like nobody's in charge."
In the meantime, Rachel has to convince Beth Ann to come back to the poolside and meet Darius, with Madison (Genevieve Buechner) finding her locked in the bathroom...only for Rachel to open the unlocked door (To Madision, with palpable contempt: "You stupid idiot"). Rachel spends much of the episode sweet-talking the contestants with a sour tongue, pretending to fight with Beth Ann against the "P.C. Police" and insisting to Tiffany that she had no idea she had any connection to football and that she should be open to falling for Darius. She's gotten craftier while seeming less conflicted than she was last season, and everyone knows it: Madison, still meek but aching for another high after her moment with Chantal, asks for more. "You're the Quinn now, let me be the Rachel."
Rachel, resentful of the comparison, pairs Madison with Yael (Monica Barbaro), referred to by the crew as "Hot Rachel," to get rid of both of them. Though she's managed to fix Beth Ann (who takes the Confederate top off in front of Darius, getting a great moment for the show and a chance for Darius to show his sensitive side by offering his shirt to her), Tiffany and Ruby (both of whom genuinely connect with Darius), but Yael guarantees her spot on the next round when she "falls" into the pool, prompting Darius to rescue her. It wasn't Madison's idea, and Yael, once a competitive swimmer, was never in danger, but she's smart enough to know how to play it to her benefit and to Madison's.
Quinn's version of the show is going reasonably well, considering the circumstances — she manages to get a "wifey" moment between Tiffany and Darius when the former teases the latter about his "terrible" footwork on the field, and they capture a sweet moment between Chantal (Meagan Rady) and Darius that also falls under "wifey" ("she's a black wifey...a blifey!" yells Quinn). Chet's still a creep, insulting his former creative and romantic partner that she "should try being a wifey before you lecture me on what it is," but his attempt to get Tiffany off the show early fails as she advances along with Chantal, Yael, Ruby and Beth Ann ("crazy white trash will live to see another day, praise the lord!").
But she goes too far when pushing Rachel, attacking her mental health and her hopes for a subversive version of "Everlasting" that plays with race more purposefully. They've always had an abusive mother-daughter relationship, but Rachel's now in a position that she can undermine mom now that the show's in chaos. Rachel takes the news of the warring producers to the head of the network to put someone else in charge. He asks her, "Isn't Quinn your mentor?" The amount of feeling Appleby puts into the reading of "Yeah, she was" is one of her finest moments on the show, with a measure of wistfulness in her eyes as she leans in to stab her mentor in the back, putting herself forward as the no-ego person who could run the show.
It works, sort of: he admonishes Chet and Quinn and takes them off the show temporarily, but the new man at the helm is documentary filmmaker turned reality TV whiz Coleman Wasserman (Michael Rady), who'll take the show closer to the edgy (read: stupid) version that Chet wants without the madness behind the scenes. Coleman reads as someone who's smart (if a bit smug) and who admires Rachel's ambition and experience, but who's ready to report to the network first. "This is gonna be fun," he says as he leaves Rachel behind, her face reading as "What have I gotten myself into?" as she looks to the heavens, the camera over her. We've just seen chaotic hell. Welcome to organized hell.
-A nitpick to what's an otherwise fine episode: Quinn telling the editors to cut around the close of the episode to make it look more interesting than it really is. You know...what editors do, as a part of their job, every day.
-I love Quinn's pure, unadulterated contempt for "Everlasting's" dopey host, Graham (Brennan Elliott), from introducing him with "cue our moron" to heckling his claim that he's singlehandedly brought love back to America. It's the episode's best running joke, right up to the end as he calls out for a party at his place ("Can you shut that party down and can you lock Graham in his room?").
-Quinn: "Close-up on hot Rachel..." (Rachel gives a withering look) "...That's her name!"
-Chet is so desperate to get sex on the show that he and Jeremy are distracted when Rachel tells them that two girls are fooling around in the hot tub, forcing him to miss Beth Ann taking her top off in front of Darius. "Like a tree falling in a forest!" he says in frustration.
-How long before Quinn figures out it was Rachel who went behind her back? I'm giving it a few episodes, maybe mid-season.