We’re five episodes into this season, and to be frank, it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride. I’ve talked previously about some choices that felt either too quick (Framing Brandi, the injury) or just clumsy (everything with Jeremy, most of Chet’s storyline, etc), and “Infiltration” isn’t immune to this season’s weaknesses. With that said, we’re finally getting in deep enough to get a sense of where the show wants to head.
Things like the racial tension that appeared to be at the heart of the season have been defused for the moment as Ruby has been eliminated, and Darius has just become the suitor without the connotations of his status or the political implications of his race.
“Infiltration” is still kind of gimmicky in the wrong ways. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but last season was able to better separate the drama of Everlasting and the drama of reality, without the two getting in each other’s way. This season keeps setting up barriers for itself that either risk repetition, or worse, lessen the stakes or impact of the authentic moments.
In the best parts, this episode makes good on the proclamations of the last episode. Darius is vocal about what he does and doesn’t want. Quinn is staging her grand comeback with guns blazing. And Rachel and Coleman’s alliance is growing, even as they’re becoming increasingly co-dependent. Here are the five biggest moments from this week’s episode.
1. Tickets Go To the Show Runner
Fewer than ten minutes of the episode takes place at the Impact Awards, a television award show for something that’s entirely unspecified. Bur it’s important for what it represents as well as the introduction of a potentially pivotal character.
First off, the invitation to the Impact Awards gala goes to the show runner, and these days that position is a little fuzzy. Is it Quinn who’s gone for more than the last decade to the Impact Awards Gala on a victory lap? Or, is it the auspicious young hot shots, Coleman and Rachel, who swagger in like they swept up a mess, and made a masterpiece.
Coleman may be scouting out every major television head, as he’s walking down the grand staircase with Rachel on his arm. But the fact is, they’re still new kids on the block, trying to schmooze billionaires with elevator pitches.
Jay may joke with Rachel right before she leaves that she’ll be the Cinderella of the ball, but the glass slipper fits Quinn much more snugly. Who would have expected that the enterprising billionaire, John Booth (Ioan Gruffudd), would swoon hard for Everlasting, and even harder for Quinn’s ice queen routine?
Coleman and Rachel are left on the sidelines, waiting in vain for their chance to step up, but as usual, Quinn’s five steps ahead of them.
2. I Hate When They Go Rogue
Darius hasn’t always been one to play ball with the producers, especially when they lead him into moves that he doesn’t like. For viewers and Darius alike, Yael and the basically entirely undiscussed Dominique (Elizabeth Whitmere) are curious choices for “America’s” decision.
Things become all the more more convoluted when the pro basketball player, Dominique starts saying things like, “If you’re going to be spending the night with one of us, it should probably be the one who isn’t sleeping with the crew,” in reference to Yael and Jeremy’s continued hook-ups.
Darius isn’t simply going to reward Dominique for being some platonic arbiter of truth though. He’s staking his own destiny, and chooses to pick Ruby, to the disgust of Quinn and the delight of Rachel and Jay. There’ve been few scenes more thrillingly euphoric than Rachel and Jay giving each other googly eyes about this personal victory. It’s all the more exciting that Ruby’s idea of being alone is to jump on the bed, which leads to one of Jay’s best lines of the night—“It’s like The Notebook for black people.”
3. Do You Want A Great Piece of Television or A PBS Morality Play?
This season has been a continual tug of war between Rachel’s basest instincts and her conscience. She’s seen the aftermath of her choices first hand, in things like Mary’s suicide last season, and the victimization of Brandi. She’s also seen the benefits of discarding people on her way to the top.
Last season dabbled in the relationship between parents and their feelings about their daughters becoming contestants, but that conflict is exploded with Ruby’s father. Not only had Ruby not told her parents about joining the show, but they had big plans for her that involved a spotless record. She was meant to be a model, an example of something more.
Rachel, too, has fallen into the exact trap of an earlier discussion of the episode, where Coleman and Quinn talk about the show. Coleman isn’t in it for the long haul, he just wants to make some noise. Everlasting is still Rachel and Quinn’s baby, and so continues the sliding relationship between the two as partner, mother/daughter and mentor/mentee.
4. It’s Going To Be Too Much Work Disappointing You Everyday
One of the continual bright spots this season has been the evolving relationship between Darius and Ruby. It’s supplied multiple storylines that work in context of both behind-the-scenes manipulation, as well as moments of pathos that happen away from cameras. Other than possibly Tiffany, there’s been no other person who Darius has clicked with more as an individual, rather than as an idea that was being projected by the show runners.
They may come from wildly different vantage points, as is tragically underlined in this episode, but they’ve developed genuine feelings for each other that move past their differing social philosophies. Coming after the last episode where Darius and Ruby had their formative conversation about themselves, this episode is the continuation of Darius’ freedom from expectation.
It’s hard to pinpoint whether Ruby’s father discovering Darius and Ruby together in a compromising position is the moment of epiphany for Darius, or another in a string of clarifying moment, but either way, it’s clear that there’s going to be a point of no return between them.
Still, even knowing that this is a show that thrives on destabilization, I didn’t guess that Ruby was going to be eliminated. Or, that it would be a moment of such real sadness. Ultimately, it’s a decision made out of kindness, as Darius knows that Ruby is meant for something bigger.
It’s sad that UnREAL is potentially going to lose Ruby. Denée Benton has been one of the strongest new cast members, and this season has offered her an excellent showcase. It’s even more surprising, given that the beginning of the season was happy to just serve her up as a powder keg. Instead, she immediately showed that she could be more than a socially conscious mouthpiece.
The line of dialogue is just as important for Darius as a symbol of what he wants to be. He knows he has the platform to make some kind of social change, but he doesn’t know if he wants that responsibility. He may be trying to find a balance between thinking about what a life without football would be like, and thinking of those who depend on him—but that life doesn’t necessarily include advocacy.
5. That’s Not What A Man Does
Where to start with Jeremy? Since Season One, he’s been a divisive presence, fitting into the die-cast mold of Rachel’s brooding ex-boyfriend, and serving as the outcast third angle of an unwanted love triangle with Adam and Rachel. It’s a tough role, and makes for an expectedly polarizing figure, especially when he’s constantly trying to butt heads with Rachel, professionally or romantically.
But this season has been even more of a trial for Jeremy’s character, as he’s alternated between drunken temper tantrums, smooth operator sleaze, and borderline-psychopathic behavior. And this episode was (maybe) the final dip for a character who’s been on the skids as both a part of the ongoing season narrative, and as an internally consistent character.
His behavior earlier in this season has been irritating, whipping out his unconvincing, sub-Chet, alpha-male nonsense at every turn. His submission to Yael was somewhat expected, but the show at least seemed to hint that she was just waiting to turn the tables on him. And the ongoing saga of fighting with Rachel, Coleman, and Quinn has been so far a case of diminishing returns.
The end of the episode pushes forward on one of the weakest decisions of the season thus far, with Jeremy assaulting Rachel in her trailer. Story-wise, it makes some level of sense, as Jeremy has continually been ground down by his surroundings, his unrequited feelings for Rachel and his demotion by Coleman earlier in the episode. But thematically, it’s a reminder that in UnREAL, no one can ever be in a place of security.
There’s a few issues with it though. One is the fact that Chet needed to save her. This is a brave and somewhat effective way to humanize a character, who’s had a comparably selfish response to the failures in his life. It’s also a relatively easy way to further stack the deck against Quinn, and more frustratingly, another season thread about Rachel needing to come back from a place of weakness.
As always, it remains to be seen what will happen with Rachel post-assault, but it’s undeniably worrisome to see that even the preview for the next episode seems to center Rachel’s PTSD front-and-center.