UnREAL writers address police shooting scene
Rachel (Shiri Appleby) just hit rock bottom. In the latest episode of UnREAL, she calls the cops on Darius (B.J. Britt), who took Romeo, Yael, and Tiffany on a joy ride off the set of Everlasting, in the hopes that she and the crew will be able to capture on camera what it’s like for a black man to be pulled over by the police. Things spiral out of control when Darius can’t provide his ID — the suitor left his wallet back at the mansion — and after Rachel attempts to stop the officers from dragging the suitor away, a panicked cop takes out his gun, points, and shoots Romeo.
The scene may be fictional, but it evokes the reality of recent national headlines about shootings of unarmed black Americans that have led to the Black Lives Matter movement in protest of police violence — and arguably marks the most serious, devastating turn on the drama yet. Below, UnREAL co-creator and executive producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (who also directed the episode) and writer Ariana Jackson break down why and how they pursued the sensitive topic.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You wrote this episode six months ago, after a wave of shootings led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Shootings are still happening, and police violence remains a national topic. When you were writing it back then, what was the message you wanted to get across?
SARAH GERTRUDE SHAPIRO: At six months ago, it was a pressing issue in the country, but there wasn’t much happening in a dramatic way at that exact moment, and so for me, it felt like a way to keep the conversation going. I was also interested in the role of white allies in the Black Lives Matter movement and what was appropriate and what was inappropriate. Obviously, Rachel lands on the side of heavily, insanely inappropriate.
ARIANA JACKSON: Yeah, it’s a problem that’s been around for decades, but it felt like something that was on everybody’s minds and that everybody wanted to talk about. I think we were trying to find a way to do that through the lens of our show.
SHAPIRO: As I was rewatching the episode last night, a moment that we felt so strongly about getting right was the moment when Darius gets pulled over and slowly realizes that he doesn’t have his wallet. The reason that moment was so important to us was [because we wanted] to recognize the difference of what it would be like if Rachel got pulled over, that being, like, a pretty small, unthreatening white girl, not having your wallet is something you can usually talk your way out of. We were trying to talk about the differences of what it’s like to be a black man in the world versus what it’s like to be a small white woman in the world, and maybe Rachel hadn’t really thought that through… Rachel’s way is the absolute worst way to talk about [race]. That was the point of our episode, what Rachel did wrong.
How did you figure out the mechanics, the choreography of the scene itself? What went into the research?
JACKSON: We looked into these types of situations, and unfortunately, there are a lot of real-life incidents to pull from. We spent a lot of time dissecting them.
SHAPIRO: There was this common theme in a lot of testimonies from the police officers about these shootings [where they say] the black men who are coming at them are like “superheroes” or “monsters” or “gladiators” or “animals,” and so we wanted to show very clearly that in a split second, that police officer decided who’s more threatening, the person running out of a bush or the person coming around the car…
JACKSON: Who they already know is not armed.
SHAPIRO: They already had him, they know he’s not armed, and the person who’s running out of the bush, they have no idea who it is. And just to show that in that split second, his decision was that Romeo was more of a threat. When we did research on police violence, it is about these split-second decisions.
How did your own races play into writing this story? Sarah, were you worried about tackling a racial issue as a white woman, especially considering how poorly Rachel handles it? Ariana, what about you?
SHAPIRO: When I came in to talk about season 2, [doing this scene] was the first thing Ariana and I and the whole room really engaged on, like, “Can we do this? Should we do this?” It’s like, “What is the role of white liberal media in this movement?” We’re looking at the problems with it, and I think the bigger question is, “Is it better to stay silent?” One of the most important lines in the episode, to me, is when Jay says to Rachel, “It’s not your story to tell.” So if it’s not her story to tell, then what is the right way to tell it and how does everybody rally behind the right way to tell it? What is the right next step? I don’t think I have an answer.
JACKSON: I’m [racially] mixed black and white, and I’m not sure how [my race] plays into the episode in particular. We talked about race just a lot in the course of talking about this season, and I will admit it was something I was really worried about tackling with a room of white people and one other black writer. I also think that people have the right to feel that things weren’t handled the way they want them to be, and people have a right to voice discontent with how this is handled. This is something that I know people feel like maybe shouldn’t be entertainment, but I hope people know that this did not come up on UnREAL lightly. It was not something that was thought of as something light and fun and entertaining, you know? This is something that people really put a lot of thought and a lot of listening and a lot of research into.
SHAPIRO: I feel like it’s just a really important conversation, and we don’t have any judgments about anyone’s reaction. We knew it was a big, big thing, and we stand behind the integrity of the research and the storytelling, but there’s no easy way to talk about this. The fact that people are having reactions to it makes a lot of sense, and we get it.
Sarah, you directed the episode. What were your goals for the look and feel of the hour?
SHAPIRO: Tonally, this episode was a challenge. We went from sex scenes to the most serious thing we’ve ever done, so I think my goal was to stay with the characters and let the scenes breathe. Specifically, in the pullover scene, I wanted to stay with Darius in that moment and relate to what’s happening to him in a realistic way, because police and shootings are really out of our wheelhouse tonally. It was similar to the Mary episode last season. My goal with that was to slow everybody down and make it feel real. And then in terms of Rachel, it was finding ways with the camera language to show what was happening with her internally… to show the panic of her world. When the shooting happened, I wanted to show that her world was knocked upside down, like, this is the thing you can’t recover from. It’s that bad.
After the shooting, we go back to seeing everything from Rachel’s perspective, following her all the way to the hospital. Were there other scenes you were thinking of including after the incident, maybe ones that would follow Romeo and Darius as well?
JACKSON: Sarah and I both thought of scenes [for them] that were in there in various versions of the script, of seeing where Darius and Romeo are at the end of the episode, and they did not make it in for whatever reason. It’s frustrating.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, I would just say that we had that conversation a lot ourselves and we would have liked to include something but it just wasn’t possible, production-wise. That’s one of the complications of making television, and we did the best we could… I think that moving forward toward the end of the season, that’s something that we really fought for, and Darius’ story is the central story moving toward the end of the season.
The reaction to season 2 has been lukewarm compared to season 1, and some critics have said that the show’s working through a sophomore slump. Why do you think that is?
SHAPIRO: I think, for me, I was kind of anticipating it. I think that season 1 was so universally lauded, which was incredible and great for morale with the show, but I have seen that people tend to like to tear stuff down. I have even seen that with Mr. Robot, you know, people will find faults. That might be part of it, but I do think we’re burning through story really quickly in this season, and that UnREAL is a really fast, furious, young, wild show, and I think that people are either on board with it or they’re not and that’s totally fine. I think what would be more of a bummer for me is if we had fallen asleep at the wheel and done something predictable and fallen into a pattern. It is a really big season, I sort of anticipated [the negative reaction].
So if the issue is burning through story quickly, do you think UnREAL needs more episodes in a season?
SHAPIRO: I really like the 10-episode arc, personally, just because it’s bite-sized and so binge-y, but I think 13 could be good, too, and I think in season 3 we may slow down again. This was a really fast and furious season. We may need a little more room to breathe in season 3.
As for the story, where do things pick up in the next episode?
SHAPIRO: This is the first time we’ve done a time jump on UnREAL. A couple of weeks pass, and we meet up with a very different Everlasting because of this incident. Romeo is alive and he has recovered from his wound and Darius’ back has been injured so he has to recover from that as well, so we have the time jump. Things have changed.
UnREAL airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime.