UnREAL recap: 'Shield'
UnREAL co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro has talked about how Donald Trump’s election informed the writing of the show’s third season, and it’s in “Shield” that we really see how. The second episode of season 3 has everything from Russians beating up Americans to ominously familiar talk of how gender politics play on TV to explicit — even for this show — commentary on how reality shows impact real life. It seems not even a fictionalized exploration of The Bachelor can avoid politics right now.
Or maybe that’s the point. Trump’s political ascendancy, after all, was rooted in his Apprentice persona. UnREAL seems invigorated by the chance to cast an even more critical eye on “how the sausage gets made,” as Quinn eloquently puts it this episode, in order to draw some provocative real-world parallels.
This episode begins on the image of Rachel working on her “Essential Honesty” project — which, given that it calls sex “a lie” to be totally avoided, is definitely cult-ish — and ends, inevitably, on a grand manipulative scheme that creates great television, worsens the rift between her and Quinn, and inflames the danger of Everlasting getting hit with a lawsuit.
Everlasting’s splashy Serena-centric premiere delivered good-not-great ratings, and so Quinn is grudgingly once again fighting for survival, operating “squarely on the bubble.” Rachel informs her that Serena had sex with Norman the jockey the night before, but when they press Serena about it, she wants to pretend like it never happened. She’s starting from a clean slate, kind of — with pictures and bios of all of the competing men arranged on a board for her to memorize. (She dug some PR documents out of the trash and wandered into the control room — rebellious behavior certain to get worse from here.) There’s concern here, obviously, but Rachel sets up a poker game for her and the men to get the restart underway.
Unfortunately, what transpires only reinforces the issues Quinn and Chet were having with Serena in the last episode: She’s not a very good romantic heroine. The show breaks down what that means, exactly. In the poker game, Serena is cocky, sarcastic, and perhaps most damningly, a superior player. The men wander off one by one as she trash talks and gobbles hauls of chips. It’s a mess. Madison says Serena reminds her of the women she and her friends deride, the beacons of success who intimidate the men around them. (It’s an inadvertent jab at Quinn, who’s justly offended.) Quinn blames Rachel for the game’s failure, but Chet later assures them both that the real issue is Serena acting like herself.
“What guy wants that?” he says about her personality. “The woman you are at work is not the girl that a man wants to date.” Serena joins in the conversation and is surprisingly receptive to his criticism and advice — even when he throws out a line like, “All you have to do to keep a guy forever is bake him cookies and give him bl– jobs.” With Madison backing Chet up, Serena agrees to try things his way — and then “objectively” evaluate it.
Rachel and Quinn, initially, seem horrified by the change. Serena transforms herself into a full-on ditz as she rejoins the men in the “casino,” begging for their help at playing and complimenting their skills. Owen, the firefighter who bonded with her in the premiere, looks on skeptically, but the rest of the men are smitten. “I am a manthropologist,” Chet gloats from the control room. His girlfriend Crystal enters and corners Quinn to speak to her privately about helping her organize a fundraiser on Chet’s behalf. Quinn scoffs at Crystal’s praise of him and can’t help but chuckle when Crystal says his father killed himself when he was only 6. Yet this turns out to be true: As Chet tells Quinn, he’s fallen for Crystal and found himself able to confide in her, and he hopes Quinn can find the same happiness. It’s a sad scene, as Quinn, deeply hurt, maintains her cynical exterior while taking in profound information.
As for the show-within-the-show, Quinn is gushing over the fact that Everlasting’s appeal is shifting rightward — politically speaking. “Trump country is going to love this,” she says before muttering, “I hate this show.” Serena asks the producers for a one-on-one date with Billy, the hick-ish race car driver with a short fuse and not a ton of intelligence. Her flirting is exceedingly obvious, but Quinn seems happy enough with what’s coming of it. Rachel not so much, however. She tries to get Owen to intervene and “save” Serena from what she’s becoming, but Jeremy — who, hey, is still around for some reason! — tells her to back off when Owen proves reluctant. Serena later pulls Rachel aside, says Chet’s right, and asks for the dreaded turquoise “mermaid” dress she turned away in the premiere. Rachel’s feminist experiment is blowing up before her very eyes.
She seems to be headed for the meltdown that comes every season, only a little earlier than usual. But the same goes for Quinn, who’s usually able to keep it together. Crystal’s presence and the pressure of keeping the show a hit is clearly weighing on her. She’s drinking way too much, for starters, and risks making a fool of herself when Gary appears. Last we saw Gary he was with Madison as she trashed Quinn’s job performance. And so we’re right to be a little unnerved by his witnessing Quinn at a low point, drunken and defeated. (Recap continues on page 2)
Yet Gary’s pleased by what he sees in the control room — namely Serena in more revealing attire, and the men serenading her with a collection of karaoke tunes. As Billy reaches the stage to sing “America the Beautiful,” the political undertones again become clear — Serena shrinking into a gender stereotype, with men lined up to woo her, each more patriotic in presentation than the last. There’s only one thing that could make this all-American presentation more appealing entertainment — a villain of country-sized proportions. Fortunately, there’s one on the Everlasting cast this season.
After a blow-up with Quinn over the season’s direction, Rachel announces she’s leaving the show — but she can’t stay away for long. Smoking off to the side, she’s greeted by Russian hunk contestant Alexi. He says he can’t be bothered with Serena, who’s “looking for a poodle, not a man,” and that he and Rachel share a Russian soul — “a darkness.” She’s tempted. “Start the revolution,” she encourages. “Blow the circus up…Be a man.” She tells him to do exactly as she says in order to shake up Everlasting, and he agrees.
And what does she suggest? Have Alexi crash the stage where Billy is singing and fight it out for Serena. It’s comically broad in its commentary — a Russian infiltrating an American process, ultimately succeeding, and disrupting (or perhaps enhancing) what Quinn has called the show’s “Red State crack.” They sing over each other at first, then Billy throws the mic down, and then the punches start flying. They’re beating each other up, with Gary outraged in the control room as things appear to once again be getting out of control, and it only gets worse from there — all of the men get involved until it’s a complete free-for-all.
That is: until Serena gets caught in the mess and knocked down. Quinn, still a little wasted, flashes a knowing smile. She knows the magic is coming. She tells Gary, who’s threatening to call the cops, to wait. Jasper and Owen begin scrummaging, trying to get to Serena — to “save” her — first. Jasper wins out, picking her up like her knight in shining armor, and suddenly Everlasting has the happy ending that makes for ratings gold. And all because of Rachel’s manipulative orchestrating.
“Like it or not, reality TV shapes our world,” Rachel tells Quinn in a most on-the-nose fashion as they reconvene after the brouhaha. “Face it: This is when you do your best work,” Quinn retorts. “I am your muse.” Rachel says she’s still not back in, despite her impressive producing performance, and that she’s not fooled by Quinn’s jaded act, either — she knows her mentor is in pain about Chet and that she’s not devoid of wanting the same things as those she derides on TV. Their latest battle, however, is cut short by worst-case-scenario news: Billy got ahold of a phone, called his lawyer, and is initiating a lawsuit for being provoked to fight.
Fortunately, Quinn makes a series of deals to keep the legal nightmare at bay. But she needs the cooperation of both Billy and Serena, the latter of whom has proven mighty unpredictable. Serena is still navigating the complicated waters of Everlasting; Owen tries reassuring her that she can be herself around him, but it sounds more like condescension, and it rubs her the wrong way. And she’s not the only one with the potential to create problems. Rachel’s “Essential Honesty” mandate can’t seem to keep her away from August, the man-bun-sporting dreamboat with a love for the Congo. He asks her for updates from the African region, which is against the rules, but she happily obliges anyway. She gets this close to kissing him before darting off, as the episode’s ending ceremony gets underway.
Billy’s deal to stay was apparently predicated on the show using his car company’s tire gauges in lieu of roses — not quite romantic, but weirdly fitting product placement for such an artificially constructed show. Serena hands out tire gauge by tire gauge to the obvious frontrunners — including Owen, to whom she apologizes, indicating she’s not quite comfortable in the flirty persona either — leaving her to choose between Billy and another man for the last spot to stay. Her deal with Quinn was to pick Billy, and after creating some TV-friendly suspense, she does. (In exchange, a charity donation is made on her behalf.)
What does that leave us with? The feminist experiment appears to have veered back on course, if almost by luck. Chet catches up with Serena, and she tells him he was “so right” and that the past week was “amazing.” He then walks away, only for her to perfectly say to herself, “God, men are stupid.” She’s not so gullible. One thing’s for sure, though: It’ll be hard to predict her behavior from week to week. (Good news for Everlasting viewers, and us too.)
And then there’s the building rivalry between Rachel and Quinn — a place we’ve been again and again through UnREAL’s run. Rachel is working harder at real change this time, while Quinn’s more vulnerable than we’ve ever seen her. She wanders into the control room after observing Madison and Crystal bonding, and in a beautifully filmed scene just watches: Serena back in her room, de-glamming; then Rachel and August snuggling in a hammock, verging on kissing. Rachel stops herself again, however — proof she’s taking this “Essential Honesty” stuff seriously. She leaves August to be alone.
But there’s Quinn, materializing out of nowhere. He asks if he’s in trouble. She says he is. And just before Rachel returns to the area of the hammock, presumably to get down with August once and for all, Quinn has whisked him away — to have him for herself.