Rachel heads to Colorado with Owen and Serena for another drama-filled installment of Hometown Dates

By David Canfield
April 09, 2018 at 11:02 PM EDT
Bettina Strauss/Lifetime
S3 E7
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There’s some really strong character development in “Projection,” the seventh installment of UnREAL’s third season. But it’s work that’s undermined by a few plot holes, a surprising amount of filler content, and an episode-ending cliffhanger that threatens to drag the show back into familiar, well-trod territory.

But first, the good: Quinn’s triumph over Gary was one of the series’ most galvanizing scenes so far, and the show has put an intriguing spin on her ascension — exploring how the mind behind Everlasting operates with not just power, but an eye also toward bigger and better opportunities. “Projection” brings her old friend Fiona (Tracie Thoms) back into the fold, and we get a better sense of their dynamic, their history, and the potential reasons behind their falling out.

Fiona tours the Everlasting campus with Quinn, ogling the men (even though she’s not interested in men) and dubbing the whole production “impressive.” She sits in on one of the biggest (and best) control room meetings of the season thus far, as Quinn and her producers spar over who Serena should select for “Hometown Dates,” the annual event in which the suitor in question spends some time living one of the contestants’ everyday lives. Rachel pitches Owen, selling the patriotic angle as well as the emotional pull of Serena meeting his daughter; Jay stumps for Jasper, noting how close he and Serena are to reconnecting; and Madison, with only one contestant still in play, is left to push Zack, who’s really a no-go. But it’s Fiona who gets the final say — she goes with Owen. Rachel, Serena, et al. are off to Colorado.

Of course, Serena needs to approve the pick, but it doesn’t take too much convincing — for her, anyway. “He’s a simple guy — in the best possible way, like your father,” Rachel explains to her. Serena agrees, due in no small part to the dwindling options she has — she’s not ready to forgive Jasper, Zack isn’t serious, Alexei is a drug-addicted mess, and August is hardly a contender. But when it comes time for the selection ceremony, Owen freaks and rushes out after being chosen, moving away from the cameras. He’s followed, with Serena forcing him to explain what’s going on. “I’m just not sure about some of your choices,” he says, referring to her keeping Jasper after learning he was only there on a bet. (Owen may be a weirdly good guy for this show, but jealousy over Jasper is a major factor here.) The comment smarts because it resonates with Serena — she admits to giving Jasper one too many breaks — and she apologizes. She’s genuine enough with Owen that she wins him over.

This, for Quinn, is all part of the plan — the heartland love story is one that’s bound to stick with viewers and keep the show a hit. She also has four new shows to get on the air, per the deal she made with Gary after she exposed him. Quinn makes Fiona a proposition: partner up and take over the network together. But Fiona shuts it down; her “impressive” compliment toward Everlasting from earlier in the episode suddenly is revealed, in retrospect, as something more condescending. Essentially, Fiona’s interested in “high-end, premium” content and blasts Everlasting as escapist trash. Quinn is offended; she wants to prove she can play on that level. So she takes Fiona’s notes to the Everlasting Hometown shoot.

Unfortunately, there are some bumps in the road. Serena and Owen arrive at the fire station in the latter’s hometown, only for Serena to greet his daughter Riley in exceedingly awkward fashion. (Riley asks if Serena’s her new mother; Serena coldly responds, “No, I’m not.”) Owen is upset again, asking for alone time with Riley, and Serena is all twisted up. She’d just convinced herself she wanted this, but is now utterly terrified by the prospect of being “Insta-mom.” The material gets more interesting as Rachel projects her own issues onto Serena’s. Rachel thinks way beyond what she needs to for this publicity stunt, imagining Serena as an unavailable mother in the vein of her own mom, and begins actively campaigning for Serena to cut Owen on the spot — to spare Riley from a possible lifetime of damaging neglect. As for why Rachel’s so invested? She’s reeling from checking her father into the facility, and feeling him get increasingly distant. She’s calling every day but he’s barely talking, cryptic about the length of his stay. Later, she’ll learn that he’s been checked out of the facility by her mother — and that he requested it.

Her desire to break Owen and Serena up doesn’t jibe with Quinn’s vision. The Everlasting boss heads to the firestation herself to get things back on track, rejecting Rachel’s pitch to cut Owen and manufacturing some good ol’ drama instead. Serena’s reluctance to stick with Owen is put on the backburner when Quinn puts a clown in front of Riley — her pathological fear. Riley screams in terror, only for Serena to very gently bring her aside and comfort her; even more dramatically, Riley then runs into the street and gets nauseatingly close to getting hit by a truck, only to be heroically saved by Serena. Serena is changed by the experience: She tells Rachel she doesn’t want to cut Owen, and that something has happened to her. She wants to pursue this. 

There are a couple of issues with this scene. One is Quinn’s relative indifference to the intense danger she put Riley into. Not too long ago she was chastising Rachel for going too far in her producing games, and there’s nothing different about what Quinn does here. This speaks, more generally, to UnREAL‘s clunky handling of reckless producing, taking different perspectives on actions of similar severity depending on which narrative each fits into. In addition, the whole idea of Quinn using especially trashy reality tricks to create conversation-sparking, premium content feels a little muddled. It’s not particularly clear how Fiona’s stated programming vision meshes with what goes on in Colorado — how the broad family-friendly arc that the Hometown Dates segment delineates is anything different from what the juiciest Everlasting episodes have provided.

All that said, it’s compelling to watch Quinn take new risks in her pursuit of additional success. She has a blank check, in a way, and with great power comes great responsibility. She’s learning how to wield it, and her decisions thus far have been imperfect, to say the least. Importantly, this process comes in the midst of the next stage of her relationship with Chet, her lover-turned-colleague-turned-enemy-turned-acquaintance. She’d convinced him to try to repair his relationship with his son last week, and now he’s making steps to do so: Chet has asked for supervised visitation, but needs a character witness. His lawyer tells him it needs to be Quinn. She says she’ll consider it.

But when Chet catches wind of what Quinn pulled back in Colorado, he feels he has no choice but to confront her. Chet scolds her, saying she crossed a line. “If you had children of your own, you’d never do something like that,” he snaps. She’s offended by the comment and turns it back on him with appropriate cruelty, saying since she has no motherhood experience, she can’t evaluate him as a father — ergo, she can’t serve as a character witness. She’s hurt him, and more significant to the plot, has turned him against her once again.

That’s not necessarily the best place for Quinn to be, with Everlasting headed toward its climax. After all, there are only five men left, and the stakes are getting higher. UnREAL, at this point, seems to be a little too enamored with the idea of a bunch of hunky men competing over a woman: Here we get yet another absurd ego trip, one that feels like a watered-down copy of what’s come before. August is shirtless, digging an irrigation hole (for environmental purposes — he’s back to his Greenpeace mission, done with trying to win over Serena), leading to a competition between August, Jasper, and Zack over who can dig the biggest whole. (August wins.) It’s all very random and inconsequential. Madison captures the steamy, bickering footage and shows Quinn, who’s impressed — perhaps the first time she’s validated Madison’s work without qualification. (Madison did so with the help of Charlie, the camera operator who has a thing for Jeremy. In another going-nowhere plot, she realizes he’s more interested in Rachel than her, and says she doesn’t want to be involved in the drama.)

Serena gets a few minutes with August, per Madison’s promise, and he’s just genuine enough, likely, to buy himself another week on Everlasting. Meanwhile, Jasper and Serena share another sexy, tense moment alone, just before the elimination ceremony — a reminder that these two have the deepest connection. At this point Serena is fighting it: She’s afraid Jasper is like the many Silicon Valley men she’s dated, while Owen represents something fresh and different. By the time she cuts Zack, leaving just four men (Alexei — now in a full-fledged drugs-and-sex relationship with Jay — included), it’s clear we have a “horse race,” as Quinn calls it, between Owen and Jasper.

But there’s another battle brewing — between Chet and Quinn. Gary calls Chet in the episode’s final scene, informing him he wants to give him an Emmy push — but only if Chet gives him Quinn’s “head …on a platter.” Putting aside the fact that it’s hard to think of how Chet could get an Emmy without Quinn — a credited producer on Everlasting, even if she’s miraculously fired before the season ends — it seems we’re headed back to a survival dynamic for our caustic heroine. This episode, while flawed, nicely showcases UnREAL’s potential when there aren’t any immediate, life-changing, insanely dramatic elements surrounding Quinn and Rachel — we see them as they are, trying to make their way. Observing Quinn grapple with real power and influence has been fascinating so far, through just a couple of episodes. Cutting that exploration short would be a real shame.

The Lifetime drama—created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and featuring Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer—explores the dark behind-the-scenes nature of a reality dating show (which is very clearly mirrored after The Bachelor).
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