Caitlin Fitzgerald gives a tour-de-force performance as Serena is cruelly humiliated

By David Canfield
April 16, 2018 at 11:02 PM EDT
Bettina Strauss/Lifetime
S3 E8
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It’s good news that last week’s episode of UnREAL may, in retrospect, feel like a small but unnerving bump in an otherwise strong season. The show appeared to be heading toward another narrative cliff, but this week continued to work off of the momentum that had previously been gained. The past comes back to haunt each of the show’s main characters, and in powerful ways, we see how those experiences inform who they are now. (Bonus: The episode is directed by Quinn King herself, Constance Zimmer, in an auspicious debut.)

Particularly, Quinn’s dangerous new friendship with Fiona that was teased last week now feels merely like a story device, a wedge between Quinn and Chet which creates some strong character work in “Recurrent.” We pick up where we left off: Chet agreeing to bring Quinn’s “head” to Gary, Quinn rushing off with Fiona for a night of partying. It’s the morning after and Quinn is in bed with a hunk, staying overnight at Fiona’s and playing hooky from Everlasting for a luxurious day off: lavish breakfast, poolside cocktails, intense massages. Chet, meanwhile, is scrambling to sabotage his former lover. He can’t figure out Quinn’s computer password and can’t do much without her around. So he heads to Fiona’s to try to bring her back to campus.

Quinn and Chet aren’t the only ones distracted. Rachel, of course, is still reeling from the devastating revelation that her father asked her mother to remove him from the mental health facility and bring him back home. Her mother leaves her a dismissive voicemail, saying she “appreciates” what Rachel tried to do for him, leading to a destructive episode, as Rachel throws and crashes things in her trailer. This leads Simon — who’s still spying on her — to intervene. He calms her down, but later, Rachel realizes she “needs” to talk to her mom. She needs to leave too, to her parents’ house — putting Madison in charge, Rachel’s only suggestion being to not stir any drama.

Unfortunately, Madison quickly receives conflicting information. Chet goes to Fiona’s to try to convince Quinn to return to her producing duties, but Quinn insists on taking a day off — and is still, no doubt, smarting from his “you’re not a mother” comment that followed her risky producing gambit from last week. Chet, in typically idiotic fashion, decides he needs to blow up the show to get Quinn’s attention. He informs Madison that her job is on the line with Zack gone — not true — and that she needs to create a “nuclear explosion” to get attention. She takes the advice to heart.

This “goal” of the day comes on a particularly consequential date night for Serena. It’s a weekend getaway that’s all about intimacy, in which Serena and the man she chooses will exchange details and stories from their past — however uncomfortable. “Trust me: Until you deal with your past, you’re stuck,” Rachel assures her. (Rachel knows a thing or two about such things.) The men gather to briefly describe some pictures from their social media, in order to help Serena make the right decision: August charms her by showing off his second family in the Congo, Jasper proves he’s an “open book,” Alexei is knocked back by a reminder of his “true love” (and ex) Natalia, and Serena herself discloses the relationship she had with whom she thought was the one: a man named George whom she says she was close to marrying, but who ghosted her one night, never to contact her again. Serena tells the story, and the contestants comfort her — but it’s clear she’s not fully over it. Madison, upon learning of this, seizes on that detail.

The senior producers dealing with their own personal dramas have no idea what’s coming. Quinn tells Chet she’s going to fly to LA, where Fiona is already headed, and he offers to take her on his private plane; they make a stop first, however, at Quinn’s in-development mansion. It’s the home Chet once designed for her, only built for one. The two fall back into each other’s rhythms once again, and it’s weirdly tender and sweet, darkened by our understanding of what Chet is trying to do. We see the depth of their connection, how formative it’s been for them, and how difficult it is to let it go. “You’re so much better than all my bullsh–, so much better without me,” Chet says to her. Quinn cracks back, “Are you having a stroke?” True love.

Rachel, meanwhile, goes to confront her mother. They have another go-nowhere conversation, a passive-aggressive debate that devolves into nasty insults and screams. But Rachel leaves content this time. She says she’s never going back. And she smiles — she’s taken a step forward, however difficult. (Recap continues on next page)

These individual journeys are cut short, however, when George abruptly arrives on the Everlasting scene — and on Madison’s invitation. He storms into the selection ceremony and decides to tell the contestants what “really” happened. He says he and Serena only knew each other a few months — they weren’t close to engaged. He says she made him introduce her as his girlfriend when it wasn’t the case. He says he had to get a restraining order when she wouldn’t leave him alone. He’s essentially gaslighting her, and it’s ugly to watch. The men look on, confused and uncomfortable, but Serena is broken. Caitlin Fitzgerald knocks the scene out of the park, as Serena tries her damndest not to lose it even as the humiliation becomes too much to bear. “I was not crazy,” she insists through tears. “I just wanted you to return my phone call.” Rachel, Quinn, and Chet return before long, George is escorted away, and Serena cancels the date — and starts packing up her suitcase.

Rachel apologizes to Serena for not protecting her from such insanity, and insists that she’s not pathetic. Quinn follows Rachel in and piles on the praise. “Screw every other man who wants us all to be perfect little princesses,” Quinn says proudly. “That bozo had no right to treat you like a deranged freak.” She promises that Everlasting can “change the conversation” — exactly what Emmy-hungry Chet and premium-thirsty Fiona have asked for — from a portrait of an unhinged woman George tried painting to something much more nuanced and responsible. Serena isn’t cheered up, exactly, but is convinced to stay.

So begins the fallout. First there’s Jay and Alexei, the latter still in pain over the Natalia reminder. He reveals to Jay that “when she was gone,” all he had left was the drugs, complicating their relationship. Jay views it as Alexei opening up to him, and sets up a grand Everlasting-themed date, but he’s dead-wrong. Alexei reminds him that their relationship is purely transactional, and expresses disgust with Jay for trying to get closer to him. As for the George drama, Quinn rightly chews Madison out for her idiotic move, unaware that Chet was the one who put her up to it. And Rachel tries to feel the guys out, noticing Jasper in particular was really disturbed by the whole display. (“She’s kind of a mess, no?”)

In an explosive scene, Rachel pulls Jasper aside for an on-camera interview. Drawing from her own experiences, she masterfully uses his background as an adopted child to get him to reveal his innermost insecurities and traumas. She uncovers his history with women, his inability to get too close and the reasons why. She pushes so far, digging so deep, that she gets him to cry. “I am exactly who I want to be,” he says, most unconvincingly. “I am not alone. And I am not a piece of s–t.” It’s a blistering scene, one that’s rendered especially effective because of Rachel’s place in it: We see the weeks of obsession over her past filter into this one moment, a reminder of precisely why she’s so good at her job.

Jasper is reeling, Owen is dumbfounded, and Alexei is busy getting high, leaving August — once thought to be out of the competition — as the one who goes to comfort Serena. It’s utterly genuine, and you can see for the first time that he actually seems to care for her. “We do crazy things when we’re in love,” he says. “You have a giant heart and nobody can blame you for that.” She’s touched. Later, she runs into Jay, who tells her Alexei is using cocaine and that she should cut him — making the decision pretty clear-cut, given that losing any of the other contestants at this stage would be quite the surprise. Jay gets his revenge, and Serena keeps her three strongest prospects.

This has all the makings of a great UnREAL episode, as each of the conflicts converge. The show has felt disparate at times this season, but in “Recurrent,” every personal story line — Chet’s desire for relevance, Quinn’s ascendancy, Rachel’s attempt to move on from her trauma, Jay’s affair with Alexei — finds its way into the main Everlasting conflict. Serena cuts Alexei abruptly, leaving him screaming into the camera. She then goes to find August, having passionate sex with him once more. (One thing’s for sure: They have crazy chemistry.) And Rachel, a little twisted up, tries to romance Dr. Simon after her “breakthrough” — a move he blessedly rejects, but which is sure to complicate things down the line.

Most fascinating is where we leave Quinn and Chet. At long last, Chet gets her into her office. She says it’s clear he orchestrated the blow-up to bring her back to production, and wants to know why. He confesses — completely. He admits he made a mistake, but that he could never go through with Gary’s scheme. This is the more compelling version of Chet: not the meddling conniver who last week’s episode made him out to be, but the irritable doofus whose care for Quinn (mostly) outweighs his selfishness. And together with Quinn, we leave him in a juicy spot: ready to take down Gary, once and for all. “This is an opportunity,” Quinn gushes. She’s talking about their careers, but the downfall of the network head is proving mighty fruitful for UnREAL, too.

Episode Recaps

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 based on 'The Bachelor').
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