Plus: How 'Frankenstein' and Hillary Clinton's campaign also contributed to the final season's plot

By Shirley Li
July 18, 2018 at 09:30 AM EDT
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UnREAL executive producer Stacy Rukeyser has braced herself for an ending ever since stepping up as showrunner in season 3. Though she didn’t learn that season 4 would be the drama’s last until this month, she’d always guided the series toward potential conclusions, given the drama’s low ratings and fluctuating popularity. “The end of season 3 could have been a series finale too,” she says. “We knew we could write our way out of or into anything.”

But season 4’s closing moments — with Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) entwined in each other’s arms after another rollercoaster of an Everlasting season — will definitively be UnREAL’s last. It’s also the end for Everlasting within the show; after all, Quinn and Rachel burned down the mansion and torched its rotten legacy forever, after a sexual assault story line got out of hand under Rachel’s watch.

Still, will Rachel and Quinn truly be okay? Rukeyser breaks down that lingering question with EW below, and discusses what went into the writing of one final, tumultuous season.

Bettina Strauss/Hulu

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you find out this would be the final season? Was it early enough that you knew you had to write this finale as a series finale?
STACY RUKEYSER: I didn’t find out for sure until about a week ago. But when we were writing it, we thought it was probably going to be the end. I think I felt like we were on borrowed time anyway, so it was definitely written thinking it was probably the end, but if it’s not, we’ll figure something else out. Rachel and Quinn will go do something they think is better, as they say at the end of the show.

Do you think they are going to do better and be okay? If you had known it would be the series finale, would you have included an epilogue to reassure all of us they’d be all right?
[Laughs] Like a Six Feet Under flash-forward? I would have loved to do that. That’ll be our web extra. But no, it really felt right to bring them to this place. This season was always conceived as a Frankenstein story, in the sense that Rachel really becomes this monster and Quinn has a great deal of responsibility in creating that monster, and the irony or the comment on reality television in our culture today is that the more of a monster she becomes, the higher the ratings. That’s why it was really important to us to have Rachel set things right for Noelle and for Maya by the end. Burning down the mansion completely felt like the right ending for the series.

Rachel’s most monstrous moment this season was manipulating the entire Maya-Roger-Noelle showdown and sexual assault. Constance had said the story was inspired in part by the allegations on Bachelor in Paradise. How did that factor into the writing of that arc, and what else went into its telling?
What happened on Bachelor in Paradise was intensely interesting to me, I’ll put it that way. The Bachelor has been on for over 20 seasons, and from what we hear from producers in reality TV in general, they’re always coming up to us and saying, “Oh my gosh, UnREAL is so real.” And it made it clear that there are really awful things that happen in real life on these shows, and yet nobody ever complains to the studio or to the press, until last year, with Bachelor in Paradise.

So when the producer complained to the studio and they shut down production, that was really interesting to me. You have to understand, a producer on a show like that doesn’t necessarily have a contact at the studio, so even finding out who to call…. Now, post-#MeToo, a lot of studios are putting a human resources number on the call sheet, so you do know, but it was a really big deal at the time to know who to call and how to break rank and actually take the complaint. It’s the first time in the history of that show, and that was insanely interesting to me. From there, the female contestant hired a lawyer, and things unraveled, but by the end [the show aired].… So, the whole thing was very strange. My husband, who’s perhaps learned from UnREAL, said, “Maybe it was a publicity stunt,” and I thought, “Well, that‘s a very interesting perspective.” It just felt like such rich material for UnREAL.

Now, we certainly didn’t take it one-for-one in terms of the story, but certainly with Rachel producing Jay to make a complaint to the network and then leaking that complaint to the press to get more ratings — all of that was inspired by the whole Bachelor in Paradise thing.

Bettina Strauss/Hulu

But you guys ran with that ball and pushed it even farther with Maya and Roger.
The stuff with Maya and Roger, again, we always start with Rachel and Quinn. Rachel looks great, but she’s in a terrible mental state [where she’s afraid of being alone]. I think it’s really scary for her. [Bringing in Maya and Roger] is a smart producing move, as awful as it sounds. If you want to have drama and ratings, bring back the girl who was date-raped and the guy who date-raped her, put them in a room, and see what happens.

As awful as it is, that is technically good producing, but it’s fueled by Rachel’s own sexual trauma, which is still unresolved, really. The underlying trauma has not been handled at all, so it comes out in unconscious ways. I firmly, firmly believe that she did not expect things to get as far as they did.

What do you hope viewers take away from this story?
Roger’s smart, and I don’t want to generalize, but some of these guys who are assaulters and rapists and harassers — they’re good talkers. That’s how they get into the situations to perpetrate this behavior and not be punished for it. We wanted to make sure his argument sounded viable so that Maya is confused and doesn’t quite know what to say. She’s not so savvy in terms of how to do this.

I can tell you, these stories, they’re not easy decisions to make. There’s certainly trepidation from the actors, from the network, from the studio, from everybody. At the end of the day, we came up with a version that is truthful with Rachel. It’s certainly awful, but it also opened up, for the back half of the season, the opportunity to talk about the situation that not only Maya is in, but Noelle is in, and her decision to stay quiet, and what happens to women who do come forward in the media and how they’re portrayed, and how it’s really unfair that the guy can do six months in some Malibu rehab and be accepted back again, but the woman is going to be branded forever.… The end of the season flies in the face of that. It was a chance to talk about all of that, which is really interesting and important to all of us.

Bettina Strauss/Hulu

Speaking of perception, you’ve talked before about how the way Hillary Clinton was portrayed during her presidential campaign affected the writing of the show. This season included people chanting, “Lock her up,” like many Trump supporters did during the campaign. Could you talk more about how Hillary’s run influenced this season in particular?
Yeah, it’s no secret that we, like a lot of people, are really concerned about what’s happening in this country, particularly for women. In season 3, we were interested in the romantic difficulties of the working woman, but who cares about that now? We’re in a much worse state! [Laughs] And so it was like, we’re in much more dire straits.

In that moment [when Maya’s thrown under the bus], it was really about Rachel being so awful that she would turn Maya into a crazy, psycho bitch, and what is the easiest way to demonstrate that? Well, look at how Hillary Clinton was made to look like a crazy, psycho bitch! That’s very reductive and much more simplified than what it is, but it rings in our heads all the time, that you can take this incredibly smart, qualified woman and make it all about her emails. This [scene and the referential line written by staff writer Ashley Sims] is specific to Maya, but we were trying to say something broader about our culture.

Now, what about Quinn’s journey? What were you hoping fans took away from seeing her grapple with the possibility of beginning a family? And did she lose the baby?
What’s been exciting or me about her story line thematically is it feels incredibly triumphant for her to actually be able to get pregnant. She proved those doctors wrong, but there’s a big difference between getting pregnant and being a mother. And I think Quinn realizes over the course of the season that maybe she doesn’t really want to be a mother, and we’re trying to say that that is more than okay, that not everyone is meant to be a mother and that not everyone needs to be a mother. And at the end, we left it kind of open-ended deliberately. I want people to debate whether there was something wrong with the baby.

But if there is nothing wrong with the baby — let’s just go down that road for a second — then Quinn lies to Chet to save his feelings. In a way, it’s a very kind gesture. And if Chet knows, can sense that [she’s lying] and is even smarter than Quinn gives him credit for and doesn’t say anything about it, then that’s an incredibly kind gesture on his part too. The kindness that would mean between Quinn and Chet is really, I think, pretty beautiful and interesting a way to leave them.

Then, just to wrap up and look back on the series as a whole, what do you hope is the show’s legacy after these four seasons?
I hope it has really amplified the conversation about the danger of reality television. I think that it is very detrimental to our culture, and I hope we have contributed to that conversation. I also think that we have been a part of a groundswell of not only female protagonists but also “unlikeable” female protagonists. It’s been a joy to write for women who are complicated and flawed and human, and I hope we have added to this wave of seeing more and more of them. It’s been an incredible ride.

UnREAL season 4 is now streaming on Hulu.

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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