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No subject was off limits, as host Emmanuel Acho talked to Matt James, Rachael Kirkconnell, and Michelle Young about Rachael's offensive photos and racism in the Bachelor franchise.

By Kristen Baldwin
March 15, 2021 at 11:00 PM EDT
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S25 E11

If we learned one thing tonight, rose lovers, it's that Emmanuel Acho is freaking great. Of course, there are probably plenty of you out there who already knew that — perhaps your fans of Acho's web series, best-selling book, or career in the sports ball. For those of us who just got to know him on tonight's After the Final Rose, well it was a delight. It wasn't an easy job, balancing thorny issues of race and bias with standard-issue reality TV heartbreak, but Acho managed to handle it with confidence, charm, and a firm but respectful interview style. And he did it all while wearing a snazzy suit that was so tight, I kept worrying he was going to bust through it, Bruce Banner style.

Let's recap!

The Tealight Candle Thunderdome may have no audience once again, but there are so many open flames burning, I have to believe there was a phalanx of fire safety officers just off-camera. In strides Acho, who diplomatically says he'll be "sitting in" for Chris Harrison tonight. But there will be no sweeping uncomfortable issues under the rug tonight. "There is a lot to talk about, especially after racially insensitive images surfaced from Rachael Kirkconnell's past," says Acho. "And we certainly have to address Chris Harrison's defense of insensitivity in his interview with Rachel Lindsay, for which he has since apologized." (It's interesting that the script added that qualifier for Harrison but not Rachael, who also apologized for her actions.)

So yeah, this ATFR is going to be different for many reasons. "My hope is that if we can talk openly and honestly," says Acho, "we can take important steps toward mutual understanding and healing." Amen to that, sir. Oh yeah, we'll also be talking about romance, because, you know, The Bachelor. As Acho puts it, sometimes contestants fall in love, and…

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Emmanuel Acho
| Credit: ABC

The shade! Gotta love it.

Part 1: Michelle, our belle

First thing's first: She looks GORGEOUS.

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Michelle Young
| Credit: ABC

Love those earrings. "I did not want to be sitting here with the ending that I had," says Ms. Young. "But I'm ready to face it." She's here for closure, which is something she didn't get on the show. After Matt broke up with her, apparently, she asked production if she could talk to him for a few minutes, just so she'd be able to say everything she was too stunned to say in the moment. But: "He refused to have that conversation with me," reports Michelle. Oh HELL no. You better get your bearded butt out here to fix this, Matt James!

First, though, Acho wants to talk to Michelle about Rachael's antebellum-themed photos, because he knows she has "a lot of thoughts on that." Michelle says that the more she learned about the situation, the more hurt she felt as a Black woman. "That was a prime example of not understanding the history behind it," she says. "I feel like Rachael has a good heart… but I think there's a lot of learning [that needs to be done]."

As for Chris Harrison and his wince-worthy interview with Rachel Lindsay, Michelle doesn't come right out and say, "this franchise is doing the least," but it's strongly implied: "All of these issues that everyone's talking around and addressing and apologizing and making statements but not actually changing anything — there is a point where you're just so exhausted." Fair enough. Still, Michelle is willing to continue working with the show (more on that in a bit), which perhaps should give us all a little hope.

Okay, now it's time for Michelle to get her much-needed closure. Please welcome Grizzly Sadams to the stage!

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Matt James
| Credit: ABC

"It's been a very rough past few months," sighs Matt. "I'm still processing everything." So is Michelle, buddy! "The moment you left, I completely crumbled," she tells him, tearing up. "I asked you for a conversation… and you said no." That's some BS, Matt James! Explain yourself!

Matt apologizes, and adds that "there was no justification for not having that conversation, and if I would have known that this is how you were feeling in that moment, then I would have fought to have that conversation." I'm sorry, what? Fought who? Michelle just said producers knew she wanted to talk to him, so is Matt trying to say that those producers either didn't bring him that request, or somehow stopped him from talking to Michelle after the break-up? Neither of those things would make sense, because of course producers would want to get a sad, post-breakup conversation on camera.

Anyhow, Matt goes on to praise Michelle for how gracefully she handled herself this season, both on camera and while dealing with the controversy surrounding the show. "My respect and admiration for you is just through the roof," says the Bachelor. "If I could do it over again, I would have had that conversation with you."

Michelle seems satisfied with that, and it seems like everything's going to come to a nice, calm end. Then Acho goes and tries to pump up the drama with this: "Well Michelle, you may never see Matt again. So is there anything else you want to say?" (Emphasis mine.) Wait, never see him again? Is one of them dying? Moving to Siberia? Deleting all social media apps from their phones? And the casual way he asked this question — rose lovers, I was howling with laughter. Fortunately, Michelle doesn't seem too shaken by the prospect of losing contact with Matt for all eternity: "I hope you find your happiness. I hope you move on with kissing with your eyes closed, and I hope you come up with more phrases than just 'thanks for sharing.'" Boom! Someone call 911 because shots were just fired!

Part 2: Two men talk about The Bachelor and Blackness

As I mentioned at the beginning, Emmanuel Acho was juggling a lot of different jobs as host of After the Final Rose. This was likely the hardest task of all: Acho had to facilitate a conversation about race, racism, and a long-running reality TV franchise in a way that would both resonate with the show's audience AND address the valid concerns of BIPOC fans and cast members. And in this segment, he starts off with one of the season's biggest burning questions: "How much pressure was it being the first Black Bachelor?"

Short answer: A lot. Matt says that Black people always face an "extra level of scrutiny," especially when they're the first to do something. He knew, therefore, that however he came across on the show would be held up as an example of "how Black people move" through the world. And that pressure was compounded, says Matt, because he was named the first Black Bachelor in a year when the nation — and the Bachelor franchise itself — was grappling with renewed focus on racism and civil rights.

It's a feeling Acho understands: "I walk around realizing I might be the only Black man that this person comes in contact with today, so let me do my best job to adequately represent Black men across the country." Take a second to sit with that, rose lovers. Certainly this isn't the first time I've thought about the additional mental calculus that any person of color has to deal with every day, but something about the way Acho phrased that really kicked me in the gut. Life is exhausting enough on a good day — imagine being saddled with all that extra emotional labor! Just thinking about it makes me want to take a nap.

Still, Matt says he doesn't regret saying yes to the Bachelor gig, because it helped him learn a lot about himself. "It was the first time I wasn't afraid to cry," he says. "I wasn't afraid to show emotion." With Rachael, he was initially drawn to her "authenticity," and after they left the show — together, but not engaged — Matt says they went through a nice "honeymoon period." Exhibit A:

Bachelor frame grab
Rachael Kirkconnell and Matt James
| Credit: ABC

Then, of course, came the pictures, which first started bubbling up on Reddit. Matt says when he was first heard about Rachael's "plantation-themed party" photos and controversial "likes," he was hoping it was just online hogwash. "I dismissed them as rumors because that's what they were to me," he says. "You just pray they're not true." But those rumors were true, and Matt says when he found out, it made him "question everything." Today, he recognizes that Rachael might not understand "what it means to be Black in America," and for that reason, he has to "take a step back" from their relationship.

Even if you haven't read the rampant spoilers about this season, rose lovers, this will likely not come as much of a surprise to anyone. In an effort to play Devil's advocate (a.k.a. head off the inevitable trolling from angry Twitterers), Acho asks, "Don't you believe she's a different person now? Couldn't you teach her? Couldn't you grow with her?" Matt admits that his feelings for Rachael just didn't "go away overnight," but dealing with everything that happened this season — and it's been a lot — has not left him with a lot of energy to educate the woman he once wanted to marry. Fair enough.

Part 3: "In my eyes, there's no excuse"

When it's time for her to take accountability, Rachael gets things off on the correct foot: Yes, the last few months have been hard for her, but "I don't wanna sit here and victimize myself." Turning right to the "elephant in the room," Acho brings this photo up on the monitor:

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Rachael Kirkconnell
| Credit: ABC

Not great, Bob. "When you look at that photo, what do you see?" asks Acho. Rachael says she sees someone who was living in ignorance. "I never once asked myself at any point, like, 'What's the tradition behind this? What does this represent? Why do we wear those dresses?'" This isn't an "I didn't know better" defense, she continues: "I never took the time to make that connection." Nor is Rachael going to blame anyone or anything for her ignorance. "In my eyes, there's no excuse," she says. "I did get a lot of people saying, 'This is normal where I grew up.'… That doesn't make it right."

She's handling herself well so far, but that doesn't mean she's not nervous. The woman is definitely experiencing some kind of stress-blotch breakout.

Bachelor frame grab
Rachael Kirkconnell
| Credit: ABC

At this point, Acho says something to Rachael that all but knocked me out of my chair. I'm going to transcribe it here in full:

"There's a difference between being racist and racially insensitive or racially ignorant. I've been very intentional about saying what you did was racially insensitive, it was racially ignorant, and it plays itself out as racism. But that doesn't necessarily classify someone as racist. You have to pull back the curtains and look at their intention. Was their intention malicious?"

Once again, Acho crystalized something incredibly complex with impeccable clarity. Some of you may disagree with this, but in my opinion, this question of intent has been largely overshadowed in all of the arguments happening online and IRL about Rachael, Chris Harrison, and the Bachelor franchise in general. Do the people out there who are calling for Harrison to be fired truly believe that his intent during that Rachel Lindsay interview was malicious and racist? That he meant to shut her down because she was Black? That he defended Rachael because he's just fine with the antebellum South? At the risk of being trolled for the next 10,000 years on Twitter, I will say that I do not believe his intent was malicious. I absolutely believe that he was racially ignorant and insensitive, and also very mansplainy. Harrison clearly needs to educate himself in a variety of ways, and I hope he takes that seriously. It's unclear what his future with the show will look like, or if he'll even have one — but I do hope we can all keep Acho's words in mind as we continue to discuss it.

But back to Rachael. "What steps is Rachael Kirkconnell actually taking to do better, to be better, to learn, to grow?" asks Acho. I was half expecting her to answer with, "I'm reading your book, Emmanuel!" — but Rachael declines to list what she's reading, watching, and listening to as part of her education. For her, the more important part of the process begins after the learning is done. "I don't think that anything is going to change if we don't take actions to put that education into play," she says.

Part 4: Breaking up (on TV) is hard to do

Though Matt already called Rachael a while ago to break up with her, this is the first time they're seeing each other since then. "I really just want to take the time to say I'm really sorry," begins Rachael, her voice breaking. "I'm really sorry that I hurt you." There's a long, fraught pause.

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Rachael Kirkconnell and Matt James
| Credit: ABC

Acho finally breaks the silence. "Matt, how hard is this on you?" Heartbreaking, devastating, disappointing — Matt is feeling all of these things. Perhaps that's why he's so quiet? The next pause lasts for 18 full seconds, and so Acho jumps in again: "What else do you want to share with her?" Almost 40 more seconds of silence pass and Matt just can't bring himself to speak. Maybe he's worried he's going to cry? Maybe he's just not sure that there's anything more to say?

After a much-needed commercial break, Acho tries for a third time to get the Bachelor to Open Up™. "Matt, what's on your mind? It's best to just be honest." There's another long pause, and finally, Matt speaks. "The most disappointing thing for me was having to explain to you why what I saw was problematic, and why I was so upset," he tells Rachael. "When I questioned our relationship, it was on the context of you not fully understanding my Blackness, and what it means for me to be a Black man in America, and what it would mean for our kids."

Well, that was an answer worth waiting for. Rachael listens quietly, nodding as Matt explains that she needs to "do the work" on her own. "You were the only reason that I decided to do the show," she says. "And that includes every single part of you. And that obviously includes you being a Black man. I've never experienced a love like this," she continues, her voice cracking. "At this point, I just don't see how I can have these same feelings for someone else."

Right on cue, Acho asks Matt if the door is "even slightly open" for a reconciliation with Rachael — and right on cue, Matt dodges the question. Instead, he just repeats that Rachael has to do the work "on her own." Hearing this, Acho busts out his new signature question: You may never speak to this man again. What are your final words before he disappears from your life forever?????? Rachael apologizes again through her tears, and she assures Matt that she only wants the best for him.

It's very sad, both Rachael and Matt look miserable — which makes it all the more hilarious and uncomfortable when Acho encourages them to share "a final embrace." It's a suggestion that Matt just flat-out ignores (or maybe didn't hear?), but anyway, it makes for this very jarring cutaway, when Acho teases that the Bachelorette announcement is coming after the break:

Bachelor GIF
Credit: ABC

Good GOD that was rough.

Part 5: And our Bachelorettes are…

Michelle and Katie!

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Michelle Young and Katie Thurston
| Credit: ABC

And no, they're not going to have to share a season, thank God. You can read all about it here.

Welp, it's been a wild few months, rose lovers. Before we all go hibernate until the new season of The Bachelorette premieres in the spring, please take a moment to share your thoughts about tonight's episode and the season general. What did you think of Emmanuel Acho as host? Are you pleased about the new Bachelorettes (and the back-to-back seasons)? And do you think Matt and Rachael would have made it as a couple if those photos didn't exist (or never resurfaced)? Post your thoughts below, and as always, thanks for taking this "journey" with me!

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