Going into Monday night, all eyes in Bachelor Nation were on Emmanuel Acho. The former NFL linebacker, sports analyst, and Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man host stepped in to host the “After the Final Rose” special following Matt James’ Bachelor finale after Chris Harrison temporarily stepped away.
For most of this season, ABC and Bachelor producer Warner Bros. have refused to address the racism scandal that’s consumed online conversations about this season. As Acho put it Monday night, “Some of these conversations here tonight might make people a little uncomfortable. They won’t be easy. But my hope is that if we can talk openly and honestly, we can take important steps towards mutual understanding and healing.”
Early on this season, Bachelor fans uncovered alarming past behavior from this season’s longtime frontrunner, Rachael Kirkconnell; images showed her “liking” troubling social media posts and wearing offensive costumes. The show did not address the rumors on air—but last month Chris Harrison landed in hot water while defending Rachael’s decision to attend an Old South-themed party in 2018 during an Extra TV interview with Rachel Lindsay. Both Rachael and Harrison have apologized, and Harrison is on hiatus from the show; Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette, has announced that she will step away from the franchise once her contract is over.
Matt chose Rachael as his winner on Monday night, as expected. His mother, Patty James, and brother, John James, each had wonderful meetings with both Rachael and runner-up Michelle Young. (Meaning: Patty cried profusely during both, while Matt’s brother remarked on how much this “journey” appears to have changed him.) But Patty, who raised her sons as a single mother, also warned James to remember that love alone cannot sustain a marriage. Matt ultimately decided he couldn’t “get there” with Michelle, and chose to leave the show with Rachael—unengaged but still very much in love.
It was only then, two hours in, that the moment fans were really waiting for finally came: Acho opened “After the Final Rose,” vowing to delve into the season’s various controversies and reveal what’s come of Matt and Rachael’s romance.
Spoiler-reading fans have known for some time that Matt and Rachael had reportedly split as a result of the photographs of her attending a plantation-themed party in 2018. On “After the Final Rose,” Matt confirmed to Acho that this was the case.
“You want to believe that you know your person better than anybody else knows your person,” Matt said. “...You hear things that are heartbreaking and you just pray they’re not true. And then when you find out that they are, it just makes you question everything.”
Once Rachael released her apology statement and it sank in that the rumors had been true, Matt said, “I wasn’t OK.” It was in that moment, he said, that he realized “Rachael might not understand what it means to be Black in America.”
Being the first Black Bachelor, Matt said, was a lot of pressure—largely because he had to consider how his every move might be interpreted by people for whom “that was the first time having someone like myself in their home.
“I think it’s just what we’re conditioned to do as Black men,” Matt said. “Making people comfortable with your blackness and going above and beyond to show that in stature and personality, you’re not as threatening as you come off.”
Breaking up with Rachael, Matt said, was “as tough as you can imagine.” But, he added, if in 2018 Rachael didn’t know that attending a plantation-themed party was offensive, “there’s a lot of me you won’t understand. It’s as simple as that.”
Throughout his appearance, Matt appeared genuinely pained. His season was never going to fix the franchise’s longstanding race problem, but its outcome has been genuinely shameful nonetheless. At various points, Matt’s eyes filled with tears as Acho, dutifully playing his role as host and, therefore, the man tasked with extracting as much emotion as possible from these cast interviews, prodded him for insight into his emotions. At various points, it became impossible to ignore just how unfair a position the show has placed Matt in: His journey for love has already been tainted by racism, and now he must contend with the emotional fallout on live television for the sake of closure.
But that’s not to say that the exercise was pointless. After speaking with Matt, Acho brought in Rachael by herself. If anything could turn this season’s public disgrace into a teachable moment for the show and its conflicted viewer base—too many of whom still defend Rachael—it would be Monday’s conversation between her and Acho.
Throughout the sit-down, Acho was pleasant but firm with Rachael—although he did let her off the hook at times. For instance: When he asked Rachael what she was doing to better herself, the contestant conspicuously avoided the question, saying instead that she “could” list off all the resources she’s consulted, but ultimately her actions would be what counted. (Acho did not press Rachael to name even just one resource, or to describe any actions she’s taken in the month since this scandal first erupted.)
Rachael said she still loved Matt—but almost as soon as Matt sat down with her and Acho, it became clear that his emotions are still very raw. Multiple times when prodded for even a possibility that he and Rachael might be able to reconcile, Matt seemed to shoot the idea down—the final time by refusing to embrace her goodbye.
Matt embraced Rachael when he first came back onstage. She apologized to him for not understanding why he’d been so upset about the photo at first. Matt took a long pause at that point—the first of many, one of which would last for what seemed like an eternity before Acho cut to a commercial break.
At first, Matt would only say one thing to Rachael: “It’s heartbreaking and it’s devastating. It’s just... It’s just disappointing.” Acho encouraged Matt to go deeper, at which point he fell into that painfully long silence. Rachael put a hand on his shoulder.
After some time, Matt finally told Rachael, “The most disappointing thing for me was having to explain to you why what I saw was problematic, and why I was so upset... When I questioned our relationship, it was in the context of you not fully understanding my blackness, and what it means to be a Black man in America. And what it would mean for our kids.”
“This is the last conversation I thought we’d be having,” Matt said. “I didn’t sign up to have this conversation. And I knew that I had to take a step back from you to put in that work that you outlined that you needed to do. And that’s something that you have to do on your own. And that’s why we can’t be in a relationship.”
Acho allowed Rachael to make the case to Matt that she is no longer the person that she was in 2018. She said that she joined the show specifically for him—“and that includes every single part of you, and that obviously includes you being a Black man”—and added that “at this point, I just don’t see how I can have these same feelings for someone else.”
Matt told Rachael that love like what he felt for her doesn’t just disappear and that he didn’t like seeing her hurt. “But then I ask myself, like, I don’t want to be emotionally responsible for those tears, because it’s like, the work and the reconciliation that needs to be done is one thing I can’t do for you. I know you’re capable of doing it.”
Both Acho and Matt emphasized that they don’t want Rachael “canceled.” As Matt put it, “I want them to call you in, and I want you to do this work, because that’s the best thing that can come out of this, and that’s something that she’s got to do on her own.”
Before he wrapped the program, Acho asked Rachael to tell Matt whatever she’d like him to hear, should this be the last time they speak. “Since day one,” she said, “all I want is for you to be happy. And I just want what’s best for you, and I am sorry, and I just, I thank God for ever putting you in my life to begin with, and I’ll always be thankful for everything that we shared and the time that we did have together.”
Acho then asked Matt if he’d like to hug Rachael goodbye one last time. After one last long pause, Matt simply replied, “I don’t know if it’ll ever not hurt hearing those things.”