Can anyone really “win” The Bachelor?
With a relationship success rate of less than 5 percent, the flagship series in ABC’s reality-dating empire doesn’t offer contestants much more than an endless purgatory of Instagram endorsement deals and spinoff-appearance opportunities. Sure, they get to wring some money out of their social-media followings, but one day all of these conventionally attractive and unconventionally employed people will grow old just like the rest of us, and have to ask themselves if they are truly happy with the lives that they have led.
So, yes, Bachelor winner Becca K. was dumped on national television Monday night in an unedited 30-minute sequence that host Chris Harrison called “raw,” “emotional,” and “uncut.” But is that a fate any worse than being a Bachelor’s fiancée?
On Monday night’s three-hour finale, Arie Luyendyk Jr., a 36-year-old race-car driver blessed with an 18-year-old’s hairline, may have become a series villain on par with Juan Pablo by “pulling a Mesnick” and dumping his original choice Becca K. in favor of runner-up Lauren B. after initial filming had already ended.
On a couch in Los Angeles—the setting for the vast majority of Bachelor conversations—Arie told Becca K. that, although they had already been engaged for a few months, he had to go follow his heart. Judging from the boos in the studio audience, her response was much of America’s as well: “Are you fucking kidding me?”
The Minnesotan publicist’s reaction to being blindsided was heartbreaking—right up until Chris Harrison reappeared to let us know how well the “uncut” moment was performing on Facebook and Twitter: “To say that this is trending and blowing up social media right now is a gross understatement.”
And then I realized that none of this matters—and that I have an existence even less meaningful than being a supplement-hawking reality-TV star because I was the one sitting there watching, obsessing over, and writing about this silly show. The Bachelor is an abyss of meaning, vacant but transfixing. I don’t doubt that Becca K.’s heartbreak is genuine. But she is just one more spurned contestant who, in all likelihood, will go on to become the Bachelorette, collect a five-to-six figure check, and start a failed relationship of her very own. The cycle will continue, nothing will change, and I will still watch.
Besides, Arie, and Lauren B.—one of four Laurens to appear this season—are perfect for each other. They both rely way too much on saying, “I love that” during conversation. Lauren B. proudly labels herself “not cool” and Arie somehow manages to be a boring race-car driver. Arie describes Lauren B. as having “layers” but judging from how laconic she is, you have to wonder if she has layers the same way that Matryoshka dolls do, where you peel back the last one and there’s nothing inside. The two of them together are like dull mirrors reflecting each other’s nothingness. It’s arguably the fulfillment of The Bachelor franchise to see two people so humdrum find each other so interesting.
The already semi-unpopular Arie knew he wasn’t going to earn any fans by breaking off his engagement to Becca K. with the cameras rolling—“I know this isn’t gonna be a popular decision,” he admits— but let’s remember that Jason Mesnick, the ex-Bachelor for whom the “pulling a Mesnick” maneuver is named, is still married to the runner-up from his season. Maybe Arie will have similar luck, although we’ll have to wait for tomorrow night’s two-hour conclusion to find out if Lauren B. even took him back.
And Becca K. will be just fine. There’s nothing that “Bachelor Nation” loves more than rallying behind someone who gets their heart broken on the show, if only to cover over the guilt we feel at being so captivated by their pain in the first place. We Bachelor fans are the kindest of sadists—and when Chris Harrison promises “the most emotional scene ever” as he did Monday, we may roll our eyes, but then we glue them to our TVs.
The Bachelor has always been an exercise in forcing human beings to conform to rigid and arbitrary rules for finding romance, and yet we still act scandalized every time one of these relationships fails spectacularly. It is simultaneously thrilling and depressing to watch contestants get right to the brink of realizing that the system they inhabit is broken, like witnessing Westworld robots edge dangerously closer to self-awareness.
“How could you get down on one knee if you weren’t sure until three hours ago?” Lauren B. asks the camera, immediately after being rejected by Arie, and moments before Arie proposes to Becca K.
How, indeed? It’s almost as if proposing to someone minutes after telling someone else that you love them is no way to kick off an engagement. We all know that, and yet we’ll play along with Arie becoming the villain in Becca K.’s backstory, because that’s how the system works. These contestants have all signed up to be pieces in a board game that gets reset every few months: The players may change, but the roles stay the same. And there will always—always— be a contractually obligated appearance by Neil Lane.
In fact, the greatest trick The Bachelor pulls is convincing us that anything we’re watching is “real.” It’s a trick Harrison accomplished Monday night by repeatedly emphasizing that the Becca K. breakup would be “unedited,” that it would be “shown in real-time,” with “both cameras visible”—which, apparently, meant a split-screen view of both Arie and Becca K.’s faces at the very moment their relationship dissolves.
“This is just, like, a really shitty thing on your part,” Becca K. tells Arie, but she could just as easily have been talking to the television crew milling around in the background, getting paid to film her suffer, so that millions of people can watch her cry.
Ultimately, though, the Bachelor team captures their most grimace-inducing moment when Becca K. tells Arie to leave the aforementioned Los Angeles couch and he just sits there, staring, unable to tear himself away. Never has The Bachelor produced a more apt nor more damning visual metaphor for the relationship that fans like me have to the show: We know we should definitely get up and do something else, and we just sit there.
But just as I was starting to feel guilty for watching Becca K. shed tears, the show cut away to a live shot of her sitting with Chris Harrison and the studio audience.
“Brutal,” she declares.
And then, as the audience begins to clap and cheer, the hint of a smile spreads across Becca K.’s face, erasing almost all doubt that the producers have already tapped her to star in The Bachelorette—and that she’ll be making people cry for our entertainment soon enough. Becca K. may not have “won” The Bachelor. But “winning” isn’t the point. We watch for the game, not the outcome—and the game will never change.