Week 5–9: Red flags

Dear reader, forgive my absence.

When I committed to keeping my Bachelorette diary, I’d neglected to square the season’s schedule with the fact that I’d be out of the country for most of July. I looked at the internet only long enough to upload obligatory splashy sunset grams and check the weather. I was as blissfully oblivious to domestic crises as I was wistfully in the dark re: Rachel Lindsay’s quest for love. But I’m back now, and all but caught up, with only the Men Tell All on deck before this journey ends.

When last we met, I was halfway through the Shocking Two-Night Bachelorette Event. Given how distilled things are now, it’s strange to travel back to a moment when the tickle monster, penguin, and Big Adam were all still in play. I don’t want to spend too much time with this, particularly the bloated Kenny vs. Lee showdown (the visual trademark of which was footage of Kenny’s head bleeding…in Denmark, while cosplaying Viking battle, well after Lee had been eliminated). Someone who saw Get Out apparently thought this conflict would supply choice drama to Rachel’s season, but you can’t create tension around something literally everyone, both on and offscreen, agrees about.

I do want to think about Jack Stone’s dismissal. We learned from Fred, poor Fred, how this show owes much of its actual drama from depicting — typically via an editing pattern that functions about as subtly as a split-screen — the dissonance between two individuals’ experiences of the “same” events. I scare-quote because I’m not sure we can take that sameness for granted. For Jack Stone, the one-on-one date with Rachel goes smoothly, pressing them ever closer to a certain future together. “We mesh,” he says, grinning. For Rachel, the apparently exact same date is informatively awkward. Jack wants to continue down “this path,” but the cutaways to Rachel’s narration suggest he doesn’t even know what path he’s on (hint: it’s basically a conveyor belt leading into a boiler).

Lift your chin, Jack. (1)

I spent a fair amount of time trying to parse precisely what makes Jack Stone’s smile so creepy. That said, even I was chagrined to see people pounce after his unfortunate, interminable moment in the confessional. It’s not easy to know your angles! And clearly Jack Stone doesn’t realize he’s giving us “better to eat you with” whenever he’s feeling especially/mistakenly enthusiastic about Rachel. The dissolution of this date is the closest to car-crashing we’ve come this season. So much so, that we don’t even get to see his final moments. What about his exit interview was so unfilmable? “It’s probably too painful to put on TV,” my boyfriend said at the time. There’s nothing too painful to put on TV.

Maybe the Men Tell All touches on this. I hope so. I felt for Jack. Twitter had a real field day with his saying that he’d like to put Rachel in a room and lock the door; and sure, I hear the Buffalo Bill in it too. But isn’t this what anyone undergoing televised courtship — or anyone in a long distance relationship, for that matter — would long for: the luxury of unadulterated private time? Is it really more grotesque than having your plural boyfriends pickle in free liquor on sectional couches while you’re out with any particular one?

This is the unofficial theme of Rachel’s season: guys thinking things are going great when they’re really going garbage. I don’t know if it speaks to Rachel’s diplomacy, or to a higher-than-usual level of delusion among contestants, but it’s chilling, even when we’re let in on it before they realize what’s coming.

In the world of the show, the confessional interviews they cut into scenes of dates and conversations are called “In the Moments,” because contestants are asked to narrate in the present tense:

We miss you, Jasmine!

The practical upshot of this technique is that footage can be interjected at any point, giving editors greater leeway to construct the most compelling narrative depending on how events and relationships progress. Swoony accounts of how swell things are going accompany long shots of uncomfortable silence, etc. Beyond their instrumental function, In the Moments also reinforce The Bachelor/ette’s conventional timeline of emotional attachment: from being able to “see yourself” falling in love, to falling in love, to being in love, to not being able to see yourself without said person. It’s crucial to respect this chronology: skipping steps can make a contestant look unfavorably slow to intimacy, or alarmingly overeager (see Josiah, this season).

By forcing contestants to narrate their feelings and reactions in the present tense, with an eye ever toward the next rose ceremony/week of dates/inevitable finale, the show fucks with time in fascinating ways: nine weeks becomes a highly concentrated emotional petri dish in which, as Rachel explains to her mom in Dallas, relationships pull all a person’s focus. With none of the usual, and not sustainably avoidable, distractions of work, feeding, bills, medical conditions, social dynamics, or family, connections can “develop,” or mutate and grow in record time.

Except family does come up, in the show’s single gesture toward real world reintegration: hometowns. The Bachelor/ette’s boilerplate attitude toward family is unequivocally Pro: love yours, and make a big one. “Family is really important to me” is as orthodox here as believing in the institution of marriage and having some semblance of spiritual faith. Which is why Dean’s hometown this season was so radical. Unlike the other men, Dean isn’t that close to his family. We knew from his web intro that his mother died when he was 15, and at the point of filming, he hadn’t spoken to his father in two years.

Already, Dean’s hometown will pitch him and Rachel into a hotbed of untreated grief. On top of that, there’s the fact that Dean’s father has, for all intents and purposes, dealt with his own trauma by becoming a different person: a Kundalini Sikh. Metallic purple turban, new name, new wife, vegan diet, floor pillows, sound therapy, etc. On a typical hometown, the bachelorette arrives to a room full of family and friends literally cheering at the sight of their child. They’re often curious, if not outright excited, to meet the person who’s captured his attention. In Dean’s segment, he is anxious to the point of nausea before they enter the house. He has no map for what may occur. In a way, expecting everything to be strange makes things less strange; or, to me, it’s not strange to be stressed out by the collision of one’s former home life with one’s possible future. Dean is afraid of being judged by his (lack of) closeness to his family, and in terms of the show, he’s right to be. Hometowns are about reconnaissance and speculative thinking. This is why we get so many loving shots of men interacting with nieces and nephews.

Dean’s hometown is less about Rachel meeting his family, than it is about enabling a confrontation with his father. Dean admits feeling abandoned after his mom’s death, and his father replies that, according to his teaching, whatever you think of me is really just what you think of yourself.

Several years ago, on the heels of a painful breakup, I dated a filmmaker I met on Twitter. He lived in a penthouse on the Upper West Side. Initially, he would fly me to LaGuardia on weekends and have me picked up and delivered like takeout. He was older, sober, obsessively attentive to his shifting needs and to the contours of the universe he’d crafted around their fulfillment. He had completed multiple yoga teacher trainings and wellness cleanses and decades of AA and was wont to dispensing armchair assessments of situations and people, myself included. Unpredictable behavior meant someone was a drunk. No one was protected from suspicions of conspiracy. This equation was central to his philosophy: things you say to me about me, are really things you’re saying to me about yourself. This, in particular, drove me fucking mental.

Watching Dean’s hometown, I flashed back to a time I’d stayed out in Brooklyn well after sunrise, and then sat on the stoop of his building for over an hour while his doorman woke up from a nap. I didn’t have keys. He said, what kind of person sits on the street at 7:00 am? He assured me: my sense that he was being judgmental meant I was simply judging myself. On one hand, the things we dislike in others are probably often qualities we suspect or fear in ourselves. But taken to an extreme, this line of thinking is the ultimate clearance for defensiveness and refusal of accountability, refusal of sheer listening, the I’m-rubber-you’re-glue of argument-killers — and I like to argue.

Dean frames his hometown as a potential hot mess, and it is one, sort of, and sadly. But for me, Bryan’s hometown is a far more insidious scene. On his one-on-one just prior, Bryan gives a nightmarishly one-sided account of his last serious relationship: things were “hot and heavy” until they went to a family wedding in Colombia, where circumstances arose and “she couldn’t meet my mom halfway.” They got back and he thought things were cool, when they were actually over.

So: 1) Bryan’s mom is overbearing, and he doesn’t realize it or he doesn’t care. 2) Either his ex-girlfriend is a brilliant performer, or he was so unplugged from her feelings that he had no idea things went haywire in Colombia. All told, to borrow Mrs. Lindsay’s favorite phrase, it’s a red flag, and Bryan has as many red flags as roses. For example, waiting for this to come out in the open is going to put me into an early grave:

Bryan’s suspected stint on the 2004 UPN reality show, THE PLAYER.

When we meet Bryan’s parents, he gives us the sound bite of a lifetime: Mom always gets first kiss. I appreciate parents loving their kids as much as or perhaps only slightly less than the next person, but I’m also attuned to the difficulty and grossness of a dynamic in which mothers dote on sons, who then seek to replace their mothers with similarly doting wives. I’ve read Purity! So I’m surprised this didn’t seem to impress itself on Rachel, or be conveyed by the show, as a spookier situation. Every time Bryan is onscreen I hear Oda Mae conveying the message to Molly.

Yet as these episodes condense the final contestants into their individual types, Bryan remains “too good to be true.” I think what this means is he’s very tall, of an age that suggests maturity, and — girl I don’t see it — handsome. Peter’s out here like a gap-toothed Viggo Mortensen, but his visual appeal is increasingly overshadowed by his reluctance to play the game. As a prospect, Eric steadily improves, somehow conveying depth and seriousness in the rote milestones we’ve seen before. Watching Eric become open to love, as if in an emotional time-lapse video, is the most genuinely compelling aspect of these episodes. Dean, ever the fan favorite, was always too young to win. And while it’s normal to disclose feelings in your own time, it didn’t help that he deferred to a kindergarten version of the Proust questionnaire on his pressurized one-on-one in Geneva.

TFW you’re stalling.

So here is the predictive breakdown: Peter looks to be in bad shape, which could mean editors are encouraging us to take him out of the game, or that that could be a self-reflexive fake out because Bryan is going to win. I don’t think it looks like Rachel has sufficient physical chemistry with Eric to make him a top-two contender. Of the three, Peter would make the best Bachelor — his potential story of overcoming skepticism in time to find love would neatly mirror Rachel’s own. People love to assume that The Bachelor/ette is a synthetic experiment with little resemblance to “real” romantic life, but here, too, great potential can hamper rather than heighten one’s likelihood of long-term partnership.

I guess we’ll see.

1. Jack Stone screenshot c/o Bachelorette recapper Pop Culture Sensation.