‘UnREAL’ Season 2 Premiere Recap: “War”

UnREAL’s second season premiere confirms what the first season finale established: The central relationship on this show is between Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby). With Rachel taking Quinn’s place as showrunner of Everlasting, the Bachelor-type reality show that serves as the setting for UnREAL, the student is becoming the master. The Rachel of Season 2 doesn’t want to be a princess; she wants to be the queen.

Sadly, it’s still relatively rare for a drama series to hinge on the relationship between two women, let alone two women who work together. Here, we have two women workaholics, learning from and leaning on each other. But they’re also working for a racist and misogynistic system that perpetuates harmful stereotypes and ruins people’s lives for the sake of ratings. Like a lot of current dramas, the protagonists of UnREAL tell themselves that they’re doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

When “War” begins, Quinn and Rachel are getting matching on-set tattoos (“Money, dick, power”) before jetting off to Las Vegas to pitch the new season of Everlasting to the network executives. Partying in a fancy Vegas hotel room, Quinn introduces the suitor, NFL quarterback Darius Beck (B.J. Britt) — the show’s first-ever black bachelor. One exec exclaims, “You just made my dick hard!”

“The first black suitor,” Rachel gasps as she has sex with a black man in her high-rise Vegas hotel room. “It was me! We’re gonna make history!”

Like last season’s suitor, Adam (Freddie Stroma), Darius is using his stint on Everlasting to rehabilitate his image: He was caught on camera calling a reporter a bitch. Trying to convince him to get out of the limo and into the house where he’ll essentially be held prisoner, Rachel tells Darius she understands the pressure he’s under as the first black quarterback on his team, and now the first black suitor (“Mostly I feel like a caged lion,” he says). As usual, Appleby is able to play so many angles at once: She makes Darius feel like they’re on the same team, even as she’s manipulating him for her own benefit, and we’re never quite sure if she’s genuinely pleased with her efforts or sickened by them.

Tensions on set are high as ever, particularly with Rachel’s ex, Jeremy (Josh Kelly), back — and still angry at Rachel. At the end of Season 1, he visited Rachel’s therapist mother with mock concern, telling her that her daughter should be institutionalized. In “War,” we find out Jeremy’s been talking to Rachel’s mother again. But if Rachel was depressed at the beginning of Season 1, now, she’s manic. “I’m doing well, I get a promotion, and yet somehow that triggers alarm bells for you?” she says to Jeremy. Later, when Jeremy tries to humiliate Rachel in front of the crew, Quinn warns her to keep her cool: “He is a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen,” she says, adding, “If we fired everyone we had sex with, we wouldn’t have a crew.”

Rachel and Quinn are twinned evil reality TV geniuses now; in one scene, Rachel talks up one of their new contestants, a “super-sexy Pakistani woman who might have distant links to Osama Bin Laden.”

“No,” Quinn responds, “now she does.”

“Absolutely, that’s what I was thinking.”

Then they discover online photos of another contestant wearing a Confederate flag bikini; since none of the women know anything about the suitor — especially the fact that he’s black — Rachel and Quinn are smacking their lips with anticipation of the minefield onto which they’re about to unleash these poor souls.

Quinn’s promised the network president a “hot racist” and “an even hotter black activist power person,” but the latter backs out when the show’s schedule interferes with her university graduation. “I want the blacktivist here by tomorrow night,” Quinn barks, so Rachel works her magic yet again, telling said blacktivist, Ruby (Denée Benton), that the suitor is black, and that he’s specifically asked to meet her (a lie). After Rachel promises that Ruby will make it to the final — and evokes the power of TV as an agent of social change — Ruby agrees to come on the show.

Meanwhile, Chet is back and more toxic than ever. He’s slimmed down since embarking on a hunting trip to Patagonia with his “tribe,” and the experience has left him more convinced than ever that men are the true inheritors of the universe: “I forced you to play the male role,” he tells Quinn, “that wasn’t right. It wasn’t natural.” He calls the show his “kingdom” and vows to take it back; he walks away mumbling, “We are the architects, we are the inheritors of the kingdom.”

He’ll have it pry it from Rachel’s grip first. She’s drunk with power, and making it very clear on set that she’s the boss. When she finds out a crew member asked to see the “kill list” (a list of the women who will be cut first) so he knows who he can sleep with, she fires him: “It turns out being a sexist man-baby on my set has consequences.”

But really, Rachel isn’t changing the system so much as perpetuating it. It’s her job to mold Madison, who’s now a producer, and she’s no softer than Quinn. “We aren’t camp counselors,” she tells Madison. “We don’t solve problems — we create them and point cameras at them.” Hoping to get something juicy out of a contestant, Chantal (Meagan Tandy) — preferably tears — Rachel instructs Madison, “Tell her your mother died.” “My mother did die,” Madison replies. “There you go!” Rachel shoots back. Madison gets the contestant to reveal that she had a fiancé who died, prompting the crew to shriek, “She’s got a dead fiancé!” “Holla!” “Winner winner, chicken dinner!” Quinn cries.

But the episode’s ending finds Quinn and Rachel’s queendom threatened by — who else — Chet. The women line up to meet their Prince Charming, but when the limo door opens in front of the mansion, instead of a dashing bachelor, there’s just a ringing cell phone in the backseat. Quinn grabs the phone to find Chet on the other end: “He’s my suitor now,” he says. “You wanted to fight like a man, that’s what I’m doing.” Physically, Chet may be more appealing than he was last season, but on the inside, he’s more repellant than ever. His dialogue is straight from the Men’s Rights handbook — he says women respect a “a man who can kill with his bare hands” and laments, “We’ve created a generation of wimps and bitches.”

Quinn pivots and has the women change out of their glitzy ball gowns and into bikinis: “Use duct tape if you have to but I want those pubes out!” Quinn gets all the best lines. Then, she deals a blow to Rachel: She takes back control of the show, until she can manage the Chet situation. Rachel’s left standing in the middle of the crowded set, wondering how she managed to lose her power so quickly. “Television for women,” indeed.