This is part two in a series on UnREAL, a Lifetime drama returning for its second season on June 6. You’ll find part one here. Mega-super-nuclear-option spoiler alert: the following discloses the ending of the show’s first season.

Reality TV often has an ambience of controlled insanity. The contestants act in violent, conniving, or erratic ways, and one can legitimately wonder how many are (a) truly acting or (b) truly mentally ill. In the latter category, were they chosen because of their illness by cynical producers? Are the producers exacerbating antisocial behavior in mentally ill contestants, or are the producers (probably pleasantly) surprised? The uncertainty is part of what makes the genre appealing and entertaining. In Lifetime’s UnREAL, though, mental illness in the fictional reality show Everlasting is powerful and dark—yet, perversely, still entertaining.

The contestants on Everlasting are pretty young women vying for a “suitor,” Adam Cromwell. The producers include Rachel, the show’s protagonist who is primarily responsible for interacting with the cast; Quinn, the cynical and brash executive producer; and Shia, a young and relatively inexperienced producer responsible for “producing” a group of the contestants.

Shia is producing a contestant named Mary, whose restrained disposition is the result of psychotropic medications taken for bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder—the latter of which was the result of an abusive marriage that has only recently ended. For the first half of Everlasting, Mary has been mostly silent; Quinn sees this as a problem for Shia to solve. Shia sneaks into Mary’s room and replaces some of her pills with placebos, which leads to creepy and angry behavior a couple episodes later.

And then it gets bad. Quinn and Rachel invite Mary’s violent ex-husband to the set and justify it with vague pop-psycho-feminist notions about the therapeutic value of facing one’s abuser. Of course, Kirk (said ex-husband) starts a fight and brutally insults Mary when they have a moment to speak one-on-one. As filming ends, Mary walks out on the mansion’s roof and commits suicide.

Rachel subsequently acts out of desperation and sincere guilt, but she does not suggest that cooperating with the investigation might protect them from jail time. To the contrary, her insistence to Quinn that she, Shia, and Quinn confess what happened betrays her willingness and desire to bring down herself and the show with her. She acts before and after this episode as if she is ambivalent about the awful behavior by the Everlasting crew, but those who know her best—Quinn, her squeaky-clean boyfriend Jeremy, her near-demonically manipulative mother—insist that the show allows Rachel to be herself. It’s not a prison, they say—the job is perfect for her skills and personality. Hearing and trying to reject this truth for so many weeks culminates in frantic pleading to Quinn and Shia that she and the whole deceptive enterprise that comprises Everlasting be sacrificed at the altar of her shame. And Quinn calls her out on it (“You just wanna clear your conscience to make yourself feel better”).

9566803236_89c603455b_zAs right and perceptive as Quinn is—about Rachel’s motives, the consequences of confessing—she displays profound self-deception. Quinn unconvincingly invokes the 170-person cast and crew, a cruel but deceitful weapon, because she has rarely displayed loyalty to or affection for any of them. Indeed, Quinn’s demeanor after Mary’s suicide is open hostility, never vulnerability, empathy, or remorse. She hides her own shame so effectively that no one questions her ruthlessness. There is a slow reveal in conversations with lawyers about how much of Mary’s death is Quinn’s fault—the most devastating proof being that she knew about the contestant’s mental health problems before casting her. Her indulgence of Rachel’s attempts to deny Kirk a settlement from the network and custody of his and Mary’s daughter demonstrate, in a passive way, Quinn’s knowledge of her own culpability. If she really didn’t care for anyone but herself and the show, she wouldn’t let Rachel first try to leak video damning Kirk to Jezebel and then forge a suicide note that blamed Kirk and absolved the show. Quinn cares, but she tries to convince everyone else and herself that she is always as ruthless as she was when provoking fear and anxiety in Mary by inviting an abusive ex-husband to the set without warning.

Rachel and Quinn’s actions set them first in confrontation and then in uneasy cooperation, but they share a motivation: self-pity. Rachel is only interested in cooperating with the police if Quinn and Shia go down with her in a big, messy disaster. Quinn pretends to be unrepentant and even innocent while letting Rachel undercut the open-and-shut legal settlement proposed by the network. They can’t make it all the way to repentance, so they hide their shame in, respectively, melodrama and indifference. Both are dissatisfied with their role in Everlasting, but when they must risk bravery or vulnerability they demure and fall back on their default, self-pitying behaviors.

You will not ever hear me conclude that we live in a culture of victimhood or entitlement, mostly because I don’t like the political implications of such a critique. At a more micro level, though, I can attest to the cancerous self-destruction practically guaranteed by self-pity. To be clear, I am defining self-pity as opposing both the demanding and the seeking of what you really need and pretending that you don’t need help at all. Often, as DZ recently preached regarding the cripple at the pool of Bethesda (Jn 5), self-pity leaves us in a state where we are unable to see what we really need—outside assistance is required. The cripple thinks he needs to get to the healing waters, but Jesus is the one who heals him and who commands that he pick up his mat and leave. Similarly, Rachel and Quinn wallow in their self pity until they finally recognize the sincerity and depth of their friendship.

Both Quinn and Rachel do, by the end of the season, get closer to what they need. Quinn breaks free of Chet after years of believing that her problems would be solved if he divorced his wife to marry her; she also manages to secure 40 percent equity in Everlasting. Rachel stops messing around with both her suitor, Adam, and her long-suffering boyfriend, Jeremy; she then collaborates with and commits her future to Quinn. They look at the sky, smoke cigarettes, and finally allow themselves to be vulnerable. Well, as vulnerable as foul-mouthed reality-show producers can be.

Rachel: We killed somebody, didn’t we?
Quinn: Yeah.
R: Let’s not do that again.
Q: No…
R: I’m sure Jeremy would like to see me dead…
Q: Yeah. Well, he gives you any trouble, I’ll have his head.
R: What?
Q: Nothing.
R: No. Tell me. [pauses] I love you. You know that, right?
Q: I love you, too. Source.

Rachel and Quinn’s vulnerability with each other is both honest and imperfect. They are not planning on repenting or changing the course of their lives. They show that a little vulnerability can remove the damage of self-pity, but they cannot heal each other like Jesus healed the beggar. As a result, they can’t pick up their mat—i.e., continued participation in Everlasting—and depart for some better place. First of all, only Jesus can heal us and direct us where we truly need to go. Second of all, we wouldn’t have a second season of UnREAL if Rachel and Quinn found healing and regeneration. And during this sojourn on Earth, I deeply want to see more of the melodrama, manipulation, self-deception, and (occasionally) grace that the fictional cast and crew of Everlasting provide in every episode of UnREAL.

Image credits: Featured and show images from Lifetime TV’s UnREAL site. Angel image by Jimmy Mallinson on Flickr.