At the end of the last season of UnREAL, producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) confronts her mentor, Quinn (Constance Zimmer), about manipulating her lover, Adam (the suitor on Everlasting, the Bachelor-style reality show they work at), into breaking up with her.
“What, you mean, why you’re not coming out of a blackout on the beach in Tahiti, using your panties as a pillow, dumped, and realizing you ruined your life on some half-wit, narcissist man doll?” says Quinn, sipping from a Champagne flute.
“God forbid I make my own mistakes, right?” snaps Rachel.
“Like you haven’t made enough of those,” retorts Quinn, who herself recently ended her relationship with the show’s scumbag creator, Chet. “Fine. Blame it on me. I don’t give a shit. You should be kneeling down, thanking whatever that you didn’t end up as Everlasting’s ultimate tabloid idiot, all right? This was a gift … love is swell, but it’s not something you build a life around.”
Gradually, the rancor dies down, and the pair talk about the season of the show that just ended and what’s coming next, when Quinn catches Rachel giving her a strange, almost menacing, look.
“What?” asks Quinn. “Tell me.”
“I love you,” Rachel says. “You know that, right?”
Quinn looks away. “I love you too. Weirdo.”
If you’re sick of the Leslie Knope–Ann Perkins model of female friendship, all sunshine and hugs and sugar-dusted waffles, then please, join me at the grownup table. Quinn begins UnREAL as Everlasting’s showrunner, Rachel her brilliant yet troubled protégée. They’re both terrible people – the Walt and Jesse of the reality dating world, peddling true love instead of blue meth – and their relationship is both codependent and wildly dysfunctional. Quinn is a steely eyed shark in stilettos, ruthless at categorizing the contestants into “wifeys” and “villains,” and doing whatever it takes to stir up conflict onscreen. Rachel has mental-health issues, mommy issues, and boy issues, and takes issue with the show’s anti-feminist message. But she’s also prodigiously gifted at manipulating the contestants and turning their personal traumas into the stuff of prime-time drama (in season one, she potentially drives a contestant to suicide by arranging a confrontation with her abusive husband, while in the season-two premiere, she forces a contestant to wear a Confederate flag bikini to bait a black suitor).
Quinn and Rachel spend their lives playing puppet-master with the girls on the show, and this manipulative behavior seeps into their relationships with each another. Throughout the series, Quinn castigates Rachel and abuses her. Yet Rachel is also her only ally in an aggressive boys’ club, the only one who truly gets her, who can match her in ruthlessness and smarts, and, often, the only one who has her back when everything turns to shit. Meanwhile, Quinn is filling some sort of much-needed parental role, giving Rachel direction and guidance when everything else is crumbling. And so this is love, even if it’s a strange kind of love. (Or is it just game recognizing game? And isn’t that, sometimes, the same thing?)
Female friendship can be a knotty, twisted thing, and that’s what makes it excellent fodder for storytelling. Take Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which follow a lifelong friendship between Elena and Lila: Men flit in and out of the picture, but their relationship is the love of their lives, and it’s far from simple. Elena wants to possess Lila, protect her, consume her, love her, outmatch her, destroy her — desires that oscillate in intensity as their lives ebb and flow. On TV, though, female friendships have tended to be subsidiary to romantic relationships, so that even the more fraught ones (like the gang on Girls) feel too thinly drawn to be instructive or illuminating. There are some shows – Broad City, Playing House – where the relationship between two women is central, but they tend to lean on the bright bonds of sisterhood instead of excavating the darkness beneath (the great Doll & Em is a notable exception). But UnREAL is one of the only shows I can think of where a truly twisted relationship between women also doubles as the show’s great love story.
And considering the first two episodes of the second season (which premiered last night), the show seems to be developing their relationship in a fascinating direction. This season, the women renounce their dreams of fairy-tale endings in favor of storming the castle and taking what’s theirs. At the beginning of the episode, Quinn and Rachel get matching tattoos that say “money, dick, power,” their mantra of female workplace domination. They’ve both been promoted – Quinn has taken Chet’s role, and Rachel is showrunner — and are riding high on their successes. But things rapidly unravel when Chet comes back to take over the show. Rachel screws up something big, and, feeling threatened, Quinn quickly snatches the reins from her and makes her the lackey once again.
Unlike many female friendships onscreen, Quinn and Rachel’s dynamic is utterly inextricable from their work — which is not to say this is mere office drama. Everlasting is a huge part of both Rachel and Quinn’s identities, as is the ambition and drive that has led them to sacrifice everything to get ahead. Their relationship is borne out of the unique pressures that face two powerful women trying to succeed in a male-dominated field. Work is why they need each other, and it’s also why they push each other away.
“Mentorship is complicated, because you can outgrow your mentor, and that’s how the dynamic works,” said co-creator and EP Sarah Shapiro in an interview with EW. “At some point, either they’re going to be equals or Rachel’s going to outgrow Quinn … I’m obsessed with feminism and the complications and limitations of feminism, so I thought it’d be super interesting to test that [through them].”
Throughout season one, the boys club at the network repeatedly sides with Chet, despite his incompetence, and Quinn and Rachel have to work doubly hard to have their achievements noticed or validated. Quinn clearly wants to nurture Rachel’s talent, to be her teammate and partner, both because she sees a lot of Rachel in herself, and because she knows that the pair of them are more talented than any of the male schmucks around them (say it with me: money, dick, power!). But she is also afraid to relinquish the power she has worked so hard to consolidate. Women have always been taught to compete with each other in the workplace, not to elevate each other, and everything about the show they produce is based on debasing other women to get ahead (both for the producers and the contestants). The battle between those two instincts is what makes UnREAL such a fascinating watch. Sure, Quinn and Rachel’s relationship is difficult, unhappy, and often toxic, but this conflict is also an essential part of how they become themselves and realize their ambitions.
Just as in the Neapolitan Novels, Elena is constantly holding Lila up as her yardstick, defining herself in opposition to her brilliant friend, in UnREAL, Rachel and Quinn have only each other to look to, two brilliant women in a sick world set up to exploit them. Building each other and tearing each other down are just two sides of the same hard-earned coin.