Late last night, the weary viewers of season 22 of The Bachelor were subjected to witnessing a half-hour-long breakup. After proposing to Becca Kufrin, Arie Luyendyk, Jr. changed his mind, and decided he wanted to pursue his runner-up, Lauren Burnham. “I wanted to tell you in person,” Luyendyk told Kufrin when he met up with her, code word for: “I wanted to tell you on camera.” On most seasons, the couple isn't filmed after they get engaged. But Luyendyk and Kufrin's final moments filmed as a couple would take place at the Los Angeles "safe house" provided by producers for them to be together in private. At the time of the breakup, Kufrin thought her and Luyendyk's relationship was in secure post-Bachelor territory. She thought wrong. Luyendyk broke up with her surrounded by cameras, an invasion of The Bachelor into what she had assumed was her new life.
Breakups on The Bachelor are not unusual. There’s a breakup at the end of each episode. Multiple, usually. As with last night’s saga, these breakups are not mutual. The Bachelor does not need to explain his thought process to each eliminated woman. In fact, after being sentenced to a solo van ride back to the airport, the breakup-ee isn’t entitled to anything at all. She can whisper, “Can we talk?” and head out for a whispered conversation, but all she’ll learn is that she is not enough. She will go to the van, and will say what she wished she could say to the Bachelor, to the camera.
The Rose Ceremony, as this suspenseful break-up process is called, is a weekly reminder that dating on The Bachelor is warped, like if The Hunger Games ended with heartbreak, not death. Still, despite the uneven power dynamics glaringly present in Rose Ceremonies and throughout the show, we’re supposed to believe that the love developed over the course of the weeks on The Bachelor or Bachelorette is real. That the finale's proposal is the result of deep feelings that brewed between two individuals. But it can be hard to have faith in the experiment, when the number of couples that actually stay together from the show is pretty slim — and when the entire process seems improbable.
The contestants’ skeptical families in the show are stand-ins for the audience. As the Bachelor and his woman of the hour recount their courtship in the language of the show (“We had our first kiss five minutes into our one-on-one,” or “She really impressed me during the group date”), the family looks on, bewildered. Mothers will look at their daughters with gentle concern that seems to say, “Do you really love him? Can you really love someone enough to marry them, after two ‘one-on-ones,’ or whatever they’re called?”
The Bachelor begins each season with something to prove to these mothers, to us, and to the contestants on the show. It has to erode our skepticism. It has to make us believe that the relationships developed between contestants are genuine, not wobbly constructions of stolen time and lust that will crumble when exposed to the air outside the Bachelor Mansion bubble.
After 22 seasons of The Bachelor and 13 of The Bachelorette, the proposals aren’t proof enough. Even though they're are tear-filled and excited, the couples often fall apart months later.
Seemingly, The Bachelor has stumbled upon its solution for proving that the show can lead to love: airing protracted, unedited breakups, like Luyendyk and Kufrin’s. The more excruciating, the better. Because pain during a breakup is harder to fake than a smile during a proposal. And pain can only come if the couple had feelings for each other in the first place.
So the only explanation for last night’s unnecessarily cruel and unusual breakup, shown through split-screen cameras, is that the Bachelor’s producers wanted to put the “real” back in “reality TV,” and love back in The Bachelor. Becca’s love for Arie was proven through her palpable shock and despair at its loss.
It was obvious that this break-up, not the triumph of soul mates finding each other, would be the focus of the episode. During the live portions of the finale, Chris Harrison teased the forthcoming break-up with the same thinly veiled excitement Mike Fleiss, the show's creator, used on Twitter days before. "For the first time in TV history, Monday's finale of The Bachelor will feature a completely unedited scene! And it's a doozy!!!" Fleiss exclaimed. And this gambit, which Fleiss was so proud of, delivered. As the breakup was playing out, Harrison gloated that "social media was exploding."
Had The Bachelor ended with Kufrin and Luyendyk walking off into the sunset, we would've turned off the TV and forgotten. The Bachelor always features proposals — that's expected. But post-ending breakups? That's a surprise, and an opportunity to break from the show's tired rituals to reveal something messier, more human. Kufrin cried tears of ratings gold.
This isn't the first time The Bachelor franchise rallied drama around a breakup. Last season of The Bachelorette featured a similarly painful — if not more painful — extended dissolution of a relationship. Despite loving each other (and saying so), Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay and Peter Kraus could not compromise on what they wanted from their Bachelorette experience. Lindsay wanted to get engaged at the end of the show; Kraus wanted to keep dating. They broke up. Famously, Lindsay cried so hard she lost her false lashes.
Like Luyendyk and Kufrin’s surprise saga, Lindsay and Kraus’ breakup was extremely unusual for its own reasons. First, it didn’t take place during the proposal ritual — it happened in a hotel room the evening before. Second, it came after a difficult discussion. This was a couple comprised of two adults who knew themselves, and could identify exactly what they would and could not compromise on. Clearly, even if Kraus and Lindsay’s relationship was formed under warped Bachelorette circumstances, their connection was real. Real enough that they wept at the loss. Lindsay and the season's winner, Bryan Abasolo, got engaged the next day, but their happiness was not as palpable or immediate as her tears were the night before.
Lindsay and Kraus’ breakup was so stirring because it reminded people of their own past relationships’ painful dissolutions. There would be no Bachelor franchise without the gruesome breakups that come at the show's bitter end. They're the only proof we have that the relationships brewed in the Bachelor Mansion have any resemblance to the ones that form outside it.
The Bachelor feels more participatory than most TV shows. We, safely in our living room, are heavily involved: We choose our favorite contestants, judge the Bachelor's life choices, and pick apart stilted date dialogue. Usually, judging the utter fantasy of The Bachelor is an amusing pastime. Who goes hot air ballooning on a first date unless they're a Napa Valley billionaire?
But with the proliferation of messy breakups, the fantasy is crumbling. Us snarky viewers are forced to consider the contestants on the other side of the screen as people, not contestants. People whose hearts aren't toyed with by each other — but by the franchise itself. And likely, these messy breakups are our fault. Clearly, what we (the audience, the reason The Bachelor exists) want from the show isn't perfect love, created by dancing to personal concerts and going on international trips. It's flagrant displays of emotion. We want tears, and rawness, and ache — the elements present in any breakup, on and off the screen. We want enough of it to power a five-hour finale.
The Bachelor is most irresistible when it's an exaggerated mirror to our own love lives, not a fantasy.
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