“This week is hometowns!” Ben Higgins booms. Welcome to The Bachelor’s annual assault on family values and grammar. The Love Bot attempts to look alive for the cameras as he recounts various attempts to smooth over inevitable minefields at the ladies’ home bases. He can’t believe he only has four girlfriends left, by the way. That’s, like, barely a harem. Ben’s first destination: Laguna Beach, California, where the hills are alive with the sound of Amanda’s crying daughters. “I want him to fall in love with my kids,” she braces herself for failure. Unlike their mom, toddlers Kinsley and Charlie – dressed alike in long pink jackets and “We hate Ben” glowers – are decidedly not up for group dating. “We almost got him, mom,” the older one mock-whimpers as the group fails to tag a bird. He chases the girls around the gloomy beach, and it’s sort of cute. But if you can read between the edited lines, aggghhhh. This whole affair is so blatantly cringeworthy for all parties. And those poor children, dear lord. To not see your mom for weeks and suddenly there’s a random pimp stroking her thigh and trying to keep her strapless top from falling off during beach play? Plus cameras?! No one could blame little Charlie for screeching throughout the car ride home.
Ben, too, needs a nap, but he bravely stays awake for the wine and awkward conversation. So how was playtime with the little ones? “It was a long day, so… it was a lot,” Ben doesn’t even pretend to sugarcoat his experience for Amanda’s concerned parents. Props for honesty, but the writing’s on the wall. “Is he ready to be an instant dad?” wonders mom Michelle. Is this a rhetorical question? What about this one? Might I interest you in this one instead? Time is melting! Next stop: Portland, Oregon to meet Lauren B. and the blue bra poking out of her red flannel. The preppy lovebirds swan around the City of Roses – sampling food trucks, not keeping it weird, not having kids. Lauren refrains from telling Ben she loves him, but he artfully sneaks in the sentiment as they share a pizza-like puff with a pool of butter in it. “I can’t think of a better way to die than standing next to you,” he oozes. Mmm. That is so hot, and I do mean the khachapuri. They haven’t even gotten into Lauren B.’s love of butter yet, which is crazy because they’ve known each other for multiple weeks and sometimes he even calls her “Lauren” without the letter of her last name. By Bachelor standards, they’re practically married. No one in the real world buys that, obviously, but Ben gets off remarkably easy at Casa B., winning over her loved ones by listening intently and crying on command. Her big smiley face of a dad is protective of his LoLo, but the whole fam can tell there’s something real between Ben and Lauren that goes at least a little further than a whiskey buzz. We’ll go ahead and blame the buzz, however, for Ben’s befuddled claim to Lauren’s much younger brothers that he’s “not gonna put her in a position that is degrading to her at all” (save for the entire premise of this show) during next week’s Fantasy Suites. Yeah right! As if to highlight Caila’s previously stated fear that she has no real roots in this world, the Hudson, Ohio landmark she has him visit is… the extra-special boyfriend bench at her former high school. And it’s not even grounded. It’s a bench swing. They then head to Caila’s dad’s toy company to design their dream home (seemingly an igloo?) and then build it in the warehouse. “Caila with a power tool….” Ben trails off, perfectly summing up the scene. As her dad’s employees reluctantly cheer, he scoops Caila up An Officer and a Gentleman-style and carries her away to a better life. Ha, she wishes. This is reality TV, not some ’80s movie. “She may be in for a huge letdown,” says Caila’s extremely jovial yet practical dad in the face of Ben’s delicate yet maddening dance of never revealing which lady of the four he actually likes the most. “And she’s gonna get crushed.” Caila’s Filipino mom Rosanna is much more willing to play along, bouncing with excitement after hearing her daughter is in love. “Crystal ball is clear!” says Rosanna. “Jump on him and tell him!” But Caila can’t do it. There’s brain fog in her ball, “this unknown that’s in the back of my mind” that won’t let her fully trust him. “He deserves more than that,” she mutters as his escape limo darts away. Then, likely cut off due to time/spoilers: “And I deserve to be the next Bachelorette…” It’s time to meet up with JoJo at her apartment in Dallas, Texas – but first she finds a dozen roses from her ex, “Chad,” on her doorstep and oh good God the whole thing is so fake I can’t even stand it! Imagine being the production assistant assigned to coordinate this floral catastrophe intended to send a real person into an emotional tailspin right before her TV lover arrives! Way to go, kid! This is a real résumé booster. Extra points for handwriting the note yourself and signing it with the cheesiest ex-boyfriend name in the whole world.
Ben and JoJo let the scheduled corruption breathe like a refreshing goblet of ice water and decide to soldier on — according to Ben, discussing the phone call to her ex made moments earlier somehow prompted one of the best conversations they’ve ever had. Things are looking up (into an unforgiving sky of nothingness) as the pair arrives at JoJo’s home sweet mansion, but Ben quickly feels the heat from her maybe-mobster family, specifically her two overprotective brothers, who are “really, really, really attached to Joelle.” Brother Ben, the one with the cashmere sweater and biceps, was a bachelor himself on NBC’s Ready For Love, so he obviously knows everything. Ben does his best to convince the brothers he’s a good man, and thorough. But when poked to death about his intentions, his honestly leaks through his soft exterior and he sputters, “At this point, I don’t know.” He really does care about JoJo, though – he doesn’t want to hurt her. But to brother Matt, whom God gifted with intuition and an encyclopedic knowledge of how reality TV works, Ben’s pre-programmed evasion can mean only one thing. “He’s not as invested as you are,” he breaks his sister’s heart. Clued in from a devastating chat with her daughter as to how exactly this show works, mom Soraya – the MVP of Team JoJo by far – slugs champagne straight from the bottle. Suddenly it’s time for another Rose Ceremony in Los Angeles. But the Hometowns are real smears on his relationships’ track records now, not just prospective beacons of warmth and mom-hugs in the vague future. Ben offers “yo, nice roots” roses to Lauren B., Caila, and JoJo, then looks straight at the floor while banishing Amanda all the way back to Laguna. She’s very clipped and professional about it, but then they share a really intense, really long “I wish this could’ve been different” hug before she gets into the rejection limo, and for a few seconds it’s clear that if not for her kids, the pretty young mom might have had this competition in the bag. It’s very sad. And Ben is so, so sorry. “I can’t do this right now,” the Bitch-elor chokes up during his post-dump interview, closing himself off to stew in his secret garden. A giant fountain goes head-to-head with his steady stream of tears. Spring can’t come soon enough. Next Monday: All three say “I love you” at the mating stables, and Ben reciprocates – twice!