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The Tax That Comes With the Best ‘Bachelor’ Finale Ever

After 21 seasons of sticking to the formula, ABC’s long-running reality rom-competition show changed things up in a way that stunned audiences, but also made them complicit

Arie Luyendyk Jr. sitting outside a house ABC

Two hours and 22 minutes into the Bachelor season finale, Arie Luyendyk Jr. finally seemed human. He had made it through nine episodes and 20 television hours without revealing too much. He proclaimed, “I love that!” on a weekly basis, found many of his suitors’ innately unsexy attributes to be “sexy,” and even believed that several of the women vying to be his wife were “so amazing,” all without revealing details of his interior life. Arie is the anti–Walter Mitty: a man afforded the chance to travel to a different far-flung locale each week (and in one case, Fort Lauderdale), with multiple women in his traveling party and an audience desperate to know his inner thoughts. Until the near-end of his run as America’s single man in pursuit of a wife, said audience had little reason to believe he had any imagination at all.

Shallow personalities are hardly an oddity in the reality TV landscape. In the 26 years since Real World started on MTV, countless shows have presented an idle public with forgettable characters. Arie seemed destined to join their ranks and fade into obscurity, clad in navy cardigans, red wine in hand. He was poised to be among the most boring Bachelors ever, until the season finale—which typically runs two hours and culminates with a highly staged proposal—broke its own format. After two hours in a mostly overcast Peru, the third hour presented a new frontier for the franchise in its 22nd season, and that hour was both gripping and morally questionable.

A proposal on The Bachelor usually gives way to a live after-show, wherein longtime host Chris Harrison holds court on a soundstage converted to look like a cool mom’s luxe living room, replete with several oversize accent candles. He interviews the lead man, his chosen fiancée, and the women he scorned along the way. After the Final Rose, as the special is known, ties up loose ends, after which we all go on our merry ways. This season, though, the proposal was followed by footage of Arie and fiancée Becca Kufrin, a 27-year-old genial Minnesotan who works in public relations, enjoying being a couple in secret. That was the first indication that Becca and Arie were doomed. Next, Arie confessed to Harrison that he was still thinking about Lauren Burnham, the 25-year-old anxious Virginian who worked in software sales, and that he had decided to end things with Becca.

After filming of The Bachelor ended, production arranged several “happy couple” weekends for Becca and Arie, as they do at the end of every season for the new couple. They meet in designated Airbnbs in secret—it’s a way for the pair, who had met only three months earlier, to see each other without the press or the public finding out the show’s result. They are typically unfilmed. Arie and Becca were set for one of these weekends in January in Los Angeles—or so she thought. She arrived at the airy home with a light attitude and a fresh tattoo to show her man. He arrived with all of the color drained from his face. Whither Arie’s naturally rosy cheeks?

Part 1 of the finale was punctuated by appearances from Harrison. He cut in to consult with previous Bachelors Ben Higgins, who, like Arie, told both of his final women that he loved them; and Jason Mesnick, who, like Arie, changed his mind after his initial proposal. The most distracting Harrison moments, though, were his repeated boasts that his franchise would be airing uncut footage for the first time. The horror that awaited Becca was grave on its own—particularly because she had no idea what was to come—but Harrison’s live segments trivialized and undermined the footage he sought to promote. (I suspect he kept referring to it because the episode was a snooze until the breakup came.) The claim had little meaning, anyway, until that footage aired in the 10 p.m. hour. Chris should have said, “Prepare for a simple split screen that will engross you in a way that Arie never could with just a single camera angle.” The much-touted uncut footage captured Arie’s breakup with Becca to such devastating effect that he may (and should) regret allowing the dissolution of their union to have been televised at all.

After the ghostly Arie entered the house, he sat down on a couch with Becca. She was eager to catch up with him, while he was tentative in a way he hadn’t previously appeared on camera. The screen was split in two, with one camera planted on him on the left, and one on her on the right. He calmly explained to her that he still had feelings for Lauren and would like to pursue her. She asked, “Are you fucking kidding me?” several times. The two-camera presentation allowed viewers to watch her maintain an impressive calm as she processed what he had told her, while also allowing viewers to see him nervously await each utterance from the woman next to him. The split screen heightened the premise of opposition, as they were visually pitted against each other. The viewer had to choose a side in deciding which angle to focus on. And, duh, we all chose Becca.

The uncut footage made for a revelatory 35 minutes—gripping, riveting, and devastating. I’d like to give Becca a hug. One of the most common critiques of reality TV and particularly The Bachelor is that it’s all staged, it’s fake. Many contestants and former leads attest that while there are producer machinations at play, the emotions are real. Monday night’s episode should confirm that to any doubters. The episode captured a woman’s swift transition from happy and hopeful to angry and distraught. Becca also used the word “embarrassing,” though she acquitted herself quite well. She asked questions, she interrogated his logic, she went off camera to cry. (Always go off camera to cry!) After Arie told her he planned to pursue Lauren, Becca asked him to leave the house. He would not go, but she stayed strong and refused to give him the validation or inkling of forgiveness he craved. Her justified anger and defiance and pain, captured on half the screen, was all the more potent in contrast with his uncertainty and discomfort, captured on the other.

To watch the uncut footage is to confront the more vexing conundrum that underscores the entire Bachelor experience. It’s an enterprise predicated on the belief that watching heartbreak and disappointment is fun for the uninvolved audience at home. It usually is. The potential harm the show causes is lessened by its formulaic nature. The contestants sign up knowing their odds are 1-in-30, that someone will be cast as the villain, and that a long, semi-lucrative afterlife awaits in Bachelor Nation. But Becca’s case is different. She was thrust into new Bachelor territory without her explicit consent. She agreed to be on camera that January day in L.A. on the pretense that it was just another happy couple weekend. Arie and the producers decided to televise the excruciating breakup. There’s no precedent for her situation. Even if Jason Mesnick’s ex, Melissa Rycroft, can sympathize, she was not subjected to the same setup.

The split-screen effect implicated the audience as accessories to the Bachelor crime. We became voyeurs much like the producers and editors who piece together footage to weave a coherent story each season. By watching year after year and demanding that Harrison’s promise that “this is the most dramatic season of The Bachelor yet” eventually come true, the audience was just as complicit in stabbing Becca in the back as the cameras ran.

The problem is that this was the best television episode of the year so far, and it was in part because Becca was ambushed. Arie’s change of heart was widely known before the episode aired because of an Us Weekly article, and the way ABC’s live, in-studio elements played up the final twist. Yet at the heart of this novel and successful TV experiment lies living people with real emotions. Becca’s pain and shock was authentic. Her reaction could have been communicated in other ways, but the TV experience would not have been as compelling. Even if Arie is the villain and most viewers will be rooting for Becca, the real winner is the show itself. After 22 seasons, a cinematography choice had a bigger impact on the audience than any decision Arie could ever make.