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‘The Bachelor’ Finale Couldn’t Fix the Season’s Mistakes

The last episode of Matt James’s season was remarkably traditional—in contrast to the “After the Final Rose” portion, which tackled the Rachael Kirkconnell controversy and reinforced the show’s long-standing issues

ABC/Ringer illustration

How fast can you slam the brakes on a horse-drawn carriage? Monday night, the strangest season in Bachelor history concluded with a pair of wildly dissonant back-to-back episodes. The first broadly followed the template for every season finale in the show’s history: Matt James introduced his two finalists, Michelle Young and Rachael Kirkconnell, to his family, fretted over his decision, and then ultimately gave his last rose to Rachael before the two literally rode off into the sunset in a spotless white carriage. But seconds after Matt and Rachael departed, the “After the Final Rose” special began, attempting for the first time to deal with the controversy surrounding Rachael’s history of racist actions and the inevitable dissolution of her relationship with Matt. I can’t imagine the mental whiplash that would have been suffered by a viewer who dutifully watched every episode this season, but never read a blog, only to learn in 30 seconds that everything they had watched was totally detached from reality. The Bachelor tried writing its own storybook ending, but it had no control over the actual story.

The stark dichotomy between these two incompatible episodes of television reinforced some of the franchise’s misguided priorities. The show devoted its typical two-hour window to staging a finale that was only slightly different from a narrative the franchise has already aired dozens of times. The big drama? Matt’s decision about whether to propose to Rachael. (He eventually decides against it.) We watched Matt wrestle with this for roughly 45 minutes, even though his choice would be rendered irrelevant by the events that took place after filming stopped.

Meanwhile, the interviews between Matt, Rachael, and Emmanuel Acho—the interviewer who ”stepped in” for Chris Harrison after Harrison zealously defended Rachael’s racist pictures—were smooshed into an hour, forced to share time with an interview with runner-up Michelle and the announcement that Michelle and former contestant Katie would each be leads on the next seasons of The Bachelorette. Acho’s interviews with Matt and Rachael were the highlight of the season, and The Bachelor played them off as a postscript.

Acho is significantly better than Chris Harrison at interviewing people. A former NFL player, Acho has achieved fame for his “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man” YouTube series (he made sure to note that last night’s conversations were also “uncomfortable” upward of five times). Harrison’s downfall came when he tried to sweep this entire controversy under the rug; Acho was actually invested in asking questions about it, and sure enough, this resulted in answers Bachelor fans have wanted. At one point, Matt explained that “the most disappointing part was trying to explain [to Rachael] why it was problematic and why I was so upset.” While Rachael has publicly asserted that she’s much different than she was in 2018—and while she has generally tried to be accountable for her past mistakes—this line revealed a present-day moment when she apparently pushed back on the idea that she had ever done anything wrong. That off-screen moment, discovered by Acho’s questioning, was the climax of this doomed season. It was the moment when this relationship fell apart because one partner was incapable of fully respecting the other. Matt clearly loved Rachael, and she clearly loved him back, and that love died in this moment, briefly referenced and never seen.

But it was hard not to feel that some of Acho’s lines of questioning were off base. Acho often focused on the potential for Rachael to find a way back into Matt’s—and our—good graces. Does she still love him? Was there any hope for them to get back together? What was she doing to become a better person? (Rachael answered that she could list all the things she was doing to become better … but then, just, uh, didn’t list them.) It was in stark contrast to Matt’s near-silent demeanor, which made it clear time and time again that there is absolutely no way for Rachael to win him back. He spent much of the interview avoiding eye contact with Rachael. When she apologized for hurting him, he simply stared off into the distance in silence. When Acho asked Matt if the two could end the night with a final hug, Matt declined. Matt repeatedly emphasized he felt it was possible for Rachael to put in “the work” to improve as a person, and maybe that’s true. But the broader conversation about “cancel culture,” which Acho decried, seems irrelevant here. Who cares if Rachael is “canceled,” whatever that actually means? The main issue was never about whether Rachael can get better—the story is about how Rachael created a wound in Matt that can never be healed.

And more broadly than that, the story is about how a TV show with a history of mistreating Black people somehow cast a girl with a racist past on the first Black Bachelor’s season—and then had its host passionately defend said girl and demean those who were offended by her actions. Yet the entire interview during “After the Final Rose” focused on Rachael. Acho alluded to Harrison’s defense of Rachael, but never asked any questions about it. Rachael took those photos in 2018, but Harrison defended them in 2021. What was it like for Matt to put his trust in Harrison and have that trust broken? How did The Bachelor’s brain trust miss the details of Rachael’s past, details that a TikTok user easily surfaced so early into the season? We never found out. No producers were interviewed. Harrison wasn’t present, but did provide voice-overs during the finale—which makes one wonder how much of a “step back” he’s actually taking.

The main problem with The Bachelor is not Rachael Kirkconnell. The show’s issues were not born at a fraternity party in 2018, and they won’t die by grilling any one contestant until she burns. This controversy was just the latest symptom of a show that has made missteps on the issue of race time and time again. And I can’t help but think that the show wants us to extend the same redemptive olive branch to it that it extended toward Kirkconnell. When Acho asked Rachael what “work” she’s done to improve herself and she didn’t answer, and nobody asked any further questions, it was easy to imagine some other interviewer asking Harrison the same question, and his future nonanswer. (Acho specifically said that he is only a temporary replacement for Harrison.)

At one point, Matt spoke honestly about the unwanted burden of being the show’s first Black Bachelor. He mentioned that any other lead would simply be asked to fall in love, while he was asked to fall in love and serve as an exemplar of all Black people everywhere while answering questions about social justice and Blackness. The only reason Matt was breaking a barrier is because the show spent 24 seasons putting only white guys on TV and chose to celebrate its own “progress” while putting Matt in an impossible position. On top of that, producers once again failed to screen out someone with a racist past. (Yes, it’s happened before.) And given a choice to defend Rachael or stand by Matt, the face of the show picked the former, ensuring that Matt’s season would be overshadowed and derailed. The first Black Bachelor’s season ended with a conversation about how to rehabilitate a white woman.

Honestly, this sucks. The Bachelor is supposed to be a fun show. I can see glimpses of the show I loved lingering in that season finale. I wish I could have spent this recap writing about Matt drinking what appeared to be Mountain Dew out of a wine glass; or how two separate women presented Matt with custom “Mrs. James” jerseys and then immediately got dumped. But nothing about this show can be fun until it fixes itself.