“Ambush” takes on a great deal in one episode, but thankfully, it’s been setting things up beautifully all season.
UnREALAirtime: Mondays, 10pm
Cast: Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer, Craig Bierko, B.J. Britt, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Josh Kelly, Michael Rady, Gentry White, Monica Barbaro, Kim Matula, Ioan Gruffudd, Amy Hill
Subtitle: Season 2, Episode 7 - "Ambush"
Air date: 2016-07-18
Rachel: Coleman, we should just call the cops.
Rachel: Don’t you see? This is the show we want to make right here.
Coleman: What are you talking about?
Rachel: We have to call the cops.
Coleman: On two black guys in a Bentley in this town? That won’t end well.
Coleman: Make the call.
Jay [to Rachel]: But you, with your preachy, holier-than-thou bullshit -- first, you pat yourself on the back for getting a black suitor and contestants who get treated like garbage and now your plan is to, what, Rachel, just expose how racist the police are by getting a brother shot? If Romeo dies, this is all on you. And this is not your story to tell.
Opening on a disclaimer on "gun violence, race, and law enforcement in America", "Ambush" immediately sets the tone for a disturbing and timely episode that pulls no punches. An unprovoked attack on Darius (B.J. Britt) and Romeo (Gentry White) by police, orchestrated by Coleman (Michael Rady) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby), isn't only central to the episode, but also to the season as a whole. Rachel's gradual unraveling has been at the heart of the show since its inception, but the ramifications of the events of this episode push her and Everlasting into chaos.
In many ways, "Ambush" is a perfect microcosm of the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise in police brutality being captured on camera, and the fundamental misunderstandings of the struggles of people of color. In casting a black suitor, Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel consciously chose to use race as a point of contention throughout the season on Everlasting, but their understanding of race issues, with all its nuances and lived experiences, is firmly out of their grasps. That Rachel, and Coleman, chose to create a situation that will almost surely lead to a horrific end -- all in the name of "important" television --speaks to their white privilege, while also highlighting their obvious incomprehension over what unfolds.
Jay's (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) reaction to finding out Rachel called the police on Darius and Romeo, for ratings, is both satisfying and heartbreaking. His anger and hurt are palpable, and Bowyer-Chapman is excellent in conveying the weary disappointment familiar to many. When he tells her that this isn’t her story to tell, it’s a powerful statement in its simplicity, yet it resonates so well because Rachel, Quinn, and Everlasting have tried to portray complex race issues in the simplest and most clichéd terms possible all season.
It’s also important to note that with the fallout of Romeo's shooting, and Darius' own hospitalization over his chronic back problems and the rough handling by the police, much of the focus is on Rachel. It's Rachel's idea that leads to the police pulling the car over, and it's Rachel's attempts to stop things from escalating that causes the further chaos that leads to the shooting.
The police are, unquestionably, ultimately responsible for the shooting, but Rachel, Coleman, and the show also bear an enormous responsibility in the events of the episode. The series’ focus on Rachel’s reaction and her further emotional spiral, also diminishes the stakes and emotions of the actual black men involved. Darius' response to the shooting, and the show's involvement, will have to be addressed next episode, but it's disappointing that he was shunted aside this episode.
The rest of the episode’s drama comes from the return of Adam (Freddie Stroma) and his pursuit of Rachel. The mixed messages she sends are indicative of her state of mind. She's highly suggestible and also extremely self-destructive, yet only Quinn understands how badly this will end for her. Coleman and Adam are both intent on "saving" Rachel and taking her away from Everlasting, while Quinn sees the reality of the situation much more clearly. They're still somewhat at odds, but they’re too connected to fully sever their relationship, regardless of their many hurtful and cutting interactions.
"Ambush" takes on a great deal in one episode, but thankfully, it’s been setting things up beautifully all season. The race angle has mostly been played for ratings on Everlasting, while subtly acknowledging this fact behind-the-scenes, but this episode brings it to the forefront in terrifying and infuriating ways. Its ramifications will surely be felt through the remainder of the season, and hopefully, UnREAL will continue to highlight the complexity -- one that often paints its leads in unforgiving roles -- of race. Jeremy’s (Josh Kelly) return (at the behest of Yael [Monica Barbaro]) at the end of the episode will also certainly play out in the next three episodes.
UnREAL has much to manage in a short period, and it still remains to be seen how it all will come together, but it’s been very smart about how it's paced things all season.