The widely expected disaster came to pass on last night’s The Bachelorette when, like a really slow tidal wave that finally reached land, contestant Brooks fessed up to his lack of passion for Desiree Hartsock and left the show—thereby teasing us with the very real possibility (my money says yes) that Desiree will pick no one in next week’s finale.
Des more or less asked for it, by letting it slip weeks ago that she loved and favored Brooks, certainly a no-no in the reality-TV gods’ eyes, for whom suspense is second to pure drama.
So she got the drama.
But Brooks’ pained leave-taking also provided rare insight into the Dumper’s Dilemma: that is, the less-examined (because it is so fleeting) brand of pain experienced by the person doing the dumping. And given the sort of men Des had whittled her group down to, weeding out the most obvious examples of meat and madness, leaving her with three remarkably sensitive (if simpleminded) fellows, this rare insight rises to the level of the anthropologically precious. Tell me more, we shout at the screen, even as sweetly taciturn Brooks tries to do exactly that to the wooden totem pole that is Chris Harrison, as if his delicate absence can better show the shape of love than Des’ monolithic desperation. And when it comes time to consummate the dumping, Brooks’ strained resistance to it, the way that beautifully enskulled brain of his works overtime until steam nearly escapes from his ears, is affectingly recognizable. “I’m sorry,” he says to Des a dozen times, then reprimands himself for saying it, aware of its humiliating power and yet unable to stop himself, because it is exactly how he feels.
This is the crucible tantalizingly promised, year after year, by the show: despite all the prescribed milestones, the one-on-ones, the patterned and well-worn progress of “love” up to and through the hometowns and sleepovers—we know that, like a well-run laboratory, it is more than capable of extracting real emotion from contrived circumstances. And despite a season as dull as any has ever been, the lab did not disappoint. We even discovered—and this crucial fact will influence a later historical understanding of this season—that much of the dullness, much of Des’ bland prattling, may have been due to the immense pressure on her to maintain the guise of fair competition, when from Day 1 it had been anything but. She had always wanted Brooks. The hard part was pretending anyone else had a chance—and she a choice.
Des got her heart broke good. I don’t think anyone who watched the episode, script-conspiracists, love-at-first-sight cynics, hardened Match.commers, can deny this happened. She sobbed as we have seen our ex-lovers sob, and as we have sobbed ourselves. We saw her fall helplessly upon the broken-down language of broken-down love: “this sucks” and “this really sucks” and “this f***ing sucks.” Most achingly horrible was the way the camera let us observe in real time the dawning awareness that crept across her face when Brooks sat her down and said, “This has been so hard.” The way she still kept her leg hooked over his, in those unconscious joinings we do with those we feel closest to, until she finally withdrew and gathered her knees to herself. When she really began to lose it, even my wife, who makes a hobby of cackling at the overbaked setups and semaphored emotions of every season, swallowed hard enough for me to hear.
Yes, the scene was drawn out and excruciating—the only way it should have been. Scripted shows stocked with professional actors can bypass or compress all the stuttering and swaying of real life. The rest of us, even those shinier versions of us with vague job titles eager to run through the rat maze of reality television, are of course much worse at this sublime fakery. The magic, and the best moments in the genre, happen when even that lesser ability is taken away.