Many strange things transpired during this season of The Bachelorette, which drew to a close last night: Ames, a Yale-educated money manager, had his bell rung by a fellow contestant in a Thai boxing match and had to be rushed to the hospital. (He returned, slightly dazed, for that evening's cocktail party and won a rose for being such a trooper.) A suitor named Jeff arrived on set wearing a Phantom of the Opera-caliber mask. He was determined to win the affection of Ashley Hebert, this season's bachelorette, with his purity of spirit, not his cheek bones: During one of the group dates, he told Ashley he'd recently adopted a three-legged dog the way another guy might boast about having just bought a new V-8 coupe. But the mask routine won Jeff only the disdain of his fellow suitors and polite disinterest from Ashley.
By far the strangest thing about this season, however, was how cruel the series was to its ostensible heroine. Ashley, a finalist for the affections of the previous Bachelor, Brad Womack, made a rookie's mistake nevertheless, falling for this season's villain, Bentley, right off the bat. At the outset, Bentley was a somewhat refreshing presence in the house; he expressed his dismay that the bachelorette proved to be Ashley, not a more conventionally attractive contestant from the previous season, which was shallow but at least it was honest. But Bentley quickly revealed himself to be a jerk of the highest order. Though he had no interest in Ashley, he happily encouraged her affections for mere sport. And rather than protect Ashley from him, the show's producers milked the situation for all it was worth, juxtaposing confessionals from Bentley in which he was openly dismissive of Ashley with footage of her talking giddily about how Bentley might just be The One. In the cruelest moment of the season, Bentley explained to the camera that he'd decided to leave the show, having tired of toying with his prey: "I'm going to make Ashley cry," he said proudly. "I hope my hair looks OK." What was it like for Ashley to watch that moment as a viewer of her own show? You cringe at the thought.
Even after Bentley's departure, the producers were all too happy to keep his storyline alive, flying him to Hong Kong after he'd left the show so that he could once more embarrass Ashley in front of the viewing audience and indeed in front of her remaining suitors. One of them, Mickey, upon learning of Bentley's return, abruptly quit the show, in a moment neither Ashley nor the producers seem to have anticipated. Mickey knew what a turkey Bentley was, and was clearly tired of vying for the affections of someone who didn't.
As a viewer, I knew how Mickey was feeling. The producers of the show seemed to think that the Bentley storyline brought to this iteration of the series a welcome bit of drama, a break from the sacharine testimonials of the other contestants who either really did convince themselves they were falling for Ashley or at the very least wanted to win badly enough that they stuck to the lovey-dovey script. But the producers overplayed their hand; for a while, it was possible to feel sympathy for Ashley. But as the depths of Bentley's meanness were revealed (and endlessly recapped), she started to seem just plain pathetic. The viewer began to worry that he was watching a reality show about finding love starring a woman with no emotional intelligence. It got hard to watch.
To her credit, Ashley soldiered on. She endured the episode in which the producers thought it would be fun if the suitors roasted her, which divided the contestants roughly into two groups: The guys who were smart enough to make fun of the other guys, and the guys who thought Ashley could take a joke about how she's not as hot as Emily from last year. (She could not.) She endured the moment in the penultimate episode when one of her three chosen finalists left the show of his own accord, though at least he did so in gentlemanly fashion, not wanting to accept Ashley's offer of an "overnight" visit if he knew he didn't have strong feelings for her. And in the end, she chose the guy who—to this viewer at least—seemed the more genuinely smitten of the two finalists, and the more genuine one period.
[Spoiler alert ahead]
Have Ashley and J.P. found true love? The Bachelor/ette has a terrible track record of making successful matches, and we know all too well how poor Ashley's judgment is. But at least for the moment, Ashley seemed in high spirits last night during the "After the Final Rose" special, and that was good to see—the show owes her a little happiness for all it put her through this season.