As Monday night’s finale opens on a snowy Nemacolin Resort in Farmington, Pa., viewers are reminded that before we can get answers to what happened with Rachael Kirkconnell, the 24-year-old graphic designer from Georgia who’s sparked controversy over her racially insensitive social media posts, we will need to sit through two hours of James deciding who to pick and whether to propose.
The wait is a little excruciating.
Last month, Internet sleuths found that Kirkconnell had “liked” a post of friends posing in front of a Confederate flag; shared an Instagram post whose language echoed the QAnon extremist ideology; dressed in a Native American costume; and attended an “Old South” antebellum-themed party in college in 2018. She has since apologized. Chris Harrison has apologized for how he’s handled the revelation; he’s stepped aside from hosting the “After the Final Rose” special and from the next season of “The Bachelorette.”
But the version of James we see in the finale’s first two hours doesn’t know any of that. At this point, the heaviest thing James is confronting is whether he’s ready to get engaged. As James’s mother and brother meet his two finalists, Michelle Young, a 27-year-old teacher from Minnesota, and Kirkconnell, they’re very frank with James. His brother, John, asks the two women tough questions about their past relationships and whether they’ve been in love before. James’s mother is real with him about how loving someone isn’t always enough to make a marriage work, and she knows that from experience.
James’s mother says it’s a “long shot” that her son is ready to get engaged, and, well, she’s right. Wracked with doubt, James speaks to Harrison on a curb, and the show’s host is completely unhelpful, telling James: “This is not the guy I talked to a week ago.” The Bachelor walks away asking himself: “Am I ready? Can I get there? … What’s the right thing to do?”
James goes on a final date with Young, where they rappel down the resort wall. It’s terrifying, and afterward Young gives James a speech about what great teammates they’d make for one another, gifting him a jersey with Mr. James emblazoned on the back to match her Mrs. James. This is the moment James uses to express that he’s not sure about an engagement, blindsiding her instead with a breakup.
Next, James skips his final date with Kirkconnell, leaving Harrison to deliver the news that he won’t be showing up. Later, she receives a date card, instructing her to meet James by the lake. When she shows up in a sparkly green gown, nervous and unsmiling, James tells her that he wants to be “everything to you,” but he doesn’t want to rush a proposal. “The truth is that I love you,” James tells Kirkconnell, adding that he sees her as the mother of his kids. And he just wanted to know if being together is enough for her. It is. “I picture it all with you,” Kirkconnell says. “You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met.”
“It doesn’t get more real than this,” James proclaims before the happy couple gets into a horse-drawn carriage, completely naive to how real their relationship will get in a few short months.
‘After the Final Rose’
Emmanuel Acho, a former NFL linebacker and host of the video series “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man” introduces himself to viewers at home. The studio is eerily quiet without an in-person audience. Acho first speaks with Young about her breakup with James and the closure she’d like to get. James apologizes to Young for leaving her hanging in Nemacolin, and not having one last conversation there when she requested it. “My respect and admiration for you is through the roof,” he tells her. “All I can say is: I’m sorry.”
Afterward, Acho asks James about the pressure of being the first Black Bachelor. “As a Black person, there’s a extra level of scrutiny when you’re the first of something,” James says, “and you want to make sure that you’re on your best behavior in terms of how you’re speaking, how you present yourself. Because, for a lot of people, that was the first time having someone like myself in their home.” All of that on top of the weight of looking for love on national television.
James tells Acho that he first fell in love with Kirkconnell’s “authenticity,” but things got difficult when her social media posts started to surface. Before Kirkconnell addressed the images publicly, or Harrison said anything about them, James said he tried to be there for her, because he thought they were just rumors. But when she publicly acknowledged that she would do better and she apologized, James started to realize he “wasn’t okay” and that Kirkconnell might not understand what it means to be Black in America. Ultimately, he tells Acho, they broke up.
‘I didn’t think of the trauma it would cause’
Kirkconnell arrives looking like she would rather be anywhere else. When Acho asks how she’s holding up, she lets out a sad laugh.
“It’s a loaded question,” she says. “It’s been a lot, as anyone can imagine. But I don’t want to, you know, sit here and victimize myself.”
Acho dives right in and shows the infamous photo from the antebellum plantation-themed college party, with Kirkconnell and two friends beaming in ballgowns. Acho explains that in Latin, antebellum literally means “before the war,” so an antebellum party is actually celebrating a pre-Civil War, slavery-era South.
Kirkconnell explains that back then, she didn’t really consider what such an image or a party really meant. “I never took the time to make that connection. Because if I would have taken the time, I easily could’ve understood what was wrong with it,” she said. And even though she’s seen people defend her by saying she’s from Georgia, she doesn’t want to blame her Southern upbringing: “That doesn’t make it right.”
“I think we need to all collectively do a better job of acknowledging that history is meant to be remembered, but not all history is meant to be celebrated,” Acho says. After he asks Kirkconnell what steps she’s taking to learn and grow from this experience (she said she’s been reading books, watching documentaries and listening to podcasts to educate herself), Acho questions whether Kirkconnell ever lay awake at night worrying that these photos would emerge someday, especially because “The Bachelor” star was a Black man.
“Being completely honest, I didn’t think about it one time. Because at that point, you know, it was just me taking some photos with my friends,” she replies. “... I didn’t think of the trauma that it would cause.”
Finally, Kirkconnell says she was “blindsided” when James broke up with her, and that she’s still in love with him. “I lost the love of my life, but in the process of that, I hurt him while doing so,” she says. Acho asks if she’s ready to reunite with him. She confirms that she is not but knows it’s about to happen regardless.
‘It’s heartbreaking, and it’s devastating’
As James arrives onstage, he and Kirkconnell share a hug, and things immediately become emotional.
“I really just want to take the time to say I'm really sorry. And once I really tried to put myself into your shoes as much as I could, I really do think that our relationship was very strong, and the love that we shared was very real,” Kirkconnell says. “So for you to end things … you must have been hurting, and I just wanted to say I'm really sorry for not understanding that initially.”
“How hard is this on you, just seeing the woman that you love — that you loved — so torn up over hurting you and over losing you?” Acho asks James.
James looks pained. “I mean, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s devastating. It’s just disappointing.” When Acho prods him to share more, there’s a long pause as he can’t bring himself to speak. Eventually, they cut to commercial.
When they return, James still looks devastated as he starts to explain that he couldn’t get over Kirkconnell’s reaction to the photos when they surfaced online, and implies that she didn’t understand why they mattered.
“The most disappointing thing for me was having to explain to you why what I saw was problematic and why I was so upset. And that’s why it was problematic,” he says. “... When I questioned our relationship, it was in the context of you not fully understanding my Blackness and what it means to be a Black man in America. And what it would mean for our kids when I saw those things that were floating around the Internet. And it broke my heart, because this is the last conversation I thought we’d be having.”
“And I knew that I had to take a step back for you to put in that work that you outlined that you needed to do, and that’s something that you’ve got to do on your own,” he concludes. “And that’s why we can’t be in a relationship.”
Kirkconnell accepts this, as James confirms that while his feelings for her can’t just disappear overnight, a reconciliation is not likely. Finally, it’s time for Acho to wrap things up. “Well, if you all want to share one final embrace …” he offers.
Neither Kirkconnell nor James make a move. James breaks the silence: “I don't know if it'll ever not hurt hearing those things.” There is no embrace.
After an awkward pause, Acho smoothly moves on. “Well, thank you all both for being here. I know that was difficult. Couldn’t have been easy.”
In the show’s final moments, we learn our next “Bachelorette” star will be Katie Thurston, a 30-year-old bank marketing manager from Renton, Wash., who made a splash when she first introduced herself to James while holding a vibrator. Her season will premiere in the summer, Acho says. And then Young will do a season as the Bachelorette, premiering in the fall.