It has been clear since we learned about Rachel’s meltdown in the first episode that working for “Everlasting” hasn’t just exacerbated her ethical issues with her work; it has loosened her handle on her mental health issues, whatever they seem to be. While it would be easy for “UnREAL” to suggest that reality television makes the people who produce it crazy, the show is more sophisticated than that.
When Rachel goes home to visit her parents and ask for a loan, it becomes obvious that whatever her diagnosis is, there are other forces in her life working to destabilize her, namely her therapist mother Olive (Mimi Kuzyk). As a condition of giving Rachel financial help, Olive wants Rachel to start doing therapy sessions with her again, a practice that Rachel points out is unethical, only for Olive to hand-wave her objections. Rachel tries to contest her mother’s diagnosis, which keeps shifting, and to question her mother about the prescriptions Olive has been writing for her. But it all gets her nowhere.
By the end of the night, we see that Olive wants to maintain a delicate and dangerous balance: She needs Rachel to be vulnerable enough to still need her, stable enough to function and make a living, and convinced that this stability is due to Olive’s intervention.
In a way, this situation makes Rachel a lot like the contestants on “Everlasting.” One of the most interesting and enigmatic characters on “UnREAL” is Dr. Wagerstein (Amy Hill), the on-set psychologist on the show. Ostensibly, she’s there to make sure that the women on the show stay physically and mentally healthy in a hugely artificial, highly manipulative and emotionally volatile situation. Her work, though, is just as much about giving producers like Rachel insights into the contestants’ vulnerabilities that they can use to manipulate the women on the show, keeping the women vying for the suitor’s heart in that narrow zone between too crazy to put on air and not crazy enough to be interesting.
It’s Quinn (Constance Zimmer) who first spots a potential eating disorder in Anna (Johanna Braddy), a contestant Rachel talked into staying on the show after her father’s death in the previous episode. The camera catches Anna eating baby carrots, which Quinn calls Anna’s “marker food,” by herself. “She knows when to stop when the orange comes back up,” Quinn explains to Rachel, suggesting it’s a common tactic among bulimics. But Dr. Wagerstein reminds Rachel of it, telling Rachel “I’ve been watching footage. Anna’s vomiting’s getting worse.” Maybe Dr. Wagerstein believes that Rachel will behave responsibly. Maybe she knows that Rachel will use her observation to gin up drama. By simply observing, rather than making an affirmative suggestion about how to keep Anna healthy, Dr. Wagerstein is entering risky moral territory.
Then there’s the dangerous game Shia (Aline Elasmar) plays with Maya (Natasha Wilson), encouraging her to get drunk and raunchy around Adam (Freddie Stroma), the man at the center of the show, and his best friend, who has come to the set for a visit. It might be going too far to suggest that Shia sets Maya up to be assaulted. But she has certainly encouraged Maya to behave unlike herself, leaving her to suffer consequences that reward Adam’s boorish friend. This sort of bait-and-switch through what’s supposed to be sexual liberation is hardly confined to reality television sets. And when Rachel tries to make sure Maya is okay, Maya responds in a familiar way, suggesting that Rachel is just trying to make her feel worse. It’s awful to watch Maya try to deny how upset she is, and all so she can stay on the reality show that put her in a bad situation in the first place.
There are many houses — not just the “Everlasting” mansion — where these sorts of dynamics play out. “I think you should move back home for a while,” Olive tells Rachel. “Our work would progress much more quickly if you weren’t under so much stress.” Olive’s not wrong that Rachel’s reality television talents, “the manipulation, the attunement, that is the disease.” But whether Olive doesn’t recognize it or refuses to acknowledge it, Rachel learned many of those talents in the same home Olive wants her daughter to return to.