Last night on a very special edition of The Bachelorette, the current reigning Bachelor, Jake Pavelka, and the object of his rose-bestowal, Vienna Girardi, returned to explain to Chris Harrison the very public tabloid breakup of their made-on-TV relationship. The charge, as Vienna brought it: that a month after they declared their love in the eyes of God and ABC, Jake became withholding and verbally abusive, that he stopped being physically intimate and—shockingly, for a reality-TV participant—he was only interested in fame.
Men! They only want one thing! And it turns out to be a different only one thing from the only one thing they’re supposed to want!
Harrison, introducing the interview with as much gravitas as if he were Edward R. Murrow beginning a primetime documentary, said that it was with “a certain regret” that he brought us this update. (The regret was not shared by ABC, which stood to gain huge ratings from the public confrontation and plugged it throughout the regular Bachelorette episode that preceded it.) Then he brought out Jake and Vienna and let the recriminations begin.
It is fair enough to wonder how real any relationship begun on a TV dating show is. But however real their pairing was, the fight certainly came off as real (whether any of the accusations were true or not). It would take acting skills well beyond your average reality contestant’s, at least, to re-create the familiar dynamics of a fight in a bad relationship: the tongue-tied anger, the dredging up of old issues and the passive-aggressive attempts to deflect blame and argue in circles. You broke us up! No, you did! You sold out to the tabloids! No, you did!
So Vienna told a story about a supposed TV heartthrob who turned into a cruel, cold manipulator offscreen, while Jake threw out some (seemingly flimsily based) charges of infidelity. Again, I can’t say who, if anyone was telling the truth: only they, God and their publicists know that. But Jake definitely came off worse in the interview, if only because of his oily, smug attempts to project a cool demeanor he must have thought would come off well.
As Vienna sputtered, interrupted and got tied up in her accusations, Jake smirked, rolled his eyes and arched his eyebrows. He accused Vienna of cheating on him and then retreated: “I’m not going to do a he-said, she-said.” As Vienna got increasingly agitated, her voice breaking, he asked, “Why are you raising your voice?” It was like watching an old movie about a man trying to gaslight his wife: See America, I’m not the crazy one—she is!
But while Vienna was not exactly coming off as America’s dream date over the course of the interview, Jake’s calm bemusement started to show an ugly side, as they started to rehash—because this is what couples fight about—an old argument about the GPS. (A fight over a car-navigation system is probably the most true-to-life thing we have ever seen on an installment of The Bachelor/ette.) “What guy in America,” he asked, “would ever want to be intimate with a woman who undermines him, emasculates and doesn’t respect?” And how did Jake illustrate his point about respect? “Baby, be quiet while I’m talking.”
In a way, it was jarring, as a coda to a show that gives us one transparently fake, stage-managed emotional moment after another, to see an interview like this, which—whatever the actual story behind it—so closely captured the actual awkward dynamics of an old-wound-opening fight (with the added dynamic of both combatants trying to preserve their media image in a primetime forum). It was as fascinating, as tedious and then as get-me-out-of-here awkward as being dragged into the middle of any fight between two strangers. The recrimination, the frustration, the desperate belief that you can show the rest of the world, for once and for all, what a phony this person really is. “You’re a liar!” Vienna burst out at Jake. “Can we get a poliograph test [sic]? Do we have one of those?”
Sadly, no. I doubt science will ever create the lie-detection machine sturdy enough to withstand an entire episode of The Bachelor.