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UnREAL writer Ariana Jackson breaks down last night’s controversial episode

B.J. Britt, Freddie Stroma, and Shiri Appleby in UnREAL (Photo: Lifetime)

This post discusses plot points from “Ambush.”

Last night’s episode of UnREAL centered—in part—around a sadly all-too-familiar scenario: the police shooting of an unarmed black man. Everlasting suitor Darius (B.J. Britt) and his cousin Romeo (Gentry White) drive off in a Bentley along with two of the contestants. When Rachel (Shiri Appleby) realizes they’ve gone, she decides to make what she misguidedly thinks will be “groundbreaking” TV, and calls the cops. The men are brutally handled, and when Rachel runs out to try to put an end to the violence, a cop shoots Romeo. Back on set, Rachel is rightly castigated for her decision by her colleague Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), who says “this is not [her] story to tell.”


Coming so soon after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the episode is incredibly relevant. However, its treatment of the subject has also come under scrutiny in recaps from those who have taken issue with how the show hones in on how the tragedy affects Rachel, rather than how it impacts the victims.

The A.V. Club spoke to Ariana Jackson about writing “Ambush” and her response to the critiques.


When in the season did you know that this is where the story would go? That there would be a police shooting of a black man?

This was something that was already in the mind of Sarah [Gertrude Shapiro] and the upper levels when we came into talk about season two. This was a storyline that had already been proposed.


What was your reaction to the fact that this story had already been proposed?

My initial reaction was, “No. Fuck no.” I talked about this in another interview, but you look around a table of mostly white faces and you’re sort of like, “No, I don’t think we should do this.” I was very worried about it; I was very nervous about it. I was worried about coming at it from a place of mostly white people and white people in charge of everything taking over a story that I wasn’t sure was one we should be telling and that we could do justice as, again, a mostly white group of people. I will say those discussions were heavy, those discussion were long, and I do feel like everybody listened and we really talked about this for a long time and discussed whether and how we should do it. I will say, that was something that I was really heartened by, that people were willing to talk so much about it and listen so much about it, before we got into the nitty-gritty of writing the episode.


How many people of color are in the writers room?

Myself and one other black woman. We did have—not on this episode— but we did have two women of color directing this year.


Can you tell me about the process of writing the episode? Did you volunteer to do so?

The episode was assigned to me. It happens differently in all rooms, but I think in the majority of rooms episodes are assigned. It was a difficult episode to approach. I try to keep up with all the news, and especially in these last couple of years, just there being this constant stream of stories like this, of black men being involved in these police altercations. I think people approach those things differently, but for me I felt like I had to read and devour all of them even before we talked about it in the room.


I feel like it’s so important that people know what’s going on. I mean, it’s being going on for decades, forever, in the black community and is something that people have known about, but now with video tapes and with Black Lives Matter and with this being news, I feel like it’s important to be a witness and to be aware of it and to hopefully create change. I’m not saying for myself, specifically, but I mean, generally in our society. We were talking about this story six months ago, and that was Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland and Laquan McDonald and Walter Scott. Black Lives Matter was huge and they are doing such amazing things and bringing such awareness to this issue. I would have hoped by this point that there would be more change, and it’s frustrating to say the least how stubborn our country is in terms of acknowledging this problem and changing it.

I came to writing this episode trying to bring my own thoughts about all of that into it, but at the same time we’re writing for a TV show. It’s a collaborative process so there are a lot of voices involved and there were a lot of other things to service in terms of story and in terms of main characters. I guess one of the main things in terms of telling the story at UnREAL, one of the things I thought was important, and that I think we landed on, was really telling the story from the place of white feminist privilege, which is sort of this meta take on what this room mostly looks like and then who our main characters are addressing this particular story. Wanting to tell this story, it felt a lot like Rachel’s point of view is sort of the point of view of our room to some degree. And being able to talk about it in that way felt important in terms of, why are we, UnREAL, telling this story and how can UnREAL tell this story in a way that’s true to the show?


There were criticisms in some recaps I read about turning the aftermath onto Rachel’s turmoil, rather than going back to see Darius and Romeo. What is your response to that?

Well, it’s frustrating for myself and Sarah and some of the other writers in the room. There was a lot of fight and a lot of back and forth. There were times that we had scenes and moments where we go back with Romeo and Darius and they didn’t end up making it in the final episode for whatever reason. That is very frustrating to me. But we follow these characters for another three episodes. We have fallout to tell with them in the upcoming episodes and as we lead into the finale. So, Romeo and Darius’ stories are far from over.


How did you want to construct Rachel’s breakdown following the shooting? She’s dealing with a ton of other shit, leading up to this. How did you want this specific incident to play into the other issues Rachel is going through?

I think from the start of the season and from the start of the show, really—Sarah’s talked about this—Rachel wants to have a real sense of purpose in her life. She comes from this place of wanting to be this do-gooder person, but she keeps working on this show, Everlasting, that is clearly the exact opposite of that. Part of this was to show that this is the final and maybe worst culmination of this idea of some good she can do, i.e. showing to the world how racist the cops are by setting up a situation where people are fully in danger of losing their lives. It’s horrifying, but it is on par with her arc of, I’m going to be the one to tell these stories, and I’m going to be the one to do something important, and help people see these important problems. I think that it fits with her as a character and the show in terms of how media is used to address these kind of problems and how she comes from a place that is, I guess, on one level one might say is well-meaning, but it’s also incredibly self-serving.


Did you always want to have Jay’s speech in the episode, and what was it like for you writing that?

We were always going to have that in this season for sure. It felt really good to write it. It felt really real and it felt really true. It is such a complicated issue and i think everybody has their own feelings. I just have to stress that I feel like everybody has the right—not that it’s for me to give anyone permission to feel the way they feel—but I completely understand anybody’s feelings and reactions to this episode. Part of Jay’s speech was something we talked about a lot in the room, but also was something I felt very strongly personally in writing it. I think it was important in the episode, and I’m glad that it made it in. I don’t think it necessarily solves all problems. For people who maybe take issue with the episode—and, again, I think it’s totally fair and right for people if they have issues with the episode—I don’t think that this one speech makes up for everything. I hope people understand there were a lot of different viewpoints at play in the episode, and, again, that we tried to look at it and tackle it from all angles.


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