By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Mar 16, 2021 at 7:46 AM

Usually, even in good seasons, I'm equal parts exhausted but also excited headed into the finale. This year, however, between the tedious and occasionally ugly on-screen material as well as the franchise's self-made nightmares off-screen, I'm just plain exhausted. I shouldn't need additional wine to get through my weekly excuse to drink wine. Maybe that should've been the tagline for Matt's season: "The Bachelor: You'll need even more wine than usual!" 

We start as every "Bachelor" finale does: gazing into the middle distance. Michelle's sitting, staring at the horizon, thinking about that funny meme she saw the other day; Rachael's sitting, staring at the horizon in between diary entries and jotting down a to-do list that unfortunately for her doesn't include "delete social media accounts." They're all gearing up to meet Matt's family, including his mom and his twin brother John, who are both thrilled to see that Matt's happy. If only they'd seen the post-show beard we've seen. I GOT BAD NEWS FOR HOW THIS ENDS – AND I HAVEN'T EVEN READ SPOILERS! That facial hair is full of poorly kept secrets (and also beard oil that makes it look glimmering and shiny). 

Michelle gets the first go with Matt's family, and she does great – as she does with everything this season. Since she's gelled so well with Matt and with the show, feeling loose and sweetly in love, it's easy to forget that she was one of the later arrivals. None of that changes Monday night as she easily handles all of John's solid questions, inlcuding talking about her past relationships and how she feels about Matt. In the end, the family seems to like her a lot; Matt's mom cries – though, in fairness, most things make her cry this episode – and everyone seems to have a comfortable repartee. It's going so well, they even have time for the Hallmark seal of approval: a snowball fight (though you can practically hear the producer off-screen yelling "YEAH, DO A SNOWBALL FIGHT; IT'LL BE CUTE," goading them into a love thing). 

Michelle passed the family test; now it's Rachael's turn. Can't go worse than sky-diving right?! Judging by everyone's facial reactions, maybe it can. Matt looks sad while Rachael's talking with John and his mom while the latter seems unconvinced during their conversation. I'm just saying: John and Matt's mom didn't have intense thoughts and questions on what it means to truly love somebody until after talking to Rachael – somebody who we find out only has had two serious boyfriends before "The Bachelor," one of which was in high school. So one serious boyfriend. Matt's mom seems to like the part where Rachael talks about Matt praying over them during the premiere and how important Rachael's faith is – but she also says, "She's cute," to describe her, which feels like some real Carolina "bless your heart" passive aggression. 

Matt's mom then shifts into something closer to aggression as she brings up an important final point for her son: Love isn't the be-all, end-all of a relationship. This isn't a revolutionary take – the idea that love alone cannot sustain a serious, long-term relationship and that love evolves over time as couples evolve – but it practically breaks Matt's poor pre-bearded brain. He seems utterly rattled by the idea that falling in love alone isn't enough and that your feelings may adjust and shift over time. Oh dear, it seems we may have found ourselves somebody new who wildly misinterprets the ending of "The Graduate!"

Shooketh by this foundational concept of relationships and suddenly uncertain of his options, Matt goes to – who else? – Chris Harrison. Ah yes, that wise, thoughtful and worldly sage who always thinks before he speaks and considers his words carefully. Indeed, there is no one I'd rather hear from at this very moment in time than Harrison. The host seems less upset that Matt's heart is in a tumultuous place and more upset that he's potentially not going to go through with the engagement, grumping about how Matt's mom wasn't all 100 percent "go team getting married." "Don't worry; love ends? What kind of greeting card is that," he harrumphs to Matt. HEY HARRISON, LOVE ISN'T ALWAYS A GREETING CARD. How is the man in charge of the world's most popular dating show so seemingly clueless about the realities of love? Hard to believe this show has such a poor success rate!

Unsurprisingly, Harrison's pep talk and mom slander doesn't help Matt warm up to the idea of proposing – and thus he realizes that he doesn't want to actually get engaged right away at the end of the show. And you know what? GOOD! That's the closest thing to a happy ending this show could provide.

Listen, I get it: We want the commitment. We want the high stakes of someone getting on their knee at the end of this all, putting their heart on the line. But that's an UTTERLY INSANE decision to make. Relationships that are barely two months old, developed inside a reality show bubble completely removed from people's actual real-life existences, do not have a strong foundation – or any actual foundation, period. As Matt will learn all too well by the end of the night, you don't know these people at all truly, and they don't know you. They haven't seen how one another live day-to-day, introduced each other to friends or had the hard, boring conversations about life, work and money. How can you expect these people to get engaged and NOT immediately implode upon reentry to society?!

Maybe it's the marriage-hating millennial part of my brain (or just recently watching Netflix's "Marriage or Mortgage," the saddest escapism ever made), but among the many, many, MANY things "The Bachelor" needs to fix in the offseason, I'd love to the show loosen up its finale's expectations and allow for relationships to blossom on their time without side-eye or pressure, to allow the show to truly be the start of something as opposed to the desperate be-all, end-all fairy tale that inevitably comes crashing down.

Before we get to that dream future, however, we must deal with the present – and that means breaking the news to his two finalists. First up is Michelle, who Matt takes up to the roof of Nemacolin (ask your doctor today about Nemacolin for your restless leg syndrome!) so they can rappel down the side of the building. MATT, HAVE YOU NOT HAD ENOUGH OF HEIGHTS THIS SEASON!? Sure, tempt fate again; you only almost splattered one of your girlfriends into the earth last time, so this HAS to go better, right!? Thankfully, other than gently slamming himself against the hotel a few times, the activity goes smoothly, and the two celebrate with a little couch time and relaxation in a faux living room in the middle of a parking lot. ROMANCE!

Later on in the night, Michelle says that she's ready for the next level of their relationship and gifts Matt with two cute custom basketball jerseys that say "Mr. and Mrs. James" on the backs. This woman is too good for this nonsense – and that's even before what happens next. I was prepped for Matt to tell Michelle that he wasn't ready for an engagement – but instead, Matt takes that up a notch and straight up says that he doubts that they can get to the next level together. OH, SO THE PROBLEM'S MICHELLE? Sure, he's hung up on the engagement part – but this is a full-on break-up so I guess he just doesn't like her enough. WELL BOO AND ALSO HISS TO YOU, SIR!

I know we pretty much knew this was how things were going to go – remember: Rachael got fireworks; Michelle did not – but it makes it no less shocking that Matt didn't even give her a graceful dismount and preemptively axed her from the show, suddenly out of nowhere deciding that he didn't have strong enough feelings. Michelle deserved better – but don't worry, we haven't heard the last of her. 

After some more wise, thoughtful words from the sage, not-at-all-distracting Harrison, Matt gets ready for his final date with Rachael. Or at least that's what Rachael thinks – but instead of Matt knocking at her door, it's Harrison with some bad news: The date's cancelled because Matt's having some emotions and thoughts. And now Rachael's all teary-eyed and doing her best Meryl Streep impression from an Oscar-nominated movie. 

Luckily, Neil Lane's there to save the day – or at least sell some rings because dammit, he bought this ad time and HE'S GONNA GET IT! Lane tries his best to play relationship advisor to a clearly defeated Matt, but really, Neil Lane's there to show him a bunch of gaudy circles covered in diamonds and convince Matt that, if he holds the ring in his hands, he'll think an engagement is actually a good idea. It doesn't work – but damn, does Matt try! In his oddly focused way, as with the roses throughout this season, he keeps holding and staring at the ring as if he's never seen such a profound concept in his entire life. Is this man going to propose at the end of this show, or is he going to go on a quest to a lava mountain in Mordor and throw this thing into the fires of Mount Doom?

Going into the final ceremonry, it sure seems like he might actually do the former – but first Rachael gets her say. She talks about how she's ready to be with him – no matter where he's at emotionally after his shocking date cancellation the previous day – and he replies that rushing into an engagement is not what he wants, considering the broken family unit he grew up in. And so they decide to not get engaged but date outside the show. YAY! WHAT A RESPONSIBLE CHOICE! SURELY NOTHING BAD HAPPENED AFTER THIS AND EVERYONE WATCHING IS HAPPY FOR THIS NEW COUPLE!

Indeed, thanks to the offscreen racially insensitive controversies surrounding Rachael, the happy ending doesn't feel particularly happy – but even without that weighing heavily on the show, the finale would've been a slog. By the hour mark, Matt had made his decision, so there was no longer any drama. Sure, Matt was having doubts – but about being engaged, not about dating Rachael. The only tension was the show's own manufactured stakes – ones that I'd be quite happy to see get thrown out anyway – so the final 60 minutes was just waiting for two people who want to be in a relationship together formally announce that they're in a relationship together. No tension, no real conflict – the only uncertainty was how much screentime Neil Lane products would get. 

But the reality is nobody cared how that part of the finale ended. We were here for the After the Final Rose – to see how fill-in host Emmanuel Acho would handle his new duties, to see if Matt was as single as his beard implied and, most importantly, to see how the show would address the shortcomings of both its host and itself as a whole production. 

As for the first point, Acho performed above and beyond expectations. Put into an awkward situation, with a not-insignificant portion of the fanbase vocally unhappy to see him in Harrison's place – and with Harrison's shadow literally hanging over him during the episode, as his shamed predecessor still bafflingly provided the voiceover for the After the Final Rose – Acho was the perfect facilitator for the night. He asked mostly the right difficult questions, wasn't afraid of getting into the muck of this past season and its controversies, and sounded genuinely interested in his conversation partners.

Harrison's insincere huckster vibe always felt like you could feel him pulling the strings of his guests, that they were all pawns to him as he gently massaged the answers he wanted. Plus, as if he would've discussed these tough topics at length, much less as insightfully, if he was in the host chair per usual. 

On the other hand, Acho just let the conversation flow, unafraid of the uncomfortable places they might go. (Unsurprisingly, Acho broke through in popularity with an internet series called "Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man" all about having uneasy conversations about hard topics.) It wasn't perfect – asking if the clearly shattered Rachael and Matt if they wanted to embrace at the end, for instance, was an awkward and forced Harrison-esque question already answered by their defeated faces. But overall, he handled a tricky situation with aplomb, not to mention seemed comfortable in a profoundly uncomfortable spot, not just addressing the controversies but taking over a popular host's role for the first time in an echoing, empty room with no fans or energy to bounce off (aka the Tyra Banks hosting "Dancing with the Stars" special).

In the end, the only thing that wasn't easy and loose about Acho was his suit jacket. (Pray for those seams.)

Before we got to the meat of the night, Acho sat down with Michelle, who arrived ready and prepared with that Minnesota nice tea piping hot on the stove. After talking about how she was blindsided by the breakup, expecting a proposal or at least more time only to get shown the door, Michelle revealed that, when she asked Matt for simply two minutes to ask him questions and find some closure for their shockingly terminated relationship, he declined to give her the time. Apparently, the guy thought his lukewarm "sorry" at the end of that ordeal was sufficient – and to that I say HOW DARE YOU! Michelle's schoolkids are about to wreck you on TikTok, and YOU WILL HAVE EARNED IT!

Thankfully, Michelle doesn't need her social media savvy students to cover for her; she owned Matt all on her own Monday night. After talking a bit about how she handled the controversy swirling over the season – "there's a point where you're so exhausted," she pointed out, speaking for seemingly everyone this back-breaking season – she finally got to confront Matt, who arrives with saying, "It's been a rough past few months." SO CLEARLY EVERYTHING'S GOING GREAT WITH RACHAEL! BE SMUG, MICHELLE!

She lays into him a bit, saying that she fractured and broke down after he left her – then didn't allow her to find peace after all of that. Looking back, Matt agrees that there was no excuse to not have that conversation afterwards so Michelle could find her closure and get something resembling an answer for their sudden breakup – but that won't save him as Michelle says "I care about him" when asked if she still loves him, followed by noting that she's been taught what she is and is NOT looking for in a partner now. Then, she lands her final "Mortal Kombat"-esque finishing move: For her parting words to Matt, she says good luck with learning how to kiss with his eyes closed and learning more phrases than "Thank you for sharing." And that was the moment Matt James died. The soul left the body. Rest in peace, Matt James. Cause of death: a Michelle verbal fatality. We barely knew thee.

But actually, jokes aside, we did indeed barely know thee. The show's off-camera sins have covered up the crucial on-screen sin of never letting the audience get to know Matt or let him have a personality across 20-plus hours of television – unforgiveable considering Bachelor Nation didn't get to know him previously in a prior season. From its racial blindspots to the pure entertainment factor and character development, the show just never seemed to put in the work for Matt's season. 

Anyways, after Michelle knocked the soul out of his body, Matt manages to resurrect himself for somehow an even harder conversation as Acho asks him about his role as the show's first Black bachelor. The questions and responses are surprisingly candid and honest, as Matt talks about taking on the emotional and social baggage of being the first Black man to star on the show, the weight of having to represent seemingly so much and how Black men are conditioned to make people comfortable with their Blackness – and how being the star of the show only amplified that. No wonder he could often come off stiff this season; in case the world of "The Bachelor" wasn't surreal enough for someone new to the process, he had to navigate a representational minefield – one the show created for itself and its star in part by waiting so egregiously long to fix this festering blindspot. 

This is where having Acho was so crucial to the aftershow's success. Even though he was new to the show, he quickly had conversational chemistry with Matt and asked strong questions that got good thoughtful answers – especially as we entered the Rachael aspect of the final hour. Matt details what happened behind the scenes between the two former lovebirds, that at first he thought the news of her Antebellum plantation-themed party photos were just gossip and rumors, only to find out they were true and that the person he thought he connected with didn't seem to understand him as much as he thought. 

And so, after the realization that "she might not understand being Black in America," Matt says that he stepped back from their relationship to allow Rachael to put in the work to improve herself. Or, put simply, they're not together anymore. YOU'RE TELLING ME THAT BEARD ISN'T IN A RELATIONSHIP?! A STUNNER!

After a question about possibly teaching Rachael instead of breaking up – one of Acho's few slip-ups; it's not Matt's job or any Black person's job to teach white people how to be better people and not racist, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was originally a Harrison question that made it through to the final script – Rachael finally gets to speak for herself. And while she doesn't make things worse during the After the Final Rose, she doesn't entirely make things better.

Again, Acho asks the hard and uncomfortable questions, like where her ignorance came from, why she took so long to apologize and address the controversies, and if she even really knew they were problematic before the world shined a light on the photos and more. Most importantly, he asks what specific steps she's taking to improve herself – which is where Rachael most notably botches the night. She says that she could give you a list of the movies, podcasts and such that she's engaging with now – which, yes, that's LITERALLY WHAT HE ASKED FOR, SPECIFICALLY – but instead, here's a mealy-mouthed nothing answer. I know she doesn't want to say the same five books that most white people gravitated toward in the aftermath of George Floyd, to the degree that they've become cliche ... but saying nothing was not a better look.

Matt would seemingly agree as he comes out to talk with Rachael – after a long, LONG silence that speaks volumes on its own about his disappointment with how his journey turned out. When he does finally find the words, there's vague mention of a big "talk" between Matt and Rachael when the controversy first arrived that, while never fully detailed, sure sounds like the latter didn't quite grasp what she did wrong and why Matt, along with so many others, were so hurt. That Important Talk sure sounds like the deathknell of their relationship, the moment Matt realized the two were not on the same page and understanding one another's life experiences – one that still rings and stings during the After the Final Rose, because when asked if the door was still open, Matt sounds pretty closed and sure as heck uninterested in a final embrace. 

In a no good, very bad, acid fire of a season, the After the Final Rose did some mighty work to salvage the wreck, having tough and honest conversations to a degree the show rarely does – and needed to have, in this case. In a way, the final hour felt like a necessary exorcism, talking out the demons of a disastrous season in every way.

But "The Bachelor" is kidding itself if it thinks all's done and fixed now. One good hour does not make up for a truly mishandled season – not to mention a prolonged history of misguided decisions and blindspots when it comes to race. While "The Bachelor" made Rachael confront her mistakes, past and present, on Monday night, the show must do the same. How do racially insensitive people keep sneaking through the vetting process? How did it take this long to have a Black bachelor – and what decisions behind the scenes led to such a botched season that felt wholly unprepared for the moment despite having almost two decades of delay? Does the show truly grasp what diversity means? As this Vulture article points out, despite having a proudly diverse cast for Matt's season, the screentime and storylines alloted still mostly went to white characters. To ask "The Bachelor" the same question Rachael tripped over Monday night: What specific work are you doing to better yourself?

And that's all before we address the actual show itself, which desperately needs a refresh. The fact that this past season leaned so hard into venomously cruel and plainly forced drama is evidence of a creative team that's run out of ideas – so time to bring in new voices and new visions that'll let personalities flow on the show instead of reserving them for bloopers and end credit stings. That'll break free from the constraining formulas and make love stories for a modern audience – ones that might even actually survive beyond six months after finale too! That'll just plain be entertaining again.

The newly announced Bachelorettes give me a little hope that the product on-screen may improve. That's right: Bachelorettes, plural – as Katie and Michelle were jointly announced as the next two stars of the show. The reveal was kind of confusing; it sounded at first like they'd be on at the same time, which would be lame to give another Black bachelorette only part-lead of a season BUT could lead to tremendous wine-drinking footage of Katie and Michelle both crushing about guys and complaining about them after a long day of dates.

But no worries; it'll be two separate seasons – and both sound exciting. Katie was a refreshingly human voice in a growingly toxic season and offers the show a chance to not only course-correct into positivity but also really let its star's personality shine instead of sanding them down into romance novel mannequins. Let Katie's season be goofy and playful! (Humor is a common trait that people look for in a partner; I don't know why this show is horrified of fun people.) Let her abolish the bullying behavior that she didn't tolerate as a contesant instead of milking it for drama! Break free from the structure!

And speaking of personality, after this past season condemned her clearly funny and relaxed demeanor to the furthest borders of the show possible, it'll be great to see Michelle hopefully let loose and get to be the fun-loving star that kept trying to break free this year – not to mention finally give "Bachelor" fans a Black-led season that's not hijacked by racism, inside and out.

Plus, with new replacement hosts Tayshia and Kaitlyn Bristowe taking over for Harrison (at least for the next season), we could get some really fun and natural convos between host and star that freshen the show up. After all, so much of Bachelor Nation is the wine-drinking podcasts and conversations afterward; why not incorporate that kind of candid, casual energy into the show?

There's certainly work to be done – but no matter the case, at least there's no way these next seasons can get any worse ... right? (*gulps whole glass of wine*)

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.