Matt James’ historic and messy season of “The Bachelor” is coming to a close. Spoiler alert: It isn’t the ending most were hoping for.
What was meant to be a historic season (the franchise’s first Black male lead and the most diverse cast in show history) took a turn for the worse on-camera with incessant bullying and off-camera with a racism controversy involving one of Matt’s final two women and host Chris Harrison.
The big question: Will Matt end up picking Rachael Kirkconnell, the woman at the center of the controversy? Or will he pick Michelle Young, widely deemed an unproblematic fan-favorite? And what will everyone have to say later during the “After the Final Rose” special?
In-depth look:What will it take to fix ‘The Bachelor’ franchise’s racism?
In Monday’s finale, both women meet Matt’s mom, Patty, and brother, John. Michelle is up first, and tells Patty she’s in love with her son. Patty tears up and says she can see Michelle as a part of the family. So… can we just end right there?
Nope, it’s Rachael’s turn. Rachael tells John she believes Matt is the other half she’s been looking for and Patty gets emotional again – she says Rachael’s love for her son “really means a lot” to her.
Matt tells his mom he likes how Rachael carries herself through “the little things”: “It’s got to be a foreshadowing of how she’s going to handle more important things,” Matt says.
Both women seem to be winners in Matt’s family’s book, but Patty and John stress that he doesn’t need to jump into something he isn’t ready for. And now the Bachelor is worried he may not be ready to get down on one knee, a fear he relays to Harrison without getting specific about what that means for a potential engagement.
Next up is Matt’s final date with Michelle, which starts off mirroring previous conversations: There’s lots of love to go around, but Matt is still paralyzed with doubt.
More:‘Bachelor’ contestants set the record straight on dramatic season of bullying in ‘Women Tell All’
Michelle gives him matching basketball jerseys that read “Mr. and Mrs. James,” but that seems to be his moment of reckoning. He tells Michelle this is the first time he’s felt “anything outside of wanting to be with you forever,” and Michelle wonders out loud if she’s supposed to fight for him.
“I don’t think I can get there with you,” Matt says through a tearful goodbye. The conversation with his mom about love fading clearly “shook him,” Harrison notes.
“I don’t know how to go on,” Matt says. “How do you go on from there?”
Does Rachael get a final rose?
A torn Matt grapples with what his next move should be: There is only one woman left standing, but is Matt ready for an engagement?
Harrison alerts Rachael that Matt is feeling “lost” and has canceled their final date, leaving Rachael’s fate – and confidence in Matt – in question.
Regardless of Matt’s marital intentions, jeweler Neil Lane still needs to get his product placement in, so the Bachelor sits down to look at potential rings. He picks out one to “hold on to” just in case, but ultimately he won’t need it.
Proposal day arrives, and Matt is still bothered by his uncertainty, though he does love Rachael.
“I don’t know if you still feel this, but I feel so incredibly lucky to have felt this,” she tells him. (Side note: Even at a closed-off resort, it’s comforting to see the tradition of bad finale audio continuing.)
The Bachelor finally opens up to Rachael about his conflicting feelings and tells her that’s why he “can’t propose to you today.” But that doesn’t mean they’re calling it quits, at least for now. He still sees Rachael as his future wife and wants to continue their relationship, just without the pressure of an engagement.
We leave Matt giving Rachael the final rose without an engagement ring. Sorry, Neil Lane.
‘After the Final Rose’ special takes on racism controversy
Rachael, Michelle and Matt rehash the dramatic ending in the one-hour “After the Final Rose” special following the finale, during which Matt and Rachael spoke about her racism controversy that led to widespread backlash and defense from Harrison.
Former NFL player and Fox Sports analyst Emmanuel Acho took Harrison’s place after the longtime host announced he would be “stepping back for a period of time” following the controversy. Acho is the author of “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” based on his online series that aims to open dialogue about racial ignorance and insensitivity.
Matt opens up to Acho about facing pressure and extra scrutiny as the first Black Bachelor, especially during a time of increased attention to social justice and issues of diversity within the franchise. He notes that for many viewers, watching his love story was the first time they had “someone like me” in their home.
Following the end of taping, things were going well for Matt and Rachael. But after the controversy broke and Rachael apologized, the couple broke up. Matt notes that he doesn’t think “anybody is irredeemable,” but there’s a “lot of work” Rachael needs to do alone.
“You hear things that are heartbreaking and you pray they’re not true. And then when you find out they are it makes you question everything,” Matt says. “I wasn’t OK because it was in that moment and that conversation (that I realized) Rachael might not understand what it means to be Black in America.”
To critics who argue that her actions three years ago shouldn’t reflect on who she is today, Matt urges those “who were so triggered to bring that energy to supporting folks of color who are asking for change.”
Previously:‘Bachelor’ frontrunner Rachael Kirkconnell apologizes for ‘offensive and racist’ actions
Acho shares the photo of Rachael at a 2018 Antebellum-themed party. Rachel, joining the host on stage, says she doesn’t want to “victimize” herself and was living in ignorance at that time. She never stopped to consider what the party represented.
“People need to realize saying this is normal where I come from doesn’t make it OK,” she says. Acho notes history is meant to be remembered, not necessarily celebrated.
When asked what specific actions she’s taking to rectify the situation, Rachael doesn’t get into specifics, but says her actions are worth more than promises to do better.
She says she still loves Matt and “always will” before Matt joins the discussion. Rachael reiterates her apology to him while holding back tears.
“For you to end things, I realize… you must have been hurting and I’m really sorry for not understanding that initially and I’m really sorry I hurt you,” she says.
Matt, who can’t seem to look at Rachael, struggles to find words other than reiterating his disappointment in “having to explain to you why what I saw was problematic.”
“I didn’t sign up to have this conversation,” he says.
A tearful Rachael concludes that she wants Matt to be happy and will “always be thankful for everything we shared.” Acho welcomes them to “share one final embrace,” but Matt, still hurt, clearly isn’t ready for that step.
And:Chris Harrison will be replaced by Tayshia Adams, Kaitlyn Bristowe as ‘The Bachelorette’ host
Michelle and Matt also reunite. She tells him she “crumbled” in the aftermath of their breakup, made all the more difficult by Matt’s refusal to talk to her for the sake of closure.
“It was a conversation so that I could have my inner peace when I left, and you said no,” she says. Matt apologizes and wishes he could go back and have that conversation with her.
They end with a friendly (we think?) zinger: Michelle hopes Matt’s future will entail less open-eyed kissing and more catchphrases other than “thank you for sharing that.”
But things are looking up for Michelle, who will become one of two new “Bachelorette” stars. Her season is coming this fall, while fellow former contestant Katie Thurston’s is coming this summer.