I’ve been watching Chris Bukowski for a LONG time. Well before I ever went on this show, still living in Germany, I devoured Emily Maynard’s season and, with it, our first Bukowski sighting. I enjoyed him on that season; he was that contestant whom you could tell was more surprised than anyone by his feelings for the lead. I’ve since watched him be the playboy (Bachelor Pad, otherwise known as the best show ever—R.I.P.) and the obnoxious drunk (Paradise, its vastly inferior substitute, twice). Based on those showings, it seemed a “retirement” wasn’t the worst idea in the world.
I met him less than a year after my season aired and, despite his reputation, found that I liked him immediately. As I got to know him a bit better, I began to understand just how painful it might be to be seen by millions so unfavourably. You see, Bukowski is actually quite the gentleman. He’s a lot fun and can hang, but he’s also courteous, thoughtful, humble and not remotely self-obsessed (as some in the franchise can become). Most crucially (and tellingly), he never blamed how he came across on his edit or the producers or the circumstances—he always (and I mean ALWAYS) took responsibility for his behaviour, no matter how not proud of it he might’ve been. But I can see how the temptation to return to the franchise could haunt him like a siren song, enticing him to seek that redemption, that accurate portrayal, just one…last…time.
What I’ve particularly enjoyed about Bukowski’s return to my television screen is that his story has not only been about his romance with Katie. Much like Nick Viall’s Paradise story, we’ve seen moments between Bukowski and his beach mates that have shown how likeable he is as a person and platonic friend—a friend who listens and talks through problems. My absolute favourite moment was two episodes ago, when he warned John Paul Jones about his actions in the wake of the JPJ-versus-Derek drama. He broached the topic perfectly, gently, level-headedly, not coming on too strong, condescending or judgmental. What stood out was the fact that he said anything, standing up for what was right—both in defense of Derek and in protection of JPJ going forward—instead of simply taking the path of least resistance by not saying anything at all. (What most would—and did—do.) In his ITM, he said, “I’ve been in [JPJ’s] shoes before, and it’s not a good look. I’m like, dude, step away for a minute, reassess. It’s another person’s feelings and emotions you’re dealing with. Listen to them, then react.” (Preach!) Best of all, his conversation with JPJ was a casual one in a pool, away from other people and cameras; it wasn’t for TV, it was out of pure concern for others. It was a moment of total, selfless maturity that, given the majority of his television career, felt like a meaningful and hard-won milestone.
It’s easy to forget that, though Bukowski uses a walker in the opening credits (a hilarious choice) and has been referred to as the Bachelor Nation Elder, he’s only 32 years old! He’s the same age as Derek and Clay, only a year older than Mike! The man is young, which means he was YOUNG when he was on Emily Maynard’s season over seven years ago. It puts into perspective just how much this franchise can affect someone when it’s a long-term on-and-off-again part of their formative adult years. When Bukowski revealed on Monday night’s episode that he’d never been in love before, I was shocked. It began to make sense when we then watched him push away Katie, whom he obviously cherishes, in seemingly knee-jerk fashion. Last night, he took a page from the Kevin Wendt handbook by attempting to end things with her, only to have his mind changed by her unequivocal compassion and understanding for him. What got me is, even as a man who is beloved and knows he’s good person, Bukowski still appears to loathe himself somewhat. At the very least, he doesn’t deem himself deserving of happiness, to the point where he instinctively shuns something that might make him deeply happy. And let me be clear, I see this as different from Dean’s (former) flavour of “running away,” which to me felt like run-of-the-mill fear of commitment. (No longer!) Bukowski doesn’t fear commitment—he seeks it, and will admit he seeks it. But his hurdles show just how intent our demons are from allowing ourselves to feel happiness.
I’m not saying that Bukowski’s demons are entirely the franchise’s doing and he’d be happily married with kids by now without it—certainly, there are many, many factors at play. But I maintain there’s NO WAY the infamy he’s gained, the desire to feel accurately represented, the background knowledge that he could return to the franchise whenever wanted, the overall mental toll that being on this show takes, and a seven-plus year span—combined—would have had no impact on a man’s relationship with himself. If you’ve never read his legendary “retirement” letter, I highly recommend it, for it shines a brutally honest light on how much this show can not only change you, but the real-life relationships you hold dear. A life can all too quickly become about image, about leveraging opportunities and notoriety, but at the cost of privacy, simplicity, contentment. It will be very interesting to witness in the coming years how Bachelor Nation affects others in the long term like this.
Finally, a word on John Paul Jones. Though his entertainment factor earned him plenty of airtime this week, it’d be impossible for me to forget his infuriating actions from merely one week ago. He’s undeniably charming when things are harmonious, but I cannot overlook how condescending he was towards Hayley when she confronted him, how carelessly he sparked a fight at a wedding or how willy-nilly he slandered the character of a person whose only crime was (accidentally) going for his crush. As I’m sure other married folks will agree, how your partner tackles (and resolves!) conflict when things are bad is in many ways just as important as how well you get along when things are good. In other words, I’m not won over by JPJ’s “good” (a makeshift prom; a comedic Titanic-theme portrait session) when the “bad” (rageful shouting, steamrolling; making baseless claims about someone on national television) has been downright scary. That said, the closest JPJ has come to redeeming himself was how he handled Tayshia’s official breakup last night. He really did take this like a champ. He didn’t punish her, he didn’t defensively downplay his feelings, he didn’t doubt or second guess her. When she ran after him, apologizing, he told her not to be sorry, gave her a heartfelt embrace, and left. There was complete and definitive respect for her decision. This was by far the most gracious we’d seen him all season, and despite his many flashier Speedo-clad antics, it was the most likeable he’s been to boot.