Paradise finales are never as fun as you want them to be. Chris Harrison may have described this season as “incredible” and as “having it all,” but let me tell you: while my sister and several friends began this season with me, only one friend made it to the end. My viewing buddies have dropped like flies, which if I’m honest, often seems to happen with Paradise seasons. I wonder if it’s a matter of not being left wanting more? Four hours a week of this isn’t for the faint of heart, and no matter how light and fun this show starts out being, it always feels like a chore come September.
I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the last few months about Blake and Caelynn. Who’s in the right, who wronged who more. With their history before the show and with Blake releasing their texts, theirs is easily the most convoluted of any Paradise saga I can remember. Because these two clearly still communicate and it’s been three to four months since they filmed the show, I guess I was hoping for some new information, something revelatory in their relationship that might leave us with a better taste in our mouths. Call me idealistic, but it was pretty unsatisfying to see things had remained as hostile as they had, and to watch it all come to such an inconclusive ending.
I’ve softened a lot on Blake. I realize I’ve been really hard on him this season, and I think that’s a function of being more naturally inclined to put myself in the woman’s shoes than the man’s. But given the crimes already committed, I felt Blake handled his hot seat time just about as well as he could have. There were, however, a few moments that did have me scratching my head: I sincerely doubt, as he claimed, that he went into Paradise knowing he’d get shit for his history with the women (maybe he did but he sorely underestimated it?). I also doubt Blake didn’t think people would “stoop so low” as to harass Caelynn for being a woman who enjoys casual sex, despite her warning that would happen if he released their texts. Anyone who’s ever gone on reality TV knows: Trolls stoop far lower than you ever thought possible. This felt like a weak excuse for prioritizing his own reputation.
However, there was something that Blake said last night that stood out: In his umpteenth defense of having released his texts with Caelynn, he said, “We’re missing the point, the allegations SHE made. She said I played her, sweet-talked her into bed and silenced her. Those are not light allegations.” The truth is, while I think Blake has handled many situations terribly, it was indeed Caelynn who cast that first stone, and he was right to reshift focus back to that (even if no one was really listening). Caelynn not only went after Blake first, you could argue it was more insidious since he wasn’t even aware of it, let alone its magnitude, until he watched it all back. There was also an inconsistency in her story: Last night she said her reason for getting upset enough to attack Blake was because she felt “ignored” by him on the beach (an argument I fully understood and took her side on at the time). However, as Chris Harrison rightly pointed out last night (but sadly didn’t really follow through on), she came down those steps ready to defame his character. That was before she went on to be ignored or neglected. There’s some fishiness there that makes you wonder if there’s really anything Blake could have done differently. Was she speaking in code when she said everything was fine and casual and no big deal? There’s a subtle but important disparity here that I don’t think Caelynn was ever put in a position of having to address or take ownership for.
I’ve spent a lot of this season thinking Blake’s main concern was being liked, and his former popularity would certainly make his Paradise showing a difficult pill to swallow. (As Chris Harrison aptly put it, “I have never seen someone fall from grace so far, so fast.”) But after thinking about this for what is without a doubt an embarrassing amount of time, I’ve realized what probably pains Blake more than anything is feeling misunderstood. I can relate—on my own season, being misunderstood bothered me FAR more than simply being disliked. One of the two feels in your control while the other doesn’t, so it’s hard to resist not wanting to harness whatever bit of control you can. In that sense, I do think I’ve been too harsh on Blake; even if he hasn’t gone about defending his character in the best or most efficient way, I did believe him when he said none of his actions were malicious. It sounds like he’s more sloppy than anything, maybe less perceptive to women’s needs and feelings than he could be, but not that he’s using or abusing women. He felt his character was being maligned and that his “evidence” would remedy that problem.
But that brings us to the famed “evidence,” and this is where the scales tip out of Blake’s favour. The bottom line is, in how he defended himself to the world, he stepped into two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right territory. Caelynn had been using only her words in attacking Blake, but he went further. You can take words back (as Caelynn did and claimed to have apologized profusely for to Blake), but you can’t make millions of people un-see texts between two people. And crucially, it’s one thing to share a text that makes it clear he didn’t “silence” her, but entirely another to share one where she says, “If I come over it’s strictly for sex.” The sad truth is, as illustrated by the amount of hate Caelynn would come to receive over her narrative surrounding casual sex, it’s still a very different thing for a woman to be exposed for this kind of behaviour than a man. Blake himself certainly wasn’t “slut-shaming” Caelynn (it bothered me when people claimed this), but in seeking his own vindication, he did put her in a position to be slut-shamed. A woman is still simply far more vulnerable to judgment and criticism for her sexual activity—ironically, often from other women. And this isn’t even taking into account Caelynn’s sexual assault history and how often the victims of sexual abuse are accused of “asking for it.” So, in a tit-for-tat, mathematical way, I actually think Caelynn may be more at fault in that she “started it.” And I say this understanding that Blake releasing those texts was not so much a retaliative attack as it was a defense. However, when you account for gender and the alternative ways Blake could have attempted to clear his name (like NOT using a text showing Caelynn explicitly demanding no-strings-attached sex), even if he didn’t do so with malice, he still committed the worse crime.
Truthfully, there was no winning for Blake. His two options were equally unappealing: to be seen by millions of viewers as the man Caelynn had falsely described, or to be the guy who selfishly defends himself by throwing her under the bus. He certainly opted not to be the “bigger man,” but as he was correct in pointing out, “People say both of us made mistakes. But nobody would know she made mistakes had I not done what I did.” This isn’t untrue, and it highlights the lose-lose situation in which Caelynn had Blake trapped from the get-go. It’s like a game of tic-tac-toe where, if you have the first move and use it correctly, there’s no way the second player can win.
On to Katie and Chris Bukowski. This was the real heartbreak of the episode, because I was rooting SO HARD for these two and was hoping they’d be rock solid and happier than ever. I have concerns with not only the obvious issues in this relationship, but also with how they went about being addressed. First, and this is coming from someone who knows and likes Bukowski and considers him a good person: if your inner dialogue while dating someone is “I am exhausted,” “my tank is empty,” “I’m usually [insert positive traits], but I’ve come to a darkness,” and “I’ve never been so insecure in a relationship,” something is WRONG. Conversely, if you head into a live taping thinking your relationship is mostly fine and will be represented as such, only to find out that your fiancée has been using her private hot seat time to air your coupledom’s dirty laundry for millions, something is also wrong. (I do realize producer influence probably played a key role with this.) I really felt for Katie in that it is downright depressing being with someone who doesn’t give you what you need—who didn’t relate when she described holding out for the occasional “glimpses” of how things could be? Attempting to change someone is the very definition of exhausting. But at the same time, how she went about trying to instigate that change was a different breed of exhausting: She wasn’t wearing her ring, yet they were still engaged? Outside, after their segment, Bukowski said to her, “We’ve already had these conversations,” to which Katie responded, “And nothing changes.” So… was this incredibly public approach then just a new tactic on her part to elicit change, to squeeze more effusiveness out of him? Meanwhile, in her defense, he has fully heard her complaints (enough to recognize this conversation), yet hasn’t made efforts to become what she needs?
Now, it’s possible Katie is particularly emotionally demanding of her romantic partners and requires a lot of affirmation (she actually wouldn’t be unique in that), just as it’s possible Bukowski is emotionally reticent, uneffusive or the type to not want to reward his partner with affection just because he feels she’s fishing for it (he wouldn’t be unique in that, either). It’s also possible Katie is indeed asking for the bare minimum and that Bukowski is simply doing the best he can at this point. I don’t believe changing how you behave or communicate is necessarily an indicator of love; what Katie’s asking of Bukowski could be the most unnatural thing in the world to him. But at that point, it comes down to what I believe is the main culprit here: a difference of Love Languages. And I HATE to say this, because again, I am rooting for these two. But I don’t think mismatched love languages are an easy problem to fix. (I ended a former relationship over this and, in retrospect, was right to have done so.) A partner seeking Words of Affirmation can quickly seem (and feel) like she has to fish to feel appreciated, while the other might feel like he’s being prompted to say things he doesn’t mean (or simply doesn’t feel like saying), just to avoid conflict. It’s a tough predicament to solve, and I’m sorry to say, this early on in a relationship, when things should be their most honeymoon-y, it’s not a great sign. Last night, relationships were consistently referred to as “hard work,” the good things being “worth fighting for,” but trust me: in my (considerable) experience, the healthiest relationships are usually the ones that feel easy.
As usual, I’ll close with the feel-good aspects of this finale: the happy couples. Hannah G and Dylan on the hot seat were a breath of fresh air after Katie and Bukowski. I know I was critical of Hannah G and her treatment of Dylan early in the season, but they seem to have not only withstood that hurdle but gotten stronger because of it. Dylan was damn forgiving of Hannah’s escapades with Blake, and at the end of the day, forgiveness is love. I’m thrilled for these two and am more than happy to have been wrong about them.
Finally, the couple that made an otherwise trying season worthwhile: Demi and Kristian. While it’s debatable how much this couple technically belonged on Paradise (Kristian isn’t a Bachelor alum and most couples with this story would have gone back home to date), I don’t blame the show for pouncing on such a unique and powerful opportunity to showcase—and help normalize—queer love. But best of all, it isn’t just a same-sex love story; it’s a love story between two adults who appear to have the most healthy mutual understanding out of any of the couples there. My favourite moment of the whole episode was when Chris Harrison asked each Demi and Kristian, “What do you love about her?” There was so much observation and specificity in their answers, with Kristian calling Demi “courageous” and “intuitive,”and Demi calling Kristian “patient” and “selfless” and a great balance for her. When you consider how much self-acceptance and confidence came part and parcel with these two finding and being together, it’s a particularly beautiful and moving love story. As Demi poetically put it, “I came here to find myself, but I found myself in you.”