The Ultimatum fans have waited a literal year for this, and now, the big moment has finally arrived. This week, Netflix’s diabolical dating show debuted its second season, featuring (as promised last spring) an entirely queer cast. (And just in time for Pride Month in June!)
This season has all the drama we’d expect from Netflix’s most emotionally carnivorous dating show… and then some. You’ve got two intersecting love triangles, a “trial marriage” in turmoil over whether or not the dog can sleep in the bed, and a never-ending stream of cocktail mixers and pool parties where all of that drama can fester and ferment in metallic wine glasses. And yet, for a season supposedly about “queer love,” The Ultimatum’s second season can at times feel pretty conservative. (The first four episodes are now available.)
For those who’ve kept themselves pure until now: The Ultimatum premiered last year as an especially chaotic corner of Nick and Vanessa Lachey’s growing reality-dating empire. (This season swaps in Reba star JoAnna Swisher Garcia—a pandering move that this viewer, at least, nonetheless appreciated.) In each of five participating couples, one partner has issued an ultimatum: put a ring on it, or move on.
During the show, each person chooses a new “trial spouse” to live with for three weeks before returning to their current partner for another three weeks. After that, it’s time to ride off into the sunset with whomever they pick.
Much of the drama this season centers around Xander Boger (30, she/they) and Vanessa Papa (also 30, she/her)—and both of them strike up relationships that feel like ticking time bombs set to explode right around finale time. Vanessa quickly emerges as the villain, but the group doesn’t fully turn against her until she dares to commit the horrific deed of… having casual sex. What?
To be clear, people really don’t seem to like Vanessa from the beginning. She’s awful at reading the room and even worse at gauging other people’s feelings toward her specifically. She also seems particularly insensitive toward her own partner; she appears to believe Xander would have trouble finding someone else on the show and seems to fall apart once she does.
But Vanessa also manages to alienate pretty much everyone else in the group—especially once she starts repeatedly mouthing the words “fuck off” at her ex at the dinner table. Lexi Goldberg (24, she/her) also mistrusts Vanessa’s intentions and believes she has no interest in committing past the show’s 21-day period. As one might imagine, that mistrust only makes it sting even worse when Lexi’s own longtime girlfriend, Rae Cheung-Sutton (27, she/her), winds up choosing Vanessa as her trial wife. Her hatred for Vanessa peaks in Episode 4, when she discovers that Vanessa and Rae were intimate.
Both Lexi and Rae seem to agree that there had been no expectation of monogamy during their trial marriages, and Rae appears to have told Lexi about what happened between her and Vanessa immediately after it happened. Lexi says she’s not angry because of the intimate act, but because it happened with someone she so thoroughly mistrusts.
This is where I start to feel torn. On one hand, Vanessa’s behavior toward Xander seems appalling and unacceptable. At the same time, it’s fascinating to note that when the group’s anger at her finally peaks, it’s over… the sanctity of The Ultimatum?
Rather than process her feelings with Rae, Lexi chooses to confront Vanessa at a cocktail party. “You end up being inside the person that I came here with and who I love,” she tells Vanessa during a heated (public!!!) conversation. “You have zero feelings for them. Zero care about them.”
When Vanessa says she does not have romantic feelings toward Rae but does have “friend feelings,” Lexi pounces. “You don’t fuck friends like that,” she says. Tiff Der (36/they/them) backs her up. “I’m sorry,” they tell another cast member. “I love you, but I wouldn’t fuck you.”
“I love you all,” Yoly says. “I’m not falling into y’all’s vagina.”
Because of its formula, The Ultimatum self-selects couples who are already thinking about marriage. In doing so, as this scene demonstrates, it’s also limited its understanding of sexuality to a very narrow box.
Rae and Vanessa’s sexual encounter might have ended in regret—at least for Rae, who says she feels “unwell” afterward—but the group’s rigid insistence that sexual intimacy requires a romantic attachment feels… very 1950s. Yes, this is The Ultimatum, but is the slogan not “marry or move on”? Does the latter half of that equation not deserve the same respect, even without jumping into another romantic relationship?
Some entertainment writers and audience members have already begun to draw a line between The Ultimatum: Queer Love and Season 8 of MTV’s Are You the One, which featured an entirely queer cast. In truth, however, the latter series went further than The Ultimatum ever could. Are You the One? Is all about being messy and dating around, with no expectation of commitment afterward. Unlike this Ultimatum, its cast included a trans contestant, and although no poly relationships wound up forming, there was a fluidity to the group’s romantic ties that this show’s structure cannot allow.
That’s not to say that this season’s Ultimatum cast is somehow not “queer enough,” or that the season isn’t fun to watch—of course they are, and of course it is. But if we’re looking for truly messy reality TV? Honestly, we could’ve gone a little bolder.
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