TV & Movies

In Defense Of Clayton Echard

Hear me out.

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By now, we’ve come to expect disaster on The Bachelor. Despite Clayton Echard’s finale being touted as the “most dramatic” in the show’s history, it fell into a well-worn pattern: No season has ended with a successful proposal since 2017. Arie Luyendyk notoriously dumped Becca Kufrin mere weeks into their engagement for runner-up Lauren Burnham. Colton Underwood jumped a fence and fled from production when Cassie Randolph went home. Peter Weber made a last-ditch attempt to date Madison Prewett after dumping his fiancée Hannah Ann Sluss. Matt James made the (probably wise) choice not to get down on one knee.

And then there’s Clayton. We can place a lot of blame on the Season 26 lead for simultaneously breaking up with two women after convincing them both to stay on the show days earlier. He behaved selfishly and desperately, and he wasn’t fully honest with either Rachel Recchia or Gabby Windey about his feelings for now-girlfriend Susie Evans.

But as much as social media will probably pillory Clayton for the next several weeks, it’s worth questioning whether the show even wanted to deliver the happy ending that is its ostensible goal. When new host Jesse Palmer asks a live studio audience to cheer and holler for the “rose ceremony from hell,” it starts to seem like The Bachelor is more in the business of misery than love.

Any savvy viewer knows the show has always been about drama. Watching single people go on speed dates in a real-world environment might be an interesting anthropological exercise, but it probably wouldn’t be that entertaining. Indeed, the entire format of The Bachelor — from its polyamorous premise to its elimination-style competition — is designed to ramp up the stakes and generate strong emotions.

ABC/Craig Sjodin

So is it really any surprise that Clayton was far from his best self in that environment? Here’s a guy who was plucked from obscurity, selected as the star of a televised journey to find love, and presented with entire limousines full of women who promptly started making out with him. To top it all off, he was told — by producers, likely, but certainly by his finalists — to “fully explore” all of his relationships so he could be certain of his choice.

As he readily admitted in the live finale, Clayton deserves plenty of blame for how things went down, but don’t think for a second that the show didn’t engineer this chaos. When Ben Higgins told two women he loved them on his 2016 season, it seems like the franchise suddenly learned a new trick for breaking its leads: encourage them to develop the strongest feelings possible for as many women as possible.

The only Bachelors who seem to escape controversial endings are the ones who approach the show more strategically. Former Bachelor Nick Viall has said on his podcast that he knew he was going to pick Vanessa Grimaldi relatively early, so he “tried to be very careful with how [he] led people on.” (This may be the reason Bachelorettes have a higher success rate when it comes to finding long-lasting relationships on the show: they tend to zero in on their choice right away and then spend the rest of their seasons letting everyone else down easy.)

Even then, there’s no way for a lead to cull a dating pool from 30 people to one without hurting some contestants or letting them operate under false pretenses. Which may explain why The Bachelor has pivoted toward final decisions that are left unmade at the eleventh hour. As Clayton’s case proves, The Bachelor gets splashier endings if the leads barrel straight into fantasy suites without considering the consequences of advancing multiple relationships to the next level.

In the real world, it wouldn’t have been advisable for Clayton to sleep with two women, tell both he loved them, and then try to win over a third woman’s heart. But on The Bachelor, that course of action is not only permitted, it’s encouraged. Multiple leads have been intimate with more than one of their finalists — which is how we got the iconic line, “I have had sex, and Jesus loves me” — and previous leads have also expressed being as conflicted as Clayton in the final stretch.

Much of the backlash Bachelors face happens when people try to apply real-world standards to heavily produced situations. It’s a bit like asking why soccer players don’t just pick up the ball and throw it into the net. Clayton can still be a bad player, but some of his actions can be explained by the sport itself.

Similarly, the only confusing note in Gabby Windey’s well-deserved dressing down of Clayton was when she said, “I’m not in the business of competing with anyone for love,” to which he replied, “It’s not meant to be a competition.” Both are wrong: Anyone who signs up for The Bachelor knows it is the definition of a tournament. You don’t get down to one woman out of dozens by holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.”

None of this excuses Clayton for his failure to empathize with Rachel and Gabby, for his lies by omission, or for the unceremonious way he sent both women home in Iceland. But damning him forever would be rash. Arie, once the bane of Bachelor Nation for breaking Becca’s heart, now has twins with Lauren — and Becca appears to be having the time of her life dating Thomas Jacobs, the 6’6” Adonis from Bachelor in Paradise. People make mistakes, they grow, and they move on.

Rachel and Gabby get to be dual Bachelorettes, while Clayton and Susie have the chance to “rebuild,” as they tellingly put it, now that they’re no longer being followed by producers and camera crews. If there’s any lesson we should take away from this season, it’s not that Clayton is some irredeemable monster, it’s that the human heart doesn’t operate by game show rules.

Samantha Allen is the author of the horror comedy novel Patricia Wants to Cuddle and the Lambda Literary Award finalist Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States.

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