Although “The Bachelor” franchise is known for chaos, there are certain rules that stars of the show are supposed to follow. First, if you fall in love with more than one person, just don’t tell them. Everyone knows the lead is dating many contestants simultaneously, but there’s an unspoken agreement not to show favoritism until the end. And second, if you have sex with multiple people - which occasionally happens during “fantasy suite week,” where the Bachelor or Bachelorette gets three separate overnight dates for off-camera time with their three finalists - you really should keep that information to yourself.
While this may sound breathtakingly obvious, this season’s star, Clayton Echard, disregarded those rules. And as a result, during Tuesday night’s finale that was described on the show as both “excruciating” and “insane,” he wound up getting rejected by the winner for the first time in “Bachelor” history.
The two-hour Season 26 finale on ABC was a culmination of a few brutally uncomfortable recent episodes, which started last week during the fantasy suite dates in Iceland. Clayton, a 28-year-old former football player from Missouri, thought it would be an excellent plan to tell two of his finalists (Rachel Recchia, a 26-year-old flight instructor from Florida, and Gabby Windey, a 31-year-old ICU nurse from Colorado) that he was falling in love with them. They were thrilled to hear this, not realizing that he had made nearly identical declarations to both of them after leaving their rooms the morning after their respective dates.
Everything imploded when Clayton went on the third overnight date with Susie Evans, a 28-year-old wedding videographer from Virginia, and of course told her “I love you,” too. In response, Susie asked whether he had been “intimate” with any other women and/or fallen in love with them. When Clayton admitted that he had, in fact, slept with Rachel and Gabby and had “feelings of love” for both, Susie was devastated and said she couldn’t see moving forward with him. Clayton protested that he loved Susie “the most,” but that didn’t help; he became furious at her ultimatum, given that exploring relationships with multiple women is the premise of the show. Susie looked taken aback by his harsh reaction. He blamed her for not making her expectations clear from the beginning and then coldly told her to leave.
In the first part of the finale on Monday, Clayton second-guessed everything and broke down in tears as he mourned Susie’s departure. For some reason, this inspired him to be “transparent” with Rachel and Gabby, who were waiting for him at the rose ceremony, since he was supposed to be narrowing the final three down to the final two. In what host Jesse Palmer excitedly called the “rose ceremony from hell,” Clayton informed Rachel and Gabby that Susie left, and it had “shattered” him: “I was in love with her. ... I am in love with both of you. And I also was intimate with both of you.” He admitted he had no idea whom to choose, and soon, the only sounds that could be heard were those of both Rachel and Gabby sobbing as they ran off in separate directions.
Somehow (a producer’s encouragement?), Clayton was able to cajole Rachel and Gabby to stick around and even meet his family, who had traveled to Iceland to meet his final two. Everyone pretended not to be miserable, especially Clayton, though afterward he did the worst thing: After putting everyone through that forced happiness, he realized the person he really loved was Susie.
This was the exasperating cliffhanger that led into Tuesday’s finale, when Clayton found out that Susie was still in Iceland and begged her to give him another chance - and while she was mulling it over, decided to save time and employ a rare strategy known as a “group breakup.” He sat down with Rachel and Gabby together: “I absolutely saw a future with you both and told you that I loved you, and I meant all of that,” he told them gravely. “Everybody deserves to have someone give them 100% of their heart, and unfortunately, I just can’t be that person for either of you. Because my heart’s no longer here. It’s with Susie. I’m so very sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you all, and I hope you can forgive me one day.”
They looked stunned. “I really don’t have anything to say,” Gabby said, walking out of the room. Clayton chased her down, and then probably regretted it as Gabby proceeded to drag him for completely botching the situation, pointing out he asked her to stay mere days earlier when he clearly had stronger feelings for Susie. “Your pride was hurt because Susie left,” she said. “A couple days doesn’t seem to make that big of a difference, Clayton. Except that one time it was going to be my decision, which you didn’t want it to be. And now it’s your decision, so it’s easier.”
Clayton’s goodbye conversation with Rachel was even more bleak, and she couldn’t stop crying. As with every finale, between those scenes, the contestants had to take part in the live “After the Final Rose” special, where they rehashed all these issues. Gabby told Clayton that although she didn’t think he acted maliciously, she felt “betrayed” watching the episodes, especially seeing him tell Susie he loved her “the most” all along. Rachel was still in disbelief that he broke up with them at the same time. Through it all, a resigned Clayton offered his apologies and agreed he acted terribly.
Then Rachel asked the question that may be a first for “The Bachelor,” which is surprisingly prudish regarding the concept of the contestants having sex: “Did you tell me that you were in love with me because you wanted to sleep with me?” she asked. The studio audience audibly gasped.
“No. No,” Clayton said, shaking his head. “I felt those feelings for you then. I believed it. I really did believe I felt those feelings.”
Rachel paused. “I just don’t believe you,” she said. Following an awkward silence, Palmer finally cut to commercial.
After that mess, it was time to go back to Iceland and revisit Clayton trying to persuade Susie to get back together, even after his meltdown when she left the first time. He wrote her a passionate letter urging her to meet him in the countryside, which turned out to be a heavily decorated spot where he held a diamond engagement ring in his pocket. “If you allow me to love you for one more day, to take one more step with you, to show you that I can be that man that you thought I was - I can prove it if you just give me the chance,” he said.
Susie, to the cheers of many on social media, basically told him “no thanks.” She said while they shared a connection, and on some level she loved him, she wanted to leave Iceland alone. “I don’t think I’m your person,” she said. “And I don’t think that you’re mine.”
“I see forever with you,” Clayton insisted. “But I also will take as long as that needs to get to that point, because to me, it’s not over until you tell me it’s over.”
“I feel like it’s over,” Susie said.
With that, the camera cut back to Palmer in the studio. “For the first time in history, our Bachelor was rejected on the final day and he ends up alone,” he said gleefully. Then he arched an eyebrow. “... Or does he?”
You could practically hear the enraged yells of “Bachelor” viewers across the land as, indeed, the drama took an even worse turn for viewers who just sat through three excruciating episodes of Clayton disasters: Clayton returned to the studio and admitted that, to his shock, someone had reached out to him after filming. “I created a world of pain. I caused a lot of problems. And I just expected that to be it for me,” he said. Alas, it was not, because this mystery person walked out ... and it was Susie.
That’s right: One of three women he had put through the emotional wringer decided that she wanted to date him anyway. They sat on the couch, holding hands. “That’s my boyfriend!” Susie exclaimed, when Palmer asked them to clarify their relationship. And yes, she confirmed, as they kissed and cuddled together, she does love him. However, Susie is a realist: “I think we’re both expecting a little backlash,” she said. “We both could have done better in different ways.”
A scan of social media comments showed that was an understatement. “The most important thing is that you’re both happy,” Palmer assured them, as another train wreck “Bachelor” season came to an end. Although good news for Gabby and Rachel, despite being humiliated and emotionally manipulated on national television: Palmer announced that they will both star on the upcoming season of “The Bachelorette,” which kicks off on ABC in July.