A good friend of mine has taken it upon himself to consume all the death game media he can find. If it seems like there’s renewed enthusiasm for the genre, I’m sure it’s because of the Netflix smash hit Squid Game (which I have not seen yet). Despite some death game narratives becoming enormous hits, it’s still a niche. We have the Hunger Games, of course, which wouldn’t exist without the best death game story of all time, Battle Royale. The movie is a masterpiece, but every version is good, even the insane manga that couples extreme gore with an exaggerated, almost cutesy style. It’s like seeing Peko-chan the Milky girl getting her head blown off. Look it up.
The actual games in these stories serve different purposes, often reflective of something unique to the culture the work came out of. Squid Game is (I gather) about predatory Capitalism, but while that’s something we can relate to in the US, the show draws on the real crisis of personal debt in South Korea. I’ve always liked South Korean horror because I think it excels at balancing the genre trappings with silliness and frequently gutting emotional depth. As much as we talk about how Capitalism is killing us all over here, I honestly don’t think we could produce takedowns of it with the finesse of something like Parasite or the zaniness of Squid Game. You can’t separate Battle Royale from its Japanese-ness because it uses the unique shape of the generational gap (chasm really) between post-war adults and their children as a source of conflict.
The Hunger Games, the titular battle royale scenario, pits two children each from twelve districts that make up what was once the United States. The annual event serves as a reminder of the consequences of dissent and revolution. And it’s also a reality TV extravaganza. Blah blah blah. I am not going to waste too much space recapping the Hunger Games. Aside from the reality TV angle, a reason I don’t find the series sticking with me after all these years is that I don’t think its use of a death game effectively spoke to something uniquely American. Once my worst ex-boyfriend e-mailed me to say he felt he understood me better after reading the books and I’m still not sure what he meant. That I’m undergrown and savage? That being chronically hungry in an alternate universe Appalachia somehow nets the same results as being chronically, electively hungry in the real urban Southeast? I’ll never know!
Something that is American is the specific shape our weird mating rituals and signifiers take. And this shape is squashed and jammed into the hadron collider known as The Bachelor. I know there are international Bachelor spin-offs but surely they have different lexicons. What on earth is The Bachelor Japan‘s version of “can I borrow you?” or “I can see myself falling in love with you”? 私でよければこのバラをあげたいです。 Probably not…but imagine…
When I brought up The Bachelor to my death game seeking friend, we almost simultaneously made the joke that it’s an “ego death game.” But the more I think about it, the more it seems reasonable that death game elements are a big part of the draw. I’m not an ironic Bachelor watcher, even if it’s hard to articulate why watching people say words without actually saying anything to each other and then kissing is genuinely exciting to watch every week. I also genuinely get excited to read recaps and listen to the Bachelor Party podcast, so that would be a lot of effort for irony. The franchise, by virtue of being a crown jewel of the golden age of reality TV, makes me feel connected both to my past and to the rest of America. A friend of mine’s mom used to get together with other ladies every week to drink wine, eat appetizers, and watch The Bachelorette and that sounds absolutely great to me. “After all, there was good in the old ways.”
But The Bachelor and all it has spawned is almost exactly twenty years old, and it’s hard to believe that many people are still on board for the love story. It’s a testament to the staying power of the franchise that the love stories are still compelling at all. I was actually a little upset that Tayshia – one of my favorite Bachelorettes and owner of some of the most impressive big naturals on earth – and her winner Zack broke up. Every time a couple leaves the main show or Bachelor in Paradise I sincerely hope it will work out for them. The track record of successful couples predicts otherwise, though. The Bachelor as it was conceived at the turn of this century no longer exists. In a perfect world, a successful bachelor/ette and winner would get married and not have to be occassional television personalities or influencers doing sponcon. But The Bachelor today seems more like an early 20th century film studio, where every season adds men and women to its contracted stable of actors.
In the beginning, the emotional death game of the Bachelor was simple. Death is elimination and losing your chance at love with the lead. Now, with Bachelor Nation being a place one does not really leave, it’s more complicated. Is death failing to cement yourself as a Bachelor universe presence or is it being stuck in the Bachelor feedback loop? I mean, I’ve always thought there was something purgatorial about Bachelor in Paradise and its steps contestants must descend and the warnings to “never eat the date food.” Is the Bachelor/ette themself at risk for death? If yes, then every season aims to resolve itself like the most cautiously optimistic endings in real death game stories, where two or more characters cheat the system and escape. This was made textual in Colton Brown’s season when he jumped a fence and ran away when his top girl self-eliminated. (Yes Colton is the one who came out but that’s beside the point, sort of). But the Bachelor machine is very savvy and it immediately stepped up to spin the end of Colton’s story as one of bravery to break the franchise’s own barriers to find love.
In some ways the first death game comparison that comes to mind wrt The Bachelor is Deadman Wonderland, a…not good anime. Deadman Wonderland is also the title of the private prison slash amusement park most of the story takes place in. Bachelor Nation is, to some of its stars like Colton, a prison. And it’s a prison of the panopticon sort so while you plot how to game the system, the system is incorporating your strategies into its own game. A phrase so common in Bachelor parlance that it has become a joke and a meta-commentary is “here for the right reasons.” This used to mean that someone was on the show to promote themselves, not find love, but now there seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that throwing your hat into the ring of the wider Bachelor universe is a, if not right, normal and forgiveable reason to be there.
But let’s look at a typical death game setup for a minute. Well, let’s specifically look at Battle Royale. There’s a moment of false calm – the kids think they’re on the bus for a school trip. In Bachelor/ette world, every season begins with an introduction to the lead and some of the contestants. The lead will voiceover about how they are ready to be vulnerable and challenge themselves while getting dressed. Men or women get dropped off by limofull to meet the bachelor/ette and these meetings are generally short and sweet (or dumb and gimmicky). Everyone gets free drinks for the first cocktail party, but the mood changes when the First Impression Rose is put on the table. This is the part where the kids wake up from being drugged on the bus and realize something is very wrong. And if you don’t get that rose, it’s really on! The first rose ceremony and the first few episodes in general are sort of like the “learning the rules” part of a death game, famously and brilliantly done in Battle Royale with a idolesque girl doing an informational video. Everyone has to kill each other, yeah, but there’s always an override for cheaters and trouble children. Under Bachelor rules, this is lying. A contenstant has occasionally been able to pull off some kind of mid-length con but lies are usually sussed out pretty quickly and result in the lead walking the offender to a black SUV. Lying blows your tracking collar up and also there is nothing more unsexy than watching an adult man bumble around when caught in a lie.
Outright lies are the unforgiveable sin but The Bachelor thrives on codes and couched terms. You could almost say The Bachelor is “a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” Nobody says anything real, just does magnetic poetry with a baggie of existing phrases like “looking for my person” and the vaguely Christian sounding (just me?) “you showed me your heart”/”you know my heart.” It’s all about deploying these at the right time while peppering in just a tiny bit of specificity and chemistry. If we look at the show like a game where an ending couple beats the system, they do so in part by communicating successfully in code that everyone else thinks they understand.
I’ve noticed that a lot of Bachelor/ette winners are attractive, decent, relatively reserved contestants. Making a big splash is actually not a great way to “find love,” even if it is a great way to stay in Bachelor Nation and get a spot in Paradise. The ideal of this type is Lauren B from Arie’s season. Everyone was very mad that Arie broke his engagement to Becca to instead propose to Lauren, a perfectly nice girl who didn’t have much of a presence, but Lauren is an archetypal winner and Becca is an archetypal bachelorette. And anyway Lauren and Arie have three children now so I do think it is them whomst won the game. If you instad think of The Bachelor as a death game where the lead is not a player but more of the final boss, the show becomes both a mini game based endeavor (like Squid Game or the not good but not worse than Black Mirror manga Real Account) and a big picture competition (Battle Royale, Hunger Games, etc). The mini game portion is mostly the dates, where contestants have to successfully exhibit different parts of the personality they are supposed to have. The big picture, though, involves the other players just as much as the bachelor/ette themself.
You can’t be a mask-off villain or a Miss Congeniality. In one of the most disturbing and powerful scenes in Battle Royale, a group of girls who have vowed to remain peaceful have barricaded themselves inside a lighthouse. We watch as they descend into paranoia and, inevitably, murder. On The Bachelor, you can’t be awful because you are spending most of your time with your competition, but you can’t be too committed to friendship. Investing too much in sisterhood or brotherhood just delays the unavoidable truth that your friends are a direct threat to your goals. And if you’re a villain, you really have to be good. The best Bachelor villains are the ones who manage to stick around for most of the show, which means the lead likes them even if fellow contestants don’t. In death games, the ones who comes out (sometimes literally) guns blazing tend to get eliminated first. There is a third, perhaps even higher level role, and this only really goes for The Bachelor because of course it does – the seductress. In Bachelor Nation the only officially condoned sex happens when you have or are pretending to have genuine intentions to marry someone and this can only hapen with three people. Rarely, a contestant will fuck the bachelor before Fantasy Suites, earning the ire of her peers and casting a spell on the lead. This route will make a contestant fearsome, iconic even, but still eliminated before a proposal. Mitsuko Souma still died in the end.
Many winners don’t stay with their lead for long, and they often get thrown back into the Bachelor Nation pond. At some point while doing this truly idiotic thought exercise I started to think of this franchise not only as an emotional death game, but as a time loop. There’s a point where it’s no fun to watch people do the same thing over and over, but part of the appeal of time loop stories is watching to see what lessons the characters will learn that allow them to break the cycle. More than once I’ve seen a second or third time Bachelor production cast member say they “believe in the process,” even though QED the process has not worked for them up to that point. The people in the Bachelor loop are those that are good enough at the game to stay, if not to win. Add the pleasure of watching people fight and a hint of romance to that and there’s a formula that makes it compelling to see these people keep trying. Especially when they do their time in the proving grounds of Paradise, where cast members from different seasons are thrown together on a beach and hey, maybe their person wasn’t the bachelor/ette, but another person for whom the bachelor/ette wasn’t their person!
Here at the end of the road of this metaphor I have stretched too far, there is one similarity between The Bachelor and death game narratives that stands out as demonstrably true and also bums me out. In Cat Valente’s wonderful novel Radiance, which is an alternate history of radio and Hollywood told in different but all eqully skillful genre pastiches, there is a scene where a character who suffered the loss of his partner under mysterious circumstances appears in older age, settled down with someone else who survived the event. He says something like, “Do you think I could be with someone who wasn’t there?” I suppose this is probably “trauma bonding,” which is probably bad, but I think there are some experiences in life that are harder to come out the other side of and still bridge gaps of communication with people who can’t relate. It’s not ideal, but it makes sense to me as a way to survive as the frightened, needy animals we all are. It’s hard to imagine Shuya and Noriko, the kids who escape the island of Battle Royale alive, being able to get close to many people besides each other. One of the things I think the Hunger Games actually nailed was the much-maligned ending. Katniss Everdeen marries Peeta, the corner of the love triange who went through more or less the same things she did. It’s not a happy ending, but a shell-shocked glacial creep into whatever normalcy these characters can grasp. When Bachelor couples break up, more often then not, one or both of them move on to…another Bachelor personage. Bachelor Nation, like the past, seems to be a different country. It’s as if by stepping over the threshold into this pantomime-and-occasionally-actual-experience-of-love, with its own customs and dialect, they lose the ability to date like a normal person. Death game stories are usually about beating the gamemakers, not the game, and you need more than one player left standing for it to be something other than playing by the system’s rules. That’s what makes death game narratives so effective as love and friendship stories, too. In The Bachelor‘s regurgitating fountain water of trauma bonding, it seems the franchise has accomplished something incredible: a reverse engineered death game love story that still never breaks the game’s own rules in any way that matters.