April 7, 2022 8:00 AM EDT

If you’ve already watched the first eight episodes of The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On—and you should before you read any farther, because it’s all spoilers from here on out—your head is probably spinning. Like Love Is Blind before it, The Ultimatum is a Netflix reality series created by Chris Coelen, hosted by Nick and Vanessa Lachey, and framed as an experiment, with the ostensible goal of getting cast members to mate for life. Six young, attractive couples arrive with a mandate to get engaged or split up forever, but only four pairs end up testing their bonds by cohabiting for three weeks with another potential match. The inevitable fights, tears, and furtive hookups ensued. And now here we are, in advance of the season finale and reunion, dropping on April 13, exhausted and exasperated but eager to break down the first eight episodes and try to game out what’s to come.

The Ultimatum is essentially a spin-off of Love Is Blind, one of reality TV’s biggest hits in years. Does it measure up to its predecessor?

Judy Berman: Not quite. I think the season has had some eye-popping moments, from the dinner where everyone chose the person they wanted to live with for three weeks to the drunken psychodrama of the first girls’ night. Some of that stuff was even more compelling than the typical Love Is Blind episode. In both series, I liked watching the new couples meet each other’s families; it’s always interesting to see people in the context of the parents, cultures, etc. that shaped them. But those scenes felt more cursory on The Ultimatum, possibly because there was no wedding to plan.

Where the show really lags behind LIB, as far as I’m concerned, is in the one-on-one interactions within the couples, new and old. Reality TV producers love a heated argument, but I got bored listening to people bicker about who was texting whom and who was staying out too late. It was the pods that got me hooked on LIB; there’s something magical about getting to witness people opening up to each other and making connections based on conversation alone. The drudgery of everyday coupledom just isn’t as fun to watch.

Eliana Dockterman: I agree, Judy. I liked many of the early episodes when the new couples got to know each other. But when the couples returned to their original partners, the show got rather depressing. Most of the “old” relationships were on the verge of breaking because of the ultimatum, and, predictably, most partnerships disintegrated under the pressure. They yelled. They walked out. They fell back into the toxicity that presumably dominated their relationships before they came on the show. It was hard to root for any “old” couple when they all seemed so miserable.

Nick and Vanessa Lachey in 'The Ultimatum' (Ilana Panich-Linsman/Netflix)
Nick and Vanessa Lachey in 'The Ultimatum'
Ilana Panich-Linsman/Netflix

Nick and Vanessa, who weren’t given much to do in the first season of Love Is Blind, have been ramping up their roles as hosts. In The Ultimatum, they were on hand to mediate some of the cast members’ most intense confrontations. Is that a good thing?

ED: No offense to Nick and Vanessa, whose marriage has lasted quite a long time by Hollywood standards, but I’m confused by when and how they became experts on love. Nick was involved in a very messy public divorce. I wish they would share more about the lessons learned from that experience and their own relationship to establish themselves as pseudo-authorities on marriage. In my book, the best advice-giver on the show was Rae’s mom, who acted as a couple’s therapist for Rae and Zay during a lunchtime fight. Hire her for Season 2.

JB: I would support that. Shanique’s family really impressed me, too. They were close-knit, supportive and welcoming, but they also asked tough questions. I was worried that when Zay opened up to them about being estranged from his parents, they would see it as a red flag, but they embraced him for his openness, and I found that incredibly touching.

The families’ authenticity made the Lacheys come off as a bit rehearsed by comparison. That said, I do think they’re improving. Nick had a standout moment in the LIB reunion, when he shut down toxic veterinarian Shake’s justification of his superficiality—”We’re animals”—with the B+ comeback “No, you treat animals. We’re human beings. There’s a big difference.” But I actually think Vanessa has made more progress toward becoming an insightful mediator.

Speaking of intense confrontations mediated by the Lacheys, the dinner in episodes 2 and 3 where cast members chose their new trial-marriage partners was so messy—and it ended in two apparently spontaneous proposals that were both accepted. Are we convinced that Lauren and Nate or Alexis and Hunter are going to live happily ever after?

JB: Lol no. I mean, to be fair, I think Lauren and Nate have some chance of making it work. I don’t buy that the parenthood issue is settled just because Nate would prefer not to see Lauren spend a week with Colby. But Nate and Lauren did seem to have one of the stronger relationships coming into the show, and if he can get over himself, they might do OK.

Alexis and Hunter, though? Oof. She put me off immediately, with all the talk about money, and in that scene where Colby rejects her and she refuses to accept it. Then she spends the rest of the season—including her extremely staged bachelorette party, where the only guests were the other female cast members—attacking him. This is not a person who’s ready to settle down.

ED: They’re both doomed. Nate’s proposal was definitely BS. Nate whispering to Madlyn “I’m going to pick you” minutes before proposing to Lauren was hilarious and awful. Nate no doubt thought he would woo many women on this show by virtue of wanting to have children soon. When both Shanique and April picked another man over him, his ego was bruised, and he ran back to Lauren. Alexis and Hunter, I just don’t really care about. Alexis was dramatic, and Hunter was a nothingburger. Opposites attract, I guess?

L-R: Lauren, Nate, Hunter and Alexis in 'The Ultimatum' (Netflix)
L-R: Lauren, Nate, Hunter and Alexis in 'The Ultimatum'
Netflix

Which of the other couples, new and old—if any—seem like they have what it takes to make a marriage work? And which ones need to break up immediately?

ED: Rae and Jake seemed to vibe immediately. I think they’re the strongest potential couple. Madlyn and Colby need to break up because she obviously can’t stand him. She rolls her eyes at his egotistical overtures (and rightly so).

But, if I’m being honest, I don’t think any of these couples should marry. They’re all so immature. Everyone on this show is around 24 years old. Why do they want to get married so quickly? I assume most of the couples are socially conservative given how many of the women spoke about marriage as an exchange of services—”I cook and clean, so you owe me a ring”—instead of a partnership. Jake is considered a great catch because he’ll actually fold his clothes and wash the dishes. Low bar, ladies. I would love to see more women skeptical of marriage—or (gasp!) a woman over 30—in inevitable future seasons.

JB: On the whole, I think you’re right. I’m about a decade older than these cast members, on average, and most of the issues that are coming up in their relationships feel pretty immature to me. Marriage is more than just playing house! Yes, it can be a legitimate deal breaker if your partner wants kids and you don’t. But if your partner is in their early 20s, wants kids yesterday, and isn’t willing to consider any other option? That’s just immaturity, and it doesn’t bode well for them as a parent. A person who lies, cheats, snoops through their partner’s phone, or punishes their partner by staying out all night and ignoring texts simply is not ready to get married.

I would like to see Rae and Jake keep dating. They have so much in common, and I get the sense that—perhaps because their original partners are a handful—they really appreciate each other. Plus, her relationship with Zay is apparently over, and his relationship with April should be over, because it’s so one-sided. Madlyn and Colby are such a mismatch that it’s hard to imagine what brought them together in the first place. (Alcohol?) I got the sense that Madlyn was more into Randall than vice versa. Shanique and Randall could go either way, but as is, they’re talking past each other in a way that’s concerning. Zay and Shanique have more similar communication styles, although they’re both so intense that they’re liable to exhaust each other.

ED: Alcohol was definitely the original matchmaker in several of these relationships. But this is reality TV.

Randall and Shanique in 'The Ultimatum' (Netflix)
Randall and Shanique in 'The Ultimatum'
Netflix

The sexual boundaries of the “new” relationships were opaque: the show implies some couples had sex, but kisses are often treated as cheating. There’s no logical consistency. Does the show need to clarify whether the old couples are “broken up” for this concept to work?

ED: Presumably each couple had to have a conversation about whether kissing or sleeping with their “trial partner” during the show would constitute cheating. It was frustrating that we didn’t get to see those conversations. Randall, for instance, seems to resist having sex with Madlyn, presumably because of some rule outlined by himself and Shanique before the show (though, puzzlingly, Shanique does seem to sleep with Zay).

I get that for the show to work there must be drama and misunderstanding. But given that nobody seemed to mind that Jake and Rae were constantly kissing yet were scandalized by Randall kissing Madlyn off-camera, establishing parameters would have been helpful.

JB: Yes. I wouldn’t mind if the show had left it up to each original couple to set rules for their temporary marriage. In fact, it might have generated more drama if we knew that the new couples had different expectations for how physical things would get, or that one half of an original couple was following the rules and the other wasn’t. In any case, too much of this stuff seemed to happen off camera. So we had the double confusion of having to wonder what each of the cast members expected to happen and, in many cases, what actually happened.

Personally, I don’t know that the “experiment” can really work the way it should if people are barred from fooling around. If you’re trying to figure out whether you have a future with someone, chemistry is important! Then again, is it ever fair to compare a new person you’re hooking up with to someone with whom you’ve had years to establish a physical connection?

Jake and April in 'The Ultimatum' (Netflix)
Jake and April in 'The Ultimatum'
Netflix

Jake even hid his mom’s preference for April from Rae. Good or bad move?

JB: My first instinct was to wince. So many of the cast members seemed to be lying to each other, and Jake had struck me as a genuinely good egg, in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get way. But maybe it was less the white lie that alarmed me than the ease with which he told it?

ED: I actually 100% endorse this white lie. I think Jake and Rae actually may have a future together, and Jake doesn’t want to doom Rae’s relationship with his mom from the jump. Jake told Rae in their first conversation that he and his mom were very close, and his mom’s opinion meant everything to him. Rae finding out his mother’s real opinion would be devastating. You’re stuck with your in-laws for the rest of your life. You want to preserve the peace as long as possible.

I do question Jake’s mother’s taste. It seemed wild she would prefer the chaotic and possessive April over Rae as a partner for her son. I do wonder whether Jake’s mom knows that Jake and April are trying to have a baby and therefore is confused about why he would be seeing this other girl. I, too, am confused by the revelation that April and Jake are seeing other people when they may become parents any second. Speaking of which…

April says that she and Jake have been trying to get pregnant. Does that cast doubt on Jake’s relationship with Rae?

JB: I never really got a handle on the situation there. We know April is in a rush to have kids, and that some kind of fertility issue is involved. I guess the question is whether Jake has fully thought through the implications of forgoing birth control. My impression is that he’s been acquiescing to pressure from April more than actively trying to start a family with her. Which, you know, is still a problem if he has doubts about the relationship!

ED: It certainly makes me question Jake’s judgment. I agree, Judy, he just seems to be going along with what April wants. Even Jake’s mother calls him “impressionable.” It will be a victory if he’s able to end things with April at all.

Zay and Rae in 'The Ultimatum' (Netflix)
Zay and Rae in 'The Ultimatum'
Netflix

Let’s unpack the moment when Rae and Zay have some sort of physical altercation off-camera.

ED: Watching Rae with Jake and then Rae with Zay was a fascinating case study in how the same person can behave in completely different ways in two different relationships. Obviously the show is heavily edited, so who knows what Rae is like in real life. But in the scenes we do get, Rae and Jake seem like the happiest, healthiest couple of the group. So it was a surprise when Rae and Zay got back together and quickly fell into a toxic pattern.

During their fight, Zay gets jealous and frustrated; Rae shuts down emotionally; he stays out all night to punish her; her emotions come flooding out, and she tries to leave; he tries to pull her back into the apartment and she hits him off-camera, either in anger or self defense—we don’t know which.

Toxicity breeds toxicity. That’s not to excuse Rae’s behavior. The show gives her a generous edit, suggesting that her actions were self-defense or at least an aberration. But we just don’t know. I certainly think she made the right choice ending things with Zay.

This was a moment when we needed the hosts to step in and talk to both parties about what happened. I’m not sure Nick and Vanessa are equipped to do that.

JB: That’s a great point. I also found these scenes difficult to watch, to the extent that I think Netflix should’ve provided some framing for it. Was either party drunk or, as seems likely, sleep deprived? Were producers or other crew members goading them to escalate the conflict? Without that context—and without some clarity on the extent of the physical altercation—what may or may not rise to the level of intimate partner violence becomes just more reality-show “drama.”

The footage didn’t answer my questions about who was the aggressor, who was acting in self-defense, and whether what we saw was representative of normal interactions between Rae and Zay. But what I do know is that these two people have wounded each other, emotionally if not physically, and shouldn’t be around each other anymore.

Colby and Madlyn in 'The Ultimatum' (Netflix)
Colby and Madlyn in 'The Ultimatum'
Netflix

Multiple women seem to go for Colby during the early days, but later in the show Madlyn’s friends and the female contestants label him as controlling, needy, and maybe a cheater. Where do we land on Colby and Madlyn’s relationship?

ED: I thought Alexis’ reaction to Colby’s rejection was dramatic and unwarranted. That interaction put me in Colby’s camp early on. But as the season progressed, I’ve soured on Colby. He strikes me as a particular type of bad boyfriend who styles himself as the “nice guy” who wants commitment and marriage, but in reality wants to leverage that commitment against his partner to control her while suffering no consequences for his own actions.

He gets jealous. He makes some misogynistic comments about Randall not being able to “handle” the strong-willed Madlyn. He arguably cheats on Madlyn with both April and an unseen woman, though the parameters of “cheating” on this show still elude me. Instead of apologizing to Madlyn he disappears. Madlyn seems like a bit of a mess—she gets very drunk during girls’ night, though who knows if the producers plied her with drinks. But I appreciate her honest reactions to things: I can always count on her to roll her eyes at Colby’s narcissistic overtures or April’s declarations about her future baby. She deserves better. I hope they split up.

JB: Colby struck me as corny from the beginning—and you’re totally right that he has some classic “nice guy” tells, from the coded misogyny to the self-loathing that comes out toward the end of his weeks with Madlyn. The early clips where he talks about how much he worships her also brought to mind another irritating “type of guy”: the wife guy. And I got the sense that his weird, sort of dreamy, cowboy-hat-wearing idealism was just the tip of an iceberg of immaturity.

I wasn’t necessarily a Madlyn fan at first, either. She was so cocky, and at the girls’ night she was really forcing her opinions on the other women, even when it was obvious that she was making people uncomfortable. But I think she did redeem herself in later episodes, letting that mask of perfection slip and even getting introspective about why she behaves the way she does in relationships. It also probably bears mentioning that the show is edited with such a heavy hand, I’m sure my read on Madlyn evolved in exactly the way the producers intended.

Let’s make some predictions about the finale. Who do we think will end up together, and who might go home alone?

JB: After two seasons of LIB, I would be shocked if Rae and Jake didn’t leave the show together. They’ve been the golden couple since their first speed date, and no one gets such an extreme hero edit unless they’re actually going to be the hero. Randall and Shanique could go either way, but I’d err toward guessing he’ll get over his fear of commitment and propose. And I think everyone else goes home alone—Madlyn and Zay having learned something worthwhile, April and Colby still dangerously deluded.

ED: I think at least one “old” couple needs to get engaged to prove that the experiment “worked.” There’s a small chance that couple will be Madlyn and Colby. Madlyn did say she wanted to marry Colby the night the experiment ended. Then they got into a huge fight. So who knows.

So I agree, Judy, it’s most likely that Randall and Shanique get engaged. At one point, Madlyn made the comment that Randall and Shanique were the strongest couple in the group. I was surprised by Madlyn’s comment given how well she and Randall seemed to get along. But I think that type of aside sheds more light on the reality of the situation than the producers’ edit of the show.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com.

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