November 9, 2022 5:49 PM EST

Spoiler alert: this article discusses major plot points from the Love Is Blind season 3 reunion

Reality TV exists to shock. Sometimes its surprises are wonderful—an underdog wins a top prize or a bully gets a drink thrown in their face—but more often they are horrible. Like the moment when Love Is Blind season 3 couple Zanab Jaffrey and Cole Barnett imploded at the altar. They had always been one of the show’s most volatile pairings. I didn’t expect them to live happily ever after. I also wasn’t prepared for the speech Zanab delivered before saying “I don’t.”

“The last two months have not been picture-perfect,” she told Cole—so far, so obvious. But then she dropped a bombshell: “You have disrespected me. You have insulted me. You have critiqued me. And, for what it is worth, you have single-handedly shattered my self-confidence. And I hate that you have had that kind of effect on me.” As Zanab walked off and Cole stayed frozen in place, it was clear we had yet to hear the full story about this couple. It was only in the reunion episode, which brought them back together for the first time since their abortive wedding, that an incident involving a pair of tiny oranges revealed how two people could’ve read the same set of interactions so differently. The footage that producers dug up, ostensibly to check the exes’ conflicting accounts, accidentally gave us the show’s most honest moment in three seasons.

Cole Barnett in <i>Love Is Blind</i> (Netflix)
Cole Barnett in Love Is Blind
Netflix

Going into the wedding, based on the extremely incomplete account of their courtship that Love Is Blind crafted, it would’ve been hard to make the argument that Zanab and Cole were meant for each other. He arrived in the pods as a 26-year-old divorcé bummed out by how much harder it was to meet “babes” as an adult than it was when he was in school. Like a puppy, he was fun and playful but seemed totally unaware of his effect on other people. Which explains how he managed to thoughtlessly jeopardize two engagements soon after the proposals. Not only did Cole flirt with Colleen, who was already attached to the easily angered Matt; he also told poor Zanab that he preferred Colleen’s appearance to her own. Zanab, for her part, came off as overly critical, picking at everything from her intended future husband’s cooking to his habit of leaving laundry on the floor. Although she was only five years his senior, between Cole’s slobby callowness and Zanab’s know-it-all rigidity, their age gap often seemed unbridgeable. They connected over their strong religious convictions but apparently not much else.

Here’s where the mini mandarins—brand name: Cuties—come in. At the reunion, Cole takes more heat than anyone else because of, as castmate Brennon puts it, the way he “continually disrespected his fianceé.” Brennon’s new wife Alexa calls Cole “deceitful.” According to Nancy, a cast member whose similarly unsuccessful engagement to a younger, less mature, more superficial man, Bartise, in many ways mirrored Zanab and Cole’s story, “Cole never accepted that awareness, that what he did was wrong as an engaged person with someone else.”

Later, Alexa complains that the show never held him accountable for certain incidents that happened off-camera. Another castmate, Raven, elaborates: “I’ll just say it: it was the tangerine thing.” (She also alludes to Zanab’s insistence that Cole told her he got a woman’s number at the men’s joint bachelor party. He accuses of Zanab of fabricating the anecdote, and the matter remains unresolved.) Here is how Zanab tells what she calls “the Cuties story”: “It was like 2 p.m. we were still filming, I hadn’t had a chance to eat, so I grabbed two Cuties—little, tiny oranges that fit in the palm of your hand. He looked at me and he goes, ‘Are you gonna eat both of those?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah. That’s a serving.’ And he goes, ‘Well, we’re going out to eat later. Maybe you should save your appetite.’” Cole, who has already repeatedly denied that he ever tried to control what Zanab ate or otherwise made negative comments about her appearance, turns toward the camera and urges the producers: “If you have it, please air it.”

The cast of <i>Love Is Blind</i> season 3 (Sara Mally—Netflix)
The cast of Love Is Blind season 3
Sara Mally—Netflix

And they do. After the reunion adjourns, but before the credits roll, we get three minutes of lightly edited footage labeled “Zanab & Cole: ‘The Cuties Story.’” At first, they’re bantering in the kitchen about the possibility of visiting Zanab’s family abroad. She takes a bowl out of the fridge, and they both start snacking on its contents. They needle each other about how she never listens and he “talks a lot of Cole,” i.e., goofs around. “Are you about to eat two of those?” he asks, watching her peel a Cutie. “Maybe,” Zanab replies. “That’s a serving. You OK with that?” Then Cole says: “You better save your appettito” for their “big ol’ supper tonight.” She tells him she’s only eaten a “banana and a scoop of peanut butter” today. He wants to know why; she doesn’t want to say. “Oh, are you getting wedding-dress bod?” he jokes.

It’s the kind of interaction you rarely see on reality TV, precisely because it’s so ambiguous. When reality shows aren’t fully staging or frankenbiting conversations between cast members, they’re cutting exchanges into bite-sized scenes with clear takeaways. The approach makes heroes and villains easier to delineate and story lines more convenient to manipulate. But whether the final product is a glossy docusoap, a cutthroat competition series, or a dating show like Love Is Blind, it also does a disservice to the complexity of the relationships being depicted.

There are so many ways to read the Cuties story. Is it possible that Cole interpreted (and continues to interpret) it as a nothingburger of a moment? Absolutely. He keeps his tone playful in the footage, even as the camera captures him grimacing at Zanab’s “talk a lot of Cole” comment. But that scowl opens up the possibility that what she said actually irked him and, consciously or otherwise, he hit back with a question he knew would activate her insecurity. There’s also the history that Zanab brings into the scene. A small and pretty woman by any sane definition of those words, she has already listened to Cole tactlessly assert that she rates a 9 to Colleen’s 10. Add that to three decades of lived experience as a woman of color in a society that tells women they have to be beautiful to deserve love, then sets impossible, white-supremacist beauty standards, and you’ll start to see why the conversation might’ve hurt Zanab so deeply.

From left: SK Alagbada, Cole Barnett and Bartise Bowden in <i>Love Is Blind</i> (Netflix)
From left: SK Alagbada, Cole Barnett and Bartise Bowden in Love Is Blind
Netflix

Neither ex is fully vindicated by the footage, although the fact that Zanab’s summary of what was said turns out to be mostly accurate casts some doubt on Cole’s claim that she lied about his bachelor-party flirtation. What’s more illuminating than what the clip says about this particular relationship is what it says about a show that passed up the opportunity to incorporate such a thorny, honest, real moment into the couple’s story line before the cast made it a topic of controversy at the reunion. For a self-described “social experiment,” that seems pretty incurious.

A genre built to pit good guys against bad guys will never do justice to romance, and it’s sad to see Love Is Blind throw the lives of well-intentioned people into chaos by pretending to do so. Partners hurt each other all the time, not because they’re cruel, but because they can’t get on the same page. Part of the challenge of spending your life with someone is in learning to see where that person, who often has a very different perspective shaped by gender or any number of other factors, is coming from. Love may, on occasion, be blind—just ask the two couples who got engaged sight unseen and stayed married through the reunion (not to mention the one that got back together after separating at the altar). But it is always, always more complicated than it looks on reality television.

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