It's Been 10 Years Since The Bachelor's Darkest Season Ever

Once upon a time, there was a nice, pleasant, somewhat bland airline pilot who went on The Bachelorette to find love but left with a broken heart. Said Bachelorette left engaged to a cheating scumbag, but the pilot was rewarded for his niceness by being crowned the next Bachelor. 

Current fans of The Bachelor probably recognize this story from the most recent season of The Bachelorette, in which the pilot and newest Bachelor is Peter Weber, the Bachelorette is Hannah Brown, and the cheating scumbag is Jed Wyatt. But Bachelor Nation has already seen a version of this story before. 

Once upon a time, 10 years ago, to be precise, there was a pilot Bachelor named Jake Pavelka, a Bachelorette named Jillian Harris, and a cheating scumbag named Ed Sidwerski. Clearly, there is nothing new under the sun in Bachelor Nation, but as another pilot steps into the Bachelor’s shoes, we can only hope that Peter’s season won’t turn out like Jake’s.

Last year I wrote about the 10th anniversary of Jason Mesnick’s Faustian bargain that saved the entire franchise from collapse. I referred to his season as the most dramatic ever, and I stand by the fact that it’s probably the single most important season in The Bachelor’s history. Jason’s season was compelling because it was about otherwise decent, normal people who were forced to make tough decisions when their love lives got tangled up with the agenda of their corporate overlords. Jake’s season, the first of the post-Jason golden era, was compelling because it featured some of the juiciest drama this show has ever seen. One contestant, Rozlyn, had an affair with an ABC staffer. Another, Ali Fedotowsky, chose her career over a man, making her a fan favorite and the subsequent Bachelorette. The dynamic cast and scandalous melodrama easily made it one of The Bachelor’s most popular installments, but the events that came after really gave it a lasting legacy in Bachelor Nation. Unfortunately, it’s a legacy that casts this season in a more unsettling, complex light, and made Jake Pavelka, who might have only been remembered as another typical lead, into one of the most mystifying figures of this long-lived franchise.

Jake started off as the quintessential Bachelor. He was a charming, classically handsome Southern gentleman with an irresistible pilot uniform. At 31, he was the perfect age to settle down, and he lamented that “nice guys always finish last” as an explanation for his singleness. He had a pretty uneventful run on Jillian Harris’s Bachelorette season but was still chosen to star on season 14 of The Bachelor, maybe because ABC knew they could run with the pilot angle -- and run with it they did. They even titled his season The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love

Jake was, indeed, very good at being the Bachelor. Being the Bachelor is essentially a job; it comes with payment and a contract, and not everyone can do it. The Bachelor must have a personality that is likable, but not so distinct that the audience, and his bachelorettes, can’t project their own vision of the perfect man onto him. He must be charming, but not a playboy. He must go along with the producers’ orchestrations and also portray what’s supposed to be an authentic personal journey. He must lead on multiple women while still seeming entirely sincere. Honestly, there are very few Bachelors that actually strike this delicate balance, which is why so many come off like total douchebags by the end of their seasons. But Jake was very good at all of this. Maybe almost...too good.

Jake’s final two women, Tenley Molzahn and Vienna Girardi, illustrated the main conflict of the season: Good Girl vs Bad Girl. Beautiful, bubbly, and innocent, Tenley seemed like she had stepped right out of a cartoon - she literally played Disney Princesses in the parks before her time on The Bachelor. She married young to the first man she had ever kissed, only for her husband to leave her for another woman, and the pain of her divorce clearly affected her throughout the season. Still, Tenley believed she might find her fairytale, exclaiming after her first meeting with Jake, “I feel like I’m in love with him already”. 

In contrast, 23-year old Vienna was behind most of the season’s drama. A bleached blonde, self-proclaimed daddy’s princess from small-town Florida, Vienna’s cattiness and immaturity quickly made her the most hated girl in the mansion. Week after week, the contestants wondered why Vienna was still there, and week after week, Jake gave her a rose. She had gotten engaged in her senior year of high school, broke it off, and her ex-fiancé married someone else within a month. In retaliation, she “eloped with a guy [she] didn’t even know” and got divorced soon after. All of this happened when she was only 18. Her fiercely protective dad bought her a “promise ring”, to symbolize that she would never elope again. 

Tenley and Vienna could not have been more different in the audience’s eyes. Tenley, with her storybook sweetness and purity, was a heroine who deserved her Prince Charming after a terrible betrayal. In comparison, Vienna seemed like a spoiled brat with a past that was more trashy than tragic. But the one thing they had in common was their devotion to Jake. Not all contestants get swept up in the fantasy of The Bachelor, but Tenley and Vienna really, truly believed that they were going to marry him. 

Tenley, of course, was the obvious choice. Jake’s family adored her, and they were concerned about Vienna’s inability to get along with the other contestants. In defense of her, Jake could summon up little more than “she’s drop-dead gorgeous” and “she’s not as mature as Tenley. She still has some growing up to do.” The cracks with Tenley started to show when Jake said she was perfect for him, but he wasn’t sure they had enough “physical chemistry”. He and Vienna had just had a steamy final date, and then she gave him her dad’s promise ring in a scene whose vibes are just too weird to really comment on. Naturally, Jake did what everyone wanted him not to do and proposed to Vienna. America was shocked; their dreamy Bachelor really was just another idiot blinded by a hot girl.

Jake and Vienna defended their relationship all along the post-finale press tour, and Vienna moved with him to L.A. while he competed on Dancing with the Stars and auditioned for acting gigs. But just two months after the finale, they split, and that’s when things got ugly. When most Bachelor relationships end, they try to keep things vague, but Jake and Vienna couldn’t even pretend to have an amicable break-up. As the two flung accusations at each other through the tabloids -- Vienna was a cheater, according to Jake, and Jake was emotionally abusive, according to Vienna -- all ABC saw was dollar signs.

After an episode of Ali Fedotowsky’s Bachelorette season, they aired an exclusive break-up interview featuring Jake, Vienna, and Chris Harrison. ABC later declared it the most dramatic moment in the franchise’s history, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most uncomfortable, riveting things The Bachelor has ever put to television because it’s also one of the most authentic. A couple just can’t fake that level of hatred towards each other.

The facts were this: they had broken up over a weekend when Jake was out of town, and then Vienna sold a story about their breakup to a tabloid. Beyond that, their versions of events diverged. Jake initially said that although the relationship was rocky, he wasn’t ready to call it quits, and Vienna had blindsided him with the tabloid story. But later in the interview, he would snidely insist that he had dumped her and not the other way around. According to Vienna, she broke up with him over the phone while he was away because she knew that if she did it in person, he would convince her to stay. She had publicized the breakup first because she knew he would lie about what happened. Jake, she said, became a completely different person after filming, one who lied constantly, ignored her when the cameras stopped rolling, and was prone to fits of rage in which he might fling a GPS out of a moving car if she dared to use it, or have a meltdown when she made suggestions about how to arrange their furniture. Jake admitted to these stories, saying that she deserved it because she was “undermining” him. Vienna said it took her three tries to break up with him because he always promised he would change. Jake dismissed these incidents as “temper tantrums”.

Jake’s behavior during the special didn’t help his case at all. The robotic smile glued to his face did little to hide the pure, seething anger that built up as the interview went on. Vienna recounted specific anecdotes that supported her accusations, but he was unable to offer any concrete evidence that she had cheated on him like he'd claimed. Instead, he smirked and sniped and laughed his way through it, as if acting arrogant and unbothered might mean he could still control the narrative. By the time he yelled at Vienna, causing her to storm off in tears, his reputation was irreparably damaged. This Jake was a far cry from the sweet, easygoing man he had been on The Bachelor. This Jake was cruel and strange and jarring, as if his handsome face and romantic persona were just facades for a black hole of rage, narcissism, and a deep, desperate desire to be famous.

In 2019, Vienna was interviewed on the podcast of a fellow Bachelor alumna Olivia Caridi, and she opened up more about her short-lived engagement. She said that as soon as filming was finished and they spent time alone together, things got weird. Jake tried to control what she ate and what she wore and suddenly insisted that they couldn’t be intimate because of his religious beliefs, even though they had already slept together. If they were doing an interview, he would pinch her to make her stop talking. “His controlling started to get to a scary level where he was throwing stuff at me; we were getting in these blowout fights...I started to feel like I was scared of him,” she said. Ultimately, she believes, his personality on The Bachelor was a lie meant to propel him to a career in Hollywood: “He’s a very good actor. And he played a very good role.”

10 years later, Jake and Vienna have both faded from the spotlight. Today, Vienna is a real estate agent who avoids watching The Bachelor and has turned down ABC’s requests for her to appear on Bachelor in Paradise. Jake scored a few roles on soap operas in the years following his season, but is back to being a pilot and is, as far as anyone knows, still single. But the two are forever immortalized as one of the messiest couples in Bachelor history. 

Back in 2010, it was much more common to deride Vienna and Jake as equally toxic. Sure, Vienna was immature, petulant, and a bit annoying, but she was also a sheltered 23-year-old who was more thoughtless than she was malicious. It’s much harder, however, to pin down who Jake truly was and why he acted the way he did. If he was as calculated as Vienna claimed, then why pick her? In many ways, she was the antithesis to Jake, as wild and unfiltered as he was cool and deliberate. Sweet, docile Tenley seemed like a better match for both Jake as he wished to be seen and Jake as he actually was. Watching the show, it looks like he let lust drive his decision, but then why would all of his affection for Vienna disappear overnight? It’s still one of the most confusing choices that’s ever been made on this show, and the behind-the-scenes context doesn’t help. 

In a sense, Jake’s unknowability made him the Bachelor. Likable, attractive, and unpredictable enough to keep the audience guessing, he was the perfect lead for ABC’s fantasyland of smoke and mirrors. The Bachelors and Bachelorettes must be easy for the producers to control; it’s an implicit part of the job description. But most, such as Jason Mesnick, are easy to control because of their naiveté. Watching Jake’s season with the benefit of hindsight, he seems to be more of a partner in the producers’ deception than their pawn. Besides the explosive break-up interview, it’s hard to tell when, if ever, viewers saw the real Jake. Of course, every Bachelor and Bachelorette must be something of an actor as part of the job, but when other leads are fake, it’s because there is a real personality under the fakeness. Watching Jake, you get an eerie feeling that there’s nothing underneath what he’s constructed.

Season 14 is ultimately known as one of the greatest trainwrecks in The Bachelor history, but it also serves as a reminder that a darker undercurrent will always lie beneath the entertainment. At its core, the show is a meticulously designed daydream, built to manipulate the emotions of its cast for its own goals. More than anyone else, Jake Pavelka perfectly embodies the Bachelor -- both the figure and the franchise -- in its worst, and possibly its purest form.