Inside a white mansion in Burleson, about an hour outside Dallas, five couples from the third season of Love Is Blind take turns standing at the altar. The brides wear white. The grooms wear tuxes (except for one Nigerian-born contestant, who wears an agbada). But the exchange of vows has become a nail-biter. As family members lean in from their seats, as bridesmaids cluster on one row in matching dresses, as the cameras roll, each person at the altar will either say “I do” or “I do not.” Leave it to the evil wizards of reality television to turn a moment of sacrament into a game-show gimmick.

Love Is Blind debuted on Netflix in February 2020 and become a sensation. Love is all about timing, and the show’s was canny. The stunty premise—fifteen men and fifteen women date one another while confined to “pods” where they can’t see one another—felt apt during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were stuck in our homes with our hand sanitizer and our ring lights, trying to find closeness at a distance. As the couples chat through speakers in adjoining rooms separated by a glass panel with an eerie white-blue glow, I was reminded of the ways modern connection is mediated through screens, letting us speak and listen but never touch, and how that can forge intimacy but also dehumanization, authenticity but also delusion.

After ten days dating “blind” like this, the couples face a very Netflix dilemma: they must get engaged, and continue this experiment IRL, or go home. The next seven episodes of the ten-episode series track the fallout from this leap of faith, taken by five couples this season. As they unpack groceries or sail along some random lake, our new wonder duos must negotiate between the fantasies of the people they chose and the real humans at their sides. They have 28 days until they walk down that aisle in Burleson.

If getting married on reality television strikes you as preposterous, it’s worth noting that for much of human history, getting married for love at all struck people as preposterous. Love was too volatile, too fickle to be a solid foundation for what was considered a practical and economic arrangement. Most marriages throughout history were arranged, and globally, 50 percent still are. But for the past few centuries, those of us in the West have been living inside an experiment to fuse romance, individual choice, and pragmatism, trying to meet the demands of domesticity while serving the highly unpredictable gods of love. (Good luck to us all.)

At its best, Love Is Blind shows the joys and confusions of modern coupling, during which many of us become torn between independence and commitment, between the need for compromise and the fear of settling. We wonder if our partner’s love is real; we wonder what the hell love means, anyway. At its worst, the show is a wicked manipulation that jacks with people’s minds and hearts—but then again, so does Tinder.

The couples this season move into the same complex, Jewel on Landmark, next to the northern Dallas suburb of Addison. It’s a generically upscale living space of squishy gray couches and stainless-steel appliances and a long pool nobody ever seems to use. The contestants all hail from Dallas (previous seasons were in Atlanta and Chicago), where the post-pod part of the show was filmed, and locals will enjoy spotting popular hangs (Sundown at Grenada, in Lower Greenville; the Southern restaurant Ida Claire; the Oak Cliff wine bar Sketches of Spain), but the city plays only a minor role, with establishing shots of a moon forever rising over tall glass buildings and traffic sprawl.

The show’s central drama is which of these couples can make it to “I do.” Cole, a 26-year-old realtor, and Zanab, a 31-year-old flight attendant, bicker over his messiness and flirtations with other women. Is he a stunted man-child with impulse-control problems, or is she an insecure killjoy whose moody withdrawals sabotage their time together? (These are not mutually exclusive.) Matt, the 27-year-old VP of an aerospace manufacturing company, drunkenly explodes after ballet dancer Colleen, 25, heads to a bar at 2 a.m. Is she a shallow coquette unprepared for commitment, or is he an emotional tinderbox with anger and abandonment issues?

Chemistry is a mystery, an unhackable data set, and part of the show’s delight is watching two seemingly incompatible people defy expectations. Brennon, 30, is a laid-back country boy who grew up in a farm with no AC. Alexa, 29, is a playful alpha female from an affluent Israeli family who look and act like the Kardashians. Impossibly, they become the show’s golden couple. One slow-burn surprise is Raven, a feisty 27-year-old Pilates instructor, and a soft-spoken 34-year-old data engineer from Nigeria named SK. (On the reunion special, he admitted he had to Google “Pilates,” having no idea what it was.) They’re so different: her fire, his simmer; her deeply American individualism, his very African family roots. Which of these differences serve them, and which could drive them apart? Our romantic fables tell the sagas of star-crossed lovers, the Capulets and the Montagues, and we like to imagine a world in which class, race, age, status, and religious belief don’t matter in romance. Love wins, as the saying goes. And those things don’t matter, inasmuch as couples overcome them all the time, but shared lifestyles and values also knit couples together. Love wins; it also fades.

It’s curious to me that dating shows have exploded over the past two decades as the rituals and attitudes around marriage and dating have been in major flux. Swipe-to-match apps turned courtship into a game. Ideas about sexual orientation and gender and monogamy raised questions about what marriage means, and whether we need it at all. In those same two decades, The Bachelor grew into a cottage industry of spin-offs and copycats, many of which placed marriage as the goalpost at the same time real-life couples were removing it as such. American marriage rates have plummeted 20 percent since the turn of the century, while hits like Married at First Sight and 90 Day Fiancé keep pumping out the ceremonies, and I’m not sure how to interpret these two trends. Is it the case that the more we saw marriages on reality TV, the less faith we had in the institution? Or that the less we got married, the more we needed to participate in the ceremony through reality TV? Maybe it’s just that these shows, for all their ham-handedness, offer a kind of Kabuki theater moral clarity amid murky, anxious times.

A woman spinning in a Cinderella wedding gown. A man getting down on one knee. (Why one? Why not both?) A diamond ring slid onto the fourth finger of the left hand. Love Is Blind really milks these moments. Are they bankrupt clichés or necessary rituals? It’s natural when watching reality shows to wonder how much of the drama is authentic. I don’t have special knowledge, but I found the tension quite believable—and still, I was struck by how scripted the contestants often sounded, not because producers were feeding them lines, but because movies and songs and books did. I’ve never felt this way before. I can’t imagine life without you. I’m so happy. Are they saying those things because that’s how they feel or because that’s what they’re supposed to feel? (This is the same question I torture myself with when I’m dating: How much of this is even real?)

One of my favorite characters this season was Nancy, a 31-year-old speech pathologist with a laugh like champagne bubbles. She paired up with an affable 25-year-old bartender named Bartise, and much was made of their six-year age difference. Is he mature enough for marriage? He insists so; later evidence suggests otherwise. One night when the couple is cuddling in bed, he crows his attraction for another contestant, Raven, calling her “a f—ing smokeshow,” and Nancy’s eyes narrow ever so slightly as she processes this casual microbetrayal. Bartise turns out to be very much a 25-year-old. Arrogant, flippant, artlessly blunt. But Nancy loves him, and she is masterful at navigating tense moments. One afternoon, folding laundry, they wander into a disagreement over abortion. Nancy is pro–abortion rights; Bartise is not. But the way they walk through the land mines, each careful to give the other person dignity and grace, gives you faith they might find their way. (Then Bartise goes and brings up the conversation at dinner with his family, a terrible idea, and that faith is broken again.)

By the time of their wedding day, I wasn’t sure whether these two people should be together at all. Nancy swans around the still-empty Burleson wedding venue, squealing at a grand entryway decorated with white orchids, happy-dancing in her bridal suite, enjoying her stint as princess in a fairy tale. Meanwhile, in his corner of the world, Bartise bursts into tears when he opens her gift to him, a collection of small items from their time together. A tube of toothpaste, a jar of men’s vitamins, a gift that was silly and deeply meaningful. He bolts into the bathroom, though the camera follows, and I think that’s when I realized he would say no at the altar. As I watched him wiping his eyes, trying to pull himself together, muttering that he loved Nancy, I suspected it was dawning on him—he was going to have to do the hard part.

Love Is Blind asks contestants to do something ludicrous—go from strangers to spouses in a month, while the cameras roll—but the demands of marriage are a bit ludicrous, too. One person for the rest of your life? Always and forever? In the age of porn and iPhones? 

I won’t spoil the finale for you. The ending is a joyous surprise! One couple I thought would wed did not. One couple I thought would bust open ended up hitched. One of the women lit up her fiancé on the altar in front of everyone in a way that was either justified or unspeakably cruel, and I’ll never know which. But I know this. In a wedding venue in Burleson, some time this past year, two couples got married and three couples did not—and I couldn’t tell you for certain which of those is the happy ending.