Top Model, like all closed physical systems, is subject to whatever entropic forces make some events irreversible. An egg can turn into an omelet but not vice versa, for example, and invoking the metaphysical memory of that egg after the fact does nothing to conjure it back into existence. Alack and alas, ANTM can’t escape the asymmetry of time, as much as it tries to remind us of its former glory with a salvo of throwback guest appearances. We’re obviously gagged to see Eva and Nigel mashed up with these final-four zygotes, and while this is one of the better episodes of the cycle, there’s still plenty of tomfoolery to eye-roll about.
We start with the girls celebrating Khrystyana’s win from last week’s music-video challenge, then quickly move on to Rio spending the better part of 45 seconds mourning her BFF Jeana’s departure. The velocity with which Rio crams all her (un)cherished Jeana memories into a sweaty duffel and tosses it into a mental bonfire is impressive while also defying multiple laws of emotional, entropy-governed spacetime. In her mind, Rio’s path to victory is clear with Jeana out of the picture, and she giddily joins the other models in a twerking circle until Tyra Mail arrives.
Tyra announces from her utility closet that it’s throwback week, and that fans have voted on some historic Top Model challenges to bring back for this episode. She menacingly whisper-smizes and signs off, and the girls are left to rummage through 15 years of Schadenfreude-based photo shoots and guess which ones will be re-staged. We then get some filler on Shanice’s troubled background, because “Shanice is poor” is the new “Erin is old” (which is thankfully alive and well in this episode).
The next morning, the models are carted off to a ballpit-runway hybrid where Ashley, Drew, and Law greet them and announce that the fans — in their base sadism — have chosen to bring back cycle 16’s bubble runway-challenge, in which models stomped the catwalk while encased in a Zorb for no apparent reason other than to be humiliated by this show. We get some throwback footage of Ondrei eating shit and most likely suffering a neck injury, but that’s modeling, folks!
And that’s not even all, if you can believe it. Law explains that “you can’t do a runway show with just four models” (Genesis 3:10), and so the eliminated girls (save Liz and Brendi K., who ran for the hills of their own volition because electing to be a part of this show is a form of emotional masochism) have returned. By the end of this week, one of them will replace someone from the current top four to make up the “Actual Top Four.” This does not sit well with the Current Top Four, who all feel they have earned this fair and square. The producers chose them as the finalists after transparently plotting each episode and sabotaging other contestants with “best photo” choices fair and square! Rio and Shanice in particular are especially pressed. Their respective conflicts are with Jeana and Christina, and the four share truly psychotic glances at each other to drive this home.
Kyla and Sandra are shown having a sweet reunion, but Rio and Jeana? Not so much. Jeana makes an effort to connect with her former best friend and roommate, but Rio is not having it because she is Rio and is well documented as operating from a negative, jealous, and competitive place. Receiving a “villain edit” on a competitive reality show has to be tough, and most of the time you can blame the edit and the producing. But when someone like Rio willingly and continuously creates drama where there’s none (see: Sandra), calls other people stupid and lies about it (see: Kyla), and pettily ices out her closest ally, it’s hard to be sympathetic.
The runway show features a “future of fashion” theme with designs by Kaimin, despite the fact that none of the outfits will be even sort-of-visible behind the plastic orbs and comical amount of smoke and lighting effects surrounding the girls as they teeter along what appears to be a Olympic-regulation balance beam. It’s a shame that the gimmicks are relied on so heavily here, as the clothes look really cool, but these girls have to be prepared for an industry in which you’re frequently asked to confidently stomp down a plank in an inflatable ball. Rio goes first and is understandably hesitant as she walks. “Just act like you’re not in the damn bubble!” instructs Stacey McKenzie.
Overall, it feels like our incumbent top four fare a little worse than the returnees, with Erin, Jeana, and Christina looking strong going into the decision. Those three are informed that they will return, along with, yes, Liberty. Erin, the overall challenge winner, celebrates by reminding everyone that she’s 42 years old and that “age is nothing but a number [and its own self-contained character narrative].” We take a shot of limoncello, bish!
The four returning models tag along with the Current Top Four as they retreat to the house, and the whole situation has an uncomfortable exchange-student vibe, but if the host family was four exasperated girls with a lot of Pantene products at their disposal. Jeana and Rio share a bathroom in total silence, which angers the latter to the point of convening an emergency meeting with the rest of the CTFs. They each scoff at the idea of a lesser girl taking one of their places, and a brooding, side-eyeing Christina saunters over to eavesdrop. Later on, Rio occupies the confessional cam room and menacingly points at the lens while a concerned Khrystyana sits by her side. “It’s insulting to me and my character and everything I’ve been through!” she scowls. “I came up off the streets of Detroit. I was supposed to die. I will be damned if I let anybody take my position in this. This is mine!” It feels like one of Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-clip options from Elizabeth: The Golden Age, so we’re into it.
Next day, the eight models discover the fan-favorite photo-shoot throwback to be cycle three’s infamous tarantula shoot, best known for rattling the tough-as-nails Eva “The Diva” Marcille. Speaking of that queen, she pops out from a vault door to teach the the girls how to transmute their abject terror into a stunning picture, and she’ll be joining (read: completely overshadowing) them on their shoot! She also offers the girls a glimpse into their potential futures: that one day they, too, can be good friends with NeNe Leakes. We’re then treated to another nostalgic cameo from perennial daddy Nigel Barker, who will be photographing the girls and, for his part, truly hasn’t aged a day (by lax men’s beauty standards, at least).
The models are to shoot in pairs, with Eva completing the trio for each. Maximum potential for drama seems to be the guiding principle with each matchup: Christina gets paired with Shanice, Liberty with Kyla, Erin with Khrystyana (no real beef here), and Rio with Jeana. Liberty and Kyla are able to get through their shoot without entering into a discussion on race relations in America, and they look pretty. Erin has a difficult time because she is intensely afraid of spiders, and it will inevitably show in her picture. Khrystyana endearingly expresses in her talking-head that she is frustrated with Erin, who struggles indeed struggles due to her fright of the venomless arachnid, and therefore Khrystyana must remain with the tarantula on her body until Flotsam and Jetsam (Law and Drew) are satisfied.
Erin isn’t the only one who’s terrified — Jeana says that spiders are actually “her greatest fear.” She receives a comforting word from Eva, who knows a thing or two about overcoming this specific phobia to slay this specific challenge, which grates on Rio’s nerves. Suddenly, Rio isn’t merely annoyed that Jeana is back to compete in the competition, but furious at how “fake” Jeana is, and that her stress level is shooting “through the roof.” Jeana goes on to fiercely dominate the challenge as the tarantula sits beautifully atop her bald head. Drew lets Rio know during the shoot that she is “losing,” which probably puts Rio in a headspace that is bad for her but perfect for the producers.
The tarantula also isn’t getting along great with Shanice, or “Sha-Nasty,” or “Sha-Bye-Bye,” as Eva calls her. Shanice’s uneasy moaning and shaking are not doing it for Eva, whose glances at Shanice are classic and make us so happy she is gracing us with her reality-TV presence once again over on The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Meanwhile, Christina, who was always good at taking pictures, continues being good at taking pictures.
Back at the house, Tyra Mail informs the girls that a cut is coming. Jeana feels confident that she’s going to come back and storm the competition, whereas Shanice is scared that she’ll be Tennessee-bound. At panel, a denim-rocking Tyra Banks, flanked by the rest of the judges, confirms that her fears are justified. Christina, despite the drama surrounding her exit several weeks ago, gets universal praise from the judges, whereas Shanice is harshly told that her picture is not good enough. Law, digging into his brand as The Worst Part of This Bad Show, tells Shanice it “hurt his feelings” that she couldn’t pull it together on this shoot and declares he would have sent her packing right from the set if he could. “That’s how much you let me down.” It’s a shame since we’re sure Law’s approval means the most to Shanice.
Jeana gets high marks for putting fear aside and looking gorgeous, while Rio is labeled as bland and boring, with Drew telling her she is officially “plateauing” in the competition. The judges tell Liberty that she is merely a beautiful girl, and not a model, whereas Kyla is a model and not just a beautiful girl. It’s a square-rectangle thing, as we all know. Erin and Khrystyana’s judging goes exactly as you’d think: The former will be gone in minutes and the latter, while not on the end of super-positive critiques, will be just fine.
Shanice and Rio land in the bottom two, and as Tyra assesses both models’ trajectories this cycle, it’s a real toss-up as to who should go home. Shanice ends up staying on account of the growth she’s shown, shocking Rio and putting a merciful end to a strained villain-edit. Much like Jeana, Rio coasted on likability and charm until she suddenly didn’t, but she had a good run while it lasted. She’s poetically displaced by Jeana, who returns to the competition with a fire under her ass and walks away with the quote of the episode: “Being me … is really hard.” Oh honey, same here when we’re watching this show, which, according to the laws of entropy, just gets messier and messier, with some glimpses of fun every now and then.