The Challenge: All Stars
After six riveting episodes, I’ve decided that the best part of this season is ultimately TJ Lavin’s smile. Allow me to be cheesy and a little bit thirsty for a moment. Also, excuse me for comparing this all-stars season to the regular season of The Challenge for the umpteenth time. But Lavin’s relaxed, approachable demeanor and communication style with this group of OGs, as opposed to the seriousness he projected on Double Agents, is extremely refreshing. It reminds me of the old days — which is, like, the point of all of this, obviously — when TJ was just a dude who showed up to work in sunglasses, cargo shorts, and flip-flops, with a bullhorn in his right hand, and wasn’t being instructed to lean into some sort of intimidating character. It’s nice to see this charming, ruggedly handsome white man making awful Paramount jokes, poking fun at the players, and expressing his observations about the game unprompted while showing all his teeth. Most importantly, I like knowing that TJ still enjoys his job and is not just showing up for an easy check.
So everyone returns from the Arena. I’m not really sure how valuable these moments are right after a bus ride, where presumably everyone has already discussed whatever took place at the elimination, but the producers are intent on starting every episode this way. This week, however, we do see a spark of romance between Laterrian and Aneesa, which threw me for a loop. I don’t immediately think of these two as having chemistry or Laterrian as being someone who Aneesa is attracted to. We also get a confessional from Katie revealing her strategy, which is just embracing her status as one of the weaker women. She seems to have a lot of male and female players on her side, so she’s able to actually garner pity for being scared of heights instead of being side-eyed like Kendal.
Speaking of Kendal, we have another episode of cast members saying how much they don’t like this outwardly affable woman, particularly Mark. At this point, I’ve heard more people talk about their dislike of Kendal than actually hear her speak or see any discernible parts of her personality. I’m not sure what’s so off-putting about this woman that it needs to be reiterated this much. Most of the women chalk up their resentment of Kendal to her just being a threatening player that they don’t want to compete against in a final. But other female competitors like Aneesa and Kellyanne are threatening, but no one hates them for it. I’m sure we’ll find out she keeps vials of blood, doesn’t shower, or some other ridiculous thing at the reunion.
Next, it’s on to this week’s challenge, called Escape the Room, which I found a little odd and not immediately compelling when TJ explained it. But there’s a high level of suspense and palpable sense of anxiety among the competitors from the time they start the challenge to the moment TJ announces the winners, which I really appreciated. The competitors, split into teams of four, are lined up inside a shed suspended 30 feet over water. They each have to complete a puzzle before the floor opens beneath them, starting with the person on the left and moving to the right. The challenge feels like a better-developed version of the skydiving/puzzle mission on Double Agents (sorry!), in which the players had to jump out of an airplane and memorize a series of colors, then complete a puzzle on the ground. The skydiving element was supposed to psych the players out to the point where they couldn’t look at the colors, even though they’re parachuting for a substantial amount of time and have time to chill out after the initial jump.
This challenge, on the other hand, seems psychologically torturous the entire time and seems to impact everyone’s completion of the puzzle, considering that only one person assembled it correctly. Everyone is rushing not just to earn points for their team, but so that they can hold onto their vest, plug their nose, and try to control the way they land in the water, hopefully without injury. Except for Katie, of course. This woman is so traumatized that she flips over all of her puzzle pieces and just decides to stand there waiting to drop with the most bewildered expression on her face. Kendal makes the confounding mistake of forming her puzzle upside down, even though each one makes a giant letter. She doesn’t know if she’ll have enough time to rearrange hers before the floor caves in, so she just leaves it as is, hoping she’ll still get partial credit like on a two-part math problem. Everyone else thinks they did well, for the most part.
On the ground, TJ reveals that Big Easy was the only person to get the puzzle right, so he and Ruthie, their team’s captains, are safe from elimination. This is clearly a huge deal for Big Easy based on his reaction, but also because he’s long been resented and undervalued (sometimes appropriately valued) by his fellow castmates. He’s managed to maintain a decent amount of confidence and bravado throughout his time on the show, even though it hasn’t really been substantiated yet. But now he has a victory on his hands. I find it hilarious, though, that with the LifeSaver element being removed, the challenge winners don’t have any actual power to wield over the elimination, just immunity, which might be a relief for certain players. But for the men, who seem to get the biggest kick out of intimidating everyone, I imagine this will be a tough pill to swallow.
The Black Team gets the fewest puzzle pieces correct, which means Kendal and Mark are automatically sent to the Arena. Mark doesn’t even look like he’s internalizing this information, and waiting for TJ to say, “Just kidding!” There’s no way the Godfather, the man who made this entire show happen, can even be allowed to step foot in the Arena. What sucks more is that Kendal actually got the puzzle right but, because it was upside down, it didn’t count at all.
Once again, Katie decides to throw herself into the elimination. She makes it a thing about fairness because she doesn’t think the other women who actually tried at the puzzle deserve to be nominated. Jemmye, our audience surrogate, reminds us that this is famously not how the game works. You’re supposed to avoid elimination at all costs (unless you’re trying to get one of those godforsaken skulls) and have no problem watching innocent people get sent in before you. Kellyanne reminds Katie that the men still have to decide whether or not they want to nominate her since she’ll be deciding which guy she brings into the Arena with her. It isn’t clear whether Katie will go for a strong male player who she isn’t close with so that she won’t be sabotaging a friend if they lose, or if she’ll go for someone who she feels like she can trust. The men seemingly don’t know either, so they just agree to let Katie nominate herself and see what happens.
At the club, Katie is getting the treatment that the holder of the Lifesaver previously had from all the men. They’re making jokes about not wanting to be picked but don’t seem to be doing any real begging or negotiating for obvious reasons that don’t even have to be articulated. Derrick is pretending like he was injured from the challenge, with a fake bloodied bandage around his head. Can we take a second to talk about how thirsty this man has been for camera time than this entire season? This isn’t a dig, per se. I understand the economic quality of screen time when it comes to reality television. But good Lord. The costumes, the props, the incessant interaction with the main characters of the episode, the unnecessary animatedness whenever he’s in a shot. It’s funny because Derrick’s Challenge legacy has primarily been that he’s a physical specimen but not much of a personality, so watching him decide to take on this eccentric improv-guy schtick at the eleventh hour is a little unsettling. But I also can’t imagine him not receiving Challenge invites for the rest of his life, so who is this all for??
Anyway, Katie decides to go the route of picking a male competitor who she knows is a beast but doesn’t have a close relationship with. And that guy is Letarrian. Considering that he fractured someone’s rib during his elimination on the first episode and won the last challenge, I would say that the odds are in his favor to perform well. But Katie also has to do well. Meanwhile, Mark and Kendall agree to put their differences aside to compete in the elimination. Literally, what else would they do? Also, I don’t want to hear about anyone talking about their differences with anyone else without ratting them out for whatever shit they’ve done to annoy you. This is reality TV!
So we finally go to the Arena for an elimination that I find a little underwhelming. The last time we saw this was on War of the Worlds 2, when Josh went against Jordan and somehow lost what’s basically a game of tug-of-war to a man with one hand. It’s one of those challenges where the competitors are exerting a lot of energy, but it doesn’t really translate onscreen, aside from seeing them sweat. Plus, they’re balancing on a small stump, so their bodies are constrained, and we don’t really see a lot of movement. The way this elimination is edited also makes it seem like each round lasted ten seconds, so I can’t say I was as riveted as last week’s challenge. But it was exciting going into the Arena truly having no idea what the outcome would be and being shocked when Katie beat Kendal in the first round. But Mark and Kendal win the last two rounds, which I should’ve known would happen. I quickly realized after the first round that I couldn’t imagine Mark not competing in the final in terms of what he means to the show. I’m mostly glad the producers didn’t have to rig the elimination in his favor in order for him to stay on. Or at least it wasn’t obvious!
So we say good-bye to Laterrian and Katie. Who knows if Katie would leave her family again to barely compete on this show another time. But Laterrian is definitely coming back. He and Aneesa kiss good-bye. In a confessional, Aneesa says that if she can get rid of Laterrian’s “hard exterior” that they “may be able to work on something” outside of the show. May be able. To work on. Something. Wow. I love that Aneesa isn’t just ambivalent about being with this man but that her ambivalence is also conditional. See you next week!