The Challenge: All Stars
There’s a moment in almost every Challenge season finale, during the last trek up whatever impossibly steep mountain TJ’s assigned the competitors, when reaching the finish line becomes less about money, records, and bragging rights and more about the gratification of simply making it to the end. This is mostly the case for the players coming in at second, third, or fourth place who’ve already accepted their defeat: underdogs, rookies, and people who magically didn’t see an elimination during the entire competition and are just grateful to be experiencing full-body cramps at extremely high altitudes with the best of the best. This seems to be the sort of quasi-spiritual, self-fulfilling journey most of our All Stars are on in this finale. And as much as I support the unapologetic pursuit of money, especially in this economy, I couldn’t be more emotional watching these parents and single 30- to 40-year-olds prove to themselves that they can hike several miles without needing an ambulance.
So we ended the last episode on a cliffhanger of Darrell asking for a medic after the Carolina reapers started burning his insides and making snot come out of multiple orifices somehow. That ending turned out to be pretty fruitless, as Kellyanne convinces him to keep going, saying the effect of the peppers is “just period cramps.” Just? JUST? As someone who gets debilitating period cramps every few months that make me want to chop off my torso, I don’t appreciate this reduction. But I also kind of believe that whatever Darrell’s experiencing is probably like a mild cramps day for me. The other person we thought was going to die, Jemmye, decides to keep going, too, her logic being that the pain in her stomach will go away eventually and the guilt of quitting once she’s back to normal in about 15 minutes would feel even worse.
Darrell and Kellyanne magically finish the run first, thanks to Kellyanne’s apathy toward Darrell’s suffering. Yes and Aneesa come in second. Big Easy and Jonna come in third. Alton and Ruthie come in fourth. And Mark and Jemmye come last. It’s nice watching everyone rejoice in their little victories after finishing a checkpoint, even if they got a tiny amount of points for it. I never thought I would want more of this “just completed a fitness bootcamp/marathon” energy as opposed to the typical self-torment that consumes everyone during a final. It’s sort of like watching The Biggest Loser without all the fatphobia and toxicity.
Next, we get a painfully long eating segment because, as we know, this show has a weird obsession with vomit. I’m not against watching people try to digest gross things. But as a former Fear Factor fan, I just know we can get a little more creative with the food offerings than animal innards. Where are the spiders, the worm smoothies, the cup of ants, the Madagascar hissing cockroaches, the 100-year-old blocks of cheese?? Instead, we get the teams chowing down on what I assume lions are fed at the zoo. The slabs of raw meat are pretty much indistinguishable and don’t have labels, which I guess can work to some people’s advantage. Darrell gives a bad analogy for the mystery of this meal: “What you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, like an STD!”
Each teammate has their own giant plate to finish before they can warm up by the fire and eventually go to sleep. The pairs for this checkpoint are Yes and Ruthie, Jemmye and Big Easy, Jonna and Alton, Kellyanne and Mark, and Aneesa and Darrell. What’s there to say here? Everyone’s eating. Everyone’s gagging. The only slightly interesting thing that occurs in this scene is when Big Easy notices Jemmye struggling to eat and tells her that it’s okay if she wants to quit. Big Easy is either in last or second-to-last place with no chance of catching up, so he doesn’t mind being disqualified as long as it’s not his doing. Jemmye’s loathed Big Easy this entire competition, so of course she’s not going to go along with his suggestion to forfeit. She would definitely quit if it were Darrell or Mark assuring her that it was okay to give up, though. Anyway, fast-forward through all the puke. Mark and Kellyanne finish first, then Jonna and Alton. Ruthie, who probably has the tiniest stomach out of everyone, manages to come in third with Yes. Darrell and Aneesa are fourth. And Big Easy and Jemmye come in last.
Now it’s time for the overnight portion. In certain finals, whoever’s doing the best at this point gets the best sleeping arrangements. But in this egalitarian setup, each team is given one cot that only lays flat if one person is standing on a plank connected to it like a seesaw. If a teammate falls off the plank, they have to switch places. Surprisingly, we don’t see anyone fall off the tiny, circular platform. Everyone is pretty dedicated to making sure their partner gets a good night’s sleep, especially Alton. At one point, I thought Yes was going to sing Ruthie a lullaby, considering how comfortable he is standing on this apparatus in the freezing cold. Alton is done hearing his “fake positive crap” because it’s obvious this guy is going to win, and he’s not being subtle about it.
Everyone else is either congratulating other people on how well they’re doing and their probability of winning or accepting defeat. Alton very sweetly says that, at this point, he’s performing for Jonna, who’s like his little sister. I’m glad that the conditions of this final aren’t so tortuous that the people who know they’re not going to win don’t want to quit. I remember when Rogan quit the Total Madness final after finishing in last place for the entire day because he didn’t want to walk any more miles in the snow, and I honestly respected it. But no one is suffering that badly here, which is a reminder to the producers that warmer locations are always the way to go.
The next morning, the cast wakes up to TJ arriving on a horse that he can barely steer and wearing a poncho. See, TJ would never perform this sort of comedy over at the regular Challenge, and I would argue that all those non-MTV contestants don’t deserve it. This is why this show needs a million more seasons. He tells everyone that the final leg is just a race up to the top of a mountain that’s been haunting them since they arrived at that location yesterday. I was really hoping that TJ would pull names out of a hat or let them choose partners again in the order they placed at the eating portion. I think this has been a good method so far of establishing an even playing field while also adding an element of unpredictability. But I get that that’s only fun to experience as a viewer. All the competitors practically start foaming at the mouth when they hear it’s every man and woman for themselves and that this portion is worth double points. Darrell leaves a cloud of smoke behind him as soon as TJ gives them the green light. Yes, the person who’s made it so obvious that he won this thing in his confessionals is taking the “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” approach that all Challenge greats advocate for. He’s notably the only competitor who’s boasting about his hiking experience in his confessionals and utilizing walking sticks. Everyone else is bent over and power-walking awkwardly, and Yes looks like Reese Witherspoon in Wild.
Okay, I’m going to admit that watching everyone walk through this particular environment individually is not the most riveting television. No one’s completely gassing out or dying of heatstroke. There’s a point where Kellyanne is able to pass all of the women. Yes eventually passes Darrell. The producers fill these quieter moments with introspective confessionals to give us a complete portrait of why everyone is competing and who they’re competing for. Aneesa, who’s firmly in last place, is just happy that she made it to a final for the first time in forever and wants to prove to the world that she can complete one. We all know she’ll still never make it to a final on a regular season of The Challenge again, but it’s hard not to be proud of her. Big Easy similarly accepted his defeat earlier in the final but has the same motivation as Aneesa and decides to walk alongside her.
It’s also a little strange seeing confessionals of Ruthie and Alton talking about how they want to bring home money to their families and tearing up about it when, at this point, it’s clear neither of them are going home with anything. But as I mentioned at the top, most of these Gen-Xers and geriatric millennials (I really wish I had this term in my arsenal prior to this finale) came on this show to escape from their boring 9-to-5s and simply prove to themselves that they could do it. The self-gratification piece of completing this final makes me think MTV should offer the public a chance to do one as some sort of bootcamp/healing retreat. Without the gross forced meals, of course!
So eventually, we make it out of the woods and start to see the gorgeous sky and the top of the mountain. I’m not going to relay every grunt or “let’s go” Yes says to himself as he’s making it to the top, so let’s just fast-forward to him crossing the finish line. I love how Yes immediately starts talking shit about the young bucks on the regular Challenge and even calls them “punks.” This is the sort of animosity and condescension we need from these players in order to make the battle-of-generations Challenge special a possibility. Next comes Darrell, then Mark, then Alton. Go dudes! Finally, the women start rolling in. To no one’s surprise, Kellyanne is first. Jonna is second and immediately bursts into tears of joy. Apparently, she had a baby seven months ago, which is insane. But her husband lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic, so, of course, she would come on this show and rack up as many appearance fees as she could. And I’m glad she at least gets to go home with that $40,000, if the rumors online are true.
Ruthie arrives next. Four hours later, probably, Aneesa and Big Easy finally make it across the finish line together. TJ announces the competitors who came in third place, who are Jonna and Kellyanne. Darrell comes in second. The person we all could’ve guessed would win at the beginning of this final did. Congratulations, Yes. I regret not remarking on how attractive you are during this season, because I’m just now noticing it. But enjoy your $500,000, and I hope to see you beating the “punks” in a final back over at MTV one day.