I’m going to start this recap with something that goes unsaid throughout the entire season premiere of The Challenge: Double Agents, but I couldn’t stop thinking about: Johnny “Bananas” is not there.
The six-time champion/unofficial mascot of the franchise is absent from the show for the first time in 12 seasons (presumably because he won the last season and is taking a break, but who knows?) and, like, no one mentions it? I was expecting a quick compilation of the cast’s reactions, but it’s not even brought up as an aside??? I don’t know. It feels pretty significant that Leroy doesn’t have Bananas telling him what to do for the first time in forever, or that Wes doesn’t have to deal with his arch-nemesis in the house, or that Kyle has no one to carry him to the final, or that Josh doesn’t have his pretend father figure, or that the power dynamics between the rookies and vets are already starting to flip! All I’m saying is that the ghost of Bananas is hovering, watching, BREATHING over the dynamics of this house, and I sort of can’t wait to see what happens when/if he comes back!
But let’s get into the actual episode now, shall we? Just a warning, this first recap is going to feature A LOT of exposition because the majority of this premiere is just establishing information about the game format and the players. So bear with me.
With that being said, Double Agents! The theme is espionage! And TJ Lavin is the handler, NOT the host. This season’s grand prize is a million dollars, which everyone seems moderately excited about. We’re not sure if it’s being split into multiple prizes or if it’s all going to one winner. But God, I hope we don’t have to watch ten people almost die in a final for just one person to walk away with a check ever again! They’ve also brought back the skulls, which qualify you for the final. This year, there’s only ten available for the competitors to earn via winning an elimination.
The episode opens with TJ arriving via helicopter on an Icelandic beach where all the competitors are waiting. Cory points out the impressive new competition in a confessional. We’ve got an Olympian, a WWE wrestler, Survivor people, a guy from a show called Ultimate Beastmaster 1 that’s apparently real. He mentions Big Brother alum and reliable crier Josh before stopping himself and remarking that he’s actually “not that important.” LOL. We’re not even five minutes into the episode, and Josh is already being disrespected. We know he’s gonna have a tough season. Anyway! The full roster this year is a mixed bag of OGs (CT, Wes, Darrell, Theresa, Aneesa, Nany, Leroy), “not quite OG” vets (Cory, Nelson, Tori, Kam, Ashley, Devin, Kyle), faces we’ve seen a few times (Josh, Big T), sophomores (Kaycee, Fessy, Jay), and fresh meat (Lolo, Nam, Lio, Jay, Gabby, Joseph, Amber M, Amber B., Mechie, Natalie, Liv).
We move right into our first challenge called “Mission Decryption” where the contestants have to race up a mound of sand and gravel to get a capsule with a color code on it, memorize it, and enter it in their individual stations using colored cables. It’s not all that riveting, but it’s a solid first challenge that allows us to see what everybody’s working with and, more importantly, who everybody’s working with.
The women are up first. To everyone’s awe and amazement, Lolo Jones, record-breaking hurdler, races up the mound with the ease of the Jolly Green Giant. Nicole makes it known that she’s working with Lolo by asking her for the code at the highest possible volume. Aneesa, my #relatable queen, is just trying to keep her leggings from falling down. Kam states in her confessional that she doesn’t need help from anyone because her “one brain is gonna be better than anyone’s two brains.” It goes without saying that Kam is partially the focus of this episode, which is titled “License to Killer Kam.” This is her fifth season without any wins, and it feels like we’re finally gonna see what she’s made of this year. Does Kam actually have what it takes to be a champ, or is she one of those decent, reliable competitors like her new boyfriend, Leroy, who can never pull out a victory for some reason? In this particular challenge, it’s Aneesa who secures the win instead of Kam, which is fine. Black women winning!
The guys go, and CT accidentally hits Wes in the face with someone’s shoe so hard that he falls to the ground. This is played in slow motion, THEN on a loop for comedic effect. Are we supposed to hate Wes this much? Anyway, Fessy wins the guys’ heat. But Aneesa is the overall winner with the fastest time. Go, Aneesa!!
Now some more exposition. TJ announces that the season will be played in pairs. Aneesa gets first pick and immunity AND has to put up a team for elimination with her partner. She picks Fessy, and he’s worried because he doesn’t think Aneesa has endurance. Fessy is just the biggest ball of hubris in these confessionals. I’m sorry, but did you not COMPLETELY BURN OUT at last season’s final after having a huge lead? Be grateful Aneesa is sharing her privileges with you, and show the OG some respect! Of course, Darrell says that he’d “ride with” Aneesa, no questions asked. We love Black camaraderie on The Challenge!
Everyone else has to find their partners. Kam and Leroy think it’s best to split up, and Kam decides to shoot her shot with CT. This shouldn’t be a hard sell considering she’s a solid player and has tons of friends AND Leroy in the house to protect her. But CT rather rudely and stupidly dismisses her, and now Kam is PISSED. He instead chooses Ashley, who despite being a two-time champion, seems to have no real alliances and also FAMOUSLY STOLE HER PARTNER’S MONEY IN A FINAL!!! Christopher, what are we doing?
The rest of the teams are Wes and Natalie, Kaycee and Leroy, Kam and Josh, Cory and Tori, Darrell and Amber B., Nam and Lolo, Big T and Joseph, Kyle and Nany, Theresa and Jay, Gabby and Lio, Nelson and Amber M., Nicole and Devin, and Liv and Mechie. Additionally, the teams deliberate on whom they want to send into an elimination together, but each team member votes on their own confidentially. These producers are preparing us for some MESS.
Back at the Challenge compound, the players have their own COVID-friendly nightclub/dome to let loose at. Everyone’s politicking except for Joseph, who’s fallen asleep. This concerns his partner Big T, which is the first time I’ve seen her concerned about ANYTHING on this show. In another scene, Kam tells Nany, Aneesa, and Ashley about her grandmother who emigrated to America and was deported after she got caught stealing. She and Aneesa talk about how Black women are expected to be strong all that time, but “when you want to be vulnerable, nobody’s there for you.” That line HURT. ME. This is the first time I’ve seen The Challenge interested in the interiority of Black women and not just the arguments they partake in. This is clearly the effect of Black Lives Matter, and we ALL know it. BUT I’m glad we’re seeing this display of solidarity between Aneesa and Kam. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a narrative arc (and an alliance) that ends in one of them finally taking home a W.
Meanwhile, CT has a feeling that him and Ashley are going to be put up for elimination, and he’s right! Literally, everyone except for Wes and Natalie and Devin and Big T vote for them. We find this out when Fessy and Aneesa are taken to a room and briefly allowed to see who everyone voted for. Before that, though, when the house discusses which way to vote, the rookies make it clear that they’re not scared of CT. AT. ALL. Kam delights in this.
Finally, the players go to the Crater (gross name) for the elimination. It’s revealed that everyone voted for CT and Ashley. Aneesa and Fessy double down on the whole “get the champs out of here” strategy and nominate Wes and Natalie. Wes has the dejected demeanor of Charlie Brown until TJ reveals that it’s actually just a women’s elimination. And Oh. My. God. This is the first time in a while that a reveal on this show has actually made me gasp out loud. I love it!
Ashley and Natalie are NOT happy. They’re playing a game called Operation Fire Escape in which they’re hung from a beam from their wrists and ankles (this looks so painful!) and have to slide their ropes to the end of the beam and back first to win. There’s fire beneath them for an element of danger, but we know it’s not going to burn them, so who cares? The race itself isn’t that exciting, but knowing that a major player was on their way home kept my attention the entire time. Ashley ends up losing and says that the other competitors have “hate in their hearts” and are jealous of her record. I gotta say I don’t see another win for Ashley. She clearly has no true friends on the show despite bragging about how much everyone likes her. How does she not see this? I really hope she’s been investing all her prize money.
But back to Natalie. The Survivor winner is the first person with a skull and a ticket to the final. TJ tells her that she also has the option to swap out Wes for CT or any other competitor except Fessy, which sends everyone into a frenzy. We won’t know until next week if she has the option to steal a female partner or what happens to CT if she doesn’t steal him or if she wants to steal anyone at all. Wow. All of these possibilities are extremely exciting and nerve-racking to ruminate on for an entire week. Bravo, production! The Challenge is officially back!