From the moment the competitors were seemingly dropped off ten minutes away from headquarters in a minivan to the same rocky landscape we’ve seen all season, I knew this final wasn’t going to deliver the typical amount of surprise and danger I look forward to as a longtime Challenge fan. It’s also a telltale sign that everyone looks like they’re about to play some backyard games for charity and not, like, have a heatstroke on a mountain. I was just hoping this competition would end on something a little less embarrassing than the winners finding out they won by opening a giant safe containing an oversized plastic diamond from Party City.
So let’s hop back into this dud of a final! Last week, we left on TJ warning the newly formed cells that they don’t want to come in last place in the next stage. This made me think that we were revving up to some really difficult obstacles that would trip up both teams at certain points. But the level of intensity and unpredictability throughout this final remains pretty low. And the unevenness of the cells regarding strong, smart competitors doesn’t make for a nail-baiting race. There’s also a severe lack of struggle depicted during this final. Certain players make mistakes. Nelson gets a cramp while swimming but looks extremely calm. CT even announces, at one point, that he “could do this shit all day.” It’s just not a great ending to a show that everyone has lambasted for most of the season for being a snoozefest.
So TJ says “go” in the most bored tone, and the teams run for an unspecified distance to a crate wrapped in rope. I think this final would benefit from letting us know how long these guys have to run so we can grasp the level of difficulty. Without it, everything looks like a five-minute run. For the most part, everyone looks pretty okay running through the heat. This may be a final, but it certainly doesn’t feel like TJ’s final.
So everyone untangles the rope on top of the crate, which contains a safe. They then have to swim to the middle of a lake where they have to dive underwater to look at an answer key. The purple cell is moving as effortlessly as you would expect. But the orange cell has Nelson, who proves to be the least valuable player at almost every checkpoint. He ends up getting a cramp and can’t swim to the answer key. The editors try to squeeze out as much drama as they can from this moment. But he shouts for help the way someone would say “excuse me” if they saw a pen drop from a stranger’s purse. And I honestly think their team benefitted from him not having to memorize anything.
Everyone ends up unlocking their safes and obtaining their keys for the next checkpoint, but purple is still in the lead. The next checkpoint involves unlocking and untangling a chain wrapped around a torpedo that they must carry to the next stop. The purple team struggles with untangling, which allows for the orange team to gain the lead but only until they arrive at a checkpoint that requires brainpower.
This is the point in the final where I would’ve smothered Nelson with a torpedo. Back in the old days with a more feisty group of challengers, he would’ve been told to shut up and sit down. But Kaycee, Nany and Kyle keep letting Nelson shout out gibberish. Eventually, they just start wasting energy by moving around torpedoes without figuring if it will work first. Geniuses, these four! Of course, when the purple cell arrives, CT figures the puzzle out in three seconds. They then head to a checkpoint with a circular cage containing their overnight supplies that they must roll to their camp.
After probably four hours, the orange team finally makes three squares and begins rolling their rusty orb through the mountains. For reasons I don’t completely understand, Nelson gets a little too excited and pushes the cage towards the edge of the path until it rolls down a hill and into some trees. I hate that the dullness of this show has nudged me into a state where I miss someone like Zach being on the show. But I really needed someone to scream at Nelson at this moment.
Anyhow, everyone makes it to camp where there’s no cruel sleeping arrangement with snakes or stationary bikes like usual, aside from everyone sleeping on a yoga mat essentially on top of rocks. Everyone chats and eats their giant can of soup. Nany and Kaycee are having their couple banter. There’s a closeup on a snake, which was maybe stock footage they inserted, and soundbite of a wolf howling that I also believe they inserted to add a level of danger to this camp situation. But everyone looks pretty comfortable and unbothered, including Nany who’s internalized this whole setup as a romantic getaway with Kaycee.
The next morning, they meet TJ who tells the members of the cell who came in last place yesterday, Orange, that they have to face off in same-sex eliminations. This is the point in the episode where it really hits an emotional lull despite the producers’ best efforts to ratchet up some anxiety and suspense. I would’ve been fine with the orange cell flipping a coin to see who goes home, considering who’s on the cell. Do we care about Nelson or Kyle ever winning a championship? Yes, it would be cool if Nany shockingly pulled out a win. But if she gets eliminated like on every other season, will it break any viewers’ hearts?
Likewise, Kyle beats Nelson in “Back Me Up,” which we saw earlier this season. And Kaycee obviously beats Nany. I’m not invested enough in Kaycee and Nany as a couple to care about how tortuous this must feel. But it’s clear Nany is just happy to have Kaycee in her life at this point. And I’m pretty sure she has a deal with MTV to appear on this show until she dies. So she’ll be alright!
Next, TJ tells Kyle and Kaycee to pick teammates for the last portion of the final. Kyle picks Tori, and Kaycee picks CT, which means Devin and Emy are stuck together. For the last leg, they have to race up a mountain and memorize a series of numbers to open a safe at the bottom. TJ also mentions that the winners have the option to divvy up the prize money with their castmates or keep it all for themselves. Everyone is obviously exhausted doing this, but we’re spared the fainting or threats to quit that usually occur during these final portions that make them super compelling. The most jarring part of this race honestly was how long the row of numbers they had to memorize was.
So Kaycee and CT make it down first with Tori and Kyle seconds behind them. In the most anti-climatic win ever, one of the safe door cracks opens, and CT and Kaycee run to grab the giant, plastic diamond inside. They’re jumping around and rolling in the grass as you would expect. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CT’s champion narrative hit a peak last season after he got back in shape and managed to beat a bunch of 20-year-olds after hitting 40. But this season, it just made me angry that the other vets weren’t smart or bold enough to get him out earlier. Johnny Bananas would end up at finals season after season, but at least some of the vets and even the rookies would try to gang up on him. This season, no one even mentioned the risk of CT beating all their asses in a final, including the self-proclaimed masterminds and strategists!
So Tori and Kyle come in second, and Emy and Devin come in third. Kaycee and CT ultimately decide to give each team $100,000. Surprisingly, this part out of the entire final made me the most emotional, especially seeing the look of relief on everyone’s faces and Kyle’s level of appreciation. Not that $50,000 is anything to turn your nose up at. But these people are all like bottom-tier Instagram celebs who earn peanuts promoting unknown products, so I know even this smaller portion meant a lot.
However, the entire time Kaycee and CT were hugging their castmates, I imagined how they could leverage this act of generosity against them in future seasons. Kaycee might not be cutthroat enough to do that, but CT is old-school enough that he certainly will. This move is also just a really good look for the two of them, partially in a post-”Bananas stealing all the money from Sarah on Rivals III” world. So congrats to CT and Kaycee on being rich and getting to look like the Bill and Melinda Gates of reality television.
Well, that’s all, folks! This season had a lot of promise in the beginning that it just couldn’t fulfill with this tired group of vets. But at least we know there are some interesting rookies out there. (American Survivor people, please come back!) Overall, I think this season and the low ratings it received will be a wakeup call to producers to finally start listening to the Internet. The official Challenge Twitter account is already asking fans whether they’d want to see another Battle of the Exes or Rivals season. And the franchise mascot (Bananas) stopped covering the season on his podcast because he thought it was so boring. So I’m hoping for a full-on Challenge-aissance in the next year. Until then, watch the old folks make way better television over at Paramount+ on The Challenge: All Stars!