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‘The Challenge’ Recap: Trust No One, Not Even Someone Who Winks at You

Theresa and Jay finally make a move—but will it come back to hurt them?

Getty Images/MTV/Ringer illustration

The global pandemic has shut down all modes of normal life. But MTV’s The Challenge stops for nothing. What—you thought they’d take a season off? The NBA returned, the NFL returned, the NHL returned, MLB returned—why wouldn’t America’s fifth sport also find a way to compete? This past September, production plunked down in Reykjavik, Iceland, to begin filming the 36th (!!) installment of The Challenge. They’re in their own bubble—though, it’s worth noting, they are not being held underground like last season—and they’re ready to kill each other for a million dollars. And we’re ready to document every moment: from the feats of strength to the bad decisions, from the bonkers late-night fights to the extraordinarily dope shit TJ Lavin does.

A Change of Pace From TJ

On top of totally nailing an ad read for P3 Portable Protein Packs (“We all know: Three energy-pack proteins are better than one”), host TJ Lavin showed his softer side this week. At the beginning of the episode, Lio goes home, telling others that being separated from his wife and being reminded of his childhood, when he lived in a group home, had grown to be too much to handle. When addressing the exit before the group challenge, TJ goes out of his way to applaud Lio: “I support that decision 100 percent. The number one priority is not competing, not winning—it’s your health. Talk to each other, be there for each other. Your health is more important than The Challenge.”

This is a really great message from TJ. In both the sports and reality TV worlds, there’s still a long way to go in terms of discussing and prioritizing mental health, and TJ’s earnestness and support is a step toward progress. But it’s also important for Challenge fans to hear this from TJ. TJ has always been ruthless in calling people out for quitting—it’s the quality that’s defined him as a TV host. And a cruel reading of Lio’s situation would be that he gave up—so it’s crucial that TJ took the time to draw a line and note that there’s a difference between quitting and putting one’s mental health first.

Most of the time, TJ plays the role of a nearly sadistic rascal. He certainly did later in this episode (more on that below). But in this moment, it was heartening to see that for as much as he needles the contestants, he also cares about them.

The Tale of the Two-Faced Theresa

Screenshots via MTV

Imagine you’re talking to someone and these are the faces they’re making at you. The disrespect is offff the charts. And Theresa was doing this to a former Olympian!

What an episode for Theresa. For the first five episodes of Double Agents, she has been on the sidelines, staying above the fray. But apparently while she was there, she was making a list of people to eliminate:

You can only stay quiet in this game for so long, and after winning the group challenge with Jay, Theresa decides it’s time to make a move. Drunk off power, she tells everyone in the house to nominate Ashley for elimination—and declares those who didn’t as disloyal—and then throws Kam into the Crater as her opponent.

On its face, you can’t really discredit the strategy. Jay and Theresa pit two strong competitors against each other, eliminated a political threat, and weakened the pool of women who could be around for the final. And they did what they wanted, knowing that there isn’t a single decision in The Challenge that won’t make at least one faction mad.

Really, it’s the execution that left something to be desired. They just don’t do anything that could soften the political blowback of their moves. Theresa goes out of her way to tell Kam that she’d give her the opportunity to earn a skull if Kam wanted it—but when Kam doesn’t want it, Theresa throws her in anyway, making enemies out of Kam, Kyle (Kam’s partner), and Leroy (Kam’s boyfriend) in the process. As for Jay, he chooses not to tell Cory that he and his partner Ashley were the group nomination; in fact, he might’ve straight up lied about it. He also looks Kyle in the face at the Bubble Bar and more or less tells him that he and Kam have nothing to worry about. In both cases, a little bit more transparency might’ve done them good. Theresa and Jay were determined to blindside people, when in retrospect, there wasn’t much to be gained from doing so.

That said, it will never stop being hilarious how people on The Challenge think they’re safe from being fucked over by a so-called friend. Everyone always acts surprised that they can’t trust anybody, even though the takeaway of every episode is that you can’t trust anybody. Cory yelling “Did you not wink at me on the bus?!” at Jay has to be one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever seen on this show. It’s a show about deception, my guy! Don’t trust people’s winks if you don’t wanna get hurt! Also, winking is an inherently shifty facial gesture! It can mean multiple things!

TJ Is Wrong for This

For the entire episode, the assumption is that they’re headed toward another girl’s elimination. Every decision made by every single player is based on that assumption. But TJ, ever the rascal, throws a curveball after Kam and Kyle and Ashley and Cory are sent into the Crater. “Tonight is a very important elimination round,” he says. “Especially for the men…”

At this point, the whole cast goes fucking nuts. “What the fuck?” Jay moans, while Ashley, suddenly safe from elimination, gives everyone two birds:

But! TJ hadn’t finished his sentence, you see. After what seems like an eternity, he continues: “... to watch their partners.”

So it’s a female elimination after all; TJ just did that to mess with everyone. This man is a legend. Give him an Emmy for this performance alone.

The Double Agents Power Ranking: Week 6

After each episode, we’ll determine the players who are best situated to win it all—and the ones who are hanging on by a thread.

The Top Six

1. Kam: Gold skull acquired. Kam is the best all-around female competitor left this season and as she just proved, she’s a really hard out.

2. Kyle: You’d think being a pair that’s already acquired gold skulls would make Kam and Kyle a target, but at least so far, no one has even considered going after a person who’s already won an elimination. (I find this very odd!)

3. Kaycee

4. Leroy: Next to Kam and Kyle, Kaycee and Leroy seem best situated right now—they’re strong competitors who also have a bunch of allies. If they can win an elimination, they’re both going to go to the final.

5. Lolo Jones: Does it make me weird that Lolo’s stifled crying in this episode kinda felt like ASMR?

6. CT: Prediction: Within the next three episodes, CT wins an elimination, dumps Big T as a partner, and joins up with Lolo.

The Bottom Six

20. Josh: We’re down to 20 competitors, which means we’re halfway to the final 10. Speaking of the final 10, Josh will not be a part of it.

19. Amber M.

18. Mechie: It’s also somewhat strange that so far, none of the group challenge winners have schemed to get a weak competitor thrown into elimination, thus giving the winners the opportunity to nominate themselves and get an easy ticket to the final. Everyone has been much more focused on surviving week to week. But that will change, and when it does, undersized rookies like Amber M. and Mechie are going to be sacrificed by bigger veterans.

17. Gabby: Gabby only slightly moved up this week because it appears she has Fessy eating out of her palm, much to Aneesa’s chagrin:

16. Theresa

15. Jay: They just have too many enemies, zero skulls, and not enough allies. That’s a bad recipe on this show.