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‘The Challenge’ Recap: Breakups Suck

After MTV tweaks the rules for a legend, two goofs go home while the best bromance of the season goes up in flames

MTV/Getty Images/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.

The Beauty of Reality Shows That Can Change Their Rules

Last week’s episode ended with a cliffhanger, as a “security breach” interrupted an impending elimination between CT and Devin. The only hint we had as to what this meant was the breach from several episodes ago, when Ashley Mitchell returned to replace Natalie Anderson. But as it turns out, that moment wasn’t exactly a precedent.

In Double Agents, “security breach” doesn’t mean “a person infiltrates the game” (which actually makes some sense); instead, it apparently means “we changed the rules because we wanted to.” Before this breach, the Big Brother alliance had successfully thrown Devin into an elimination that everyone knew CT, Devin’s ally, wanted to be a part of. Pitting them against each other would’ve strengthened the Big Brother alliance to the point of being unstoppable in the season’s closing weeks.

And so, MTV producers were essentially like, “Nah.”

The security breach this time around, TJ explains, means that there’s a double elimination. But not only is the team that received the second-most house votes forced to go into the Crater—the double agents, CT and Big T, also get to choose the opponents in both eliminations.

It’s hard to overstate the amount of power this twist puts in CT’s hands, and it’s no surprise the extent to which it changes the game. The fallout here is so severe that the rest of the episode is spent dealing with it; there isn’t even a group challenge. CT lets Devin choose his opponent (he picks Darrell) and then tees himself up for a matchup with Josh, who—oh, man—is just so clearly terrified that he’s being forced to prove himself against an actual competitor.

Screenshots via MTV

Then, after handily beating Josh—you may not be shocked to read that it wasn’t even close—CT shakes things up even further by ditching Big T and picking Kam as his new partner, a move that perhaps strengthens his day-to-day game, but makes new enemies out of Kyle and Big T while also complicating the Big Brother alliance. The entire dynamic of the house is disrupted.

And it all essentially happens because MTV handed the keys over to CT, tweaking the rules of the game to give him an advantage and impede an alliance that had taken over. Them’s the perks of being a vet, and also one of the most popular reality TV characters ever—you can bet that they wouldn’t have pulled the trigger on this security breach if CT had already acquired a gold skull, or even if he was leading a strong alliance and controlling the game. Big Brother is allowed to play The Challenge, but they’re not yet allowed to dominate it.

Maybe this sort of tampering is a turn-off to you. Maybe you think it devalues what it means to be a Challenge champion. But you know what? I love it. The Challenge is, first and foremost, a reality show, and all the best reality shows operate with a fluid set of rules and giddily change things up without notice in order to redirect outcomes and resurrect drama. (Love Island is a shining example of this ethos—that show’s introduction of Casa de Amor is an all-time reality TV moment.) We’re here for chaos, not fair play. If Josh or Fessy is annoyed that the game isn’t being rigged in their favor, they should stop crying and start trying to become as iconic as this dude:

A Swan Song for Two Goofs

“Josh, we’ve got more in common than I thought,” Devin says after they’ve both been eliminated.

“Fuck off, Devin,” Josh replies.

The never-ending battle between Josh and Devin was the most consistent story line this season had to offer. They butted heads nearly every episode: Josh doing his tough guy thing that no one believes; Devin holding what looks to be a days-old cigarette, drunkenly blurting out things that make no sense but are still oddly triggering. (If Double Agents is remembered for anything, it’ll be “What’s eight times nine?”) The amount of meaningless fighting that defines The Challenge is about to steeply decline.

But Devin is right—they do have a lot in common. They both don’t scare anyone; they both, apparently, can’t grab a rope dangling from a helicopter; and they’re both astonishingly annoying. They both also went out pretty sad. Devin chose Darrell, a Challenge legend, as his elimination opponent—not a very smart pick, although because Cory and Nam were rogue agents who couldn’t have been selected, Devin’s options were limited—and then choked when it came time to solve a puzzle. Meanwhile, Josh said this before his matchup with CT: “If I win this, I’m securing a million dollars in my bank account.” To be clear, that is incredibly false. It’s amazing to see a guy pretend to be this confident just before hopelessly flailing around on a harness for 10 minutes.

All in all, this was the perfect end to a season-defining feud. Devin and Josh deserve each other, and if MTV doesn’t bring back the “rivals” concept for next season of The Challenge specifically to pair these two up, they’ll be missing a huge opportunity.

A Picture of CT Having an Argument While Eating a Bunch of Cold Cuts

Breakups Are Hard to Handle

Ugh. I almost don’t want to address this. The pain is still too raw.

Next to Devin driving Josh to tears every week by simply saying “Big Brother sucks,” the emergence of CT and Big T’s friendship has been this season’s best story line. It’s been heartwarming, empowering, and sweet, a showcase for Big T’s endlessly appealing personality and CT’s growth as a human. And it all went out the window on Wednesday night.

Not that we didn’t know it was coming—MTV had been teasing the split for weeks. But the way it went down was more brutal than expected. It’s not that CT opted to leave Big T and make Kam his partner—it’s the way he did it. The guy practically jumps out of his body celebrating that he’s finally able to get rid of Big T, yelling things like “I don’t give a fuck!” and “Not a day went by where I didn’t think about getting you back!”

It’s a truly confounding display, as if CT snorted smelling salts or injected himself with pure testosterone. (To make matters even worse, Darrell chose to stay with his partner, Amber B.) For the past few seasons, CT has been the aging teddy bear of The Challenge—the wizened vet who makes hilarious comments in a Boston accent, who learned from his past as a villain to become a genuine human being. The CT that leapt out here, I’m not sure if I’ve seen this version since the days of bullying Adam or getting in Wes’s face, or even since he was the 22-year-old punk always looking for a fight on Real World: Paris. “Part of me wants to play a scumbag and part of me wants to ride it out with Big T,” CT told cameras before the decision, and well, wow, he really went all the way with that first option, huh?

Realizing that he definitely got too excited, CT spends the rest of the episode trying to butter up Big T. But then he also messes that up! Instead of just apologizing for his behavior, he gives Big T a condescending pep talk and then twists it and says, “Big T, you’re not ready for that final.” What the hell, man?! Apologies should not end with, “By the way, athletically speaking you’re a joke and therefore all of my actions are justified.” That is a bad apology.

“Don’t give me some Coach Carter–ass speech,” Big T says to Gabby afterwards, which, weird pull aside, is exactly right. (I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone reference Coach Carter in casual conversation. Was Coach Carter a foundational movie for teens in the United Kingdom? I would like some more information on Coach Carter’s audience, thank you very much.)

All in all, it’s just a horrible look for CT—it’s maybe, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, his worst look ever. He’s still easier to root for than the Big Brother people, but man, I liked it better the way things were before. I just wish mom and dad didn’t have to break up.

Wave Goodbye to Nam

Nam has been talking about having severe back pain for, like, three episodes now, and on Wednesday night, he was reduced to moving around like an 104-year-old man. “I feel very fragile right now,” he says, pronouncing “fragile” with a hard G. “Like a glass that can break.”

It’s the end of the road for Nam, making him the fifth contestant to leave the show for extracurricular reasons. It was a great rookie season for the guy—he’s a human reaction GIF, a humble dude with a gentle demeanor, and a solid competitor. He was also stuck with Lolo Jones—the person who said she couldn’t swim well because her shoe fell off—for an entire season. That’s a cloud of negativity that would swallow most others up, but not Nam.

I hope he comes back next season.

The Double Agents Power Ranking: Week 12

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 Four

1. Leroy: Programming note: With so few competitors left, I’m ranking only the top and bottom four from here on out. But along with his partner, Kaycee, Leroy is still in the best spot.

2. Kaycee

3. Darrell: It was always just a question of whether Darrell would manage to get a ticket to the final. As one of the less physically daunting skull-holders, he may be forced to defend that ticket one more time. But if he’s in the final, his odds will be good.

4. Kam: Kam is correct that partnering up with CT right after he turned into a scumbag complicates her game. But here’s the thing: I don’t think anyone wants to see either of them in an elimination, so it’s probably fine.

The Bottom Four

13. Gabby: She’s really just hanging out in Iceland until either: (a) someone throws her into an elimination for an easy win or (b) she just goes home because the final’s starting and she doesn’t have a skull.

12. Cory: He’s the only guy left without a skull, and to get one he’ll have to either beat CT, Fessy, Leroy, Kyle, or Darrell. Nothing’s impossible, but Cory would be the obvious underdog in each of those matchups.

11. Aneesa

10. Big T: I’m rooting so hard for her—what a perfect story it would be if she could rub a final win in CT’s face. That said, he wasn’t exactly wrong—she’s gonna have a hard time if she gets there, which she probably won’t. But it’s like Coach Carter says, “If we played ‘em 10 times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.” Oh whoops, no, my bad—that’s from Miracle. I really need to rewatch Coach Carter.