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‘The Challenge’ Recap: The All-Powerful Alliance and the Resistance

In the words of Devin, ‘Big Brother’ sucks! But they are controlling ‘Double Agents,’ leaving the rest of the competitors to fight for scraps

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.

Grading Big T’s Training Montage

After winning her first elimination the week prior, Big T is looking to get in shape for the final she just qualified for. For her trainer, she of course calls on CT, the man who has been both warmly supportive to her and roundly dismissive of her abilities. He is both her best friend and her emotional terrorist—in other words, he’s like every personal trainer ever.

I love a good training montage. I once wrote about 6,000 words on them. And with The Challenge giving us a montage of their own, I’ve decided to bring back the rubric from that post to grade Big T’s showcase. For those who don’t click hyperlinks, the grading is broken down into four categories—the Reason, the “This Won’t Be Easy” Acknowledgment, the Feats of Strength, the Song—with each category being rated on a scale from 1-10. Here we go.

The Reason: Big T wants to win TJ’s final. Compared to movies like Enough (J.Lo wants to destroy her abusive husband) and Rocky IV (Rocky wants to defeat Ivan Drago and also win the Cold War), this goal is obviously pretty inconsequential. But in the context of The Challenge, there’s nothing more important than winning the final. Let’s split the difference and give this a 5/10.

The “This Won’t Be Easy” Acknowledgment: When Big T says that it’s too early to start training, CT replies, “Early? It’s late—late in the game.” This is just a very cool way to set the stakes, made all the more amazing by CT’s “it’s five in the morning” face:

Screenshots via MTV

Let’s give it a 7/10.

The Feats of Strength: OK, haha, so, in this montage, Big T: runs on a treadmill for a while, does a bunch of stairs, and then jogs some more while CT holds her back with a rope. This is not exactly like Rocky carrying a huge sled through Russian snow. 2/10

The Song: MTV scored their montage with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” The classics are the classics for a reason—after being featured in the Rocky III montage where Rocky and Apollo Creed run on a beach and then hug each other in homoerotic glory, “Eye of the Tiger” is basically the training montage song. That said, it’s pretty derivative at this point. I would’ve gone with something less expected. 4/10

Bonus Points: I’m giving three bonus points to this incredible pan from Big T sweating her ass off on the treadmill to CT, bundled up in a blanket, sipping on some coffee:

Overall, this montage comes in with a score of 21 points. That puts it dead last on The Ringer Montage Scale that I, and only I, adhere to. All things considered, that feels just about right.

Daily Challenge Plagiarism

This week’s group challenge had the remaining teams pile into round metal cages—some teams had to roll their cages onto target zones, while others had to defend those targets. Here’s a quick glimpse of how it looked:

And here I am, typing a sentence that will only reinforce that I am now old as fuck: THIS IS PLAGIARIZING AMERICAN GLADIATORS, THE GAME SHOW THAT AIRED FROM 1989 TO 1996.

American Gladiators was a dope-ass ’90s show where normal people would try to beat juiced-up meatheads in physical competitions. It was great: Everyone wore leotards, there were dudes with bomb names like Nitro and Havoc, and also awesome events like Powerball and yes, this thing where contestants would roll around in metal cages. Look at this shit—The Challenge even stole the idea to have mist shoot out when someone lands on a target:

I’d be surprised that TJ Lavin didn’t explicitly reference the show when explaining the challenge, only it’s likely that 90 percent of the contestants would’ve had no idea what he was talking about. (Out of the remaining 10, only CT definitely knows what American Gladiators is. A scant few may have heard tell of it, or like, watched I Love the ’90s one time.)

But I’m not even that mad—The Challenge should be stealing from American Gladiators more often. Powerball is an amazing game; they also had people stand on small platforms and bash each other with sticks. I’m all for the American Gladiator–ification of The Challenge, so long as no one asks me how old I was in 1996.

The Wildly Inconsistent Amber B.

It’s impossible to get a read on Amber B. As a competitor, she’ll go from looking like the weakest remaining woman by far to trucking someone in a Hall Brawl. She’s just as all over the map as a competitor: In the middle of the season, it was her who stood up to Theresa and refused to tank a daily challenge, yet she’s also been more than willing to take a back seat as the Big Brother alliance makes game-shifting moves. They ruthlessly sent her partner, Darrell, into elimination, and even after that she continued to expect loyalty from them—an expectation that’s once again rendered naive this week.

With the numbers dwindling in the house, the Big Brother alliance is starting to close ranks—they no longer have patsies to target, and so they’re forced to decide who among their allies are most expendable. As she’s a rookie and paired with Kyle, Amber B. is the obvious person left out. But Kaycee and Fessy are really bending over backward in justifying their moves against Amber after she spent the whole season helping them out. Kaycee says that this is just the way it goes and that she owes Amber nothing, even though it was Amber who gave her the opportunity to win a skull.

Fessy goes even further: “We carried her,” he says, which is an interesting take from a guy who’s won only one more daily challenge than Amber this season. “She’s entitled in this game,” he continues. Again, this is a guy with no Challenge rings who just last week was talking all kinds of shit to CT—I’m not sure he’s qualified to judge who’s entitled and who’s not. (Fessy may think that his strength or his size are his best ability, but really, it’s his ability to come off like an asshole that’s unmatched.)

In the end, Big Brother gets what they want, sending in Amber B. to face Big T in elimination. But the move potentially backfires when Amber once again dominates in the Crater and steals Fessy as her partner. Now Fessy’s stuck with the girl he wanted gone. She’s still in the alliance, whether or not anyone really wants her to be.

All season long, I’ve thought that Amber B. would be an easy out. That she will most likely be competing in a final in her rookie season just further proves how hard she is to read.

Au Revoir, Big T

What a season. Big T was probably the most compelling character on Double Agents, the star of an underdog arc that included unlikely friendships, betrayal, triumph, and whatever you call this:

The Big T–CT partnership has been a gift from the reality TV gods. It is somewhat ironic that Big T’s loyalty to CT was essentially the reason that she got sent home—if she hadn’t stuck with him as a partner and had gone with Fessy instead, the Big Brother alliance would have kept her safe—but that just makes her decision all the more admirable. She went with her heart over her game. (She probably also just doesn’t like Fessy, which, fair.)

It’s sad to see her go—getting a Big T upset in the final is all I ever really wanted. I hope she keeps training with CT, because if it ever happens, the Big T Challenge victory will be an all-time moment.

The Double Agents Power Ranking: Week 16

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.

1. Leroy and Kaycee: Five daily challenge wins. These two are unstoppable.

2. Cory & Kam: They definitely deserve this second spot, but at some point you do have to wonder if Kam is more worried about Leroy winning than winning herself. I’m sure Cory would like to know where her head’s really at.

3. CT (Rogue Agent): I’m mad at CT for flipping on Kyle and voting him and Amber B. into elimination. I get the logic—voting that way guaranteed a matchup with Kyle rather than a matchup with Fessy—but it’s yet another example of CT failing to play the long game in Double Agents. CT only wants to play for himself, but the reason Big Brother has dominated this season so thoroughly is because they’ve been a solid coalition against a bunch of disparate, self-interested factions. CT voting for Kyle may have saved him, but it just handed the reins of the game to Big Brother. I did, however, enjoy CT revealing his betrayal to Kyle while fully tucked in for bed:

4. Kyle & Nany: Kyle will have to win another elimination if he wants to make it to the final—that much is clear. But repeat after me: YOU CAN’T BET AGAINST KYLE.

5. Fessy & Amber B: This partnership will not last. And with Big T gone, I’m no longer rooting for anyone to win—I’m only rooting for a certain someone to lose.