So the Challenge USA 2 ended a few weeks ago. You might have thought I forgot about it or dropped the show, given I didn’t blog about the last few episodes… but don’t worry, I kept my thoughts marinating while Survivor and the Challenge 39 were starting, and I’m now prepared to unleash.
I offer you ten thoughts about the final few episodes of the Challenge USA 2.
That Micheltdown was Fun! (Basically the Episode 12 Recap)
After playing the middle for so long without making waves, Michele finally had to face some backlash for her decisions in Episode 12. Michele officially took the side of the MTV vets and made enemies of half the girls remaining in the game because the Secret Garden alliance of Chanelle, Desi, and Michaela were not happy at all with this turncoat behavior. This is where perspective and perception matters: as a part of the audience we get to see what everyone’s thinking, but to the Secret Garden alliance Michele had been plotting with them and affirming many of the plans devised in the group from the first days of the game, and was more than happy to spout Survivor strong when it benefitted her in the past. Now with hindsight, Michele probably should have been clearer with her alliance intentions sooner. If a Survivor duo were to say… win an important challenge this late in the game, Michele made herself the obvious nomination. Swinging to the vets the second numbers were in their favor and letting the backlash come then when there are more possible targets for nomination (and weaker challengers to possibly face in an elimination) probably was the ideal move.
The Episode 12 daily challenge resulted in a huge victory for the minority alliance on the ropes, putting Chris and Desi in positions of great power. The veteran braintrust determined that there were seven puzzle pieces to find in the fort… but the Secret Garden alliance (now with new member Chris Underwood) figured out there were eight pieces. Micheala led a misinformation campaign to convince the vets that they were right, and the ladies plus Chris paraded to the puzzle stations with their eighth piece, bamboozling the vets wondering why their puzzles didn’t work (credit to the challenge design choosing a puzzle that did not make the required number of pieces obvious by the way). With power, Chris and Desi have an opportunity to get back at people that went after them, and this is unlucky for Michele. Michele is simply a much easier person to beat for her allies over Tori, if the Hopper chooses a friend instead of Cassidy for the arena. Michele sees the writing on the wall and lashes out at Michaela in what ends up being a pretty entertaining argument. Conflict is just Michele’s way to cope at this moment, because she knows now that she chose the wrong side and left herself vulnerable. Michaela hilariously plays along and relishes in pushing Michele’s buttons. I’ll give props to Michele for at least wanting the smoke, despite Michaela getting the better of her here. Replace Michaela and Laurel and I don’t think we see Michele try to puff out her chest.
The elimination that night required a lot of strength and endurance, which was damning for Michele. Michele’s challenge strengths are swimming and puzzles. None of her strengths help her in many of these eliminations, because she isn’t a physical or particularly coordinated athlete. Cassidy used her superior power to tire Michele out early and drag her around to win the elimination later. Michele leaves this show and finds herself on the Challenge 39, hoping that her political game will work in a different season with a different cast so she doesn’t have to lose in another elimination. I mentioned it in my Challenge 39 preview so I’ll keep it short here: Michele is falling into the Challenge mediocrity purgatory. Charm and a political game only takes you so far in a game like the Challenge. At some point you have to start winning dailies and eliminations, and Michele just hasn’t done that… yet.
The Curious Case of Josh “The Goof” Martinez (Basically the Episode 13 Recap)
Episode 13 focused on the men’s nomination and secret vote, as it proved to be a lot more complex than the women’s side (which was “throw in Cassidy”). With Fessy as the arena nomination due to another Chris Underwood win, every guy was trying to cash in on agreements to avoid facing a freight train of a challenger. Multiple deals have been made around the house that ends skewing the secret vote against none other than Johnny Bananas. He ended up getting a majority of the balls in the Hopper on the men’s side and did not get support from the vet alliance he had worked with all season. Bananas expected support from the vets, because Cory doesn’t have the same friendships among them as he does… or at least he thinks he does.
No one was more conflicted about voting against Bananas than Josh, who essentially spent the whole time from the end of the daily to the start of the elimination crying about betraying one of his many best friends in the game. It’s the typical Josh fare and should be expected because Josh is unable to make a game move without letting his emotions take over. Voting against Bananas could be a long term mistake for Josh if they end up on the same cast in the future, because it is the typical Bananas playbook to take every game move personally and to hold a grudge when people don’t play exactly the way he thinks they should play. Josh just valued his friendship with Faysal more than his friendship with Bananas. It doesn’t really matter who Josh goes against in a final because he is an underdog against everyone remaining. His goal is just to make the final, and therefore minimize the balls he gets in the Hopper, which he succeeded in doing. The odds were in his favor going into the arena.
But the challenge gods did not smile on Josh. He gets sent into the elimination and loses to Fessy on the day before he could’ve finally ran his first final. The repercussions of this are intriguing… Josh is very close to breaking a Challenge record for most seasons without a final, and he realistically has one more season to go for it before I think his Challenge career should end. This was arguably Josh’s best result in a Challenge season and it came with no individual daily wins, no elimination wins, and only one standout moment in a deliberation wayyy back in episode four. At some point Josh has to call it quits before he becomes undeniably the worst competitor in the show’s history… he should not look to run up a final-less season streak.
A Reflection on Cassidy Clark’s Odd Underdog Run
Cassidy’s Cinderella run came to an end right before the final, putting an odd stamp on what in reflection was an overachievement of a season. Cassidy, in brutal honesty, was saved from the possible embarrassment of getting curb stomped by the other girls in the final. It was the best time for her to go as her storyline had essentially been completed by the time the final episodes rolled around. It was clear to me that the show started moving away from spotlighting Cassidy in these last episodes because she was a non-factor in dailies and the politics of the game.
Cassidy did prove to be a challenger built for eliminations. Cassidy is a “jack of all trades” type of challenger, not excelling in any one trait but competent in all of them. Being well-rounded was perfect for eliminations because there are very few tasks that you are going to struggle in. Cassidy beat multiple average to below-average challengers in eliminations to get further in the game, and that along with the dramatic persona she brought to her rookie season is definitely enough to get a second shot on the show… but a long term run in the Challenge sphere is going to require her to either cool down and make more friends in the house or improve her physical skills so she can gain respect as a strong competitor. Yes, the Cassidy run was fun, but she never felt like a legitimate threat to the top dogs, unlike another underdog Survivor alum this season.
Neutering the Hall Brawl
I must touch on this before talking about the final. CBS decided this season to turn the classic hall brawl into a puzzle contest. Yes, the hall is still there and the challengers try to run over each other(with an added riot shield for safety’s sake). But instead of making the most physical elimination in the challenge a best-of-three cinematic war, production decided to make a simple “count the shapes” puzzle the win condition, completely negating the physical advantages a challenger may have. The benefit for winning a hall brawl is maybe a five second advantage on a brainteaser, which is not much of an advantage and quite the letdown. It feels like a sick joke that the show decided to make the iconic hall completely pointless. Thankfully, the hall brawl winners also beat their competition in the puzzle or I’d have a bone to pick with the CBS producers. I’m sure we will go back to a more physical hall brawl in season 39, since MTV simply does not care about contestant safety as much.
Day One of the Final: What was the Point?
The first day of the final was a gauntlet of mini-dailies that tested different skills: strength, spelling talent, puzzles, and eating gross shit. The results of each challenge would impact the second day of this multi day final: winning a mini-challenge allows you to start the race on the second day a minute earlier than your competitors, while losing a mini-challenge means you have to start a minute later. You also get a chance to double down on a certain leg of the final to boost the advantage you win or lose but blah blah blah blah blah.
I’ll cut straight to the point. None of these tasks on the first day mattered at all unless your name was Cory “Doing it for the Daughter” Wharton. Cory’s horrendous day one performance put him in a five minute hole against the rest of men — a huge disadvantage. Everyone else (minus Chanelle, who had a two or three minute setback against the women) kept their start times close to each other. Basically, the whole point of the first day was to build fatigue for the real final on the second day, further supported by an overnight portion of the final that did not make the cut for the episode. Ride or Dies had a similar problem in their final, where they threw a bunch of these tasks upon the challengers that didn’t really serve much purpose for the result of the actual final except to occupy the show’s time slot. It makes me think that we have to do away with all the fluff that comes with a multi-day final and get back to basics with a single day final course that simply matters more.
Fessy and Tori — The Two Favorites Stumbled when it Mattered Most
Day two of the final was where things got serious. The second day was a big race with three challenges along the trail. Within the race were the make-or-break mini-challenge stations. Success at the stations gave challengers a major advantage over those who failed. Stick an axe throw into the target and you cut 1.5 miles off your run. Balance the scale and you get to use a four-wheeler for a section of the race instead of running.
These stations folded two of the perceived favorites… specifically the skill of axe throwing. Fessy’s running pace was fantastic but he couldn’t stick an axe… and then he compounds another mistake by making a wrong turn and taking the shortcut when he wasn’t supposed to. I don’t know that if he took the long way like he was supposed to he would’ve beaten Cory to the second checkpoint, but Faysal’s stupid mistake on the running course guaranteed his last place finish and added another disappointing and embarrassing finals performance to his Challenge career.
Tori also failed the axe throw as well and had to run the long path.The increased running distance allowed every woman to pass Tori and she was eliminated early with Faysal. I think overall there was a bit of overestimating the skills of these two challenge vets on my part with a bit of underestimating of the abilities of the rest of the cast. There was this feeling that allowing two beasts to coast their way to the final to dominate was a mistake, but there wasn’t really a moment where Fessy or Tori showed to be any better than their competition on day one or two of the final, except maybe on the single puzzle they had to complete.
Cory and Bananas — A Tale of Two Days
I’d already mentioned that Cory crapped the bed dramatically on day one. He amassed a fairly significant time penalty that seemingly destroyed his chances at winning the final. But I will give Cory credit for fighting back in a much better day two performance. Cory was able to complete the two risky checkpoints and pass up both Fessy and Bananas, earning a second place finish when he should have ended up in last. But that horrendous day one performance can’t be overlooked when we talk about the future of Cory on the Challenge. Cory has made a lot of finals but has never been able to put together a strong performance when it mattered. While Cory has come a long way from outright embarrassing himself like he did on Invasion of the Champions, even a Cory at the peak of his powers can’t seem to outperform your typical Challenge finalists, and this makes me think that Cory’s only chance of ever getting the elusive title of Challenge champion is going to have to be with a kickass partner or in the rare team season. Cory simply cannot win on his own.
Bananas, on the other hand, had a strong day one but faded on day two. I think age has caught up to Bananas a bit, and on top of that he made a poor read on what day two’s race would entail. Bananas banked on the lengthy run being more of a battle of attrition and that did not pay off. Despite getting a minute advantage over Fessy and Chris to start day two, he did not capitalize on the extra time and got passed in the running portion leading up to the first task. Bananas sealed his fate when he was the only person to screw up the scale task and missed out on the ATV, but even if he did succeed, it looked like he was going to end up in second place behind Chris. Experience can only get you so far when the physical talents of your competition have improved while your own physical skills are past your peak. Bananas is still capable of winning a final, but I think in future seasons he is going to have to try to mix it up more in the politics to get strong players out, rather than hide under the radar, coast to the end, and try to beat the best opponents in a race.
Michaela’s Tragic Death in the Final Shouldn’t be a Stain on her Fantastic Season
Michaela’s chances at winning were decided by hesitation in an important moment. She and Desi were neck and neck heading into the second task, but Desi took the remaining slot at the scale and Michaela was faced with a choice: wait for Desi (or Bananas at the other scale, I think) to finish, or take a chance and forgo the ATV advantage. Michaela chose to bet on her running skills, and that proved fatal. Desi easily passed her and Michaela ran out of energy, needing the medics to remove her from the game.
This final will be a great learning experience for a strong competitor and I’m pretty confident saying we haven’t seen the last of her. Michaela won three of the last four individual challenges and got to choose her path to the end politically. She also made strides to build trust with Tori by not throwing her into the final eliminations, which I think will pay off if they end up on a cast together in a future season. Her final came down to a moment of hesitation, and if given another chance she won’t fall prey to that again.
Desi’s Redemption and the Success of the “Secret Garden” Alliance
Desi’s Challenge story came full circle this season, going from a shock disqualification in USA 1 to a victory in USA 2. She got royally shafted on that first season, where her solid rookie season was blown up because she had the misfortune of getting paired with Enzo, who quit within ten seconds on the opening swimming potion of the final. Desi this time around took matters more into her own hands from day one. Desi committed to being a more active political player this season and was a founding member of the “Secret Garden Alliance”. That came with the risk of being a more obvious target for elimination nominations, and she weathered the early resistance with a pole wrestle win against Amanda. Once Desi punched her ticket to the final, her all-around skillset and performance in the station tasks earned her a lead which she did not give up, earning the money and ultimate Challenge redemption.
While the Secret Garden alliance lost all of the secondary members on its way to the end, the core trio of Desi, Michaela, and Chanelle all made the final in what must be deemed a massive success for the fledgling alliance. They forced themselves into a power position at the start of the season, went to battle against the veteran contingent, and eventually became a voting force to be reckoned with. Combined with Michaela’s late game daily challenge dominance, the three ladies dictated the endgame on the women’s side of the house and ensured their safety by scapegoating Cassidy, cutting off Michele, and calling for a truce with Tori. Will this alliance return for a possible third Challenge USA season? Depends on who gets the callback… Desi seems to be done with the show after her win but I expect Michaela to be on again. If Chanelle is back and a new group of Survivor players is injected into the show, then they should be able to carry this power into future seasons.
Chris Underwood became a Challenge Legend in One Season
The beauty of the Challenge as a competition is that even when you screw up and find yourself on the ropes, you ultimately control your own fate. Chris’s political game fell apart way back in the team portion when he chose to make an enemy of both the Big Brother players and the veteran alliance, and it resulted in many dates in the arena. But Chris had that dog in him: he defeated every opponent he faced in eliminations and turned his luck around by winning the last two daily challenges when he was a guarantee to be nominated again if he lost. Chris rode the wave of momentum into the final, where he was consistently strong and succeeded at every task he was faced with. Chris took the lead on day two at the axe throwing station and never looked back, closing the door on one of the most impressive individual wins in Challenge history. As the show mentioned many times, Chris’s Survivor legacy had a stain on it because of how unorthodox his Edge of Extinction win was. There’s no denying that Chris earned it this time around, and for reality superfans like me who watch both Survivor and the Challenge, the perception of Chris Underwood as an undeserving show winner can be put to rest.
Would Chris come back for another season of the Challenge? Who knows, he might be happy with the result here and call it a day… Chris in general seems too old and mature for a reality TV show like the Challenge. But if the producers want to do an extra special season 40, maybe something with only winners or a battle of Challenge eras… I think Chris deserves the invite. He’s a beast at the challenges so if there’s a future season when the only people cast are the strongest of the strong, then the resume Chris brings would fit right in.
And that closes the door on another Challenge season. How do I feel about the season as a whole? It was good enough to watch an episode on a weekly basis. The Challenge USA feels like a spinoff with the watered down, competitive-focused and drama-tempered presentation. That’s not a bad thing but it keeps it a tier below the better season the Challenge has to offer. I’m interested to see if this show lives on for another season… it serves its purpose as summer programming that brings back CBS reality alumni, so I see no reason to stop here. If it’s back again, I’ll be back here writing about it.