“I want the longest, hardest final. It’s going to physically strenuous, but I don’t know… I’ve just always been good at these things.”—Abram
“I’m running this final for freedom. I’m running for freedom more than anything.” —Brad
Say what you will about various seasons of The Challenge—and Cutthroat has been particularly disappointing—but the final episodes are almost always good. MTV’s insistence on designing challenges that are so physically demanding is often a negative during the season, since it leads to too many disqualifications, but it’s great for the finale: The physical demands of the challenge push people to their breaking point, which often reveals tensions and weaknesses that have been latent on a team all season long.
So even though Cutthroat has been a subpar season, there was a lot to look forward to in last night’s episode, and it didn’t disappoint. It started with the Gulag matchups set up last week: Derrick vs. Tyler and Emily vs. Paula. They were playing the same game that Ty had lost back in Week 5 (it has some weird name, like Pole Me Over, but I can’t remember it), which favored the size of Tyler and Emily respectively. Derrick, as usual, put up a good fight, but neither he nor Paula could overcome their diminutive statures.
Losing Derrick meant that the final Blue Team consisted of just Emily and Jenn, which, even though they were my pick to win last week, pretty much killed their chances—it’s very hard to imagine a team without guys winning a final challenge. This left Gray, with Abram, Laurel, Luke, Cara Maria, and Sarah, as the favorites (they were already the favorites, really, but even moreso when Blue lost its last guy), since Abram has been the strongest male and Laurel the strongest female. The big question, though, would be whether or not Cara Maria would slow them down.
The final Red Team comprised Brad and Tori (who were declared the King and Queen of Cutthroat at the final dinner), along with Dunbar and Tyler. This left the cohesive Blue Team, the dysfunctional but highly talented Gray Team, and the rather inept Red Team for the epic final challenge.
Jenn and Emily got off to an early lead, making it to the first checkpoint first. Tori was already struggling to keep up with the rest of Red—an ominous start for the team. The first checkpoint, though, was a paintball shooting context, at which one teammate had to hit five targets positioned at various points around another teammate’s body (like where the goalie holes are), and Jenn did not prove to be an experienced shooter. This allowed Red to take the lead, with Gray and Blue closely behind them.
The next stage was yet another blow to the undermanned (see what I did there?) Blue Team: Each team had to roll two large tires up a track, and since Blue had only two players, Jenn and Emily each had to do one themselves. On the other hand, Gray and Red could each take turns rolling the tires, giving various team members a break. It was around this point that it became clear that the Blue Team would not be able to keep up.
It was also around this point that it became clear that something was up with Abram. He seemed detached and disoriented—not the fiery leader he usually is. Gray failed to catch up to Red here or at the next checkpoint, which consisted of a greasy slide into sawdust (Dunbar: “It’s basically like being tarred and feathered.”).
By the next stage, in which the team had to carry one member across a long track on a stretcher, Abram was completely out of it. He had to be led by his teammates into the shade where he could regain lucidity and drink water. Even this didn’t help much, and so Gray was forced to carry the 180-lb. Abram—as opposed to the lightweight Cara Maria—on the stretcher (plus, of course, now relying on Cara Maria and not Abram to do heavy lifting). Even this didn’t work, as Abram was soon on the ground, vomiting amounts that would make Matt Ryan blush.
What made the sight of Abram on the ground, surrounded by liters of his own vomit, so stunning wasn’t just the fact that this was the ferocious Abram (who had been No. 1 in eight of my nine power rankings…shame on me), and not overweight E—it was also the fact that Abram simply had not done anything to warrant this kind of collapse. It almost appeared as if he had a concussion, but he didn’t even hit his head! There had been some distance running, but every other player had managed to do it (even Tori hadn’t had any real problems!). It wasn’t like Abram had had to carry a disproportionate share of weight (or another teammate, like Landon did last year), or do anything that his teammates hadn’t done. His failure seemed totally inexplicable.*
*On the reunion show there was some mention of Abram “forgetting to eat or drink” before the final challenge, which sounds kind of like something “crazy Abram” would do. The problem is that it speaks to a kind of hubris that Abram doesn’t generally exhibit—he’s usually well-prepared.
Eventually Abram was declared “medically unable to finish” (how exactly Abram’s departure was in any way different from Eric’s medical issues in The Gauntlet III, which disqualified his team, was never made clear) and Gray had to proceed without him. Cara Maria took Abram’s place on the stretcher, and the rest of the team carried her.
Unfortunately for Gray, it wasn’t long before Sarah was collapsing as well. She asked her team to stop for her about a dozen times, and began throwing up herself (someone should really investigate whether or not Gray’s food or water was tampered with—Sarah and Abram’s vomit looked suspiciously similar). Eventually she too was declared medically ineligible, and Gray was down to three.
Forced to carry the stretcher with just Luke, Laurel started openly weeping and declaring that she was at her breaking point. It briefly seemed like she too would have to quit, before Gray finally reached the end of the stage and was able to put the stretcher down (the irony of course being that Cara Maria and Luke, the two players Gray had spent the season worrying about being weak points, were the only two who never seemed on the verge of quitting).
All of the stops Gray had to make for Sarah and Abram allowed Red to build a large lead—they had completed the next checkpoint, which consisted of carrying logs up a hill, before Gray had even begun—but no lead is ever safe. The next stage consisted of memorizing a series of Czech signposts, then crawling underneath barbed wire through the mud and swimming across a lake, where you then had to reassemble the signposts in the same exact way. If you messed up, you had go all the way back and do it all again. To make it even MORE difficult, MTV included an extra piece that was only one letter off of a real piece at the reconstruction site, meaning if you spelled your Czech word wrong by one letter, you had to do it all over.
This was both a cruel and brilliant twist by MTV, as it forced both teams, who were both mentally and physically exhausted by this point, to second-guess themselves and agonize over whether or not to trust their instincts. Laurel would once again break down and cry when forced to decide whether or not to trust her guess or not.
Luckily for Red, though, Tyler had knowledge of Russian, which is another Slavic language! As such, he was able to distinguish between the right and wrong Czech pronoun, and Red did not have to go back to the last checkpoint. Gray would get it right the first time as well, but by then they had already missed their last chance to catch up to Red, meaning the team I gave a one-in-nine shot to win last week ended up taking up the prize rather easily.
As with any great story, the end only made me think more about the journey. Tyler emerged as a real hero, or at least someone I persistently underestimated. Early in my power rankings I made a point of saying “I don’t like Tyler” every single time. I thought he was getting credit for being a veteran even though he had been eliminated early in both of his previous Challenge appearances (sent home second in The Duel and The Gauntlet III), but he won two tough Gulags* and proved to be as good, if not better, than any other male in the game. He also proved himself to be a very upstanding player. He called his team on a lot its bullshit, he didn’t throw a hissy-fit when he was unfairly sent into the Gulag twice, and on the reunion show he was one of the few people who refused to dwell on Laurel’s mistreatment of Eric, pointing out that she had apologized for her mistake and that it was pointless to dredge it up again. I can now say that I definitely like Tyler.
*It was also revealed on the reunion show that Tyler didn’t just last longer than the 20 seconds he needed against C.T. to top Johnny’s time—he actually stayed there for 40 minutes before the game was called.
On the other hand, I hope we never have to see Brad and Tori again. Part of me is happy for Brad, who I have been big fan of at times, most obviously his brilliant ring toss in The Duel 2,* but he and Tori were such feckless, boring, bad leaders that I don’t want them to return. Hopefully they can take their prize money and start a family and never come back, at least not together.
*For those who don’t remember: In the final duel of The Duel 2, Brad went against Landon, who had won five of nine challenges and the only duel he had been in at that point, in a game called Back Off, in which each player had to get a hook that was tied to his opponent’s back and then place that hook on a ring that hung from a rope at his end of the cage. Landon was able to push Brad to his side of the cage and unlock his hook, but Brad was also able to get the hook off Landon’s back as well. Realizing that he was literally up against his own wall, though, Brad had the presence of mind to grab his own ring and then spin in the air so that Landon couldn’t reach it. While Landon had to wait for the ring to slow down so he could catch it and drop the hook, Brad raced to the other side of the cage and landed his hook first. Just a great heads-up play that won the game.
The other person who didn’t come off well was Laurel. Now, nobody touted Laurel’s rise to power in Fresh Meat II more than I did—I even had her ahead of Abram for one week this season. But the fact is that she still hasn’t won* and, even worse, she is proving to be a terrible teammate with an exaggerated sense of her own worth. Even in last night’s reunion, after Cara Maria and Luke proved Laurel’s doubts wrong in the final challenge, Laurel was still complaining that she had to share money with other people. Laurel could be a great individual competitor, but until she learns to deal with weaker teammates, it’s hard to see her winning a challenge.
*And she can’t blame that ALL on her teammates. She was the weak link in the Fresh Meat 2 finale, and she was not exactly a pillar of strength in last night’s finale either.
Also, Jenn continues an impressive run of final challenges losses—this is the third time she’s finished in last place in the final challenge.
Overall, Cutthroat finished an uneven season, but the finale was great (and we even got a glimpse of recovering TJ on the reunion show!), illustrating once again why the Challenge is the single greatest thing humanity has ever produced.