Season one set a pathetically low bar that season two’s producers could have set up a game of Chutes and Ladders as the final, and it would have been far more fair, coherent, and entertaining.
Thankfully, producers approached the final far more thoughtfully. That’s no surprise because, The Challenge USA season 2 has been a considerably better show, thanks to its new showrunner. (Read my interview with Kevin Lee.)
The secret votes plus the element of randomness introduced by the hopper paid off spectacularly in the penultimate episode, and kept the cast more on edge than they were last season. At times, the players didn’t take risks, but there was plenty of drama between the nominations, votes, and the hopper.
While there were a few challenges that could have used tweaking, overall, they were a huge improvement over the pathetic season-one challenges.
At the end, eight players remained: four Survivor alum, and three Challenge OGs.
Since the beginning, we’ve known there are two $250,000 prizes available, for the top man and woman—a considerable difference from season one, where the winners were shocked to learn they had to split the prize.
T.J. described the $250,000 as “life-changing money,” which we know because Josh really wanted to win this despite previously winning $500,000, so I guess this $250,000 is worth more? I joke, of course, but the win and prize did end up being a symbolic victory for both of the winners.
The Challenge USA 2’s final
The Challenge USA 2’s producers split the final across two days, making one a grueling race, and the other a series of challenges. I like this split, but what I liked even better was that the players were not paired as men and women, so it was a completely individual challenge from start to finish.
Day one was “The Trials: Strength, Smarts, Skill, and Steel Stomach,” as T.J. described it. The winner in each stage got a one-minute advantage; the loser lost one minute. They also had the option of doubling down once: winning or losing two minutes.
Those time credits or penalties were applied on day two: a 10-mile race.
Strength was dragging a sled up a rocky hill, adding four boxes, all mysteriously proportional to each player’s body weight. Cory doubled down.
While others did one at a time or three at a time, Chris decided to leave two boxes on the hill, and come back for his third and fourth, coming in first. Chris and Michaela won; Cory and Tori lost.
For Smarts, they had to spell five words: ALLIANCES, SCHMOOZING, DECEITFUL, VENGEANCE, and ASCENDING.
I thought five words wouldn’t be enough to give us a clear winner and loser, but there were many misspellings! As Desi said, “The words aren’t super-hard, but people are really bad spellers—like, really bad.” For example Chris spelled “shmoozing” and Cory wrote “smoushing.”
Bananas and Desi (who doubled-down) won; Cory and Tori lost. “Oh my god, that’s so annoying,” Tori said when she didn’t hear the plural part of of “alliances.”
For Skills, they had to assemble a giant Connect Four board, dropping in yellow and black tiles that covered two spaces. The test, however, was to not connect any four spaces. The men, except for Fessy, really struggled.
Fessy and Tori (who doubled-down) won; Desi and Cory lost.
For Steel Stomach, they had to eat four things: a tofu and sauerkraut smoothie, something with worms, a couple wasabi crackers, and loaded chili truffles. Michaela did not listen to TJ’s descriptions, telling us, “the less I know, the better.” Smart!
No one doubled down. The gagging, retching, and puking—and accompanying soundtrack—were quite dramatic, and rather nauseating for me.
“Who knows who’s puking at this point?” Desi asked, calling it a “constant symphony”—and the editors had fun with that, and I was about to press mute when it ended.
While it’s easy to judge who finishes first, I am genuinely curious how the puking factors in. Can you just puke everything up and that counts because you got it down? Is that fair? Why am I thinking so much about vomit?
Anyway, Tori and Bananas won; Cory and Chanelle lost.
After those first four stages, the time advantages and disadvantages were:
- Bananas: +2
- Chanelle: -1
- Chris: +1
- Cory: -5
- Desi: +1
- Faysal: +1
- Michaela: +1
- Tori: +1
The 10-mile race—which began on a gorgeous, cliffside field—was not just a foot race. Along the way were three challenges.
The first two “risk station” challenges were optional, and had possible advantages and penalties; the third was mandatory.
The last man and woman to arrive at the second risk station would be eliminated.
The first risk challenge was five chances to make an axe stick in a target. Successfully doing meant they could take a 1.2 mile shortcut. That’s a heck of an advantage! Everyone attempted it; not everyone stuck an axe.
Fessy was penalized because he missed his axe throw and went the wrong way. His penalty was going back a half mile and then returning—oddly, slightly less than the 1.2 mile shortcut he took.
At the second risk station, they could opt to try to balance rocks on a large scale, and if successful, drive an ATV for the next mile. Chris did that, and left in first place. Michaela bailed on the challenge and ran instead. Desi, Cory, and Chanelle all successfully balanced, taking the ATV.
Tori and Fessy were eliminated at the second station, leaving all Survivor players and two Challenge vets, Bananas and Cory.
Along the way, we saw a map with all the players on it, indicating what not just where they were, but what they were doing. How wonderful to be able to follow the action and the race!
For the final, mandatory challenge, which was at mile 7.8, they had to carry cement blocks with players’ names, and then stack them in elimination order. It’s like The Amazing Race’s final challenge!
Chris arrived and finished first, pretty much guaranteeing him the win. Desi arrived before Michaela, thanks to her ATV advantage, and finished just as Bananas and then Chanelle arrived.
During the last two miles, everyone was spread out, running by themselves. Michaela needed medical attention for being lightheaded, and dropped out.
The Challenge USA 2’s winners
Chris Underwood finished first, which T.J. Lavin described as “zero to hero,” which made me chortle. “A lot of people think I am the most un-deserving person to ever win Survivor,” he’d said earlier in the episode.
I do think Chris 1) deserved to win that garbage Survivor season, because anyone who plays by the rules wins, though he’s still among the worst winners because of that season’s twist, and 2) deserves a lot of credit for his Challenge USA success.
It wasn’t exactly social game success—Chris was nominated repeatedly! But his repeated wins in the elimination arena, and his performance in the finale, earned him the win.
Desi won, which was both an impressive performance and also well-deserved after how much she got screwed in season one.
It was also remarkable that the alliance of three Survivor women made it to the very end together. As Chanelle said earlier, “Black girls that will see this, and will think of themselves as powerful because they see us.”
When the cover of Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” started after Chris’s victory, I rolled my eyes, but when Desi finished, I was swept into the emotion of the moment. Yay for them.
Two strong winners, two Survivor players dominating the game—Survivor > The Challenge?!—and a vastly improved season. I’m now ready for The Challenge USA season three!