Almost exactly one year ago, something happened on television that has haunted my days and nights. It was the Big Brother 17 season finale; it was the final HoH competition; it was the final question in the final part of the final HoH competition. Up till right then, the game was all tied up. On one side: adorable superfan Steve, a non-entity for half the summer who lucked into a powerful final five and lucked into that final five including one of the least effective power trios in Big Brother history. On the other side: Vanessa, a puppetmaster who ran the house despite (or probably because) she operated 24-hours-a-day under Mr. Robot-level functioning paranoia. Vanessa believed everyone was out to get her, but only because she knew that everyone should be out to get her: It scared her, how good she was.
But Steve got that final question right. He was the last HoH. And he had a decision to make. Who would he bring to the Final Two: Vanessa, who played the game until it drove her half-crazy; or Liz, the by-default better half of a twin pair that spent the whole summer sun-tanning in the backyard.
Obviously, Vanessa deserved to be in the final two. Obviously, Steve chose Liz. He wanted to win. And so, after 98 days of high-functioning anxiety – a summer trapped inside a house that must have felt like a setting for an Edgar Allen Poe short story, a summer of crying and knowing no one would care — after all that, Vanessa walked out, third place, no money. Steve won, of course, but I have to imagine that what happened next is what really hurt. With seconds left in the season, Julie announced that America had chosen their favorite player. A brilliant strategic mastermind? A competition beast? A hero? A villain? None of the above: America loved James, Mr. Prank Man, Mr. Nice Guy, Everybody’s Pal, Just Happy To Be Here. There is no justice, in Big Brother as in life.
The finale of Big Brother 18 begins with a look back at the season just passed. Usually, the “Previously On” montage in a finale covers the whole season. This montage skipped right to the punchline: A final six of all couples, the bromance and the showmance and the romance between America’s sweetheart Nicole and fauxhawked Billy Zabka clone Corey. That makes sense. This was a pretty good season, but the real game only started when the final three couples remained. They formed a microcosm of all Big Brother strategy: Paul and Victor, bro-for-life aggro-schemers; Nicole and Corey, a social-game showmance with a knack for savvy alliances; James and Natalie, floaters too unimportant to evict until absolutely necessary.
Paul wins the first leg of the HoH competition, a cat-based endurance comp requiring running and hanging. In some ways, the endurance competition is the easiest part of this final three-part battle. Nicole and James face off in a comp that’s both physical and mental, testing their memory of houseguests and their ability to take perfectly-timed photos. All of that, plus running. Nicole plays clean and rad and powerful: She polishes off the competition in seven minutes and 24 seconds.
It takes James a whopping 19 minutes and six seconds — more than twice as long, with at least one crucial misstep along the way. I’m always in awe of players who do well in the season-trivia competitions, which require in-depth memory of particular players’ particular gameplay. (I pretty much forgot Bronte existed.) And so I’m especially in awe of Nicole, who clearly studied for this final comp. James’ grasp of Big Brother knowledge wasn’t as impressive. Was he ever in it to win it this year? Or was he just looking for another summer vacation?
NEXT: The Jury[pagebreak]
This isn’t my favorite season of Big Brother, but this is unquestionably my favorite jury. Some players have received unusual clarity in their Big Brother afterlife: Da’Vonne’s developing respect for Nicole is one of the best background subplots of this season. And some players have just gone crazy: Zakiyah doubling down on Paulie, Paulie doubling down on the notion of himself as a lovable figure, Big Meech refusing to acknowledge that all her years of watching Big Brother taught her nothing.
Beloved glamourboy supervillain Dr. Will is on hand, interviewing the Jury Members about their votes. Why should James win? Oh, you know, he didn’t get blood on his hands, his social game is phenomenal. “I rarely ever paid attention to him,” says Zakiyah. What about Paul? He’s very good strategically. He’s good with comps, good social game; he was on the block six times, fought his way off twice. Crucially, though: People don’t love Paul. He’s crude. He’s rude. Someone calls him “obnoxious.” Someone says he’s an “evil dick.” “I am bitter toward Paul” is a typical statement.
Are people bitter toward Nicole? One person is. Big Meech declares herself as a Nicole skeptic. She seems to be saying that Nicole’s decision to push her out was somehow personal, though I’m not sure that holds water; when her fellow jurists point out it was a sharp game move, she starts to cry. “Did you just come in the house not liking her?” asks Dr. Will.
Da’Vonne didn’t think much of Nicole. That has changed. “All personal feelings aside,” she says. “She lined herself up with men. And no shade to you men, but she was Geppetto, and y’all are Pinocchio.”
Honestly? That might have been it, right there: The whole game, decided. Da’Vonne had every personal reason not to like Nicole. But Da’Vonne knows Big Brother well enough to know when someone is really playing the game.
But then comes the final leg of the HoH competition — and Paul wins. Who will he bring with him? What will he do?
Paul stands up in the main room of the Big Brother house, about to make a decision worth $450,000. He wears a red Hawaiian shirt over a black tank top, torn tight black jeans and black boots, rings on his finger, white baseball cap turned backward, the great wilderness of beard growing across him like a biosphere of black-hole void. He looks like two different rich divorced dads combined with a skateboard bro and an artisanal toothpaste entrepreneur; he looks like Mike Love had a transporter accident with Ozzy Osbourne and Rasputin the Mad Monk, and the resulting tripartite entity opened a T-shirt shop in SoHo.
God damn him, he looks magnificent, and god damn him, he chooses to kick out James.
NEXT: The Winner[pagebreak]
Is this a terrible idea? Is this the worst move Paul made all summer? Does he hand over the final prize with that decision – playing for honor, like Cody in Big Brother 16, instead of playing like someone who actually won the game?
I think yes. I don’t see any clear way that the Jury votes against him, in a final showdown with James. Then again: James had a good social game, was much beloved, had no blood on his hands. Lovable bloodless players have won Big Brother before; dynamic supergenius plotters have won every battle but lost the war. Then again, if Paul chose James to go to the Final Two, he would have broken the number one rule. No, not Friendship. Paul’s main rule this summer has been: Paul must be Paul.
When James asks him, in so many words, why the heck Paul kicked him out, Paul reveals his master plan: He was purposefully working with both James and Nicole, double-agenting two different final two deals, but only so he could find out which one of them was cheating on him. Nicole told Paul that James was open to a backstab; James did not relay that information to Paul. James wasn’t honest about being dishonest; for Paul, that was an unpardonable sin.
Here’s what I know: Paul gives one of the best final speeches in any Big Brother season. He says he worked every day; he says he was the last standing newbie among the vets; he says he got himself off the block when he had to; he says he won the most in-house comps of anyone this season; he doesn’t even mention that he rose from the ashes of the Jozea moment; and he says he did it all while being himself, cards on the table, bad words thrown out regularly.
Should he be a little more apologetic? Do the people who don’t like him have legitimate gripes? Tough to say: Michelle has the biggest personal reason to hate him – and Michelle winds up voting for him! Actually, the sheer professionalism of Paul’s speech maybe works against him. It leaves Nicole wide open to step up, all awkward like she hasn’t rehearsed this, “Crap, that was good,” aw shucks, she’s a superfan, happy to be here, “Been watching this show since I was 8,” some stammering, a nice final statement, an epilogue whisper “I’m not good at speaking.”
Is Nicole secretly a strategy beast? How much of her casualness is fully planned? We may never know. On the surface, it seems to me that she did way less this season, as a player, than Paul. Then again: Maybe that’s a sign of just how good she has been, in her second go-round as a Big Brother player. You always saw Paul sweat. For Nicole, this was a leisurely summer — until circumstances forced her to show just how good a player she could be.
It’s a tense final vote, with no obvious victor. (Besides Victor, and surely I wasn’t the only one hoping for one final battle-back competition, in the last four minutes of the season, just so Vic can prove once and for all that he is the best outside-the-house competitor ever.) The final vote is 5-4 — and Nicole wins.
Cards on the table: I think Paul should’ve won. But, more cards on the table: Isn’t the fact that Nicole managed to somehow convince Paul to bring her to the final two — managed to Jedi Mind Trick one of the the games’ savviest strategists into signing his own death warrant — arguably proof that she deserved to win? She lost the final HoH competition. She had no power — and yet, in the end, everything went her way. That is gameplay. Winning comps is easy; winning Big Brother is hard.
“For the first time in Big Brother history,” says Julie, “a woman has won the game against a man in the final two.” That’s an interesting stat. Even more interesting is that — except for Big Meech — it’s hard to ascribe the jury votes to sour grapes, or vengeance. James votes for Paul, mere minutes after Paul kicks him out. Da’Vonne votes for Nicole, her nemesis-turned-icon. Paulie — a guy who, shall we say, has not proven to be very popular among the vast majority of female houseguests this summer — votes for Nicole. Maybe the likability factor hurt Paul; in America, we prefer our scheming masterminds when they pretend to be nice people.
Then again: Who knows about America, really? Julie reads the people who got the most votes in the America’s Favorite Houseguest competition. The top three are: James, Natalie, and Victor.
James has now spent two seasons in Big Brother pulling pranks so dumb that they require America’s Funniest Home Videos sound effects just to be barely funny enough to fill time on a Wednesday episode. Natalie spent this season of Big Brother doing… who is Natalie, again?
Victor wins. Now, I love Victor. I love that he fought back into the house so many times; I love that he never shook up his gameplay even when he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that his gameplay was probably going to get him evicted because it had already gotten him evicted. But, real talk: America’s Favorite Houseguest is the guy so terrible at Big Brother that he lost three times in one season. See you in 2017, America. We deserve everything.