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