In Amsterdam, two teams fail so miserably at challenges, you wonder why they weren't both eliminated
The Amazing Race | Former Miss America Ericka's arms were not exactly made for pulling herself along a high wire but she stepped up and kept it moving
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

I’m a pessimist, a glass is half empty kind of guy. So, last week, after we finally got an unexpectedly delightful episode after four weeks of dull Amazing Races, my reaction was not, “This Race is finally turning around!” But rather, “Oh, great, now that we’ve tasted the best Race has to offer, these teams and challenges are going to go right back to sucking.” After all, once you’ve seen a virgin who is saving himself for the day he marries his beloved try to shove that aforementioned acrophobic beloved down a six-story water slide for a million bucks, how can you ever be surprised again? To one up that, the show would have to feature Gary trying to sacrifice Matt in a challenge on Mount Moriah.

And for the first half of last night’s episode, I was underwhelmed. In fact, I was even a little more underwhelmed than I’d even planned to be – kind of subunderwhelmed. And then, in two challenges that, on their surfaces, seemed like cakewalks, everything went awry for two teams in ways that made them cry and me cheer. And that’s just the order I like it to go.

First things first: I was confused on this leg’s start. Meghan and Cheyne left first, at 1:13 p.m., which would imply that they arrived at the pit stop at 1:13 a.m., and yet they and everybody else had gotten there in broad daylight. Why was this a longer layover? Or was that water slide actually some sort of time-machine portal? No wonder Mika was so scared: sharks, water, heights, and a ruptured time-space continuum? That’s a lot going on. And suddenly her floaties make sense; if you look carefully, you can see that Doc Brown wore a life preserver all the way through Back to the Future 2.

And one other question: I thought the teams could mingle at a pit stop. So why, when everyone had bottlenecked at the Dubai airport, was everyone so surprised to learn that Canaan and Mika had been eliminated, not to mention the whole water slide story? Was everyone kept segregated this leg, or is it every leg? Damn it, where’s Phil to answer these questions when you need him?

Well, back to what we do know, and that is that the teams were off to Amsterdam. Ericka began the show talking about how she was trying to nip her “nagging wife” behavior in the bud before it got out of hand, which was clearly foreshadowing. But it wasn’t accurate. She doesn’t nag, she panics and berates. Nagging is the best possible spin on what she does wrong. When it comes to confessed weaknesses, nagging is to Amazing Race confessionals what “I try to take on too much” is to job interviews.

NEXT: If only Ericka had partnered with The Count…

At the airport, Sam and Dan decided this was the time to come out to all the teams, and everyone accepted the news swimmingly. (When I just said the word “swimmingly,” did you hear the sound of Mika mewling way off in the distance?) There were good-natured jokes at the boys’ expense (“Now the matching swimsuits make sense!”) and even the flirtatious poker players took it in stride (“Who they choose to date, it doesn’t matter. Even though there’s a little teardrop that it’s not us”). Looks like they’ll have to look elsewhere for a man around the house. You know, to do those macho tasks like hit a bell with a mallet. Oooh, foreshadowing cheap shot!

The first challenge, a Roadblock, involved climbing up a tower’s narrow staircase and counting the 62 bells inside. This did not seem like a difficult challenge and, barring the sheer number of steps, it wasn’t. Well, it wasn’t for anybody but Ericka, who started out saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” What, counting? Why that’s as easy as 1, 2…whoops, that won’t help her at all, will it.

If everyone else hadn’t gotten the bell count right, I would have thought that there was a complicating twist to this Roadblock; maybe some of the bells were well hidden or something. But everyone else got it on the first try (though Maria and Tiffany were given the answer by Sam and Dan, a questionable strategy at this point in the game, though the brothers’ theory that they could beat the poker players later proved accurate). It took Ericka four guesses. To be fair, it must have been hard to concentrate on counting bells with the distraction of all those…ringing bells. Never mind.

They lost a lot of time, and Ericka wept a lot of tears, as all the other teams dashed off to the Detour. I, like most people, assumed that Amsterdam would likely be the site of a marijuana challenge, and that Dubai’s hookah assembly had been a training run. But no, there would be no pot, just uncomfortable local footwear, apparently taking a cue from Nancy Reagan’s little-known inspirational misspelled bumper sticker, “Clogs, not drogs.”

For both Detour choices, teams had to get dressed in traditional Dutch costumes, one for a man, one for a woman. (And if the teams were all male, so be it.) They then had to hop on bikes and either play “farmer’s golf,” which involved swimming across a frigid river and then hitting a ball with a clog on the end of a stick, or “farmer’s dance,” where they had to learn a local jig. Both routes had a mini-tasks tacked on to the beginning that at first seemed arbitrary, but proved to be the wrench in the works for some.

NEXT: The coldest round of golf ever

For example, the golfers first had to strip down to their long underwear and swim across a river before playing golf. What this had to do with farmer’s golf, I had no idea. Is it customary for Dutch golfers to lower their body temperature to a dangerous degree before playing? What do they do before playing tennis, light themselves on fire? I hate to once again play to the Amsterdam stereotypes, but jumping into a frigid stream just to hit a ball with a shoe seems like something a very stoned farmer would do.

Sam and Dan plowed through the golfing quickly, while Meghan and Cheyne struggled. Meghan told Cheyne early on that she was a terrible golfer, but since Cheyne was a bad dancer, he insisted they play to his strengths. It’s far easier to remain the superior, patronizing boyfriend when you make sure to never put yourself in a position to look bad. Gary and Matt also ended up golfing, after aborting dancing when pescaphobe Matt discovered they’d also have to eat herring. Really, Matt, this was the dealbreaker? Good thing you weren’t partnered with Canaan, he’d shove you mouthfirst into a raw bar.

Most teams had little trouble here. Sam and Dan nailed the course, and arrived first at the mat, dressed in their local garb. “You guys like dressing up like this?” asked Phil. Replied Sam, “No. We’re not that kind of gay guys.” (The kind who like to act Dutch? Man, I’ve gotta reread Masters and Johnson.) Then came Meghan and Shayne, followed by Flight Time and Big Easy, who mastered the dance like the showmen that they are (and Flight Time showed that while Big Easy’s Kryptonite was code cracking, his was herring). Then came Gary and Matt. But what of the others?

Ericka and Brian looked like goners after Ericka’s glacial progress counting bells. Everyone else was at the Detour by the time she finished, and when she and Brian finally got there, they misread the clue and walked endlessly to the challenge in painful shoes instead of riding bikes. This spurred some of Ericka’s “nagging.” She began complaining about her feet. I don’t begrudge her that complaint, as I wouldn’t want to go on a long hike in clogs, let alone one that I wasn’t supposed to be going on in the first place. But her fiery temper kicked in when Brian tried to be empathetic. When he said his feet hurt, too, she snapped, “I’m not giving you any credit for that.” Only Ericka is allowed to suffer, damn it! It was like earlier in the show, when Brian was panicking after he couldn’t start his car, and she snapped, “Stop tripping out! You dictate my mood, you know I have a shorter fuse than you!” I sure hope that if one of Brian’s close relatives ever passes away, he has the common courtesy not to cry, because that would really be a drag for Ericka.

After walking all the way to the dance challenge, she cheered up once they easily pulled off the routine. However, when they were done, they realized that they needed bikes, and borrowed them from some random camper. Arriving at the pit stop, Phil slapped them with a 30-minute penalty because they didn’t use a bike to get to the Detour in the first place. On any other leg, this would have been a knockout blow, but thank goodness for Maria and Tiffany.

NEXT: Was this The Amazing Race or a Greek tragedy?

The poker pals first tried for dance. But the random bonus task for this event was hitting a carnival-style “test your strength” device hard enough to ring a bell. The women could not pull this off. Maria was particularly bad at it. When she swung the mallet, it actually fell with less force than if she had just dropped it. She was weaker than gravity. After more than 25 attempts, they gave up to try golf. At this point, Brian and Ericka were still misguidedly clogging their way to the dance contest, so it seemed like the poker ladies had plenty of time. But then they got to the field, and had no more luck with golf than they did with the mallet. Perhaps the reason they did so poorly with these physical tasks is that they did not lend themselves to a single poker metaphor. Poker metaphors are their spinach; they give them superhuman strength. As Maria raised her mallet, you could see her thinking, “So… very heavy…. Need allusion…to…full house…. None come…to mind…”

So they bailed again, and it was back to the carnival game, even as Brian and Ericka continued their hobbling across the great plains of Amsterdam. The women were just as weak on their return trip, but this time they were also hypothermic, and the challenge took on an air of tragedy I haven’t seen on The Amazing Race before. They stopped to hug, two shivery, mascara-stained figures weeping in the shadow of a mocking circus tower. Then, realizing that the bell would never toll for them, they went back to the golf challenge, which was just as futile, if even windier and colder. We got more moody long shots of the darkening sky, wind cutting through the women’s wet clothes as they huddled, vacant-eyed and stunned at their own imminent downfall. I had to check to make sure I hadn’t sat on my remote and accidentally switched to an Ingmar Bergman film on TCM.

Finally, they had to quit, realizing that they would never ever hit a ball into a hole with a shoe, no matter how long they stood there. Phil – who has the power of teleportation when he senses someone somewhere is quitting – appeared in the field, striding toward them like a reality Grim Reaper. It reminded me of season 6, when Phil had to come personally eliminate Kristy and Lena when Lena was stuck for eight hours fruitlessly searching for a clue in giant rolls of hay. (So you could imagine my delight when the scenes from next week showed that they are going to repeat that very challenge in Sweden.) And so Brian and Ericka managed to stay in the game, even though with that many errors, there was no way those two should still be in the Race. So every night, before she goes to bed, Ericka should get down on her knees and thank the Lord for low upper body strength. And then she should yell at Brian for not being supportive of her praying.

What did you think about this episode? After a slow start, were you surprised that it turned into something wacky? Was this one of the biggest battles of incompetence that we’ve ever seen on this show? And who are you rooting for now? Let me know, and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter, @EWJoshWolk Oh, the tweeting!

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Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.

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