FIRST, DO NO FARM. HE'S GOT THE DRIVE The deadly haystack challenge from season 6 returns to drive the final five teams crazy
The Amazing Race | Meghan was brought to tears by the haystack, as Cheyne looked on
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS
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I feel like I’ve been dragging out my farewell lap for far too long, after recently bidding adieu in the Pop Culture Club and Survivor Talk, but as I’m leaving Entertainment Weekly for another opportunity later this week (more on that later), I feel an especially large lump in my throat as I sit down to write my last Amazing Race TV recap. I’ve been writing this column for nine seasons, so maybe it’s for the best that I end it now. After all, I don’t want to get self-indulgent and start repeating myself. Everybody knows that if you try to repeat past glories, it never quite measures up and LOOK AT ME, I AM MAKING A METAPHOR!

Yes, as promised, the infamous hay bale challenge from season 6 was back! The first time we saw these mountainous wheels of hay, Kristy was stuck futilely pulling them apart for over eight hours until Phil arrived to put her out of her misery. And now, nine seasons later, Bertram Van Munster has decided to resume the torture. (Did it take this long just to get all the hay rolled back together? Man, those Amazing Race interns are slow.) And while the challenge was just as maddening as ever, its reoccurrence made me realize all of the reasons it fails as a good game. But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself…

The leg began with everyone flying to Stockholm from Schiphol airport in Holland. Though, from the way Meghan pronounced it, I thought the airport was called ”S–tpole,” which sounds like something that I would have been called in high school back when I was a tall, skinny, terrible basketball player. But no, I misheard it…although, oddly enough, ”schiphol” is Dutch for ”hey, you stiff, way to miss another rebound.” Life’s funny, huh?

Everyone ended up bunching up at the airport that night, as the first flight didn’t leave until 6:55am. The ticket agents didn’t open until early in the morning, and at that point Brian and Ericka and Gary and Matt couldn’t get seats, and ended up leaving two and a half hours later. But here’s my question: They arrived at night hours before the ticket agents reopened, so, knowing they were last in line, why didn’t they take a cab into town to book their tickets via an internet café, thereby leapfrogging everyone else? You don’t write recaps for nine seasons and not learn a thing or two, people!

The first three teams arrived in Stockholm and were directed to find the tallest ride at a local amusement park. Sam and Dan and Meghan and Cheyne arrived first, and sprinted to the freefall ride. (Dan had a very odd running style, in which he clutched a windbreaker in one arm and waved it back and forth, as if it gave himself added torque. I think he probably misread an article about ”wind power.”) Once on the ride, a player had to scan the park and spot an arrow pointing to the next clue. This proved to be simple, as every team got it, and then it was just a matter of seeing them scream as the ride plummeted. Chalk up another anticlimactic challenge for the season; They should have to perform a task, not just get strapped in and have a task done to them.

NEXT: Let’s blow stuff up!

Oh, and when they do perform a task, make it an interesting one, not a friggin’ ring toss. Carny challenges have no place in the Amazing Race. What next, have the teams line up to try to grab a stuffed animal with a tiny crane? Or just eat a crapload of fried dough and then throw up on the bumper cars? The only point of this follow-up game was to work in the annual Travelocity roaming gnome product placement moment. Damn their pointy heads; if only their hats were shaped like a really high water slide, then we’d have been in business. (The Globetrotters tried to name their gnome, and Big Easy came up with the names ”Louisiana Shorty” and ”Harlem Gnome.” Were they naming their statue, or listing their favorite five-feet-and-under jazz musicians?)

From there, it was off to the Detour. The first option, ”Nobel dynamite” (one of the more awkwardly literal Detour names of late), had teams filling up sandbags and building an incredibly low wall to apparently protect their shins from an explosion. (The other choice, Viking Alphabet, was moot, as no one chose it, so that guy got all dressed up in his Viking outfit for nothing. Horned helmets don’t buff themselves, people; that guy was working his helmet shammy all night, and for what? Nothing.)

In the Detour, the worrying Meghan really started to crack. She kept telling Cheyne that they needed to work together filling sandbags, while he kept going off to fill his own. As increasingly fragile as Meghan is (and we hadn’t seen the worst of it at this point), Cheyne is inhumanly unflappable. I’m reasonably sure that he doesn’t go to sleep at night, he powers down. On the surface, this seems like a good match, and yet if you were with someone who remained this egotistically upbeat all the time, wouldn’t you want to strap the TNT to him?

Bringing up the rear in all of this were Brian and Ericka and Gary and Matt. Brian mentioned early in this leg that they were doing the Race partly to show to Ericka’s family just how much they loved each other, as Ericka’s mother doesn’t approve of her daughter marrying a white man. Unfortunately, he may have lost some progress after last week’s episode, when they hobbled for far too long in wooden shoes. So not only was he on TV nearly whittling Ericka’s feet into stubs, but he was doing it with wooden shoes, which is perhaps the most Caucasian footwear you can find. The only whiter thing that could have happened would be if Brian veered off in the middle of a Detour to take Ericka to a Larry the Cable Guy concert.

NEXT: Hay, over here!

Ultimately, the Detour wasn’t very interesting, either. It was just a lot of digging, with an unrelated explosion tacked onto the end. Contrary to what Michael Bay’s career has taught us, you can’t make up for a long period of dullness with a show of pyrotechnics. And from here, the teams made their way to the Switchback, in which they’d take on the infamous hay challenge. At this point I felt like everything we’d seen up to this was just fluffy time-wasters to get us to the marquee challenge. ”Don’t worry about the rest of the show,” the producers probably said. ”Put ’em on a tilt-a-whirl and have them play ‘Guess Your Weight’ or some crap. It doesn’t matter, because once the viewers see that the hay is back, they’ll forget everything that happened before.”

The hay was undoubtedly a stressful challenge. There were 180 incredibly heavy rolls of hay with only seven clues available, and there was also the taunting knowledge that this had been the death of one team. So it’s no wonder that it nearly ended with Sam plunging a stalk of hay into Dan’s eye. Dan couldn’t stop armchair quarterbacking as Sam wrestled with the hay, leading to such exchanges as, ”We’re gonna be here the entire day if you keep (going through all the hay). Stop doing that!” ”SHUT UP!” For most of the challenge they exchanged shouts and middle fingers. ”What he doesn’t realize is I stopped listening to him years ago,” grumbled Sam. Jeez, these fighting siblings are a regular Cain and Haybel. YOU ARE ALL WELCOME FOR THAT AWESOME PUN.

Whenever we saw Meghan, she was saying some variation on the sentence, ”This is the worst thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.” And by ”variation” I mean that she said the same exact thing, varying only on which word she put the inflection. And for all her bitching, this challenge could have been worse. Imagine if after she found her clue, she was forced to roll back up all the hay bales that she’d torn apart? Yes, it would have been hard, but it would have been the polite thing to do.

Big Easy showed up third, but found the first clue (and therefore won the leg, giving Flight Time a great birthday present). Sam grumbled that the basketball players were the ”luckiest team in the entire race,” and there’s some validity to that. They’re lovable, skillful racers, but they’ve caught every possible break in this game. It seems like obstacles jump to get out of their way. Hmmm…perhaps the reason that the Globetrotters win all their games isn’t because they’re fixed, but rather because God wants them to win. Who knew that pulling down a ref’s pants was the word of the Lord?

Earlier in the episode, Sam and Dan alluded to the Globetrotters’ ”fans” helping them out, and I wonder if there’s a lot of that that we’re not seeing. They’re not exactly traveling incognito, and if you were an American abroad who saw a couple of Globetrotters trying to win a game show, wouldn’t you jump to pitch in? We’re all trained to see them win, so you’d feel like you were just helping maintain the natural order of things. It seems like an unfair advantage to have one team that is recognized and beloved by strangers. We saw the same thing with Rob and Amber. And yet, come on, how can you stay mad at the Globetrotters? You might as well kick a seven-foot-tall puppy.

NEXT: Why the hay challenge chickened out

After a couple of hours of her weeping and moaning, Meghan found her clue, and she and Cheyne finished second, followed by Brian and Ericka. Then we got an excruciating sequence of Sam and Gary searching through hay. The producers did a good job of drawing out the suspense. Every time they’d switch from Sam to Gary (or vice versa), I’d think, ”Ahhh, this is the moment when he’s just about to find his clue…” but then it wouldn’t happen, and we’d switch back to the other. The tension was far more palpable than it should ever be for a contest about two guys pushing hay around. But then it happened: Sam got his clue, he and Dan dashed for the mat, and then Dan burst into tears for the way he’d shouted at Sam. Who knew that hay could make you so emotional? I guess this explains why the Farmers Almanac says that 84% of all marriages end on hayrides.

Gary saw the challenge through anyway, only to be told by Phil that this was a non-elimination round. And that’s when I got angry. My problem with this challenge (even back in season 6) is that it’s too arbitrary. Skill doesn’t matter at all, it’s just a matter of which bale you arbitrarily pick to unroll. It has nothing to do with how well you’ve run the race up to that moment. While it’s fun to see players’ abject frustration, it’s ultimately incredibly unfair.

And yet, Kristy’s tenacious if doomed pursuit of a clue made it a classic, and the producers couldn’t resist recreating it. But they didn’t have the courage of their convictions. They thought, ”Remember how awful it was that Kristy looked for that long, only to be kicked out? That was awesome! Let’s do that…except let’s not kick anybody out.” They recreated the frustration, but none of the stakes. It was like a war reenactment, where, after the dust settles, everyone gets up, wipes off the fake blood, and carpools home. So there was something to disappoint everyone: If you never liked this unfairly luck-based challenge, too bad, you got it again. And if you did like how mercenary it was, too bad, now it has no ramifications.

And so there it is; my last recap. I’m sorry I have to leave this season on such an unmemorable episode, but they can’t all be water slides. I’m heading off to new challenges (I’ll be easy to find; one quick Google search should do it), but I’ll miss talking Amazing Race with you, sharing some laughs and some real truth flavor. But not to worry; the recaps will continue every Monday morning here on, and you’ll be in good hands. So show the new writer some love, won’t you? And by that I don’t mean by calling her ”babe”: As we all know from The Amazing Race, that’s the quickest way to prove that there’s no love at all.

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The Amazing Race

Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.

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