The race moves to South Korea for a leisurely day of rafting, skating, and taekwondo

By Darren Franich
Updated December 06, 2010 at 09:02 AM EST
John P. Filo/CBS

South Korea has the coolest flag on earth. Their movies are infinitely cooler than our movies. South Koreans excel at secretly awesome sports like speed skating and figure skating, but one of their most popular national pastimes is Starcraft. (For non-gamers: Starcraft is to Call of Duty as Chess is to Thumb War.) Also, as you might have heard, the South Koreans live just across the border from a rather irritable fellow whose hobbies include polishing his wide-rimmed glasses and desperately pursuing a nuclear arsenal. (Geopolitically speaking, Kim Jong-il is the wacky sitcom neighbor next door. Always with the kooky schemes!) In light of recent events and the current heightened state of tension between North and South Korea, I was a little bit tense when last night’s episode of Amazing Race began with the teams heading straight for the demilitarized zone.

But the episode quickly turned into a leisurely stroll. (One hopes that tensions will simmer soon, because if nothing else, South Korea has the most charming cab drivers this side of Ghana.) Most of the serious drama was front-loaded to the first ten minutes. The lead three teams set off in mid-afternoon. Brook and Claire, having learned from their mistake in the Oman airport, zoomed into a hotel and asked the concierge for help getting a ticket. Smooth move…but, the only flight they could get was at 12:25 AM, which is exactly the same flight that the Doctors and Team Prince/Consort booked at the airport.

Still, Brook and Claire got to hang out in a lavish Hong Kong hotel dressed like Douglas Sirkian jailbait, which certainly counts for something. (Brook noted that they’ve been saving a couple outfits for the end of the race. Say what you will about “the Brook and Claire Flair,” but man, these ladies packed their own freakin’ victory outfits? Aggressive.) At the airport, Nat and Kat pulled a frisky, QVC-esque move and convinced a helpful gent to buy them a travel guide to South Korea. Kat: “We both know how to be girly and get our way.” All season, my only major complaint about Team Doctor’s gameplay is that they can seem a bit too cerebral, too slow-and-steady, so I dig the implication here. They’re not afraid to play the Lady Card. Although they’re probably too classy for a kiss count.

NEXT: Away to the border we go!I was all set to get upset with the Amazing Race producers when it looked like Nick and Vicki would just make it to the airport in time for the flight – they started a full six hours after the front of the pack – but they arrived too late. Next flight: 9:30 in the morning. “This really comes down to a miracle!” said Nick. The fact that he said this right after a montage of Angry Nick– “Shut up! Shut up, Vicki! Shut up!” – gave me little hope. Now, we all know the first rule of watching The Amazing Race — The team who looks utterly destined for last place at the 30-minute mark will invariably stage a major comeback before the end of the episode. But did anyone seriously think the Tattooed Wonders had any chance with nine and a half hours between them and the front three?

The first flight landed in Seoul, and the teams sped off to the demilitarized zone. The Prince of Darkness said lots of sober words about “the issues between North Korea and the Free World,” while the woefully naïve Angelic Consort looked blankly at the back of his head. (Perhaps she was thinking, “What is this ‘Free World’ you speak of? I know only of rainbows and butterflies!”) Brook and Claire offered to make an alliance with North Korea “to look out for the other teams.” (Claire offered her services in solving the whole North Korea/South Korea division. Boy, they sure could use her.) At the bridge, they got the first command: Raft down the Hantan River!

There was a wonderful little moment where Jill got upset with Thomas for taking so long to get dressed in his wetsuit. (I’m eternally grateful to Doc Jensen for noting in his recap last week that the Prince of Darkness bears a striking resemblance to Patrick Bateman. When he glares at Jill, I just picture him mumbling, “I have to return some videotapes.”) The rafting montage was roughly as exciting as the rafting scene from Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, but I hope you all treasured how Brook and Claire decided not to bother rowing and instead spent the entire ride screaming. (At one point, one of them screeched, “Kelly Clarkson!”)

The teams got into some serious-looking humvees and decamped for Camp Casey. (Brook in an army helmet = Private Benjamin. The Prince of Darkness in an army helmet = Animal Mother.) A squad of soldiers was working on their taekwondo. The competition was surprisingly simple: Teams had to choose a headband, and then find the one soldier in the lineup who was wearing the same headband. Brook had some minor trouble, but all three teams ran through this challenge pretty quickly. After they correctly identified the headbands, their soldiers went to the side of the field and FRICKING JUMP-KICKED A BLOCK OF WOOD to reveal their clue hidden within. Brook, obviously driven battle-mad by testostregon, tried high-kicking the woodblock after it had already been decimated. Down, Brook, down!

NEXT: They call it “speed” skating for a reason, guys

The dating couple finished the headband challenge first, so they were first on their way to Seoul World Cup Stadium. They arrived at the train station and couldn’t see anyone behind them. Jill, in a priceless line about Team QVC: “You can’t miss ’em. They’re just pink, pink, pink!” They hopped on the first train, leaving the two lady-teams tied for second waiting at the station. When the Prince of Darkness and his Angelic Consort arrived at the Stadium, they had a choice: Full Throttle or Full Bottle? In “Full Throttle,” teams had to complete 24 speed skating laps. In “Full Bottle,” teams had to deliver Ginseng roots to a wellness center, and drink some ginseng tonic just for kicks. (Was it me, or did the Ginseng roots in their bacta tanks look terrifying, like something out of H.P. Lovecraft?) Two good options, but the Prince of Darkness knew the choice was clear:

P.o.D: “Let’s do the skating! We suck at delivering stuff?”

A.C.: “We do?”

P.o.D.: “Yeah!”

Claire couldn’t ice skate (of course) and Brook was some sort of professional ice skater when she was a toddler (of course). After much squabbling, Claire agreed to do the skating challenge, on one condition: “Don’t sit there and scream at me.” Unfortunately, Team QVC didn’t read the no-taxi directions closely enough, and they hailed down a cab. That meant they arrived at the rink first…and had to put on those skintight speed skating outfits that look like Green Lantern’s uniform mashed with a Soviet scuba suit. “Not the Brook and Claire Flair,” said Ms. Prenatal Speed Skating Champion. Hey Brook, don’t be an unfair square! Do you require a Care Bear stare? Dare I declare, you make a fair pair in that sportswear. Voltaire! (Sorry, readers, the rhyming dictionary in my brain just exploded a little.)

While Team QVC got started on the ice, Patrick Bateman was taking extra time getting all pretty in the locker room. Jill: “Are you almost ready?” Thomas: “Yes, I’m putting my skates on! Shut up!” Thomas gamely made an effort to look like a skating pro, even though he was really just “running in his skates,” as Claire put it. Hey, don’t giggle too hard, C-Money — while Claire slowly skated around the circle, Thomas and Jill sped past them, even though Jill gamely fell on her rump about 50 times. “Stay on your feet, babe!” said Thomas. “Thank you, Thomas! You don’t have to remind me of that!”

NEXT: Only young people speak English, apparently.

At this point, I realized two important things. First, there was no drama left in this episode at all – Nick and Vicki were far, far in the distance. Second, I genuinely like all of the top three teams. Kat and Nat are perhaps the two most pleasant reality show contestants ever: When Nat says stuff like “It was such a politically charged adventure!” she sounds like the cool aunt you always wish would visit more often. (Nat also had the funniest line of the night: “I grew up in Arizona, so I have a lot of experience with skating.” Man, smart people are awesome.)

Brook and Claire seem like they should be annoying — they’re pink and loud and peppier than Peppy Hare the peppy Space Rabbit — but considering their tremendous success, they’re like a walking neon advertisement for the power of positive thinking. Finally, Jill and Thomas are an uncannily well-matched pair of ridiculously attractive people –when they do their confessionals in matching tennis whites, and when they trade barbs back and forth like an old married WASP couple, they look like a long-lost branch of the Kennedy clan. (Plus, if they ever consummate their love in holy matrimony, there will be eternal peace between the Bleak Empire of Darkness and the Bright Empire of Light. And certainly that still counts for something?)

The clue sent teams off to Yeouido Hangang Park. Claire had a minor flirtation with the cabbie, who was disappointed to discover that their impending marriage was not to be. (He still earned a cheek-peck. Kiss count is at 9, folks!) The Prince and the Consort were in the lead…but they got bogged down in more hilarious bickering:

A.C.: (to elderly local) Do you speak English!

P.o.D.: No, Jill! You can’t ask old people!

A.C.: (gesturing to another local) What about this guy? Is he in your age range?

The Prince of Darkness proceeded to make birdlike gestures in front of a policeman. Meanwhile, Brook and Claire found the last clue — head to the Temple of Heaven! Alas, Cruel Emperor Phil told them they had to wait half an hour because of their taxi penalty. Personally, I thought they still might take first place. The Prince of Darkness found himself inside a taxi where the cabbie didn’t speak English. He told the cabbie to call someone who did. The cabbie called someone…and then got into an argument. Disgusted, the Prince took his Angelic Consort into another taxi, with a much younger driver. (As we all know, the Prince of Darkness is disgusted by old age, but only because he is cursed to remain 27 forever, until he experiences true love and/or stops talking about Notre Dame.)

NEXT: What do we learn from Nick and Vicki?That meant Thomas and Jill were the first to finish the penultimate leg. Brook and Claire followed, and Nat/Kat rounded out the final three. More on them in a second. First, let’s talk Nick and Vicki. Now, you could argue that their final day in the race was filled with typically boneheaded moves. Instead of actually finding their way to the border, they followed a dude who was not in any hurry and did not really seem to know where the border was. Their buddy stopped at one point and said, “I need to toilet!” “Me too!” the Tattooed Wonders responded in unison. Then, they dallied at the rest stop. One man flirted with Vicki, and finally gave her some food: “Beautiful woman, I give for you.” Nick: “He wants you! I knew you were good for something!”

The few times we saw them in the episode, they just looked lost, and the show quickly glossed over their Speed Bump. (Tank-cleaning. Man, I would’ve wanted to see that!) Nick said “I promise to never get angry again” for the billionth time this season, and Vicki looked ever more beleaguered behind her librarian eyeglasses. I think you could argue that Team Tattoo’s persistent inability to just lose already single=handedly dragged this season down. Still, there was something low-grade compelling about watching them bumble along. In a sense, Nick and Vicki are the ultimate naïve Americans abroad — yeesh, they’re from Vegas — and I find something utterly American in their refusal to give up, even though they constantly gave up. (Catch-22!) You could say that they represent our worst national instinct — to just slide by, instead of trying to actually achieve something. I prefer to think of them as the statistical exception that proves the rule: Even useless people can achieve great things. And how’s this for a sign-off, courtesy of the smart(er) half of the couple: “I went through this entire race without killing him, so I think that’s a good thing.” Chaos! Ambiguity! Tattoos!

People, I’m really excited about the finale next week. The Final Three form a perfect Id-Ego-Superego triangle. History is on the line. Can two talented all-female teams beat one talented couple? Personally, I’m going to stay with the bet that I made back in the season premiere, when I called Nat and Kat my early pick to win the whole shebang. But the Doctors haven’t impressed very much in these last legs. The Prince of Darkness has momentum (and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) on his side. And you and I both know that Team QVC will never stop fighting, even if Brook has to carry Claire up the top of a booming volcano, Lord of the Rings-style.

Viewers, what did you think about this leg of the race? Are you disappointed that there wasn’t a Starcraft challenge? Can you believe that Nick and Vicki went out with such an existential whimper? Will there ever be peace between the Realm of Light and the Empire of Darkness? And who’s your bet to win it all?

GOT A CASE OF COMMUTING BLUES? LET OUR ‘TV INSIDERS’ PODCAST SPICE UP YOUR JOURNEY! Yes, folks, this week Dalton Ross, Annie Barrett, and Michael Slezak dish another crazy week on Survivor: Nicaragua, welcome EW zombie correspondent Clark Collis to talk about AMC’s The Walking Dead, and get the scoop on 16 Christmas-themed movies from Dan Snierson, who watched ’em all! Plus, Dalton has a truly insane interview with Survivor castoff NaOnka Mixon. To join in all the fun, just click on the audio player below. And in the best news of all, we’re now on iTunes! You can subscribe for free right here and take the TV Insiders with you on the go. And to send a question to the TV Insiders, follow us on Twitter @TVInsiders. Enjoy!

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