The Challenge: Double Agents premiere recap: Big moves and betrayals
The season 36 premiere "License to Killer Kam" hit the ground running with backstabbing, lies, and a legendary elimination.
It’s The Challenge time again, baby! It feels as if years have passed since we last gathered to obsess about MTV's long-running reality competition series. Even though it's only been a few months, life as we know it has changed entirely since Bananas and Jenny took home the top prize on Total Madness. Thankfully we can always count on The Challenge to remain just as juicy and shocking as ever, and season 36's Double Agents is already promising to be one of the most epic seasons yet. I'm back to recap all the madness once again, so let's jump right in!
It's clear from the opening minutes of the premiere that they’re really leaning into this whole ‘80s spy thriller theme. TJ’s picked his agents, boarded a helicopter, and the mission is officially a go. Thirty Challengers are en route to a bougie mansion (no bunkers this time!) for their shot at a million dollars. From Challenge legends like Darrell (who holds the record for most wins in a row with four) and CT (who is back in shape!) to impressive rookie players like Survivor winner Natalie Anderson and literal Olympian Lolo Jones, it's really anyone's season.
If you didn't watch Monday's preview episode The Challenge: Double Agents Declassified, you missed a couple of important moments that you should know going into this season. It was basically just an hour-long intro; we learned a little bit about each of the players, including all the rookies, and checked back in with all the vets while the players arrived at the house. But some surprising nuggets of information were shared. Leroy revealed that this will be his last season, and so he and Kam (who are officially together, finally!) are going to do whatever it takes to win together, even if that means stabbing his longtime friends (and previous champions) in the back. And CT revealed he's now separated from his wife and "wasn't in the best place mentally" the last few times he competed. "I feel like I've been running from problems for a long time, and I feel like they finally caught up with me. And I couldn't lie to myself anymore," he says. "So now, I'm coming in, focused on myself, focused on work, focused on my son, focused on getting my head right, get back in shape. Taking my life back. The dad bod era is over. It is now a fatherly figure." His comments are punctuated by his slim, fit new figure that shows off just how hard he's been training for this season.
So if seeing all 30 players line up for their first challenge immediately felt a little jarring in the premiere, it's because all the normal getting to the house, first-night drinking shenanigans were covered in the preview episode. The actual premiere hits the ground running as TJ makes his badass entrance in a chopper, welcoming them to the "land of fire and ice" for Double Agents. He introduces himself as their handler and describes their first challenge, which is happening … right now.
The Challenge: Mission Decryption
Played in two heats, players will race to the top of a volcanic mound and fight over one capsule containing an encrypted code. Players must memorize that color code, race down to their station, and duplicate it exactly. The first to encrypt their code and detonate their station wins.
Challenge analysis: We're starting off physical! It could get ugly as players wrestle over the capsule long enough to memorize the sequence of colors. This could also draw some lines in the sand as players work together to get the colors right while keeping the capsule away from their opponents.
Challenge winners: Aneesa and Fessy!
The first heat is for the females, and Lolo Jones makes it to the top first. Her Olympic speed is already intimidating some players. She grabs the capsule before Tori tackles her. Lolo is the first back to her station, while Nicole and Nany work together, with Nicole hanging onto the capsule and shouting out to help Lolo. Things get a little physical, but not too bad. Kam calls out for a check twice but is incorrect. Big T is wrong, too, since she did it in the wrong direction. Aneesa ends up winning for the females.
In the male heat, things get extremely physical right out the gate (not surprising!). It’s a giant dogpile, and CT grabs someone’s shoe and immediately throws it behind him … not realizing Wes’s face was right in his line of fire. Wes goes down in the most comically satisfying way, and TJ can’t stop hysterically laughing. It’s one of the most beautiful moments in Challenge history. Someone GIF it, please!
Cory ends up grabbing the capsule and running, and Fessy grabs it next. He’s the first one back at his station, and the capsule keeps changing hands after that. Devin calls for a check first but is wrong. Darrell is also wrong. Fessy finally gets it right, winning for the guys.
After the challenge ends, TJ announces that it’s clear that some people are going to need help this season. That’s why they’re going to be playing from here on out in pairs. Obviously, Fessy and Aneesa won this challenge, but TJ announces — to Aneesa's own shock! — that she beat Fessy’s time by over a minute. So she gets to choose any guy she wants to be her partner. She picks Fessy, who clearly did not want to be picked by her. But she's done being undervalued and is playing to win this season.
And the shocks just keep coming! TJ yells out for everyone else to stand next to a partner. Any partner! It's chaos, and some people's feelings get hurt. The pairings are: Tori and Cory; Theresa and Jay; Nany and Kyle; Nicole and Devin; Darrell and rookie Amber B.; rookies Gabby and Lio; Wes and Natalie, even though Darrell saw/wanted her first; Big T and rookie Joseph; rookies Lolo and Nam, Nelson and rookie Amber M; rookies Mechie and Liv. Kam tries for CT, but he flat out rejects her and ends up with Ashley instead. Kam and Leroy are left alone, and so are Josh and Kaycee. Both pairs know they need to split up, so Leroy goes with Kaycee, and Josh goes with Kam.
There is so much to unpack from these partnerships! The Survivor alliance of Jay and Natalie is now partnered up with former enemies Theresa and Wes, which is going to be juicy. CT choosing to go with Ashley instead of Kam (right in front of her face) was a big move but ultimately a smart one — he chose a two-time winner over someone who’s never won a final. But that also means they’ve got the biggest target on their backs as the only pair with two winners (and now Kam is going to want revenge for getting her feelings hurt). Big T doesn’t even know her partner’s name in her talking head interviews. Darrell getting paired with a rookie has to be so frustrating for him (and dumb for all the other girls who didn't immediately go for him!). Also, did the pairs have to be guy/girl? Or did everyone just assume that? The rookie pair of Lolo and Nam could do some real damage. Nelson is probably pissed he's with the smallest rookie girl. Leroy and Kaycee could actually go far!
TJ reveals that Aneesa and Fessy, as winners of the daily challenge, are now "double agents." The other pairs will choose to send one pair into elimination. But the vote will happen as individuals in secret. The double agents will then choose who will go against the chosen pair in elimination. Loser goes home and the winner gets a skull, earning a spot in the final. And this season, there are only 10 skulls available.
Now that the pairs have been picked, it’s time for a night out! Er, make that a night in. Since this season was filmed during COVID, production created a nightclub/bar space in their COVID-safe bubble to give the players an outlet to party away from the house while still making sure no one gets exposed to the outside world. Smart!
In the nightclub dome, Kaycee reveals there’s a Big Brother alliance, including newcomer Amber B. Darrell is technically now part of that as her partner, but he knows he can’t trust any Big Brother player based on how politically cutthroat they are, so he says he doesn’t fully trust his own partner. Nothing else of note happens that night so it must have been a boring night of drinking. That never happens on this show.
The next morning, Kam, Aneesa, Nany, and Ashley have a conversation that gets emotional as Kam and Aneesa bond over how exhausting it can be keeping up the “strong Black woman” stereotype. It’s a powerful moment to see them both be so vulnerable and connect on such a deep level (and considering the complicated history of racism on this franchise, it's striking to see that scene included and given so much air time in the premiere). And later on, Kam approaches Aneesa while Leroy and Kaycee listen in about getting rid of winners to give a non-winner a shot this season. She wants to get revenge for CT not picking her, and it’s a smart move on her part if she can pull it off. And Aneesa has been told to her face before by previous winners (including CT) that they don’t want to run a final with her, so she's on board. Leroy’s fine playing dirty this season to finally get his win, and that means turning on his friends who have won. And other veteran players are thinking along the same lines of getting out winners early. They're wasting no time this season!
But Wes hears the rumor that winners are going to be targeted early, and he’s not happy. CT also knows he’s being targeted, so he asks everyone point-blank if they’re voting for him. They all tell him no, and he knows they’re all lying. The champs know who's working with them and who's working against them. That's going to be dangerous for everyone on their hit list.
At the public deliberation, CT starts off by calling everyone out for swinging too big too soon and publicly announces he’s voting for Lio and Gabby. But both Kam and Leroy throw their support to CT and Ashley, so CT knows where this is going.
We don’t see all the votes, but we do see Wes and Natalie vote for Lio and Gabby, while Leroy, Kam, Cory, and Kaycee vote for Ashley and CT. Double agents Aneesa and Fessy go into the voting chamber to get "classified data" and find out CT and Ashley have been voted into elimination. And they also see who voted for them. Wow. Both Ambers, Cory, Darrell, Gabby, Jay, Joseph, Josh, Kam, Kaycee, Kyle, Leroy, Lio, Liv, Lolo, Mechie, Nam, Nany, Nelson, Nicole, Theresa, and Tori all voted for CT and Ashley. Fessy and Aneesa have more information than anyone else in this house now, and they decide not to tell anyone what they know.
The players then suit up and enter The Crater. This is the Double Agents elimination grounds, and it’s epic. CT and Ashley are revealed to be the "compromised agents," and they walk down into the crater. Aneesa and Fessy are given the choice to go against CT and Ashley, and they pass. Instead, they choose Wes and Natalie. WOW. Three Challenge champions and a Survivor winner in the first elimination?! This is insane. I'm torn though. I love it because I know this is going to be a headbanger, but I hate it because I do not want to see either of these two powerful teams go home so early. These four are like a dream final four!
But wait, there’s more! TJ has yet another twist up his sleeve. He reveals this is a women’s elimination, even though the pairs are co-ed. That means only Natalie and Ashley are competing! Bad news for everyone (and I mean everyone) else trying to get rid of either CT or Wes, because they’re both staying, and they're both ready to get revenge. Everyone’s freaking out on the sidelines. Ashley’s freaking out about going against Natalie in a physical elimination — she’s got tears in her eyes the whole time leading up to the elimination. The only person not freaking out? Natalie. She’s actually smiling. Because she knows she's got this in the bag.
Elimination challenge: Operation Fire Escape. Both players will be bound by their wrists and ankles, hanging off a beam in the middle of the crater. They must do whatever it takes to get from one end to the other and back before the other player does. And oh yeah, the whole thing will be SET ON FIRE.
Elimination analysis: This is completely physical, and Natalie's CrossFit training and major power make this the perfect first elimination for her. She also is used to being targeted early (hello, Winners at War!) and works well under pressure. She also came into the house expecting to be targeted early as a rookie. Ashley, on the other hand, is not prepared to fight so early in the season and doesn't have CT to rely on. She's mentally given up before it's even started.
Winner: Natalie, duh.
It starts off pretty even between the two women. Ashley’s swearing up a storm while Natalie calmly gets a feel for how to best maneuver on the beam. They both get visibly exhausted, but Natalie shoots Ashley a great side-eye at one point. Ashley gets her legs over the middle hump first and Natalie starts to get nervous. But then she gets into a momentum, catches up, and then takes the lead. She beats Ashley, earns her gold skull, and gets to return to the house.
TJ tells Natalie she got the first gold skull of the season — which, side note, starts a trend of Survivor rookies winning the first elimination and earning the first skull of the season after Jay did it last time! — but there’s yet another twist. As the winner, Natalie has a big decision to make: she can stay with her partner or trade him for the loser’s partner. So she can keep Wes as her partner, take CT, or even steal anyone else in the game (except the double agents). The episode ends before we find out her decision. If she stays with Wes, does CT have to leave too? Who will she pick? What's going to happen?!
Challenger of the week: Aneesa for proving why she's a player you shouldn't count out all these years later. Stop underestimating her!