The Challenge: Total Madness premiere recap: An unholy alliance more than a decade in the making
Warning: the following recap contains spoilers from Wednesday's The Challenge: Total Madness season premiere.
It took them more than a decade, but one of The Challenge's longest-held rivalries has finally been squashed.
Well, not totally squashed, because I'm sure these two legends are still eager to kill each other at their first opportunity. But in the season 35 premiere, Johnny Bananas and Wes reveal that for the first time in 10+ years, they have sheathed their swords (for now) and have decided to work together, in secret, to take back control of this game that they clearly lost their grip on in recent years due to the influx of powerful rookies setting their sights on taking out the champs. They've both learned some hard lessons over the past few seasons as their pride and rivalry resulted in early eliminations for them both, and they're ready to prove their legend status once again.
So instead of attacking each other, these Challenge masterminds are now in what is perhaps the most unholy alliance this show has ever seen. Total Madness is right — this has the potential to be the craziest season yet because of this team-up alone. But so much more happened in the premiere in addition to this shocking revelation.
After last season's disappointing War of the Worlds 2, I'm back to recap all the insanity of Total Madness, and based on the premiere alone I'm already so much more enthused about this season's roster and structure. With a new twist that guarantees deserving finalists, The Challenge is proving that it can adapt and evolve from the mistakes of the season that came before ... just like Bananas and Wes. This old dog has some new tricks up its sleeve.
And thankfully, since we're all stuck in self-quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Challenge: Total Madness wastes no time in getting to the first challenge. After an appropriately post-apocalyptic dystopian opening perfectly fitting for our new reality, the new cast treks their way through a barren, freezing forest to their first challenge that’s happening immediately. Let the madness begin!
The Challenge: Battle Lines
Before getting to the nitty gritty of the first challenge, TJ reveals that once again, a million dollars is at stake, but this season is the “most dangerous” they’ve ever done. It’s also going to be the most unpredictable for the players, as sometimes they’ll be put in teams and sometimes paired up – but it’s overall an individual game. My favorite kind: Challengers win or lose because of their own performance and not because of anyone else.
On to the first challenge! Played as individuals, Challengers start at one end and pull in a long rope attached to a barrel of medical supplies across a 500 ft. field. Along the way, they have to solve a puzzle and a math equation. Meanwhile, TJ is going to be in a literal TANK trying to sabotage players and get them out. Played in a male and female heat, the fastest in each heat will win – and according to TJ, "winners have a lot of power."
Degree of physical difficulty: Moderate. Those barrels look heavy, and the ropes attached are pretty hefty as well. This takes both strength and endurance.
Degree of mental difficulty: High. These dumb dumbs don’t know math! And only a few vets know to practice these kinds of puzzles during their off season. The puzzles are going to make or break this challenge for every player.
Potential for drama: High. The first winners have the potential to set the course of the season. Plus we’ll get to see which prospects are the ones to watch out for.
Winner: Rogan for the men, Jenny for the women.
Before the men’s heat begins, Nelson warms up by doing push-ups – dumb move, bro. Don’t tire yourself out before the challenge even starts! Then again, Nelson was never known for his smart thinking. The challenge begins and the guys all make some good headway but TJ comes through in his tank and immediately eliminates vets Jordan and Wes and newcomers Asaf (Are You the One, Big Brother Israel, etc.), Jay (Survivor), and Swaggy C (Big Brother). And when TJ full-on cackles, an angel gets its wings. Returning vet Cory is the first to reach the puzzle, and he reveals in his talking head interview that he’s playing to win this season for his girlfriend Taylor (Are You the One) that he met on Ex on the Beach, revealing she’s pregnant with his baby – and remember, he’s also got a daughter with Cheyenne (Are You the One), who he met and hooked up with on The Challenge: Rivals III, and they now star on Teen Mom OG together. Cory is single handedly going to populate the next generation of MTV stars.
But returning vet Josh passes Cory in the puzzle to take the lead, and Cory, Nelson, and returning vet Kyle all get eliminated by the second tank blitz. Newcomer Fessy (Big Brother, American Ninja Warrior) is the first to complete the math equation, and vets Bear, Josh, and Bananas are eliminated by another tank ride. Returning champs CT and Rogan plus Fessy are the only three remaining, with Rogan, one-fourth of last season's winning team, pulling out the win in the end.
The women are up next, and no surprise but last season’s Rookie of the Year Jenny is the first to reach the puzzle. TJ fires up the tank, immediately eliminating returning player Melissa (who was disqualified after fighting with Kailah in the season premiere of Final Reckoning), vets Nany, Kailah, Big T, Jenna, and Ashley, and newcomer Jenn (Amazing Race). Tori is the first to complete the puzzle, but Jenny is once again the first to finish the physical part and gets to the math equation first. TJ plows through with the tank again, eliminating newcomer Bayleigh (Big Brother, also Swaggy C’s fiancée!) and returning vet Mattie. Jenny reveals she’s been practicing math equations since last season, having learned from her mistakes (I'm starting to sense a theme here ... ), and it pays off since she’s the first to complete the equation, securing a huge lead. Tori screws up on the math, and gets eliminated along with returning vet Aneesa and newcomer Kaycee (Big Brother), leaving only Jenny and Dee left, with Jenny ultimately winning.
Tribunal: The three-person Tribunal is back, baby! Rogan and Jenny pick Cory as their third Tribunal member because they consider him neutral (and completely ignore Bear’s obnoxious begging). TJ reveals that it’s a guy’s elimination week, so all the non-Tribunal players (aka the "losers" according to TJ) will pick one guy for elimination and the Tribunal will then pick three other guys to interrogate before ultimately picking the nominated guy’s opponent.
Then we finally get to see the Challengers’ mad dash to pick their beds in this season's glamorous mansion – but as we know from trailers, Total Madness is going all-in on the theme and making the players sleep in an underground, concrete, nuclear bomb shelter for the first time ever, taking away pretty much the only comfort perk these players have ever had in this game. I love it. Let’s see some people lose their minds! They’re forced to sleep on barren cots, given a single roll of toilet paper, a bar of soap, a towel, and a blanket – and nothing else. Ashley’s already freaking out that she won’t have any wine.
However, everyone spoke too soon, because Jordan finds the Garden of Eden deeper in the bunker complete with a huge iron gym, spacious kitchen stocked with alcohol (you’re welcome, Ashley), plus an underground swimming pool. They aren’t really hurting for much, besides the sun. The conversation quickly turns to old grudges and new alliances, and I’m excited to see the new “holy trinity” of Nany, Jenna, and Kailah working together (and Nany and Asaf win the award for first hookup of the season, which is impressive since they just met and there’s two actual engaged couples in the bunker). Dee and Rogan are already giving me the heebie jeebies, since she claims the top bunk above his bed and talking about how she’s got feelings bubbling up for him already. Also bringing the ick factor: Bear is hitting on Kailah hardcore, but she’s got a boyfriend back home. Based on the trailers for this season, that’s not going to stop this train wreck from happening. As CT would say: choo choo!
Bananas makes CT speak first, and he nominates Jay since the three other new guys have some reason for CT not to want to throw them in (Fessy has a good chance of coming back based on his first challenge performance, Asaf is "Nany’s new toy," and Swaggy C comes with Bayleigh who’s got "teeth"). The rest of the house votes evenly between Jay and Asaf with Asaf voting for Wes which immediately sets Wes off since he was trying to play under the radar this season.
But wait! That's when the biggest shocker is shown to viewers (and not to the other players) – after talking about their decade-plus-long grudge all episode long, Bananas and Wes reveal in their talking heads that they’ve realized since they’re always automatically talked about in the same sentence, why don’t they work together against everyone else? Say hello to "Team You're All F--ked," according to Bananas. "If this works, what we're able to do together is just not fair," Wes adds.
In all 34 previous seasons of The Challenge, we’ve never seen two sworn enemies like this throw away their differences to join together, and this is one of the oldest grudges in the history of the show, with these two consistently running the game with one winning and one losing, always trading off who comes out on top. If that’s what they can accomplish while working against each other, I am so psyched to see what these two absolute legends can accomplish when they work together – in secret, no less! This is going to be epic.
The Tribunal then picks Kyle, Jay, and Wes to interrogate, but they ultimately pick Jay to go against Asaf.
Goodbye Proving Ground, and hello Purgatory. TJ explains that the elimination floor has been renamed because it’s the only thing standing between victory and defeat, heaven and hell. Pretty apt name!
Elimination challenge: Air Strike. This season’s first Purgatory elimination is new, where players start by hanging off a bar high above the ground on opposite sides of a plexiglass wall. They must do whatever they can to knock their opponent off the bar first. Best two out of three wins and stays in the game.
Degree of physical difficulty: High. This requires both strength and stamina. Asaf is a dancer and strong, and Jay’s a rock climber, so it’s pretty evenly matched there.
Degree of mental difficulty: N/A. This is all physical.
Potential for drama: Low. It’s two newcomers going against each other, so the stakes aren’t that high. But there’s some drama since Jay and Asaf are close friends already.
Winner: Rock climber Jay totally smokes Asaf in a blowout elimination.
Jay’s strategy is to conserve energy while Asaf goes for the aggressive push. However Asaf keeps his arms bent while kicking hard, and tires out, giving the first point to Jay. And Jay’s performance is catching Dee’s eye. In the second round, Asaf learns from his mistake and just hangs there like Jay, but Jay’s endurance wins out. And with his win, TJ announces he also earns a red skull brand on his helmet – in another twist, that red skull means he’s now the only one who is eligible to run this season’s final. All players must win an elimination in order to qualify for the final, meaning that finally we’re going to get a final where all the remaining players are worthy. Talk about a total 180 from last season!
Challenger of the week: Jay for absolutely crushing the elimination when it was clear that everyone thought Asaf was coming back. We stan a calm-yet-confident newcomer.
The Challenge: Total Madness airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on MTV.