On a night when many are following an epic struggle over the Iron Throne of Westeros, “The Amazing Race” honestly feels sort of quaint. While the “Unfinished Business” conceit has perhaps added additional emotional interest to the race, in that we have preexisting connections to these teams, the actual legs have been fairly nondescript. The only major change this season has been the proliferation of “You’re Still Racing” moments, which are not exactly new and have created artificial cliffhangers instead of actual tension. That doesn’t mean the season has been bad, per se, but it hasn’t been anything to write home about.

However, with Dan indisposed this evening, I have my first chance to write about the season since the premiere, and “I Cannot Deal With Your Psycho Behavior” offers a few twists and turns which I thought were pretty effective. It’s not a perfect leg by any means, bunching in the same space we would expect it to bunch in, but a tricky detour tests each team’s sense of strategy and delineates between those who are letting the game control them and those who are looking to take control of their own destiny.

And, unsurprisingly, it’s the latter teams who come out ahead, as the former teams find they’ve bitten off more than they could chew.

Until they discover, of course, that one can always throw up and try again.

[Recap, and hopefully fewer terrible metaphors, after the break.]

Jet and Cord are not the smartest people to run “The Amazing Race,” but sometimes they make a lot of sense. They’re a team that benefits from having their backs against the wall, as it gives them a clear sense of purpose within a particular leg. Last week, they knew they were behind the other teams, so they had every reason to work harder and make no mistakes – as a result, they easily escaped elimination as they easily passed Ron and Christina.

In that case, they were ignorant to the fact that they had booked a flight that got in later than the other teams, screwed over by a ticket agent who defined “earliest flight” as “earliest flight on our airline.” This time, however, they actually choose the later flight because they don’t want to have to deal with two different connections. It’s a safe decision, but it’s one that they can prepare for: they know, because they are a half hour behind the other teams as soon as they land, that they need to complete the tasks which follow as if their Amazing Race lives depend on it.

They run into a leg that offers them that opportunity: the teams drive themselves to most destinations, bringing directions into the mix, and the Detour is particularly punishing to those who choose the wrong Detour option.

But, before we talk about that, let’s talk about about the exciting 2012 Ford Focus. A few weeks ago, when Gary and Mallory arrived on the mat and enjoyed a cool and refreshing bottle of “Amazing Race”-themed Snapple, I saw a lot of outrage. It actually made me wonder if people had never seen product placement before, as what I saw was nothing that I hadn’t seen on numerous other shows that had far less justification for such integration. Snapple was integrated into the task without any explicit mention (called only “Iced Tea” when they picked up the bottle), and I was actually quite taken with the integration of the particular flavor into various levels of the leg. Yes, I rolled my eyes when Mallory’s eyed widened as she exclaimed how fantastic it was, but I also sort of think Mallory just is that way, and their “Snapplicious” reward (as Dan put it) was silly but harmless.

Tonight, the Ford Focus was obviously a prominent part of the leg: the touch console was heavily discussed (and used to house their first clue once on the ground in Austria), the backup camera was used to receive the next part of that clue, and Zev and Justin each walked away with a new car at the conclusion of the leg. I am not denying that it sounds unnatural for Phil to be listing off features through voiceover while we are supposed to believe that Zev and Justin are standing there listening to him, but I would say that it was fairly well integrated as far as product integration goes. They needed cars to get places, and if this product integration allows for the race to avoid cutting back on the size/scale of the race then I think it’s worth it.

Of course, much as it disrupted this writeup (my apologies, but that’s been kicking around in my brain for a week), it did somewhat disrupt the episode. However, once they finished backing up over their clue at the airport, the race was back on: after a quick stop at Schloss Schallaburg to pick up a book and allow Kent to mistake a young maiden for a man (from afar), the teams are back to Vienna for a Detour that leaves out two important variables.

In the case of “Long Hard Walk,” the racers are tasked with moving an analyst’s couch from Sigmund Freud’s former residence to the university where he worked (which was a mile away), although it does not specify how large the couch might be. While it is certainly heavy and large, it’s not as heavy or as large as a more traditional couch, which some teams may not have realized. It may seem like a small thing, but I think Gary and Mallory in particularly avoided the task because of the presumed physicality, and ultimately they seemed to have no problem with it.

The other choice was “Quick and Easy Meal,” where the ferris wheel from “The Third Man” became the site of an eating challenge with its own variable. While the teams were made aware that they had only twelve minutes to complete their meal aboard one of the cars, they were given no sense of the portion sizes. Presuming them to be reasonable, Gary concludes that he could eat his meal and part of Mallory’s, a presumption that costs them considerable time when they’re the last team to arrive at the ferris wheel and thus the last team to have to turn back around and complete the other task (with Jen and Kisha and Zev and Justin making the same mistake before them).

Now, I do wonder whether anyone could have completed the ferris wheel task: those portions just seemed too large for twelve minutes, and adding the chocolate cake into the mix just seemed torturous. Perhaps Flight Time and Big Easy could have completed it, but should there be a detour option that only one team can complete? Doesn’t that just make it a trap, a task which offers the promise of a speedy conclusion but in truth is just going to set you back further?

That’s a question that we should ponder, but the result was compelling: three teams in front are forced to turn around, while those teams who chose the couch to begin with (including the Globetrotters and Kent and Vyxsin) are able to surge ahead. In particular, the cowboys make up that thirty minute break by choosing the task that they had the least variables: when you’re looking to make up time, uncertainty is a greater enemy than anything else, so the couch offered the greatest combination of speed and security. It’s a decision that saves the cowboys: although they finish in fifth place, they avoid finishing in last, and that’s all that’s important when you’re starting a half hour behind.

And yet, while the Cowboys were rewarded for their decision, Gary and Mallory were punished for theirs. While they were hoping for an opportunity to catch up at the Roadblock, the task – putting on a chimney sweep’s outfit and sweeping a chimney - was not particularly challenging, meaning that only the drive to Salzburg was ever really an equalizing moment. Now, if Justin’s driving skills tell us anything, they should tell us that Gary and Mallory might have had a chance: they jumped from fifth to first after the detour, a testament to their skills with directions and the key role that plays in legs where teams are asked to drive themselves. But Gary and Mallory may have simply been too far behind, needing a more strenuous task that might have given one of the other teams a problem.

They didn’t get it, and it seemed like an unfortunate but not exactly unfair departure. They made one crucial mistake in their choice of detour, and I sort of like it when one bad decision results in a team going home. As much as I might bristle at Kent and Vyxsin’s bickering, and as much as I find Gary and Mallory an enjoyable team despite her occasional over exuberance, there’s always value to cause and effect on “The Amazing Race.” It emphasizes that the choice between detours is not as simple as picking whichever one sounds easiest, but rather often becomes about weighing a variety of different factors and sometimes choosing that which seems “harder” because it seems as though it holds less potential for unwelcome surprises.

However, to quote Mallory’s strategy for potentially retrying the detour, the Race has given them a chance to throw it up and try again. In a season where non-elimination legs have been sparse, this one came at the worst possible time. Yes, I’m glad that we have a chance to get rid of a team I don’t particularly care for instead of a team who seemed to genuinely enjoy running the race, but I hate that it completely undermines everything I just said above. There were no consequences for the teams’ decisions at the Detour within this leg, and bunching in the next leg will probably erase any legitimate handicap that Gary and Mallory will face (and let’s not even start imagining what mind-numbingly simple speed bump awaits them).

Sure, one could say that “The Amazing Race” is more about the journey than about the race itself. We got to visit a castle, and a fancy library, and learn that Jen and Kisha appear to believe Sigmund Freud to be a woman. We even got to visit the Villa Trapp, the real life home of those crazy singin’ Austrian kids. And it was all in glorious high definition, from the snowy countryside to the brand new 2012 Ford Foci with their myTouch computers.

And yet, in the end, all we learned was that any potential impact this episode had on the race was entirely undermined in just a few moments at episode’s end, and there’s something inherently unsatisfying about that.

 

Other Thoughts on Sunday’s episode:

 

*** We were given two bits of potential elimination foreshadowing in the opening: Gary and Mallory noting the symmetry with their exit last season, and Kent and Vyxsin noting that the race is tougher on people in a relationship. Unfortunately, the latter was just foreshadowing to how insufferable both Kent (with his “I Can’t!” whining) and Vyxsin (with her obnoxious ultimatum’s evident in the title, which is missing a “Frickin’”) would be in the episode.

*** That being said, as annoying as Kent was, his exasperated and panicked “Look at these doors!” cracked me up. It was just so pathetic it made me chuckle. Also, as much as they frustrate me, I’m always fascinated to see them negotiate gender roles, and Vyxsin’s frustration with Kent “acting like a girl” would have been a field day for Freud.

*** I’m always curious to see what the racers know about historical figures, and I really wish they had been given clues rather than directions for both Freud and the Von Trapps. They likely would have figured it out, so what’s the harm? Confusion is not something that should be avoided.

*** Zev’s chimney sweep sort of seemed to have a crush on him, urging him on and even setting him up with a “That’s what she said.” Perhaps she is his Amy Farrah Fowler?

*** There was a moment there the camera lingered on Kent seeming to find Justin’s encouragement for Zev – “Thatta boy” – somewhat funny. It makes me wonder what some of the contestants think of Zev, and the degree to which he is treated as something of a child on the race. The scene with Mallory and the ear plugs from last week was similarly interesting, as it almost had a babysitter vibe to it. I find Zev a lot of fun, and am actively rooting for Zev and Justin, but I’m curious if the other teams don’t talk about them behind their backs (which wouldn’t surprise me with Kent).

*** Odd that someone other than Phil seemed to be doing the voiceover for the preview of next week’s episode – temp track left on by mistake, or was Phil otherwise occupied? Inquiring minds must know, so feel free to ask him on Twitter or something.