So, with 11 contestants remaining, Gordon, Graham, and Joe announce that Mystery Box time, and the ginormous Mystery Box at center stage slowly begins to rise, to reveal a pair of high heels, a shapely pair of gams, and then… Eva Longoria! Who, in addition to having a lot of free time on her hands in the post-Desperate Housewives world, is (in Gordon’s words) “not only a talented actress… but also an extremely successful restaurateur.” As if all that weren’t enough to write home to Mother about, Longoria points out that she is also of Mexican-American heritage and has drawn upon that background, and her love of a good nosh, to personally select the ingredients in this episode’s Mystery Box. (Or, as Gordon puts it, “Eva has brought the spice of life into the MasterChef kitchen!”) The cooks open the boxes at their own stations, and are delighted to find a cornucopia of ingredients that includes pork tenderloin, avocadoes, creamed corn, and other delights. At this stage in the competition, whenever the cooks open a Mystery Box and aren’t confronted with what looks like the props for a horror movie, it’s legitimate cause for rejoicing.
Touring the aisles as the cooks prepare their dishes, Eva seems especially taken with Eddie. She wants him to know that she feels his pain. “Do you think being an ex-NFL player, people underestimate you?” she asks. We get it, for Christ’s sake—boo fucking hoo, it’s so hard being hot. Both Eddie and Savannah serve up pork dishes that earn them special praise, but the vegetarian Bri, with her butter-and-cilantro shrimp, is a shoo-in for the top spot, if on novelty value alone. After Eva is hustled out the door before she can pry an engagement ring out of Eddie, Bri is taken into the store room, where she gets her reward for winning the challenge: A private performance of this week’s soliloquy on the unparalleled excellence and hard-won quality of God’s gift to cholesterol, Walmart steaks.
Graham gets to deliver it this week; he points out only one in five steaks is deemed worthy of the Walmart name, a figure that would be more impressive to me if I hadn’t grown up on a cattle farm, where I often saw more than five unimpressive steaks-in-the-making lined up side by side, simultaneously boring all onlookers and befouling the landscape, in a way that would have made Harmony Korine proud. Unlike Bri, I’m no vegetarian, but if I didn’t believe the slaughterhouses were doing their job, I would drive through farm country, jumping fences and beating cows to death with a two-by-four, just on general principles. But I digress.
The advantage earned by Bri with this challenge is a little complicated to explain, but in the end, it comes down to this: Natasha is selected to be given a pail of ingredients worth about $25, presumably in generous Walmart prices, including one of those magical steaks, and half an hour of cooking time. Everyone else gets less than five bucks’ worth of ingredients and is given an hour to turn it into a delicious baked dessert. “Have any of you,” Gordon asks, “realized that Bri is now officially in the top 10!?” The reaction indicates that it had not slipped anyone’s notice, but most everyone claps, with the conspicuous exception of Natasha. Gordon asks her, “Are your hands hurting?” Natasha grumbles something to the effect that that’s one way of putting it.
In the end, Natasha comes out smelling like a rose, as you might expect of the one person in one of the dreaded baking challenges on one of these shows who doesn’t have to bake anything. Luca’s banana cake does all right, too, though at first glance, he seems to be a goner. Holding up something on the end of a fork, Joe asks, “Is this banana here, or is this raw cake?” “Your guess is as good as mine,” whimpers Luca. But it’s Jessie who, in the end, is triumphant. Krissi, surprisingly, is a non-contender on this one, her strawberry muffins greeted by Joe with those least reassuring of words that might greet someone in any competition like this: “What happened?” Hefting Krissi’s muffins, Joe observes that “They have incredible density,” which is one of the nicer things you could say about Krissi herself. Gordon, poleaxed by Krissi’s poor showing refers to her as the person “you would have [expected to have] nailed a five-dollar bake sale,” a “compliment” that would get his ass kicked pretty fast if he said of somebody’s momma in the wrong playground or exercise yard. But Gordon reserves his harshest treatment for the oft-praised Lynn, telling him that his strawberry-topped treats “look as if you stepped in cow [bleep] and baked it!” Lynn does not make it into the final 10, proving again that those whom the gods would destroy, they first praise for their plating skills.
For the second hour, the judges and the cooks repair to Huntington Beach, or, as Graham “Moondoggie” Elliot calls it, Surf City, U.S.A. After being divided up into two teams—with Jessie having been allowed to select her own dream team, comprising herself, James, Eddie, Bethy, and Natasha, leaving Savannah, Luca, Jordan, Bri, and Krissi on the other side—the cooks fall to preparing fish tacos for an incoming swarm of surfers. Ever the charmer, Krissi asks the camera, “What do surfers eat? Aren’t they, like, unemployed weirdoes?” I’m not sure which is more dismaying, the unprovoked slander of the entire surfing community, or the strange belief that unemployed weirdoes would be less amenable than other members of society to accepting free food. Perhaps Krissi’s contempt for her customers colors her work, because after she has offered her teammates a sample of her deep-fried cod, they thank her for her hard work and suggest that maybe she should spend her time keeping an eye on the tortillas. “We didn’t tell her to her face that it tasted like [bleep],” says Jordan. “But it tasted like [bleep].”
Jessie’s blue team triumphs over the red team in what, frankly, is one of the most suspicious-looking election processes in MasterChef history. (The surfers vote by jumping onto either a blue or a red surfboard. It looks so laborious and time-consuming that it’s hard not to suspect that, at a certain point, everyone just starts voting the same way so they can have a winner sooner and get back out in the ocean.) Back at the MasterChef kitchen, the judges inform Jessie and her teammates that they can select one person to be spared the elimination challenge, and it is suggested that they go off to a quiet area together and discuss it, at which point everybody loses their [bleep]ing minds. Krissi is already upset because her name has come up in response to the judges’ loaded but not unexpected question about which teammate was the most useless. Bri points out that all Krissi did was tend to the tortillas. Krissi snaps that performing this trivial and demeaning chore was all she was asked to do, and she doesn’t understand that herself, because as Jordan has admitted, nobody wanted to tell her to her face that her friend cod tasted like [bleep]. Now, Krissi unloads, even threatening Bri with violence, or, to better catch the full flavor of the exchange, threatening her with [bleep]ing violence. Poor Luca mildly asks that maybe some people could watch their language, so he doesn’t have to hire an exorcist to help him clean out his ears.
A lot of thought has gone into the elimination challenge: The contestants have to cook three chicken breasts, sautéing one, frying another, and doing a third with Italian stuffing. All the thought has been for naught, just like all the trash talk directed Krissi’s way, since it quickly becomes clear that not only is she is the only cook on the block who can do Southern fried chicken, but she’s the only one who can cook all three breasts in the time allotted without serving the judges at least one piece that is substantially raw. Between Krissi’s bad behavior and everyone else’s bad cooking, there’s plenty of grounds for embarrassment to go around, though nobody occupies a larger chunk of it than Gordon, for the way he handles the final dismissal of the evening. After going on for quite a stretch about how someone here is about to walk away from the dream of being a MasterChef, he declaims: “That person is—Bri! [Longish pause.] It’s not you!” This, it develops, is his way of saying that it’s Savannah. It’s understandable that Gordon just wants to keep the twists and surprises coming, right down to the final credits, but damn. Richard Dawson used to be able to play this bait-and-switch game all day and all night, without anyone getting hurt. He was a master at it; by comparison, Gordon just sounds like a senile guy who always get invited to be a presenter at the Oscars, despite the fact that he consistently reads the card wrong the first time.