And the winner is...
Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show

It’s been a long season, but we’ve made it at last to the final. Brendan, James, and John remain, promising a study in contrasts for the final three bakes. What will take the day: Brendan’s consistency and precision, James’ flexibility and flavors, or John’s creativity and innovation? All three have acquitted themselves well this season, as viewers are reminded in an effective and efficient opening montage, and heading into the tent for the last weekend, it really is anyone’s game.

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The final signature challenge is a rather basic one: the bakers must make a savory pithivier, two discs of puff pastry with a filling inside, traditionally decorated with a spiral pattern on top and a scalloped edge. While this challenge certainly requires technique—the bakers don’t have much time to make their puff pastry, and the wrong balance of ingredients in the filling may leave the pastry soggy—it’s a far cry from “Patisserie”’s petit fours. Brendan, James, and John all dive in and as they get to work on their pastry, the episode takes one last opportunity to follow the contestants home, cutting away to interviews with the bakers and their families and friends.

The editors do a good job with the home visits. They’re warm and playful, and just the right length—short enough to keep things moving, but long enough to give a sense of each baker in a different, more personal space (James and John may both be at university, but they have completely different flats which match their on-camera personas almost too well). One interview does tip the episode’s hand, however. Savvy reality competition fans will recognize the beginning of an underdog arc for John in his interactions with his family. Over the course of the season, John has gone from being described as a law student to, in the past few episodes, voicing his desire to go into baking professionally. The interview with his mother and sister brings this into sharper focus. They clearly do not understand or appreciate just how talented John is, and how much baking means to him. He slumps in his chair as they talk and for a moment the confident baker we’ve seen in the tent is gone, replaced with an insecure young man who as he later says, “wants to be told that [he’s] loved.” He’s likely wanted a career in baking for a long time, but has only gotten the confidence to voice this publically due to his experience on the show. The interview gets the viewers invested in John and his success, but it’s not the feel-good edit James and Brendan receive. Were he to misstep in the final and seemingly prove his family right, it would be a serious downer. That means John must do well, either winning or at least experiencing a cathartic moment of connection with his family.

They like it! They really like it!
Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show

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Back in the tent, each of the bakers has successfully managed their time and aside from James’ voiced concern that he may have taken his pithivier out a bit too soon, all seems to be going well. When it’s time for judging, each of the bakers has a gorgeous, golden brown pie to present, each with absolutely delicious-sounding fillings. Brendan’s potato and pepper pithivier gets high marks, with Mary commenting on his wise choice of filling ingredients and Paul complementing his flavors and spice level. John’s Italian sausage and roasted vegetable pithivier also earns raves, with Mary complementing the flavors and Paul remarking on the pastry. Mel even joins in with a, “stunning.” Unfortunately for James, his instincts prove correct, and while both Paul and Mary remark on his tasty, well-seasoned filling and attractive presentation, the pastry is slightly under and could have used just a bit longer in the oven. James is absolutely crushed. With John and Brendan as competitors, a few minutes more in the oven is all it takes to cement a third place finish.

It’s time for the technical, and once again, Paul and Mary delight in the dastardly task they’ve set for the bakers: bake and decorate 25 fondant fancies. These are squares of sponge covered on top with marzipan and on the sides with buttercream, with a dome of buttercream piped onto the marzipan, all covered in delicate pink fondant and a decorative chocolate drizzle. This is an execution challenge. There are a lot of steps in the decorating process, each of which must be precise for the bakers to deliver clean, visually appealing fancies. Alas, not even Brendan achieves what the judges are looking for, and if Brendan fails to deliver on a finicky, precise presentation challenge, there’s a problem with the challenge.

Technical-ly first place, the best kind of first place?
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Without having seen the exact recipe the bakers are given, the main issue appears to be time. None of these bakers have made fancies before, so there’s a steep learning curve as they figure out how to prepare and dip their 25 bakes. This takes time and the bakers wind up having to rush, barely finishing before the buzzer. Had they been familiar with the process, or received a bit more help from the instructions, they likely would have been able to turn out the level of precision the judges were looking for. Instead, their bakes look sloppy and amateurish, and none of the bakers are happy with what they present. James is more successful than the others and nabs first place, but Brendan and John tie for second/third, likely another Baking Show first. There hasn’t been a technical-round tie in any season filmed after this one (or the season before this) and the tie feels like an admission of responsibility from Paul and Mary. The signature challenge was fun, if a bit slight, but the lackluster technical puts a damper on what should be an exciting finale. As with the bakers, the success of the finale will come down to the showstopper challenge.

After a brief check-in with the judges (Hello, Mel and Sue! We’ve missed you most of this episode), it’s time for the final showstopper challenge. Given how the judges and hosts have been hyping the showstopper, and that everything will come down to this final bake, one would assume the brief will promise spectacular, creative and technically demanding showstoppers. Instead, the task is to make a chiffon cake. Yes, it’s supposed to tie to a significant memory for the bakers, but really? Just a cake? The choux gateau, the meringues, the tarts, several of this season’s showstoppers have been more interesting and visually enticing. This is the final. The showstoppers should be ridiculous, and instead they’re, well, fine. They’d be nice for cake week.

Baker sympathy pains
Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show

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Brendan makes an almond and raspberry family reunion cake that has a decidedly different subtext viewing this episode in the U.S. in 2018 than it did in the U.K. in 2012. John makes a heaven and hell cake, with dark chocolate and orange representing hell and lemon and coconut meringue for heaven. James, completely sidestepping the brief, makes five separate cakes instead of the one requested, four flavored with Turkish delight, pistachios, blueberries, and raspberries (representing England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), and one combining these flavors together (representing the United Kingdom). Brendan and John’s bakes go fairly smoothly, but James runs into trouble right away. He’s overreached and is stretched for time even before a cake pan filled with the batter for his pistachio cake falls to the floor, forcing him to start that cake over. James never recovers and whether it’s this added hurdle or his fundamentally flawed concept, his showstopper gets harsh reviews from the judges. The cake is too dry and too cakey and dense for a chiffon, plus it’s too sloppily decorated for this stage of the competition. It’s disappointing to see James stumble so significantly after a season full of creative and delicious-sounding bakes, but that’s the danger of his big-swing approach. It paid off with his gingerbread barn and his choux bicycle, but leaves him in a distant third here.

Both John and Brendan fare much better. John’s heaven and hell cake is deemed visually stunning and very professional, with a perfect texture (challenging in a chocolate chiffon) and excellent flavors. As for Brendan, the judges find his reunion cake elegant and absolutely delicious, with a sponge “like a cloud.” Paul and Mary are effusive with their complements, but based on the editing, Brendan just barely edges John out for first. It’s a surprise, then, when John is announced as the winner. The editors make sure to include shots of Paul and Mary discussing the bakers’ work over the course of the season, and perhaps that influenced their decision. It’s a somewhat frustrating result and while John is a deserving winner, there’s more the editors could have done to make John’s win satisfying. Even a small change like switching the order of the showstopper judging would have helped. Mary remarks that she likes the simple decoration of Brendan’s cake. Coming after the comments about John’s more visually striking showstopper, this feels like a distinct preference, a point for Brendan over John. Had Brendan’s judging been placed before John’s, a case could be made that while Brendan may have had a slightly better flavor, the presentation factor tipped things toward John.

A final zhuzh
Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show

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Regardless, the season ends with a talented winner crowned Britain’s Best Amateur Baker and while Brendan and James are undoubtedly disappointed, they’re also clearly happy for John and grateful for their experience. Home baking is often a solitary activity and the opportunity to spend this time with a group of people who truly understand and share their avocation is a beautiful thing. As teased by John’s early-episode home visit, viewers are treated to looks of shock and dawning awareness on the faces of John’s family when he’s announced as the winner. Brendan has a particularly moving moment before the showstopper judging when he is overcome with emotion as he tries and fails to express just how much this competition has meant to him, and how validating winning would be after decades spent pursuing this passion. John is in a very different phase of his life, but his emotion is just as real and just as raw. He’s beginning a new chapter and it’s one he now feels he can embark upon with the understanding and support of his family. It’s lovely to see, and a great way to end the season.

Between the problems with the technical and the underwhelming brief for the showstopper, this is far from The Great British Baking Show’s most exciting or memorable finale. It’s indicative of this season’s early place in the show’s run; the pieces came together a few times over the season, creative challenges and relatable bakers prompting delightful Mel and Sue interactions and exquisite bakes, but it’s not until later seasons that the show would consistently hit these marks week after week. That doesn’t negate the many strengths of this season, however, nor the joy that comes from watching creative and talented people hone their craft in a context of kindness and supportive collaboration, rather than cutthroat competition. The Great British Baking Show is always a treat to watch, and this season is no exception.

Always the most important ingredient
Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show

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Stray observations

  • This concludes my coverage of The Great British Baking Show season five, and considering PBS’s decision not to continue airing the series, likely the show. Thank you to all the readers and commenters who followed along and shared their thoughts on this wonderful show!
  • The most interesting and entertaining part of the pithivier challenge is definitely saying “pithivier.” Seriously, try it out. Sue wasn’t kidding, it’s delightful.
  • Speaking of Sue, there wasn’t nearly enough Mel or Sue this episode. I get that they wanted to leave the bakers to it, but a few shots of them gossiping on the sidelines, Ă  la “Patisserie,” would have gone a long way.
  • John’s full quote about bakers is terrific, and one of my favorite moments in the episode: “People think that, you know, bakers are these dainty little housewives, but they’re not—they’re quite controlling people who want to be told that they’re loved.” That sums up quite a few of the bakers over the show’s run and is at the core of more than one of the show’s most memorable moments.
  • I mostly focused on John’s home visit, but meeting Brendan’s partner Jason was great, particularly the beat when Brendan put that tray into the sink for Jason to wash.
  • It’s always nice to see the previously eliminated bakers back for the final, and to find out their rooting interests. Sarah-Jane was Team John, Danny guessed Brendan would take it, and Cathryn had James pegged.
  • So that’s what Turkish delight looks like (sort of). I always wondered, having grown up like so many with The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, but I’ve never come across it.
  • They may not have won, but Team String Player did pretty darn good. Congrats, Brendan and James, and a full-throated congratulations to John as well.

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