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Coming off of last week's non-elimination challenge, there was really no way we weren't going to pay for it this week. This first episode of the "finale" began with little fanfare: And why bother? Instead of the culmination of a long season of carefully weeding out the lesser players, tonight's episode kicks things off with a repeat of last episode—five chefs still remain, and we've still got someone to eliminate. It seems the producers, in the time off between the end of the normal season and the trip to the Bahamas, forgot to come up with a creative way to treat the unexpected boon of contestants heading into this episode.

The quickfire challenge had the potential for greatness, but it was unceremoniously squandered during the first five minutes of the episode. Any potential drama that could have been mustered by drudging up the challenges from the cast's former seasons disappeared with a few half-hearted hugs and asides—and the "secret ingredients" locked away in those boxes? Just your standard mix of proteins. Not one of these chefs is going to blink at having to cook duck, lamb, or veal. So here are the sweaty winners of seasons past, showing up long enough to put out a 40-minute dish and high-tail it out of there. Based on the teaser for last week, I had high hopes for this challenge—anticipating the mixed bag of talent (Hosea v. Voltaggio) and waiting for the follow-up to that season opener in which the chefs had to recreate the dish that sent them home. What should have been the meat of this episode, to my mind, emerged a sloppily edited afterthought, given a hell of a lot less time than, say, the cookie quickfire. The only surprise upset here was Mike, who beat out a newly emo-coiffed Voltaggio, and Carla, who couldn't manage to beat out Hosea with her undercooked rice. ("Did you mean for the rice to be undercooked?" Is that a real question, Tom?)  Since the chefs were going against the guest chefs instead of each other, we didn't get a real winner or loser here.

The elimination challenge was equally disastrous, unfocused and undeserving of placement this late in the season. The normal Top Chef Bahamas Vacation rules apply, with orchestrated culture playing a role in the challenge, but what was missing from the challenge was any nod to the culinary tradition of the locale in either of the challenges tonight. I suppose we'll get that next time (when the chefs snorkel for food?), but so far the contestants have managed to simply equate Junkanoo with "normal people who are not deserving of fine dining/royal dishes." Two parties are at fault here—the producers for presenting only the vaguest notion of the challenge at the offset, and the chefs, for failing to recognize that ambiguity and to prepare for possible adaptation. Some of the greatest challenges on this show feature either total freedom or extreme restriction; the gray area doesn't produce exciting food because it involves too much guesswork or gamesmanship.

Enter the overly dramatized fire. Already thrown the official wildcard for the challenge—that the "royalty" they're cooking for isn't Queen Elizabeth's clan but—surprise!—the king of Junkanoo—Tom seems to make a call on the fly that the chefs can alter their dishes if they like. The already lame wildcard, then, becomes somewhat irrelevant, and the chefs scramble to downgrade their fine dining dishes for a more popular crowd.  As is somewhat the hallmark of a substandard Top Chef episode, very little of the episode is spent in the kitchen with the chefs. They perform terribly under the circumstances, so much so that the judges end up making excuses for them. It's not the fire that's spooking them, or the pressure of this stage of the competition—the judges need look no further than to the poorly framed challenge.

That's why it's such a shame to see Carla go home for this, with an abysmal-sounding undercooked pork dish that somehow came out so sweet it tasted like a doughnut fried with sugar. Out of the five chefs going into this episode, she was certainly among my picks for the final three: Antonia, Carla, Richard. With Blais choking as he's prone to do, spewing repulsive self-deprecating sentences like, "I honestly hate everything I do," is it time to re-evaluate Mike Isabella? I hate to even ask the question, but either he's a better chef than the show's made him out to be or he's merely better than the remaining competition or both. Or maybe his frat boy antics and stupid grin are a ruse to divert attention away from his mad skillz. Either way, he's come away strong from the past few challenges, and his win tonight—pulling a loud groan from the group I was viewing with—is a little frightening. Tonight's lackluster episode felt like standard midseason fare, but we're one away from the finale. Here's to hoping things pick up.

Stray observations:

  • Despite how unattractive I found Richard's whining tonight, I have to give the editors credit for the most awesome cut of the night—straight from general praise from the judges to a shot of Richard in the kitchen exclaiming, "My food is fucking disgusting!"
  • Enjoyed the longer deliberations tonight around the losing dishes. I'm still surprised Tiffany is around. She somehow manages to only be second-worst every time.
  • Hosea really seized the opportunity to prove himself to all those "haters."
  • For the record: There are three "finale" episodes left.

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