We’re going back to basics, people. Temptation Island has just experienced its own mini version of The Purge and now only a few people remain: the original couples; the well-meaning host who guides the group through their bouts of scorching pain and then giggles as he collects his paycheck; and enough of a skeleton crew left behind to mic and film the participants so that every tear sliding down a cheek and every uneven heartbeat will be recorded for posterity. The Tempters were sent packing. My guess is Morgan is home trying on wedding dresses and swearing to her family that the guy she’s fully committed to is for real and not just dealing with either Rebound Syndrome or a psychotic break and he is so excited to come meet them – you know, after he officially ends his commitment to that other girl he was with for five years and once planned to marry. I figure Brittany is sitting in a lotus pose inside a yurt somewhere staring at Karl’s Instagram page without blinking and Katheryn is at a toy store buying a dolphin stuffed animal that she will name John and Val is pretending to be King of the World in front of his bathroom mirror while he shaves and Johnny is waiting for the official call from Kady telling him that she gave John the boot so Johnny can chivalrously rush to her side like a Real Man would. And I assume the producers are currently dancing a fucking jig beside a production van because all this has worked out even better than they even expected.
But before we get to the emotional trauma of the original couples reuniting beside literal rising flames, we first have to sit through some goodbyes. Morgan is all but hyperventilating at the prospect of leaving, but Evan is there to stare hard at her face and assure her that her very existence has changed every facet of his life. “I’ve gotta handle what I’ve gotta handle,” he tells her, and I’m sure it’s a singularly delightful experience for Kaci to see that, in just THREE FUCKING WEEKS, she has turned from the love of Evan’s life into something “to handle.” As for Katheryn, she has no idea how John feels, but when he deigns to tell her how he feels – that part of him still loves Kady, that he needs to hear her side of the story – she’s not all that interested because his feelings do not particularly align with her own version of magical thinking. “You’ve seen her side of the story,” she tells him, and though he nods at her words, he also responds with the only thing that’s made sense so far this episode: “It’s just weird to jump from one relationship to the other.” John! Share that nugget of wisdom with the man currently sitting on the other side of the veranda planning his Desperation Proposal, the one meant to assure a girl that he wasn’t full of shit this entire time. Scream the information if you have to. Turn it into a fucking interpretive dance or a puppet show for idiots. Just do something once you’re done shattering Katheryn’s heart.
How’s Javen handling everything? He’s doing fine. He’s finally made his first female friend and Kayla is nothing but proud of him for his respectful conduct along this journey and for declaring his forever devotion to Shari. I hope Shari continues to support Javen and Kayla’s friendship because it’s pretty clear that Kayla’s a good girl who only has their best interests at heart. Maybe Javen will even be allowed to keep her name and number in his phone! Yes, you guys: personal growth is possible. Need more evidence? Brittany finally stops staring at faces for a little while! True, she’s staring at something else – the ground. That’s where she’s looking when Karl tells her that he hopes she has a great life. See, those are the kind of sweet words that are like a machete to the heart because there’s an implied finality to them and it’s crushing to hear someone you care about essentially tell you goodbye. And I want to find a way to root for Brittany here because she’s experiencing the kind of pain I can so unpleasantly empathize with, but it’s hard. She seems absolutely shocked that the days of ease and the nights of no consequence are ending. She finds it unfathomable that Karl thinks it wise to have a conversation with the woman he’s loved for two years about their future instead of remaining in Reality Land forever with the Zen Goddess whose favorite pastime is reminding him that his actual girlfriend is a piece of shit. But here’s the thing: this experiment is over, Brittany. You were on that island for about twenty-one days and you offered yourself to every guy except John along the way. Karl finally bit and allowed you to sit on his face and now he’s done. Such is the way dating shows work and they’ve been on for long enough that you should have known that, but no hard feelings, okay? You make for great TV and I’m looking forward to seeing you on another dating show real soon.
When the girls leave, Mark informs the guys that the final Bonfire is coming up. They will be reuniting with the people they arrived with and they will have to decide how they want their futures to look. Then he heads over to the other villa to break the same hideous news. Val takes Kaci aside to tell her how wonderful she is and that she should try to remain in the positive headspace she’s finally carved out for herself. The guy is sunburned comically beyond recognition, but he also could not be any sweeter or any more supportive of this girl. Shari and Justin say goodbye, and though there’s no longer a single doubt in my mind that she will stay with Javen until her dying day, she admits that she and Justin are pretty well suited for one another. Still, there are no fireworks between them that we can see, just a calm understanding that, should something terrible ever happen in her future, Shari will probably be okay walking through the world without the same boyfriend she’s had since puberty kicked in. Nicole and Tyler are also calm in their goodbyes, especially since they figure they’ll see each other again. No declarations are made and nobody holds up a boom box with a Peter Gabriel song blaring out of it, but they both feel grateful to have met and they agree they have a connection and you just know that Nicole has reached the point where she might still remember Karl’s name, but she’s most definitely forgotten the guy’s favorite color. As for Kady and Johnny, they’ve had the most serious “relationship” in the house and it’s tough for them to part. Johnny tells her that he will support her choices and Kady is both sad and appreciative. She’s also hyper aware that she’s heading back into reality and that reality is way the fuck harder than “reality.” How Johnny will fit into her life in the long run remains to be seen, but on the plus side, should she ever need a chiropractor, the guy will probably be happy to either crack her back or slip her a referral.
Karl and Nicole are the first to be brought back together for a Bonfire. And just like we’ve watched all those Bachelor contestants over the years prepare for The Big Day where they’ll either get dumped on national television or proposed to with a generic diamond that nobody had to pay for, we see Nicole and Karl get themselves ready for their reunion. Karl is hopeful Nicole will still want to be together. Sure, he slept with Brittany. He also watched seriously unpleasant footage of Nicole crawling into bed with Tyler, but he still wants to be with her. Nicole is having, um, different sentiments. If emotional change was something quantifiable, there’s a really good chance Nicole would be voted Most Officially Changed out of everyone who has ever stepped foot on that island – and that includes the regular tourists. She was timid when she first arrived. She resented having to prove her loyalty and her fidelity to her older boyfriend. But Nicole doesn’t seem afraid, not of anything anymore, and she may very well be the one example you could pull out from eleven hours of this show to make the case that appearing on Temptation Island might not be the very worst decision a human being could make in a lifetime.
Also: If the girl lived closer to me, I’d hire her either as a trainer or to airbrush her abs onto my stomach every single morning. But I’m in New York, so I’m hoping she’ll send me some tips for how to get those abs and I hope those tips will not involve shit like “do lots of crunches” because I fucking DO lots of crunches and my abs do not look like what she’s got going on.
John and Kady will also be visiting the emotional slaughter that is the Bonfire tonight. John seems to still be in love with Kady, though he’s wise enough to know that it will be hard for their relationship to recover from all that went down. Kady feels much the same way. She really does love John, but she enjoyed her time with Johnny and now she feels all kinds of guilty. And we can find out what happens between those two a little bit later, but the first to play this tragic little game are Nicole and Karl. Nicole looks fantastic…and worried…and somber, but her mind is made up: she knows deep inside that she’s not supposed to be with Karl. That said, it’s not as though she is relishing having to say that to him. As for the man about to be mauled by her truth, he’s looking nervous and hopeful and this entire thing is actually very sad to watch because these people – though they chose to go on a reality show – aren’t bullshit archetypes like those hired for shows like The Challenge. They aren’t dumb as rocks. They don’t appear to do shots of evil without a chaser every morning. They seem like relatively good people, and though I can’t say with any sort of certainty that I’ll ever think about Karl after this show ends, it doesn’t mean that I want to watch the guy get crushed in high-definition either.
Karl arrives first and there is already the glistening of tears in his eyes, a visage that only grows more pronounced when Nicole walks out and barely looks at the guy. I get that she’s nervous, but the greeting is perfunctory at best and fucking frigid at worst. There’s certainly a chance producers told her not to so much as glance his way for dramatic purposes – and maybe it’s just me who, at that point, would tell the producers to suck it – but you can almost see the guy’s heart sink through his chest. Isn’t there anything more enjoyable on television at this very moment that I could watch instead of this horror show? Might some channel be churning out a marathon of Celebrity Rehab or perhaps a White House press conference is going on so I can stare at a government official brazenly lying to citizens? No? Welp, then here goes:
Karl tells Nicole he saw footage of her being intimate with someone and it hurt him. He explains that he then made a connection with Brittany and that connection “went too far” and he broke “their rules.” He’s not sure how things line up for them now. The entire time he speaks, Nicole just stares at him in a manner that borders on blankness, but when Mark tells her that he realizes how tough it is to just listen and not speak, it becomes abundantly clear how highly-coached this moment is. But when it’s time for Nicole to do the speaking, her eyes water fully and I swear to you that I would rather be at the podiatrist right now receiving the shocking news that a brand new genus of fungi had just been spotted for the first time ever and that fungi is growing between three of my toes than be sitting on one of those tree stumps some production assistant hauled out. Anyway, Nicole starts by telling him that she was confused about their participation in this experiment, but she allowed herself to open to the purpose behind it all. In the process, she dug deep, found her soul and her spine, and realized their love is surface level. This sort of shit has to be hard for Karl to hear, but being hauled to that island with just a tacit bit of consent had to be hard for Nicole, too.
Mark tells Karl it’s time to decide if he wants to leave the island with Nicole, all alone, or with someone else, which I suppose means Brittany and the gang have not been shoved on an airplane and instead are currently at some sort of holding cell in the near vicinity. Long story short? Surface love is cool with Karl. He wants to leave with Nicole and dig deeper into things when they arrive home. And then Nicole, sounding as though someone is aiming a gun at her head, says she wants to go home with Karl and figure things out. And that’s when Mark Wahlberg tosses on his host superhero cape and asks the questions we all want to have answered, like how come they are saying they want to be together, yet they haven’t even shaken hands? I mean, Brittany stared at starfishes with more passion than these two can muster for one another! His question opens the floodgates and they begin talking about what it means to have a deep relationship. They eventually hold hands, but that gesture doesn’t take away from how unaligned their understanding of love seems to be, and it finally gets to the point where Karl calmly tells her he loves her and Nicole calmly apologizes and then informs him that she feels stronger now than she ever has before and she needs to be alone for that strength to grow.
“It’s hurtful,” Karl says. “But know that I understand.”
Nicole stands up, asks Mark if she can hug Karl, and the two cling together for a moment before she walks away from the tree stumps and the tiki torches and a host and the cameras, and though I do feel sad for Karl, I cannot help but admire the way Nicole struts out of there like she’s fucking Wonder Woman wandering around Themyscira Island.
With the Karl & Nicole decision made, it’s time to bus in John and Kady. John is feeling a little feisty right now. He feels betrayed, like he’s seen Kady’s “true colors” – and the way he says those words, you just know those colors are ugly, like Burnt Sienna or some shit – and he’s ready “to confront her and defend himself as a man.” Those are some fighting words, the kind that probably would normally turn Kady on big time because they sound so very manly, but being that they’ll be directed at her, I’m not so sure she will respond by standing up and cheering or by happily kneeling before the guy. I think maybe John’s expecting Kady to come in defiant and with a chip on her shoulder, but the girl is freaking out. She knows she’s done some things that hurt John and she doesn’t feel exactly pleased with herself. The thing is, John doesn’t really care how Kady feels right about now, and that is beyond obvious when she smiles at him and even whispers the sweet nickname I guess she calls him during the moments he doesn’t hate her. His reaction? To stare straight ahead. Here’s what I fear for these two going in: that John is so intent on illustrating some conventional masculinity that he will behave in an unemotional manner where his only defining quality will be detached fury. I’m also worried Kady will see such a thing as an indication that John is finally showing some of that bullshit “leadership” she’s always rhapsodizing about and she will swoon before him.
But – once again – I’m wrong. Because Kady, the color of her matte lipstick the only brightness on the screen, gets to speak first. She tearfully tells John that she’s missed him, that she’s taken time to reflect, and she now realizes she was trying to change him when he was already an amazing man, perfect just the way he is. Calling the experience a “necessary evil” – which could be accurate, I suppose, but I’d personally coin it “an absolutely unnecessary televised travesty” – Kady is behaving like she still wants to be with John. As for John? He tells her this has been the hardest experience of his entire life. He tells her that he saw footage early on in which she questioned his abilities as both a man and a father, criticisms and concerns he found to be terribly unfair. He cries as he speaks and Kady, looking terribly ashamed of herself, rubs his back as a way to offer up some comfort. Then he tells her that he was loyal until he watched her get into bed with Johnny, something he found painful and embarrassing. Oh, and then he was the only one of the four guys to not receive a video message – and there’s really no way to look at that as anything other than a dick move on Kady’s part because the only other person who didn’t send a video was Evan. Honey? If you have to have something in common with anyone on that island, I think most of us can agree you don’t want that person to be Evan. In any case, because his innards were destroyed by her cavalier cruelty, John chose to open himself up to Katheryn and now he can tell Kady honestly that while he does still love her, he wants a woman who doesn’t tear him down and she’s been doing that since the beginning of their relationship.
You all thought the entire time that John was speaking that Kady was mentally doing backflips trying to figure out how to get this man to adore her again, right? You figured her streaming tears meant she felt regret and, if given the choice, she’d take every last bit of what she’s said and done back just to have John in her life again? Yeah, I thought that too, but after listening to John’s words, Kady responds by informing him that he is great and smart and funny – but she just can’t see having children with him. He’s not the man she’d want to lead her children.
What the fuck is it with Kady’s fixation on leadership? And know that I’m speaking here as someone who doesn’t particularly want children, but is there a harsher thing to say to someone than “You make me not want to have kids?” especially when John dreams of proving himself as a father one day in the way his own father couldn’t?
With those soul-destroying words, the episode ends and all I’m left wondering is whether Nicole and her fellow Amazonian Princesses are maybe still around because perhaps one of them knows of a way to remove the invisible sword that’s just been plunged into John heart while he sits sweating on an island in the cloaking descent of darkness.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter