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'The Amazing Race' recap: Send in the clowns

November 8, 2010 |  5:53 am

TEAM_02-1 Hideous beasts with beady, remorseless eyes, relentlessly circling their prey, snarling and clawing and taunting, insatiable in their blood lust, vileness oozing from each pore. 

I'm referring, of course, to the clowns of St. Petersburg's Avtovo Circus, who introduced an accent of unmitigated horror into the busyness of Episode 7.  Their ceaseless mime and dance even broke down the defenses of Nick the Swine, who was moved to share traumatic memories of sleeping in the "clown room" at his grandmother’s house.  "Me and my brothers," he said with a shudder. "We just don’t like clowns."

And there, for just a moment, caught in the grip of fellow feeling, I thought: Maybe I've been too hard on Nick. Maybe he's not just an abusive dolt in board shorts.  Maybe -- maybe deep down, he's a hurting little kid, trapped in a room with clown wallpaper and clown coverlets and clown lampshades, waiting for dawn's early light to chase their ghoulish faces away.  And then in practically the next breath, he called Vicki a dumbass, and I realized: No. No, I haven't been too hard on Nick. If anything, I've gone too easy on him.

Nick is the guy, after all, who tried to send his competitors on a wild-goose chase to an Orwellian-sounding place called DS-13. Perhaps his ethical niceties were swept aside by the show's hectic pace, which sent contestants scurrying from St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Seventh Circle of Clown Hell (where Brook and Claire proved so adept at plate-spinning that they could catch a gig with Cirque du Soleil) to a canal bridge guarded by "four creatures with golden wings" to Prospekt Tower to some place called the Church on Spilled Blood (which, all things considered, was relatively clean) to the Peter and Paul (and Mary) Fortress. 

And to make things even more confusing, a few contestants -- and you know who you are -- chose to take a cab when the instructions clearly said to walk. This led to the strange and desultory finale of Kevin and Michael forced to sit like unruly schoolboys while Chad and Stephanie skulked into next-to-last position. I can't say I'll miss Kevin, whose patronizing remarks about his dad have increasingly grated on me, but oh, how I'll miss Michael, who has provided the season's only emotional grace notes. He had me cheering lustily when, after flailing a wooden bat at some bowling pins for what seemed like an entire St. Petersburg winter, he finally managed to clear them. "Weak like a fox!" I yelled at the screen. 

And there's something else I love about him. The episode's mechanics required each team to string along a taxi driver through several stops. The result, not surprisingly, was that some competitors didn't have enough money for their fare, a deficit that quickly escalated into drivers and passengers shouting at each other and playing tug-of-war with luggage. (Chad and Stephanie tried to stiff their driver completely.) 

Amid the fracas, Michael was the only figure of calm, the only one who seemed to understand that drivers need to get rewarded too, and that the universe might have moral strictures outside the purview of "The Amazing Race." Kat and Nat are the team to beat right now, but in the wisdom sweepstakes, Michael has taken an invincible lead. Maybe now he can persuade Mallory to stop invoking Jesus every time she gets a flat tire.

-- Louis Bayard

Photo: Nick and Vicki read their next clue in St. Petersburg, Russia. Credit: CBS.