"Michaela is an anomaly. Generally, when people are afraid to do something, their fear overwhelms their ability to perform. Michaela is wired the exact opposite. The more terrified Michaela is, the better she performs." That benediction, delivered by the mascot of The Challenge himself, Johnny Bananas, not only sums up Michaela Bradshaw's performance in competitions on this season of The Challenge: USA, but it underlines just how far she's come since she first appeared on Survivor in 2016. When The Challenge: USA airs its season finale on Thursday, win or lose, Michaela will have completed one of the most satisfying arcs in recent reality TV history.
Michaela enters the Challenge finale on a hot streak, having won three out of the last four daily challenges and essentially dictating the endgame, particularly among the female competitors. It's a level of control that she never enjoyed in her three previous seasons of reality TV (two Survivor installments plus one of The Challenge). Michaela holds a peculiar space among the Survivor faithful, as she's a fan favorite despite never having played a particularly successful game. She finished 14th on Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, 7th on Survivor: Game Changers, and as she's mentioned a few times in The Challenge: USA, she was the first person eliminated from The Challenge: Spies, Lies, and Allies. But in each instance, Michaela's personality and competitive spirit shone through. It was hard not to root for her.
While the most notable thing about Michaela's time on Millennials vs. Gen-X is probably her getting blindsided by tribemate and ostensible ally Jay Starrett at tribal council, her reaction — the whip-around to face Jay, the staredown, telling him he's gonna feel like an assh*le and that he f*cked up something good — is one of the most visceral reactions to a blindside on Survivor.
That reaction was probably why she was brought back the very next season for Game Changers. Playing back-to-back seasons tends to be a double-edged sword. The players are still mentally in game mode, but that fatigue does catch up with them. Michaela had a fire lit under her for Game Changers, which is probably what made her so willing to confront J.T. Thomas when he would complain about her bad attitude and accuse her of stealing coffee. If Michaela's game wasn't always on point in Game Changers, her showmanship was, most memorably when she poured her opponent a steaming cup of comeuppance when J.T. was finally voted out. Later that same season, she shared a sweet moment with her tribemate Cirie, who took some time to mentor Michaela, in whom she saw a lot of herself at a younger age.
On Survivor, Michaela's downfall was often her rigidity. Her certainty in her own strategic path through the game would manifest within her tribe as a resistance to going with the flow, which, on Survivor, with its ever-fluctuating strategies, is an invitation to be targeted. One of the great things about Michaela's run to the finals on The Challenge: USA is that for the first time, that certainty has been an advantage.
For so many seasons, The Challenge has allowed its veteran players to feast on rookies and newbies. It's how Michaela was eliminated so quickly in Spies, Lies, and Allies. This time, Michaela and her alliance of Survivor women — fellow finalists Desi Williams and Chanelle Howell — busted through that wedge of veteran dominance by remaining united. In the early stages of the game, Michaela's group targeted Challenge vets in a way far too few newbies do. She never allowed the veterans to manipulate her group into turning on each other. Even when the veterans successfully pit the Survivor group against the Big Brother alums, Michaela kept her core group intact.
On The Challenge, participating in the kind of alliance-hopping that works so well on Survivor only plays into the veterans' hands, as they pit outsiders against each other while keeping the target off themselves. Michaela has never been one to play a slippery game. Here, she's been the tip of a spear whose aim never faltered, and as a result, she's brought her entire core alliance into the finals.
Playing such a steadfast game hasn't kept Michaela from the kind of vulnerable moments that made her such a fan favorite on Survivor either. She's repeatedly conquered what looks to have been a genuine and severe fear of heights, winning both challenges where a lesser competitor may have given up.
The Challenge doesn't always deliver a satisfying finale. To be fair, Challenge story editors can only work with the ingredients they're given, and there are only so many ways to make yet another Johnny Bananas triumph feel satisfying. This season, they've landed on one of the better arcs the franchise has ever seen. Obviously, a victory for Michaela would be the ideal outcome, a reward for four seasons' worth of struggle and patiently waiting for her stubborn style of play to finally pay off. But even if she doesn't take the top prize, Michaela has gone the distance in a reality competition at last. She had a good thing going, and she didn't allow anyone to mess it up this time.
The Challenge: USA season finale airs Thursday at 10:00 PM ET and streams next-day on Paramount+. You can join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.