When you're a balloon sculptor, it's easy to get caught up in the work. You can think you're an artist, think that life is just a parade of bulbous poodles, giraffes and wiener dogs.
But in the end, you have to remember: It's not about you. It's about ... the balloons.
We miss Recruit Yaney, the fumbling, stuttering, goofy balloon sculptor whose various ineffectualities would occasionally emerge out of the weekend warriors populating "Boot Camp." He would leave a metaphorical multicolored poodle on our psyche and then disappear.
Since he left the show, booted off lo those many weeks ago, we've felt that "Boot Camp" has lost a little color, a little sass.
We'll be honest, we thought he was gone for good. We didn't know that, on "Boot Camp's" final episode, Yaney would return -- with blood in his eye.
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It's the -- what does it say here? -- "thrilling finale" of "Boot Camp." You will recall that the finalists are Recruit Wolf, the dark, canny and muscular boy; and Whitlow, whose rather more blank visage disguises more than her share of brains and a great deal of grit.
Or "the open weasel and the weasel in disguise," as recruit Moretty-with-a-y, who was bounced off the show by the pair two weeks ago, puts it.
The two are plowing their way through a series of physical challenges that the show calls "the gauntlet." The pair went through four last week -- they involved a run, a long obstacle course, a rappelling challenge and a memory test.
The catch is that the gauntlet began late in the evening two days ago, and neither Wolf nor Whitlow have had any sleep since then. They look more than a little like the undead.
The next step tonight is called "Meyer's March." (Each part of the gauntlet, sometimes previously, memorializes a former player on the show. We don't really remember who Meyer is at first. Oh, yeah, he was the psycho who got bounced early.)
The show notes that Whitlow and Wolf are 32 hours into the gauntlet, but again, the gauntlet started late at night -- they've been up at this point for nearly 48 hours, and spent a lot of that time under intense psychical bruising.
It's hard to watch.
"I can't believe they're making us do this," pants Wolf to Whitlow.
All Whitlow can do is echo his thoughts: "I can't believe we're doing this."
"Boot Camp" ratchets up the pressure on the two exhausted players. The first challenge tonight is running 10 miles with each carrying an extra 20 percent of their body weight. And it's cold out -- about 40 degrees.
You would probably be surprised to hear that two people walking 10 miles could be made interesting. We would too. The two doggedly slog through the test, each with a D.I. tagging loyally along behind them.
Whitlow tries singing one of her troop's marching cadences. In the end, it takes them each over two hours, with Wolf finishing about 10 minutes faster. The pair don't get to hear who won, but we know that Wolf is the winner and is ahead 4-to-1 overall.
The next challenge is called "Jackson's Hold," after another recruit we've forgotten. It's a weird one. The two each have to extend an arm and hold up a pair of dogtags, leaving the tags gangling over a tub of red liquid, which the show describes as blood. First one to let the tags touch the liquid loses.
It's hard. "You have to look beyond the pain," Wolf says.
Whitlow says, "I tried to use a different muscle but it hurts to move." She finally decides she's not going to win and drops her arm. "Wolf has a stronger upper body than I do," she sighs.
It's obvious that the producers are bending over backward to be fair to the women on the show. One of the key challenges from last week involved each of the two merely bettering their times over the same course. There were a couple of memory tests, and a rappelling challenge, neither of which necessarily hinged on sheer physical strength.
But in the end it's not fair enough. How is a woman supposed to compete in a test of physical exertion like a 10-mile run?
Whitlow's not unhappy, though. She's just delirious with from lack of sleep -- they've been going now for 56 hours. "I'm learning that I'm always going to be learning," she says.
Whitlow and Wolf sit and eat MREs and act strange -- even feeding each other like a couple of giggling newlyweds.
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Then real life intrudes again. We see past recruits reflecting on the Great Lost Equipment Caper, complete with a Zapruder film-like recap. The scene is an early mission, in which recruit Yaney, the lovable balloon sculptor, leads the group to blow up a watchtower.
But Yaney came back to the base missing his set of straps.
In the world of "Boot Camp," this was a near-capital crime, and the troop in general and Yaney in particular spent a lot of time over the next days taking intense physical abuse from the drill instructors.
Later we learned that the matter was more complicated; and "Boot Camp's" Zapruder film shows us that Moretty-with-a-y had left her straps in a tunnel; and that Yaney and Wolf had left theirs on the ground near the group's encampment. Then Moretty picked up Wolf's straps and Wolf picked up Yaney's.
A D.I., sort of like Kevin Costner in "JFK," walks us through a reconstructed filmic record of the imbroglio, which mystifies the recruits (and us) to this day. But we see that Moretty-with-a-y bore the biggest fault. Wolf can be excused for picking up a strap from the ground close to where he'd left his originally. But Moretty is the one who'd left her equipment out in the field.
But the idea that Wolf was the main culprit -- and had let Yaney and the troop take the heat -- is now part of accepted wisdom among the recruits.
Oblivious, Whitlow and Wolf eat their MRE's. Whitlow asks Wolf if he's going to finish school should he win the gauntlet and the show's $500,000 grand prize. He's one semester away from graduation.
"Let's be for real!" Wolf says.
Hmm, that's not what we want to hear in a potential winner.
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The final part of gauntlet is part two of the obstacle course. They ran it two days ago; now they have to go through it again, and whoever betters the previous time the most wins.
We hear Whitlow reflecting on her chances. "My strategy is to do as fast as I can with the obstacle course," she says, "because I'm going up against my own time. There's nothing I can do with the other missions."
She's not complaining -- she's just stating the obvious.
It's a 2-mile course; the two are freezing. They can't be looking forward to the 4-foot-deep mud puddle. They have to clamber under some ropes, jump though a tire obstacle, dive through the mud puddle and then, soaking wet in their fatigues, clamber over a wall and kayak across a lake.
Everything's fine until Whitlow gets to the wall. She clambers almost to the top, then comes back down. She tries it a few more times and still can't do it. One time she slides fast back down the rope and slams her groin onto the big knot at the end of it.
"Fuck," she says, loudly. Fox doesn't bleep the expletive.
We hear the D.I.s commiserating: "Her not getting over that wall is like me not going over that wall."
What follows is an extended ordeal. We see Wolf kayak across the lake and get over the finish line. D.I. McSweeney wraps a blanket over him.
But Whitlow's still at the wall. She's not giving up. A half hour, 45 minutes, then an hour goes by. She tries dozens of times, with all four D.I.'s yelling encouragement, but can't do it.
It gets dark. It's evening of the third day she's been up without sleep and forced through intense physical rigors.
Finally, after more than an hour, she reaches the top. The poor thing now genuinely looks like a zombie. She gets over, as if in a dream. She staggers off to the lake and kayaks across in the dark.
She sleepwalks across the finish line. Everyone's ecstatic for her.
"You never quit!" rasps McSweeney.
No sir!" Whitlow says.
"It was a day I'll never forget," Francisco, bursting with pride, tells the camera later
Whitlow is seeing things a bit differently. "I'm ready for 'Boot Camp' to be over."
So are we.
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Finally, Dismissal Hill.
The setup is that Wolf is ahead of Whitlow, six to one. Now the show is giving six recruits who have been bounced out over the past weeks the opportunity to vote as well. Seven votes are needed to win; Wolf needs but one. It doesn't look good for Whitlow.
The show lets the women go first, obviously because the gender lines favor Whitlow getting a few votes and the show can prolong the suspense.
We notice that Moretty-with-a-y has sort of a Minnesota accent. She goes with Whitlow cause she put her heart into it the most.
Hutak says, "I had one purpose to be here, and that was to be in 'Boot Camp.'" We ponder for a moment whether Hutak is giving us a philosophical tautology or is just blathering. But she votes with Whitlow, because of the equipment incident. Wolf, she says, let Yaney take the rap.
Brown comes up. She thinks Wolf was arrogant, but she doesn't like Whitlow either. But she too, is steamed about what she sees as Wolf's duplicity, which ended up hurting Yaney -- "who obviously adores you!"
These are dark doings in Boot Camp.
There's another commercial, but it's clear that the men are going to go with Wolf big time. Why are they dragging this out?
Thomson, the beefy guy and positive-thinking real estate agent, left for medical reasons a few weeks in. He stands up and votes for ... Whitlow!
Pupo, the loose cannon who was bounced off tout de suite, gets to natter on for a while. She's not a team player, she says proudly. But she makes an interesting point -- that while everyone talked about team spirit, it was still a game and those who ended up in the finals were thinking about themselves.
The rest of the troop, herself and all the other losers, she notes, are "battered, bruised and beaten."
She concludes: "As far as I'm concerned, between the two of you who wins I don't care." She flipped a coin, she says and it came up for Whitlow.
All of a sudden, we notice, it's a tie game. Whitlow and Wolf, who've been up now for as long as they can they can remember, seem to be about to pass out.
And the only person who hasn't voted is Yaney.
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All comes down to Yaney. He's quivering in the spotlight.
But sometimes a balloon sculptor's gotta do what a balloon sculptor's gotta do.
"I can't get a break," Yaney said. His eyes are wide open, like those of a small cute bunny looking into the lights of an oncoming SUV. "When I first came here I was afraid of heights. But I wasn't afraid of heights; I was afraid of falling."
"What I'm getting at is that over the last five weeks I was learning courage. I gained a lot of courage."
He sounds like the lion in "The Wizard of Oz."
"Now I gotta tell one of you you're not going to win, which is tough," he goes on.
"You both mean a lot to me. But it's part of the game we're all involved in. I'm not voting for the best recruit; I'm voting for one of the last two recruits."
Yaney stops again. He freezes.
"Recruit Yaney!" Francisco snaps. "We're waiting. You must reveal your final decision. Do it!"
He says slowly, "There was an incident with the D-ring. And I think not taking responsibility is going to cost somebody ..."
Yaney votes for her.
We cut to a shot of Yaney, dressed in civilian clothes and with his hair grown out, reflecting on what he did: "I just couldn't let Wolf win, knowing that he didn't come forward and that he let a whole squad suffer."
We know of course, that it really wasn't Wolf's fault, that he's getting a bad rap. But that's why, in the real world, we let certain people make decisions about other peoples' lives, and others we restrict to balloon sculpture.
Whitlow stands on Dismissal Hill, crying and looking stunned.
Then we see Whitlow looking normal, after the game's over. "It was just relief," she says, talking about her reaction. "It was over. I could just go home and put a pillow over my head and scream if I wanted to."
We know the feeling.