From the perspective of a Survivor season rewatch, where you hit the first episode already know the winner, revisiting Fiji back-to-back with Marquesas is a study in contrasts. A defining characteristic (definitely not a "feature") of Marquesas was how little screen time Survivor gave its first Black winner (and first female Black winner), Vecepia Towery. Yet for all the steps that the editors took to obscure Vee in Marquesas, the show's approach to its first male Black winner (Earl Cole) was a 180-degree reversal. Earl is *everywhere* in the premiere and second episodes of Fiji. (Literally, from pre-Moto camp to Ravu camp to Tribal Council to Exile Island, and every hill in between.)
They make no attempt whatsoever to hide his likely winner status, either, going so far as to give him an "I'm the king of Fiji!" line from atop a hill in the premiere and a similarly heroic, helicopter-cam-circling shot at the peak of another random hill in Episode 2. There's no mystery here. This may be one of the most telegraphed wins of all time.
Earl gets a ton of positive content in these two episodes. He's clearly the strategic narrator of Ravu: In Episode 1, he was the first voice we heard from when they arrived in their brand-new, mostly empty camp, and the last person giving a confessional before they left for Tribal Council. He was present for Rocky and Jessica's plan to target Rita, then also gave his assent to Mookie's idea to target Jessica instead. He's calm, he's capable, he cracks numerous jokes. He even gets a chuckle out of Probst as he heads out to Exile, and Probst warns him about the sea snakes, snarling, "I'll *EAT* them!" Everyone thinks he's with them, and wants him to be. Why wouldn't they?
This is all pretty amazing in light of the fact that Earl had watched hardly any Survivor before playing. Yet here he is, just a complete savant at the game, infiltrating every alliance with seeming ease.
Another welcome advance — in addition to actually letting us see the winner — in the 10 seasons since Marquesas is the contestants' attitudes towards the gameplay. In the Marquesas era, deception was still viewed (hypocritically, in general) as *wrong*. Here, it's embraced.
When the just-returned Sylvia is raising hackles on Ravu, Mookie proposes just learning everything she has to teach them about setting up camp, then voting her out, which draws a cackling "You cutthroat bastard!" from Rocky. Dreamz jokes about ditching the oft-injured Boo. Sylvia ponders how to trick the tribe into leaving camp, so she can search for the idol. Yau-Man roots through Sylvia's bag while pretending to hug her. Did the advent of the idol itself trigger this transition to a more open endorsement of subterfuge? Looking back, the last big "honor and integrity" season was Palau, and that was the final season before idols appeared. Coincidence? Maybe not entirely.
The haves vs. the have-nots
At the time this season was airing, this central twist was easily the season's most controversial aspect, and on re-watch, right off the bat it's just as bad as you remember. Perhaps even worse.
For example: Moto's camp came with a well. Ravu's camp did not. How is that even possible? It's bordering on negligence. People complained at the time that Moto's luxurious accommodations were too un-Survivor-like, but upon review, the haves part of the twist is fine. Nobody really cares that Moto had couches and silverware. Sure, it looks a bit silly on the screen, but it's hard to argue that having comfortable seating really helped them all that much. Rather, it's clearly the have-nots half of the equation that was problematic.
Not having water or fire was visibly a huge detriment to Ravu. Michelle was already passing out while walking on Day 4! Maybe this seems more obvious right after watching everyone more or less collapse at the end of Marquesas, which had the same dumb "it's about rEaL sUrVivAl" directive (except they at least had fruit trees and water sources). Why do this? What was gained? Starvation and dehydration are still not entertaining, 10 seasons later. And having had that experience in Marquesas, it's ridiculous that production didn't relent and at least let Ravu have flint at the second Tribal Council.
(One caveat: It was a nice touch to have all the future Ravus be the people talking about how nicely the initial camp is coming together, shortly before they're exiled from it. A bit cruel, but well done.)
Despite these shortcomings, it's amazing how close Ravu came to succeeding anyway. Ravu's physicality gave them leads heading into the puzzle on each of the first two challenges, they just managed to blow both of those leads. For some reason, Yau-Man was not on the puzzle team in that first and most important RC/IC. Why not use the MIT-educated engineer? If Jessica was as strong as they claimed, make her a chariot-puller, and put the scrawny old guy on the chariot! On the pole puzzle in the Episode 2 RC/IC, it was a complete free-for-all with no leadership from anyone ... except Erica, who was roundly ignored. (Or who yelled too much, apparently. One of the two.) Maybe they should have listened to architect Sylvia? Or Yau-Man again? (It looked like they tried Erica's idea eventually, and she was wrong. Is that what really happened?)
Anyway, if either one of these puzzles had gone Ravu's way, it's a vastly different season, and this twist doesn't appear *quite* so bad. Having to boil sea water to survive is still a big effort, but it's better than licking leaves. Lesson that hopefully production learned: Either no water or no fire might be okay, but definitely not both.
A boatload of characters (almost all of them men)
Poor production decision-making aside, one thing Fiji excels at is developing a diverse array of interesting characters. Well, as long as you're happy with 90% of them being men, at least. Beyond Sylvia, we saw a brief glimpse or two at each of the women Ravu booted, and occasional Moto narration from Lisi (or the same for Ravu from Rita), but it's really unclear who most of these women are. (Liliana? Stacy? Completely mute, apparently.) This season kicked off down one woman, after Mellisa McNulty quit pre-game. Maybe the editors decided all was lost at that point, and decided to just show the men instead, as some sort of silent punishment.
Still, the men at least gave the editors a fair amount of good content to work with, and the first two episodes are sort of a study in contrasts between two key late-game antagonists: The premiere shows us a lot of Yau-Man, the second episode switches over to Dreamz.
Resourceful, quasi-native Yau-Man: From using "very simple physics" to break the crate open in seconds after the big guys failed, to showing Cassandra how to open coconuts without tools, the knowledgeable, handy Yau-Man made a huge impact in the first episode's edit. He's sort of an avatar for the show itself, since he also got his start in the jungles of Borneo. He even gets an "You're the Professor on this Gilligan's Island" from Earl. It's easy to see why Yau-Man was a fan favorite. He's the over-achieving underdog, right from the start.
His one cringe-worthy moment comes as Ravu plots its first boot, and he comes up with a variant on the dreaded, "keep the tribe strong." The full calculations here are important: Both tribes started off with five men and four women. Ravu knew they were getting Sylvia back from Exile after this Tribal, so they wanted to boot a woman to preserve their gender-balance match-up vs. Moto. That's probably the thinking behind "keep the tribe strong." But it's still weird to see a smallish, oldish guy saying it.
Surprisingly complex Dreamz: People mostly remember Dreamz for his betrayal of Yau-Man after their deal for the truck in the finale. It's amazing how nuanced the early characterization of Dreamz is here in the early going, though. While most of the Motos are gloating about their camp largesse, Dreamz reflects back on his time growing up homeless, and how he knows that when he's out getting food, he has to bring it all back to share, even though he's hungry, because he knows everybody else is hungry too. He's rough around the edges, but he has a good heart. Of course, he also annoys everyone with inane chatter when they're all trying to sleep, which causes Rocky to throw a tantrum. There are many layers to Dreamz.
In many ways, Dreamz is just a young-ish guy struggling to fit in, and never quite achieving that goal. (Just as Yau-Man is an old-ish guy attempting the same thing.) Dreamz is so much younger than Cassandra and Earl, he doesn't quite click with them. He comes from such a different background than the middle-class, college-educated guys his age, like Alex, Mookie, and Edgardo. He always seems to find himself just a little on the outside, never quite where he needs to be. Survivor is a game that requires full immersion in and awareness of the group, to discern what's acceptable and deemed worthy of being rewarded with the million-dollar prize. Earl does this perfectly, seemingly without even trying, because he's such a master at the social game. For Dreamz, however, it's an impossible dream because his social reads are so terrible. They're socially polar opposites, and as much as Fiji is a season-long victory lap for Earl, it's also the slow-motion tragedy of Dreamz.
Sneaky Dreamz, a preview: There's also some interesting foreshadowing here, showing early in Episode 2 that Dreamz may be the calculating, possibly dangerous player his final act will brand him as: When Boo sets off on a self-injury spree in Moto camp — poking himself in the eye, then somehow cutting both his finger and knee with an axe — it's Dreamz that points out (in front of the entire tribe, who laugh) "Boo, you've got one leg, one hand, and one eye. You really ain't no good to us now, what can we do? ... That's the kind of stuff I'll be thinking about." (He also correctly predicts that someone will leave the game for medical reasons, although it's Gary, not Boo who does.)
The also-sneaky Yau-Man: It's also worth noting that everyone's favorite kindly grey-haired bespectacled nerd and future Dreamz victim is just as crafty as Dreamz. When Sylvia finally shows up at Ravu camp on Day 5, Yau-Man hugs her in greeting, while surreptitiously rooting through her bag as he does so, looking for an idol. (Or, as Yau-Man says, he's trying to "feel her up.") He does so long enough to convince himself she's empty-handed. Like Earl, Yau-Man had barely seen Survivor, so this is pretty high-level stuff for a novice. (Side note: As the arms race of idol-smuggling vs -detecting had only just started at this point, and given Yau-Man's choice of words in describing this, it's a relief that he only thought to look in her bag.)
Boston/Rocky, the Boston not-Rob
Seeing this season immediately after Marquesas, you can almost feel Survivor and/or CBS's desperation coming through the screen, praying that Rocky would turn out to be the second coming of Boston Rob. Remember, these were the olden times, when playing *twice* felt like a massively overstuffed reality TV career, and Rob had already completed that arc on Survivor, and had been so over-used that while this very season was airing, Boston Rob - Classic™ was already completing his second run at Amazing Race with Amber — also called All-Stars.
So anyway ... here's "Rocky"! Same accent, same dearth of facial hair, same aggressively confrontational approach. It's amazing the wardrobe department didn't demand he also wear some piece of Boston-related sporting apparel. Maybe the Celtics and Bruins weren't interested in a product placement opportunity at Mark Burnett's asking price. Sylvia even helpfully tried to tag him with the "Boston" nickname while choosing tribes, but sadly, no: "Rocky" will suffice.
What's funnier, though, is just how unsuccessful Rocky turns out to be at actually playing a knock-off Boston Rob game. He sleeps on a raft the first night, sure, but he does so alone, not with a surrogate Sarah Jones. He makes the expected alliance with a young woman in the first episode, but alas, she's immediately voted off. Rocky and Jessica don't even vote for the same person!
(Which is amazing, because almost this entire cast were non-Survivor watchers at the time they played. Maybe casting gave them VHS copies of Survivor: All-Stars, or something? Maybe they were all TAR fans?)
Not to worry, though! There's still hope: Rocky still has an alliance with another attractive young woman, Erica.
She's gone in the second episode.
Early Ravu dynamics revisited
Episode 2 also gave us a pretty in-depth look at the other two men of Ravu: Mookie and Anthony. Both get a lot of content talking about the tribe's no-fire/no-water travails early in the episode, and in the absence of Earl, the episode's boot was presented as a strategic battle for dominance between the two.
Despite not yet being united with his future fellow Horsemen, Mookie appears to have had a fair amount of sway in early Ravu. In the first episode, he persuaded everyone (well, Earl, at least ... in a group with Rita and Erica) to switch their votes to Jessica. Then in the second episode, he convinced Rocky to backstab his only other original ally, Erica, and swung the rest of the tribe (except Anthony) as well. It's weird, because despite this apparent political capital, nobody appears to be all that tightly associated with Mookie, except maybe Rocky.
In fact, the stronger subgroup seems to be Earl-Anthony-Michelle and maybe Rita, but with Earl on Exile, they didn't have the numbers to save Erica. Recently, Anthony told Dalton Ross that there was an all-Black alliance starting on Day 2, which also helps explain Anthony's resistance to switching the target from Sylvia to Erica in Episode 2. With Earl present, there's a 5-4 majority, and Erica is safe. With Earl on Exile, it's 4-4, and as we saw, Michelle and Rita swallowed their reservations about keeping Sylvia around, and abandoned Anthony to side with the numbers.
Curiously, Yau-Man was completely MIA from the strategic discussions after the IC in Episode 2. He and Rita seemed to have been coordinating as the olds in Episode 1, but he never offered an opinion here. He shows up in a lot of shots with Sylvia, and it would make sense if he was pro-Sylvia, since they're both from the Bay Area and of similar age. We never see him express a view of Sylvia beyond his desire to look in her bag. Maybe Earl was the glue that connected Yau-Man to people like Anthony and Michelle.
Screwing over Sylvia
The parallels between early Kathy in Marquesas and early Sylvia here are pretty striking. Each was the eldest woman on her respective tribe. Both tried (unwisely) to direct the work around camp. Both faced muttered grumblings about being "bossy." Still, Kathy's dedication to finding food and building shelter was given room to play itself out, and time to allow her to reach equilibrium with her tribemates. Sylvia, in contrast, was yanked away to Exile within seconds of her selecting the tribes.
Sylvia's reward? A note saying "Ha ha! No idol at Exile!" (a reversal from the two prior iterations, where the idol was hidden on Exile Island), then another full day (all of Day 4) to spend there doing nothing, for no obvious reason. There were no challenges that day, nothing else going on gamewise, nothing except Ravu's continued quest for food, fire, water. (In contrast, Earl will spend just under 24 hours there between Episodes 2 and 3.) Why was Sylvia left on Exile that day? How did it help the game? Did production just forget she was there?
Not surprisingly, when Sylvia finally reaches Ravu on Day 5, they're exhausted, and maybe a little pissed that she didn't think to smuggle the flint back with her. Not that she'd have any reason to expect she'd need it, since her last camp came replete with finished lumber, a well, two giant bags of rice, and enough tools to open a small hardware store. Anyway, she's well aware that her day in Solitary has separated her from the tribe socially. Why didn't production foresee that? Or did they just not care? Not a great look for the show, anyway.
Also, because of the way the clues were doled out sequentially in this era, Sylvia really had zero chance of finding the ido. The first clue ("it's back in camp") was virtually useless, because the idol was buried, and it's unlikely she could have magically guessed the exact spot. Furthermore, the Ravus were so lethargic from lack of food and water (thanks to the dumb twist), that at least one person was right there in the cave mouth where the idol is buried the entire time, as far as we can tell from the show. Plus, after she finally arrived in camp, she barely had 24 hours to look, even if everyone else had vacated the premises. That's pretty unfair, even if it was common knowledge to "never be the leader on Survivor," even in those days.
- Weird editing tricks: The Episode 2 IC features the same shot of Erica turning her head to look at Moto (above) a whopping *four times*. Is this supposed to be foreshadowing? (Or more accurately, fourshadowing?) Did the rain destroy the Ravu-specific camera footage from the last part of the challenge, or something? Whatever the reason, it's an editing choice that stands out as particularly strange, especially for Survivor. Also, this was shown in place of virtually any supporting evidence of Erica's alleged "freaking out" during the challenge, which everyone else seems to have seen and been alarmed by, except the audience. (All we get is her yelling "That was it!" for about a second.) Did she also let loose a cavalcade of cursing? A shitload of swears? What's going on here?
- Oh No(la): Speaking of Erica, three people from New Orleans on the same 19-person cast? (Jessica, Erica, and Boo.) That seems like a lot. Well, Ravu took care of that right quick.
- Subtle challenge evolution (still in progress): In Marquesas, the hapless Maraamus failed repeatedly because the early challenges were almost all just a single, highly physical task, like paddling. As Boston Rob would later demonstrate, he's good at puzzles, so modern challenge design would have helped them. Here, there were puzzles at the end of each challenge, but they're still not completely modern. Puzzles today are for one, maybe two people. They're "hero" elements, where a single person (or duo) can make or break a tribe's survival chances.
At this mid-season milestone of Fiji, however, puzzles were messy group affairs. The first IC's puzzle is a three-part word puzzle (spelling out the combo to a wheel "lock"), and somehow four people were responsible (the two chariot riders plus two more random people). From people's complaints, it sounds like three people had to do one puzzle each, and one was there to chop the rope. But Moto appeared to all be working on each puzzle, whereas Jessica was blamed for screwing up Ravu's last one. Maybe they chose their division of labor? Who knows?
The second IC was a pole puzzle which the entire tribe apparently assembled together, which was Ravu's weakness, with everyone trying everything at once, and yelling about it. James Clement's HvsV demands for "one voice" probably came from watching this challenge (featuring his buddy, Boo). Obviously, Ravu still found a way to blame Erica for the loss, but it's much more opaque for the audience, and really difficult to follow what's going on. From that perspective, the current puzzle format is a welcome advance.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes