Why did Survivor feel the need to spoil the outcome of this episode within the opening 30 seconds? Why? The opening minute contained more footage of Jefra than the previous 10 hours combined, including several scenes that didn't make it onto the episodes they were highlighting. When that happens in the "recap," it's the equivalent of installing a flashing billboard on top of Jefra's head for the remainder of the episode, that says "This person gets booted tonight!" The only other person featured was Tony, who (thanks to his Special Idol) clearly wasn't going anywhere. Jefra even received an extremely charitable revisionist history accounting of her extremely brief recruiting by Spencer and Tasha in the previous episode as "Jefra had other plans." Then, to remove any lingering traces of doubt, Jefra also received the opening confessional. Not Spencer, not Tasha. Jefra. Fantastic obfuscation, guys.
What's most grating about this is that Spencer had a focus-worthy run in this episode as a star-crossed contestant: correctly anticipating but then losing the rock draw for the "advantage," falling short in the IC to his sole close ally, then hunting for a Special Idol that wasn't there. The narrative threads were all there, just waiting to be woven into something. But instead, we were shown "Hey, it's Jefra tonight", then 41 minutes of Tony being Tony.
Special Idol hate... mostly
The main a priori reason to despise the special idol is the likelihood that whichever contestant finds it will relax, coast on its unbeatable power, and avoid rocking the boat the rest of the way. For a season with as many people playing to win as Cagayan has had, that would have been a tragedy. Obviously, Tony didn't stop trying to pull off big moves, nor even looking for idols, once he found the Idol Formerly Known As Tyler Perry, but that's due mostly to Spencer and Tasha stoking his paranoia.
Even so, Tony has a get-out-of-jail free card in his back pocket and a regular idol, so he's all but guaranteed safe passage to the finale now. There is no suspense that Tony could overplay his way onto an early jury seat, and to this point, watching Tony wriggle free from the consequences of his machinations has been one of the great pleasures of this season. With a traditional hidden idol, there would still be the possibility he could not play it when he needs to, or play it for the wrong person (hello, LJ!). But there's no chance of that now. Except with his second, traditional idol, of course.
Probst is just trolling us all at this point, right?
We're far from the only people to express alarm at the return of the "Special" hidden immunity idol this season. Even so, it took until three weeks before the finale until someone (Dalton Ross) got around to asking Jeff Probst about fan displeasure with this twist (full Q&A here). Not surprisingly, he answered it in the most Jeff Probst-y way possible: by citing phantom support for it, creating a false dichotomy to defend it, then polishing it all off with a callback to Redemption Island. If only he'd explicitly mocked internet nerds as well!
The first quote is merely garden-variety galling: "Our process for adding a twist to the show is surprisingly thorough. We have the idea and we all talk through it. Everybody runs scenarios in their head looking for problems and then solutions." Yes, "thorough" is exactly the word we would use to describe the thought process that must have gone into this decision. After all, you had this version of the idol for two consecutive seasons (Panama-Exile Island and Cook Islands), realized the overpowered idol stifled gamplay, then remedied it. And did so correctly! So well, in fact, that you kept that amended version of the idol for the subsequent thirteen seasons (albeit while throwing in more and more idols to find each season, as you and the audience developed a tough-to-kick addiction to them). So the looking-for-problems-and-then-solutions part was complete, but you decided, "Eh, this whole 'solutions' thing is boring, let's just ignore it and go back to the problem stage!" Nice work. We look forward to Season 50, "A Tyler Perry Idol In Every Tree."
But that was merely an appetizer for multiple courses of increasingly Probstian responses: "So many times the success or failure of an idol comes down to who finds it. If you’re a Tony fan, you love it! If you despise Tony, you hate it!" Yes, Mr. Probst. Enjoying Tony's enthusiastic gameplay and wanting him to have infinite power including absolute resurrection are logically inseparable. You're either with him or you're against him. There's no middle ground possible! Seems legit. Then there's: "I think it will probably go down the same way Redemption Island did. Some people love it, some people hate it!" This is accurate. Both Jeff Probst the host AND Jeff Probst the executive producer loved the Redemption Island concept, so that's "some people." Almost everyone else loathed it (except during Blood vs. Water's pre-merge). But by all means, let's ignore that and pretend it's a he-said/she-said standoff that's completely impervious to any serious external assessment.
We would be remiss, however, in overlooking the topper: "The only way you find new exciting twists (switches, idols, Exile, Fans v Favorites, Redemption, BvW, BvBvB, etc) is by trying things." Okay. In isolation, this statement is true, and we don't dispute it in the slightest. Survivor has indeed remained fresh in part because it does continually tweak the format to reduce predictability and keep contestants on their toes. A lot of these ideas work, some (particularly the middle three) are far less successful. But in this particular case, this argument is ridiculous. The Tyler Perry idol is not "new"! It's only "trying things" to find a "new exciting twist" in the sense that it wasn't called the "Tyler Perry idol" or the "Special Idol" the last time you tried it, regretted doing so, then took it back to the shop for retooling. (Seven years ago!) You've replaced Andrew Garfield with Tobey Maguire for "The Amazing Spider-Man 3" and tried to pass it off as a "fresh new interpretation of the character." Do you really think we're that stupid? Or are you just trolling? We honestly can't tell any more.
In praise of booting goats before actual competitors
If you're a fan of the blogs and/or podcasts listed below, you're probably of the opinion that keeping around threats like Spencer, while booting a non-entity like Jefra, is terrible gameplay. And as far as basic Survivor strategy goes, that's true. Nobody wants to watch someone coast to the end on another player's coattails, especially jury members, and they generally avoid rewarding people who display that sort of gameplay, in favor of giving the million to the ringleader who made that happen. A good player maximizes their chances of winning by surrounding themselves with goats. We get it. But not wanting to watch coattail riders coast is also true for the audience: The drag-goats-to-the-finals strategy has been done before, repeatedly. It was done perfectly in Redemption Island, and more or less so in One World. So why should anyone be excited to watch that again? Those seasons are available to rewatch on Hulu Plus, if you're that desperate.
When Coach (!) first voiced the concept of bringing the strongest to the end (pre-Tocantins), that seemed so novel and exciting that Probst could barely contain himself in his cast assessment. Coach eventually abandoned that plan, but that seems to be (finally!) what we're ending up with here. You could argue that since the merge, Kass has been a follower (even if by design), or that Woo is at best playing a Fabio game. But the remaining four all have produced solid Survivor resumés, and that's a refreshing, eminently watchable development. This is one of the strongest final sixes, ever, and we are thrilled to finally see it.
Why is it so great? Mainly because the endgame ought now be less predictable: with so many people willing to make big moves in order to win, there are a plethora of combinations and recombinations of the remaining contestants that could blaze a trail to victory, not just one obvious one. Why can't we have this more often? The obvious answer is: Because casting is content to fill most seasons with blandly attractive non-competitors and people with amusing accents and/or facial hair. Hopefully, this cast and this season's outcome have been a wake-up signal that Cagayan's casting recipe is a far better one to follow.
Recaps and commentary
Exit Interviews - Jefra Bland