Hallelujah! We finally, FINALLY witnessed an individual reward challenge, the first since Caramoan. Hope you loved it, because with four people left and a final two, it was also the last reward challenge of any kind this season. It hit all its expected comedic marks, as otherwise accomplished people trotted around, dripping in mud. And the reward choice worked exactly as an individual RC win should: exposing Tony's tight connection to Trish (at least in the minds of the non-selected).
One more thing: This one was recycled from Cook Islands, just like the Tyler Perry idol, and as with TP idol, slight improvements have been made over the original verison. In CI, there was an odd reward format, in which the top three finishers all got to go on reward (although Ozzy, as the far-and-away actual winner, got to pick Adam for exile). Here, thankfully, there was only one winner, and the season narrowly avoiding the ignominy of an entire non-Redemption Island season with no individual RC winners. But that's where the improvements end.
Consider the rewards: CI had a three-person overnight resort getaway. Showers, bath robes, a feast with native dancers putting on a performance, hot tubs, champagne. Cagayan? Five small pizzas and a bucket of sodas, and you get to replace the mud with a layer of sand and salt, as you wash yourself off in the ocean. This is the clearly the pitiful aftermath of Survivor's budget cuts and sponsor flight. The absence of the (formerly Sprint-sponsored) loved ones visit seemed appropriate in Blood vs. Water; here, it just seems cheap. Luckily for the show, the sheer entertainment value of the remaining contestants has more than made up for production's lack of splendor, and as long as you're not paying attention to what's missing, this season is no less watchable. Fun > funding, as long as you start with good casting.
Bitter not-yet jurors
The mud challenge was probably intended as an amusing, humanizing substitute for the loved ones visit. It's hard to take even the most sociopathic gamebot seriously when they're caked in mud. And the brief camp-return scene, in which everyone laughed at their terra cotta appearance, delivered that result. But the second the mud came off, out came the claws. Both Spencer and Kass seemed upset that Tony selected Trish for reward, even after couching their complaints in the quasi-strategic spin that Tony's choice proved he and Trish were an unbreakable pair.
Never mind that Trish was the only contestant remaining who had not taken part in a post-merge reward, and that Spencer had enjoyed a reward feast in every post-merge episode up until this point (including just three days earlier with Kass and Woo). It seemed like Trish's starvation-induced depleted physical state was at least part of the reason Tony selected Trish, but since he didn't explicitly state that, it led to hurt feelings. A chilling vision of things to come? (Also, with n=1, 100% of people selected to partake by an individual reward challenge winner have been booted that episode. The Tagalong Curse?)
The many contradictions of Trish
Trish was an underrated player this season, and it's great that a longtime fan, repeat applicant could both (1) finally get on the show in the first place, and (2) produce a solid, noteworthy game performance. Trish's overall edit was a bit confusing--one moment seemingly showing her as a stealth winner candidate, others as a villain, and still others ignoring her completely--perhaps in part because her game was awash in contradictions. Clearly, her strength as a player lies in her social game: She had strong connections to LJ and Jefra (and Tony), she used those to engineer Cliff's boot, and she convinced Kass to flip at the merge, a maneuver Tony deemed not even worth trying. Later, Tony's ability to flip back and forth between alliances depended intrinsically on the mutual trust he and Trish had established, allowing him to betray her interests for a vote, then return to the fold immediately after Tribal Council.
Even so, some of Trish's most memorable moments this season were anti-social: her bickering and eventual showdown with Lindsey, and her outburst against Kass in this episode. Clearly, the jurors seemed to take her side, not Kass's, as that fight was described to them, so her read of Kass fell squarely within the group norm, but the blow-up is still a blemish on her otherwise impeccable social skills. Similarly, for someone who's clearly physically fit and teaches fitness in real life, she performed surprisingly poorly in challenges, often languishing at or near the very bottom of the post-merge ICs. Like Tasha the week before, Trish was a solid Survivor player, one who looked at times like a potential winner, and exactly the kind of informed fan that casting should be looking for. Why it took her so many tries to get on the show is unclear.
Did Tony throw the immunity challenge?
Last week, we proposed that Tony's best move this week would be to allow Spencer to win immunity, thereby forcing his alliance to get broken up without getting blood on his hands. On first glance, it sort of looked like that's what happened, but was it intentional? The evidence for this view is flimsy: Tony had a huge lead heading into the final, slide puzzle stage, then proceeded to move pieces around with little success, as Spencer eventually caught up and passed him. The evidence against this being intentional? Tony claimed in confessional that Spencer winning immunity was his "worst-case scenario."
Looking at it more carefully, though: with challenge non-beast Trish now out of the running, Tony has the ideal set-up for the final four IC, with two challenge threats (himself and Woo) trying to keep the necklace out of Spencer's hands. If they do, that sets up an easy vote at F4 in which Tony is not the primary target, as nobody left wants to face off against Spencer in front of the jury. If there's one thing Spencer had demonstrated this season, it's that he has tremendous oratory skills at Tribal Council.
So did Tony throw the challenge at the slide puzzle stage? It seems unlikely based on the absence of confessionals supporting that, but if he were to have done it, a slide puzzle is the ideal puzzle on which to do so, since it's difficult to gauge progress or lack thereof at a glance. All Tony needed here was to ensure either he or Spencer won immunity. Maybe it was just a confluence of circumstance. Maybe Tony is just better on accident at playing Survivor than most people are intentionally (as Colin Stone is wont to claim of Woo). Or maybe he did it.
Tony vs. Spencer
Having said all that, let's just ignore the question of whether or not Tony was trying to throw the IC, and stick with the version presented in the show. The IC boiled down to a battle between Tony and Spencer, which was interesting given that Probst specifically highlighted that contrast during the Previously On segment. At the show's open, that seemed a bit forced, but once the IC reached its slide puzzle final stage, it nicely reinforced and lent weight to the action.
As Probst pointed out, Tony was frenetically shifting pieces around, just hoping that something worked out, whereas Spencer took the time to observe the board, then made just the moves he needed to. You might say Spencer took the analytical approach, whereas Tony tried to brute-force it. Brains vs. Brawn. Furthermore, it closely resembles the way they've approached the game, with Tony enthusiastically digging up idols, building spy shacks, and stabbing ally backs, while Spencer has largely been just coasting along, out of power, using a few key immunity wins to preserve his spot, and hoping a better board position emerges. Neither approach is intrisically better or worse than the other. Tony has clearly exerted more effort in getting to where he is, but both have ended up in approximately the same spot: in the final four, with solid chances to win the game against either Kass or Woo. It's an interesting contrast, and a nice job by the producers of (even if prematurely) bringing it to our attention.
Don't forget about Kass
Kass came to the foreground again this episode, along with her #ChaosKass hashtag. While it's clear her abrasiveness has rubbed both her castmates and a good chunk of the audience the wrong way, we still think Kass's game has been significantly undervalued by both groups. Just in the last two episodes, flipping Woo was something both Kass and Spencer desperately needed for their respective endgames to have any hope of existing, and they tried a joint recruiting venture during the reward in last week's episode, to no success. Spencer lectured Kass on the need to get Woo (which Kass already knew), but it was Kass that did the heavy lifting this episode and actually completed the task, publicly exposing Tony's making competing final two/three alliances with both Woo and herself. It was far from elegant, since she incurred the wrath of Tony in doing it. But still, she did it. It's surprising how closely this tracks to the Cochran/Dawn dynamic in Caramoan, where the pair would agree on a plan, Dawn would do most of the footwork, then Cochran would bask, relaxed and clean-handed, in the credit for masterminding the move.
Without Kass's efforts, Spencer would be faced with a granite-solid Trish-Tony-Woo triad in the next episode, with nary a glimmer of a chance to be a finalist, save by continued immunity challenge wins. Instead, both Kass and Spencer now have vastly improved chances to get to the end. Admittedly, Kass's lack of subtlety in achieving her chaotic goals makes it extremely unlikely she could actually win. None of the jurors seem to respect her. But still, had she gotten booted this week, her chances really would have been zero. Which is not to say Spencer doesn't know his stuff: he's playing a textbook post-HvV Survivorgame. Kass is clearly not, but she's still playing, and she's getting results.
In a perfect world, Kass's chances to win wouldn't be zero, at least against someone like Woo. She's faced far greater odds to reach this point than Woo has, and has played a far more active game. She certainly has the skills and awareness to articulate and emphasize these points to the jury. But in the real world, where the Caramoan jury tore apart Dawn's far-less-confrontational game, Kass probably does have zero chance to win. But it's important to remember her overall contributions to the season have been far greater than zero, despite the likely outcome.
Recaps and commentary
Exit Interviews - Trish Hegarty