Based on recent precedent, there are a lot of far less interesting ways this could have gone. In Caramoan, production forced a fan minority on each new tribe, and forced gender balance, guaranteeing the Sherri-Julia alliance was split up, and that the fans would have no power on the new tribes. Probst justified this by saying the returning players had "earned" this advantage.
Thankfully for the Brains, this didn't happen here. With six men and eight women left, production could also have forced an even three-man/four-woman gender balance in the swap, but wisely avoided doing so, since it might have led to the less-buff women (Alexis, Morgan, Kass) and men (Jeremiah, Spencer) all being on one tribe. Oh wait, that's exactly what happened by chance, anyway. Still, we'd rather let fate decide where contestants end up than the heavy hand of production.
Biggest, most disappointing casualty of the swap: Tony's #spyshack. He promised to tell Trish what it was all about way back in Episode 1. We're still waiting for that explanation. Or any other further mention of it in any way. Now Tony's been exiled to another beach, his poor spyshack is left with seven people who don't understand its important purpose. What if they use it to store firewood? What if it burns down? What then? It had a hashtag, people!
Oh, you thought we meant Cliff, right? - On the one hand, it was a pleasant surprise that the editors treated Cliff as a regular contestant, as opposed to the "OMG! A Celebrity!" overexposure Lisa Whelchel received. On the other hand, perhaps because he went this early, it felt as if we barely even saw him. It's hard to hide a 6' 10" guy, but apparently Survivor's editors have found a way. Ripped city.
These were two great, classic challenges. Pure brawn required in the reward challenge, in which Cliff seemed all but unbeatable as a pole-clinger, but at least a fierce performance by Tasha kept it close for new Aparri. Brawn also was the primary component in the immunity challenge, since mazes aren't particularly brain-intensive. It's surprising that these two tribes, seemingly mismatched in physical strength, managed a split here, but it was still fun to watch them do it.
Reward challenge: Why here? Why now?
The first bizarre production decision was that this immediately post-swap challenge requires gender balance, and new Aparri ended up with only two men, Spencer and Jeremiah. This meant after the initial all-women bout, Aparri was unable to field three guys for an all-men bout, and they were stuck with two men and one woman for the last two rounds. So Woo and Kass didn't participate, even though Cliff, Trish, Lindsey, Sarah, Jeremiah, and Spencer all went twice. To be fair, Solana clearly made the right choice in putting Cliff out there every time they could have. Still, it's weird that the swap was carried out in the way it was, when they had this particular challenge staring them in the face while distributing the buffs.
Update (3/21/14): We almost forgot: Why the heck did the reward only include 6 coffee cups? What's going on with basic logic and counting in this episode? Were they expecting someone to sit out the reward? Were they planning to do the swap by a Palau-style schoolyard pick, with two people getting sent home immediately? This makes no sense!
Immunity challenge: Huh? What? Six people per tribe?
This was another head scratcher. While we love seeing one of the iconic China challenges make a return appearance, having a challenge in which only six people compete in the same episode where you just made two tribes of seven people seems like particularly poor planning. Also, and we've said this before: We like that the maze element required something other than pure brute strength, and that it wasn't a carnival game, but mazes are somewhat frustrating as a viewer, because it's near-impossible to see which tribe is ahead. Which is great for surprise endings, we suppose, but something of a storytelling morass. And we're not trying to be mean here, but this marks the second time LJ has taken Solana into a maze stage of a challenge with a slight lead, only to end in failure.
The swap created completely new strategic dynamics, so this is a great opportunity to take a look at look at how these changes could affect the players remaining, and who's adapting the best to the new environment.
New Aparri - the more interesting new tribe.
We have yet to see exactly which way this tribe will move once they attend Tribal Council (if they do). But the fault lines seem pretty clear. None of the ex-Beauty people trust each other, while the ex-Brains are a tight three. And then there's Sarah, who is stirring the pot by outing Morgan's Day 1 betrayal, but otherwise staying quiet. Most of the editing attention thus far is now centered in this tribe (except LJ and Tony), which makes it seem likely most of its members will be in this for the long haul.
New Solana - the more trainwrecky new tribe.
Fresh off the swap, we saw a major power shift in new Solana. But apart from LJ and Tony, this tribe is made up of people the editors have ignored up until now. One of those, Trish, went from invisible to seeming power broker in this episode.
Recaps and commentary
Exit Interviews - Cliff Robinson