No sooner had we finished complaining about the seemingly ceaseless series of almost-moves this season (last week), than Natalie swoops in and actually delivers an honest-to-goodness game-changing move, as advertised in the episode title. Intentionally, even!
This is the kind of play we've been waiting for all season, not the series of failed almost-moves that have littered the jury with capable players like Josh, Jeremy, and Reed. This was huge, we needed this. Natalie's impressive play was exquisitely crafted and painstakingly executed: she guided Jon through an idol play, gave him and Jaclyn a trust-establishing night in bed, and even maneuvered around an ill-timed Jon immunity win. And to finish it off, she not only had to put her faith in Keith's acting abilities, but she needed to convince Missy to cut ties to her Jon-Jon. Should Natalie go on to win, this move will go a long way toward redeeming this season. Yes, even without Redemption Island!
That said, we have our doubts about that actually happening (see the final section, below). Probst has described this as an "unorthodox" season. Maybe he was talking about the excessive negotating and swapping out. Maybe he was talking about his kinder, gentler approach to quitting and potential medevacs. Maybe he was referring to the almost complete lack of post-merge challenges that involve anything other than standing still. Or maybe, just maybe, the ending to San Juan del Sur is the San Juan del Sur-iest finish you could possibly imagine. Like when a critical, potentially game-changing showdown in an immunity challenge gets decided by a gust of wind. Yeah, that kind of ending. We will find out soon.
Good sportsmanship award
For all our questioning of Jon's game, it's been heartening to see how graciously he accepted his blindside on the show, and how forthright he's been about the relative strengths and weaknesses of his game in his exit interviews. While it's fun to see a Judd-like "scumbags!" boot tantrum every now and then, it's far better for the game as a whole if those are rare. For the most part, Jon was able to separate the game from real life, appreciate good strategy when he saw it (Reed's attempted blindside, done in by his idol play), and seemingly maintain a positive outlook throughout. We wish more contestants could do that.
It's also great that he still seems positive, since his edit did him no favors. He was set up to be the unworthy leader, so that Natalie's blindside of him would be welcomed, suggesting his overall level of gameplay was probably better than the editors let on. In Hunahpu's first (also only) Tribal Council in Ep.4, he lobbied for the people with loved ones still in the game to band together, and take out the single players. Had Drew listened to him, and targeted Julie as intended, maybe some combination of Jon/Jaclyn and Josh/Reed would now be cruising into the finale. Also, his exit interviews reveal his and Jaclyn's seemingly random positioning between the various alliances was actually intentional, and probably would have paid off in jury votes had he reached the finals. True, he was extremely lucky to be sent to Exile Island right when an idol popped up there in Ep.8, and that Natalie prompted him to play that idol right when he needed it. And Natalie has clearly outplayed him over the past few episodes. But Jon was far from just a goofy howler monkey impersonator. No doubt he learned a lot from this, and if he comes back again, he will be highly underestimated, and could even go all the way on his second time through.
Oh, and speaking of learning... since Jon and Jaclyn are now engaged (congratulations), we hope Jon takes Jaclyn's unheeded warnings throughout this episode as a lesson and constant reminder in the days ahead: In Survivor, as in married life, Jaclyn is always right.
Team reward challenges, R.I.P. (we hope)
In what we can only assume was a "Ha ha! Gotcha!" response to our complaints last week about the all-around shoddiness of the first individual reward challenge (a response which, since this season was filmed five months ago, bends the laws of space and time), this week marked the return of the bane of our existence: the dreaded randomly selected team reward challenge. But wait! There's more! It was also a team RC in which someone swaps themselves out of the reward at the end. Oh, and it's yet another RC where someone has to be sent to Exile Island for two days, even though everyone present knows full well (okay, probably not Keith) that there is no idol to be found whilst exiled.
Yeah, this was all of that. Plus, Missy's foot was eaten by a crocodile, or something.
What more can we really say about team rewards? Just the usual: they're underwhelming, because we have no investment in the teams. They might be more interesting if we saw team selection, but there's no chance of that, apparently. Then when the challenge ends, the constant voluntary swapping out is just painful to watch. Just look at the contrast between team members blithely giving up their rewards, as opposed to individual winners wrestling with an anguish-inducing decision about which tribe members to reward and/or punish as their companions. The former makes the rewards look silly and the trials and tribulations of the Survivor experience seem like no big deal. The latter treats the reward with reverence. Which appearance would production really rather present? (Let's ignore for the moment that most good players, i.e. not Chase Rice, intentionally throw individual RCs.)
We just hope, fervently, that production wises up and sees the incessant "I'm swapping out for person X, who's been on reward twice before, and didn't actually win, but totally deserves it, because they're special" talk for the cringe-inducing grandstanding it really is. And then either bans the practice, or goes back to individual reward challenges, removing the possibility of this nonsense. Because clearly, the contestants themselves haven't noticed that Jeremy and Jon were booted in the same episodes in which they swapped themselves out, and Reed was in the next. With our luck, neither has production, and this will be touted as an exciting feature in future seasons.
Where the finale may take us (hail, Keith)
Really, as with any Survivor season's penultimate episode, the whole point of this hour was to whet our excitement for the finale, especially with respect to the ultimate question: Who's gonna win this Survivor deal?
Natalie? Sadly, no. Obviously, if Natalie gets to the finals, she wins easily. She took down the leader of the alliance that took out Jeremy, the guy that everyone still playing saw as controlling the game. She has the résumé. Unfortunately, we don't think she will win, because in going back to the first few episodes, she was as invisible as Jaclyn and Missy. In light of the Josh, Jeremy, and now Jon winner's edit fakeouts, we suspect Natalie's current (and welcome!) upswing in power and visibility will most likely flame out before the finish line, just as the others' did. Put a different way, if Natalie really were the runaway winner of this season, wouldn't we have seen a bit more of her here and there before Jeremy's boot?
How could this happen? There are two votes left until the finals. Natalie has an idol that expires after the next one, and there's no reason not to play it, so it seems like a safe bet she'll make it to the final four. It's possible that level of safety may lull her into complacency, however, and she'll make a crucial error there, keeping Missy in the game in order to not alienate Baylor. Why is that a problem? Because whoever is then left out of Keith or Jaclyn is a far more enticing final three opponent for Missy & Baylor than is Natalie. Actually, that may even apply to any combination of three non-Natalie people still around at final four. Natalie is the worst option to take with you to the final three, no matter who else is with you. So unless Natalie wins the final IC, she probably gets sent to the jury just short of the final three. Let this be a lesson to future players: Always boot the goats first.
Not Missy, not Jaclyn. Similarly, while Missy has played an excellent social game, she can't be the winner. That's because Missy's social game, particularly her close ties to Jon, have largely been hidden. Missy has mostly been relegated to talking about Baylor in confessionals, not about her own game. Furthermore, despite meaning what she said at Tribal Council about showing loyalty to her alliance-mates, that preceded her stabbing her closest non-Baylor ally in the back. That will elicit scorn, not praise, from the jury. And Jaclyn? Until Alec/Wes refused to talk to her a few episodes ago, we barely even knew she was there. Despite her being the voice of reason, trying to keep Jon from making a huge mistake in trusting Natalie, that's pretty much all she's done.
Not Baylor, either. So we're down to two possible winners, Keith or Baylor. Baylor would be the youngest winner ever, and the jurors are well aware of that, and don't appear particularly inclined to give her that title. In contrast to the other three women remaining, however, she's had a highly visible edit throughout the season, especially early on. Still, there's a major red flag with Baylor's edit: while she's frequently been shown talking the game, and her strategic play has clearly improved as the season has progressed, the editors have consistently shown her being wrong about things. She was positive Dale would never make fire with his glasses in the premiere, seconds before he did. Then she tried to recruit Wes and Alec to boot Rocker, and they laughed her off (until Josh suggested the exact same thing, and they happily jumped on board). Last week, she told Alec to be patient and not worry, right before he was blindsided by Natalie. Even this episode, in which she became crucial in convincing Missy to go along with Natalie's plan to blindside Jon, Baylor still gets the booby prize: Baylor brings up the 2-2-2 vote split idea, but her idea is to vote Jaclyn, not Jon, out on the re-vote. Not only that, but the postgame reality is not one that seems favorable to Baylor's chances: the exit interviews have been awash with booted contestants holding extremely dim views of Baylor's gameplay. For her to win, more than one or two people need to vote for her, and that seems like her current ceiling, and then only if Missy ends up on the jury.
All hail Keith! *spit* So by process of elimination, it looks like our winner may be Keith. Or is it George Clooney? So hard to tell them apart. He's come a long way from "Wesley" breaking their flint on Night Zero. He didn't really seem to catch on to how this whole Survivor deal works until this week's episode. He spent most of the season fishing, or spitting around camp, by himself. He has yet to initiate any moves. But somehow, he's still hangin' in there. His son and five other guys are sitting there, on the jury, receiving weekly victory winks after things go his way. So here he is, the most likely winner of Survivor: San Juan del Sur: Keith Nale. Go-lly. Good night!
San Juan del Sur Episode 13 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Jon Misch
Podcasts - Episode 13