This was indeed a Big Move™, and someone really big was moved (to Ponderosa). This was also a modern-day David vs. Goliath story, with diminuitive Tai toppling the gargantuan Scot, no sling required (albeit with a major assist from Aubry). In a more figurative sense, this was also David vs. Goliath. In a season with twists piled on top of themes piled on top of twists (Multi-stage idol hunts! Superidols! Extra vote advantage!) the simplest, most basic Survivor act -- one person persuading another person to change their vote -- took down the all-powerful Superidol. Not a vote split, not the advantage. Just a basic 4-2 (-2) majority.
But as simple as it was, the move also made for a glorious TV viewing experience. Andy Dehnart noted this in his recap: One of the most amazing parts of it all was that the palpable tension, in the ~30 seconds that passed between Probst announcing Scot had been voted out and Tai shaking his head no, was transmitted entirely without words. That quiet assertion of power was one of Survivor's all-time great Tribal Council moments, on a season that the network seemed to have already written off before it had even begun airing. #Wow, indeed.
Before this season started, we were impressed at the depth and variety of this cast, and 10 episodes in, we are if anything, even more delighted. Just about every person competing has, in some way, contributed to a season that has been (like its contestants) eccentric, bombastic, occasionally conflicted, but ultimately engaging, exciting, and worthwhile.
In praise of three-dimensional villains
Scot never seemed entirely comfortable being edited as a villain, but at least from our perspective, his and Jason's edits have been a welcome departure from prior patterns this season. While they've certainly had regrettable moments, they've also had scenes -- or even whole episodes -- in which they've been shown in a positive light, which we applaud. We welcome this more nuanced characterization, because as much as mustache-twirling cartoon bad guys are an entertainment staple, Survivor can aspire to more than that. It's a game show in which real people compete, often leaving behind real families for whom they're trying to win the million. Unfortunately, as reality TV audiences have begun to adopt social media as their discussion platform, reality contestants who've been edited as villains have increasingly borne the brunt of social media's less savory aspects.
It was bad enough when Jerri Manthey was booed off the stage at the All-Stars reunion, simply for... past interest in Saint Colby and/or chocolate? Nine years later, Dawn Meehan naively thought a mom ought to be allowed to play a standard, cutthroat strategic game in Caramoan, and had to shut her social media accounts down to avoid the relentless, unhinged vitriol being flung at her from rabid Brenda supporters. This year? Attacks on Scot and Jason (and Tai). Thanks to advances in technology, instead of a hand-picked audience being able to express their hatred directly to a reality TV contestant for a brief hour-long interval, now anyone can do so, 24 hours a day. Hooray, progress!
Perhaps to combat this, Survivor's editors have begun to eschew monochromatic characterization, in favor of villains (and heroes) with backstories and emotional depth. Sure, Jason is occasionally smug and tough-talking. But he also comforts Cydney after she collapses in Ep.4's RC, then later opens up about his struggles supporting his autistic daughter. Similarly, Scot didn't come off well arguing with Alecia, and perhaps seemed arrogant while in post-merge power, and petty when wreaking havoc on camp. But he also had a brief period as an unlikely pre-merge hero on the post-swap Gondol tribe - bromancing with Tai, and playing a solid, strategic Survivor game. Like Jason, he also later talked about playing to support his family (further explored in his touching Ponderosa video). Again, these are real people, with real lives outside the game. People we see as heroes have faults, and people we don't love also occasionally do nice things. None of these contestants are Ramsay Bolton or Joffrey Baratheon, butchering opponents with manic glee. (Nor are Survivor contestants fictional, no matter what Nick claims.) Let's stop treating them as if they are.
If there was any remaining doubt, this season is now clearly Aubry's to win or lose. Shirin Oskooi pointed out (in her post-premiere power rankings with Gordon Holmes) that Aubry's Ep1 performance was an entire season's redemption arc, condensed into one episode. From the merge on, we've been seeing that microcosm play out again in longer form.
At the merge, Aubry was finally reunited with her closest ally, Neal, and learned he had an idol. But just as soon as things were starting to look up, it all fell apart again, and Aubry faced real danger from a united Brawn/Beauty alliance, immediately after which Neal and his idol were snatched from the game, leaving a bereft Aubry wondering where her Oregon Trail now led. Still, hope remained: as the next episode announced in its opening minutes (in subtitle), Aubry's coming back. Aubry looked for a crack, teamed up with Cydney to form a women's alliance, and toppled chiseled, cleft-chinned Nick. Then another monster emerged: A super-idol-fueled power play, which Aubry both perceived and skillfully side-stepped, albeit while being forced to sacrifice another ally, Debbie, in self-preservation. Finally in this episode, she used her perceptive social skills to make her own luck, convincing Tai to trust his heart and abandon his nefarious comrades for a better cause. All in all, moxie ascendant. Long may it reign.
Julia's underseen, accidentally thwarted betrayal
We were only given hints of it during the show, since the focus was almost entirely on Aubry convincing Tai to flip away from the Brawn men's alliance, but there was very nearly a different massive blindside in this episode, engineered by Julia. We were initially confused as to why Julia would try to convince the women to idol Tai, then, almost immediately thereafter, leak those exact same plans to Scot and Jason, and then beg Tai to play his idol at Tribal Council. Eventually, however, it became clear: Julia was trying to idol out Aubry (or Cydney, as originally planned).
Had Julia succeeded, she would have neatly shifted the power away from Aubry/Cydney-Joe (-Michele?), and toward Scot-Jason (-Tai?). In doing so, she would now be in a different 4-3 majority, potentially with Michele as an extra number/buffer. It was actually a pretty clever plan, if only Tai hadn't messed everything up by flipping to the other side. We suspect this subterfuge did not escape Cydney's notice, since she was shown glaring at Julia when Julia whispered "Play it, Tai." Perhaps this will be explored in greater depth next episode. But wow, that was almost a spectacular power play, despite the show barely alluding to it.
Superidol: down for the count?
In making this play, Tai demonstrated why the Superidol may never work as planned. Unless one person already holds both halves, playing the Superidol requires a probably unachievable amount of trust for both idol holders to simultaneously fail to save themselves on the initial vote, and then agree to combine & play both idols after the votes are read. As here, it also requires the non-superidol-playing person to not have the next-most votes received after the superidol is played, and with split votes the gold standard in modern Survivor, that's unlikely. Furthermore, the psychological hurdle will seem all the more steep now, in the wake of Tai's refusal to give Scot his idol. So... RIP, split Superidol?
Still, even if it never appears again, the split Superidol did give us this one amazing Tribal Council moment (and last week's). And for that, we're willing to call it at least a partial success. Half of one, maybe?
Bravo to Tai's moral dilemma
Former contestants often talk about the enormous gulf in difficulty between thinking/talking about voting people out in Survivor and actually doing it. Everyone says this basic Survivor action is far less effortless to carry out in person than it appears on TV, because you do so knowing you are ending that person's chance at the million. So it's been intriguing to watch Tai grapple with playing the game over the past few episodes. Clearly, Tai has suffered tremendous internal anguish trying to reconcile his real-life morality with the various gameplay decisions Survivor has required him to make the past couple of weeks. And while it's not fun to watch him squirm, it's refreshing that it's being shown.
As audience members, particularly as longtime viewers, we're usually quick to dismiss these moral dilemmas as fluff. People should know by now what they're getting into, this show has been on for 32 seasons. And while there's truth to that, it's only partial truth, because nobody can really know what it's like to play without actually doing it. On the one hand, yeah, deceiving someone in order to blindside them is sort of like bluffing in poker. On the other hand, most people don't play their games of poker stranded for a month in the wilderness, where they have to depend on their opponents for food and protection from the elements, and where they only play one hand of poker every three days (and the person with the worst hand has to leave).
As David Jones pointed out during our Survivor Talk this week, one of the strengths of this cast is the diversity of gameplay types. Here at the True Dork Times, we were formerly of the opinion that Survivor should always cast as many strategically competent people as possible. While we still think there should be a critical mass of strategists present, we've come to appreciate the contributions made to the game and to the show by people like Tai or Keith Nale, players for whom the strategy either doesn't come easily, or not without second-guessing. Tai is an appealing TV character precisely because he cares deeply about other people and the larger world around him, and that will always create internal conflicts when playing a cutthroat game like Survivor. While Aubry's journey is the Hero's Journey, Tai's is... the anti-hero's journey? We're not exactly sure. But it's been interesting to watch, at the very least.
Challenge pros: An auction-free auction
As Jeff Probst told Dalton Ross this week, the choice-laden reward challenge took the place of the auction, which Probst felt was "broken." Indeed, this season's version is a dramatic improvement over Worlds Apart's auction, which was generally a hotbed of hostility and anger, between Will's cruel dismissal after making a winning bid on a covered item, and Mike (briefly) reneging on a promise to buy letters from home, in order to save all his money for the advantage. Here, contestants competed in a challenge for traditional auction items (advantage, food, letters from home). This was a clever twist, and having the contestants competing only against those who chose the same item seemed like a brilliant injection of strategy into a reward challenge.
Except that, in practice, we really didn't love the 2-person and 3-person challenges. Duels are never okay, unless one of the duelers is Aaron Burr. And instead of that, we had... Julia vs. Joe? As you'd probably guess, that was over within seconds, and the person you'd almost certainly guess would win, did win. About the only positive there was Julia set the record for most rapid challenge win, ever? And a few minutes later, the 3-person food challenge was also over. Sigh.
We do like having choices at reward challenges, though. So instead of this, why not let the maximum number of choices be two: advantage or food? That keeps the dilemma the same, but also boosts the number of participants in each challenge, potentially. Letters can be added to any team reward as they always have, or if the show gets really desperate, they could have another individual reward challenge later, and have a choice (food/advantage, food/letters) at each one. Crazy, right? TWO individual reward challenges in a season?
But that's why you come here, right? For this outside-the-box thinking stuff we do?
(Alternatively, the version in Cambodia, where contestants were given the chance to drop out of an immunity challenge to race for advantage, was better, because the stakes were higher, and it left the pre-existing challenge more or less intact.)
Challenge cons: Grooooooannnn endurance
Once upon a time, Survivor used to deploy a wide variety of individual challenges, incorporating all sorts of individual game elements, from puzzles, to obstacle courses, to balance, to smashing plates with slingshots, to... even word searches and Scrabble (yell it with us: "RAOD TRIP!"). Traditionally, the final immunity challenge would be an endurance affair. Fast-forward to modern-day Survivor, and we've had five individual challenges this season, and FOUR of them have been simple endurance. None of which were for the final immunity. Booooooorrrrrrring! (Even if the actual outlasting performances are individually impressive.)
In addition to the bland tediousness of every challenge now being just a bunch of people standing around (until they're eliminated and have to sit, of course) it's also grossly unfair. Joe has been eliminated almost immediately in every challenge, except last week's brilliant dominoes one. Even Rudy managed to win a challenge in Borneo, since he was allowed to do things like strategic tile flipping. Nowadays, if you're not a certified yoga instructor who also teaches Crossfit, good luck winning anything. It's dull, it's repetitive, and it's draining. Mix it up, Survivor. Please.
Land of the takes that are at best lukewarm:
Kaoh Rong Episode 10 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews: Scot Pollard
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