The sky is not falling... yet
After this episode ended, and Jeff Probst all but announced to Dalton Ross that this season will end in a Final Two, we started to worry that the "Michele Wins! It's So Obvious!" edgic-flogging army may indeed be correct. If there's one thing that could seriously kneecap Aubry's game, it's a surprise Final Two when she (and everyone else) was apparently expecting a Final Three. This sent us into an all-consuming neurotic worry spiral, inducing flashbacks of production snatching Cirie's well-earned Micronesia Final Three victory away from her for no obvious reason. If Kaoh Rong has a Final Three, Aubry should win against any combination of two other people from those remaining, easily, just as Cirie would have in Micronesia. The same is probably also true for any Final Two combo in which Aubry finds herself. But getting to a Final Two will be far more difficult for her, as it was for Cirie.
We should point out that there's really no necessity for having a Final Two here. China and Philippines both had four people entering their season finale, and each ended with a Final Three. One reward challenge, one immunity challenge, two Tribal Councils, and done. Simple. Cagayan, in contrast, had a Final Two, again for no obvious reason. Like Cagayan, it appears we'll have a loved ones visit in the final episode (it's four days long... for no apparent reason), so obviously production's hands are completely tied, and they have to unquestioningly replicate the remaining events of S28, even though the first challenge could easily be for reward.
But does the edit really show Aubry is doomed, and Michele wins? Despite the incessant claims that this is 100% fact, we're still not convinced. Firstly, after a highly scientific survey of casual viewers (my mom, on Mother's Day), 100% of respondents displayed no knowledge of Michele, declared they were formerly rooting for "the Vietnamese man," but had recently decided he was "too pushy," and had now decided to root for the "dark-haired girl who was on that high-achieving group at the start." (Follow-up questions confirmed that this was Aubry.) You can't argue with science.
More concretely, while this season's editing has indeed shown glaringly incongruent and unnecessary Michele confessionals, which indicates Michele probably goes the distance to the final Tribal Council, we note that last season's editing did the same thing with all three finalists. Spencer, Jeremy, and Tasha all were allowed to talk about their games (as was Kelley Wentworth), creating early interest in their prospects. Here, Aubry and Michele both have, and to a lesser extent Tai and Cydney (Tai moreso about idols and advantages and villains, Cydney mostly about objecting to someone trying to tell her to do things). Some combination of these four (sorry, Joe) will also be our finalists. Of these, the only plausible competition Aubry has is from Cydney.
Aubry and Cydney have made every move together since the merge, but while the show has framed these actions as Aubry's decisions in almost every case, it's actually been Cydney who's been driving most of the action. Nick's boot was Cydney's idea from the start. Switching the target from Julia to Debbie was shown as Aubry's choice, but it was Cydney who secured Julia & Michele's votes to make it happen. This episode was really the first one in which it was clear that Cydney was in charge of the decision, while Aubry was leaning in the other direction, and even then, Aubry got almost all the confessionals talking about deciding which way to vote. So while the story of the post-merge has been Cydney and Aubry, Power Couple, the editors have chosen to present it as Aubry's Hero's Journey. That's a great sign for Aubry, and a terrible one for Cydney. But it's even worse for Michele.
Aubry may have lost Tai's jury vote this episode, in her "Sophie's choice." But like the original Sophie, she still has this game more or less under control. For now.
The Tai is falling, however
In some respects, Tai's Survivor game has seemed chaotic, seemingly changing directions at will, with no clear master plan. He's been somewhat similar to South Pacific-era Brandon Hantz - beholden foremost to his own morality, prone to announcing things he shouldn't (Brandon telling Edna she was sixth in the Upolu alliance is Tai's "Oh, you guys didn't know about the Superidol?"). Over the past couple of episodes, however, Tai has actually been doing a lot of things right, yet has reaped exactly zero benefits from it, to the point that by episode's end, Tai's only companion in voting for Michele was... Tai himself. The Dara tribe was a rocky place where Tai's strategic seeds could find no purchase. We're not exactly sure why. Look at the things he did correctly:
We're aware that Tai's chief problem seems to be the same one Aubry assigned to Debbie at the merge: he's "not being very finesse-y about the whole thing." Whereas Jason is a "preacher" (in his own words), Tai's persuasive powers are far less effective. Up until this point, people have generally come to Tai with their plans, rather than Tai trying to organize moves himself, and his lack of practice shows. Furthermore, Tai's Tribal Council performance, both this week and before, has been decidedly lacking. It probably didn't help that people (Cydney, Julia, Michele) perceived his idol/advantage combo as threatening, and were more interested in trying to flush it, instead of working with him. Even so, we're not exactly sure why his attempted move fell so flat.
Tai will almost certainly be back on some future season of Survivor. Despite exiting the premiere with the aura of an unbeatable Final Tribal opponent, his in-game perception, especially with the jury, seems to have eroded to that of a near-goat. That's disappointing. He hasn't played nearly as poorly as has been perceived, and he's still a fascinating character, one who might get better at the playing Survivor part with time. A fresh start in a new season might be the change of scenery he needs?
Jason has received a lot of negative attention, particularly online, this season, but on the whole, he has been an important member of this cast and season. On the one hand, he did manage to find himself tied for sixth on the all-time single season non-VFB list. Yet despite rubbing statistical shoulders with the likes of Eddie Fox and Keith Nale, Jason was actually an active, competent player (at times, at least). He gave great confessionals, he stirred the pot at Tribal Council. Maybe he did so a little too theatrically, but at least he acted with the intent to nudge other players into actions they probably shouldn't make.
Most importantly, however, Jason was a great character. Without Scot and Jason this season, we don't have Tai's crisis of conscience in aligning with the villains. And Jason wasn't even a pure villain! Jason was the guy taking care of Cydney when she passed out in the challenge that claimed Caleb, and he told relatable, heartwarming stories about his family. He fed a baby monkey (awww)! We can quibble perhaps that, finally handed an opportunity to "try something crazy" this week, Jason promptly tossed it away and voted for Joe instead. But with this season under his belt, and a few tweaks to his social game, Jason could come in, be highly underestimated, and have a legitimate shot at winning. We wouldn't mind seeing him try.
Two "new"challenges that tweak old ones in inventive and interesting way. The decision to have a traditional table maze be floating and have the contestants stand on it to tilt it? Brilliant and fun, even if it was obvious 10 seconds in that Joe's team had no chance. Still, it was entertaining to watch the teamwork, and synchronized movements of the winning team.
For immunity, the challenge formerly known as "A Bit Tipsy" in Blood vs. Water and San Juan del Sur was creative and fun in its original form, but with a few slight alterations, it became even more inventive, and the changes paid off in a highly entertaining manner. A row of blocks standing up on a tilting table is sort of fun. But having to stack those blocks to spell "IMMUNITY" was far more difficult and frustrating, or in the case of Joe's frequent misspellings, hilarious. And for thrill factor, look no further than Jason's tragic last-second collapse, as he tried to bump his speed up ever so slightly to beat Cydney. So close to a completely different outcome to the episode.
Twist malaise surveys
Which twist are you most looking forward to seeing again next season? (Pick one, or two, feel free to add more):
___(A) The extra vote "advantage": Now 0-for-3 in changing a boot, and twice ending up with the person playing it getting voted out himself (Dan in Worlds Apart, Stephen in Cambodia). So advantageous!
___(B) The Superidol: Never played in any of its four appearances (Terry in Panama, Yul in Cook Islands, Tony in Cagayan, and Tai/Jason/Scot here). So super!
Actually, Andy and John from the Purple Rock Podcast had a great suggestion for the advantage this week: if Survivor insists on bringing it back, it should be available much earlier in the game, either pre-swap or pre-merge. In the right hands, it might actually save someone from an unlucky swap, or a tie or razor-thin minority at the merge. Like a hidden idol, it would have to be distributed secretly, which also makes it less of a vote-magnet for the holder.
Land of the takes that are at best lukewarm:
Kaoh Rong Episode 12 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews: Kyle Jason
Episode 12 Podcasts