Swinging wildly - roller coaster Joe
Few contestants, regardless of age, have had such a massive change in fortune (and back again) as Joe had over the past two episodes. After all but disappearing into the background following Peter's boot, Joe re-emerged last episode as the comic relief in challenges: Yelling "Dumb ball!" at the reward challenge equipment, and several things apparently not fit for a family broadcast following a hilarious string of spelling errors during the immunity challenge. Comedy Joe was at least a step up from Invisible Joe. But that focus on his foibles also laid the groundwork for this episode's first blindside: Joe winning the reward challenge!
All seemed to be going according to (last episode's) script as Joe hobbled gingerly into the jungle to retrieve his sack of sandbags, easily getting lapped by the other four in the process. Then, for reasons unknown, everyone else had to wait for Joe to finish before gathering their missed sandbag tosses and continuing, which gave Joe all the time in the world to land his final two shots... which he did! That led to reward feasting, and that led to Joe's second blindside of the episode: his medevac. From victor to victim in under 48 hours. Just look at these two images, side-by-side:
That's a pretty big turnaround. The little we saw of Joe on the show never really matched the sharp, insightful, cool-headed guy that was clear in his pre-season interviews. It's not clear how much time elapsed before his Ponderosa video (he told Rob Cesternino he wasn't back at full strength until around 4 days after his removal), but even by that time, pre-season Joe was already back. It's clear from his exit interviews that Joe has accepted this cruel twist of fate and moved on "to the next adventure," as he said on the show. That seems like a wise and admirable approach to it all. As Tyson Apostol said in Blood vs. Water about this game, "Too many people take it too serious, and it shouldn't be. And it ruins their lives and makes them angry." Joe is already busy outwitting and outlasting new challenges. Good for him.
But for now, let's look forward to the finale. Where is this season headed? Depending on whether we have a Final Two or a Final Three, the outcome could swing wildly between one of several possible outcomes.
Swinging wildly - roller coaster Aubry
Aubry is the underdog who keeps working her way up to the top, then getting pushed back under by circumstances outside her control, mostly medevacs. First she reunites with Neal at the merge, they're outnumbered by a combined Brawn-Beauty superalliance, but wait! Neal reveals he has an idol, and the day is saved. At which point he almost immediately gets yanked from the game, with his idol in his family jewels, due to the eruption of Mt. St. Neal. Bummer. But Aubry scrapes and claws her way back, joining up with Cydney in a women's alliance (plus Joe, and sort of Tai), and eventually coming back into power. She and Cydney dodge the Superidol, pull in Tai, and seem to have it all under wraps after booting Jason to reach the final five. Aubry is especially well positioned, having a close bond with Tai and an even closer one with Joe. Then Joe wins reward out of nowhere, and similarly out of nowhere, develops a medical condition that yanks him from the game, too. Now Aubry is suddenly thrust into a final four in which she at best has a tie (via, naturally, Tai). How can she move forward?
Getting past the final four will be tough. Cydney is going to want to target Tai, to make an all-women Final Three. Michele will be fine with that, probably, because just two days earlier she declared "F___ Tai." Aubry could just go along with that, but a better option would be to force a tie-breaker, since Tai is good at making fire. If she targets Cydney (whom she just realized this episode was a major threat), Aubry gets her best possible Final Three with Tai and Michele. That also sets her up the best for a Final Two - Tai will probably take her over Michele, and Michele might, also. Furthermore, as we saw with the Brawn tribe's early fire-making travails, Cydney's unlikely to win a fire-building competition. (Michele restarted the fire after Scot poured water on it... danger there.) Of course, this all becomes much easier if Aubry can just win an immunity challenge or two. Of the remaining players, Aubr y has the best Mean % finish in individual challenges, yet is the only person in the final seven to never actually win one. Soon?
Swinging not-so-wildly - quietly powerful Cydney
For all the narrative focus on Aubry's game, Cydney has been the real power broker of the post-merge. She and Aubry have worked well together, complementing each other's skill sets and mapping out strategies. Cydney has been ceaselessly observant and almost supernaturally perceptive, immediately catching on to Scot and Jason trying to pull in Nick as their third, or to Tai and Aubry getting back together this episode. Cydney seems to then quickly decide what needs to be done to counter potential threats. In contrast, Aubry has often seemed unsure of what people's motives are, and indecisive at critical junctures. But Aubry's greatest strength has been empathy and ability to connect with people, such as both times in which she's recognized exactly what Tai needed to hear in order to align with her. This has been missing from Cydney's game. Have we even seen Cydney talking to Tai? Together, however, Aubry and Cydney have made a doubly intelligent, assertive, perceptive Superplayer.
Up until Joe's medevac, though, this episode seemed to be heading toward a rift in the Aubry-Cydney partnership, and it seems likely that will continue into the finale. At the reward, Aubry finally recognized the threat that Cydney poses, while Cydney told Aubry three episodes back that "we can't to no final three with no damn Tai," and leapt into action this episode at the first hint Aubry might be having second thoughts about that. Because we almost always hear Aubry's thoughts on how any particular plan should go, and are rarely given Cydney's insights, we suspect that Aubry will come out on top in any potential Aubry-Cydney showdown. If that's the case, we hope Cydney will get another shot at this game, because for all Jeff Probst's complaints that there aren't enough big female characters, Cydney is one he's barely acknowledged, and she's a damn good player, as well.
Swinging wildly - emotional Tai
As much as Tai's emotion-laden approach to the game has annoyed the most strategy-obsessed portion of the fanbase, there's still something fundamentally sincere about his play that's simultaneously refreshing to watch and infuriating to his fellow competitors. Whenever Tai has to vote someone out with whom he's had an alliance, it's a struggle for him internally. Like sharks finely attuned to the scent of blood, his castmates (Jason and Michele, mostly) have been eager to pile on to Tai's discomfort, berating him for double-crossing people, as they happily do the same with no consequences.
It's difficult to imagine Tai turning this turmoil into a winning Final Tribal performance. He tried to explain his thought process to Jason after voting out Scot, and it seemed sincere and reasonably well-stated, but Jason completely dismissed it in a later confessional. That's a bad sign for Tai being able to sell his gameplay to the jury. But you never know, he still has a compelling life story, is a charming, positive person, and there's still time for someone else remaining to sufficiently irritate enough jurors that Tai pulls out the win.
Swinging wildly - Michele, the Sand Snake
If you've read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, you know the Sand Snakes* as the (all-female) offspring of the Red Viper, lethal warriors who are trained in both the art of poisons and hand-to-hand combat. When they start playing, bodies start dropping. This has been Michele's path through the game. Thrust into a post-swap marriage of necessity, Nick tried to form a secret power duo with her. A short while later, Michele turned her back on the supermajority Brawn-Beauty alliance, and Nick was sent to the jury. Debbie also allayed Michele's concerns about her poor performance in the post-swap reward challenge, and gave Michele a pep talk about a woman winning the game. Shortly after voting out Nick, Michele happily hopped on board in voting out Debbie. Remember Michele putting her head on Julia's shoulder? (Awww.) Yup, voted out soon thereafter.
As with all good Dorne-born executions, none of these hits could be directly traced to Michele. No fingerprints on the murder weapon. Which is great in the game of thrones, but probably less ideal in Survivor, where jurors generally respect gameplay when they can identify the person responsible. So all this talk of Michele having a "winner's edit" seems a touch off-base. Perhaps for a less GRRM-centric analogy, consider this: Michele is an inverse Abi-Maria. Pleasant to be around in camp, but if you're friends with her, you're dead.
Either way... Michele's version of swinging wildly is making friends with new people. Her door has always been open. This episode, she befriended Tai and cemented an alliance with Cydney. We don't love their chances going forward. Although if Michele could find her way to a Final Two opposite Tai, she probably has this thing wrapped up.
*If you know the Sand Snakes only from TV, then you'll see them as bland and mostly forgettable, and wonder why the show took away valuable time from other, more interesting stories to show them. So, you know, read.
Okay, fine. Who wins?
We don't know how she gets there, but we're sticking with Aubry. It's an increasingly difficult path to the end for her if it's a Final Two, but with an immunity win or some other sleight of hand, as long as she avoids the final four boot, she should easily win any matchup against the remaining three. She has made every post-merge move in lockstep with Cydney, but doesn't have the animosity from Scot and Jason that Cydney does. She (with Cydney) has controlled the game in a way Michele simply hasn't. She's far less emotional and better able to explain her moves than Tai. And really, since the merge, the focus of the show has been Aubry's continuing quest to overcome the obstacles Survivor keeps throwing in her path. It's difficult to imagine an ending in which she falls just short as "very fulfilling" or "a really good conclusion" (as Jeff Probst claimed it would be).
If Aubry doesn't get to the finals, though, it's anyone's game. Maybe even Tai! That would be our happiest outcome possible, simply because it would put all future talk of a "winner's edit" to a merciful death.
Kaoh Rong Episode 13 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews: Joe Del Campo
Episode 13 Podcasts