These two episodes (fine, go ahead and give them a single title and insist it's just one episode, CBS, we're not fooled) were perhaps this season's strongest. And just as they did in Cambodia, the network's programming geniuses plowed through them both on one of the least-watched nights of the year, Thanksgiving Eve. We complained about that when it happened last year. Those were the two lowest-rated Survivor episodes, ever. And so... they did it again this year. Lesson learned: CBS actually doesn't care.
This is a spectacular waste of great contestants, great production values, and the heart of an overall great season. Big Brother was given 14 weeks of airtime this summer. Survivor was given 13 this fall. Apparently there was a tremendous need to take that extra week away from Survivor so that Undercover Boss could pull in about a third of Survivor's audience? Okay, then!
It's an issue that probably seems quaint in the age of one-time dumps of complete full-season original content for streaming on Netflix. That model is probably the future of all viewing. But it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are some series, scripted and unscripted, that have episode-to-episode twists and turns. For the audience, discussion of these season-long narrative elements as they are revealed enhances the viewing experience. If Westworld or LOST had been released all at once, would they have inspired as many obsessively researched viewer theories? Probably not, and the same goes for weekly elimination reality competitions like Survivor, where winner pools and reading the edit are still spectator sports, 33 seasons in. As was the case in Cambodia, these two episodes could have benefitted from a more measured release. Maybe someday, CBS will realize that. (But don't hold your breath.)
In praise of baiting Adam with sit-outs
Both reward challenges in these episodes were arranged in such a way that one person sat out each time. On the first viewing, this made zero sense, particularly in the second RC, where 10 players left, which creates a fairly obvious 5-5 split, not to mention a format they'd just used during the previous hour. Even more head-scratchingly, the first RC doomed the non-participant (Jay) to have no chance of receiving reward, while the second one guaranteed the lucky recipient of the odd rock (David) a seat on the chopper to the reward feast. What on earth were they thinking?
And then Adam gave his confessional about weighing whether or not to use his reward-stealing advantage to take away David's unearned victory trip, and it all made sense. It didn't work out the way the show wanted, because Adam chose to hold on to his "advantage" and not play it. But clearly the intent was to provide Adam a golden opportunity in which to steal a reward from someone who hadn't done anything to earn it. Obviously he couldn't, because he was more or less in an alliance with David, and probably didn't want to create an incident, and as he stated, he also wanted to hold on to the advantage in case it could be used for something better down the line.
Still, cleverly played, production. Completely avoiding individual reward challenges is still not great, but this particular oddly configured team challenge was worth a shot.
Blow the blowout out your ears
Having dispensed with the praise, WTF with the slide puzzle in the second immunity challenge, John Kirhoffer? It's bad enough that almost every individual immunity challenge since San Juan del Sur has been an excruciating balance/endurance snoozefest, but you finally add a puzzle element to a challenge, and it's a slide puzzle? And not just a slide puzzle, but an exceptionally easy one? To the surprise of what should be no one, Jay solved an 8-piece slide puzzle in mere seconds, allowing zero other contestants to exit their cage before he finished.
We object not just because the puzzle was lame (it was), but also because it cheapened the impact of what was a brilliant first element: a vertical table maze that the contestants had to negotiate purely by touch and memory, because they couldn't see it. That part alone would have made an inspired, exciting challenge (even if it was difficult to tell who was in the lead, and as Jeff Probst himself noted, he wasn't about to fill in the audience, lest the contestants hear). Had they stopped it there, it would have been a great challenge. But the half-hearted "wait, someone else might catch up" attempt with the slide puzzle was a huge letdown. Hopefully the slide puzzle was a last-minute substitution or add-on, because we can't imagine it was extensively tested.
By the numbers: Team vs. individual challenge threats
The traditional post-merge frenzy of booting challenge threats has more or less continued this season, with Michelle, Taylor, and Chris all going out in succession. But as has been widely noted, including by Chris in his exit interviews, modern post-merge immunity challenges are almost all balance and endurance contests. There hasn't even been a single puzzle (unless you count the slide puzzle above, which we don't). In fact, Chris may be the textbook example of a contestant who was a challenge beast on the size/athleticism/strength-favoring tribal challenges, but utterly hopeless in the individual balance-fests that dominate the post-merge. To be fair, his being targeted here was more likely due to his being the leader of the original Gen X majority alliance than to challenge performance. But that performance is notable:
Several tribal/team challenges were won almost single-handedly by Chris this season (the Ep4 RC, "Water Slaughter"; the Ep7 RC, "Matt Finish"; the Ep9 RC, "All Mixed Up," to name but a few). For "All Mixed Up" (shown above), Probst praised Chris for his team-picking acumen, but the fact that Chris was able to haul the heavy chest under the net practically by himself seemed to be a bigger factor in his team's success. Unless you think David holding up the net was the difference-maker. In contrast, in three individual challenges, Chris finished: 12th out of 13, a respectable 5th/10, and 8th/11. That gives him a paltry 39.5% Mean % Finish in individual challenges, which is historically poor (edging out Guatamala's Lydia Morales for 30th-worst all-time, by mere hundredths of a percent).
But hey, he still did better than Scot Pollard. So there's that.
The ugliness at the rocks Tribal - theater?
Bret and Zeke had multiple great moments in these two hours - starting with their illuminating discussion of the generational differences they faced as gay men in coming out (or choosing to remain closeted), but also Bret encouraging David to participate in the first reward challenge's rock draw, and Zeke's solid reads of his alliance falling apart around him. Both men were deeply rootable (emphasis past-tense).
So it was deeply concerning when both condescendingly belittled David at the second Tribal Council. Bret mincingly waved his hands and wailed "Oh! Now I've gotta cry because I've got anxiety!" and Zeke chimed in with "Oh, don't cry David! Are you getting called out? Is this affecting your journey?" Bret also angrily denounced the continued usage of Hannah's "trust cluster" phrase, and snapped "Ken, this is the game, welcome to it" when Ken expressed bewilderment at everyone's degree of confusion. All of this was both awful in the moment, and on further reflection... extremely odd. Given that both Bret and Zeke have improv experience, were they simply "acting" (up) in order to drive the action?
The reasons for doing this were not immediately clear, but presumably it was all intended to rile David up and goad him into playing his idol. (For himself?) Bret and Zeke had both been shown discussing David's idol, so they certainly had to have been thinking about it. If so, it worked: David did play his idol, albeit incorrectly. Was it to drive a wedge between the two factions, and lock in the tie? Zeke was personally saved by the deadlocked tie, and probably knew he didn't have six votes on his side heading into Tribal. It seems plausible that this was all... if not scripted, at least outlined.
Still, especially given that Bret tossed a sarcastic "Sorry, Jessica, I didn't want to go to rocks! ... David did!" at the victim on her way out, it's hard to believe it was entirely performance. And even if it were, do those ends justify their meanness? Bret and Zeke were making personal attacks. Was it part of the game? Were they just being lame? Were they possessed by the spirit of Rocky from the first season filmed in Fiji? Who knows?
But if this is changing the game, please return it to its upright and locked position.
On the rocks
Statistically speaking, going to rocks was not that bad a choice individually for the six participants. Both alliances were equally represented, three vs. three, and each person pulling a rock only had a 1-in-6 chance of leaving. But for that one person who did go home (Jessica, obviously), it seemed exceptionally tragic: She hadn't really wanted to vote for Zeke in the first place, but felt obligated to work with David because he'd saved her with his idol back on the Gen X tribe. Then when she was being lobbied to change her vote on the re-vote, the decision seemed particularly fraught, since she didn't really have any particular connection to Hannah or Zeke.
Still, had she flipped to Zeke's side, she'd be abandoning her only two true alliance-mates in Ken and David, in order to side with three of the people who'd just voted for her at the previous Tribal Council (Bret, Sunday, and Jay). So flipping wasn't really an option. And we all know how not flipping worked out. (Conveniently, the one potentially flippable vote, Will, was seated on the extreme end, where nobody in the opposing alliance could talk to him.)
All in all, there was no winning choice available to Jessica. It's especially sad because Jessica seemed much more invested in the game that two previous victims: Paschal English was probably hours away from becoming a medevac in Marquesas, and Katie Collins had already lost her whole original alliance, and was simply forced into a last-ditch attempt to stay in the game in Blood vs. Water. Jessica, in contrast, was in the dominant three-fifths of what had been the dominant alliance, if not for this tie.
Every good Survivor player recognizes that in addition to skill, winning the game requires a high degree of luck. Sometimes losing the game breaks down to just that as well.
Okay, that's enough of that. On to the vidcaps!
Sorry guys, I couldn't tell you all about the Advantage because I didn't want to.
Seriously, I'm so mad at Jay right now I won't vote against him the next two times!
My back is literally up against a wall now. If this random rock is a wall. Which it is isn't.
Look subtitlers, just because Chris is about to be blindsided, that's no reason to be mean.
Don't worry. If I can choke David on national TV, I can certainly choke some subtitler off-camera.
Ken, are you aware that wrapping myself in this blanket is a form of flirting?
He looked into the sun, so that might mean yes!
I really trust Zeke! He's the trustiest! This is the last you'll hear from me for the next two hours.
Story checks out.
Don't tell anyone else about the idol, or Will gets sent to Witness Protection
To secure Will's confidence, I told everyone I could about Jay's idol.
Good news, everyone! This is a team challenge, so you'll move around and do puzzles.
Do you guys mind if I sit out? I mean, I always blow it on team puzzles.
Don't be silly, Dave! If you didn't do it, one of us would have to choke on the puzzle.
I've got a bad feeling about this...
Hooray, we have a huge lead! We can't possibly blow this one.
Oh, we were supposed to be stacking them vertically? Dang.
Poultry and drinks with people you don't really know! It's a Thanksgiving miracle!
At these gatherings, it's traditional to speak loudly, with complete disregard for those around you.
You guys can have these if someone can tell me why my shirt has the same pattern/colors as the napkins.
Family and tears are also traditional at these gatherings.
Spoiler alert: Bret, Adam, Sunday, Zeke will fall; Hannah will raise her arms in the universal sign of victory.
You meant "spoiler alert" purely with respect to that one vidcap, I hope?
Uh... sure. Spoiler alert: Hannah also wins Ken's companionship.
That is true.
Good news, everyone! This is an individual challenge, so no puzzles, and no moving at all.
Why can't this challenge be to play the Survivor theme on a giant xylophone?
Don't be silly, if we play the full theme song we have to pay Russ Landau royalties
This is a shot of Ken standing still. You're welcome.
Oh well, Chris is out
Since you won immunity, I'm going to start targeting you tomorrow at dawn.
Wow, David. If you keep this up, I might have to start temporarily not shaming you, like I did with Cochran.
That's the nicest thing he's ever said to me.
Zounds! Rrepare the hashtags!
Fun fact: This scene had to be re-shot 37 times, because Jay kept making faces and thumbs-up signs to the camera as he passed
I'm worried I'm not getting any screen time tonight. Should I start picking on Adam again?
Jay and Zeke: Dammit, Hannah got a hashtag out of that?
I'm 100% confident tonight, Jeff. If not, my hands are ready for David's neck.
Dammit, people! Stop letting Daugherty hold his crown as the highest-placing Chris! This is important!
Arr, that be the end of the Chris-as-pirate joke that we forgot to continue making.
Chris is gone! Hooray! Smooth sailing from here on out!
Does this beard make me look like a cop? Asking for a friend.
I like David, but I can't have him winning any more immunities. Time to become the last Vanua standing.
Who? Don't you mean Jay-vid or Jay-eke?
Yay, a challenge! Let's hope it's something requiring height or strength, to punish us for booting Chris.
Or just straight punishment. Okay!
Best televised Sand Snakes ever.
If anyone would like the leaders to remain idle, this would be the team to do so
Wow, both teams caught up. Imagine that.
Orange team, you are the Penners of this challenge!
Hooray! We're the Penners!
Purple and green, one of you is the Petebro, one is Jeff Kent. Fight it out amongst yourselves.
Can't I be the Lisa Whelchel? I'd rather be Lisa.
Fine. Whatver. Last one to clink is the Skupin, then.
I've made a huge mistake
So, Zeke... I have a huge secret...
I haven't told this to anyone... I'm a cop.
I KNEW it!
Don't worry, Bret! Your secret is safe with me. Say, have you heard about Jay's idol?
So uh, tell me more about being the Skupin. There's no fire or... other duties are there?
Wait, was Zeke just here? This is so embarrassing.
Ok, I've heard some griping, so today, you've gotta move! 20 feet. And there's a puzzle! For 3-year-olds.
Probst: I am talking about people moving things! But I'm not telling you who is doing it the best!
Jay! Seconds away from becoming irrelevant to the storyline again this episode!
Yes! Anonymity is mine!
Okay, Jay, just go on ahead. Maybe even to Tribal. We won't need you.
D'oh! Should I steal some food for attention, or what?
I'm worried why you're suddenly talking to me, and why you mentioned the Legacy Advantage in the Previously On...
I'm not worried. Everything's coming up Ken.
So you say this "David" is a threat. Is that some kind of local bird?
That's great news! Then Jess and I will be the only women!
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're not out to get them.
Oh, the jury! Go ahead, take a nap, guys. Nothing to see here.
I don't know where this is going, but they're young and single, so let's let it play out.
Sigh. Old people ruin everything.
Trust cluster? Where's my hashtag?!
Don't worry, Jessica. Sure you have an angel and devil on your shoulders, but that's just a silly metaphor.
Look subtitlers, I'm pretty sure even the casualest casual can tell you that's not Ken there.
Speaking of Ken, time to lock in his loyalty. Here you go (again), my good man.
We did it! This is as big as that Tony/LJ double idol play at the Cagayan merge!
Don't listen to that guy! Rocks are fine! 5-in-6 chances of being safe!
Believe me, folks. Make Vinaka great again.
Voting, like government jobs: Stressful.
You maniacs. You blew it up.
Jay's back is literally not against a rock now.
Whiteout, all in
Maybe we should institute some sort of Electoral College? No, that also sucks. Sigh.
At least in this, the darkest hour, we can still think of Ken.
Millennials vs. Gen X Episodes 10 & 11 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews: Chris Hammons
Exit interviews: Jessica Lewis
Episodes 10 & 11 Podcasts