During Survivor's recent tradition of back-to-back episodes (i.e. since CBS shortened the season run-time to 13 weeks, from 14), the double dose usually represents something of a bridge between different parts of the game. A fast-forward through two predictable boots from the minority alliance, bringing the story closer to the endgame in a hurry, as in MvGX. Or in the worst case, maybe just a way to burn through some episodes that aren't the season's best.
This wasn't the worst case, obviously. But maybe it was a narrative bridge, as the series finally reached the point where it fulfilled its multi-episode (and now titular) promise that the "Tribal Lines Are Blurred"?
The centerpiece of the first hour was Christian, the prototypical David, calmly outlasting a dazed-appearing Alec (the Goliath challenge beast) in an epic endurance showdown. The original Davids then capped that hour by voting out Alec, completing their mission to take control of the game, putting them up 5-4 over the original Goliaths. The underdogs are now controlling the game!
But then in the second hour, everything fell apart, as Christian and Gabby defected, sent Carl to the jury, and evened the David vs. Goliath numbers right back up at four apiece. All talk of momentum is gone, and instead the game appears wide open. Which is great! Any one of the remaining eight could potentially win, and just about every one could make a case as a worthy winner.
Still, if there was an overall message in the two-episode arc, it may have been this: Christian is the breakout star of this season, and he is either winning this game, or will be falling just short as a tragic hero. Does Christian's game die, so that another David can win? (Sure, the Christ-like pose above may have influenced this line of thinking, but it's hard to avoid. I mean, come on, the season does have a Biblical name.) Or is he really going to, as he said after reading his letter from home, "burn people... to make hard decisions and make them confidently, and not tepidly."
It's not clear, but that's why this is a fun season. Big characters, surprising moves, and finally, some actual movement away from the original David and Goliath labels.
Did flipping on the Davids make sense?
For Christian and Gabby as a pair, yes. And also for each of them individually, but maybe less so for Christian. With Carl at the top of the power structure, there was a clear hierarchy within the Davids: the tight trio of Carl, Davie, and Nick were at the top, with Carl calling the shots from the comfort of his hammock. Christian was the fourth, and Gabby clearly at the bottom (made crystal clear by Carl intentionally hiding the plan to boot Alison from her, while looping in Angelina). Had they stayed David Strong to the final five as Carl apparently planned, Christian is an easy boot at F5, and Gabby has to win at firemaking to reach the finals. This is obviously not an acceptable outcome for either Christian or Gabby, from their perspective, so they had to do something.
Flipping to the Alison-Mike-Kara trio also makes sense, because they're a less-tight threesome. Gabby and Alison are clearly close, and Christian and Mike get along well with each other. Of the five, Kara seems the least connected, so it's believable that she could be at the bottom, and it's possible that a promise was made (but not shown) that Christian and Gabby would flip only if Kara was the next target. If not, the move is a bit more tenuous. But there's been nothing to really suggest Kara is tightly aligned with Mike and/or Alison so far.
This is also where things appear more murky for Christian personally, though. From Gabby's perspective, the move is great: she's definitely moving up into Top 4 territory, which at least gives her a shot at Final Three. She's tight with both Christian and Alison, and can use that to bide time and make closer connections with Mike and Kara. There's no real threat (to her) of blowback from the Davids, because they had already cut her from their alliance. It's a win, all around. Ideally, as the preview shows, she also wants to step out of Christian's shadow. Maybe not immediately, but soon.
So this is also where the move starts to become worrisome for Christian. First, he turned on the Davids, who had (as Carl made clear in his exit interviews) personally saved him twice: First with Davie's idol play on the John blindside, then with the tandem vote steal/idol nullifier plays on the Dan boot. As Carl told Rob Cesternino, had Carl not played the nullifier there, Christian gets booted 3-2, after Dan plays his idol. So Christian's betrayal of the David three will require a lot of damage control. He can point to Carl's dismissive attitude toward Gabby as the reason, and try to repair his connections with Davie and Nick, but doing so will be a major undertaking.
Secondly, Christian clearly sees Gabby as his closest ally, but does she see him in the same way? Or would that ally be Alison? If Gabby's Christian-targeting plan in the preview is real (and not, say, a ruse to idol out Kara, or something), then Christian obviously miscalculated. By Christian's own admission, keeping Alec around as a meat shield made a lot of sense, and, well... that's over now, too. But it's hard to say for sure how much danger Christian is in at this point. Maybe it works out, maybe the loss of Carl is the first step in the fall of the David men, and Christian, Davie, and Nick are the next to go.
Regardless of how this all turns out, it's a great selling point for the season that, with just three episodes to go, it's completely unclear who will win, and that it could be any of four or five players. Martyred Christian or otherwise.
The Christian embrace
At least twice in this two-hour block, we saw Christian hugging people (and we've already seen him hug Gabby several times): Angelina in the first hour, Alison in the second. Is Christian the new Holy Wayne from The Leftovers, or what?
What's striking about this series (of breadcrumbs?) is that it's uncommon footage. We don't usually see contestants hugging each other, except after challenges, or perhaps as they gather their belongings to have their torch snuffed. Or, to be fair, when SuperDan was reunited with Kryptonite Kara at the merge.
Do hugs happen all the time, but we're just not shown them? Most likely, yeah. Even so, it seems important that the editors are choosing to show us all these people connecting emotionally with Christian. What's unclear is whether this is because he wins, or if it's just building up the positive narrative for Christian, in order to make his downfall seem like that much more of a betrayal when everyone turns on him.
(Wacky edit-based hypothesis: The hugged three, Gabby, Angelina, and Alison = The final three? Discuss in the comments.)
A brilliant soliloquy
Christian's lengthy talk with his "captive audience" was mostly played for comedic purposes ("Do you know what a Reuben sandwich is, Jeff?"), but laughs aside, it was really a clever way to overcome the mental hurdles in an endurance challenge. Endurance challenges are really more of a mind-over-matter battle than a physical test, and the contestants are at the mercy of their own internal monologue.
Had everyone stayed silent, the contestants are left with just their thoughts, which are, as we saw from Gabby: "It's so hard" and "I don't know when it's going to end." It's a constant individual battle to focus on something other than the pain. Christian's eureka moment: Flip that around, and drown out that little voice in your head by using your actual voice. Brilliant.
Christian pontificating for two-plus hours about whatever popped into his head allowed him to ignore the pain, and concentrate on something else ("This helps me focus, Carl, thank you"). Meanwhile, it had the side effect of perhaps distracting and/or annoying Alec. Probably much more effectively than would have another go-to tactic: whistling.
It's a really brilliant tactical maneuver that we haven't seen before. Although if another loquacious superfan ends up in one of these in Survivor 39 or beyond, there's a non-zero chance we'll see it again. Has Christian broken this challenge?
Side note from international Survivor
As you may have already seen (but probably didn't) in the boxscore notes for this episode, Alec's disorientation and queasiness near the end of that immunity standoff had a direct precedent in international Survivor: the final immunity challenge from Survivor NZ: Nicaragua. There, the last two competitors were five-time individual challenge winner Tom Paterson (an all-around challenge beast like Alec) versus beloved, smooth-talking nice guy (but challenge-win-free) Avi Duckor-Jones, competing in "A Leg Up" — standing with one leg raised, holding up a see-saw with a vase balanced on the other end.
That challenge ended in shocking fashion, as over three hours in, long after the other two competitors had dropped out, Tom faints, giving both Avi the win, and the medical team a chance to be on-screen again. Alec lasted much longer here, but it's interesting that the editors seemed to be hinting he might pass out. Also, it's a little surprising that Probst didn't call for the remaining competitors to stand on one foot, or some other such speed-up tactic, after the three-hour mark or so. Maybe Christian distracted him, too?
The idol hunt that took forever for no obvious reason
The only real downer over the two hours was the pointless, time-wasting nighttime excursion Nick had to take to finally get his idol. Nick and Davie had been idol-hunting earlier in the day, trying to find the idol that they assumed (correctly) was re-hidden after Dan's boot. And they eventually found it, or so they thought. Actually... nope, just a ransom note, telling Nick he had to wander off to the end of the island in the middle of the night. Probably have to hassle with the Godfather's hired goons, or something. (Oh wait, that would be Nick and Davie. No worries, then.)
This makes twice this stalling-for-time fake-out has been deployed: Jeremy Collins had to go through the same rigamarole in Cambodia. And both times, it's just been dumb. There was zero risk of anyone noticing Nick was gone: they were all asleep and it was dark. The entire point of the exercise is to make the idol hunt *appear* more elaborate. (To be fair, the variant in Ghost Island where Chris Noble had to take a boat trip, then was forced to risk his vote, was much more interesting.) But it's not at all difficult to "find" an idol in the middle of the night in the only place lit by a torch. It's like a "maze" on a kids' menu that's just a square with an entrance, an exit, and a giant prize in the middle.
Why is this a problem? Because we had to spend five minutes dragging the search out, when they could have just hidden the actual idol in the package Nick originally found, and we'd be done with it. Yet whenever fans ask for anything that's fallen by the editing wayside—the intro, or, say, the schoolyard pick that left Christian (who has won the most tribal/team challenges this season, and just won the previous IC) unpicked and on the bench in the Ep11 RC—we're always told "Oh, there's no room. There's too much great stuff to pack into the show as it is."
Thankfully, that excuse has mostly rung true this season. Just not with this obvious filler.
Side note: This was also the second time since the merge that Davie has been relegated to sidekick/lookout status while Nick found the actual goods. Take a tip from David tribe-era Davie: Go looking on your own!
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other David vs. Goliath Episodes 10-11 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Carl Boudreaux (9th place)
Exit interviews - Alec Merlino (10th place)