Just a week ago, it looked like Survivor strategy had evolved, and the game had settled into a state of constant flux, where a voting blocs-inclined set of players all but randomly re-shuffled the deck after each Tribal. After this episode, however, it looks we're just seeing a delayed Pagonging, #KamaStrong edition, with a little but of Survivor: Whack-a-mole mixed in. Which is a bummer.
It's also fairly disappointing and confusing that the Wardog we saw on the screen — comically stumbling in challenges, while slick in strategic maneuvering — didn't really seem to match the Wardog to whom the other contestants were reacting. He certainly defied our pre-season expectations. He didn't appear to be willfully aggressive and confrontational, like Joe Mena. He wasn't manically spinning fantastical stories and waving around his bag of tricks, like Tony Vlachos. Instead, the Wardog we were shown seemed pretty calm and contemplative, and made rational cases for various moves, all of which (until this week, at least) ended up working.
Clearly, though, that's not how the Wardog's tribemates perceived him. Back at Lesu, Lauren, Kelley, and David all complained that he was overbearing strategically, and always had to have his way. We were never really shown that, though. Another big blow-up, also never shown, apparently happened at an early post-merge Tribal Council, after which David and Wardog refused to talk strategy with each other any more. This must have been a big deal, because this season's edition of David Wright seems supernaturally capable of separating the gameplay from the personal. Yet this dispute was only ever referenced after the fact, in later Tribals, as evidence of Lesu dysfunction. Finally in this episode, the opening act's centerpiece was allegedly Wardog and Gavin having an alliance-scuttling (one-sided?) shouting match, except no part of what was shown really supported later accounts of the argument. Gavin came away from it particularly incensed, and complained about it to Ron and Victoria, but the most heated line shown was Wardog saying, relatively calmly "Right now, I'm kind of upset with you, Gavin. I'll be honest." Hardly the "barking out orders" that Gavin alleges in his confessional that the scene immediately cuts to.
This is emblematic of the continued narrative problem this season has had with telling the audience about things, rather than showing us. It breaks the cardinal rule of storytelling: Show, don't tell. Wardog *must* have said something a little stronger (in one shot, Wardog and Gavin are next to each other, Wardog is gesturing, and Rick is standing way back at the edge of the shot, grinning in an "Oh my!" fashion). Instead of seeing that, however, we're left questioning whether Gavin just misinterpreted things, or maybe he's even exaggerating or lying to win people's favor. It's all very confusing and muddled. Was Wardog unfairly maligned? Logically no, since it's unlikely everyone else independently reacts to him in the same way, and they're all simply misinterpreting him. But how can we ever know for sure?
In one sense, maybe it's a public service that a venerale reality-competition show is encouraging its audience to question the edit, or at least to not take eyewitness accounts at face value. This is valuable real-world advice. In reality, though, this is just a TV show. People aren't generally going to give it that much thought. And it's frustrating as a viewer for all the answers to continuously seem to be just off-screen.
Gavin vs. Lauren vs. the invisible threat
This episode was also notable in bringing to the foreground two characters who had previously been all but invisible since the first few episodes — Gavin and Lauren — while giving a tacit guiding hand to a third (Victoria) who curiously remained literally off-screen in key scenes.
The entire affair felt a bit like a college athletic team playing its first games of a new season after most of last year's championship team's stars graduated or were drafted, leaving just a handful of returning underclassmen and some unfamiliar faces to try the whole thing again. That's because this season's most prominent characters by confessional count (Aubry, Kelley, David) are all now on the Edge, and one of the two other major confessionalists (Wardog and Rick) was promptly voted out. The show is presenting this as threats being removed, but in doing so, they're also taking away the contestants we actually know, simply because the narrative has been so distracted by returnees and giving the best possible spin to Edge of Extinction, that they haven't had time to introduce the remaining newbies. More than one third (8/23) of Ron's confessionals for the entire season came this episode, along with nearly a quarter of Lauren's (4/17) and over a quarter of Gavin's (4/15). Aurora, completely unheard from in six of this season's episodes, had two confessionals. (Confessional counts via buff at Survivor Sucks.)
The increased focus on Gavin and Lauren also was bizarre, because for each, it felt a little forced. In Gavin's case, the episode clearly made the case that booting Wardog was Gavin's triumphant decision, the crowning glory for his résumé, and that Wardog's boot was Gavin valiantly seeking retribution for Kelley's blindside. Well ... for being left out of Kelley's blindside, at least. One of those. This started in the aforementioned opening post-Tribal nighttime segment, with Gavin becoming irate that Wardog had (allegedly) spoken to him disrespectfully. Gavin then has a confessional after the reward challenge describing how he can use Wardog's absence from camp as an opportunity to stab him in the back (while Wardog is off getting mud slathered on it by Rick). Except that the subsequent camp scene ends with the Kamas all agreeing to target Rick instead, with Gavin meekly agreeing to toss his vote wherever. Then when Rick wins immunity, Gavin again triumphantly reminds us that Wardog's scalp is 100% his! And then Victoria calmly explains in confessional (paraphrasing) "Well, Wardog and Rick were the biggest threats, and Rick's now immune, so we should target Wardog instead. Duh."
Simultaneously, Lauren was busy building a counter-narrative about how in fact she was seizing the moment and stepping up her game to start running the show. Those contributions included using some private time at the reward to convince Julie to target Rick (again, thwarted by the IC), and, when last shown before Tribal, adjusting to Rick's immunity win by telling Julie they should really take out Aurora instead. Neither of which actually happened, of course. Multiple confessionals dotted this timeline, none of which mentioned Lauren's idol, except in the on-screen lower third.
Both of these storylines were a bit bizarre, because they only barely seemed to interact with the events that were actually going on, although Lauren's story at least played as a visible contradiction to Rick's narrative about nobody else playing the game, except for him, Wardog, and Ron. In Lauren's case, coupled with the early-season attention she received when finding her idol and struggling with the conditions, it read as possibly an attempt to retrofit a Michele Fitzgerald edit (or perhaps a Natalie Anderson, revenge-for-Jeremy one) into the final four episodes, starting now. Either that or we were supposed to panic and assume that, having previously been invisible, Gavin and/or Lauren was about to be voted out. For Gavin, maybe they're building the case that he is in fact a threat, and he goes out soon? Or maybe (given he also had some first-episode personal content about being from a small town in Tennessee) he's also an eventual finalist and they're scrambling to remind us he's still there?
Then there was the one voice consistently voicing the consensus opinion: Victoria, the snarky ghost. In the post-RC camp sequence, she did so almost entirely as a disembodied voice, pushing the Kamas to target Rick, mostly in subtitled overdubs (as in the shot of Gavin, above). In the post-IC scrambling segment, she just presented the Wardog boot as the most obvious move in confessional. It's a curious choice to have Victoria, who has voted correctly at the highest percentage of Tribal Councils this season (7/8), and has never been voted against, be the spokesperson for what's actually happening without ever really being shown. What does it mean? Who knows?
Meanwhile, Ron's thoughts were 100% about Ron ("I'm the next-biggest threat out here!"), Julie was mostly shown responding to other people's plans (Ron's and Lauren's), and Aurora was saying accurate things, but was clearly the obvious decoy boot. And Rick ... *sigh* ... was smugly dismissive of all the women's efforts. Look at the EW secret scene, where Rick hilariously delivers news of his IC win in Breaking News style: this was cut from the episode, in favor of this passively misogynist content. Not a great (televised) look for Devens, especially since that doesn't sound like who he really is.
The curious half-hearted villain edit of Ron
Ron's playing an interesting game, but it seems to have rolled into an unscalable canyon that stops just short of both rootable (anti-?) hero and despicable villain. Why? Is it because his confessionals seem overly performative, like he's putting on a show for the folks watching the tee-vee (such as where he's miming juggling), rather than being sincere, yet still not pushing it quite far enough to be in (mostly intentionally) funny territory, as Phillip Sheppard was? (To be fair, his rant about needing $2 million for living with Aurora for 39 days was pretty good, even if narratively unsupported.) Are we supposed to disapprove of his targeting the returning players, and beating the "Kama strong" and "Get to the loved ones visit" drums? These were all the correct moves to make, even if they weren't that fun to watch. Was that the fault of the edit, or just audience misinterpretation?
Ron's recent gameplay has been far more compelling, rebounding from being left out of the Eric boot and scrambling to react on the Julia one, to now having reversed the Lesu surge, taking a 5-5 Kama-Lesu stalemate all the way back to the near-Extinction of the Lesus, at 5-2. Most impressively, he's mainly accomplished this by being the swing vote who encourages the Lesus to take each other out, all while managing to avoid receiving even a single vote against him. This should be a slam-dunk comeback story! So why is it not landing?
Something just feels off. It doesn't feel like this season is The Ron Clark Story (even considering its lack of Matthew Perry). Ron's purpose here feels more like he's supposed to be the mustache-twirling villain trying to thwart someone else's rise to power. And even then, he's not quite all the way there. Is it just that he's been in power for the majority of the game (save one vote), and hasn't really had to overcome any sort of challenge? Are we supposed to resent the lack of acknowledgement that he and Julie (and Aurora) coasted through the pre-merge on the strength of Joe's challenge prowess, and not through any sort of strategic masterminding? Or is the problem more that he hasn't fully embraced the villain's role? He keeps making half-steps towards it, but always seems to rein himself in before truly relishing the role. The brilliant pre-merge flashback sequence where he delayed Joe at the water well to give Julia time to rummage through Joe's bag to search for idols presaged something big ... but nothing ever really turned into anything, thanks to Kama always avoiding Tribal. He contemplated keeping Aurora's extra vote for himself, while voting Aurora out. Then he reconsidered, and even returned the vote to her, as promised.
It's tempting to think that Ron himself keeps dialing the villainous impulses back, simply because he's Ron Clark of the Ron Clark Academy, and he can't be seen as going *too* overboard. He's Mr. Clark, not Mr. Burns. But given every other characterization ball the editing has dropped this season, it's difficult not to wonder if Ron really did give us a highly entertaining, fully realized Hatch-ian villain, only to have that character rendered incoherent and unsure in post-production.
Depicting the social game - A proposal
Over the span of several podcasts this week, Rob Cesternino talked about the scourge of Survivor contestants' constant résumé talk with Todd Gardner, Peih-Gee Law, and Nick Maiorano. He maintained that, despite the show's focus on Ye Olde Bigge Moves, the key ingredient in winning is still being the person that more of the jurors like. (Also known as the social game.) He also talked about how the show seems at a loss as to how to demonstrate that social game, since they can't very well show someone like Mike White having a 2-hour heart-to-heart, in-depth conversation with someone about deep real-life issues.
There is a relatively simple solution here: Bring back the "Fallen Comrades" immunity challenge, which takes place at Tribal Council, in front of the jury, in the late endgame. It's a trivia quiz about how much the final few contestants remember about their castmates, as those castmates watch from the jury box.
"Fallen Comrades" was last seen in Marquesas (above), but was abandoned soon thereafter, after the fallout from its previous disastrous edition in Africa became known. Briefly, at the Final 4 Tribal Council/IC in Africa, Lex answered a late-round question correctly, but it wasn't the answer production had on their card, so his answer was ruled incorrect. Had it been scored properly, he would have been tied for first with Mama Kim. Because of that mis-scoring, however, she won instead, which led to a different final three/two than otherwise would have happened if Lex had secured the necklace. The show paid for this mistake by giving both Big Tom (booted at F4) and Lex (booted at F3) second-place prize money. Production's reluctance to return to this challenge is understandable. But it's still short-sighted. This was the very earliest days of Survivor. Interns can fact-check things now. They have Google.
Vecepia's careful attention to her tribemates' stories in Marquesas (and wisely writing down key information in her notebook) may well have been the deciding factor in her win. This challenge is a simple demonstration, in front of the jury, that a finalist actually cared enough about a juror to pay attention to their stories. Very basic, but very effective. This was the argument Erik Cardona made in favor of Natalie White in Samoa, except in challenge form. It might not always work, since Chrissy Hofbeck rattled off a similar display of juror knowledge in Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers, and they effectively gave her the finger in response. But it's worth trying, at least once in a while. Especially in an era where the show routinely struggles to fit three challenges, three boots, and final Tribal into two (-plus) hours. It's not flashy, but at least it's something other than standing in one place for hours on end. Maybe even let it replace Final 4 firemaking for one season, as one last surprise twist?
(Will someone please send this suggestion to Tyler Perry, along with a suggestion that water challenges would be more photogenic if the contestants were wearing swimsuits? Thanks in advance.)
- Non-silence of the jurors: Ever since she was voted out (as well as almost entirely throughout the time she was actually in the game), Julia hasn't had a single confessional on Edge of Extinction. Nor has she even been featured in a group discussion, really. So it was amusingly ironic that her one line since her boot came from the one part of the game where people aren't supposed to speak: The jury, above. (Also, the editors continue to undercut her by showing her making a prediction about Tribal Council fireworks that fell pretty flat.)
- DvG vs. EoE: Both of the past two seasons have now seen a group of outnumbered underdogs fight their way back to even numbers at Final 10, only to promptly surrender that victory and lose the numbers again. Last time in David vs. Goliath, Nick still forced his way into the Final 3 by winning a string of immunities. Could we be seeing that same thing again with Rick? Or could Lauren be the surprise finalist, thanks to her still-unplayed idol? These are the last two underdogs standing. Or could a Manu/Lesu currently on the Edge take a win streak all the way to the final three? Or ... *gulp* ... will this just be an all-Kama affair? It's difficult to imagine the latter happening, mainly because the first half of the season, all we heard about Kama was their relative comfort thanks to all the challenge wins, and their hatred of returning players. Still, in both cases, the collapse of the resurgent underdogs has really sucked the wind out of the endgame. Unless there's some compelling character development in the final four hours. Fingers crossed.
- Swooping in for the kill: In thinking back to the first few seasons, above, I realized that Reem Daly may be the closest thing we've ever had to the second coming of Sue Hawk, except this time she was out first. Reem's caustic commentary has almost made the Edge of Extinction twist tolerable, and the one consolation of the ridiculously oversized jury is that our new Sue will be there at the final jury vote. Where, thanks to the new Final Tribal format, she'll be unable to deliver a Snakes and Rats speech to people she never met. The twists give, the twists take away.
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, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
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