It's too early to say for sure, but this swap — while certainly having some bright spots — feels like a bit of a dud. On the plus side, at least we didn't go to the tired "surprise" of three tribes of five (plus an exile, although maybe Sandra and Rob vetoed the idea of having a new roommate for that long ... if so, good). That's been done so often, and is so unfair, and so much random damage has been done to the superfans in this cast already, it's nice to catch a break here.
It's just that the two-tribe split that took place ended up not being very exciting. That's random draws for you.
Sure, there's intrigue aplenty over at New Vokai, where there's a 4-4 split along original tribal lines. But that tribe is also totally stacked, and are unlikely to attend Tribal Council again until the merge. They have two of the biggest guys (Aaron, Tommy), two of the best all-around female athletes (Missy, Elizabeth). They might have a bit of a puzzle deficit, but Jason has done well on the last two, and going forward, they'll even be able to sit someone out. In contrast, the new Lairo tribe has a near supermajority of original Vokais, and the outnumbered Lairos left on their original tribe didn't really get along with each other, between perennial outcast Karishma, the just-blindsided Dean, and somnambulant Tom. So the Lairos were just sitting ducks, waiting to be picked off. And that picking started this week. Ho hum.
One of the hopes in a swap, though, is that a hopelessly on-the-outs player can find new footing in the game via this change of scenery. This season, there were two, in Noura and Karishma, and both emerged from this episode apparently in their new tribe's majority, at least for now. So ... yay, maybe? Of the two, Karishma probably gained the most traction, even if she was the decoy boot option. If she can just make it to the merge, a smart, physically non-threatening player like Karishma could have a smooth run all the way to the final three. Noura looks less solid, since her ex-Vokai comrade's now outsized 5-2 majority could make her be seen as expendable. If not, there's always Dean as a backup, and he was going to be voted out right after the merge, anyway.
As noted pre-season, Karishma and Vince both started off the game a bit screwed by their tribe assignments, as superfans with below-average athleticism on a tribe where the two obvious leaders were longtime athletes (Tom, Elizabeth, plus two more college athletes in Missy and Dean, plus gym-rat Aaron, automatically establishing the tone/power dynamics). That ended up being exactly what happened. So the swap no doubt came as a huge relief to Karishma, only for her to end up with Tom again.
Well, now she's Tom-free. Things are looking somewhat up, potentially. If we're mining this grayish cloud for a silver lining, that's probably it. And that there are still only two tribes.
The other exciting development this episode was this: The eldest woman on the season, who is pushing 60, received credit in the episode for the strategic decision-making. How often does that happen on Survivor? Has it ever, beyond Scout Cloud Lee (who, like Janet, was 59 when she played)?
As Janet laid out in confessional, given the three original Lairos as possible targets, Tom made the most sense, for a combination of reasons. While she got along with Tom and appreciated his hard work and honesty, Karishma is desperate to work with the Vokais, Dean could go either way, and Tom was resolutely aligned with old Lairo. As such, Tom did not make sense as someone to keep around, if he was just going to flip back to Lairo at the merge.
Like Tom, Janet has a straightforward, no-nonsense sensibility, but it's clear she also has some ideas about how to play Survivor. And it's great that she's demonstrating that you don't have to be an Ivy League-educated, nerdy superfan to make smart decisions on Survivor (again, Rob and Sandra were a "construction worker" and an "office assistant" the first time they played, and they have three wins between them). Most of all though, it's much appreciated that while the ex-Vokais likely decided as a group where the vote was going, Survivor's editors let Janet be the person who explains the thinking for targeting Tom. Progress!
Lairo re-thinking: If they keep taking the easy path, are they doing it wrong?
Janet's logic for booting Tom here (he would never work with the Vokais long-term) was exactly right for this particular vote. This move gave the ex-Vokais a comfortable cushion on their new tribe, with a now 5-2 majority. If they stay original tribe-strong going forward, though, will it still be the right choice?
As it stands now, that easiest path to the merge is really tempting: The ex-Vokais on new Lairo can just wait to lose the next IC (or even throw it), then vote off either Dean or Karishma — but probably Dean, since they'd have to vote him out after the merge, anyway. Going forward, though, the easiest path may not be the wisest.
Old Vokai had a lot of low-simmering feuds that were never addressed because they only went to Tribal once, and due to the way the swap went down, they might be tempted to ignore them until it's too late. Jamal wanted Dan out (and the likes of Kellee and Janet weren't completely opposed to the idea). Tommy was thinking maybe Jamal. Now Jamal is separated from both Dan and Tommy until the merge, and nobody can do anything about it. They also didn't really trust Jason, and Jason seems like the kind of player who'd be happy to pull off blindsides and take people out whenever he can. And then there's Noura. Basically, Vokai is a mess. A mess with numbers at the moment, but for how long?
If there is a core of Vokai that wants to stick together after the merge (Janet/ Kellee/ Lauren, maybe? Tommy/ Jack ?), that's great. But they're now splintered, and either forced to work together until it's too late, or in danger of having someone like Jason or Noura flip on them and wreck those numbers. (Although that would make the season more interesting. Nobody needs a repeat of Naviti Strong.)
This is something that blind adherence to original tribe numbers at the merge rarely takes into consideration: It's of close to no value to have "numbers" if those numbers are going to work against you after the merge. (Exactly why Tom was the right person to vote out here.) It's just that it's been a while since we've had a purely two-tribe season. The post-merge path has become a no-brainer for seasons that start with three tribes (the largest original tribe at the merge gets picked off by the smaller two), or switch from two to three (original tribe bonds are paradoxically strengthened). In contrast, two-tribe-only seasons are so rare recently, it's unclear how things will shake out.
Looking further back, we can see cases where a tribe gets decimated pre-merge, but emerges with their bonds tempered by the fires of Tribal Council, like Jalapao in Tocantins, Foa Foa in Samoa. Or maybe Marquesas is a good example? There, the remnants of the decimated tribe banded together with the outcasts of the dominant one to flip the game. Everyone from Missy to Karishma was quick to declare "orange is dead" after this swap. Seems more likely that this season will end with some version of orange crushing its competition.
Laid low by the edit: television vs. reality
This week's episode was a great reminder that the edited game we see on TV doesn't always represent the game that was actually played. Tom's time on the show highlighted one or two aspects of his gameplay (challenge strength and Lairo loyalty, except for Karishma) and buried almost all the rest of it.
Coming off of his boot episode, it was easy to write off Tom's game (as seen on TV) as a barrel-aged, vintage blend of Jimmy Johnson's refusal to strategize and backstab, and Steve Wright's near-constant napping. Oh great, yet another older retired sports figure who's loyal to a fault, thinks Survivor is 100% about challenges, and has zero interest in sullying their reputation by playing the strategic game.
Except that, in listening to and reading his exit interviews, it's pretty clear that wasn't the case at all with Tom.
Case in point: Look at the immunity challenge. From watching the episode, you'd be right to be outraged that Tom, who was highly critical of Karishma's challenge performance, did absolutely zero in the IC. He just stood there and watched as Dean shot. Way to step up and contribute, Tom! Cue the hockey player's hypocritical complaints about Karishma slowing them down!
Except that's not the whole story, and in fact, in the edit's telling, it almost manages to get it completely wrong. From Tom's exit interview with Rob Cesternino, he and Dean were well aware that with New Vokai tied 4-4, and the ex-Vokais on New Lairo outnumbering them 5-3, their new tribemates had zero incentive to actually win this immunity, and every reason to try to throw it. So when roles in the IC were being divided up, Tom insisted on taking this second "shooter" spot, to block Jamal out from having the chance to throw the challenge. Jamal has taken the final "hero" slot in just about all of old Vokai's challenge wins, and is a former high school basketball player, so he was a logical choice to put there. He certainly made more sense than Tom the Hockey Player at shooting baskets. But somehow, Dean and Tom were able to pull off this maneuver, which a pretty smart strategic move, to avoid the second coming of the great Drew Christy.
That's an interesting little bit of subtle gameplay, right? Did we see see any of it, though? Nope. Neither Dean and Tom's conversation that morning worrying about this, nor the pre-challenge strategizing in assigning the positions. (To be fair, maybe there just wasn't room for these maybe 1.5 minutes of footage, what with a 20-minute Applebee's ad taking up half the episode.)
Instead, the only scenes shown of Tom's gameplay after the swap were: (1) Complaining about (er, "aboat") Karishma after the challenge, and (2) reclining on a sand hill and basically shrugging to Janet that, oh well, he'll just have to live with whatever the ex-Vokais decide tonight. Followed, presumably, by nap time. (#DontSleepOn39)
In reality, the original Lairos were well aware that cracks existed among the ex-Vokais. They knew Jamal wanted Noura out, and vice-versa. They were just unable to convince any of their new tribemates to follow through, to turn that small crack into an actual fissure. But the conversations were there. They just weren't shown.
Maybe the editors felt that another decoy narrative of "Noura's absolutely going to get voted out" would be poorly received, so they went with another week of "Karishma's absolutely going to get voted out" instead. Who knows.
It's great that what time we did spend in Lairo gave us a deeper, emotional dive into Karishma's life challenges — her arranged marriage, her questioning her self-worth after trying to buck cultural/family norms — all of which illuminates and informs the ways in which she's interacted with her tribe thus far. And from a storytelling perspective, we get it, it's simpler to have Karishma be an underdog, have gruff Tom be an aggressor with a one-track mind of being strong in challenges, and have Janet's smart decision-making take Tom out of the equation.
It's just disappointing to learn that there were extra dimensions there that were hidden, and we were presented with a split-second caricature instead, one in which the person being drawn was barely recognizable.
The big Applebee's plug: Yes, the contestants' reactions to this week's chain-restaurant reward sponsor were perhaps a bit over-enthusiastic and under-authentic. It seems unlikely that Survivor just happened to cast the exact 20 people in America (and Canada!) whose first choice in eating out would be Applebee's. That's fine, if this helps Survivor pay the bills and perhaps stay on the air into season 41, it's (probably) worth it. Hey, maybe they were all simply making homages to Tina Wesson's ecstatic endorsement of Doritos, way back in The Australian Outback.
Still, swapping out the *theme* for an ad? Was it worth losing Island of the Idols for an episode, though? In the larger sense of fairness to the contestants, yeah, probably. With limited time to forge bonds with new tribemates, having even a half-day away from everyone else could have been devastating gamewise to whomever was sent. Especially since the logical mechanism for an Island of the Idols visit would have been to send someone from Lairo after they lost the RC. That tribe already had two idols and a "no vote," and since Chelsea left with her idol in her pocket last week, there's also a chance an idol's been re-hidden in camp. A seven-vote Tribal with four idols in play (or three idols and an advantage) might be pushing it, even by modern Survivor standards.
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
Other Island of the Idols Episode 5 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews: Tom Laidlaw