Through seven episodes (eight boots), this season's edition of Edge of Extinction has been — yes, even despite the absence of Reem — better than the first. Even so, it has still been problematic. While it has featured both inspiring moments and hilarious side-plots, it has also not only unnecessarily distracted from the actual game, but actively interfered with it. It has given us a more lengthy look at some favorite Survivor legends, but has also done so at the expense of the ones still playing the game.
In short, it's been as expected, albeit with improved storytelling and less repetitiveness. If it ended here, it would have been an overall acceptable addition to this all-winners season. Even with (at least) one player about to return to the game this week, and a pile of unused advantages still stashed away in people's bags. Hey, maybe these beloved veterans helped keep the concept fresh. Maybe the stories have simply improved. It feels weird to say this, but it's been ... okay.
The problem is though, as far as we know, it's not ending here. It'll keep on taking up time and space, giving more airtime to the defeated and more advantages to the not-yet-eliminated. We'll keep adding more and more booted players, and continue losing track of the people already there. Amber will probably have one or two more confessionals the entire rest of the way, at best. (Don't worry, we'll probably still get a lot of Boston Rob, because that's how Survivor works.) And then, in the finale, we'll have one more person coming back into the game, having formed tight personal bonds with all but three of the 14 jurors. At that point, all the goodwill the Edge has built up will be immediately squandered (unless the final returnee gets voted right back out again).
That's all roughly what we expected, though. So at this point, let's take a mid-season check on everything Edge: The good, the not-so-good, and the painful.
Sandra made the correct call
A lot of fans have complained that Sandra "quit" by leaving Edge of Extinction. She didn't. She left an extracurricular torture program that offered her no realistic chance of getting back in the game. Even if she could get back in the game soon, she'd almost certainly be a target again the second she returned. And if by some miracle she came back in a second time? She's someone who knows first-hand what it's like to face a jury against someone who was already voted out once. Why starve herself for an indeterminate period of time to be in the Lil position?
Not to mention that, again, the chances of her re-entering the game were remote at best. Everyone else who's there on the Edge has a record of doing reasonably well in challenges. All have won at least one (except Yul, who was both sandbagging and competing against in-his-prime Ozzy).
Sandra does not have a record of success in challenges. Lifetime, she has competed in 20 individual challenges. She has won zero of those. She also has the third-lowest career mark in Mean % finish in individual challenges. Simply put, it was extremely unlikely that she would win a challenge against any eight random competitors. Not only that, but these wouldn't be random competitors. Sandra would be competing against some of Survivor's biggest challenge beasts of all time. (See the table a couple of sections below.) There's giving it a good try, but Sandra made an extremely rational decision here. Her best hope was just spending the next 23 days on the Edge.
She also just spent 35 days sleeping in a bamboo shelter (allegedly) in Fiji, for Island of the Idols. Why put herself through much worse deprivation, just to eventually be a juror? Sandra wants the $2 million for herself and her family. She has no realistic shot at that now that she's been voted out. So why starve herself for three weeks, just to give that money to someone else? The only path that made sense was the one she took: Directly to the sail, into the awaiting boat, and away from the Edge.
Tyson vs. Boston Rob: Hooray for non-linear storytelling
The Edge isn't all doom and gloom, though. The Tyson vs. Boston Rob mini-arc over the past two episodes has been a fun, Edge-specific diversion. Last week, we saw Tyson gain the upper hand, nabbing an advantage (then a fire token, then peanut butter) by pretending to pee. This week, it initially looked like more of the same, as Tyson narrated his successful fire token scramble, and it looked like it might end there, what with Tyson having found one token, and the other three apparently remaining unfound. He even snuck in a (fat-shaming, but in the most light-hearted way possible) jab at his buddy Boston Rob by calling him a "portly chap," which the editors even supported by including a wheezing Rob seeming out of breath. Ha ha! Good old former cyclist Tyson doing wheelies around his lost-a-step friend! Funny!
The actual payoff to this, however, was a complete reversal, delivered in swift and delicious fashion. Rob himself took over as narrator, and explained that lithe, athletic Tyson did not, in fact, run circles around him. Instead, Rob sprinted up the hill and snagged three tokens before Tyson could find his measly one. You'd never have guessed Boston Rob would eventually be the standard-bearer for body positivity after watching the post-swap episode of Marquesas, but here we are. All in all, a fun and funny conclusion to a slowly smoldering rivalry.
It also worked because the structure was a surprising departure from Survivor's traditional strict chronological presentation of events. Sure, you occasionally have confessionals that jump around in the timeline relative to when they were actually given, but key events, like challenges, rewards, and Tribal Councils generally are shown in the linear order in which they happened. Used sparingly, Rob's flashback-laden reversal of Tyson's story was entertaining, just as when we saw Dan Rengering discussing his idol find in David vs. Goliath, or Wardog talking about setting up the Wentworth blindside in Edge of Extinction. It was less fun when Michele revealed that she had given Wendell a fire token five minutes earlier. (Why not just show that as it happened?) Still, overall, good to see the show trying new things. If we have to have Edge of Extinction, this was time well spent there.
Fire token free-for-all: Meh to no longer 'earning' fire tokens
Entertainment aside, though, this particular task did not seem all that fair. After all, have we already forgotten that Ethan (and Natalie, Amber, and Danni) also raced up that same mountain a few episodes back, and had to keep doing so 19 more times, risking life and limb, just to get one fire token? Boston Rob gets to sprint to the top once and scoop up three tokens.
Sure, something had to be done. The late arrivals to EoE were at a marked disadvantage in the fire token count, so the show needed some mechanism to allow them to catch up to Fire Token Queen Natalie whose four-token tally gives her a potentially formidable edge for the return challenge. Still, this particular task seemed ridiculously simple compared to the previous tasks, which required either figuring out riddles or simple, dogged endurance.
A resigned sigh for the overstuffed Edge
That brings up another problem that has plagued Edge of Extinction since its first edition: There are now so many people there, it's impossible to give all of them airtime. While this episode did well with the Tyson-Rob rivalry, and also had a great segment with Parvati giving Ethan a pep talk, in which we got a more well-rounded look at both people, it still wasn't enough.
We've had nothing whatsoever from the first three arrivals for weeks. We have yet to hear anything from Amber about what it's like being stuck on EoE with her husband. We haven't heard much at all from Danni. Most of all, it would be great to hear how Natalie is doing. She's been there for 16 days! She once had a huge, hard-won Fire Token lead, but that has now evaporated. She's surrounded by old-schoolers with whom she has little connection. She was determined to win her way back into the game, but she's now facing formidable opponents in Tyson, Rob, Parvati, and now Yul. Maybe even Ethan! What does she think about all that? We don't know, because there's no time. We haven't heard from her at all since the log challenge. And it's all but impossible to do that now, what with three other regular tribes to check in on.
And what happens when all these people stay here after the merge, just so that they can remain on the jury? Well, then it will get increasingly impossible to do what this was sold as: See our favorites every week. (Unless your favorite is Boston Rob, of course.)
By the numbers: Okay, so who will return from the Edge?
Token power: We still don't know how much advantage the fire tokens will net their eager sellers, but we would imagine some or most will spend those tokens for an advantage. Each Edge dweller can buy up to three advantages in the return challenge, for one fire token each. Current totals: Natalie - 4; Rob - 3; Tyson, Ethan, Danni, Amber - 1; Yul and Parvati - 0. (The Cook Islands-ers are screwed, basically.)
Here's where it gets tricky, though. Natalie and/or Rob could opt to blow three tokens on a fully powered idol for after they get back into the game. That's a huge gamble, but it's probably also a tempting one for Natalie, because she would still have one token left over to buy an advantage. That scenario is all the more likely because it's quite possible that Natalie is unaware Rob has *any* tokens, based on this week's episode. So Rob could max out his advantages, and if Natalie buys an idol before he makes his purchase, or if all sales are done in private (which seems most likely), she could easily miscalculate and make that unwise decision.
The challenge: This week's press photos show the return challenge. It features a net crawl to retrieve bags, at least one balance beam, and some untying of knots, and ends in the very same snake maze thingy that Rick Devens successfully rolled his way through to get back into the game at this point in Season 38 (above). Importantly, that challenge actually required everyone to move two balls through the maze, but only one was shown in the TV version.
The advantages probably allow people to move ahead in the challenge — past the knots, getting a ball for the snake maze early, maybe even start off with one ball placed, that sort of thing. It's just unclear how much of a head start they really provide.
As a challenge, the two skill sets required appear to be general agility, in which most of the contestants are fairly evenly matched, and focus/balance. There are no puzzles, it's not endurance, no real physical strength is necessary. On the whole, a pretty level playing field. So the advantages may in fact be the most important component. Unless someone is just really bad at the snake maze.
The past records: Given that these people are all old schoolers, and average well over two appearances apiece, we have a fairly extensive record of their performances in individual challenges. (Albeit roughly a decade out of date, but we can't be that picky.) So here are the potential returnees, their individual challenge records, and perhaps most importantly, their mean % finishes (MPF) in individual challenges, which is what the table has been sorted by:
|Contestant||Indiv. challenges||Wins||Mean % finish|
|Boston Rob Mariano||22||11||79.6%|
From this table, Rob should be the clear favorite, to the extent that past challenges can predict future performance. (They're informative for average future performance in a set of challenges, but not necessarily in one specific challenge.) He's the #3 performer all-time by mean % finish, and holds the record for most career individual challenge wins. Tyson is no slouch, either, slotting in at #7 all-time in MPF. Natalie would be right behind him at #8 (if she had played twice already).
The odds: Now that we've gone through all that, the snake maze is most likely the key part of the challenge that will decide the winner, and none of the participants has ever done this particular element. (The new-schoolers have, though. Nick has done this exact challenge, and Ben did "Rice Race," which is very similar. Michele saw "Rice Race" from the sit-out bench.) So ... it's not clear that past challenge prowess is necessarily a predictor here.
The Edge-er who has participated in challenges that come the closest to the snake maze is probably Natalie, having done somewhat similar (-ish) tasks in the merge IC ("Take the Reins"), Ep11 IC ("Paddle Out"), and the F5 IC ("Spoon Man") in San Juan del Sur (none of which she was particularly great at). Tyson won the tile balancing/wobbly table F5 IC ("A Bit Tipsy") in Blood vs. Water, which again is sort of similar, but not an exact match. So past record is no real guide here, but if Natalie does max out her advantages, she still may not be a favorite, especially if Rob also does.
All in all, the smart money's probably on Rob (assuming he gets at least one advantage), then Tyson, then Natalie, the same order their MPF puts them in. If Rob gets all three advantages, he's the prohibitive favorite. Still, if he does re-enter the game, he'll probably be a unanimous merge boot, unless he also stumbles over an idol hidden in his bag, or something. If there's one
Stop trying to make 'old schoolers can't play this modern game' happen, Probst
This season, the show has decided that "pre-game alliances" are a theme, and has made demonstrative gestures that it's playing all its cards face-up, and showing us these pre-existing relationships, and how they affect the gameplay. Huge, if accurate.
So far, there have been two key pieces of evidence for this. The first: The "Poker Alliance" flashback way back in the premiere. This "alliance" was almost entirely a fabrication, made up by Yul; Tyson and Rob are the two who are actually friends, and they're both out now, as is Yul himself. The other key relationship? Wendell and Michele, with their broken dating history. Those two voted together this week, and seem fairly tight moving forward. Weird how those two big narrative threads didn't pan out.
Before we move on, though, let's flash back to Nick Wilson's pre-game interview with Gordon Holmes:
Wilson: OK, I have a pre-game alliance with Yul and Michele. So, if I end up on the same tribe as them, I’ll be super happy. Davie (Rickenbacker) is friends with Wendell, so I’m pretty sure I can connect with him. So, if I get on a tribe with them, I’ll feel really good about that.
Strange that, in this sparkling new age of Survivor narrative transparency, this hasn't been mentioned on the show. Must have been an oversight. Whoops.
Anyway, while trying to pull this "we're showing the pre-game relationships" sleight of hand, the show has also gone to great lengths to convince us that, in Probst's words, "the older-school players just have a tougher time keeping up with the game." That putative theme is intended to explain why all the old-schoolers (people who originally played before Heroes vs. Villains, including four who played together on that season) are now either on Edge of Extinction, or have already left it.
What that formulation is trying to hide is that, by casting only 9 old-schoolers vs. 11 new-schoolers, this was highly likely to happen. Especially when those nine included obvious targets who were Survivor legends, like Rob and Sandra, who (whoops) had giant statues in full view of the spot where all those pre-game interviews were conducted. And as Chrissy Hofbeck aptly noted on RHAP this week, sending a huge number of old schoolers to EoE, where they would form the bulk of the early jury, only increased the need to send the rest of them there, too. Whoopsie again!
Meanwhile, the show is also trying to convince us that Denise and Kim, who won back-to-back seasons and almost certainly communicated with each other when their seasons aired, just met each other on the beaches of Fiji. Or that Nick and Wendell, who also won back-to-back seasons and are both active in the post-Survivor circuit, also were somehow at a disadvantage because they had "no connections." It's ludicrous, it's disingenuous, and frankly it's just plain silly to claim that the recent winners are all showing up here as absolute free agents, tabulae rasae.
Need another tip-off? Wendell, Michele, and Nick all showed up at Tribal (and had spent the day in camp) wearing necklaces obviously made by the same person (most likely Wendell). Yul was not wearing a necklace. Were we really supposed to think the first three are not closer with each other than Yul is with Michele and Nick, who he really did just meet in Fiji (pre-game alliance with Nick aside)?
It's exhausting. This is Survivor, everyone talks to everyone else outside of the game, and pre-game alliances are always going to be a part of returning player seasons. For a brief window there, it looked like the show was coming clean about this. But halfway through this season, that claim has clearly fallen apart, and it's all just as opaque as it was during Game Changers, and all the returnee iterations before that. If you're going to tell a story, Survivor, at least try to make it true.
Stop demonizing creativity, Survivor
Yul's departure, while certainly not helped by his three tribemates having closer connections to each other than to him, still needed some plausible cover story, apparently. What did the show come up with? Tarnishing the one potentially interesting brand-new development this season: Trying to leverage fire tokens for in-game strategic gains.
Just listen to Michele: "Yul's trying to do all this crazy ____." Nick concurs, "It's definitely a dark, strange situation" when Yul floats his plan to make himself the decoy vote, in exchange for one fire token (after a booted Wendell would presumably give his to Michele). Just last week, Wendell was depicted as underhanded and/or a dirty player for offering to vote for Parvati's choice of players in exchange for her two fire tokens.
Why? This is what fire tokens *should* be used for in the regular game! Maybe it helps that we as the audience know that Fire Tokens have intrinsic value beyond the stated menu — in purchasing idols and advantages from the people on EoE — and the active players are only just discovering that. But the dismissive, negative tone of the edit here is disappointing. Having a currency that can be used to bribe other players, like garnets in The Genius or coins in Pirate Master, is potentially one of the most interesting, game-altering developments in Survivor in years. Why is the show trying to quash that?
These players are trying to use all the tools available to them in order to advance their position in the game. That's what Survivor is supposed to be about! It's like watching the birth of alliances in Borneo, and having the show itself actively crapping on Richard Hatch for thinking strategically. (This was a popular opinion among casual fans at the time, sure, but it wasn't coming from the show's edit, at least not like this.) It makes no sense. Is production really that offended that nobody has yet taken them up on their generous offer of a tarp in exchange for four fire tokens?
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
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