This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but hear me out: The little flag that pops up after a hit from a sandbag in this week's reward challenge is a microcosm of the season as a whole. That is: It's something that was ridiculously over-engineered, time-consuming, and hard for the audience to follow at home. A cumbersome mechanism that replaced something that was already simple and fun - smashing or knocking over a target.
I know, I know, this was a "classic" challenge, brought back from Cambodia, but it was dumb then, and it's even dumber now. They took a standard Survivor challenge element, and then, for reasons unknown, they took away the satisfying part, and replaced it with one that's just head-scratchingly underwhelming. Instead of the immediate, physical response of something smashing or toppling to the ground, a tiny little flag pops up ... eventually. (Except in the pre-challenge dreamteam clip, where targets are getting hit right and left, but no flag ever pops up, and also at several points during the challenge itself, when the editors didn't have the extra seconds to wait for the flag to appear.)
Keep in mind that everyone participating in the challenge and at home is staring at these gigantic targets that are 100 yards or so away. Can they even see when a teensy flag rises up? (Signs point to yes, but can they see it better than if the target had fallen over? Seems unlikely.) For the audience: It's almost impossible to decipher what's going on visually. Generally, you're only shown one target at a time, and you would have to zoom out to see all the flags for that tribe, which rarely happens ... so you just have to remember. How is this an improvement?
That's really what's been going on so far this season: Production took something enjoyable for both contestants and the audience, took away the fun part, and replaced it with some ridiculously convoluted mechanism that's difficult to follow at home. Why on earth would they do that? Who knows! But we're expected to applaud it, apparently. For the sake of the cast, who to a person are still super-excited about every aspect of the experience, no matter how random, unfair, or impenetrably dumb it may be.
Is the scoring mechanism of a slingshot challenge really something to get all worked up about? Obviously not. But still ... what was the point? Why do this? There are hundreds of possible challenges. How can production, who have been running this show for 23 years now, understand so little about what works on TV that they bring back something that clearly doesn't? Is it intentional? How can they be this bad by accident, especially for something they've already seen go all the way through to the finished product?
It goes deeper than that, though. The slingshot challenge was also a dumb idea for a lot of other reasons. For one: As the first pure reward challenge of the season, it was really only there to provide a mechanism to send three more people on a "journey" (a simple note would have sufficed, as in Ep1). And that trip was only there as a convoluted way to swap those three players to different tribes. Lest you worry, as Jeff Probst himself did out loud at Tribal Council, that those swapped players are automatically screwed by being the lone outsider on another tribe: Each of them also received a free idol as a fun souvenir (one that expires at the merge). So there was a near-100% chance one of those idols would be played, and the swap-ees would each survive another round, no matter which tribe went to Tribal Council.
So the slingshot challenge was a poorly designed, under-satisfying trojan horse for a poorly designed, unsatisfying swap (also the first in a post-Winners at War season). The secondary effect of all of this maneuvering? There was barely time to even see the swapped players on their new tribes (as we'll get into more below, but which I guess makes sense, since they'll all still be here next week). Which means the show basically just spun its wheels in the character development department this episode, because it was too busy creating plot points.
That's a problem, because when someone leaves the game a third of the way through the season, the audience ought to have developed some connection to them by then. But with Sarah, we never really met her. Oh sure, she talked about the birdcage, she talked about challenges, she talked about Yam Yam, Carolyn, and Carson ... but we never really knew who *Sarah* was, what her motivation for playing was, why she was here.
So anyway, this is Sarah. Bye, Sarah.
Perhaps the lack of an audience connection is appropriate for a player who wasn't really voted out due to poor strategy or lack of a social game, just bad luck, mostly. Like almost every player so far this season, Sarah was eliminated at least in part due to random obstacles production threw into the game, preventing the players from simply playing the game they signed up for. Just look at the results of the first four Tribal Councils:
Ep.1: Maddy is out - two people dodge voting entirely with Shots in the Dark, Lauren doesn't vote in order to bank her parchment, Brandon plays his idol, meaning Maddy leaves on a single vote against her. She had tried to whip together a decent blindside plan, but it was dismantled by all the shiny distractions production tossed in, not strategy.
Ep.2: Helen is out - It would have been a 2-2 tie, with Carson as the deciding vote, which would have been interesting (and the show labored to claim was still the case). Except that Sarah had already lost her vote in Ep1, because production forced her to take that risk. So Carson really had no move other than to join a 3-1 majority. All because of a forced lost vote.
Ep.3: Claire is out - Here, it would have been a 3-3 tie, and Claire *might* have been able to woo Heidi away from Josh/Danny ... except Matt had lost his vote, again because production forced him to. (He then lost another one on his own volition, that one's on him.) So instead, it's a 3-2 majority, so Frannie wisely joins the three, leaving Claire with just one option, her Shot in the Dark (which of course doesn't work), and it's suddenly 4-0. Again, the balance of power shifted, and the available options dwindled, mostly because Matt lost his vote.
Ep.4: Sarah is out - This probably would have happened without a swap, but it's hard to know. Most likely, Tika's dominant alliance would have remained intact, with Yam Yam, Carolyn, and Carson voting together. Although Sarah might have tried to leverage the fake idol she'd found to get Carson on her side, and so, really, the swap also obliterated the one piece of contestant-originated gameplay that could have taken place this episode. Instead, Yam Yam tried to unite Carolyn and Sarah under a Tika-Strong banner, and it fell apart from there when Carolyn was named the decoy boot. Also Josh played his free idol, completing the Tika break-up. It would be great if the show had taken the time to explain why Yam Yam and Carolyn were suddenly at odds, but to the extent the show explained it, it was because Yam Yam snores.
This form of Survivor is no longer a social-strategic game where 18 people form their own society and develop their own rules about who should stay and who should go. Instead, it's now that challenge on Squid Game where everyone had to walk across a bridge of glass tiles over an abyss, and on every other step a tile immediately shattered, and the unlucky random person who stepped on it plunged to their death. There's no real strategy, except you just have to be the last person to go across, after everyone else meets their completely random fate. It's not particularly satisfying or entertaining to watch, but on the plus side, as the audience we barely get to actually meet the people being eliminated, so ... sorry for you, randos, whoever you are! I guess?
Too much stuff, too little time, once again
This is far from the first time we've said this in the New Era, but following how the swap affected the people joining new tribes (and the people they joined) was almost impossible to discern this episode, because so much time was spent on other, Obviously More Important, production-scheduled events. In the olden days of Marquesas, people would go to what looked like a challenge site, stand on some wooden discs, then take out their new buffs from under the discs. The show could even burn precious minutes doing the buff reveals one person at a time, because there was just one challenge (and Tribal Council) coming.
Contrast that to this episode. There was the story of Carolyn's fake idol (born and gone, unplayed, in a single episode). There was the reward challenge. That challenge's winning tribe then picked people to go on "a journey." Then we saw Josh, Carson, and Jaime completing that trek. (Notably, as Ryan pointed out, despite the sign's explicit instructions, we the audience did not see them "get to know each other" on the way, once again - this was also omitted from the Ep1 journey.) We heard Jaime say she was really excited about potentially working with Josh and Carson, and then ... it was immediately time for them to split up. Then we saw each of them separately reacting to the news they'd been swapped, but gained an idol. We did see each person give their version of events to their new tribes, then Tika reacting to Josh's story, and Matthew trying to build a bond with Carson ... but then it was time to move on. Jaime just got to smile at Soka. Then the IC, then the scrambling, then Tribal. Imagine if it had actually been an idol-free tie vote with a revote! We probably would have lost the Matthew-Carson bit, too.
So what does Ratu (the non-Matthew ones) think of Carson? Who knows! What does Soka think of Jaime, beyond her being the obvious next person out? Your guess is as good as ours. These questions fall into the realm of "Not as important as a fake idol that immediately left the game, unplayed." (Or the Inheritance advantage, which also left the game unplayed, but had its own spotlight moment in the premiere.)
In contrast, Marquesas had room for: Sean and Boston Rob objecting to the Rotu tribe's expectations of hard work; Rob making misogynist, transphobic, and homophobic comments about them (which, alongside his other assholery, got him an invite to All-Stars ... well done, CBS); and Vecepia blending in seamlessly. On the new Maraamu tribe, Sarah was shown pretending to enjoy watching Gina immediately click with Paschal, Neleh, and Kathy. In real (game) time, the players also had two full days to get to know each other, form bonds, make plots, before voting someone out. Here it was just over 24 hours, on tiny tribes where, if anyone was in danger of flipping, it was unlikely to be obvious in that short amount of time.
So if your idea of great Survivor is watching people you barely recognize read signs and/or notes, then oh boy, the New Era is definitely for you! If you were hoping for strategy or a coherent story, well, keep hoping! One might turn up eventually.
The game just changed
That doesn't even begin to crack the surface of all the things wrong with this "tribe swap" mechanism. The main problem: while Soka chose the three people who went on the journey, production decided which tribe they would be sent to. The note each person read simply said "draw your new buff" from the bag. As with the premiere bag-draw, there was no choice here. Jaime couldn't have ended up on Tika (which would have been amazing). She was assigned to Soka. Josh was never going to Ratu (where he would have instantly created a Black player majority). Nope, Tika was Josh's only option. (Carson will probably be fine wherever he goes.)
As many have pointed out, this was sort of like the China swap, except there the swapped players were directly selected by the opposing tribe. Zhan Hu then promptly threw an immunity challenge to rid themselves of Aaron or James, so production adapted the plan in this just-exhumed version by giving everyone an idol, which is more fair to the people swapped. But as we saw with Josh on Tika: That's not more fair to the tribe receiving a new player, it's far less so. It changes the new arrival from a sitting duck to a live grenade.
Josh having an idol all but guaranteed one of the three original Tikas left was leaving the game. (Not Carolyn, who also had a real idol.) The same will be true on Soka, if they somehow attend Tribal, which seems unlikely based on their challenge strength this episode. This was not a swap, it was an assassination. To Tika's credit, they mostly saw through Josh's story, and suspected he had an idol, but they were still unable to do anything about it, despite trying their best.
Survivor's standard swap mechanism (everyone draws buffs) was working. It was purely luck of the draw (except in Caramoan, where the draw was rigged to guarantee a returnee majority on each new tribe), everyone has an equal chance of changing tribes. Sometimes that worked out in lopsided ways, but at least it was fair and equitable to each of the players. This was not. Why did Survivor break a three-season swapless drought with this half-baked, grimly executed idea? If they can't micromanage the outcome, I guess it's not worth filming?
We forgot the code: It was hard to see, but it looked like all three idols the swapped players received were bead strings, not the tribe-specific "official" idols from the birdcages. So they all look like the Tika fake idol/ Ratu real idol. (Which raises the question of whether Carolyn raised questions about the authenticity of the idol Josh showed her, since she knew what their fake looked like.)
Office of information prevention: Claire and Matthew chatted during the Ep1 IC, which was really fun, and Claire extracted a lot of info in the process. So why on earth did Survivor prevent close allies (now separated) Matthew and Jaime from talking to each other while sitting out during the IC (above)? They're not only separated by like 50 feet, but Matthew is right next to his tribemates. What is gained by blocking cross-tribal communication like this? Didn't Mike White advise Probst that decisions should be made based on the "Is it fun?" rubric? This is the opposite of that. (It's possible they did talk, and it was just cut, like Jaime's chatting with Josh and Carson during their dilemma trek.)
Maybe they would: Sarah, Ep3: "I feel like I'm next." Me, seeing that: "Oh, that's a red herring. The audience is already mad about all the young women leaving early, there's no way they would put that in unless she overcomes this." One episode later: Sarah is indeed next out from Tika. Upon further reflection, yeah that seems about right for Survivor having a clue about audience reaction.
Speaking of broken: It would have been so much fun if Jaime had sat out the RC for Ratu before being swapped, and then sat out again for Soka in the IC. Mainly just to test the rules, because sitting out consecutive challenges should be possible if you switch tribes in between, right? (It seems unlikely that Jaime would voluntarily sit out more than she needs to, though.)