If you're a believer in the popular misconception that Koror was all-powerful and Ulong was the worst tribe ever, well ... the second pair of Survivor: Palau episodes probably won't do much to change your mind. But they should! Ulong obliterated Koror (a 3-0 shutout) in the challenge that would eventually become known as "Water Slaughter" for the Ep3 RC, and might have been able to hold off Koror in "Hot Pursuit" the next day if their strongest guy hadn't just torn his ankle apart the night before.
Jeff Probst's badgering about their 2-and-5 record in challenges at the Ep.4 Tribal Council notwithstanding, Ulong was still hanging in there in Episodes 3 and 4, and just couldn't catch a break — except perhaps for whatever tendon Jeff Wilson ruptured in his ankle. Case in point: In the inaugural rendition of the future challenge staple, "Sumo at Sea," Ulong quickly found themselves down to match point, 5-2 (playing to six), after Tom manhandled Bobby Jon for a second straight time. Things were decidedly bleak. But then Stephenie kept the tribe alive, scoring a second point vs. Jenn, to make it 5-3. Then Ibrehem battled back and scored a retaliatory win vs. Gregg, pulling it to 5-4. Then surprise beast Angie clobbered Caryn again, making it an even 5-5! Everything came down to the next match-up.
Unfortunately for Ulong, they had to send in scrawny Redneck James vs. the taller, stronger, heavier Coby. The title bout lasted slightly longer than their first match-up, but James again was hopelessly overmatched, sending Koror to its fourth straight immunity, and Ulong back to Tribal Council to face a grilling from Probst about why they keep sucking. (Hint: It's James.) There, the host inaccurately attributes all five points to the women, giving Kim credit for Ibrehem's win, but that's classic Probst. More importantly, his "you've only won *two* challenges!" rant entirely misses the point: They almost pulled off a stunning comeback victory. (And the preceding reward "win" for Koror was judging the two tribes' bathroom construction skills, and let's just say reasonable questions remain about production's impartiality.)
Still, a case could be made that this loss is where Ulong's spirit truly broke. They had fought their way all the way back to the precipice of success, only to slip and fall back into failure (again, thanks to James). If just one thing had gone their way — Jeff Wilson's ankle staying intact, a reversal of the reward/immunity challenge order in Ep3, Coby or Tom not winning both of their bouts in "Sumo at Sea," literally any one of these — Ulong is back within striking distance, down just 8-6 in numbers to Koror. But as we know, nothing ever did break their way, and Koror got a super shelter and free champagne as part of the deal.
The collapse of Ulong doesn't quite become inevitable until Episode 5. Forced to boot someone no matter what, they stupidly take out Angie. Angie was the heart of Ulong. Her inspiring discovery of her inner strength gave them their first win in the Ep2 RC. After being considered for the boot in the premiere, she made herself so indispensible she received zero votes at any of the next three Tribal Councils. Her efforts in "Sumo at Sea" put them in a position to make an improbable comeback win. Not only was she their sparkplug, but she and Stephenie gave Ulong a massive competitive edge vs. the Koror women in head-to-head matchups. But once Angie's gone, that's not an issue any more.
It's hard to overlook another clear reason why Ulong eventually crumbled: their insistence on keeping James, allegedly for challenge strength. James's "leadership" on the Ep4 construction project irritated everyone, then he lost them the immunity challenge. He dropped out of "Hot Pursuit" around the same time as Coby (Stephenie never did). He contributed less to Ulong's win in "Gauntlet Dash" than did Kim. Sure, he was a diligent worker around camp (when he wasn't off giving confessionals about doing democracy or how lazy Kim is). But he did not match up well against any man on Koror in challenges, except perhaps Willard.
Meanwhile, Kim had already been the decoy boot for two straight episodes. Ashlee and Jeff had each asked to be voted out, and both times, Ulong contemplated voting Kim out instead, just because. But she was useful in challenges! So why not just extend the running joke for one more round? Stephenie and Angie even floated this idea, and with the benefit of hindsight, it clearly would have worked out better for the tribe, because it would have let them use her as a free boot in the next episode when they *had* to boot someone, no matter what.
Obviously, keeping Kim and booting James didn't happen, and inexplicably, James wasn't even in the top two in the next episode's three-way vote split. This implies that both Bobby Jon and Ibrehem refused to go along with Angie and Stephenie's plan, presumably because Kim didn't work hard enough in camp, or maybe because they had an "Alabama alliance" with James. Either way, misguided thinking. Had Angie and Stephenie been better strategists, they might have pointed out that Kim was clearly better than both Caryn and Katie in challenges, and maybe that would have been enough to sway Bobby Jon. But apparently they didn't. Or maybe Bobby Jon couldn't overlook Kim's not being a workhorse. Oh well.
Ulong wasn't the worst tribe ever, but they were one of the unluckiest, and they compounded that misery by making some of the dumbest decisions.
Impartial, my ass
In the Ep4 RC, a member of the production crew (Survivor lifer Jesse Jensen, then of the challenge department, now an executive producer) judged the two tribes' efforts at building a bathroom (sponsored by The Home Depot). From a lay perspective, Koror and Ulong's bathrooms looked pretty evenly matched, quality-wise. There's no reason to suspect that Jesse Jensen was actually biased. But if you *were* going to rig a challenge in one tribe's favor, then taking someone whose future employment depends on the success of the season, and having them decide who wins that challenge just *might* be an easy way to do that ... just saying.
Anyway, so each tribe builds a bathroom. They both look fairly similar. There's only so much you can do with a bunch of 2x4s, after all. But there was one clear difference: When it came time for the judging, Koror's facilities were presented by the square-jawed, smooth-talking, Beloved Hero of 9/11, Tom Westman. Ulong's privy, in contrast, was shown off by none other than Redneck James, the squirrelly, sketchy-looking guy in a wifebeater (and makeshift tunic, at this point), the one everyone suspected of faking an Alabamian accent. You'll never guess who wins.
Importantly, the challenge had kicked off with a treemail forcing the two tribes to elect a representative (this was mostly a swap-trolling fake-out, because the representative's sole role was selecting tools for the project). Ulong belatedly elected James. Tom was not Koror's representative. Gangly, sometimes-awkward Ian was. Also worth noting: while visiting the camps for the judging, Probst lavished praise on Tom for being such a "great tour guide." It's hard to gauge how much that contributed to Jensen's judging, but it seems unlikely that was completely overlooked. Had the tribes been forced to have their representatives make the sales pitch, as Ulong seemed to think was the case, perhaps Koror's efforts might seem less praiseworthy.
Challenges like this — where scores are based on nebulous, unspecified "style" criteria — were an early-season Survivor staple, and they're one of the few things lost over time that aren't particularly missed. They're rife with questionable and unfair decisions, or at least the appearance of them. Often they deploy a "local" (also probably part of the crew) expert as a judge, to give the appearance of impartiality. But as with The Apprentice, there's always a suspicion that production actually has its thumb on the scale for the final decision. One of the worst examples came in Marquesas, where the depleted post-swap Maraamu tribe "won" the SOS challenge because they used a "very eye-catching" American flag ... an item the other tribe couldn't possibly have, because it was Paschal's luxury item. (Also the obvious: In the first season filmed after 9/11, how is the tribe waving an American flag possibly going to lose?)
Oh yeah, guess what: There's also an SOS challenge coming up this season. (You'll never guess who wins!) Thankfully, these suspiciously "judged" kinds of challenges have largely disappeared from modern Survivor, in favor of, you know, actual competitions. Still, especially when Probst lambastes Ulong for losing this challenge at the subsequent Tribal Council, it's hard not to look a bit askance at Koror's alleged "win" here.
(That said, closing out the coverage of the two camps with James's insistence that it's not over, and that Ulong might still win, as darkness descends on a silent Ulong camp, does have a particularly Charlie Brown-esque tragic majesty to it. Ulong really is screwed, they just haven't accepted it yet. But it's coming. Oh yes, it's coming.)
- You don't wanna know what you're playing for: The arbitrary prizes and punishments in back-to-back-to-back reward challenges from Episodes 2-4 are utterly bizarre in their randomly screwing people over. In Episode 2, Ulong had the chance to win both fishing gear and a flint. Meanwhile, Koror (who had capsized their outrigger in the previous episode and lost their firemaking kit to the bottom of the ocean) was only allowed to win fishing gear. Why punish Koror for a fluke accident? Who knows. (Koror didn't win, so it's moot.) The next episode, the reward is ... some fabric and a sewing kit. Ulong wins it, and it has some utility for fishing, but mostly it's a boobie prize, as a reward for blowing Koror out of the water in a hard-fought, physical challenge. To quote one of Ibrehem's only confessionals: "I'm not a sew-er, I'm not a seamstress. I have no idea what I could do with it." Neither does anyone else, Ibrehem. The next episode, of course, features the totally impartial "build a bathroom" challenge. Koror not only wins the best shelter in Survivor history, they get comfort items, a hammock, a picnic table, and a cooler with two bottles of champagne. All for having marginally better construction/presentation skills (?). Again, Ulong couldn't have mapped out a worse course through the game if they'd tried.
- When it wasn't a game: One of the most striking features of this season through four episodes is how few people are talking about the game. We see Ulong discussing team strength and challenges and camp workload before each vote, but it's all in service of winning challenges and avoiding Tribal Council. Nobody really has any long-term plans, or any kind of overarching strategy. Is Stephenie in an alliance with anyone? Is Bobby Jon? Good luck figuring that out, since nobody ever mentions one. They're all just trying to get to the next day. Over on Koror, it's more of the same. Tom, Ian, and Gregg talk exclusively about providing food/shelter for the tribe. Katie and Caryn grouse about each other. Janu and Willard are mutes. Coby and Caryn come the closest to game talk in complaining about how Ian/Katie and Jenn/Gregg are completely in Tom's pocket, and form an unbreakable majority that wields absolute control over the tribe, while their own voices are completely unheard in tribal decisions. But that's really it. Petty social bickering, no long-term plans, no plots to overthrow the patriarchy. Just "Oh well, there's nothing we can do." People always lavish praise on the early seasons for showing more "camp life," but do we really need a 10-minute segment where Tom, Ian, and Gregg decapitate several snakes, drip the bleeding carcasses into the ocean to attract sharks, then harmlessly fling sharpened sticks in their general direction? (I know, I know, it's a prologue for Tom actually catching one, but the segment is really long, and seems pretty wasteful.)
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