A lot of times in Survivor: Palau, you have to step back a bit and reassess the story from a different character's perspective to elude the overriding Hero Tom narrative. Coby's boot in Episode 9 is presented as the direct result of him reacting negatively to his position within the Koror hierarchy (on the bottom, with Janu). That's fine, the winner is the hero of their own season, and we generally see the season's action mostly from the winner's perspective. Coby opposed Tom, so he's a villain, and his downfall and removal is a win for Tom. Fair enough.
A surprising thing about Palau, however — particularly these few episodes around the (non-) merge — is that when you pry apart the edit even a little bit, there's actually a fair bit of support for Coby's position that he really was being excluded by Tom's alliance. (There are also a lot of unanswered questions.) That's rare, because you don't normally see negative footage about the eventual winner in the circa-merge episodes. Maybe it's done to make Tom's win seem less obvious? Still, it's an overall frustration in Palau that sometimes the non-Tom-wins story pieces have to be dissected away to make sense.
The cracks in Tom's halo start to appear in the final pre-jury episode (Episode 8), when Koror wins the last tribal RC, and a shower with a 55-gallon drum of water is installed in their camp. For unclear reasons, Tom immediately insists that the tribe not use the water for showers, but rather as drinking water. (Why would a 55-gallon drum of water necessarily be any more potable than the water production pours in the well? It's unclear.) Several people privately object, among them Coby and Jenn, but as Coby points out, nobody dares say anything publicly. Tom gets his way, people grumble about it in confessional, and that's the end of it. Tom comes across here as a bit of an oblivious stick-in-the-mud. (Although it's possible we're not meant to question his call here, but rather see him as a decisive leader, looking out for his tribe's welfare. Who knows.)
The next episode, when the Palauan fishermen (Edwin and Joe) show up in camp to give fishing lessons, another dispute erupts. After a brief lesson about catching bait fish on the beach, it's time for Joe and Edwin's big fishing expedition further out at sea. There's only so much space on the outrigger, so they can't take the entire tribe at once. Naturally Tom and Gregg are invited, since they're manly men. Coby wants to go, but Tom overrules him because he thinks Ian "deserves" to go, and Tom rants in confessional that Ian should not be staying back in camp and catching bait alongside the women (who up to this point haven't even been shown, because why would Survivor: Palau bother showing its female contestants who aren't Stephenie).
Coby does not handle this well, and he stalks off towards camp. Ian calls after him, asking if he wants to go, but Coby insists no, he'd rather stay and continue this bait-catching task (just to not have to see Tom any more). As presented, Coby seems pretty justified in his feelings of exclusion, even if his way of dealing with it wasn't the best.
(Note that there is also an issue of framing here: Ian opens the episode with a confessional talking about how Coby has had a whiny attitude around camp recently, which is clearly placed there to build the case for Coby's boot. But it later becomes obvious this comment was made after the blowup over the outrigger trip, since there's an Ian confessional about this event, given in exactly the same position. For all we know, this could be the only instance of Coby acting up.)
Coby's reaction is also likely symptomatic of a larger sense of frustration and disappointment with the game/ season itself. In a normal season, the person on the bottom of a big alliance or successful tribe can look forward to the merge, which generally brings a new set of similarly outnumbered people with whom to conspire. See, for example, Shambo's delight in finally hooking up with the Foa Foas at the merge in Samoa.
This season, however, there is no merge. Just Stephenie getting absorbed by Koror, and she immediately sides with Tom/Ian/Katie, with whom she's had an alliance since Day 1 (or 2). Coby came into the game as a superfan, thrilled to play the game, and was completely in his element in the opening no-tribe days. But then the tribe pick happened, and he suddenly found himself stuck outside the numbers on a tribe that went to Tribal just once in the entire pre-jury phase. Then he was booted in the very first "post-merge" vote. That has to be incredibly frustrating.
By all accounts, Coby works a huge amount in camp. But he's still not included in the fishing trip. It's possible (it's not clear) that Joe and Edwin were the initiators of the problem, and that they only invited Tom and Gregg to go with them. Still, Tom went out of his way to have Ian included, yet made no effort to include Coby (or Stephenie or Jenn or Katie or Caryn or Janu, who were all afterthoughts, apparently). These are the subtle ways that perceived value to the tribe gets reinforced and transformed into power in Survivor. Tom sees the men as "deserving" to be there, Coby and the women as not. Coby's right to be insulted when Tom doesn't want him to go with them. Ian is wrong to attribute it all to Coby having a pissy attitude. Stephenie is also right to wonder how real Tom's alleged inclusion of her in his group is, in the leadup to that first vote.
Given that Tom wins this season, a lot of this doesn't really get discussed, or shown fairly. Coby's feelings of being excluded are presented mainly as "Oh look, whiny Coby is throwing a tantrum." Tom is, of course, the one Survivor shown catching a fish when they're getting their lesson. As the audience, we're meant to side with Tom and Ian. But the evidence is also there that not everyone sees Tom as the saintly, selfless leader the overall edit takes pains to portray him as.
We know, for example, that Gregg and Jenn are (were?) anxious to shake up the power structure, but Jenn's part in that is shown only as her complaining about not getting a shower, and later as wanting Stephenie out. We don't hear from Gregg at all in the merge episode, except that he's happy to eat the fish they catch. We also know Caryn has been frustrated about Tom's control over everything, but we haven't heard anything from her at all since way back in Episode 4, when Koror built their bathroom. There were other plots, other stories this season, they just emerge as buds, then wither on the vine.
That's not to say Tom is some kind of monster. He seems like a legitimately good guy — see for example his sitting down and listening to Janu, giving her a pep talk when she first considers quitting way back in Episode 6. And as a firefighter, he's earned the respect he receives as a hardworking, real-life hero. He's just a bit hung up on traditional gender roles: he's running Koror camp, where the men work and provide for the women, and therefore the men are more valuable. That then colors his perception of who "deserves" to be there (although it's unclear why Katie still gets lumped into that group). From a gameplay perspective, Tom's desire to get rid of Coby is also completely logical, and in fact Tom revealed on RHAP that he wanted to do it even earlier, before the jury phase started, because it was clear Coby would never work with him, and he didn't want Coby on the jury. That's good strategic thinking. Which of course the edit left out, in favor of Coby whining.
Still, it's also a bit disappointing that because Palau is the story of how Tom the Hero wins, we miss out entirely or have to dig to find out what else was going on. Why, for example, were Gregg and Jenn okay with voting out Coby at final nine, when they had planned to flip the game together at final seven? Was it because they could see Janu wanted to quit, and didn't think she'd still be there that late in the game? Was it because Coby really had made the rest of the tribe miserable? Was it because they thought Stephenie was with Tom, so their planned 4-3 majority no longer worked? If so, why not bring in Caryn, take out one of Ian/Katie/Stephenie, and flip the game 5-4 at final nine, then?
So many unanswered questions, not least because through the first nine episodes, we still hadn't seen the Koror tribe discuss a vote, apart from everyone just agreeing that Willard (who wanted to leave) was the logical first boot.
To make it worse, Gregg kicks off Episode 10 with a fantastic confessional, showing he's one of the few people thinking purely strategically: "I'm not gonna vote someone out because I don't like 'em. I can get over it." He then goes on with a view that seems diametrically opposed to the majority's stated opinions (or at least those of Tom, Ian, and Stephenie): "In the grand scheme of things, winning this game is hardly about deserving. I don't care if someone 'deserves' to be here or not. If you have a role in my strategy, then you 'deserve to be here,' so you can help me win a million dollars."
Sigh, Gregg. One of the precious few people playing a modern game this early on. One question, though: Why did you agree to vote out Coby then, you dummy! (Another unanswered question.)
Calendar shenanigans and the non-merge
It's unclear how long production really left Stephenie to twist in the wind alone at Ulong camp, before sending her to Koror. It looks like part of a day at most, so the timestamp of Day 22 makes sense. When she arrives, the note she brings announces that "visitors" (Joe and Edwin, the fishermen) will be arriving "soon". Most likely it's later that day, because there's not much daylight left when they head out fishing in the outrigger. Joe and Edwin have to spend the night (in their outrigger), and everyone feasts on the day's catch in the dark, and (especially Tom) drinks their rum. This is where things get weird.
The timestamp for Joe and Edwin's departure is Day 24, which would imply they were there two days. Unless, of course, they arrived on Day 23. But Tom also gives a hung-over confessional about his rough night, blaming it on starving "for 21 days," which supports the previous hypothesis that the non-merge feast was on the night of Day 22, the same day Stephenie arrived. It seems pretty unlikely that production forced poor Joe and Edwin to hang out at Koror for two nights, so it's probably actually Day 23 when they leave, not Day 24.
Why all this obfuscation? Perhaps because we're supposed to believe that running the immunity challenge, then going straight to Tribal, really was a surprise, and that nobody had talked about voting (which seems pretty unlikely, when Coby received 7 votes). Even if that were the case, when Coby and Janu jumped down during the IC and ate donuts, there's no reason the other seven still couldn't have muttered amongst themselves "So we're voting Coby, right?" since he was out of earshot. Or maybe the Day 24 timestamp when the fishermen left was just a simple error. Whatever the case, it does make the non-merge unnecessarily difficult to follow!
Janu's quit that temporarily saves Stephenie
Given the amount of time the season has spent showing Stephenie's connection with Tom, Tom was surprisingly lackadaisical about allowing Stephenie to be voted out in Episode 10, and Janu's quit really helped his game.
The push to boot Steph comes almost entirely from Gregg, as shown at least. We see only see Tom, Ian, and Gregg discussing it (again, Survivor: Palau can't be bothered to show its female contestants), but Gregg is adamant that Stephenie needs to go ASAP, pointing out (correctly) that she's a challenge threat, whereas Janu is pretty unlikely to win immunity. And also as the last Ulong standing, Stephenie would have an unbeatable story as a finalist.
Ian seems non-committal, while Tom tries pretty hard to steer Gregg back towards Janu. Gregg remains unswayed, though, and it's pretty clear that heading to Tribal, Stephenie is toast. Ian has an uncomfortable interaction as they're leaving, as he gives Stephenie a non-answer about who's going, which Stephenie immediately sees through, responding "I think it's me!"
Unsurprisingly, Stephenie is a little pissed at this apparent betrayal, since Tom had promised her final four, as recently as Day 24. Not to mention that Janu has been wanting to leave since well before Stephenie arrived at Koror. Stephenie points out this injustice — tearfully — at Tribal, as Gregg and Tom vaguely natter on about taking out threats, rather than allowing someone to just leave.
What's striking here is how actively involved Probst gets in making Janu's quit happen. Janu seems pretty convinced that Koror won't allow her to be voted out. (Between Tom, Ian, Katie, and Stephenie, there are easily four votes out of eight for that, so it's weird nobody tried to convince Caryn to join them.) So as Tribal proceeds, and Ian suggests that Janu could quit at any time if she really wanted to, Probst leads her more and more towards just quitting instead. He asks increasingly leading questions like, "What's the difference between you laying down your torch and you looking to this group and asking them to vote you out?" His relief and glee when Janu finally agrees to this Steph-saving scheme is palpable. As is the CYA legalese phrasing of his final question, "I just want to be clear: You are, on your own, quitting this game?"
It's quite the contrast to the sneering disdain Probst showed Osten Taylor when he quit, just three seasons earlier. Or the rule-changing fervor NaOnka and Purple Kelly's quits in Nicaragua inspired 11 seasons later. This is virtually a celebration. Janu quit! Hooray! Stephenie has at least one more shot to win immunity! But also this is totally Janu doing this for herself, and not in any way connected to Stephenie!
So we're just left wondering how Stephenie would have voted as a juror if Probst hadn't given her an assist here. Tom breaks his word, sending her out four places lower than their agreement, while Katie's been her best friend. Hmm. Although, to be fair, the math is even less in Tom's favor the next round, because with seven left, the Tom/Ian/Katie/Stephenie group is clearly the majority, but they still vote her out anyway. All because the Gregg/Jenn pair was somehow an insurmountable obstacle.
- Snap Tribals: Always a bad idea: Having more time to decide the boot probably wouldn't have changed anything in Ep9, Coby was always the target, especially since Tom admitted to throwing (well, passively being ok with Koror losing, at least) one of the last two tribal ICs, just to boot Coby. (Tom says he thinks it was the Ep8 IC, but it was probably actually Ep7.) Still, it's always a better idea for the contestants to have more time, not less, to strategize. Going directly from the IC site to Tribal without discussion just cements in whatever plan was in place before the challenge. Production was lucky there hadn't been a consensus for newcomer Stephenie, because that would have been embarrassing for everyone, especially when she was the last person to jump down from her perch. (True, they almost certainly knew this before the challenge.) There was no reason for the challenge to stretch on into the twilight, as it only lasted three hours. Just get out of bed a few hours earlier and start it in the morning, like every normal IC.
- Poor choices in titling: The Episode 9 title, "I Will Not Give Up," is uttered by Stephenie when she's flying solo at Ulong camp. Something virtually identical was said by Coby an episode or two earlier, as he talked about not being accepted growing up, and being shut out of playing the game at Koror. Both were compelling speeches. So it's a little awkward that the very next episode, Janu actually does give up, and her quit is flanked by Coby and Stephenie being voted out. That title is obviously a choice Survivor made well after the season was done filming. To be fair, Janu's quit is edited in the most noble, selfless way ever, but the title is still a choice that manages to simultaneously shun Janu and mock Coby and Stephenie. A hat trick!
- Speaking of being dicks just for the hell of it: During his intro the first individual IC, Probst says "From now on, all immunity challenges will be individual. That means everybody's gonna compete, and for some of you on Koror, that'll be a real shock, because a lot of you have not competed in a lot of these challenges." The camera then flashes through headshots of Katie, Janu, and Caryn, shaming them in silent disapproval. Katie and Janu? Okay, sure, they seemed fine with not competing. But Caryn? She and Jenn (not shown) both sat out six times. That's a lot, but it's just one more than Ian (also not shown), and there's no indication any of the latter three were particularly thrilled about being forced to sit out because of production's dumb decision to run Ulong into the ground. Stop blaming the contestants for things you chose to do, Survivor.
- Guess picturesque lagoons instead of Fabio's pee pool is all it takes: Maybe this take will change over the remaining four episodes, but it's hard to rank Palau among the top seasons ever, when *four* contestants — Ashlee, Jeff, Willard, and Janu — asked to be voted out or quit. And three of them did so right after people who really did want to play — Wanda, Jolanda, Coby — were voted out instead. Palau almost has a Nicaragua-esque age separation between the tribes, too. You could make a good case that Palau is really just Nicaragua times two, except the old people win. Nicaragua might actually have more gameplay.
- A welcome intervention by the host: Janu's swift exit in "Last Gasp" reveals a design flaw (later seen again when it's done in SurvivorAU: Champs vs. Contenders 2): If the water's cold, it's exceptionally tough on people who are cold to begin with (women are often more cold-sensitive than men), especially those with low amounts of insulating body fat. Here, that's probably Janu and Caryn, who are the first two out. This original version also sends the first person out to Exile Island, and as Janu shivers on the sit-out dock, Katie starts cackling and making jokes. What's remarkable here is that Probst actually steps in and puts an end to it by calling it out as "Not a lot of love lost with these guys, they don't seem too concerned about you tonight." When people who have been giggling along (like Ian) object, Probst continues, "You know what? I'm sitting here asking if she knows how to make fire, and you guys are making jokes ... what am I supposed to think?" Nice to see Probst be a decent person during a challenge for once, and not just berate women for performing poorly.
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