Episodes 3 and 4 of Survivor: Panama - Exile Island are where a series of critical events fall, in (mostly?) random fashion, all of which end up setting the season on its path to overall success. First, the boring but formidable La Mina tribe crumbles, going from unstoppable force to Ulong 2.0 in the space of just five days. Second, and relatedly, Casaya (barely!) avoids Tribal both times, giving Cirie just enough time to ingratiate herself and move into the background safely, grinning like a Cheshire cat the whole time. And finally — perhaps the least "random," as we'll get into — Terry finds the super idol at Exile Island, meaning he's safe all the way to the Final Three, unless the Casayas vote against him (they don't). The crazy Casaya tribe is safely on its way to the endgame, the vanilla La Minas are on their way out, and the chief Casaya antagonist will now be around to the finale to, well, antagonize them. (Slightly more than they antagonize each other.)
It's hard to overstate how important point 1 (and point 2) is. Had La Mina won immunity in one or both of these episodes, Dan makes the merge, and Dan and Terry are probably two of the final three, with Terry winning, giving the show two Tom Westman-esque wins in a three-season span. Cirie probably is the Ep3 boot from Casaya if they don't win "Battle Dig," and we never see her again. Together, those two outcomes may have killed the show permanently, turning it into a purely athletic show, with no strategy, no social game, just numbers, loyalty, and following the leader's orders. There would never be a Heroes vs. Villains season, just a Heroes vs. Even More Heroes or some other bullshit, if the show isn't cancelled before then.
Thankfully, that didn't happen. Instead, La Mina completely fell apart, despite their brilliant prediction that Casaya would collapse without the illustrious guidance of ... Bruce? Cirie (!) and Bob Dawg played a big role in that happening, giving Casaya a key 3-2 win in the Ep3 IC. They also won by a split second in the Ep4 IC. Two narrow victories that forced the La Mina men's four-person majority to reveal itself, followed by the second loss driving a bit of a wedge between Dan and Terry, as the latter opts to follow the wishes of the younger men in the alliance (mostly Austin).
And that's why this two-episode stretch is where La Mina truly broke. They're starving. They can't come to a consensus on anything when Terry's not there, and he's not there for a good chunk of time for the rest of the pre-merge. They rally for one final win in the Ep5 IC, but lose five of their last six challenges, putting them down 6-4 at the merge. In a season where honesty and integrity are the only strategic buzzwords, that's game over, La Mina.
Cold case, Panama: The hero finds the idol, almost as if it were pre-ordained
So in this two-episode span, we have an Exile visit (Bruce's second) that's virtually invisible. Then Terry shows up the next episode, systematically parses the clues, gets to work, and finds the idol in record time. The idol goes from almost forgotten to found.
For Bruce's hidden visit, part of the explanation is simply that this is a wacky season, calendar-wise, especially compared to modern seasons, where the final week of the game is more or less a sprint, with a boot almost every day. Here, Cirie's famous 3-2-1 vote (at Final 6, obviously) took place on Day 30, three episodes before the finale! Today, the Final 6 boot is usually the first of the finale, on Day 35. Anyway, for whatever reason, Survivor decided to make Episode 3 just two days long (and Episode 6 just one day). As a result, after spending three full days at Exile with a crappy, useless clue in Episode 2, Bruce's second trip to Exile is microscopic, and we don't even see him read the updated clue. (Spoiler: It's also crappy and useless.)
For reasons that probably have to do with tides or lighting, the Ep3 reward challenge (slingshots and making catches over water) appears to have been held late in the day on Day 7, because the hardworking La Minas don't even manage to get their tarp up before dark. Similarly, Bruce is only shown at Exile at night, shivering in yet another rainstorm, and complaining that he didn't have time to look for the idol. We don't see him there again, then he shows up at the IC the next morning.
As it turns out when Terry sees it the next episode, Bruce's second clue ("It's buried") was almost as useless as the first one he received ("It's above the tide line"). Even if Bruce had correctly interpreted the "why" (Y-shaped tree) clue, that's only enough guidance to find the right tree. He would then have had to excavate to an unknown depth at an unknown distance from the trunk. Even with a team of diggers and/or a backhoe, that's a multi-day project at best. He had a few hours there in daylight. How would he know if he'd dug deep enough or far enough before moving on to a different spot? They might as well have said, "It's in Panama."
The clue Terry gets the next episode, however, leads him directly to the idol: "It's under a rock." Terry correctly connects the "why" in quotes to a Y-shaped tree where the opening gathering was held, and there are just two rocks under that tree. Terry cleverly probes under each with the machete, hits something under one, and "fat freaking city!" digs it up. This is not meant to disparage Terry's accomplishment in any way: that's a solid piece of deductive reasoning, and flawless execution by Terry. And it's certainly not his fault that the idol is ridiculously overpowered (played after the votes are read, active up to and through the final four vote).
It's just that when you consider how he got there, that's where this all starts to get a bit sketchy.
The reward challenge that preceded this idol find was famously controversial. The spectacularly aptly titled "Puzzle Paranoia" required each tribe to swim out, retrieve six triangular puzzle pieces, move them back into a hexagonal frame, then match a symbol on each side of each triangle to either the adjacent triangle or the frame. Complicated, but doable. Here's the problem: The challenge had to be run twice. La Mina's pieces, as originally set up, were impossible to place. Whoopsie!
At the time, this was presented as a weird, quirky fluke. Ruth Marie mentioned it in an exit interview, and the fandom was generally all, "Oh, ha ha, they had to re-do a challenge. Cute." Also it was for reward, so who really cares, right?
But what if it wasn't just a fluke? How exactly do you have mismatched symbols on a puzzle with just six pieces? One where you just assemble the pieces in the frame, paint the adjacent symbols so they match, then take the pieces out? Obviously, it's not a big deal that it *looks* like Casaya was predestined to win here. As amazing as it turned out for the audience, it doesn't really matter all that much that Casaya came away with the coveted Casa de Charmin reward.
Rather, the eyebrow-raising outcome here is the second part of the reward challenge equation, which was specific to (and brand-new in) this season: Casaya sending Terry to Exile. La Mina had just sent Bruce to Exile the previous episode, explicitly because they thought he was their leader, and it would weaken them. So who might everyone expect Casaya to Exile, should they happen to win reward? (They may well have even discussed this openly in camp beforehand. The decision was rapid, and seemed like a no-brainer.)
Production loves Terry. He's the Hunter Ellis they always wanted, and there's no Boston Rob lurking around on his tribe this time, angling to cut him down. The clue that's waiting at Exile will give a reasonably smart person — like, say, oh I dunno ... Terry — a really good shot at finding the super idol. So would it be that terrible if La Mina "accidentally" lost the reward challenge? Like if they just, darn it, spent a few minutes too long trying to solve their puzzle, while Casaya zoomed past them? Yeah, that would be a shame. A real shame.
Is that what happened here? They did re-run the challenge, and presumably they did something (?) to address the whole pieces-not-fitting problem, after it was pointed out (probably by Dan, who was directing La Mina's puzzle efforts). As far as we know, the filmed version was above-board, and La Mina legitimately lost. Which again, darn it, is a real shame.
Oh well, let's move on!
Misty: The first Parvati
You could argue that the first Parvati was actually Amber in All-Stars, but in retrospect, it's still fairly striking to see Misty articulate Parvati's exact Cook Islands strategy (play dumb, flirt with the guys ... profit!) almost verbatim, one season earlier. In the moment, Sally thought it was a reasonably clever approach, and was happy to tag along (as "the buddy"). The show also self-evidently thought it was the kind of approach they wanted to showcase.
Survivor often repeats successful archetypes (e.g. Jeff Varner after Richard Hatch; or Rupert in Pearl Islands, followed by Rupert in All-Stars, followed by Louie the Rupert clone in Pirate Master, followed by Rupert himself in HvsV, followed by Rupert in BvsW, in a seemingly bottomless cascade of diminishing returns). But they usually only try that when the first attempt is popular and/or memorable. That's not the case here, since Misty was the third person out.
So why try so obviously to do it again? The approach was not all that much more successful in Cook Islands. Parvati tried to swing a move early in post-swap Raro, it failed, and then she more or less hunkered down and coasted, except maybe if you count the reward trip Yul, Ozzy, and Parvati take, which might have moved her up one slot? The approach really only bears fruit in Micronesia, and there it's not just Parvati doing it, she's doing it in tandem with Amanda, giving them a built-in four-person alliance. After that there's a flood of future contestants who want to be the new Parvati.
(Side note: Misty was also the first in what would become a deluge of pageant queens and/or pageant-adjacent casting. Misty was a former Miss Texas Teen USA. Austin's sister was also in Miss Teen USA pageants at the time Panama aired. Then there's Rita in Fiji (former competitor, then a coach). Then there's Amanda. Then Chet (a coach). Seemingly every season had at least one pageant-connected contestant, in the case of Philippines, two, in Katie and Angie. Why? Stephenie LaGrossa was a much more obvious archetype to try to replicate, but they tried that with Danielle this season, didn't get the results they were expecting, and seemingly gave up on that and went all in on the pageant trend. This all peaked with Amanda in China, and grew steadily less fruitful with each iteration after that. Typical Survivor.)
- The terror: Somehow, Bob Dawg breaking the "Battle Dig" challenge by simply picking Ruth Marie up and plopping her down on Casaya's mat (for the winning point, no less) did not lead to Survivor ditching the challenge. Rather, perhaps in hopes that future casts would replicate this moment (not sure how, since they would end up casting almost exclusively recruits for the next 10 seasons or so), they kept trotting it out again and again. Despite that, the classic Sucks thread "What are you running from, Ruth Marie?" will never not be funny. (If someone has a link to that, Google doesn't seem to know where it is.)
- Cringe workplace comedy, but make it survival-related: Casaya is, as we know, the dysfunctional tribe, so it's appropriate that Bruce's spree of survival-related advice-giving when he first arrives there is played for comedy. He immediately tells them they don't need to boil their water, just filter it through a double layer of t-shirt material. It will remove, in his words, "90% of the bacteria." Who doesn't want a little water fortified with 10% bacteria? Shane gives a confessional about having to just wait out Bruce's lecturing, Aras and Courtney express (valid) skepticism about how effective this really is, and then we wrap it all up with Bruce himself (apparently from Exile, again), in his own confessional about how ecstatic Casaya were to have his help, and how he went from going unpicked to now being at the top of the tribe. The Pinnacle of Casaya Power. Not sure if Survivor was airing the same night/time as The Office at this point (the US version premiered roughly a year before Panama aired), but it's fun to see Survivor going for (and nailing) that same vibe.
- Questions were raised: The title of Episode 3 is "Crazy Nights, Snake Dinners." The first half of that is obvious, but where does the second part come from? Did one tribe eat a snake? Did Bruce do it at Exile? Was one tribe worried about becoming a snake's evening meal? It's one thing to cut the scene that includes the title quote (as with the insensitive "She Obviously Is Post-Op!" title in Gabon). It's another to just tack up a bland episode description as the title and then not include the supporting material. Did we really need 10 minutes of La Mina catching fish? Do *you* remember Nick's confessional about it? Exactly.
Update (6/2/21): Answering my own question, the recap episode shows that Aras killed a snake and it was Casaya's only food on Day 8, right before their first challenge win. Maybe they thought it gave away too much to show?
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