As the season-long narrative of Survivor: Panama - Exile Island comes more into focus over Episodes 5-6, it's interesting that while many of the main characters are heroic, there is nuance: Terry will vote out his closest ally; Aras regrets his alliance; Cirie finds great joy in Casaya's dysfunction. Similarly, most of the alleged villains have extenuating circumstances, and even deeply conflicted Shane finds redemption (via a cigarette).
Terry has been the straight-shooting voice of La Mina since the first post-swap episode. He's the future last La Mina standing, thanks to his idol. The only other real focal points there are Austin and Sally, each bringing a strategic/game perspective to a tribe where the strategy is all but 100% "keep the tribe strong" and/or whatever is best for Terry.
It's the two Casaya viewpoints that are the most interesting, Aras and Cirie. Each sits in the middle of the tribe's contentious confrontations, yet somehow remain apart from it. What's most interesting is how different their perceptions of and interest in the Casaya chaos ultimately are.
Aras is the straight shooter, the peace-maker, the guy who lucked into a Day 4 alliance that has thus far remained in power, but one that he now mostly regrets. He's a traditional white-hat hero, the leader who just wants everyone to get along, calm down, and succeed together. As he points out, it's a little weird, since he's the youngest person there, but at times he feels like the oldest.
In the other corner is Cirie. She's effortlessly likable and fun, but she's also *loving* every furrowed eyebrow and raised voice, because every outburst of bickering and conflict keeps the target off of her, and potentially moves her further in the game. She's watched with glee as the majority four have fought among themselves, although thus far their discontent has not translated into any of them actually voting each other out. She's in this position out of necessity: Because she was originally in the "older women" tribe, she was marked as the next person to be booted way back in Episode 2. Somehow, she's still here. So for every instance of Aras fretting about some Casaya blow-up, there's a matching one in which Cirie delights in it.
What's fascinating about this is that as the audience, we're meant to root for both of them (conveniently, they're probably also working together at this point, the show just hasn't told us this yet.) It's hard to see Cirie as a hero per se, and she's certainly not a villain. She's really more of an antihero. She has a strong moral center, she's clearly not meant to be seen as a bad person, and yet she's celebrating the bad behavior of others, because it's good for her position in the game. In part because of this, she's easily the most interesting main character, and thankfully, the audience ended up with two-and-a-bit more seasons of her. (Still, how on earth did she end up on the boring "Heroes" tribe again? That assignment alone probably led to her worst showing.)
With this array of various flavors of hero, it's odd there are really any villains. The closest here are probably Shane and Courtney, and even then, they're really just background noise. They provide flavor to the narrative, but they're not really driving it. Shane is constantly sniping at Courtney and Danielle, for reasons that our truth-tellers Aras and Cirie generally seem to agree with ... but don't feel the need to verbalize, let alone attack them for. But Shane is also struggling with nicotine detox, and can cope and regroup as soon as he gets a cigarette while on reward. Courtney is allegedly irritating, but we're never really shown how or why, except that she becomes somewhat hostile when asked to work more, and also feels undeservedly possessive of the wine bottle.
Maybe the real villain is the Panamanian weather, drenching Casaya and turning it into a swamp, and briefly exiling Bob Dawg and Bruce to Casa de Charmin. Also the La Mina fish, who constantly flaunt their uncatchability.
The chaos of Casaya's final pre-merge vote
As with everything Casaya, it's not so much the wacky end result — a four-way-split vote on a seven-person tribe — it's how they got there. Everything about Casaya's Episode 5 vote was bizarre, confrontational, at times illogical, and ultimately messy. Multiple members of the majority four alliance — Aras, Shane, Courtney, and Danielle — insisted on having their way, with the end result being that for their first vote since the Melinda boot, the "majority four" cast votes for three different people between them. As you might guess, there was a lot of yelling along the way.
As soon as they get back to camp after losing the IC, Shane wants Bob Dawg out. He's sure Bob Dawg will flip at the merge, since his original younger men's tribemates Austin and Nick are still in the game. Shane's read here is 100% correct, Bob Dawg himself told Bruce this when they spent the night drinking at Ye Olde Casa de Charmin. (Did Bruce — Shane's original tribemate — tip him off?) So as with the Day 4 alliance, Shane puts that out there, insists on no more discussion, there are four votes (Aras, Cirie, Shane, Danielle). Whew, done.
But Aras doesn't want Bob Dawg out. He thinks Bob Dawg will be loyal (they were also original tribemates), and besides, Bob Dawg has been a huge asset in two of Casaya's challenge wins, whereas Bruce has, charitably, under-performed, if not been a liability. So Aras convinces Shane to vote Bruce instead, Shane grudgingly accepts, and that's the new plan. Shane then takes this news to Bob Dawg, and swears on his son that Bobby is safe to final six. Whew, done. Again.
But Danielle doesn't like Bob Dawg, whereas she does like Bruce. So she convinces Courtney and Cirie they should vote Bob Dawg out instead. They try to pull in Shane, since he was all for this move originally, but then they learn he's already given his word to Bob Dawg. "Where were you an hour ago, Courtney!"
It's a mess. Whereas Aras is clearly misreading Bob Dawg, nobody seems to be worried about Bruce, which doesn't make much sense. At this point, *his* two original tribe members, Terry and Dan, are both still over at La Mina too. Why wouldn't Bruce flip? Nobody at Casaya respects him. Aras yells at him. Courtney disrespects his zen rock garden. They're about to vote out his one solid ally, Bob Dawg. Screw you, purple tribe!
Meanwhile, Cirie is happily "fly[ing] under the radar, let[ting] them kill each other." She'll happily write down whoever, as long as it ain't her (as Shane had promised it would be, back in Episode 2). The end result of all this? An eventual 3-2-1-1 vote, with Bob Dawg getting snuffed, over Bruce (and Aras, and Courtney). It's not quite as chaotic as it seems, since Shane is just voting Aras because he knows nobody else will. But it's still a weird outcome.
What's most confusing is that Courtney appears to be the primary source of friction within the tribe (or secondary: Shane is louder, Courtney seems more broadly disliked). She bristles whenever anyone suggests she should work more, she doesn't really contribute all that much in challenges (Cirie (!) was arguably more valuable), yet Courtney received just one vote.
Bob Dawg and Bruce both wanted Courtney out. Aras has frequently been frustrated with Courtney. Shane would be happy with the result, but alas he'd sworn on his son that he wouldn't vote against her, so he's stuck. (Then again, his throwaway vote is for Aras, against whom he's also sworn not to vote.) Cirie's probably okay with going along, as long as it's a majority vote ... although the Courtney/Shane never-ending yell-fest is probably the #1 thing protecting her at the moment, so maybe not. The only real hard "no" votes are Danielle, and Courtney herself, obviously. So the votes were maybe there, it was just that nobody was willing to put in the effort to bring them all together.
The surprising strategic importance of Austin
His contributions tend to get lost amidst the focus on the longer-lived La Minas — perennial underdog Sally and World's Greatest American Hero of All Time Terry — but on rewatch it's interesting just how much Austin drove the decision-making in La Mina. Terry was the guy who ultimately needed convincing, and who called the shots, sure. But at just about every turn, Austin appeared to the one who convinced Terry to vote the way La Mina ended up voting.
In Episode 4, Terry wants to get rid of Sally. He's still disappointed she lost the spear, and she's a Survivor fan, so she's the most dangerous La Mina woman now that Misty is gone. Booting Sally also retains Ruth Marie, who is unofficially the honorary fifth member of the La Mina Men's Club, and to whom Dan had already promised a spot in the final five. But Austin doesn't want that. Ruth Marie is close to Dan (and thus Terry), whereas Sally is closer to Austin and Nick. Sally gives Austin and Nick a majority in the post-boot five-person La Mina, if necessary. (Nick, meanwhile, doesn't really want to force Dan to break his word ... oh well.) Austin preys on Terry's physical/challenge orientation, correctly pointing out that Ruth Marie is breaking down physically, while Sally has performed well in the competitions. They don't want to lose again! Terry reluctantly agrees, after adopting the morally flexible position that it was Dan who promised Ruth Marie, not him.
For La Mina's next boot in Episode 6, the four La Mina men are forced to boot one of their own, thanks to Casaya's strategic exiling of Sally. Terry's closest ally, Dan, is pitching a 2-2 tie, after which he would face one of the younger men (Austin) in a fire-making tiebreaker. Austin has no interest in doing this against the guy nicknamed "Dan Fuego," who has been in charge of La Mina's fire this whole time. Somehow Austin convinces Terry that, despite the merge almost certainly being imminent with just 10 people left after this vote, they need to keep him (Austin) for challenge strength. After all, Dan is a nice guy, but he blew the puzzle for them. Once again, Terry reluctantly agrees, after adopting the morally flexible position that at least he's not backstabbing Dan, and is telling him straight-up that he's going back on their deal and voting him out.
(There are limits to Austin's strategic thinking here: Austin had just saved Sally in Ep4, but instead of forming that 3-2 Austin-Nick-Sally majority, indications were he would have been happy to go along with the La Mina groupthink and boot her over Dan, had Casaya not saved Sally by exiling her. After all, Sally being a woman meant she was obviously not a "strong player" in the eyes of the La Mina Men's Club.)
Austin's name rarely comes up in lists of strategic players who deserve another shot. Maybe in part because he was unsuccessful after the merge. Maybe his magical powers of persuasion are only likely to work on the most vanilla, straight-up, anti-strategic Survivor players, like his fellow La Mina men. But at least with this group in the pre-merge, it's hard to overlook the success of his efforts.
- The entitlement: Courtney, still irate in a later confessional that Bob Dawg and Bruce drank the bottle of wine. "We all worked really hard for that." Courtney, in fact, sat out of the challenge. (Not to mention that Bob Dawg almost single-handedly won it for them with his fish-chopping skills, but whatever.)
- The rare appropriate response: Bob Dawg's honest response when Courtney interrogated him about the wine is one for the ages. Courtney: "How do you feel about that?" Bob Dawg: "I feel swell about it. ... I have no hard feelings whatsoever about the fact that you've been deprived of wine." Not great gameplay, but dude was clearly just done sucking up to Courtney. Four episodes does seem like it might have been enough of that.
- Dan's fuego snuffed: Much like Bob Dawg, the end of Dan's run was completely expected, but also pretty deflating, simply because he didn't make any real effort to stay in the game. In a lot of ways, Dan Barry seems like a time-traveling Gabriel Cade, fundamentally interested in building a new society, not particularly interested in playing a strategic game. Having an astronaut play Survivor was noteworthy, and Dan was an accomplished an interesting guy, but his antipathy for even thinking about doing anything underhanded really restricted his ability to play, even at this early stage in Survivor's strategic evolution. Ultimately, a bit of a bust. Although it did seem a bit harsh that all Dan wanted was a 2v2 tie, which was easily within Terry's grasp, and Terry just said "nope" and then everyone wrote "Dan Fuego" on their votes to remind him that he wouldn't be making fire this time.
- The strangely under-edited Casayas: Despite their drama taking up an inordinate amount of the pre-merge, there are a lot of relationships and situations within Casaya that are evident only in what they say about each other, yet are never shown. Bruce, for example, is only ever shown as an outsider, usually off by himself working on his zen rock garden, but he clearly has a tight bond with Danielle. We hear that Courtney irritates everyone, but we never really see her doing anything all that annoying (beyond picking Bruce's garden for her yoga). Aras and Cirie already have a tight bond by Episode 5 (we see Cirie snuggling with Aras at night in both Episodes 5 and 6), but we don't ever see them talking to each other alone. It's weird to say this season needs more Casaya, but honestly, who would have complained?
- La Mina, screwed by season calendar choices: La Mina was already a tight-knit tribe, and would surely have stuck together and likely have prevailed in convincing a Casaya (probably Bruce) to flip, had they entered the merge tied, 5-5. But it's hard to overestimate just how much that final pre-merge reward feast at the local village (much to Cirie's chagrin) helped to reunify the Casayas. Shane was all but a dead man walking, with Courtney and Danielle gunning for him, Cirie giggling privately at the idea, and even Aras admitting voting him out might be for the best. But at the feast, suddenly Shane gets his nicotine fix, and he apologizes to Danielle for being a jerk. Danielle forgives him. Bruce, who Aras took pains to paint as the hero of the challenge, feels connected and important. Everyone feels happy, content, and bonded due to their full bellies. It's hard to imagine this tribe doing anything other than going down in flames if they'd lost the IC and been forced to boot someone — even Shane — right before hitting the merge tied 5-5. Hooray for Cirie and Bruce's puzzle ability!
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