After Casaya officially gains the numbers advantage during the merge episode of Survivor: Panama, the next two episodes are mostly just frustrating slogs*, as Austin and Sally are methodically picked off, in lieu of always-doubly-immune Terry.
(*Every scene with Cirie is a breath of fresh air, of course, but they're used so sparingly that they can only put wind in your sails for so long.)
They're frustrating episodes for the two people booted, who to be fair don't seem to make any real effort to forge a cross-tribal alliance, and are thus dependent on either winning immunity, or hoping Terry can save them with his idol. (Spoiler: He doesn't.) They're frustrating for the audience, because it's pretty obvious what's going to happen each round, even as the editing labors to argue otherwise. They're also visibly frustrating for Aras, who goes from actively tanking in challenges to being forced to both visit Exile AND be the only Casaya to compete for immunity, while the others all eat.
Aras's frustration is amplified by his also being the only Casaya receiving votes at both Tribal Councils. So if Terry *does* play his idol (again, he doesn't), it's 100% Aras getting the boot. All risk, no rewards for Aras.
Part of the problem here is the wonky idol rules. Terry considers playing his idol for both Austin and Sally, but predicates doing that on at least two Casayas flipping to join La Mina, so that he has safety in numbers after he plays it. This is less rules, and more just old-school, original tribe thinking, but it makes sense, because in order to play his idol for someone else, he has to hand it over to them in camp before they leave for Tribal.
Worse yet, despite talking privately about the need to flush Terry's idol, the Casayas all seem to have been 100% honest and told him before Tribal that they're not with him. This is unshown, of course, but since he still has his idol later, obviously it never left his possession. There was nothing stopping, say, Danielle and Courtney from promising to flip, then reneging at Tribal (after Terry had already given Sally his idol), which then forces Sally to burn Terry's idol in order to stay in the game, taking Aras out in the process.
Here, the in-camp handover rule really restricts Terry's idol-playing options: He literally *can't* play it for Sally or Austin after seeing them get voted out, because he had decided hours earlier not to give it to them in camp. Then again, he could have handed his immunity necklace to either of them before the vote, then waited to see if he needed to play his idol for himself. (Given that this is the first season with these idol rules, it's forgivable that he didn't immediately see this option.)
So really, a lot of power rests in Terry's hands, but he's opted for the guaranteed safety of playing his idol the next round if he doesn't win immunity. He's also just cruised to his third straight immunity, which simultaneously decreases the chances anyone will flip. The Casayas all realize that if they give Terry the numbers advantage (especially if they do so by voting out Aras), he's going to win, because he'll be the overwhelming favorite in the last two immunity challenges. He's far less humble than Aras, and that cockiness is irritating, so they're also less and less interested in putting him in a position to win. Instead, we see smart people like Cirie growing more confident that it's extremely unlikely Terry will win every immunity, so they just have to bide their time.
And so ... frustrating, predictable boots. People biding time. This is probably not what production was envisioning with idols. It still took them two more seasons to fix it (freely transferable, played before the vote reveal), but it's a good thing whoever was involved in that decision made it. Otherwise, immunity idols probably would have gone the way of the Medallion of Power by around season 15 or so.
The world's worst dictionary salespeople, Vol. II
Even though the idol rules didn't help, a lot of the blame here for the lack of strategic fluidity can be placed squarely at the feet of one person and their awful sales tactics. This would be the same person who fumbled the same job at the merge: Terry.
Amazingly, after the merge debacle in which not a single Casaya flipped sides, at the very next round, La Mina had even better conditions, with a second chance to pull off the same feat. It was Day 21, and everything was falling their way: Shane revealed to Terry that he saw the final four as himself, Aras, Cirie, and Courtney. Upon hearing about this, Bruce, already wavering, was ready to flip. All it took was one more person to turn the 6-3 Casaya majority into a new, mixed 5-4, with Terry as the god-king of the new majority. La Mina chose the person who *should* have been a slam dunk: Danielle.
Danielle had just spent two soggy days on Exile bonding with Austin. She was pissed at Aras for picking her for Exile, and not unreceptive to joining up with Austin. And Shane had told Terry she wasn't in their core four! (Not shown: Danielle was also really tight with Bruce, so they really were an actual threat to flip as a duo.)
Terry then delivered what should have been the coup de grâce: He offered to give Danielle his idol. To keep!
And then, in classic Terry fashion — repeating the exact same mistake he had made in the previous round — he immediately shot himself and his alliance in the foot, by adding "That way you can take the next ten days off." As in: Danielle would be safe until Day 31, final five ... at which time the three La Minas would try to vote her out, and she would end up in 4th or 5th place, unless she could beat Terry in three straight challenges.
All you had to do was not say that part out loud, Terry!
Danielle might eventually have noticed it was a bad offer if he had just shut up after "I'll give you the idol." Bruce was on board, as long as the numbers worked. Terry might have won the whole thing if he could just have been slightly less forthcoming about his intentions. But he wasn't, and instead he insisted on letting Danielle know, "If you help us now, there will be absolutely no reward or other considerations coming your way in the future."
The very next round, when there are just two La Minas left — Terry and Sally — they try yet again, and this time the sales pitch is much more tempting, because it would be an even 2-2 at final four. For some reason, though, instead of going back to Danielle, Terry turns his attention to Courtney. Yes, Courtney hates Shane, but she doesn't much care for Terry, either. And so ... no deal, once again.
Where was Sally in all this? She was original tribemates with both Danielle and Courtney. Why was it Terry's job to recruit Danielle and then Courtney? Did the younger women's tribe not get along with each other, despite their success? Perhaps Terry took the lead because of his idol? Frustratingly, all unexplaned. We never see Sally talk to Danielle or Courtney after the merge, only to her fellow La Minas, which is just weird. That can't possibly be what actually happened, but still ... there's no evidence it wasn't.
Exile Island is a terrible twist in this form
At this point in the season, Terry has found the idol, so there's no potential benefit to going to Exile Island, only the misery of actually being there. There's no shelter, just the leaky driftwood skull, and an overhanging tree here or there. (Somehow, also a towel, though.)
As Austin and Danielle discover in Episode 8, that's not very helpful when you're stuck there for two days of solid rain. They can't make fire, they can't really sleep, and they're worried about hypothermia, because they can't even stay dry-ish. And again: Terry has the idol. Production knows Terry has the idol. By the end of the episode, all the contestants also know Terry has the idol. So why keep sending people back there?
There is *some* nascent strategic stuff going on here: Sending them there together means that Danielle bonds with Austin. Aras feels the blowback from picking Danielle. Terry, knowing there's no idol there, is happy to send Aras there the next episode, to weaken him. But that's not enough, and the "strategy" is almost entirely based off of Exile Island being miserable. (And none of it ends up paying off.)
It's not like the contestants didn't let production know how terrible this was in real time, either. At the Tribal Council where he's voted out, Austin essentially tells Probst that even if he wins the million, it's a toss-up whether the Exile experience was worth it. It was that bad.
In response? Exile makes its return the very next season (filmed six months later, in a different location, so it's not as if they didn't have a chance to adjust), with zero changes. The exact same lack of shelter, the exact same lack of benefit once the idol has been found. (And the exact same complaints from the victims, er visitors.)
Production values your feedback, and takes it *very* seriously. Same as it ever was.
- Invisibly irrelevant: The Ep9 reward "feast" (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milk) and videos from home probably holds the all-time record for least-visible reward ever. (Apart from recent seasons where the entire challenge was edited out.) The entire reward sequence was crammed into approximately five seconds as the show went to a commercial break. If you ever needed a subtle hint that none of Terry, Bruce, Sally, or Courtney was going to win, there you go. Their backstories are apparently irrelevant.
- Except Terry, of course: Of course Terry's luxury item is an American flag that had previously draped his Korean war vet father-in-law's casket. Of course he was allowed to bring it on the show. Of course it went into the game and then went straight up on top of the shelter. Of course he had a confessional about it. (Of course Sally doesn't get to talk about her journal, or much of anything, really.) Of course.
- What are these people doing? The most bizarre storyline of these two episodes is how long Terry's idol stays a secret. Sally had no idea Terry had it until the Austin boot, when he told her. (She had been to Exile with detailed clues, and not found it!) He *showed* it to Danielle that same episode, and the next day, she still doubted whether it was legit. Either she didn't tell the Casayas, or they didn't believe her, leading to Aras being happy to be sent to Exile in Episode 9. What on earth are these people talking about during each three-day span? Exclusively diaper rash-related stuff?
- A chilling vision of things to come: Watching these two episodes back-to-back, and knowing what comes next, it's easy to see where Bruce's digestive problems come from*. He had the pile of bacon with breakfast in (a very soggy) bed on Day 20. He eats the PB&J reward on Day 22. He sits out to eat burgers and fries on Day 24. By the first day of the next episode (Day 25), he's facing the same problem Joe del Campo did at final five in Kaoh Rong: Too much starvation followed by a massive bolus of food = intestinal blockage.
*After re-watching Episode 10, Bruce mentions there that the last time he pooped was *before* the village feast reward Casaya won in Ep6 (Day 15!), so that may have been the real culprit (combined with the merge feast the next day). Adding these three rewards on top of that probably didn't help, though.
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