This was a solid episode of Survivor, even if at times it seemed to drag out its central crisis: will Penner flip? Yes, there was a merge, and a feast, and a challenge, but in terms of moving the season forward, the only topic of any importance was the redemptive decision of one Jonathan Penner. Which is not to say it was not enjoyable.
Yul's approach to persuading Penner to flip was a pleasure to watch unfold. First, he consulted with Becky, and they mutually decided that Penner was the ideal person to target, because of his underlying rationality. Yul's plan to use the idol as leverage in inducing Penner's flip was the key factor, but he and Becky were probably correct in concluding that Penner was the person that the threat of getting idoled was most likely to work with. From there, Yul strongly hinted to Penner that he had the idol, testing the waters. Only then, after it appeared there was a chance the negotiations would succeed, did Yul bring in Ozzy and Sundra. Perhaps most impressively, instead of saying "Uh... hey, guys... I've been keeping a secret from you for a while, because I didn't really trust you," (which is probably mostly true) Yul frames his announcement as "I've been holding on to this for a time when it could change the game, and now it can save us!" Yul was also clever in showing Penner the idol while Penner was out fishing, because clearly, nobody on Raro ever displays even the slightest interest in helping Penner fish. All in all, perfectly executed, even if he didn't get an immediate commitment from Penner.
This sequence had two main counterparts: The universal disdain among the Raros for Penner's overbearing interest in keeping the tribe fed, and Penner's very open agonizing over whether he should risk angering Raro by betraying them (Spoiler alert: They already don't like you!) Well, Raro's collective absence of doing anything besides lay around and/or snuggle/smooch could also be seen as a counter-narrative, too. Even though the episode's title was a perfectly insightful Penner dig at himself ("Why Would You Trust Me?"), at times it felt like the title should have been "How Is Abandoning Raro A Question You Need to Think About For More Than A Second?" Still, Survivor loves an endurance challenge, and in the end, all the suffering and strain paid off.
The merge that wasn't
It was pretty remarkable that, with the exception of Penner's various scenes with Aitus and the one scene of Nate and Ozzy bonding, after the Aitutonga tribe returned from their floating feast, there was no visible mixing between the previous tribes. Adam, Candice, and Parvati retreated to the comfort of their shelter, apparently too important to mix with the commoners. The only time they appeared to even talk to each other was when everyone returned from the immunity challenge. Very strange.
The pastoral repose of the landed Gentry
In contrast to Yul, Adam did just about everything wrong he possibly could have at the merge. Where Yul was enthusiastically attempting to get to know the people he hadn't met, and approaching every possible point of leverage by which to pry Penner away from Raro, Adam just did what comes naturally: He decided to "Sit back and relax" (after drinking himself into a vomiting stupor). This was great for Adam, because it allowed him time to snuggle with Parvati, time to smooch with Candice, and time to reflect on how great it was to hit the merge with a 5-4 advantage. Even though one of those five had voted against another of those five just the night before. Why stress, when you can just lay out by the fire and tell people that either Ozzy or Yul has to go? It's not something difficult, like copier sales!
The best part about the Adam-Candice kissing scene is that it's preceded by Adam saying "this game is crazy... makes you think too much...." So true, Adam. So true.
This is a great opportunity to remind everyone that they're in an alliance with Adam and Penner, and if Yul doesn't have the idol, one of Candice, Adam, or Penner must. Also, these two were invited back for two more seasons, each.
The visual editing surrounding Probst's unveiling of the tie-breaking fifth vote for Nate at Tribal Council was absolutely superb. Often, the cameras look to the jury for reaction shots, but here they were almost completely ignored, which was a nice choice, because it had the effect of maintaining the emphasis on how the vote affects the people still playing the game (as opposed to the jury's more removed, silent Greek chorus role). The vote reveal was preceded by a great shot of Penner with his eyes closed, then slowly opening them as Probst turned the final vote around. The delay in Probst reading Nate's name after showing the ballot was also a nice touch. This then allowed him to say Nate's name over another perfect shot of, in the same frame, Yul gasping in relief, and Nate looking up in disbelief at the final vote. Followed by a rapid-cut flipbook of shocked and/or livid Raro faces, a shrugging Penner, and a grateful Yul. Really well done.
The overpowered idol
Despite the ensuing drama regarding Penner's flip back to Aitu, it's important to remember that there wasn't all that much immediate risk for Yul here. At worst, he'd have to play his idol, and whoever next went to Exile Island would be in a great position to control the direction of the game at the next 4-4 vote. Still, it was a great decision by Yul and Becky to preserve that power by inducing Penner's flip without playing the idol. Because if Nate had been successful in recruiting Ozzy to Raro's alliance (let's pretend Adam would have been smart enough to go along), Yul would have been forced to play his idol here, and Raro+Ozzy would still have a 5-3 advantage at the next vote, assuming Ozzy and Penner remained loyal to Raro in Nate's absence.
Alas, poor Nate
Nate attended seven tribal councils, and managed to vote for the person booted only three times. He's no Eddie Fox, but his 57% Tribal Council whiff rate is still good for 17th place all-time among people with four or more Tribal appearances (tied with Ibrehem Rahman, Jim Rice, and Michael Snow).
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Nate Gonzalez
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