One of the oft-rumored season themes Survivor has yet to employ is "Brains vs. Brawn," pitting strategists against challenge beasts. But in retrospect, the recently switched Aitu and Raro tribes appear to have self-assembled themselves into two such groups. Well, not entirely; nobody would mistake Flica for a strategist. Nor Ozzy, for that matter. But on the whole, the seemingly invincible, gym-muscle-laden Raro brutes who easily dominated the strength/endurance "Steeple Chase" challenge just one day earlier were clearly overmatched in this episode's agility/swimming/puzzle-based reward challenge, and in the puzzle/swimming/fire-making immunity challenge. Even with Becky and Sundra being partially responsible for Aitu's IC-ending fire! Perhaps we'd be less enthusiastic if Brawn had emerged victorious, but based on these results, this episode was a great test of this concept.
Overall, however, this wasn't a great episode of Survivor, although it was still quite good. It dragged when it was forced to focus on the dull, generally lifeless Raro camp. But like the meaty, complex challenges and the surprise, late-blooming majority Raro voting bloc, it still managed to cobble together enough interesting, disparate pieces to reach a satisfying conclusion.
Everything's working swimmingly: This episode really gave Ozzy's aquatic skills a chance to shine. Despite pouting about his new tribe voting out Cecilia in the previous episode, Ozzy promptly spent the rest of the episode feeding his tribe, then swimming his way to a key Aitu lead in both challenges, particularly in the IC. This is an aspect of survival and competition that was lost in the recent spate of landlocked seasons (basically, everything from Gabon through One World, although Philippines and Caramoan only minimally regained this advantage). Swimming, as demonstrated here, provides another competitive facet that counters the purely muscle-based, puzzle-based, or (groan) carnival game-based options that the show has gravitated toward in recent seasons.
Massive, complicated challenges: We loved both challenges, for their sheer enormity. The reward challenge alone seemed like two full recent-season challenges, crammed together, capped by a deceptively difficult word puzzle stage. And the IC seemed even bigger, including both a functional puzzle (the stretcher) AND a visually striking, massive build (the two masts, in the middle of the lagoon), that was merely the halfway point in the competition. Wow. This was the epic era of Survivor challenges, before the advent of bocce, bowling, and ring tossing. Sigh.
Jenny? Her?: We're embarrassed to admit we didn't really remember Jenny as a strategist, but there she was, leading the drive to save Stephannie while ridding the tribe of JP's tyranny. That, and she bled for her tribe. And Brad (unseen to this point, except as the recipient of Cao Boi's "indicator") also gave a surprisingly strong performance in dodging Probst's questions at Tribal Council. While the original Raro tribe has thus far had five (okay, six) return Survivor appearances, the original Puka tribe seems to have had the best actual players, person-for-person, even if none of them have been asked back.
The Parvati Show: Parvati got a huge chunk of the confessional real estate here, even though she ended up being irrelevant in the tribe's decision to vote out JP. True, she was potentially a swing voter between the gender-line factions in the new Raro, except that, in the end, she wasn't. Even though the editing had spent the entire episode building her up as a subtle, conniving, strategic mastermind, plotting to use Nate as a pawn to topple the evil JP dictatorship, in the end, the decision to dump JP was made by pretty much everyone else in the tribe (spearheaded by Jenny, and to a lesser extent, Rebecca), and when Parvati was finally consulted, she was spectacularly hesitant to go along. (It was also funny that Jenny was reluctant to even ask her, since the entire tribe saw her and Nate as a pair, despite her self-proclaimed subtlety.) And once the women pulled in Brad, Parvati's (and Adam's) vote became completely superfluous. And that editing-elevated strategic pair, Parvati and Nate? They ended up on opposite sides of the vote. So why did we have to spend so long being sold on Parvati's amazing talents?
All in all, this seems to just be an example of how editing can make or break a contestant's stardom. Parvati's confessionals were fairly stock narration, but for some reason, the editors chose to showcase her, instead of the people actually leading the strategizing on her tribe. Her Overt Flirt persona was not even a brand-new "strategy," since Misty Giles had tried this unsuccessfully just the season before. It appears Parvati just happened to be the one person on New Raro who wasn't as bland as an egg mixed with mayonnaise, and thus she became the tribe's de facto narrator. And then was invited back for two more seasons. Admittedly, she gave an outstanding performance in Heroes vs. Villains, but it's hard to back-calculate where production's enthusiasm for her came from, at least based on these first four episodes.
Exile Whyland: For the second straight episode, someone was sent to (the now-idolless) Exile Island, and all we saw of it was their departure and/or return on the crew's boat. Candice's exile in the previous episode at least carried with it the intrigue of the new Raros (which everyone in camp identified as the old Raros, Parvati and Adam) protecting Candice from being voted off. But Adam's journey in this episode, which at two days was twice as long as any of the previous ones, was not only unshown, but completely pointless, apart keeping up the pretense that there might be an idol there. Why not send someone from the IC-losing tribe again?
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Cecilia Mansilla
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - J.P. Calderon
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