Following six long episodes of lazy, simple consensus votes, mostly of the "keep the tribe strong" variety where the "weakest" woman leaves, Episodes 7 and 8 of Survivor: Gabon finally saw some big moves, and some big, athletic guys depart the game.
While Dan's boot by Kota in Episode 7 was more of a safety-oriented move, Fang finally got it together and blindsided Ace. Following another swap and an abandoned idol, first-half Kota narrator/leader Marcus then took the fall the next episode. That move is the first crumble in a avalanche of boots that takes out the entire Onion alliance over the next three Tribals. We're at Day 24, eight episodes in to a 13-episode season. We're still two-thirds of an episode away from the merge. But already, the dominant alliance has been toppled, and the endgame has pretty much been determined. (Or at least, the four who won't be in the endgame has.)
Seeing these two episodes back-to-back, it's clear the Onions were undone by the Dan decision in Episode 7. It seemed easy: they were choosing between two original Fang tribe members, Dan and Susie, as targets. Even though Dan just wanted somewhere to fit in, and the suit-wearing Kotas should have been a good match for the suit-wearing lawyer, they saw him as a potential physical threat in the post-merge. Still, there's little reason to think he wouldn't have been loyal. Susie, in contrast, wanted assurances of reaching the final three, and received at best half-assed, implausible ones. So she flipped in Episode 8, and Marcus and the Onions paid the price.
In retrospect, Susie was the obvious choice for the Kotas to ditch in Episode 7, just as Randy and Corinne were saying. But someone overruled them, and Dan — who also could have pulled in the now-free-agent Matty — left instead. Fast-forward one Tribal Council, and Bob openly says he regrets that decision. Sometimes people don't appreciate what they have until it's gone. Like, say, an idol, floating out to sea. Oh well.
So on the one hand, it was a welcome development to finally see the disintegration of the Day 1 original tribe alliances. On the other hand, the rewards for the people who did that — finally playing the game! — were approximately 100% negative. At Kota, their core three (Marcus, Charlie, Corinne) padded out their numbers to six, with new recruit Randy, who appears to be a good fit as Jacquie's replacement, plus Bob and Susie ... just in time for that to collapse in Episode 8, after the second swap. Over on Fang, Matty branched out and joined a new cross-tribal agreement with Ace ... just in time for Sugar to flip on Ace, and for everything there to come crashing down, too.
(Sugar also regrets her decision one episode later. Take-home moral from this season: Don't ever flip on your original alliance, only boring Pagongings are ever allowed in Survivor, now and forever. Amen.)
Even if Kota hadn't kept Dan, it was still a terrible idea to telegraph to Susie that she wasn't completely welcome in Kota (and that Randy was), by splitting the Ep7 votes between her and Dan. The Kotas also made, at best, minimal attempts to keep Susie in the loop. A 6-1 boot of Dan probably would have been a better choice to convince Susie to stay with them. But they didn't, and Randy yells at her after Tribal, so of course she flips, and the Kota Six quickly turns into the Kota Three, with Marcus on the jury, Susie with the Fangs, and Bob bobbing his way solo to the end, like an idol tied to a floating bottle.
Watching Gabon directly after Fiji, it's also striking how much the action here was driven by production's screwing around with the contestants' expectations regarding the merge. In Fiji, the merge happened, but the first post-merge IC and the subsequent Tribal were restricted to randomly drawn teams. Here, the contestants had just competed in an individual challenge, and the next day had a feast that appeared to be the merge feast. Had that been true, the Kota Six probably stays the Kota Six, and dominates all the way through to the end. Susie has no reason to flip if it just forces a 5-5 tie at the merge vote. It's possible Sugar's idol could have come into play there, but it's less of a sure thing, because there's no way Kota is targeting Sugar, and she would have to guess right and play it on their actual target (probably Matty, maybe Crystal), and not for herself.
Again: Oh well.
That awkward double boot editing
In Episode 7, Survivor's editors took what was *the* biggest boot by far thus far in Gabon (Sugar turning on Ace and blindsiding him), and completely undercut its impact with a bizarre editing decision.
For what is likely the only time in Survivor history, the editors handled the double boot in Episode 7 by splitting them up and showing them as two separate, essentially alternate, endings. First they showed Fang's in-camp discussion and Tribal Council, then had Probst remind viewers to stick around for the Kota stuff. After the break, we flashed back in time to the early afternoon (flashbacks are almost never done in Survivor), and observed the Kota in-camp plotting, followed by their Tribal. Normally, this is all done linearly: we see interwoven discussions in each camp, then night falls, then we see back-to-back Tribal Councils.
Was the non-linear format better? Clearly not. Was the non-linearity the main problem? Nope, not that, either. The main problem actually is: they buried the main event by showing it first. If you're going to break up the chronological order anyway, why not just reverse the presentation order of the two Tribals?
A good argument could be made that not having the two Tribals back-to-back also fed into the anticlimactic feelings the Kota sequence generated. Heading into the first Tribal Council (Fang's), it felt weird to have seen no discussion at all over at Kota, although it sort of made sense: Dan hadn't really been seen since his trip to Exile in Episode 2, but was all over this episode from the start, suddenly worried about his position in the pecking order. So you could see how we could maybe skip spending too much time on Kota plotting.
But then when time reversed after Ace's boot, that also felt weird, as the forward progress in the show had somehow been lost. The standard format with back-to-back Tribals just works better. Maybe the editors didn't think the audience could keep two camps' worth of suspense in their heads at the same time? Who knows.
Either way, while it was welcome to see some actual strategy talk at Fang, they ended up settling on a boring power-preservation play. Corinne and Randy wanted to boot Susie, Marcus wanted to boot Dan. In the end, it was merely a standard vote split, just in case Dan had an idol. This made Dan's boot just feel sad, especially in light of his earlier opening up about struggling to fit in, and just wanting to be part of a group. (Made all the more tragic by Dan's death eight years later, in 2016.)
All in all, a disappointing, anticlimactic end to a boot that should have been the warmup act for the main event of the Ace blindside.
Infuriatingly, they then present these two Tribals in this more interesting order in the "Previously On..." segment in the next episode. Sigh.
Double boot postscript: You'll never guess what happens next
Speaking of going back in time: During the Ep7 log-rolling individual immunity challenge, the action is broken up by two bizarrely placed confessionals — one by Dan, one by Ace, both clearly from long before Ep7, due to their minimal beards. (Possibly even pre-swap - from the scratches on Ace above, it looks like it could be just after the Ep3 "Kicking and Screaming" RC.) Both talk about needing to win. Neither does. Both are booted at the separate Tribal Councils later in the episode.
So why would the editors telegraph the boots like this? Why spoil the surprise of *both* Tribal Councils before the challenge is even over? It's not just the weird, time-traveling confessionals, it's also their placement that stands out as odd. Usually these kind of confessionals air before the tribes leave for a challenge, not *during* the challenge. Between this and the temporally separated Tribal, it's almost as if Survivor's regular editors were on strike for Episode 7, and they turned everything over to a bunch of temps.
The underwhelming run of Marcus
Like much of the rest of this cast, Marcus came in as a recruit. Unlike much of the rest of the cast, he's really smart (went to Harvard as an undergrad), is a calm, level-headed guy, and seemed to thrive at both the game's survival aspects and the challenges. He's the kind of guy you might expect to be a Survivor natural. He was to some extent, but he also wasn't.
His and Charlie's early alliance made a lot of sense, and he played his general affability and competence into a power position at Kota. But at the same time, he was also such a massive, obvious threat that he attended just three Tribal Councils, and at the first one where he didn't have individual immunity, he was voted out. He's smart, but his lack of Survivor experience showed in some simple, obvious mistakes over these two episodes.
For instance, if you're a big, physical guy, it's never a good idea to go out and dominate in the first individual challenge (the Episode 7 log-rolling IC). Ace was forced to do so because he was (rightly) concerned that he might be vulnerable, seeing as he and Sugar were still down 3-2 at Fang. Marcus was *leading* Kota, as far as the edit suggested, and was in approximately zero danger. Winning individual immunity only made him a bigger target, especially since everyone was convinced the merge was just around the corner.
His next act after winning immunity, though, is the one that defies explanation. His necklace came with a note, and that note told him to give a second individual immunity to someone on the other tribe. As Marcus explains, he gave the necklace to Sugar after the Ep7 IC *because* she probably had an idol and he wanted to preserve it, with the hope that one of the stronger challenge competitors from Fang (Ace, Matty, or Crystal) would get booted instead.
For one thing, rather than holding on to her idol, having regular immunity should have freed Sugar up to do the obvious thing, and play that idol for her closest ally from old Kota (Ace), who, like her, was outnumbered 3-2 on Fang. Of course, this is Gabon, and people generally don't see the obvious, beneficial thing to do.
Second, why wouldn't Marcus just give immunity to someone else, and allow the Fangs to try to flush the idol instead? If he wanted a challenge threat out, he could give immunity to Ken, who's also not great in challenges, which should at least encourage Sugar to play the idol, putting it back into circulation. Worst-case scenario, Sugar's voted out with the idol in her bag. Either way, there should then be an idol that Marcus or an ally could now go grab for themselves at Exile.
Based on Marcus helping Randy literally flush the swap feast idol away in the Atlantic Ocean in the next episode, it seems Marcus was fixated on just *knowing* where the idol was, to remove it as a variable. That's a somewhat reasonable position in these olden days when idols were rare, but it seems less useful when the idol is in the hands of someone fairly erratic, someone you don't trust. That would be Sugar, at least for Marcus. He should be rooting for her to play it, not for her to hoard it, until she can use it to mess things up post-merge.
Obviously, this was a snap decision. Maybe Marcus didn't have time to think through the permutations sufficiently. Maybe he thought Sugar was too dumb to play an idol for someone else. Who knows?
His tactics the next episode after the second swap were not the greatest either. He was given a freebie of sorts in a real-life connection to Crystal, who in theory was down 3-2 in third-generation Kota. Marcus seemed sincere in his desire to replace Susie with her in the Kota Six. But his approach was all wrong.
First off, as Susie pointed out, offering "final six" is not a particularly appealing sales pitch. Especially when Crystal already knows Randy hates her (and vice-versa). "Final six" sounds an awful lot like "sixth place and no better," especially when her other option is to stick with Ken, where she's half of the core pair of Fang. But it gets worse: When Crystal seems incredulous that she could hop in to the Kota alliance and Susie would be gone, Marcus (1) tells her that Randy and Corinne hate Susie, and (2) tries to get her to target Ken — her #1 ally — instead of Susie. If you *really* are willing to dump Susie, prove it by offering her up first, Marcus! You'll still have a 5-4 majority, even if Crystal doesn't budge.
But no. Marcus tries to aim for the best possible outcome for him personally, making zero actual concessions to lure in Crystal. All while giving up valuable information that Crystal later uses against him. Oh well, he probably would have been first out at the merge, anyway.
Hiding the top two: the backwards edit
Bob breaking down in tears reading his letters from home during the helicopter picnic reward in Episode 7 was one of the first times we've seen him since the premiere. It was a touching, authentic moment, and it raises an important question: Why was Bob buried in the edit for so long? He's an interesting guy!
The other vote-receiving finalist, Susie, has also been all but ignored the entire way. She had a funny bit in Ep7 as Kota was discussing their plans, raising Corinne's hackles by admitting she had been planning to vote for her, after Corinne belatedly reached out to see what Susie was thinking. We *finally* get our first peek into Susie's strategic thinking at the start of Episode 8, in the post-Tribal segment. She reveals she's consciously playing both sides, pretending to be part of the Kota Six, but also keeping her Fang options open. This is great! But ... it's just a few seconds long, and they can't even be bothered to identify Susie by name in the lower third. (Although it does get fleshed out a bit later, when Kota has to attend Tribal.)
Part of the problem is probably that Bob and Susie are both, by their own admission, quiet, hard-working people. They don't say a lot to begin with. Bob notably admitted in his preseason interviews that he was here for the experience, not the strategy. So maybe he's not offering up long-winded observations on who should be voted out, or why, in each of his confessional interviews. But we're also not getting either Bob's or Susie's reactions to, say, Randy's cheerfully antisocial antics, or Corinne's cattiness, or anyone's perceived laziness (which was apparently a big topic at Tribal!), or even the four Onions going off to talk together all the time. We don't really see them doing anything, apart from occasional fishing or building or wood-gathering activities. Almost never anything with anyone else, anyway. It's weird.
So yes, sure, Bob and Susie are not the ones driving the conflict, nor the strategic action. They're both playing under the radar. And to be fair, they've rarely been to Tribal Council. But in the same stretch, we've had a lot of Charlie and Marcus talking strategy, and endless talk from Randy about who's irritating him that day. Not to mention, we've seen a lot of Sugar, who's also a finalist, and one who receives zero jury votes. Her only strategic move thus far has been a net negative: falling for Ken's lie about Ace, withholding her idol from Ace when he asked for it, then following through and voting out her closest ally. Meanwhile, when we hear about Bob and/or Susie from other people (mostly the soon-to-fall Onions), they're being dismissed as afterthoughts — Bob is "annoying," Susie is an easy boot. Or in Randy's words, "I don't trust Susie. Susie's crazy, Susie's stupid, and that's a horrible combination."
The editors are not just choosing to ignore Bob and Susie, they don't even want us to think of them as actual players. They're not just blank slates, they're slates that have been pissed on by the other players. (Note: Randy's assessment is also inaccurate. Susie explicitly tells Marcus that she's thinking of flipping to Fang *because* the Kota deal only takes her to final six, and she wants a deal that takes her to final three. He does not offer her one.)
The problem with hiding the finalists like this is that the audience needs to feel *some* connection to the winner in order to feel satisfied with the conclusion. But instead of learning who these two people who split all the jury votes are, nothing. Instead of the story of Bob's victory, we get why just about everyone else lost. (Except most of the pre-merge women, because the editors also can't be bothered to tell those stories.)
We see a lot of Randy and Corinne, and they're generally catty and negative, at least in confessional. Maybe we're meant to rejoice as we see them fall, even though we don't know the people whose success comes at their expense? It's an odd choice, and it stays odd, as the people from who probably are being presented as rootable characters — Marcus and Charlie, Crystal and Ken, Matty and Sugar — fall one after the other, failing in their quest for the million.
- The throw not taken: Randy had a solid idea to throw the first post-(second)-swap immunity in Episode 8 and boot Matty, all to protect Marcus, who he was (accurately) concerned might be in trouble over at Kota. Corinne and Charlie seemed on board to make it happen. How did it fail? Challenge design. The show took an individual challenge (holding up poles), turned it into a tribal one, and — voila! — an unthrowable challenge, at least as long as Matty feels like he needs to win. Because the discussion to throw apparently took place while Matty and Crystal were fetching the treemail, it's unlikely this was a case of production switching things up to thwart a throw. It looks like a legitimate case of production thinking ahead and actually outsmarting the contestants, which is fantastic.
This should be standard practice for the show following any late pre-merge swaps, but it seems like a lesson they've long since forgotten. They would do well to re-remember it going forward.
- Whoops, guess not: Great moment of ironic foreshadowing in Episode 7: As Kota is discussing the relative merits of keeping Susie vs. Dan, Corinne writes Susie off as worthless, an easy boot, who: "is never gonna win individual immunity, we can get rid of her whenever we want." Susie, of course, then proceeds to win the first post-merge individual immunity (in Ep9), leaving all the remaining Onions vulnerable to the vote, as they start to fall, one after the other. (For good measure, Susie also later wins the final individual immunity, sending herself to her long-desired spot in the finals, and Matty to the jury.)
- Crystal appreciation: Fans like to point to Crystal dropping out within the opening seconds of Episode 8's hold-up-the-poles immunity challenge as evidence that Crystal is somehow a sub-par Survivor player. Those fans are focusing on the wrong thing. Crystal made a huge move in Episode 8, one that saved both her and Ken's games. She parlayed a fluke real-life connection to Marcus (one of his best friends in Atlanta happened to be Crystal's cousin) into enough trust that Marcus spilled all of the Kota Six's secrets to her. Then when she needs to flip Susie, she uses all that same information (Randy and Corinne hate Susie, which Marcus gave as evidence that Crystal would be welcome in their alliance) to undercut Marcus having told Susie what she wanted to hear — an empty promise of a spot in the final three. People don't give Crystal enough respect. That move was cold-blooded, and 100% effective. Meanwhile, Randy was busy expounding about how it's impossible that Sugar could have found the idol, because she's not smart enough. Good times.
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