We get it, Survivor. You tried.
Everyone knew heading into this episode that Joe was a lock for the boot the second he didn't win immunity. Survivor tried its best to hide that by focusing on Shirin in the opening segment, then making it look like Jenn might quit, then maybe Shirin will cause havoc via the vote split, and then going all in on Joe's fake idol ploy. But as with that pretend idol, everyone that mattered already knew the truth. No matter how great Joe's phony idol looked, Mike had an actual hidden immunity idol, so he was fully aware that Joe's was completely bogus. Similarly, no matter how much the editors tried to distract us with attempted quits and decoy boots, the audience knew with near-certainty that as soon as Joe's wood block dropped in the immunity challenge, he was done for. (Well, okay, maybe not 100% until after Jenn's also dropped.)
The story is not a mystery if the only people unaware of its outcome are those on the screen. That's a tragedy. Or maybe a farce. Yeah, probably the latter with all the pratfalls and the repeated claims at Tribal that "I have no idea what's happening tonight."
Even so, it was with grim finality that we, the audience, grew to accept by the end of the episode that next week's Worlds Apart would be devoid of Joey Amazing. Last week we worried that, despite Probst's claims of a "great season," we would instead be seeing a boring Pagonging for the next couple of episodes. Clearly, we were wrong: It was a boring Pagonging plus a possible quit! Yay!
GREAT season, Probst.
One additional point to make here: This episode was tailor-made for production to throw a wrench into things, and pull out all the stops to save Joe. As Probst told Dalton Ross, next week's episode features the auction, along with, presumably, the vaunted "new advantage" he teased pre-season. So production had a pretty clear choice with this week's episode: Nobody would be the wiser if they just replaced this week's planned RC with the auction, and give Joe a shot at the advantage. The risk is that water challenges require the tides and weather to be perfect, so delaying it for an episode or two could torpedo it completely. Do they take that risk and pivot to the auction/advantage in this episode? Or proceed as scheduled, and risk losing Joe?
Clearly, production chose to play this straight up. Maybe they figured Joe didn't need their help, and he could win four straight individual challenges. Maybe they realized that even in the best-case scenario, Joe would only delay his boot one more episode, even if he used the advantage perfectly (assuming it has a similar lifespan to an idol). Maybe the thought of possibly missing out on Dan and Will going down slides was too painful to contemplate? Whatever the case, go ahead and come up with as many tinfoil buff theories as you like. This episode tore a hole in them.
The Nicaragua curse
This season is filming in the same location where Purple Kelly, NaOnka, and (and as Dalton Ross pointed out in his recap) to a lesser extent, Jimmy Johnson, quit. And, although we've almost forgotten already, this is also where Julie McGee quit, just last season. So it's incredibly disappointing to see a formerly fresh, energetic, and interesting player like Jenn succumb to contemplating a hike on that same trail of shame.
Is the fault the location itself? Let's not forget that Nicaragua was also the birthplace of some of the most horrendous twists in Survivor history (Redemption Island, the Medallion of Power), not to mention the bizarre decision to attempt to breathe life back into Exile Island last season... producing a simulacrum so lacking in life and interest (not unlike the corpses reanimated by the red priests of R'Hllor) that it was frequently edited out of the episode entirely. Yeah, it's probably not Nicaragua's fault. But the drab scenery and intermittent access to water challenges certainly don't help alleviate the feeling of impending doom.
We don't know where this "Jenn might quit" storyline is leading. Maybe she was just this episode's decoy boot, and everything will reset next week. Maybe this could even be the point at which she rallies and takes control of the game. Probably not (that seems much more likely to be Shirin, see below), but Natalie did seize the reins of San Juan del Sur at about this point last season, taking what had been a mostly regrettable season and driving it to a legitimately exciting finish. And again, Probst hinted broadly in his Dalton Ross Q&A that his long-rumored "new advantage" would finally make its appearance at the auction next week. Let's hope that will get this season's heart beating again. Clear!
In praise of Merica Mike
While the post-merge has mostly lacked unpredictability, much of the credit (or blame) for that rests squarely on the broad shoulders of Mike, who at least temporarily is in solid control of the game, even if it does open him up to mocking impressions from Rodney. Mike is also making some pretty impressive small tactical moves along the way, often on short notice.
Case in point: The way in which Mike played Joe's fake idol. Others (Josh Wigler & Stephen Fishbach on Know-It-Alls in particular) have touched on how playing the "idol" for Will was a good move in building his ties to Will, and Rob Cesternino & Jonathan Penner noted that it also had the added advantage of giving Mike an out with Joe - in playing his idol as if it were real, this voided his commitment to not vote for Joe, since Joe broke his word. Even in addition to those points, it also helped Mike in another way: it concealed that Mike still has his own idol. If he'd intimated in any way that he knew Joe's idol was fake (which he certainly must have), everyone else would become suspicious as to how he knew that. Jenn didn't really show her idol to anyone before playing it. Probst did hold it up briefly at Tribal Council, but that's not the ideal time or place to examine one. Clearly, if Mike thought that was legit, he must not have one of his own.
The obvious worry for Mike now is whether he can pick the right moment to play that idol. All the narrative pieces are in place for him to do that (or not, maybe), in an epic showdown with Rodney. That revolution could be televised perhaps as soon as the very next episode. As with Joe last week, it's starting to look less likely that Mike can actually last long enough to win this. Forces are marshalling on his borders. Even Probst appeared to be warning Mike directly with his "If you are perceived as a threat, you'd better watch out" line as Merica left Tribal. But until Rodney makes his Brutus move, Mike's doing a lot of things right.
Perhaps the sole other sliver of brightness in this episode was the emergence of Shirin from the apparently still-smoldering embers of the No Collar alliance. She's on nobody's radar, but she now has the second-highest SurvAv score among the remaining players (see this week's boxscore). The entire opening sequence was about her decision to jump from her No Collar alliance right before it crashes into the ground, and set herself up so that "maybe I'm not in the driver's seat, but I'm in the passenger seat, backseat driving." At the time that segment aired, it seemed obvious that it must be telegraphing her imminent boot. Instead, it created a logical backstory for the power/trust-gaining move she made at the end of the episode. Now it's time to reconsider: Could Shirin be our eventual winner?
More specifically, even if Shirin could pull off a spectacular turnaround, get herself into a power position, and reach the finals, could she actually win? Maybe. While it's unlikely she'd get Dan's or Carolyn's vote, Hali and Joe do legitimately seem to like and respect her. She would have an incredible come-from-behind-victory narrative, having worked her way up from the absolute bottom of Masaya's, New Nagarote's, and Merica's power structures. (All while doing the dishes bottomless!) And she's clearly smart enough and game-aware enough to bring that sort of thing up to the jury. She had the first post-"39 days, 1 Survivor" Ep1 confessional about being a huge fan and being well-prepared to play, right as the truck gates were dropped and the game began. And now she's really playing.
There's still a chance this was all just to set Shirin up as the next boot, and that the real story is the looming Rodney vs. Mike Apocalypse, which, admittedly, Probst would probably see as making this a great season. Even so, Dan's big three words last episode were "Flippers. Never. Win." Shirin just flipped. And this episode spent a lot of time establishing early that Dan thinks Shirin is completely wrong about everything, and vice versa. So yes, if Shirin wins? THAT would indeed make this a great season.
What could Joe have done?
A lot of people criticized Joe last week for trying too hard in the challenges, but let's be honest: Joe would have been a marked man no matter what he did the second he reached the merge, and he further sealed his fate with his impressive performance in the Ep1 RC/IC. Since his only real post-merge protection could have come from hitting the merge with superior numbers, winning tribal immunities marginally helped his position, but since he generally stood out as the guy winning it for them, also hurt him.
Furthermore, how unlucky is Joe that, in a season where everything from the torches to the tribal immunity idols to the immunity necklace is made from cobbled-together trinkets and beach debris, he makes a fake hidden idol that perfectly matches the theme, and the actual hidden idols turn out to be professionally milled metal discs? And then he hands it off to one of the two people that already have one? (Technically, he could have consulted with Jenn, but oh well.)
From the sounds of his Ponderosa video, Joe's downfall was not a lack of social game, talking to people and trying to create alliances, but perhaps doing too much of it (although little of this was shown on TV). Taking that at face value, his only demonstrable flaw was in not hunting more diligently for the real idols, since both Jenn and Mike found theirs while he should have been looking. And even then, each idol would have only extended his stay one more episode.
Clearly, the real problem was Joe's foolish decision not to shave his hair off, put on glasses, and try to pass himself off as Tyler. Oh well, better luck on Second Chances, apparently.
Please stop. Please. Just stop.
Everyone on the show seems to have pretty much forgotten about their early-game branding as a specific "Collar," what with Rodney having his sub-alliance drawing from all three original tribes, and the main alliance also containing members from all three, but that doesn't stop Jeff Probst from informing us that it was "fitting" that the last three people in the immunity challenge were "A No Collar, and White Collar, and a Blue Collar." Why is that fitting? Shouldn't Tyler have hired a Blue Collar to do the challenge for him? Shouldn't the No Collar have done the entire challenge in a headstand position? Then he told Jenn at Tribal Council that quitting would be "the ultimate No Collar move." Then present-day Probst insisted on dredging it up (unasked-for) at multiple points in his Dalton Ross Q&A this week. When will it end?
The swap, in which Probst himself specifically swore that "White Collar/Blue Collar/No Collar is no more," was a full five episodes ago, on Day 12. Half the season ago!
It was briefly amusing, but this has more than run its course, Probst. Nobody cares about your collars any more. Give it a rest.
Worlds Apart Episode 9 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Joe Anglim
Podcasts - Episode 9