Before we get to the meat of this column, some praise as appetizer: This was far and away the best two-hour block of episodes this season. Furthermore, while we still don't love that Survivor now has to air at least one pair of episodes back-to-back every season, if they could all tell as exciting a two-episode story, and do so as logically and seamlessly as these two, we'd never complain again. That it came with a ready-made clever title quote (Ryan's "Buy One, Get One Free") made it even better.
Looking ahead, what's exciting about the remaining three episodes of the season is: almost anyone left could theoretically win, and more than that, just about everyone has some narrative investment that would give weight and meaning to that win. And that's true even considering one of the biggest characters of the season (Joe) has now been seated on the jury. We've seen a lot of complaints that none of these characters are "rootable," whatever that means. We don't understand that criticism. Lauren and Ben have heartwarming backstories that would make their wins satisfying. Mike has a never-quit underdog story going. Devon, Ryan, and Chrissy have longtime fandom and big strategic plays backing their cases. Maybe Ashley, whose game has only started to flourish in the past couple of episodes, still has a bit of fleshing out to do storywise, but that's a pretty good roster, overall.
Perhaps the actual complaint is that this is a relatively balanced season of storytelling, and all the remaining characters have faults as well as strengths. (This was true also for Joe, so it applies to the full final eight.) Heaven forfend we as the audience have to contemplate complex characterization, instead of two-dimensional caricatures! While it may be easier to watch a competition where one competitor is an over-the-top do-no-wrong favorite, this is reality-competition TV. We embrace the reality. They're competing. And after this two-hour block of episodes, it seems like they're doing that just fine.
With that in mind, how fine one is doing is a more complicated question, and that's what we'll try to assess this week, with only two episodes left before the finale. In rough order of descending potential success, here's how we see the players' positions.
Devon - The Malcolm who found the right season (maybe)
Thanks to Josh Wigler's pre-season work, we've known for a while that Devon has been playing up his laid-back surfer bro persona in order to conceal his intelligence and general level of game knowledge. That facade fell away over these two hours. Devon said the game had been cloudy to him up until this point, and suddenly it's becoming clear. The same is true of Devon's game itself. Devon has a lot in common with (Philippines-era) Malcolm Freberg. Both grew up watching the show with their families, and have moms who are superfans. Both are handsome, young, smart guys with good educational backgrounds, who have pursued alternatives to the corporate career path since graduating college. Both played down their intelligence/ education, in order to hide their general threat level until well into the post-merge phase, while forming easy bonds with fellow young people and older people alike. Malcolm almost won Philippines, and would have if he'd just been on a season with a Final IC that better matched his skill set. Devon seems like he could be a similar, or perhaps even better, trajectory.
Devon's two-Tribal strategic masterpiece over these two episodes was something unseen before on the show. The closest may be Ozzy's attempted double-agent/Redemption Island acting job back in South Pacific... which was sniffed out immediately, at Redemption arena, so it's really no comparison. Devon's scheme had so many moving parts, and it took six long days to carry out to completion, that a deeper consideration of what happened may be needed to understand why each piece was necessary:
- Bringing in Mike and Joe; deploying secret spy Ben. If Lauren's four hadn't brought Mike and Joe in on the JP vote, the best they could have hoped for was a 5-5 tie, even counting Lauren's extra vote, absent tricking the other 5 into splitting their votes 3-2. Clearly, more numbers were necessary for that vote. But there was another problem: Joe really didn't get along with Ben, and there was a chance that he (and Mike) might not have agreed to an alliance in which Ben was a participant. Furthermore, if Joe and Mike had been openly brought in just for the JP vote, Mike and Joe probably would have flipped back during the Final 8 vote to take out Ben, presumably using Ryan's idol. Feeding Joe & Mike's desire for a real alliance without Ben (and also against him) made them feel like critical participants in the first vote (5-4) and the second vote (6-3, using Lauren's extra vote, and splitting the vote between Ben and Ryan to get Ben and flush Ryan's idol in doing so). They needed that first vote to have the numbers to split the second, thereby neutralizing Ryan's idol. Really clever planning.
- Targeting JP first. Why JP? Because Devon knew Ryan had already given Chrissy an idol once, since Devon was part of that decision-making process, back at Hustlers beach (although this was not shown on TV). Of the three people possible to target, JP was the one for whom Ryan was least likely to play his idol, in that first (F9) vote. An idol play there would have been disastrous. Targeting JP optimized the chances of that first play working.
- Making Ryan play his idol. The side effect of Ben pretending not to be with the four was that he maintained Ryan's trust just long enough to convince him to play his idol. As mentioned above, they didn't quite have the numbers to flush it on the first vote, so a two-play sequence was necessary. Ben probably could've made the extra effort and tried to get Ryan to play his idol for Ben, but this was an easier sell. With Ryan playing his idol and Joe getting voted out, this move also ensures that Joe isn't around next episode to find the idol again. Again, everything fits into place nicely.
- Revealing Lauren's extra vote. Even that's not all the sneaky stuff Devon did. One aspect that's thus far been overlooked: By including Lauren's extra vote in the pretend vote split, and by having to reveal it to Mike and Joe to make the plan seem feasible (three guys vote Ryan, two women plus the extra ballot go for Ben), Devon casually revealed to everyone left that Lauren has a (still unplayed) extra vote advantage. This was such a logical plan that Lauren herself gave up that info to Mike and Joe. Now it will take only a few words and Chrissy and Ryan will also learn about it, and it will probably create a target on Lauren the same way it did for Dan Foley (and Stephen Fishbach). That's good news for Devon, whose optimal Final Three probably doesn't involve either Lauren or Ben.
It's not yet obvious how Devon plans to whittle down his own, relatively well-liked alliance members (like Ben and Lauren), while keeping around less juror-beloved people like Chrissy (not Desi's favorite) or Ashley (whom Joe has publicly called a goat). And there's some concern that as he does so, he'll shed his "full of light," laid-back appearance that everyone has bought into, and appear more of a standard strategic villain. Until that happens, though, he's certainly built a solid win-seeming résumé to this point.
Ben - The once and future king?
While Devon's story arc still seems to be rising, Ben has received a season-long robust, three-dimensional edit, which feeds into a burgeoning perception (see, for example, this week's Know-It-Alls) that Ben may himself be this season's winner. Not to mention that the editors have included a lot of "Ben's going to win if we don't get him out now" discussions that took place behind his back. As an audience, we've heard Ben's stories about readjusting to civilian life after combat. We've heard about how much he values and feels indebted to his wife and family. We've seen Ben crying over his letters from home, then attributing that received love to helping him find a hidden immunity idol. Most of all, we've been allowed to ride along and observe, every step of the way, Ben's journey through the game, from initially secretly aligning with Chrissy, to his adjusting to being the only ex-Hero on his post-swap tribe, to taking out Cole post-merge, and now embarking on a (surprisingly dangerous) undercover mission to sniff out Chrissy and Ryan's plans, while undermining their power.
To his credit, Ben executed his secret mission to perfection. His acting job post-JP blindside was magnificent. In the immediate post-Tribal aftermath, it certainly helped that Joe's glee at being on the right side of the vote rubbed Ben the wrong way, giving Ben an opening to appear irritated with the outcome, without revealing he was involved in its planning. But keeping that facade intact for three days must have been, as Ben himself admitted, a little exhausting. Other people can claim credit for this power shift—Lauren brought the group together, Devon concocted the deep-cover scheme—but Ben actually put in the work and did the heavy lifting. And in doing so, he put himself in peril of actually being blindsided when Ashley and Lauren almost went rogue. Given that the jurors already saw Ben as the leader of his old alliance of seven, most of the glory of this unprecedented move will probably be heaped on Ben's shoulders. He'll also benefit from some bonus side-effects. For example, Chrissy talked about her frustration at the way the "five" treated her and Ryan when they returned to camp after the JP blindside. Notably, that five does not include Ben. If Chrissy has to choose a winner between Ben and one of Lauren, Ashley, or Devon, she'll likely remember this when it's time to write down a winner's name.
Going forward, if he wants or needs to, Ben is still well-positioned to go back to the same people he just snookered. He could claim that all this subterfuge was just a ruse to take out Joe. Who would begrudge him that? Not only that, but Ben has an idol in his pocket that only he knows about. Overall, Ben is well-liled, and he has the most options and tools at his disposal of the potential winners remaining. Unfortunately, he probably also has one of the biggest targets, and he barely made it to the final seven. He could be our winner, or he could be our new David Wright, the obvious casualty at the final vote-out, because nobody wants to have to face the jury with him alongside them. Or he could even be the next boot. It's a world of possibilities.
Lauren - The old seadog learns new tricks
Lauren's emergence over the last three episodes as both a challenge *and* strategic threat has been wonderful to watch. Lauren was already well on her way to becoming a fan favorite due to her plain-spoken authenticity and dry observational humor. She's also an unusual type of contestant. As a blue-collar worker from somewhere other than a big city, and a longtime fan of the show, she's clearly here to play the game, not to kick-start an acting/music/modeling career (*cough* Cole). From the start, we've been told Lauren is a single mom with a singular purpose in playing: making a better life for her daughter. Now she's really making that opportunity count.
If the game were to end at its current point (pretend four people have to be medevacced), and Lauren found herself in the final three right now, she would have a solid case to become this season's winner. She brought this alliance of four together, it was her idea. As a potential finalist, her direct, blunt manner will probably help her with the jury. She's not concocting fradulent claims out of thin air, like Joe. She doesn't come across as explicitly schemy, like Ryan or Chrissy. When Lauren tells you something, she probably means it. Yet she's still been able to concoct schemes and play just deceptively enough to succeed.
She also has a compelling backstory that jurors will find appealing. If Lauren and Ben made it to the final three together, they could well present a difficult decision for the jurors to make. Lauren engineered this game-changing shift in power, she's generally liked and respected, and she has a compelling personal story. As with Ben, the million dollars could dramatically improve her family's economic peace of mind. She's earned it, and she could put it to good use. Jurors would feel good about making that happen.
Can she get there, though? Or, as we mentioned with Devon, could public knowledge of her hidden advantage make a target even before the final four? Ideally for Lauren, she'd also be best served reaching the finals without Ben, but he's also been her closest ally. Can she make that move without angering him and the jury? There are still a lot of question marks still for Lauren, but she's made huge strides toward the finish line in the past two weeks.
Mike - Irrational exuberance?
When Lauren and Ashley approached them to propose the JP blindside, Mike and Joe seemed absolutely giddy to actually be playing the game again, and be part of, in Joe's words, "a real alliance." Mike gave an excited confessional in which he stated "The court jester has become Merlin, and I'm gonna make them disappear, one by one." Which was great, except... they actually weren't in a real alliance. At all. It was more of a one-Tribal stay of execution. Worse, as Probst said at Tribal: "It's as if Mike and Joe are these two little toys, and you're playing with them."
So the entire time where they were being played for chumps by Lauren's four, the entire process was suffused with a tragicomic air, at least with respect to Mike and Joe. In the context of how little actual opportunity Joe and Mike had to play, it's a bit hard to see their prompt return to the bottom as anything other than sad. Maybe Joe brought a little karma upon himself by taking too much credit for JP's blindside as his own idea (in Ben's words, then continuing to stick it to the now-allegedly deposed King Arthur/Ben). But poor Mike. He was just trying to find a crack in an alliance and get his own game started, only to be ultimately an extra vote when needed. Coco-nuts to that.
This can't be the end of Mike's game, can it? He's a smart guy, a superfan, people seem to genuinely like him, and (what gives us hope) he's had an underdog edit all season long. He has to have another chance to make something happen, right?
We're not sure what that last-ditch effort could be, but we're still thinking maybe.
Ryan - The grim reapee
Ryan's stock took a massive, tragic fall this episode. As several people Sitting on the beach before JP's blindside, exulting in their superior gameplay, Chrissy said her intuition told her their seven was going to make it, and become the Final 7. Clearly, the second that was shown, the opposite was almost certain to become true. But still, it all came crashing down around them in such spectacular fashion, all at the hands of, in Ryan's words "two 25-year-old surfers."
Yes, of course, Ryan's fall is partly of his own doing. Telling Ben about his idol after he'd assured Devon the same information was privileged, and that only the two of them knew about it—that indeed came back to bite him. Even after the blindside, he continued to lie to Devon, claiming "No, you were the only one I told," implying Ben found out about the idol in some other way. (It's crazy that people don't think other players can compare notes with each other.) Additionally, Ryan and Chrissy were clearly overconfident and a bit self-satisfied when they reigned atop the alliance of seven. It's a bit damning that Mike revealed Ryan had rebuffed all of Mike's post-merge pleas for them to work together, then abruptly asked for help immediately post-JP blindside. (Although Sophie similarly stiff-armed the opposition in South Pacific, and went on to win.)
Even so, it still wasn't all that enjoyable to then watch Ryan and Chrissy suffer. Ryan took the JP blindside with grace and humility, telling Lauren "Thank you for saving me. I'm just happy to still be here." His reward for that good sportsmanship was: being unable to convince Mike to work with him; clearly starting to suffer from the constant starvation; then getting duped by Ben's idol-flushing acting job. Can't the poor guy catch even one break?
Maybe now that Ryan's idol-free he can. (It doesn't hurt that his idol should also be back in circulation again in the next episode.) Now that he and Mike really have both been left out of the majority's plans, maybe they finally can work together. It's probably too late, because unless a Ryan-Chrissy-Mike trio can pull in a Ben or a Devon, Lauren's group still has four people and an extra vote. Maybe they can get Ben, though, since he seems to be questioning the loyalty of his new alliance-mates in the preview. There's still hope for Ryan. Hopefully he can rally to pull something off at this late stage.
Chrissy - On the rebound from the nadir?
Chrissy's fall, like Ryan's, was spectacular, going from that overconfident intuition mention on the beach all the way down to powerless, huddled in a rainy shelter, and accepting an offer of comfort from Mike. It was a hard fall, and coming so late into the season—with the starvation level that much greater, and the raw emotions stretched that much thinner—it's not surprising that it took such a toll.
But Chrissy chances rebounded nicely at the end of this episode, as she won her first immunity. A lot of fans seem to find Chrissy difficult to root for, but it's hard not to empathize with Chrissy's sheer, unadulterated joy at winning individual immunity, fulfilling a 16-year-long superfan's dream, and doing so at a time she really needed it, gamewise. Could this be the start of an immunity run? (Maybe. More on that at the end of this piece.)
That's not to say Chrissy has done everything right. While she was strategic force in post-swap Soko, she's made serious missteps since the merge, or rather lack of steps. Most glaringly, in the middle of Ep11, when stuck in camp with Lauren the day after JP's blindside, Chrissy's opening pitch to Lauren is, "This may sound really bizarre, since you and I have really not talked strategy." How could this be? At that point they'd been on the merge tribe together for 11 days! And they were (allegedly) in an alliance together that entire time!
It's possible that, as with Roark on post-swap Soko, Lauren was an equal participant in not making an attempt to talk strategy with Chrissy. But as far as we can tell, Chrissy's chief tactical problem this season seems to have been trusting too much in and reinforcing the bonds she'd already made (Ryan, JP, Ben), and not working hard enough to establish new ones. That will continue to be a problem for Chrissy should she reach the finals. JP can only cast one vote for a winner, after all.
Ashley - The 25-year-old surfer
Ashley's screen time increased considerably this episode. We're not convinced she can't win, necessarily. Her best case might be made if she starts stringing together a series of immunity wins from here on out, which as you'll see below, is within the realm of possibility. But the case against Ashley winning comes down to something Devon said to her at the second reward: "We have the same exact game, you and I."
If Devon and Ashley reach the finals together, the clear leader in the jurors' minds should be Devon. The big shift in power was his plan, not Ashley's. In fact, thus far Ashley's only solo plan has been trying to blindside Ben at the last vote, which didn't end up happening. Ryan will learn that Devon planned this episode's Big Move, and believe him. While she was there, and part of the planning, will anyone think this of Ashley as a strategic? Based on what we've seen so far, probably not. That's not good news for Ashley.
For precedent: Tony and Woo went to the finals in Cagayan having made the same moves since the swap. Tony won handily. In a less-fair example, the same story is true with Yul and Becky in Cook Islands. They discussed every move as a couple, but Yul was perceived as the leader, so Yul received all the strategy votes, Becky none. Ditto Stephen and J.T. in Tocantins. Clean sweep by J.T., even though Stephen clearly came up with a lot of the plans. He just was unable to sell the jury on his strategic importance.
Ashley does still have time to separate her game from Devon's. An immunity run would help, possibly. Blindsiding Ben against Devon's wishes might do the same. There are just three regular vote-outs left, though. The clock is ticking.
Say it aint so, Joe
While Ali just missing the merge was a shock, perhaps the biggest loss this season (thus far) is the departure of Joe. Yes, it's clear Joe can be irritating to play with/against. He's constantly loud, he antagonizes the other players, and he's seemingly always trying to start arguments. If that's all he contributed, he might be the male Abi-Maria. But Joe also has a lot of the characteristics Survivor should always be looking for in casting: Always playing, always trying to get ahead, never becoming complacent and wanting to stick with some running-out-the-clock plan. He also has a non-seriousness to him, an underlying light-heartedness that a lot of people seem to overlook.
He's generally positive (except when arguing), doesn't fall into pits of despair, and he keeps fighting to get back up when he's down. Like many people, we desperately hoped Survivor could find another Jay Starrett-like contestant after Millennials vs. Gen X. This was the first post-MvGX cast where such a (newly cast) player was possible. While Joe has a sharper edge to him than Jay, it's clear now, having a good handle on how these people play, that Joe was that player. Had Joe formed his Coco-Nuts comedy alliance with Mike back in Episode 1, maybe the two of them could have marched through the game together, distracting with antics while digging up idols and stabbing various backs. Maybe next time.
Tinfoil buff time
We hate to be the purveyors of yet another idol conspiracy theory, but... were things really on the up and up with Ben's idol find in Episode 10? As shown in the episode, Ben finds the idol clue right after doing an early-morning read of his letters from home, alone on a hilltop perch. It looks like the clue is right at the base of the trail that he comes down after doing that.
Now, it's certainly possible that Ben could have walked right past the clue, so credit to Ben for being observant, then for following the clue until he found the idol. That's solid work on Ben's part. But it certainly seems like the clue was placed in a spot where Ben and only Ben was likely to pass, and thus he had absolute first dibs at finding it. Maybe we're misinterpreting, maybe it was actually quite close to camp. But it does at least have the appearance of preferential treatment.
(For the record, it's impossible to root against Ben, so in no way should this be taken as complaining that the wrong person found an idol. Ben has been a casting home run as a contestant, and it's fantastic that he now has an idol, and that nobody else knows about it. But it does seem unfair if production is favoring any one contestant over the others. That's all.)
Stats corner: Rise of the Amazons
Remember the Ali boot episode, when Ali (seemingly plausibly) was pushing to target JP, because he was going to win all the immunities after the merge? He went 0-for-5. In addition to that, his Mean % Finish (MPF) in individual challenges ended up at a pedestrian 45.8% (i.e. below replacement level performance).
Now take a look at who's leading the remaining contestants in MPF (shown in this episode's boxscore): Chrissy (73.2%), Ashley (70.2%), and Lauren (58.5%, artificially low because she sat out an individual challenge). While the generic early post-merge boot target is usually a big strong guy, three (not big, but fairly strong) women are the ones actually leading the field this season. (To be fair, the first two jurors, Desi and Cole, were even better, and were logical early post-merge targets for that reason.)
What does this mean? Unless people like Ben (40.8%) and Devon (36.3%) have been intentionally sandbagging the early challenges, it's possible one of Chrissy or Ashley could go on a late-game immunity run. There should only be four immunity challenges left. A five-win streak for Chrissy, for example, would be far from unprecedented in Survivor history. Chrissy has shown the balance and endurance to hang in until the end of almost every challenge thus far, and has puzzle skills in addition to that. Likewise, Ashley has the balance of strength and smarts to put in a solid recent showing.
Will the final few challenges feature a wonder woman? That would be fun, if so.
Other HvHvH Episodes 10-11 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - J.P. Hilsabeck (9th place)
Exit interviews - Joe Mena (8th place)