Laurel's reluctance to flip away from her alliance with Domenick and Wendell has been the focus of the past couple of weeks' episode, as well as a target of frustrated fan and recent juror ire. But there's one thing it's not: illogical. Here's the problem with being the woefully outnumbered dregs of a Pagonging: 31 days into the game, Kellyn finally seemed open to teaming up with Laurel and Donathan, despite their lingering Malolo cooties. Donathan was enthusiastically on board with this offer. The problem? Kellyn's offer did not make any strategic sense for Laurel at this point in the game (nor did it make sense for Donathan, but Laurel had the thankless task of serving as the wet blanket).
Sure, they *could* have flipped on Dom and Wendell (and Sebastian, presumably, although he's never mentioned in these calculations). But that would have made them the bottom two in a five-person alliance, with Kellyn, Chelsea, and Angela outnumbering them. One of them (probably Laurel) would definitely be out at F5, and the other would have to hope they can win immunity or win at firemaking, just to reach the F3. Good luck with that, Donathan. Not to mention that it wasn't their move, it was Kellyn's, so Dom's and Wendell's jury votes would now go to Kellyn, not to either of them, and their former allies would also have ample time to rant to the other jurors about their betrayal. Jurors who are already mad that they hadn't flipped when Desiree proposed doing so.
In contrast, Laurel and Donathan are guaranteed F4 with Dom and Wendell, and one (probably Donathan) gets the guaranteed F3 slot alongside the IC winner, while the other makes fire (or wins immunity). Yes, the hype for a big flip that never materializes irritates Kellyn, the audience, and probably the jury. Then again, that same audience caterwauled "Too soon!" when Zeke tried to make a big move against his own allies at F10/F9 in Millennials vs. Gen X, and failed. So here comes Laurel, learning from that collective wisdom, and making the most cautious, logical move: not making one. Why screw up your own game, just for a marginal increase in entertainment value? Is it Laurel's duty to increase Kellyn's chances to win? No.
Not only did it not make sense to flip here, but it makes a lot more sense to do so next episode, when it will be 4-3 if they join up with Angela and Kellyn, and will be on equal footing, with two Navitis and two Malolos. That is when they should strike, logically. Although Sebastian could still screw that up by flipping back to Kellyn's side, and once again giving the original Navitis a 3-2 edge in that group. That's the problem with being outnumbered 5-2 in a season where original tribes otherwise trump all other considerations.
Even if they do flip next episode, there are still problems. Laurel and Donathan failed to come through on the big move this time, so Kellyn and Angela will be less likely to trust them next time, which raises the incentive for them to recruit Sebastian instead. Not to mention that immunity again handicaps their chances, as it did this round. Domenick has now won two straight immunity challenges, and still has his idol. With Dom immune, 100% of the threat this time was on Wendell, and they all knew or at least suspected that he had an idol. Donathan's "there's a crack" talk at Tribal may have been intentional, to trick Wendell into playing it... but he didn't.
So now their absolute best chance to change the game, at the F7 vote in the next episode, runs up against two guys already wielding two idols and possibly another immunity necklace. They may have the same chance again at F6, but unless someone takes a shot soon, those idols become more and more insurmountable as obstacles. As Dr. Mike complained after the firemaking twist fallout last season, there's no longer any Tribal vote where idols are not active. Every time they're not played, they just increase the chances of Dom and Wendell receiving guaranteed safe passage to the final four (and at worst, fire-making to advance further).
So here we are, with one episode left before the finale, and while Laurel is playing logically, she really seems to have found herself in an unwinnable situation. She knows she can't beat Dom or Wendell in the finals. But she also knows that she doesn't have the numbers to get anywhere near the finals any other way. Unless she can somehow pull off a miracle string of immunity wins and flush some idols, no matter what choice she made in this episode, her position got worse.
The curse of Naviti Strong
So how did Laurel and Donathan find themselves in such an unwinnable situation? Two factors: They started off at the bottom of Malolo, and then Naviti Strong happened.
Look back at the original Malolo tribe: Jacob was at the bottom, and, although Gonzalez snagged the coveted first boot, Laurel and Donathan were pretty much there with him. Had the first swap not happened in Ep. 3, they were probably the next two targets. Luckily, they ended up in a better situation at Naviti II. After the fluke rock draw evened numbers up by sending Chris to Ghost Island, James pulled off the Morgan vote, then they seized the opportunity and made connections with Domenick and Wendell, trying to carve out a better position in the game for themselves. It's what good players on the bottom are supposed to do: look past original tribes and create new bonds. And it worked!
The problem then became that, over on Malolo II, Kellyn and Bradley were basking in their superior post-swap numbers, and picking off the original Malolos. That had two direct effects on Laurel and Donathan: The few people who had been open to working with them on original Malolo (Stephanie, James) were swiftly gone. Then the Naviti Strong mantra kicked in, and now the original Navitis also had no interest in working with them, nor with any other original Malolos.
According to Michael's exit interviews, all of original Naviti (not just Kellyn) bought in to that plan. Dom and Wendell contributed to it, stonewalling any attempts by the original Malolos to talk game, even post-merge. That left Laurel and Donathan isolated, and stuck with either Dom & Wendell as a tight secret F4 pact... or bust. So Laurel and Donathan didn't have the option of say, a side deal with a Chelsea-Angela duo. Because Donathan and Laurel had also been on the bottom of an original Malolo hierarchy that had Michael and Libby in the majority, they weren't a viable option either. Libby and Jenna seemed tight, so even a united Malolo front at the merge still put them in the bottom two slots of an alliance of five. Bringing in Desiree after the Libby boot? Still no improvement, although in hindsight, probably slightly better than their current options.
It's disappointing, because this season seemed to be full of aggressive, game-aware superfans, based on their pre-season interviews. An artificial wall erected on Day 6, coupled with the pre-merge ousting of a lot of the more strategically flexible players, shut down that game. And that started in... basically week 2 of the season. Thanks, Boston Rob rulebook.
Listless loved ones visits
The loved ones visit is a staple of Survivor, and it's clearly a milestone the contestants strive for, desperately hope to reach, and one they relish every second of while it's happening. Sometimes, a loved one will stand out in their 10 seconds of screen time, as did Donathan's Aunt Patty (as celebrated by Ryan Kaiser this week), or Dom's wife Kristin's raw outpouring of emotion (much as with Ben and his wife last season). The problem is, after these introductions are made, in its current configuration, this "staple" has become little more than one letter away from "stale."
Once upon a time, production tried to keep things fresh by changing things up from season to season. Maybe the loved ones came sooner, maybe they showed up later (or if the show was feeling particularly cheap, they didn't come at all). Sometimes the loved ones would compete in place of the Survivors (Thailand, All-Stars), or in pairs with the Survivors (as recently as One World, Philippines, and Caramoan). Sometimes, the winner's loved one would spend a day and/or night in camp. In the very first season, Sean Keniff's dad spent a night on a yacht with his son and Richard Hatch! Those were fun departures from formula.
Ever since Cagayan, however, the show has settled into a comfortable, experiment-free rut. Now the loved ones come out, have a tear-stained hug, make a heartwarming statement about the contestant, then are sidelined for the rest of the time as mostly mute observers. (Except last season, when they all "participated" in the "challenge" by drawing a rock.) Once the challenge is over, they'll share a nice meal, then disappear during the commercial break. No long hugs goodbye, no surreptitious transfer of extra clothing, usually no strategy talk. Just a fleeting glimpse of 5-8 people we had never seen before, spent maybe 1-2 minutes with on-screen, then promptly forgot about again.
Perhaps the thinking is that by keeping the loved ones as spectators, they're allowing older people, like parents, to come out and "participate." Maybe it's a liability thing. Maybe since Kaoh Rong, they figure Dr. Joe (and/or Dr. Rupert) has enough to worry about, and don't want to overburden him. Given that just about every contestant these days is single and in their 20s, the loved ones choices are pretty much limited to either old folks or siblings. By excluding them from the action in this way, however, we the audience are never again going to get Loved Ones gold like Colby bellowing "Dammit, Reid!" These days, Reid is safely parked on a bench, politely clapping.
Part of the problem may be the intentional front-loading of the Loved Ones content to the initial introductions. Perhaps in a continuing nod to the host's hopes of reviving The Jeff Probst Show, the twin interrogations of contestant and loved one have been stretched out, given more space. That time has to come from somewhere, and perhaps that's why we've lost most of the organic in-challenge or post-challenge interactions (like Colby with Reid, or Cochran charmingly fumbling about with his mom, or Chris Daugherty tearfully telling his wife he was doomed because they lost), or more in-depth conversations between loved ones and contestants back at camp or at the reward site (Lisa and Justice in Philippines, for example).
So please, Survivor, can't we go back to trying new things? (As long as it's not drawing rocks.) Mix it up again. Give us more time for Aunt Patty mildly threatening Dom, less for rote affirmations of unbreakable familial bonds, or for eight different contestants trying to squeeze themselves under a log.
Ghost Island - the missing artifacts
Now is a good time to look back over Dalton Ross's pre-season list of key Survivor historical items that were brought back this season. Most seasons had generic items, like the snuffer and tribal immunity idols. But several had specific named idols or advantages, most of which have already been featured on the show: James's idol, the f***ing stick ("Ozzy's fake idol"), Malcolm's challenge advantage, Andrea's unused idol (still unused!), and so on. What stands out that hasn't been used yet? Here's a list:
Going forward, there's still time for a Ghost Island visit next episode. That could feature either one of the as-yet-unseen extra votes, or even an idol. Maybe Lauren's idol has now lost power, and is a single-use item? Maybe, as with Wendell's "advantage," the next visitor will have a guaranteed prize? Who knows, but the options appear to be dwindling.
Your reward is not winning: Another flaw with the Loved Ones visit is that it's now just about the only individual reward challenge every season. Presumably that's a hedge against people intentionally throwing individual RCs. Players have done that in the past, so as not to blow up their social game when picking people to accompany them on reward. Except that those stakes are even higher with loved ones, so it makes even more sense to throw this one. Hence, presumably, the team loved ones RC in Game Changers. Ugh, we thought about Game Changers again. Please just give us more individual RCs.
Domenance? Or Win-dell?With his second straight immunity win, and a second-place finish in the RC, Dom now tops this season's leaderboard for Mean % finish in individual challenges. That sets him up, potentially, as the Chrissy of this season, riding a strong physical game to the end. Wendell, in contrast, finished second overall to Dom in last week's IC, but has a string of poor individual challenge finishes otherwise. He's the all-social-game player so far, but he has an idol ready to play (still). In MvGX, Game Changers, and HvHvH, the prominent idol- or advantage-playing finalist beat the challenge beast, handily. Dom has a better social and strategic game than Ken and Brad, but he's kind of a hybrid of showman Ben and calm Chrissy. Wendell's closest similarity seems to be Adam. Both have fans on the jury, both have strong cases to make. Who will win? We dunno.
Record-breaking potential, or nah? - Want to know the real tragedy about the switch to a non-voting Final Four Tribal Council? Now people will have one fewer opportunity to break Eddie Fox's storied record nine swings-and-misses in the voting booth (non-VFB) during Caramoan. Angela currently has 4 whiffs, but with only three votes left, she can at best merely tie for third place, with 7. Among the other races to watch, most are also a bit of a stretch:
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, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other Ghost Island Episode 12 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Chelsea Townsend