Two episodes in, and I’m tentatively in on this season. It can start good and all go downhill (see: Redemption Island). But I feel fairly good about what we’ve seen of the cast thus far and the dynamics that are shaping up. Here are my four thoughts for the ticket for this week:
That’s not a cliffhanger
The episode ended without complete resolution. Having seen Keith voted out, we then saw him grappling with the decision of whether to stay in the game, and the episode ended with Reem feeling ready to quit if no one came to join her on extinction island. This fits the traditional definition of a cliffhanger.
Only, it really wasn’t.
It would make no sense for episode 3 to open with a short scene of Keith deciding to leave the game, never to be seen again. They’d be wasting screen time on a plot that has no relevance to the rest of the episode. On the other hand, Sarah Channon on twitter provided a much more likely opener for episode 3 that makes complete narrative sense:
Next episode is going to open with Reem agonizing on the shore, sad music playing and then... inspirational music—a light in the distance! Her prodigal son returns!— Sarah Channon (@ChannonSarah) February 28, 2019
A cliffhanger really isn’t a cliffhanger if one outcome makes no narrative sense while the other makes strong narrative sense. Instead of being a cliffhanger, it just becomes a storytelling choice. What’s more, to anyone who then follows press photos and sneak peeks for the following episode (which, granted, might be the minority of the Survivor watching audience), within 24 hours it was clear which path Keith decided to take. That means that there was very little effort to actually treat Keith’s decision as a cliffhanger.
[Spoiler alert: The rest of this section deals with and/or mentions the consequences of that decision, so if you wish to stay spoiler-free, YOU HAVE A DECISION TO MAKE... go ahead and jump down to "Is Survivor pulling a narrative long con?"
... or just keep reading. Whichever.]
So, what do I think is really going on? Production added an extra step to going to extinction island this season. They offered players the chance to quit before going there, sight unseen and without knowing what the chance would actually be like. Given they have really played down how difficult Extinction island could be at the signpost giving the choice, there’s virtually no reason for anyone not to go and check it out, and so the decision itself is relatively devoid of drama. There’s only one way to give that decision stakes and to make the audience believe someone really could take the option to quit, and that’s by leaving that possibility as an open option for long enough (that is — overnight if you follow press, a week if you don’t) for the audience to believe a quit is possible, shaping their perception of that particular choice for all future contestants who get voted out.
Another possibility is that they are trying to push back expectations about the reveal. In the premiere, they ended the episode with Reem going to the island. But this pushes back the end of tribal council to earlier in the episode and could go so far as to undercut drama later in the season. By ending the episode a little earlier here (before Keith makes his decision), it necessitates them opening the next episode with the result of his decision. Once this is normalized and people are used to it, you can then end an episode after a player’s torch is snuffed without people going “hey, did they decide to stay in the game?” Ultimately, the structure of the show would probably feel cleaner if the audience expectation can be reset to that approach.
Enough of me going full Pat Ferrucci though — I’m willing to bet he has a better take on this than me.
Whatever the production rationale for the decision, my biggest takeaway is this: Keith will not be getting back in the game. From here, a casual audience would remember him as ‘the kid who nearly quit’, just for leaving us with the impression he might for so long. In addition, the choice to end the episode with Reem telling us she could quit if no-one showed (and Sarah’s theory on how episode 3 will likely begin), suggests that Keith’s decision should mostly be seen through Reem’s eyes rather than Keith’s eyes. Keith was supporting Reem’s narrative through episode 1, and he’ll be back to doing that from here. Reem is, at least for now, still the person we are supposed to be rooting for to return to the game.
Is Survivor pulling a narrative long con?
In the David vs Goliath premiere, we had a scene where Angelina discussed the poor ratio of women finding idols. While it did foreshadow her finding one in the season finale, for most of the season it felt almost unnecessarily cruel, as every idol and game advantage was found by the men in the game — almost as though Survivor production was giving the middle finger to those pointing out the disparity. After all, it would have been sufficient foreshadowing to show Angelina idol hunting without making it an issue of gender.
However, we are now through 6 days in the game and while Ron Clark found a secret advantage that could be used as an idol on the boat, the Kama tribe idol is in theory still out there somewhere, while Lauren has found the Manu tribe idol. And again, the issue of gender disparity with idol hunting was once again front and centre.
Now, it could still yet be that the show is being somewhat dismissive and defensive — after all, it portrayed the Kama women as standing around and not taking their chance to look while the men do all the looking. On the other hand, the conversation itself was quite neutral and was juxtaposed with a woman actually finding an idol. A full three minutes of air time was dedicated to women talking about idol hunting and finding, without men having any active role in the scene other than clips of them looking for idols.
Could it be that Survivor was playing the long game with Angelina’s clip? With Edge of Extinction already in the can, they’d have known in advance if this season is full of women finding idols. And with the talk so far, and the quality of the women cast, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this season has an idol balance that favours the women.
The Wardog is playing like the Warthog
When I listened to the Wardog on First One Out, I was impressed. He talked about how he needed to not look for idols, and play the early game chill. Preseason, I said that I didn’t have any confidence that he could back up his words, and expected him to play more of a Joe Mena-esque game.
However, there’s no doubt that he is playing a ‘Hakuna Matata’ game, at least through six days. We’ve seen no evidence he’s looking for idols, he has David actively wanting to keep him on side, and he is willing to bring a candidate into the line of fire from off the board if it suits his game.
The Wardog’s conversation with Chris is perhaps the best single piece of play we’ve seen on screen so far this season.
First, he articulated an important aspect of the meatshield strategy that is rarely spelt out — which is that if you leave too many people in the game who won’t beat you, others will prefer to drag them to the end than you. Survivor is a game where you want to be the biggest threat left in the final three — until then, you should be trying to keep yourself precariously perched right in the middle — if there’s more people below you in ‘threat order’, you should be picking them off. If there’s more above you, it’s time to take out some threats. The Wardog not only understands that, he’s able to use it as a compelling argument to win another threat over to his perspective.
The second thing he did well was to remain open to a Kelley vote to Chris’s face, even if he really believed his own way was better. The Wardog told Chris that ‘we can change it’, when Chris remained keen on taking Kelley out first. But in the end, the Wardog got his way. And, at least from what we’ve seen on screen, he did it without ruffling any feathers.
I still don’t think Wardog winning is a likely outcome — it still feels like he’s bristling a little too much on social media for that. But, I’d say that through two episodes he’s playing the best game, and is the most responsible for putting himself in a good position. If he and David were to hang together for a while, they’d complement each other well and could make a deep run.
Kama for Aubry?
In contrast to the Wardog, Aubry probably had the worst week of all. She is coming off as insincere by trotting out the same lines to several of her castmates, even if those lines are actually true from Aubry’s perspective.
However, there’s probably a reason they are comparing notes. So much emphasis was put on this side of Aubry’s character in Kaoh Rong, when she used the same skill set to convince Tai to turn against Jason and Scot. Everyone is expecting Aubry to try and make a genuine connection with them. Even if, from Aubry’s perspective, she is trying to make it genuinely, just the fact it can be seen as a ‘game move’ in the Tai case makes it harder to believe.
This story could be as simple as building up an early exit for Aubry. But I think there’s a glimmer of hope. We got a lot of content from Julie and Victoria this week (which was very welcome). Julie is already focused on gender in the tribe, while Victoria isn’t out on Aubry because she doesn’t like her or finds her insincere, but only because her ability to connect with people is a threat. What’s more, Julie, Victoria and Julia appear to be a genuine alliance at this point.
Last week I mentioned an all-girls Kama alliance; this week I felt as though we saw the genesis of it. Aubry’s best hope is that the girls begin to see a male alliance as a bigger threat than a singular Aubry.
What’s more, her situation right now reminds me quite a bit of Tai in Kaoh Rong. He was in trouble on the original beauty tribe for too obviously looking for idols and it appeared he would have been the likely first boot if that tribe went to tribal council. But it never did before the swap. Aubry’s arc here feels similarly obvious, to the point where I’d be surprised if Kama lost this week and sent her home.
Which leaves me in a good place to predict next week.
Manu tribe is going to lose, and be at a crossroads, with a binary choice. Injured but loyal Wendy to the left, able but threatening Kelley to the right. And I’m pretty sure of those two options, they’re going to pick ...
See you next week!
By day, Ben Martell is a public commercial lawyer from New Zealand.
By night, he moonlights as a self-described Survivor 'expert'.
By day or night, find him on twitter at: @golden8284