Having not found time to write last week, my thoughts this week cover developments across the last three hours of the show. And I really enjoyed these three hours of television. Here’s my updated thoughts heading into the second half of the season
The season is still good
There’s still this feeling that, from here, the season could take a turn for the worse. The Edge of Extinction twist is still one that could leave the game feeling tilted, especially if a returnee dominates the final vote for reasons that aren’t explicable on the screen. However, I always felt as though at least the pre-merge section of the season could be genuinely good and — I think it was.
The season puts me in mind of two seasons that are generally considered solidly mid-pack, but that I’m higher on that many people.
Marquesas is often the forgotten season of the pre-All-Stars seasons — not early enough to have the huge buzz in the moment, not as highly regarded these days as The Amazon or Pearl Islands, not terrible like Thailand. But it’s pretty good.
Marquesas was the first season where we saw one tribe get completely dominated by the other. Similarly to this season, it led to a situation where the dominant tribe had a dominant alliance we didn’t really know. Zoe Zanidakis had the original invisible edit; the first person to make the merge while being given nearly no screen time at all. Rob “the General” barely had more. Tammy was a one-dimensional mean girl. The only person getting any screen time in that alliance was John Carroll. The iconic moment of the season was when the remaining five (characters we had generally come to know) realized they’d all lose if they didn’t get together to gang up on those four, and each of them was voted out in a row.
This season feels similar. I’m still not given enough air time with Gavin, Eric or Julia to care about their fate. It’s because they’re only relevant as the ‘villains’ in someone else’s story; and because they’re only villains because they are playing the game well, not because of anything they are doing. Their lack of development is necessary for us to be hoping that the game gets shaken up by their downfall. I’d be surprised if more than one of those three make it as far as the finale. Instead, I think the original Mana tribe — Kelley, David, Rick and Lauren in particular — have it in them to make the deeper run, perhaps picking up Aurora and sacrificing Wardog along the way.
The other season I’m reminded of is San Juan del Sur. It was a season full of characters who are remembered far more for being characters than for good strategic play. We had Keith Nale, a man who genuinely could have won the season despite having no strategy at all. We had dumb brothers Drew and Alec Christy. We had Jon and Jaclyn, a couple whose relationship spats got in the way of making strategic moves. We had Val Collins lying about having two idols two episodes in. And we had smart players like Kelley Wentworth, Jeremy Collins and Josh Canfield paying the price for being unable to figure out how to play an intelligent game in those circumstances.
San Juan del Sur was a trainwreck of a season with a truly legendary winner, Natalie Anderson. She was able to navigate the characters, even fitting in perfectly by playing off smart strategic moves as dumb mistakes (something that could surprise no-one else on the season, since dumb mistakes were prevalent everywhere). As a whole, I think it hangs together marvelously – it’s even better on a rewatch.
The original Kama tribe is, to be fair, not at all a trainwreck. But the original Manu tribe had characters like Reem, Keith & Wendy to contend with, and even Rick and Wardog are as prevalent for their characters as for their strategy. You might think that Manu have now eliminated their San Juan del Sur element, but the merge episode disproved it. Somehow the entire remainder of the Manu tribe turned on and voted for each other — despite having the idols that could have turned the game in their favour — and yet none of them ended up going home. If this Manu tribe actually does end up forming the bulk of the endgame players, any player who wins will have done a Natalie-esque job of navigating the crazy.
I enjoyed both of those seasons for these exact reasons. All of this is to say that if this season ends up being some kind of combination of the two, as it feels right now, I’m going to end up with another season I feel is an underappreciated gem that I’m going in to bat for.
(And that’s not even mentioning the Pearl Islands-esque buried treasure element on Edge of Extinction. If advantages keep being inserted in the game through this method, I am completely in on that as well.)
Caveat: If the second returnee wins, it will really depend on why they win. A frustrating winner can really bring a season down; and coming off Nick beating Mike last season and Ben beating Chrissy in S35, there’s been a run of me feeling that the better player lost at FTC. Here’s hoping the season is capped off with a great winner … and I have a prediction for who that might be at the end.
Production knows the three-tribe swap is broken
The producers are persisting with the three tribe swap. But this season proved that they know it’s problematic, because they guaranteed there were at least five votes in the mix at every post-swap council simply with the way they structured their twists.
In episode four, Rick went home in a five person tribal council. In episode five, Rick (from Edge of Extinction) was able to give a player an extra vote; if Lesu had attended tribal with four players, there would have been a fifth potential vote in the mix to allow for a 3-2 result. And then in episode 6, when feasibly Lesu could have been down to three members, they guaranteed at least 8 people would attend tribal with the combined tribal council.
We already know production doesn’t like a final 4 vote as well — the fire-making twist has taken care of that (that twist still sucks, btw). If production is willing to carefully arrange the season to avoid a tribal with only 4 votes in the pre-merge, I think the implications are clear — they do not believe tribals with 4 people are good TV or that they provide good outcomes.
So why do they insist on a two-tribes-to-three-tribes swap every season? They continue to give people minimal room to move strategically, and they are twisting their way out of the negative implications. It’s time for them to let the twist go, and return exclusively to a three-to-two or two-to-two twist (preferably the latter). There’s no evidence the three tribe format has shaken up the post-merge anyway, given that in four out of five seasons where two-to-three has occurred, the early merge narrative has always been ‘majority strong.’ Millennials vs Gen X was lightning striking in this respect — production needs to accept that the format doesn’t create more merge instability and move on.
Edge of Extinction is actively damaging for Joe’s game
The common wisdom coming into the season was that the format was rigged for Joe to win. The more I’ve dwelled on this, the more I’m coming to the opinion that the exact opposite is true, for two reasons.
Reason 1: The need to remove Joe as early as possible was only increased by the reveal of the twist.
Sure, it’s possible (maybe even probable) Joe was booted at this vote no matter what. But with the addition of the twist, the players had to see it as likely that they’d be dealing with Joe again later in the game, and maybe even that he could win his way to final three. So, given the likelihood of this outcome, what do the players need to do? Damage his chances of returning to the game, and damage his chances of winning if he does. The solution to both problems seems to be voting him out.
At this point, the players have learned that Edge of Extinction is a tough experience. They may not know exactly how tough, but Rick has told them enough to know — the conditions out there are probably going to be worse on Joe than the conditions in camp; and they’ll be depriving him of any opportunity to win rewards. That means that by the time there’s a competition to get back in, he might be far behind later boots in terms of his challenge readiness. This gives them the best chance to prevent Joe’s return.
In addition, their best case to beat Joe at FTC is to argue that he isn’t deserving. By blindsiding him at the first possible opportunity, they can undermine any argument he might make about his social game, and push the narrative that if the jury vote for him they are only doing it because he was with them on extinction, instead of because he played the best game. In a season with many fans, it has to be damaging to his chances with a jury if Joe never survives a tribal council without being immune.
Reason 2: On Edge of Extinction, Joe is the enemy.
Every player on Extinction who wants to return to the game has to go through Joe. They’ll be making pacts — if anyone gets an advantage to hinder another player in the challenge, hinder Joe. One of us has to beat Joe. If you’re behind in the challenge, why not distract Joe for me?
If Joe overcomes that and wins anyway, it’s tempting to believe he’ll earn respect for that. But I think it’s much more likely he’ll earn the ire of his competitors. He took their spot, he was always going to take their spot, they never had a chance. It is fulfillment of the idea that Extinction was stacked against them and they never had a fair shot. I think that jury will be bitter at his return.
Conclusion: It’s hard for me to see a world in which the jury votes for Joe. With perhaps the sole exceptions of Wardog and Reem, I think Joe could be the player with the lowest chance of winning the season from this point.
And the winner is…
I’ve been high on Victoria all season, but the approach the editors took to the Aubry boot had me fully sold. Victoria is being edited as playing a fantastic game, and I think in fact she is playing as good a game as is being edited.
Here’s what I said about Victoria before the season:
If there is any player who I think is most disadvantaged just by playing with returnees and the Extinction Island twist, I wouldn’t be surprised if that person is Victoria. I’m sort of expecting a 5th place or 3rd place no votes finish – through no real fault or flaw of her own. Ranking her at 12, she’s the last person I have that I think has any shot of winning – but it’s a slim shot. Sorry Victoria, really wish you’d been cast on a different season!
Now, looking back at that – I think she’s running rings around the returnees, and that means she might be able to run rings around the twists as well. The big negative — her side has no idols, so she’s still in trouble at the moment. But I think she’s on track to get respect if she makes it to the end, and I think she is a player who might be able to navigate a San Juan del Sur-style madhouse endgame if the Manu players are going to be around for a while. At this point, I think Victoria winning could be a Natalie Anderson-style, well-deserved win.
And if I’m wrong, I definitely think she’s going to be a returning player — and be in deep trouble when she does, because she is not hiding her deviousness in the shadows even slightly. Victoria could genuinely be, finally, the next Parvati.
If I’m wrong about Victoria, I think the other candidates are the Manu players; Rick, David and Lauren in particular, with a possible side bet on a late-returning Aubry. If the winner isn’t from that group of five, I’ll be surprised.
Think my takes are mad? Comment, tweet at me. I love to hear it! And time willing, see you all 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