This three-episode span, for better or worse, was the star-making span for Boston Rob. He gives himself full credit for blindsiding Hunter and seizing control of Maraamu in Episode 3. His power is immediately toppled in the next episode by the swap, as he, Sean, and Vee are exiled to a new Rotu in which they're outnumbered 5-3. He gives a memorable—but deeply misogynistic and homophobic—confessional mocking his new tribemates, as his power slips away, with his key ally Sarah finding herself completely unprotected and then booted from Maraamu. (Leaving a mark that presages his desperate plea to Lex to save Amber after the swap in All-Stars.) Then in Episode 5, his efforts to flip Gabe over to the ex-Maraamu side of camp completely fail, but Rob still somehow comes out ahead, because Gabe gets voted out anyway, and the previously unbeatable Rotus finally commence cannibalizing themselves.
(The luck won't last for him, of course, but Sean and Vee ride this wave of lingering intra-Rotu discontent all the way to the final five, and Vee to victory.)
What could have been? A challenge-ing change
In the Episode 3 Tribal Council, Boston Rob disputes Probst's assertion that Maraamu has been stomped by Rotu, because a lot of their challenge losses have, in Rob's estimation, been pretty close. This is not entirely accurate: They were way behind in the first IC, and in the very similar Ep2 RC, both of which were rowing/carrying a boat races. Rob's fafaru vomiting directly cost Maraamu the Ep2 IC, and he was the caller in the Ep3 IC, as he blew a comfortable lead and Rotu zipped past Maraamu on the table maze for a fluke win. It hasn't been that close, and the last two are mostly his fault.
But in the context of Survivor history, he has a point: A lot of these challenges have been short, simple, physical races, single-element competitions where if one tribe takes a lead, there's really no way for the trailing tribe to catch up. That's not how challenges work any more, not for the last 10 years, even. What if Marquesas had taken place in Survivor's second decade, where every challenge has an equalizer stage?
Furthermore, what would Survivor *history* look like if Marquesas had used modern challenge design, where physical tests are just one element of a challenge, and they all end with a puzzle or skill element? Boston Rob has a well-catalogued track record of being pretty good at puzzles. What if he had single-handedly saved Maraamu from every one of those first three IC losses, and it was instead Rotu that was decimated?
It's another reminder that luck is and always has been a key ingredient in Survivor success. Just this tiny change — post-HvV challenges instead of early-season challenges — might have been enough to completely reverse Maraamu's fortunes. (Okay, maybe puzzles don't keep Rob from puking during the gross food IC tiebreaker.)
The stand-on-a-disc mechanic was a fun way to trick people with the swap. Did it really fool people? Probst was hinting pretty hard at what was going on (along the lines of: it's not a challenge, but some people will be rewarded), but to be fair, this *was* just the second swap ever, and the prior version just sent 3 people from each tribe to a meeting place where they exchanged buffs.
That said, the overall execution here is questionable. Again, it's hard to be too critical, since this was the second swap ever. But still, why maintain the mismatched tribe numbers after the swap? In theory, the goal of swaps is to shake things up, but they should still be aimed at producing balance and/or fairness. There are too many bad outcomes possible when one tribe is tiny relative to the other, such as all the non-physical players ending up on one tribe (thankfully the post-swap contests in these episodes are decidedly non-physical).
If you want to preserve Rotu's "earned" numbers advantage, at least go Rotu-7; Maraamu-6. The fact that Probst had to verbally reassure everyone—on camera—that "this was planned long before you came to Marquesas" suggests that, in fact, it wasn't, or at least not with any more precision than "swap before the merge." It seemed very much like an intentional "justice for Hunter" punishment of Maraamu. But whatever. The disc part was fun.
A questionable legacy
It's impossible to rewatch the swap episode without addressing Boston Rob's rancidly misogynist and homophobic commentary on his new tribe, a screed he clearly felt was the height of hilarity. In context of the time, it was probably pretty standard shock jock-type stuff. But just under two decades later, it's legitimately shocking, especially since this guy is the one CBS has gone out of its way to elevate as an icon of the game. Remember these quotes the next time CBS tells you it cares about LGBTQ+ diversity:
- "When I first saw John, I thought he was a big-time queer ... I dunno, I won't be sleeping next to him tonight."
- "Zoe's pretty nice, but ... come on ... without a doubt Zoe is definitely the toughest guy on this tribe."
- "Over here, I think we've got eight guys on the island. Okay, eight guys and one girl. I think her name's John." [Ed. note: Mariano math—Rotu had eight total people.]
That doesn't even begin to address the hurt it caused. As John Carroll noted after the fact, he was not out at the time of filming—this was the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era, and John was a former Air Force medic, so he had good reasons to stay closeted—but Rob just cavalierly outted him on national TV, and did so in a pretty offensive way. John talked in exit interviews about how painful it was to sit at home, watching this episode with family, and have this kid lob a series of slurs at him. Not exactly the GLAAD award-winning moment into which the show tried to spin Varner's outing of Zeke in Game Changers.
For some reason, though, CBS liked what it saw, and saw fit to invite Rob back to play Survivor four more times, give him another mentor season with a giant statue of himself, play The Amazing Race twice, and air his wedding in primetime. Rob privately apologized to John, but there's no content warning for the episode on CBS All Access, and as far as I can tell, neither the show nor the network ever apologized to its audience. It was all just good clean fun, apparently. Thankfully, Rob appears to have grown up and become a lot more open-minded since then, but it's still a bit of a stain on the franchise.
The sketchy hand of production
On the one hand, for a budget-conscious production team, having a camp raid as a reward is a fantastic cost-saving measure, because they get to repurpose all the stuff they've already purchased, don't have to buy anything new, and can sell the adventure as a fun-filled looting experience.
On the other hand, when the very next challenge gives the tribe that did the looting a massive advantage, that raises a few eyebrows. And when the "unbiased" judging of that immunity challenge hands Maraamu the victory mainly because of Paschal's American flag, that seems a little suspicious. Since Paschal's flag couldn't be taken, his tribe was going to win, no matter what happened in the RC. (The judge also praises the white background of the blankets that Maraamu stole, which both tribes identified as a key game-changing item.)
Not to mention that Rotu's motion efforts seemed significantly more eye-catching than Maraamu's ... but hey, who's complaining? 9/11 happened months before this filmed, and it was still fresh in everyone's minds when this aired. Besides, everyone loves the American flag, and nobody loves the American flag more than Paschal, so by the transitive property, everyone loves Paschal. Q.E.D. How could the American flag possibly lose at something?
Judging-based challenges were popular in this era, whether as SOS challenges like this, or the infamous "build a shelter" (not underground, Rupert!) challenge in All-Stars. Thankfully, perhaps because even the show realized they raise suspicions of production manipulation, they have faded away. Sure, people running around acting like idiots is amusing to watch, but it at least shouldn't be for immunity.
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, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes