This episode's Edge of Extinction segment featured a fun lead-in, where we learned the Dakal tribe's camp looks out directly at the Edge of Extinction, and they felt compassion and pity at the fate of the poor, solitary person they could make out in the distance, standing next to the sail. After a quick transition, we see that person was Amber, and she's bringing news of the day's Edge task back to her fellow Extinctioneers.
It's a brutal slog of a task: Twenty trips up and down the huge Edge hill, each time carrying a single piece of firewood down. Everyone immediately realizes just how difficult that is, but gamely participates, anyway, lured by the promise of a fire token for everyone who finishes. The crux comes as Ethan, now two decades older than he was in Africa, and having survived two bouts with cancer, pushed himself too hard, too fast, and required medical attention. After a brief rest, though Ethan pushes on and completes the task, with Natalie, Amber, and Danni all joining him for his final trip up and down the mountain, in a heartwarming show of solidarity and support.
Ethan's struggle to continue the trek was of course compelling and inspirational. It illustrated just how ferocious a fighter Ethan is. We also were shown just how emotionally exhausting it was for Natalie and Amber, grinding through that level of fatigue. These personal reflections, getting to know these people more deeply and see their competitive drive, were great. Ethan is great. As were the other three participants who battled through exhaustion to finish.
There's just one problem with all this: This segment was not Survivor. It's Survivor-adjacent, sure, since the four lumber-luggers are all former contestants on this season. But that's where the problem lies: They've been voted out. The tribe has spoken. At *most* two of them could return, eventually, so that means we're guaranteed that at least two of the people we spend 10 minutes watching carry wood will not, in fact, play Survivor again this season. We love watching the Ponderosa jury videos online (or we would, since they're another casualty of this format), but it would be silly to throw away a quarter of the show in order to cram them into the primetime product.
And that's a problem when there were still 16 actual contestants, all playing the actual game, who we weren't seeing for the 9-10 minutes (as with last week, a quarter of the episode) that Edge of Extinction gobbled up. Denise, for example, had maybe two seconds on the screen the entire episode, all during her one jump for a key in the immunity challenge. We love seeing the people on the Edge, since they're some of our favorite Survivor players, but we would rather see some of our other favorite Survivor players ... who are playing Survivor.
This also reflects a fundamental identity crisis the show seems to be going through, a battle with its own format. Now, more than ever, Survivor seems incapable of deciding what it's about: Is it telling the life-affirming stories of Edge of Extinction, or the social-strategic maneuvering of the people who "have to adapt, or they'll be voted out of the tribe"?
It's an important question, especially in a season that's allegedly celebrating its two-decade run by showcasing 20 of its greatest past contestants. Because if the regular game with the challenges and the voting, the game that these people have all won, is now just a feeder league to send people on to the more important, more compelling Edge of Extinction stories, that's essentially Jeff Probst hoisting the sail on the Survivor franchise.
It's a tacit admission that the scheming and plotting is no longer what the show and its showrunner care about, and what they really want to highlight are these more emotional, inspiring, people-against-the-elements (and/or against their own limitations), character-focused pieces.
That's fine! Those stories are great to watch! (In related news, those are also exactly the kind of stories told by Eco-Challenge, which makes its return to the airwaves on Amazon Prime, later this spring.)
It's just that ... the audience was kind of hoping to see Survivor? You know, that show with the challenges and the voting? The one you brought back all these winners for?
The most frustrating thing is, the regular game also had compelling, pushing-through-adversity stories this week. Tyson made a valiant, strategically correct, and ultimately fruitless effort to unite the multi-time players on Dakal and save himself, *almost* breaking through Sandra's insistence on not trusting him. For a success story, look no further than Adam working overtime in camp to make himself useful, then doing the same in the challenge, jumping for and exhaustedly collecting all three keys, as Denise and Parvati's efforts failed.
The one real blindside of this episode was Adam choking up a bit in his post-IC confessional, relating an anecdote from his (late) mom about him never giving up once he decides to do something. See? You can keep the cameras in the regular Survivor game and still have heartstring-tugging content.
(A modest proposal epilogue: Gavin Whitson's suggestion of a separate, Survivor spin-off show that features a smaller group, a deeper focus on personal stories like Ethan's, and varied, physically demanding tasks of this type, to be aired during the summer offseason, is actually a pretty watchable idea. But again, key words: separate spin-off show. Fill it with as many characters and big personalities and great stories as you can handle: Noura? Debbie? Rupert? Joey Amazing? Joe Del Campo? Feel free. Go nuts.)
Precedents for the laborious log lugging
The closest comparison for this log task in Survivor history is probably the opening "reward challenge" hike in Guatemala. Danni participated in both! The Guatemala hike was a grueling overnight trek through the jungle. Multiple strong men passed out due to dehydration, although none did so while scaling a sheer cliff face. In contrast to the EoE task, though, the Guatemala hike also had an important Survivor social element: It was the first chance for these new contestants to size up their tribemates, see how much people are willing to contribute, build initial bonds, and so forth.
Edge of Extinction also has a social element, but it's different. No matter how many times the Survivor social media accounts — or the Edge dwellers themselves — say it, the people on Edge of Extinction are not a tribe. They're way more connected to and dependent on each other than a regular Survivor tribe. That's because there's no fear of their "tribemates" voting them out now. That's already happened. All that's left for them is 50% of the Survivor premise: working together, forming a new society to help each other survive the elements, but with none of manipulation and backstabbing.
Sure, again, one or two of them (or none!) *might* end up being contestants again this season. All the rest are potential jurors, unless they raise the sail. The only social game here is bonding among these potential jurors, and it's an interesting development that we're seeing that this time, when it was largely absent in Season 38. But that's also exactly why, as Victoria Baamonde noted on twitter, it's unfair to allow someone to come back into the game at F6, after having made such deep connections with the jury, while in contrast, the people who stay in the game for all 39 days may never even meet some of these jurors.
Fire tokens vs. plot armor
Way back in Episode 1, Natalie gave the audience a glimpse of the fire token exchange rates for people on Edge of Extinction. One fire token buys you an advantage in the return challenge, but an aspiring re-contestant can only buy a maximum of 3 advantages. For those same three fire tokens, they could instead buy a fully powered idol, but that's obviously only useful if they actually get back into the game.
Heading into this episode, and throughout the hike, the clear favorite to win this challenge was Natalie. Her fitness levels are an order of magnitude higher than everyone else's. She's breezing through the various puzzles required to pick up fire tokens. She *sprinted* during the log hike. And with *four* fire tokens in her bank account, she can easily max out on advantages, which in theory she doesn't even need.
As we head into the next episode, though, a new challenger has emerged: Tyson. He has zero fire tokens currently, but he has an impressive amount of plot armor. Why? Also back in Episode 1, Tyson had a confessional, in which he "wasn't expecting to tear up on Day 1," but nonetheless did so while appreciated how being more or less a professional Survivor player has given him the opportunity to spend time at home with children. Couple that with the knowledge from the pre-game ET Canada interviews (Tyson's, no less) that this season, entire families — including small children — will be coming out for the loved ones visit, and that this is something Tyson himself pushed for.
Do you show Tyson tearing up about parent-child bonding time if he simply the fifth boot, and when everyone else is hanging out with their kids, he's stuck on Edge of Extinction? That seems unlikely. We don't yet know where the loved ones visit falls this season. It's usually one or two episodes before the finale, which would place it after the merge return challenge but before the final one. Cagayan, however, had one in the finale, so it could happen after both return challenges, and SurvivorAU (which also brings out entire families) routinely has their loved ones visit right before the final IC. Either way, Tyson seems like the person with the best plot armor for being an active participant in the regular game when that happens.
Could he simply ace the return challenge with no advantages? Or might an overconfident Natalie miscalculate, burning most of her account on an idol, leaving her just enough tokens to remain (close to) even in advantages with the rest of the field, opening the door for Tyson to zip past her? We shall see.
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
Other Winners at War Episode 4 recaps and analysis
Non-exit interviews: Ethan Zohn