Much of what we see in an episode of Survivor is “written” in the present tense: we’re witnessing the game as it unfolds. There are some creative editing choices that toy with the timeline (e.g. confessionals aired out of order, flashbacks to idol finds, and the backstory sequences), but overall, the narrative is told in chronological order. That makes sense, of course: for viewers to see this as “reality” television, we need to feel like we’re getting an objective retelling of events as they happened. (I know, I know, there’s nothing objective about Survivor storytelling, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make at the moment, so let’s keep going.)
While the emphasis in every episode is on capturing and conveying the current cycle (reaction to Tribal, challenge, strategy scramble, Tribal), the editors also have to use the future tense: via inclusion and omission, they need to establish and explore the characters who will be around at the end. The producers outline the character arcs, and then weave those stories throughout the season. Who is the journey character? What are the biggest betrayals? Does an alliance dominate the post-merge game? Who are the players we want to bring back? What sort of winner’s arc does the Sole Survivor deserve? They could tell a million stories at the end of the season; the producers have to decide which ones to focus on and how they want the audience to think and feel about the game and the people who played it.
To do all of that well, they need to hint at what’s to come. And we know that content is in there: when the end of the story is told, we remember the moments along the way that prepared us for the conclusion. The winner’s montage is made up of moments that we watched, moments that made us wonder. This week’s episode, I would argue, was full of them. And no wonder: the endgame is here.
What’s potentially great about these final two episodes is just how tense the future of the game will be: half of the final six have reasonable arguments to make at Final Tribal (Ricard, Deshawn, Danny)... and you could argue that two others have content that bolsters their claim to the crown (Xander and Erika). Only Heather is heading into the Final 6 drawing dead.
Here’s the thing: Everyone knows who the threats are and will be targeting them until Final Tribal. Can Ricard ride his new alliance to F4 and win the fire-making challenge? Can Deshawn somehow navigate to the F3 despite being labeled a snake? Could Erika, Danny, or Xander own these last two episodes and somehow take down the title?
Good questions all. To answer them, we need to translate everything the editors wrote in the future tense. So let’s take a look at the hints we’ve been given and see if we can figure it out together.
1) Deshawn is getting Shannoying
A quick summary of Deshawn/Shan parallels:
** He attempts to throw Ricard under the bus after Tribal … poorly. This continues a pattern of sloppy post-merge play from Deshawn: he splashes around emotionally when the game isn’t going his way. Shan did the same thing, and she’s now sitting on the jury.
** He admits in confessional the next morning that confronting Ricard didn’t go how he wanted or expected. The edit has consistently shown Deshawn attempting to clean things up the next day, with mixed results. Shan followed that same arc.
** Ricard tells us that “[Deshawn’s] game is confusing to me.” Ricard has been a voice of reason for much of the season, so if Ricard is thinking this, he’s likely talking about it with the other players, which means they’re thinking this way about Deshawn, too. A battle is brewing between these two, and one is likely going to take out the other sooner rather than later; the echoes of Shan vs. Ricard are too blatant to ignore.
Seems to me that the edit is telling us one of two things: Deshawn will be joining the jury, perhaps as soon as this Wednesday… or he’s in the F3, takes a lot of grief for how erratic his game was, and loses. I’m betting on the former.
2) Target practice: Ricard
Four out of the six remaining players have openly ID’ed Ricard as the biggest threat left in the game, the fifth is Heather who is in full-blown “just take me to the end” mode, and the sixth is Ricard (who knows he’s the biggest threat left in the game but is not eager to see Ricard get his torch snuffed).
** Xander wants Ricard around as a shield, but that won’t last much longer (if he has a F3 deal with Erika and Heather, and he should, then he could let Ricard go at any time).
** Danny wants challenge threats gone, because that’s a viable path to FTC for him. Ricard is at the top of the list, although Xander can’t be far behind.
** Now that he’s on the bottom, Deshawn is channeling Sandra: anyone but me. And the easiest player to bring up as an alternate target is the guy who made the biggest move, has won challenges, and has a million dollar vote in his pocket (along with a passionate advocate on the jury).
** Erika knows that Ricard would win any hypothetical F3, and she’s got only two clean shots left. She’s got the numbers on her side now, though (she undoubtedly didn’t want to risk a 3-3 tie at F6 by taking out Ricard last week), so expect her to keep bringing him up until he’s gone.
** Heather is a lovely plant with purple-pink flowers.
I just don’t see any way Ricard gets to Final Tribal Council short of an idol find or blind loyalty from Xander/Erika/Heather, and the latter isn’t happening (this was a late-forming alliance of convenience, no more, no less). Even if against all odds they do stay together, Ricard would still need to win fire-making at F4 if he didn’t beat the other three in the final immunity challenge.
3) Danny will regret winning that challenge
Setting aside the fact that it feels like Danny’s story has reached a natural endpoint (with that awesome scene about his relationship with his dad; what can I say, I love the emotional stuff), outlasting Xander and Ricard was dangerous for Danny. This cast knows the game, and they’re undoubtedly expecting some physically demanding challenges on the immediate horizon. Once a player has worn the necklace, they’re labeled a challenge threat — and when you’re as overtly athletic as Danny is, with a win under your belt, you become a target.
Add all of that to Danny’s social and strategic game (he’s got my vote for best former pro-athlete to play Survivor), and he’s going to need the necklace to make it to the end.
4) Heather grows in rocky terrain such as Scottish heaths and moors
We keep seeing Heather in either a neutral or negative light: she’s either a sidekick in a strategic conversation (nodding and saying substantive things like “yup”) or doing dumb things at Tribal like going rogue and targeting Naseer or, this week, claiming that she could beat the members of the jury in a challenge.
This, I think, is a harbinger of her Final Tribal Council approach: if she’s asked anything at all, the questions will be infused with insult (“Why should we even consider voting for you?”), and her responses will be met with incredulity. At that point, she’ll sit back and let the other two fight it out, pocket $85k, and insist that she’s the third best player of the season for the rest of her days.
5) Xander is going to be portrayed as utterly delusional at Final Tribal Council
Not a great episode for the X-man. To whit:
** He takes credit for the Shan move (whether or not he actually had a hand in the strategy, the edit did not show that to us, which means we’re meant to react negatively to Xander’s claim).
** He thinks he’s the biggest threat after Ricard.
** He claims to like the twisty version of Survivor (this doesn’t actually make his story any worse; I just find myself judging him harshly for this take on the game he’s playing).
It feels like we’re being prepped for Xander’s jury argument: he’s going to take credit for moves that belong more to other players, and he’s going to have an over-inflated sense of his impact on the game. That, in turn, is going to have him criticized at Final Tribal, subtly perhaps, as “the colonizer” (taking credit for the work of others). I don’t see a F3 that he can win at this point, can you?
6) We’ll finally get some support in the edit for “Erika the strategist”
I won’t belabor this point since I talked about it last week, but Erika has been given tiny pieces of content all season long that didn’t really jibe with her otherwise invisible edit. Shan saw her as a threat. Ricard continues to. The Luvus thought she was sneaky from the start, and the Danny/Deshawn pair still think she’s dangerous.
We can infer from all of this that the general perception of Erika is that she’s an active, rather than passive, strategist. What’s throwing us is that the editors are violating the law of “show don’t tell.” The players are telling us that Erika is a threat, but we almost never see her that way. Clearly, an active choice has been made to highlight other players, perhaps because they were driving the strategy that was shaping the story. Here at the endgame, though, are we going to finally understand why everyone is afraid of her?
I think they pretty much have to: if Deshawn and Ricard leave the game in the next couple of votes, then the finale will need viable threats. Danny qualifies, but Xander hasn’t been highlighted as a strategic force other than the fake idol/Knowledge is Power play, and Heather can refer to muted or soft colors. That leaves Erika. And we’re going to need to understand not only why she’ll make a strategy-based argument at Final Tribal should she get there, but also why the jury would believe her.
7) No alliance will last
The Core Four alliance fell apart, and the recently assembled Fourplay (because they had some fun but aren’t going to consummate the relationship) is headed in the same direction. At first, I thought they might last one more vote, given how balanced it is:
** Heather, which grows well on hills, knows she cannot win so has no reason to make moves
** Xander thinks he can win (if they can take Ricard out at F4)
** Erika thinks she can win (same)
** Ricard knows he can win
There are two reasons that the Fourplay alliance finishes prematurely:
** Xander and Erika can’t let Ricard be a fire away from winning (they’d stand a better chance against the warrior and wizard, D&D)
** Following the laws of Highlander and Survivor (“There can be only one” and “if you take someone out, you get their power”), Ricard now owns all of Shan’s moves, so everyone else wants to take him out … because the other players need to flesh out their endgame résumés.
Far better to make a proactive move and orchestrate Ricard’s ouster at F6 or F5 than be forced to face him at F4 fire ….
… so the Fourplay Alliance is ultimately going to blow it up and go after Ricard. They need to spit him out now before he can make a mess of everything later.
8) Race will be a factor at Final Tribal Council
First, let me say that I loved the conversation about race at Tribal. Deshawn and Liana spoke from the heart, and what they said was important. Anyone who knows me understands that I believe one of the things that makes Survivor great is the ability to create conversations around critical social issues like race.
Now, let me say something that may seem controversial, but to me feels like a straightforward observation: the topic of race will shape Final Tribal Council.
In a season taking place during the George Floyd trial, with a cast that’s 50% people of color, that’s both inevitable and necessary, I think.
With powerful voices like Shan on the jury, race will be at the forefront of the jury deliberations, especially with the open forum format. It has to. Gender may be an important facet, too, depending on who is in the Final 3.
Race will be on the mind of every person on the jury. When they get ready to write a name on pieces of parchment, they’ll be thinking about how their season will be perceived. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, only pointing out that the way the players will vote is going to be shaped by forces outside of the game.
We already know that Heather can’t win. Can Xander? I’m not so sure.
Okay, I’m out of my depth here. As a middle aged white guy, I’m supposed to be an ally, to listen. So that’s what I’ll do. If any of the cast wants to share their stories with me, I’m here. Would love to hear what you have to say.
And loyal readers, if you want to have a conversation about this, let’s talk about it in the comment section this week.
9) More twists are coming
At the end of every Survival Challenge season, we debrief the game, talk about what worked and what didn’t. I imagine that Survivor does the same (unless Probst has shut down all reflection; can’t rule that out). And this past week, I realized something horrid: they probably think this season’s twists are fine.
** Knowledge is Power: gave them a big moment that will be at the heart of Xander’s FTC argument, should he get there
** Smash the Hourglass: Erika changed the game and is likely to be in the finale
** Beware Idol: gave them a series of “fun” moments before challenges
** Do or Die: what a dramatic moment for Deshawn!
From production’s point of view, the only thing that didn’t work was the Shot in the Dark. I’m sure they think they can fix that one, though, by using it with larger tribes and/or not creating small-tribe dynamics after the merge (need to avoid a single vote being too high a price to pay). I’ll be shocked if they don’t give it a try.
At the heart of all of these twists is jaded game design: Probst wants the game to be cast-independent. That no matter how bad the players are, he’ll still have all the drama he wants and needs. He wants to be able to map out the season ahead of time and pencil in moments for all thirteen episodes, stories he can count on.
Picture four walls of massive whiteboards broken into 13 episode sections. First, they write in the big stuff: challenges and Tribals. Episode 1 has the intros. Swaps will chew up air time. The merge is chaotic, need to give a lot of time to the new dynamics. Then, they’ll add the twists: the hourglass smash. Do or Die. The Beware Idol segments including pre-challenge proclamations. Then slate some time for the personal stories of individual players.
All of that can be planned out before adding the uncertainty of actual human beings. THAT’S what Probst wants. Control.
That’s at the heart of most of their decisions: changing from a F2 to a F3? An attempt to control who wins. F4 becoming firemaking? Same thing. F7 Do or Die? Likely to take out a poor challenge performer who is desperate for immunity (Probst doesn’t mind saying goodbye to that sort of player). Smash the Hourglass? That’s the most nefarious twist of all: it’s designed to announce, once and for all, that production can do whatever the hell it wants, up to and including outright lying to the contestants.
In the end, all of the twists are there to make the players, and the viewers, numb to production manipulation. It’s the Big Brother-ing of Survivor: Expect the unexpected. We’re in control here, Probst is saying. Don’t bother complaining, because we’re not listening.
They’re getting what they want: single-episode and season-long drama. That’s all they’re after. The game is simply a vehicle for manufactured moments. If they feel like they need more, they’ll re-introduce an idol at F6 because they want Deshawn and Danny to have a shot to turn things around. Think they want Heather to find an idol at this point? And if they don’t want her to find one, it is completely within their power to make sure she doesn’t. When you have the power to do the thing you want to do even though you shouldn’t do it … that’s a recipe for disaster.
Brace yourselves, folks, the twists of Season 41 are just the beginning.
10) Is nothing sacred?
PLAYERS SHOULD ALWAYS BE VOTED OUT.
(Yes, I’m aware that there are rock draws and fire-making tie breakers. Not the same thing.)
I’m still annoyed about Wanda and Jonathan in Survivor: Palau.
Heck, failing at a challenge is what sent me home in Survival Challenge. I made peace with it long ago. But I’d be lying if I said the Do or Die twist didn’t dredge up the memories.
Between the whole “you can’t lie” part of the Knowledge is Power advantage and now “pick the wrong box and you go home” facet of Do or Die, it feels like production is taking a wrecking ball to the entire framework of the game.
Strangers on a beach. Build a society to tear it down. And…
THEY VOTE EACH OTHER OUT.
11) Hey Probst...
… can you stop addressing the audience directly, please? I’ve been reserving judgment all season long, and for a while, I thought it was harmless. But then I realized that it just undermines the drama of the moment: just like Erika’s edit, you’re breaking the law of “show don’t tell.” Just let the drama unfold, Jeffrey! Stop making it about you. It’s never been about you. Although you very much want it to be.
My advice? Shut up and dimple.
12) Sweating the small stuff
** I’d be fascinated to find out from a medical professional/anatomy expert which grip makes more sense in that endurance challenge, overhand or underhand. I suspect it’s the latter because you get to recruit your biceps rather than your forearm muscles. That said, overhand feels like it would give you more control.
** I was happy to see Probst explain the twist to the players (I was afraid he wouldn’t). Of course, it wasn’t particularly fair that he didn’t include the odds of elimination. Yet another reminder that fairness isn’t the point.
** I remember the first time I encountered the Monty Hall problem. It nearly broke my brain. But the math works (Christian Hubicki did a great job explaining it on RHAP). And when you think about it, the design of the whole exercise is to pit possession (“this one is yours, unless you choose to switch”) against a fear of missing out as well as intuition against logic. Deshawn chose poorly, but was fortunate enough to drink from the cup of a carpenter. Didn’t feel like it was edited and scored like the moment that catapulted Deshawn to a win, though, did it?
A mild confession: The order in which I wrote about the players this week? That’s my new boot order:
6th Place: Deshawn
5th Place: Ricard
4th Place: Danny
3rd Place: Heather
2nd Place: Xander
Sole Survivor: Erika
Could they be targeting Ricard this week? Sure. Could he pull off a challenge win to prevent that from happening? Absolutely.
Could Danny or Deshawn win immunity? Of course! Could one of them find an idol? Production would love it, so ….
Speaking of that, a quick interlude:
What Survivor should do: Have a design document that commits to the placing or re-introduction of idols at specified points in the game. Also needed: an if/then document. A sample entry from that hypothetical rulebook: “If there are zero idols or one idol in the game at F6, we will put another idol into the game.” Make the decision context-independent. Perhaps Survivor does this, but isn’t it more likely they do something like this? “We like the players on the bottom, and we don’t want a Pagonging, so we’ll make sure they have a shot at an idol.” And then there’s the matter of where and when they place the idol … does everyone really have an equal and fair shot at getting their hands on it? The location and timing of the idol hide should be pre-set, too. But again, do you think Survivor does that? Or do they make their decisions based on what serves the narrative they want to tell?
End of interlude.
Frankly, I’ll be stunned if Xander, Erika or Heather is voted out this week. Xander has his idol. Targeting Erika would guarantee a big threat makes it into the Final 3. And obviously, there’s no reason to target Heather (apparently the stems can be made into brooms).
That leaves Ricard, Deshawn, and Danny as the targets. Immunity and an idol can cover only two of them, so one of them is going home. I’m going with Deshawn, just because he’s both a necessary boot and an easy one (not turning on the new alliance), but it could just as easily be Ricard. Danny, meanwhile, feels like a lesser threat…
I just asked myself why I feel that way about Danny. So I went and took a look at vote tallies. Here’s where we sit:
|Player||Votes against||Threat level|
|Heather||5||The biggest threat (grows on mountains)|
|Ricard||5||In all seriousness, he’s the biggest threat|
|Deshawn||3||The next threat down|
|Xander||2||No longer a threat?|
|Erika||2||Maybe not all that threatening?|
My question about targeting Ricard right now: Would Xander, Erika, or Heather worry that any of them would break ranks and join Deshawn and Danny at F5? Somehow, I doubt it. Erika thinks she can beat Xander. Xander thinks he can beat Erika. And Heather, well, Heather is often used as roofing for temporary sheds made of peat mud.
So Ricard’s the target … and unless he wins immunity, or finds an idol, he’s joining the jury. If he’s safe, then Deshawn’s torch is getting snuffed.
Baker When he’s not blogging about
Survivor, Andy Baker helps run a Survivor-based LRG and is
podcasting about TV shows. Which is to say he spends
entirely too much time in front of the TV, typing on his
laptop and muttering about bad narrative decisions.
Andy can be found on twitter: @B13pod.