As painful as last week's episode of Survivor 41 was to trudge through, this week's outing was pure pleasure. It seems crazy that all it took to break the show of its concerning addiction to advantages, more advantages, and advantage-canceling advantages was the simple inclusion of a separate reward challenge, but if that's what it takes to turn this "new era" into one that audiences from the past 40 seasons would actually enjoy watching, so be it.
This episode succeeded because the focus was on the contestants, and their relationships with each other, rather than packages wrapped in burlap, and the notes contained therein. We finally got to visit Luvu camp for more than a few seconds. Erika and Heather were even allowed to speak this episode! Yes, we lost another big character in JD, but we also had the time to see his tribe talk about making that move. And we even had a Shanthem-soundtracked Big Move in the process!
Here's the thing: Kellyn was exactly right about this last week. Survivor fans will remember the characters, the players, the personalities long after the advantages have disappeared into the mists of time. It's Malcolm, Ozzy, and Woo — the players, although maybe also their hairstyles — who were role models to JD growing up, not some half-baked advantage* that was quickly abandoned after one season. The audience likes big moves, sure, but we also need to have some investment in the players making them. This week allowed enough breathing room to the characters for that to happen.
(*True story: In looking back at HvHvH events this week, I realized I had already forgotten Lauren Rimmer's crappy "advantage" that forced her to not vote at one Tribal, in exchange for keeping the parchment for later use as an extra vote. I'm uh ... sorry for reminding you of it.)
Anyway, for the love of your audience, Survivor: We don't need a brand-new "advantage" in every episode. We don't need twist after twist after twist. We're happy with two (or even one) challenge and just watching the contestants play the game. It's a simple formula. Please stop trying to New Coke everything all the time. All we want is more episodes like this. Please?
Adding to this week's pleasure: Not only lots of contestants, but also some (maybe) Big Foreshadowing segments:
A tale of two tribes: Yase, the adorable baby turtles
It was a bit over-the-top, maybe even *too* much so to actually be an accurate vision of things to come, but regardless, Yase had an enjoyable bit where they celebrated their reward win by giving an improv "Previously On Survivor ..." segment (remember those?), aided and abetted by the editors, who threw in bonus clips of Probst lambasting the tribe for sucking in early challenges. They (mostly Evvie) talked up their "core four" rising above early adversity, finding its footing, all that. It was light, it was fun, and it was even mostly accurate, which isn't always true of "Previously On"s.
With a bit of editing magic, this then morphs into allegory, as Tiffany calls the tribe down to the beach to witness hundreds of baby sea turtle hatchlings struggling through the sand to ocean water. (Something that Mike Zahalsky and Chrissy Hofbeck remind us also happened, presumably at the same location, in HvHvH, although it was April 22, 2021 here vs. May 9, 2017.) In case you missed that Very Subtle metaphor, the Yases even explicitly call the tiny tetrapods struggling to climb past walls of sand to reach the water "Yase" turtles.
In reality, is Yase the Plucky Underdog Tribe that Could? (That title doesn't seem to fit Ua, at least.) Does symbolism slathered on this thick really count as foreshadowing? It's been remarkable to see just how far back from the brink Tiffany's prospects have come since she struggled to cross the floating balance beam in the Ep2 IC. She landed sandbags in last week's RC/IC, landed all four balls to close out their RC non-loss, and landed the first of their three rings in the IC this week. Most importantly, they haven't had to vote for two straight Tribals, so maybe everyone really is calming down and working together better.
Of course, the previews show Tiffany hatching a plot to blindside Xander, so maybe the celebration was a bit premature. But it's certainly not implausible that this season's winner could come from Yase.
A tale of two tribes: The capsizing Luvus
It's never a good sign for a Survivor player to be shown getting hit by a wave (see, for example, Josh Canfield in San Juan del Sur , circa the swap episode). Fire is life, after all, and a big wall of water is sort of the opposite of fire. Nature's own snuffer, if you will. Luvu, despite being up in numbers six to four to three at this point, decided to get the bulk discount this week, with four of them capsizing their tiny rowboat.
That's a little worrisome in an episode where Deshawn openly fretted that their hitting the merge six strong could make them all targets, as happened to the Healers tribe in Heroes v Healers v Hustlers. (Especially worrisome when the challenge they're trying to throw that first appeared in that season.)
Luvu finally broke free of the "underedited third tribe that always wins" curse this week, as the story dug deep into Erika's wanting to play big, Deshawn's (ultimately thwarted) plan to throw the immunity challenge, and everyone (well, Danny, Deshawn and Erika, at least) offering full support to Heather after her reward challenge struggles. It was nice to finally see them all, outside of the simmering Sydney-Naseer feud (to which we can now add a Sydney-Erika feud, hooray). (Naseer saying "Thank you, flint" when Sydney storms off after she fails to start a fire was a cute touch.)
If Luvu does end up getting decimated after reaching the merge with too many members, this episode was full of insights into why that happened. It's clear the tribe has multiple fissures waiting to be exposed at Tribal. It wouldn't be surprising if *both* targets at the merge are Luvus, eager to finally vote each other out. Deshawn and Danny clearly have the trust of almost everyone else in the tribe, and each appears to be playing a really solid game. It would be disappointing if they correctly foresaw the curse of the too-powerful tribe in a three-tribe season (with no swap, apparently), were unable to course-correct, and never really get a chance to actually play.
(Yes, I know Koror also flipped their outrigger after winning the Ep1 IC in Palau, but that was probably necessary to show only because the tribe's core alliance could then look heroic in the next episode when Ian dives to recover their hard-won flint.)
Maybe the sinking of the SS Luvu wasn't intended as long-term foreshadowing. Maybe it was just there to let us know that Deshawn and Danny's attempt to throw the IC wouldn't end up working. But it's hard not to see the combination of Deshawn's very realistic worries about the merge and this kind of imagery as forecasting rough waters ahead for Luvu.
The pluses and minuses of three tribes
Plus/minus: If you're not an all-around physical beast, and you luck into a tribe full of those people, there's a good chance you might be able to ride the sit-out bench all the way to the merge. Luvu is such a tribe, and Heather had successfully avoided being in a challenge for two straight episodes. It was a pretty sweet set-up. But the decision to go with a separate RC and IC this week brought that streak to an end. Heather probably would have performed well in the IC, since it was not a challenge that required each participant to complete a skill-based task, and Heather did fine in the sled-hauling part of the premiere's IC. If only Deshawn had thought to throw the IC *before* they chose the sit-outs for the reward challenge, Heather might never have had to go through that "growth experience."
Plus: It really does seem that the combination of having to fit two challenges into a two-day filming cycle (thank you, 26-day season!), and also having three tribes to visit was what spared us from another round of "Beware Advantage" packages being hidden in plain sight, and being forced to watch three people, back-to-back-to-back, read the same exact note. There was simply no time to send three people off to make a big "decision." So for everyone saying "I like it with only one challenge," won't you please think about the children? (Also, for everyone saying US Survivor episodes should be 90 minutes, like those of its AU and SA brethren, you take that back. We both know damn well what they would waste the extra time on.)
- No. God. Please. No: Everyone's favorite bundle o' burlap makes an appearance in Genie's hands in the preview for next week. Is it just another dilemma invitation, or is it Brad's old idol package, rehidden in the exact same spot? (Seems like the latter.) With the merge probably coming in Ep6, which would cause the three idols to expire, guess they need to put the hiding back on Easy Mode. (Still wish they'd shown us what Deshawn told Luvu about this, and who he talked to.)
- Butterfly-free zone: If a Xander mentions butterflies in the pre-IC mat chat and it doesn't make the edit, did it really happen? (In all likelihood, he saw Brad was gone and didn't bother this week. Would have been cool to get a confessional about that from him, but oh well.)
- Athletes can be people, too: Danny, simply by being one of the nicest, most supportive people in the world, may have singlehandedly saved the requisite "retired male athlete" slot still present in almost every cast from elimination. Danny, you're an all-around amazing person, but why can't you use your superpowers for good?
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