Light and dark, success and defeat, and other things like reward and lack thereof, were all balanced pretty successfully in Episode 10 of Survivor 43. Better than the stacks of tiles, anyway. It was an episode where a majority alliance retained control, but it was a majority that was both starting to show cracks, and one that replaced its two departed members with someone originally in the minority. Changes were afoot.
For the people on the bottom (and the audience), this is a great development. This is a superfan-heavy cast, one that should not be tied down to rigid alliances. There are a number of capable strategists and people who have the key social skills necessary to persuade others that a more fluid game should finally be breaking open. And there enough plausible winner candidates that even with three more vote-outs and dumb fire-making challenge, the final three should still have some great players, no matter how things turn out. Things are looking up. (Except for this week's reward challenge winner.)
Fallout from the split vote
This episode kicked off with a recap from Karla's perspective that was almost a mirror image of the roots of the Owen-James conflict in the previous episode: The surprise Owen-Noelle-Sami majority in Karla's team of five had tried to leave her out of the vote against James, and Sami only caved and told her the name at the last minute.
To be fair, Karla had been in power (unlike Owen, who was merely begging to be part of the majority in the Jeanine boot, for once), and Owen, Noelle, and Sami had good reason to think Karla might not view voting against James positively, since they were original tribemates who had worked closely together. Sami told her anyway, which risked blowing up the Noelle's scheme to steal Owen's vote as a smokescreen. But Karla still felt slighted at not being included initially. It's not exactly the same as Owen/James, but it's close: The person being left out of the vote perceives it as a lack of respect, and turns on offending parties at the next vote.
Obviously, there were degrees of offense that were different here, but Karla reacted differently than Owen here: She simply regrouped with her allies (who importantly still had the majority) and ultimately ended up voting out one of the three. The key here, though, is that Karla might have been receptive to going with Owen/Noelle/Sami instead of Jesse/Cody, but the other side forced her hand by attempting to leave her out of the vote.
It's a small thing, a subtle thing. But it shows how delicate the social situations can be in this game.
(I am, of course, conveniently ignoring that the other members of Karla's alliance, particularly Cassidy, who is now Karla's closest ally, were eager and/or perfectly okay with taking out Noelle, whose power in the game indeed seemed to be growing.)
The other repercussions from this single split vote is that Noelle expressed a newfound distrust in Sami (a sentiment echoed by others elsewhere) for having positioned himself as the swing vote by looping Karla in. Up until this point, Sami had quietly been playing a near-perfect middle game, keeping on good terms with all players, and moving between alliances.
It's unclear how much trouble Sami is in now, since the only person who actually voted against him was the now-juror Noelle, but it'll be interesting to see how wary his tribemates are of him now. He could easily become viewed as an obvious threat who needs to be taken out, as soon as the next vote. Noelle called him a flip-flopper (Sami himself swore "I won't flop back this time"), and Karla described him as "all over the place."
No good reward goes unpunished
This episode was a white-knuckle rollercoaster for Noelle. From pulling off one of the most shocking, heroic comeback wins in Survivor challenge history, to a spectacular reward trip, to ... being voted out. Survivor has all but done away with individual reward challenges in recent years, in part because superfan players are well aware that the winner has to make decisions about who else will join them on reward, and that's always fraught with uncertainty. Even allies who have agreed ahead of time that if one wins, the other should stay in camp (a smart move!) can get testy when they're the one not picked. It's understandable when a reward is this good, you're starving, and you miss out because of dumb "strategy."
So the best move is always to not win individual reward challenges. Production knows this. In the past, individual rewards tended to have lopsided reward/non-reward divisions, with the group receiving reward being smaller, and a larger number of non-rewardees grumbling back in camp. Just last season, this same reward in Episode 10 resulted in a 3-5 split, with Lindsay, Omar, and Mike attending (and receiving the same reward, pretty much, except they had videos instead of letters). Although it was a 4-4 split in Survivor 41. (Nice restraint on the show's behalf in not having Probst lecture us that "the observant player will know this is the exact same overnight getaway location and the exact same food reward as in the past two seasons at this exact position in the game.")
The 4-4 split seems to be a production hedge against an individual reward winner being punished immediately, although its efficacy hasn't been tested in recent seasons, because both the 41 and 42 RC winners (Ricard and Lindsay) went on to win immunity that same episode. Unluckily for Noelle, she didn't, and while the four non-rewardees didn't just go back to camp and say "Screw this, we're a majority right here, let's just vote out Noelle," they sort of did that, anyway. (Or at least Cassidy did, Karla was on board, and Gabler remained non-commital until he saw the IC results.)
A better buffer against blowback for winning individual rewards would be to simply have more of them. When there's just one or two per season, each win — and thus each post-win decision — takes on that much more importance. Survivor seems instead to be leaning toward eliminating individual reward challenges entirely, because they're more work to film/build, especially with lots of players. That's a pity, because the post-win decision is one of the classic strategic levers in the game. But no doubt there's some game of chance or rock draw that production would rather use instead.
Hooray for humor
There's enough inherent drama in Survivor as it is, what with the blindsiding and the starvation and the Cody pissing all over the camp of it all. So it's great when the show feels free to edit for comedy, even if it's mostly tragi-comedy at best.
The extended montage of every single person's tile stacks collapsing in the IC was one of the funniest sequences in recent memory. (Obviously super frustrating for the people playing, but hilarious when it's not you.) To cap it off, there was a single static shot where, in the space of like three seconds, every person in the frame's stack fell, from left to right: Owen's, then Cody's, then Karla's. It was magical.
Later in the episode, Jesse's "Checklist for a blindside" maintained the same light tone. He clearly actually had mixed emotions about it (as he said in confessional), because he had "a good relationship with Noelle" and she had just given him a priceless reward trip. But the cheeky editing with the bullet points in the chyron, and the checkmark after each topic was achieved, made it feel lighter and helped soften the blow of what Jesse acknowledged was a move that if he was thinking with in-game emotions, was difficult to make. But also a move that, when reminded of his son's "get that money, baby" request, he had to make.
- Amazing: Noelle's comeback win in the reward challenge, while perhaps ill-advised strategically, was still a brilliant demonstration of grit and determination. It's not clear why Survivor suddenly forgot about its usual stand-in-one-place (or memory, or puzzle) challenges in the one season Noelle was on, but Noelle beat the system anyway. Good for her, and great for anyone rightly inspired by her performance.
- Yikes? As his chyron keeps reminding us, Jesse has been holding Cody's idol for three episodes now. He told Noelle he gave it back this episode, but that was clearly part of his (fake) cover story. *Is* he going to give it back? Jesse's been playing an amazing game, but completing the Sam Gash idol heist is probably going to be about as popular with an American jury as it would have been with the Australian one in AU: Blood v Water.
- Death by juxtaposition: The non-rewardees are back at camp, and each of them (except Karla, for some reason) has a segment on their plans for the next vote. In Cassidy's bit, she and Cody talk to each other, and Cassidy talks about "I want to start taking out the big threats!" (such as Noelle). About a minute later, Gabler confidently talks (in confessional) about how he's built himself such a great spot in the middle: people want his vote, and "nobody's talking about voting for me." On the one hand, the whole concept of threat management is to not make yourself a "big threat," so good on Gabler for that. On the other hand, a little awkward, in edited context.
- That's so metal: After some idiot (me) opined on twitter that using foley to add metal-clinking sound effects to the IC seemed a bit weird, since they use wooden tiles for the house of cards building, one Karla Cruz-Godoy cleared up that actually the cards are made of metal. (?!) Has this always been the case? This makes the stacking seem all the more difficult, since a metal tile would have less inherent friction (and thus structural stability) than a wooden one.
- Thanksgiving: One of the consistently enjoyable parts of this cast is that they're all longtime fans of the show, and just about every person who has won immunity so far has been overjoyed, having achieved a longtime dream. We saw it with Gabler, with Owen, with Karla, and it continued with Cassidy, who was bouncing up and down in giddy disbelief.
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