With its final hour before the finale, Survivor 43 unleashed an all-time classic episode in Episode 12, "Telenovela." The season's closest remaining pair falls apart, cleaved from within by Jesse. Three overlapping big moves/blindsides are shown, all involving the still-unplayed idols, and the one that ends up happening breaks new ground, by using idols not to save someone, but to ensure someone is voted out.
It's a solid reminder that if the contestants know the rules of the game they're playing, and are given the tools to play it, they will come up with interesting and exciting new plans and strategies. It doesn't have to be top-down game design, and in fact it's better when it's not. Just cast good players, then let them play.
It was also an episode that told its story cleanly and near-flawlessly, closing with Jesse successfully blindsiding his own partner, Cody, and comparing/contrasting that with the opening action of another pair — Karla and Cassidy — splitting up after a Jesse move that failed. (Although Karla and Cassidy being in camp to bicker about turning on each other was Jesse's original intent.)
It was also an episode that took the time to make clear this wasn't just gamebot posturing. Jesse actually liked Cody, and had misgivings about voting him out, but ultimately valued this chance to win life-changing money for his family over his newfound friendship. (As he should!) Real stakes, real sacrifice.
Like Jesse's move, the hour was just artfully put together. Sure, as always there were a few minor things to quibble about along the way, but on the whole, a really well-crafted episode, and one that propels us forcefully toward the upcoming finale, where one of these five (probably Jesse?) will be crowned champion.
Jesse's move and what happens next
There was even more to Jesse's move than was shown: In Cody's exit interviews, Cody said that Jesse had told him earlier that day — before Cody's fake idol-bluff plan with Karla was hatched — that Jesse was worried Karla has Knowledge is Power. It was a reasonable worry, one that echoed the audience's concerns that it would be put right back into the game after James left with it. And that's why Cody eventually put his idol back in Jesse's bag.
The most impressive part about Jesse's plan is that it did all the things he wanted to do on the previous vote (leaving Karla out to cast a stray vote), but so much more, all at once. He achieved the move Stephen Fishbach wanted to make near the end of Tocantins, in removing his own ally, because they made the same moves, and that ally (JT/Cody) might have a stronger story to tell the jury.
He also pulled in Owen more closely. He initially showed Owen he trusted him enough to kick off the Cody blindside scheme with him. (Owen then told Cassidy and Gabler.) Owen also did some of Jesse's earlier leg work for him, helping drive the wedge between Cassidy and Karla over Karla's planned blindside of Cassidy at the previous vote. Jesse paid all that effort back by playing an idol for Owen.
That's helpful because it pulls Owen a bit further away from Gabler, and gives Jesse someone with strong social connections to Gabler and Cassidy. Owen is still a threat to win, because he has friends on the jury. But his game is far more clearly differentiated from Jesse's: Owen was out of the loop on just about every vote until Jesse pulled him in. Owen expressed misgivings about Jesse last episode, but clearly the trust between them is still developing. A Jesse-Owen duo is probably not Owen's best move (getting to the end with Gabler and Cassidy is probably his optimal path), but it's a good one for Jesse.
Overall, blindsiding Cody and using his own idol to do so was a game-winning move for Jesse. It was crowd-pleasing, made a statement about how hard he's playing, and put him on the jury's radar. The game is now Jesse's to lose. The problem is: Thanks to forced F4 fire-making, he still can.
Just as idols weren't designed to ensure the person who found them is voted out, F4 fire wasn't designed to trip up the best strategic player at the final point possible, quite the opposite. But it really could here. Here's why:
Jesse is the person least likely to win each of the next two immunity challenges. Here's the breakdown of the top challenge performers so far:
|Player||Mean % finish||Challenge wins|
Any one of Owen, Cassidy, or Karla is a threat to win the next two challenges. The only other person not really in the running is Gabler, although if production breaks out another test of forearm strength, like the two challenges Jane Bright won in Nicaragua ("Push Me, Pull You" and "Splash Back"), Gabler is suddenly also a favorite again. It's theoretically possible Jesse has been sandbagging up until this point, but there's no evidence to indicate that's actually the case.
So the safest assumption is that Jesse is going to lose both immunity challenges. (This is not ironclad, though. There's certainly a chance he could pull off a miracle win, especially now that Cody's out of the picture and Karla is injured.) While Jesse can use his idol at the Final 5 vote to block any attempts to target him there, he's all but guaranteed to be one of the two people making fire at Final 4. As we've seen, that's a dangerous place to be, even if you're relatively good at making fire (Devon Pinto and Rick Devens learned this). Is Jesse good at it? Who knows?
There's still room for further growth, even. You could also argue that one of the main selling points of Jesse's game so far is that he's been orchestrating moves behind the scenes so successfully that he hasn't been voted against a single time. He's made it all the way to the finale with zero votes against, while never once winning immunity, which is not true of anyone else left standing. (Gabler also has zero votes against, but won immunity.) So if Jesse can avoid playing Jeanine's idol, and get to the end with a solid alliance, then pull the idol out at Final Tribal, just like Maryanne did: That's his best winning game. (Note that the 42 finale had not aired yet when this season was filming.) He doesn't need to do that to win, it would be icing on the cake. But still, good cake!
Appreciating the storytelling
I was going to forecast how the final five will unfold, but it's pretty obvious that Jesse will win if he makes the final three, and that there's really no coherent story for anyone else to claim that title.
Karla seemed like a clear contender up until the merge, but then she spun her wheels for a bit after that as other people made moves around her, then everything completely blew up in her face this week. Despite delivering the episode title, "Telenovela," this was not Karla's week. She was shown tearfully lying to Cassidy about never targeting her (swiftly refuted when Cassidy fact-checked with Jesse, at Karla's suggestion). Then Karla shed more crocodile tears at the reward, breaking down about being targeted for having an idol, when she didn't really have one, she swears! This was immediately shot down when Owen and Cody returned to camp, and Cassidy assured them that yes, Karla does have an idol. From there, things got worse, as Karla's hands cramped up in the IC, and she was duped by *both* Cody and Jesse in competing schemes, culminating in publicly burning her idol at Tribal. Karla has played a great game up until now, but it all fell apart here. She's probably the #1 target at the next vote, just because her résumé is the strongest of the people not named Jesse.
Of the remaining players, Cassidy has moved up in prominence the most over the past few episodes, but she's mainly not been a target because she was immune, or because Karla seemed like a bigger threat. She could certainly Mike Holloway her way to the final three, and might have a shot at the million if she's against Owen and Gabler. But it's unclear if anyone on the jury is really on her side, and people like James and Ryan probably aren't. She's had the fewest confessionals of anyone in the final six, and has absolutely been playing in Karla's shadow most of the game. If she's the winner, that's narrative malpractice.
Then there are the Baka boys: Owen has his Charlie Brown underdog narrative, and does have friends on the jury (Jeanine, Noelle), while Gabler has his story about being "Alligabler" and "hiding in plain sight," which he could theoretically spin as a winning strategy, despite mostly being a number in other people's plans (except on the Elie boot). While it would be interesting if one of them won, both storylines still feel like red herrings. Realistically, it's Jesse or bust.
That being said, let's take a moment to appreciate just how complicated — yet carefully told — the final act of this episode was. It starts off with a surprisingly well-crafted (and sold) plan by Cody, as he pitches it to Karla: He and she should both bluff that they're playing their idols at this (Final 6) Tribal Council, to divert the target onto one of Owen or Gabler. Karla follows through, securing assurances from each of Owen and Gabler that they're willing to turn on the other. Plan 1: mission accomplished! (Right?)
Wrong! Then we learn in confessional that Cody was in fact lying here. He has no intention of steamrolling his way to F5 with an idol-wielding Karla. He wants her out! He "stretched the truth ... no, I was lying." It's a gear that it wasn't really clear Cody had, apart from during his pre-merge raid trip to Coco camp. (Interestingly, Karla saw through his scheming then, but did not appear to this time.) Cody quickly re-connects with Owen, and lets him know what's up. Owen seems pleased. Plan 2: Confirmed.
Except ... that's also not how it's going to go down. Jesse isn't comfortable with Cody making such a publicly visible play this close to the end, especially when (as we'll recall) Cody's idol is still sitting in Jesse's bag. So once again, Owen gets to be the conduit to a new scheme: Jesse plays Cody's idol for Owen (who Karla will be voting against), which should trigger Karla to also play her idol in self-defense. That will then leave Cody totally exposed for a four-vote pile-on. It's cruel, it's a little cold-hearted, considering Cody trusts Jesse implicitly, but as Jesse says in confessional: Rationally, he can't be pulling punches just because he's been someone's friend for 23 days, not when there's a million bucks on the line, money his family could really use. Plan 3: Underway.
Except ... that's still not the end! Owen tells Cassidy and Gabler about the plan, they're pretty excited about it, but there's just one small problem: Karla wants to see Cody's idol, so Jesse has to give it back. Right before Tribal. As Cassidy says, the clock is ticking, it's almost time to leave. Is there a plan B?
So many twists and turns, all packed into a very short segment. Scripted thrillers are rarely this densely plot-heavy, (okay, maybe telenovelas are), but these starving, sleep-deprived people came up with all this over the course of a few hours. It's Survivor at its best, and we haven't really even touched on the show taking the time to explore Jesse's complicated feelings about betraying Cody, the guy who's been his best friend in the game. (Since the divorce from Dwight, at least.) We also get Cody's tragic overconfidence at Tribal Council, which Jesse just has to sit there and not comment on. Humanity, hubris, and strategy, all layered perfectly.
- Missed it by *that much*: It's astounding to think about how much of the action in this episode was decided by a split-second loss in the IC. Cody finished his puzzle seconds behind Cassidy. If she simply guesses the wrong order for the three numbers on the combo lock one or two more times, Cody wins immunity, and it's either Cassidy or Karla out here (probably Cassidy), in an underwhelming pile-on. Obviously, this has to be crushing for Cody, but it worked out great for the audience. (Great, now I feel guilty for enjoying the episode.)
- One fewer finale distraction? Ha ha, no. There's not much in the way of concrete previewing in the post-Ep12 "Next time on Survivor...", but we do see Gabler with an advantage clue, so obviously it was silly of us to hope that production inserting a challenge-related advantage into Ep11 meant they would forego another underexciting advantage scramble in the finale. On the "plus" side, with Cody gone, they can now safely tack it to a tree at eye level, and re-create the exact same joke as last week! Won't that be *hilarious*? (If you can't tell, I'm being sarcastic.)
- There's always a silver lining: For no discernible reason other than CBS/Survivor being cheap, there is no live reunion again this season, and as with 41 and 42, the winner will be revealed live on location. What's the bright side? Well, if Jesse wins, we will be spared the grim spectacle of Probst leaping into the audience to shove a mic into Jesse's poor kid's face, demanding a recitation of the catchphrase "Get that money, baby!" as we go to a commercial break.
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