Episode 8 of Survivor 43 was a mix of big surprises, tooth-grindingly predictable twists, a Big Move by a big player that ended up sputtering into nothingness before Tribal, and the unsurprising outcome of yet another woman leaving.
Still, it was a result that made sense for the alliance in power, so it's hard to criticize them for playing logically. Karla and Jesse are patiently laying low and letting the Seven wave carry them as far as it can, like a pair of modern-day Sophie Clarkes, as well they should. It's just that the combination of safe gameplay by the contestants in power, and the relentlessly timid, rote game design by production adds up to an underexciting experience for the audience, on the whole.
But fear not, the same inflexible production decision-making could* end up producing something interesting next week, even if the majority continues to stick to the plan. More on that below, but first: something really fun actually happened this week.
(*It has between a 25% and a 50% chance of doing so, so temper your expectations accordingly.)
Journeyman twist finally semi-effective
It happened. It finally happened. It took four tries, two of which came in the same season, but somehow, through sheer flukiness, the Knowledge is Power advantage finally earned its keep, albeit completely tangentially from the way it was designed to work. (I know, I'm as shocked as you are that even this was achievable.)
After the show went through the motions of pretending that Jeanine's idol left the game in Dwight's pocket (or crotch) last episode, there was a legitimately shocking reveal this week when Jesse chuckled in confessional that actually, Dwight had handed it off to him before Tribal, so Jesse now has an idol that nobody knows about! (James, the actual holder of Knowledge is Power, has no idols or other advantages, and also doesn't know about Jesse's idol. But we're still crediting KIP for this outcome, mainly just to be nice occasionally.)
This puts Jesse in one of the best positions any player has found themselves since Winners at War, with an actual, fully-powered idol that nobody knows he's holding. While Maryanne also achieved this last season, Jesse finds himself in the majority alliance at this point in the game, so his position is probably slightly better.
Some have noted the similarities and contrasts between this and Sam Gash's idol heist last season in Survivor AU: Blood V Water. There, she "held" the idol of the person who was being targeted (her then-closest ally, confusingly also named Jesse), then promptly voted him out, all of which was shown in real time. Some fans have complained that it would have been more meaningful to see more of the Dwight-Jesse relationship that led to the handover last week. That's fair, but it's possible that such footage doesn't really exist (Noelle did seem to be Dwight's closest ally, then probably Jeanine), and maybe it really just was a fluke, last-second transfer between somewhat-close original tribemates. If that's the case, the shocking payoff this week was absolutely worth it. Either way, this was a fun surprise for everyone (in the audience at least, less so for Jeanine), and it was worth the editing sleight of hand.
What's most impressive about all this is the amount of effort it took to maintain the secrecy about this over the week since Dwight's boot episode aired. The show went so far as to trot out Jeff Probst himself answering Dalton Ross's (helpfully wrong, but appropriate to the episode as edited) question about whether idols can be transferred after the votes are read. "Nope, that's against the rules" Probst said (paraphrased), not letting on in the slightest that this was not actually the issue here.
Similarly, Dwight himself played a huge role in the subterfuge, nimbly avoiding whether he should have played Jeanine's idol if he thought he was in trouble, by instead talking about how surprised he was that Cody and Jesse flipped, and besides, what if he HAD played it and he didn't need to, and had torched Jeanine's trust with him in doing so? (Again, paraphrased.) Dwight's is the most impressive acting job, because he did a *lot* of interviews, all live on video, and got the same questions over and over. Still, well done to all involved.
Oh geez, not again (again)
This week saw the inglorious return (now in its third straight season, hurrah) of Jeff Probst demanding that multiple people sit out of the final 11 Immunity challenge, in exchange for a bag of rice for the tribe.
As twists go, this is obviously not the outrage that the Hourglass twist/Turn Back Time was, nor is it as game-breaking and anti-Survivor in spirit as the Do or Die twist. But it's also not particularly entertaining, nor revealing of anything within the game. Jeff Probst clearly thinks it's a brilliant piece of social engineering, but in reality it's mostly just a sad, pathetic ritual that apparently everyone just nods along with, because the host/showrunner is always right.
One of the worst things is that it's a listless echo of past twists that did exactly the things this one is trying to do — revealing who thinks they are totally safe, and can risk sitting out, even if doing so looks selfish.
The old standard, which paid off memorably in seasons like Guatemala, Panama - Exile Island, Redemption Island, South Pacific, and Blood vs. Water, had Probst offering people the choice to "eat or compete." If they felt safe enough, they could feast throughout the duration of the challenge, while others fought for immunity. The response varied, but at least one person always ate. And the results were usually pretty fun/funny!
But alas, this concept apparently must have run afoul of the new "you have to earn it!" dogma, even though people are now "earning" food for their tribe by not doing something.
Which is sad, because it took what used to be clearly a selfish action (eating a one-time meal) and replaced it with something that can be spun as altruistic (sacrificing a shot at immunity to "earn" food for the tribe). In taking that angle, it's also a bit of a knock-off of a big Angelina moment (when she offered to sit out of an IC in exchange for rice for the tribe in David vs. Goliath), but it's now completely devoid of choice or charm. Five people *have* to sit out, there is no negotiating.
So instead of a fun, spontaneous moment, or something that actually reveals the social hierarchy in a meaningful way, it's just an annoying new "marker" that nobody asked for, nobody particularly enjoys, and one that doesn't provide any real drama. Nobody who was at risk sat out, and nobody would hold sitting out against anyone who did.
Like so much of "new era" Survivor, there's no point, no payoff. Despite that, we still just have to keep doing it, because nothing says "new" like an increasingly loathsome tradition.
The always-the-same era
This gets back to a larger issue that's becoming increasingly clear as Survivor 43 slogs along: Probst lied when he trotted out this excuse for why 42 had the same awful twists as 41 (paraphrased): "There wasn't time to reconfigure anything between seasons, since we film back-to-back."
Obviously, this was not true. They had a full year off between 42 and 43, and still changed virtually nothing. Rather, it's become apparent the show plans to stick with exactly the same episode-to-episode structure for the foreseeable future. They have zero plans — and zero incentive really — to change anything. There will always be a boat pulling up to each of the three camps on Day 2 to whisk one person away for a variation on the Prisoner's Dilemma, because This is What We Do on Survivor Now. And there will probably always be someone like Lindsay dutifully (and dubiously) claiming "I have no idea what's going to happen" in response to that.
Once upon a time, Survivor used to vary a LOT between seasons. They would change locations each time out, and a big part of the adventure of the show was adapting to the new, often extreme, external environment. Along the way, new twists like tribe swaps, a third tribe, hidden immunity idols, Exile Island, and so on were also added in an effort to keep the contestants off-balance, unable to predict exactly what was going to happen next. Those days, apparently, are over.
Now we have the same location every time. That's actually fine, all the beach locations look pretty much the same anyway — but also there are no themes or casting twists to differentiate between seasons, and the filming schedule follows exactly the same episode-by-episode recipe season in, season out. (As a maker of bespoke Survivor calendars, this does make my job considerably easier, so it's not all bad news here.)
For illustration purposes, let's look at the key events from the first 10 episodes of this season, vs. the last two:
|Episode||Survivor 41||Survivor 42||Survivor 43|
|Ep.1||D1: RC, sweat vs. savvy tasks.
|D1: RC, sweat vs. savvy tasks.
|D1: RC, sweat vs. savvy tasks.
|Ep.2||Dilemma after IC, someone from losing tribe gets back right before Tribal||-||-|
|Ep.3||Dilemma at night for some reason||Dilemma after IC, someone from losing tribe gets back right before Tribal||Dilemma after IC, someone from losing tribe gets back right before Tribal|
|Ep.5||Dilemma after IC, someone from losing tribe gets back right before Tribal||Dilemma after IC, someone from losing tribe gets back right before Tribal||Dilemma after IC, someone from losing tribe gets back right before Tribal|
|Ep.6||Random-draw team IC, "merge feast" for winners.||Random-draw team IC, "merge feast" for winners.||Random-draw team IC, "merge feast" for winners. Tribal with 6+ people immune.|
|Ep.7||Tribal with 6+ people immune. Final pre-juror booted at Tribal.||Tribal with 6+ people immune. Final pre-juror booted at Tribal.||Final pre-juror booted at Tribal.|
|Ep.8||Forced sit-outs at IC in exchange for rice.||Forced sit-outs at IC in exchange for rice.||Forced sit-outs at IC in exchange for rice.|
|Ep.9||Random draw for two teams of five, two IC winners, split Tribals.||Random draw for two teams of five, two IC winners, split Tribals.||Random draw for two teams of five, two IC winners, split Tribals.|
|Ep.10||Do or Die.||Do or Die.||God help us, we probably don't want to know.|
Apart from moving the second dilemma to Ep3 in 42 and the shift of the six-immune Tribal Council from Ep7 to Ep6 this season — necessitated by the trash-canning of the hourglass twist (may it rust in pieces) — very strong "it's the same picture" energy here. What happened to keeping the contestants off-balance?
Jeff Probst spun this week's forced sit-outs in exchange for rice as: "Even though we're still in the early days of the still-evolving new era of Survivor, there are already certain markers that the smart player has identified. Today is another one of those markers."
Open letter to Jeff Probst: "still-evolving," eh? Two seasons in a row of near-identical structure is way more than enough. Please evolve faster.
The odds of an interesting split Tribal
Because this column doesn't have enough tables already, let's make another one! Let's look at the probability that next week's immunity challenge and split Tribal Councils will lead to an interesting outcome: someone in the majority Seven being voted out.
Let's look at it from Owen's perspective. He, Noelle, and Gabler are theoretically the three outside the Seven. Let's assume the two teams for the IC are decided by random rock draw, because why would Survivor change anything? Most importantly, let's assume that these three will vote together no matter what. (This is probably the most tenuous assumption.) So that leaves the following set of outcomes depending on what rocks Owen, Noelle, and Gabler pick.
There are only eight possible outcomes for the distribution of these three players between the two teams (let's say they're red and blue, since that was the last split-team color scheme, at the "merge") via the rock draw:
|Contestant||Draw 1||Draw 2||Draw 3||Draw 4||Draw 5||Draw 6||Draw 7||Draw 8|
Of these eight splits, there are six scenarios where the minority three are hopelessly outnumbered on both teams. If they're split 1-2 or 2-1, on a five-person team one will be outnumbered 4-1 by the seven, while the other two will be outnumbered 3-2. So that happens 75% of the time (6/8).
But there's a 1-in-4 chance (2/8) that all three will end up on the same team, where they will outnumber two people from the Seven. Not only that, but if that happens, the other team will have solely people from the Seven, so one of them will definitely be out at that team's Tribal.
There are other possibilities here: If Noelle is in a 3-2 split tribe (which she would be 50% of the time), she can use her Steal-a-Vote advantage to seize the majority. Unless James is also on that team (50-50 chance), in which case her advantage becomes his, and she's probably out as well.
There are also other considerations: Noelle using her Steal-a-Vote could still fail, because three of the Seven have idols (Karla, Jesse, Cody ... thankfully, in each case). Or someone like Sami could end up as the swing vote in one of the 3-2 splits, and change the balance of power that way. (Or that happens, and Gabler decides to vote with the Seven anyway.)
In summary, there's a decent chance that we could see something other than the (near-) complete obliteration of the bottom three next week, and for once, a rigid, always-there twist might lead to an interesting outcome.
See? I can say positive things about this show sometimes!
- Slammin' Sami: Is there a hidden backstory to Sami signing the merge tribe flag as "Sami Sosa"? The Cubs' Sammy Sosa was of course one of the two participants in the big, steroid-fueled Sosa-McGwire homer-thon that took place in 1998. That's probably three years before Sami was born in reality, but for "Survivor 43" Sami, that could be when he was theoretically born. Did Sami try to sell his fake age with "I was named after the Cubs slugger, because of all the excitement that was going on that summer"? If so, pretty solid backstory detail, and it's a shame we weren't shown it.
- More flag-related mysteries: Dwight's name is on the Gaia flag, which means they had two full days to learn how to spell Jeanine's name, yet half the tribe couldn't be bothered? Shameful.
- More spelling-related mysteries: What are the odds that Cody has a "Proposterous!!)" tattoo somewhere on his body? If only we had the "Fallen Comrades" challenge back, so we could find out.
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