Jeff Pitman's Survivor 46 recaps
Pacing, back and forth
By Jeff Pitman | Published: March 9, 2024
Survivor 46 Episode 2 recap/ analysis

Pacing, back and forth

Survivor 46 has had a deeply uneven first couple of (two-hour) episodes. The premiere felt overstuffed with production-dictated Big Events - essentially four challenges (opening RC, Sweat, Savvy, IC) PLUS a journey, plus a two-part but complete Beware idol find sequence, and all of that before Tribal. The second episode, in contrast, sagged in comparison due to what otherwise would have been a welcome lack of structure, with just one solitary challenge to run and two hours to fill. Two episodes, almost complete opposites in terms of pacing.

To be clear: I realize the latter complaint is not the fault of the show, it's CBS's problem. Survivor had been begging CBS for 90-minute episodes for a while, had just completed shooting 45 with that approval, but apparently had unclear guidance from CBS about whether they would be having hour-long or 90-minute episodes for 46. So they shot to accommodate either option, and for Episode 2 CBS decided on ... two hours, because for some reason The Amazing Race couldn't start until three weeks into the Survivor season. So they had all this massive expanse of narrative tent, and precious few tent poles to prop it up.

Yanu's shelter collapses, Ep1

[Yanu's shelter collapsing in the middle of Night 1 would be way better as a .gif, but you get what you get.]

At least, that's how Episode 2 felt on the first watch in real time. On rewatch it flowed a lot better and slogged a lot less. But in general, two hours is still too long for a normal episode of Survivor (premiere, merge, and finale are all good fits for that length, though).

As it turned out, the premiere accidentally benefited from its chronic over-scheduling, simply because the main character of the episode kept volunteering for all the tasks, so as the audience, we had a first-hand view of Jelinsky's legendary demonstration that overconfidence and lack of follow-through generally aren't a great combination. You had to love his enthusiasm, at least until it disappeared after a few minutes. It was a legendary tragicomic first boot arc, right up there with Debb and her "rawks".

But Jelinsky's overcommitment also accidentally kneecapped Episode 2. In a perfect world, someone else from Yanu goes on the Ep1 journey, the outcome doesn't affect their vote, and they finesse some way of shifting that to Ep2, as they did with the scene of Siga making fire for the first time (which clearly actually happened right after the Ep1 IC). Can't play around with sequencing when the Ep1 boot is the star of the journey dilemma, and loses his vote in the process. Oh well.

On the plus side, we did get to spend a LOT of time with all three tribes in this week's episode, and for one of those tribes (Siga), that was a lot of fun. The other two were rife with in-groups, out-groups, exclusion, condescension, and general bickering. Those were the tribes we spent the most time with, of course.

Part of the problem is the general sense of hopelessness someone immediately on the outs on a small tribe faces, as we saw with Venus this week. In her case, she demonstrated that can change quickly - as her spirits lifted when Randen looped her in on his beware idol (pre-) find. They quickly went back down again the next day during the IC, but at least a chance of reprieve is a glimmer of hope.

Another (bigger) part of the problem is that when on a tiny five-person tribe, the three-person majority is unlikely to be open to power shifts. And the new era's arbitrary punishments for tribes don't help with this. Yanu is massively depleted: They're now five days in with no fire, they've only had a machete for the last two days. Jess hadn't slept in 10 days when she was booted. Kenzie also talked about not sleeping. When everything is chaotic, grueling, and unknowable, the last thing you want to do is also endanger your long-term game prospects.

So of course Q sticks with his closest ally, Tiffany, who for her part trusts Q and Kenzie over everyone else. If Tiffany already thought the tribe made the wrong choice in booting the very tall Jelinsky first, of course she's going to be mad about Jess's lack of height failing them in the arch puzzle (even if everyone else was also dropping puzzle pieces). If Yanu is starving and Bhanu is the only person who's semi-decent at opening coconuts, of course they're going to keep him around, even when he has a tendency of unpredictable, inopportune outbursts at Tribal. And so of course the 4-1 boot that seemed the most likely outcome at the top of the episode is the deflated and deflating conclusion after two very long-seeming hours. When people have food and comfort, they're free to be more creative. When they're fighting just to make it through the next few hours, they choose the path of least resistance.

For evidence, compare and contrast the first two boots of 46 with the first week of AU: Titans v Rebels, where everyone has fire, rice, and beans. On the Australian version, they have big tribes (12 people!), and the opening week had two glorious, massive blindsides, one on each of the two tribes, where a cocky physical clique assumed they were in control because the tribe would obviously keep them around for challenge strength, but the misfits gathered together and took them down instead. The exact opposite happened on Yanu. Of course, Jeff Probst loves his alpha challenge beasts, so maybe Yanu's culling of the nerds is seen internally as the best possible outcome.

The villain question

The villain question

A lot of online debate has taken place since the episode aired as to whether the entire Yanu tribe (except maybe Bhanu) are now villains, and of course also people saying "You complained last week when Jeff Probst said they wouldn't intentionally cast villains any more, and now you're complaining that you don't like these people, because they are villains."

I'll admit my first reaction to Yanu's intra-tribal strategic hijinks was that I didn't care for it, but on rewatch, nobody was all that excessively negative. It's just that the fake idol scheme felt pointless from start to finish, and that it seemed a bit mean when the majority three were making fun (in private) of sleep-deprived Jess for not noticing their (still relatively well) re-hidden fake idol.

Where I think this all went off course is in the making of the fake idol in the first place. Kenzie is a superfan, and I think there's a misconception among Survivor fans that fake idols are always brilliant, hilarious pranks. An oft-cited one is the Bob Crowley-crafted one that Sugar Kiper duped Randy Bailey with in Gabon, mainly because Randy was a grumpy old man who made fun of his fellow contestants in confessional, while Sugar was a (mostly) stan-favorite player. But even kind-hearted Bob was uncomfortable with that play, especially with respect to Sugar's celebration after Randy was told the idol was fake. Playing a fake idol is always embarrassing to the person playing it, whether or not you the viewer like that person. There's an undercurrent of mean-spiritedness to it, even if that's not intended, or if it feels deserved.

With that in mind, this fake idol scheme also violated one of the principles of comedy: Jokes work when they're punching up, not when they're punching down. If you mock someone with ludicrously excessive money, political influence, and/or privilege - like Elon Musk, the world's richest man, currently engaging in a multi-billion-dollar tear-down of twitter, someone who has previously benefited from glowing press puff pieces insinuating that he's some kind of technological savant because he bought his way into companies whose tech he had nothing to do with (Tesla, Space X), and who is actually a petulant man-child who comes from apartheid-era South African emerald wealth, and who doesn't seem to know much about anything, except maybe white supremacy - then you are speaking truth to power. Your jokes can land. If you're an able-bodied person mocking someone with physical or mental challenges, you're an asshole, and you should shut up. So in Survivor, using a fake idol to topple an arrogant person in power - yeah, that could be pretty amusing, potentially. But using a fake idol to further humiliate someone who's already on the bottom? That's almost never enjoyable to watch, and that's what happened here. Not only that, but handing the idol directly to that person right before Tribal takes the cringe factor up another notch, especially when it's followed by browbeating that person over their (accurate!) perception that this "idol" is just the beads everyone has on their canteen. Sigh.

In their defense, the Yanu majority (Kenzie, Tiffany, and Q) had what they thought was a legitimate strategic purpose in all of this: They wanted Jess to feel protected, so that she wouldn't play her Shot in the Dark. The problem is, that line of reasoning may have made sense on the beach, but on even casual examination, it's pretty flawed, because: (1) everyone seemed fine with Bhanu leaving, and (2) Jess could not cast a vote if she played her Shot, so there was zero danger to anyone else.

To demonstrate, let's game this out with everything at Tribal going the way it actually did, except this time Jess plays her Shot in the Dark, and is safe. (Really low odds of that, by the way!) It would have been a 4-0 vote on Jess, but all those votes are voided. Then Yanu re-votes, and the result is almost certainly that Bhanu is out, 3-1. At that point, Jess is still a sitting duck in Episode 3 if they lose immunity again (as expected). She then has no Shot, they all know Tiffany has the idol (and in the new era, there's only one), and that Jess does not. So Jess is all but guaranteed to be gone, 3-1, unless something crazy happens, like Q flipping to force a 2-2 tie. The chances of that seem pretty remote ... so what exactly was the risk of Jess playing her Shot?

So no, while it was painful to watch Jess go all the way from being on the bottom to predictably being voted out ... I don't think the Yanu majority are villains like Russell Hantz, or even lower-tier jerks like Kyle Jason and Scot Pollard. The Yanus were paranoid, and simply overplayed. Again, as noted, they were starving, fireless, and sleepless. Maybe this doesn't happen if the new era game could give contestants back rice and fire. Maybe Nami would even sing a camp song about it. "A Song of Rice and Fire"? I think that could work, even though I loathe camp songs.

A new and improved Beware idol

A new and improved Beware idol

The Beware idol is one of the few things that has actually changed in the six chapters of the so-called "new" era. The first iteration with the goofy phrases lasted two seasons, but then we had the bead-collecting version in 43, the birdcage in 44 (very easy), and then the ridiculously complicated series of tasks poor Austin and Sabiyah were put through in 45, which upon completion only produced an idol with a shorter lifespan than the one Gabler got in 43 for reaching into a bag.

It seems like maybe production realized in real time that 45's original version was too extreme, because when Bruce found one right before his tribe departed camp for merge, it carried none of the time restrictions the earlier ones had. Now in 46, the new and improved version also has no post-finding strings. It's still a fair amount of work to actually get the idol (although much more straightforward than Austin's tasks), as we saw with Tiffany in the premiere, but at least the prize at the end is a fully powered idol.

The key new adaptation this season is that the idol itself can't actually be found until a tribe loses an immunity challenge. So yes, Randen has "theoretically" lost his vote, but in reality, if Nami ever loses an immunity challenge (unlikely, unless they throw one), Randen will have plenty of opportunity to regain it before they leave for Tribal. Tiffany's key-finding task was challenging, but clearly doable, and we can presume Randen's will be similar.

This is a welcome change. While Tiffany and Randen both disclosed their Beware package find to allies, it's theoretically possible to not do so now, which was definitely not the case in 45, and was absolutely impossible in 41-42. The public idol experiment was worth doing, but secret idols still hold a lot more gameplay potential. (If they want to keep trying public idols, nobody's stopping US Survivor from following the AU: Brains v Brawn lead and just putting an idol in the middle of a tribal challenge, and watching chaos ensue as people try to balance their tribe-strong vs. self-preservation instincts.)

The only downside, as we saw this week, is Randen couldn't step up and fill dead airtime this episode by completing his idol hunt. Beaten by a bunch of rules, I guess.

A new and much-worse journey

A new and much-worse journey

Every other English-speaking Survivor franchise has had a fun variation on the journeys, from SurvivorNZ's brilliant "The Outpost" to the same-named but slightly different South African and Australian versions, with varying levels of success (the SA iteration in Immunity Island was really good). US Survivor seems to have settled on "the journey," but like the Beware idols, what that entails has been extensively modified over the past few seasons. The strength of the journey concept remains the potential for players to make cross-tribal connections prior to a swap or merge. This season's version? Problematic, so far at least.

By now, we're all well aware that Jeff Probst's favorite feature of the New Era is anything that takes people's votes away. If Do or Die had worked as intended, nobody at all would have voted! Because, I imagine, he dreams of a Tribal Council where he just gets to chat for hours on end, and nobody is able to cut him off with, "Jeff, is it time to vote?"

Anyway, that's the problem with this season's journeys, at least as it went down in the premiere: No matter what happened, at least one person was guaranteed to lose their vote, possibly two. That doesn't seem particularly fair when on some tribes, it was basically random chance that someone went on the journey (Nami rolled a Shot in the Dark die). For his part, Jelinsky volunteered, because of course he did. Maybe it's just me, but it seems almost impossible to form an alliance with someone from another tribe after you have actively lied to them and stolen their vote. It just seems like a bad concept, unless the goal is to create resentment. Which would be silly, because this cast seems pretty capable of doing that on their own.

It looks like there's another journey coming in Episode 3. Hooray? Let's hope it's not just the same card game again. Giving away extra votes is fine, but contestants should have the ability to opt out of a journey dilemma once they get there (as Emily did last season). Please give the contestants more actual choices, and fewer "at least one player will randomly be screwed over" moments. This game is hard enough without that.

Shorter takes

Shorter takes

The Battle of the Stans: If you don't have two challenges to fill a lot of empty airtime, this was a welcome substitute. Zero actual stakes, completely adorable goofballery, with enthusiastic egging on from Moriah, and amusingly pained "when will this end?" looks and confessionals from Tim and Jem. Most importantly, the show took a gamble and gave some free exposure to some obscure, up-and-coming musicians, in Taylor Swift and Metallica. Can't wait to see what the "Survivor bump" does for their album sales.

Malcolm and Denise 2.0: Callbacks to prior seasons can either be enjoyable or grating, but seeing Charlie and Maria form a hidden middle-of-the-tribe power couple was very fun, with good insight into both players. The one flaw in the analogy? Malcolm and Denise went to every one of the first four Tribals in Philippines. So are they really Malcolm and Denise 2.0 if they never get the chance to put their tribe-slimming plans into action? (A Survivor zen koan.)

"Thanks, we'll need it": Kenzie said this to Probst after he wished Yanu "good luck" as they departed from their first challenge loss in the Ep1 RC. It's still relatively early, but through two episodes and three third-place finishes in challenges, it's looking like that was a really good prophecy.

Jeff Pitman's recapsJeff 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