If Episode 2 of SurvivorSA: Immunity Island had a theme, it was a continuation of the one that closed out the first episode: The people most out of power, most in need of divine intervention will find it. And unlike in most Survivor seasons where that comes in the form of a suspiciously "hidden" idol appearing right where and when it was required, on this season, power flows to the underdogs through their own efforts, and/or the efforts of the other tribe.
As we'll explore more below, Immunity Island is quickly becoming a reliable way to keep someone in the game who might otherwise be perceived as outside the power structure. In contrast, both of the first two boots have been people who thought they were comfortably in the numbers on their tribe, and who were trying to control who was targeted. It's a really interesting inversion of traditional Survivor early-game expectations.
Over time that may change, as the players adapt to the twist, or additional twists potentially defuse its power. For the first pair of boots, however, it's been an intriguing way to give new life to players who — largely based on first impressions — didn't appear to be long for the game.
Immunity Island - power to the powerless
Coming out of Episode 1, Santoni ticked all the usual boxes of a straightforward early boot from Vuna, should they lose immunity: She was one of just two women over 30 on the tribe; she was slow getting up the rope ladder in the first IC; and most ominously, she was one of only two people not mentioned in Anesu's big long list of overlapping alliances in the premiere.
Things looked increasingly bleak early in Episode 2, as she stumbled in the reward challenge, then had to sit out the IC, which Vuna promptly lost. By the end of Episode 2, however, Santoni was safe, had knowledge of one idol at Tribal Council, which she can use as she sees fit the next time she visits, and returned to her tribe armed with knowledge of yet another idol in camp. (If she's swapped to the other tribe in the next episode, the clue almost certainly works in the same spot in her new camp, so in theory she could have three idols next episode!)
Even more promisingly, the preview shows her sharing her clue with Chappies, who was one of only two people left who didn't vote for Pinty. Chappies needs an ally with Pinty gone, so it's likely he's a good match for Santoni. As Tyson said, "information is the currency" in Survivor, and Santoni is spending what she can. This is the power of having Santoni attend Tribal Council while immune, instead of just spending another night on Immunity Island (as was often the case with the Exile Island twist): She now knows where the real power lies in her tribe, and can seek out those on the bottom. She's now set up to start building her own alliance, one that hopefully won't get torpedoed by the swap. That's an amazing turnaround, all in the span of roughly 24 hours, and it's all thanks to looking physically weak (relative to her tribemates, at least) in a couple of challenges.
That's a great thing for Survivor in general, because the game was originally supposed to be "16 people from all walks of life." In American Survivor (and perhaps even moreso in Australian Survivor), in recent seasons that has become more like "16 people who are also current or former college athletes from elite schools, plus a few randos we threw in who are probably cannon fodder." Look no further than this week's brand-new trailer for SurvivorAU: Brains v Brawn, for example, where four of the six featured contestants are from the Brawn tribe, and almost every challenge shot shows the Brawns celebrating or the Brains failing. But not so in SurvivorSA! While the challenge performances here are still uneven, Immunity Island is swinging the overall power balance way back towards people who aren't also former Olympians.
Diverging paths - Dino's puzzle prowess
While Santoni found strength at Immunity Island after visibly struggling in the reward challenge, Dino is taking the exact opposite tack, and trying to avoid the boot by proving his value to his tribe, blazing through the puzzles in both challenges. First he dominates the cog puzzle in the reward challenge, placing all eight pieces in the time it takes a motley tag team of Vunas to place ... zero. Then he (with fellow underdog Qieän) completes Zamba's comeback victory in the immunity challenge, swiftly assembling their tribe logo block puzzle.
It's an approach that Dino himself frets about after the fact: if he reveals himself as an intimidating presence in challenges, he'll be safe for a little while in the pre-merge, but will become a much bigger target once individual challenges roll around in the post-merge. Santoni's Island salvation reinforces this conclusion. In this season in particular, perceived challenge weakness leads to a trip to Immunity Island, which leads to one-off immunity at minimum, and potentially immunity plus more powers. Should we now be even more worried for Dino, now that he's overperforming in challenges, rather than simply overplaying strategically? Stop making this so stressful, Dino!
If anyone is likely to realize and take advantage of Immunity Island's offering a reliable path to escape from being the target, Mr. Escape Room seems like the obvious person to figure that out. He already (over-) tried to get there once, though. Second time's the charm, maybe?
The shifting sands of Immunity Island
An increasingly interesting aspect of Immunity Island is that it's different every time someone visits it. Thoriso had a few hours there, max, and while she appreciated the food and shelter, didn't have time to explore it in detail. Santoni, however, had over a full day there (and presumably enjoyed the shelter during the rainstorm), and made good use of all that extra time, hunting for and finding an idol clue.
More importantly, the core element of Immunity Island — the "stay and play" game — changes each time, as do the risks and rewards associated with it. This is the most fascinating aspect.
Thoriso's punishment for losing the game in Ep1 was a "no vote" parchment for her next Tribal, which is not great, but is possible to work around, especially on a big tribe with a lopsided vote. Meanwhile, her potential reward ("an advantage in the game") was a bit vague and underwhelming. Moderate risk, moderate reward.
In contrast, Santoni's Tribal Council idol reward was amazingly useful, while the fate she risked (an automatic vote against her at her next non-immune Tribal) was pretty worrisome, especially for someone already likely to receive votes. Her simple ring-and-hook game was a much higher-stakes undertaking (which was also an amusing callback to Winners at War). These changing calculations each week — different game, different wagers, different payouts — make it difficult to game the system (by say, sending yourself), which is a really clever feature. It also keeps the segment interesting for the viewer. There's also a degree of transparency in fully laying out the game, risk, and reward each time (which Shannon Guss and Mike Bloom say was by design), which is extremely welcome, and something that has increasingly been missing in the US version (everything concerning trips taken to Island of the Idols was extremely opaque, for example).
Still, attempts at gaming the system are likely to follow soon. Now that each tribe has had someone attend Immunity Island, and has watched them sit in, immune, at Tribal Council as a result, how long until the more strategy-minded players start intentionally tanking in immunity challenges (maybe Renier's IC fall wasn't 100% accidental?), in order to indulge in some of those sweet II superpowers? This would be hilarious to watch, but sadly, it probably won't happen, because we're also about to hit a tribe swap.
After the swap, the more likely Immunity Island scenario is the power majority on the winning tribe trying to protect their old alliance-mates who are now on the losing tribe, by sending a friend there. That means less access for the Thorisos and Santonis of the game, more visits by people currently in power. (In theory, anyway, unless players fail to adapt.) Regardless, the evolution of how the players approach this game element will be an interesting topic to track going forward.
- Idol questions: For Santoni's Tribal Council idol, is it possible some other future Immunity Island visitor could get the same clue, if she leaves the idol sitting at Tribal Council, and it becomes the property of whoever grabs it first? Since the rewards change each time, that seems unlikely, but you'd have to think she'd be worried about that, no? If it really is 100% Santoni's idol and can't be stolen, leaving the idol at Tribal for safekeeping and/or secrecy purposes is a fantastic bonus. (Although it means she can't show it to anyone as proof, if necessary.)
- Did Tyson trigger the shift against Pinty? It's hard to tell whether Carla's seeming pre-Tribal overconfidence was a trick of the editing or the real deal, but it sure looked like Mike was in a lot more danger than he and Carla thought. So you have to wonder whether Tyson's delight that Pinty told him, without his asking, about Chappies' Diplomatic Immunity bracelet was what ultimately turned the tide against her. You can imagine a scenario where Tyson was able to nudge the last few wavering votes back onto Pinty after revealing that his suspicions (and Mike's) were correct, and Chappies had been hiding something when he returned with the firemaking kit. That seemed to be what the edit was implying happened. Good move, and good sign for Tyson long-term, if true.
- Was Chappies lying about the bracelet's powers? Another fun aspect of this is that it's not clear at all whether Chappies can actually assign the bracelet to someone else, as he claimed. (In part because there was not time to fully explain the rules of the bracelet in the first episode). It's an interesting and creative lie if Chappies did make it up, because it makes the bracelet much more of a team-oriented advantage. (If it's not a lie, that's also a really interesting twist, potentially.) One worry: What if Santoni heard this story, believed it to be true, and is seeking an alliance with Chappies because of it, but it turns out to be bogus? Information is the currency, indeed.
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