What a strange, strange episode. I feel like I’ve got to kick it off with a quick recap of the reward challenge, in which an unprecedented THREE contestants all go down and need medical assistance and one gets evacuated from the game. It’s one of those hard to predict situations where the challenge seemed straightforward enough—dig in a big sand pit for three bags containing balls, then roll the balls up a skee ball style ramp and get them to land in shallow holes in a platform. I could see them running this challenge in practice rounds and having everything go smoothly; however, somehow everyone struggled to find the bags in the sand and got stuck digging around for almost a full hour in the hot, hot sun.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a challenge where so many people looked like they wanted to give up before. Everyone was moving at half speed, and for good reason—this wasn’t even a very tempting reward challenge. In fact, once Brains won the challenge I was surprised to see Brawn and Beauty continue exerting energy they clearly didn’t have left in order to secure basically a shaker of salt and pepper.
One of the most compelling aspects of the challenge was the ways in which they chose to break the fourth wall when editing together their footage. As soon as more than one person was down and we were in an emergency triage situation, you could see the panic in Jeff Probst’s eyes as he struggled to keep his composure while he rushed to make decisions in a truly frightening situation. [He gave a very interesting interview after the episode aired, which you can read HERE ]They filmed the entire crew rushing to the aid of the medical team, giving us a glimpse into what really goes on behind the closely-cropped shots of deserted island as cameramen and crew rushed to bring the medical team extra umbrellas and coolers.
Eventually, Debbie and Cydney were deemed okay while poor “beast mode cowboy” Caleb was medically evacuated. It’s actually kind of wild what a heroe’s edit they gave Caleb this season given his short run. He wasn’t integral to strategy over at Beauty and he’d never gone to tribal council, but he got a lot of screen time and even got a in-memoriam style tribute as they cut to commercial break saying he’d made a full recovery and wanted to play again. I don’t think there’s ever been such a clear-cut campaign to get Caleb into the hearts of America to prep them for his eminent return to the land of Survivor. But even without our beloved bromance (poor Tai), the game marches on.
I’m sure the beauty tribe never expected to lose Caleb as their first boot and I’m sure they’re quite shaken. It’s unfortunate but not the end of the world for their game (and for Nick, it’s just about the best outcome he could have expected). A tribe swap seems unavoidable next episode, so it’ll be interesting to finally get some screen time with some of the beauties. They’ve really been out of the focus since they haven’t gone to tribal council once. I’m curious to learn more about their dynamics and the sub alliances present within the tribe. I see Tai and Michele as being particularly good on the social game front, Anna as adaptive on the strategic front, and who knows whether Nick can navigate his way out of the hole he seemed to be stuck in on the beauty tribe.
Peter has made a pretty swift recovery. The way he handled himself right after tribal was quite impressive; I thought it interesting how strongly Debbie seemed to be working to make sure Nick felt comfortable and that they had actively chosen to keep him. In his confessional, he makes it clear that he hasn’t learned from his mistake, by saying that his tribe is no longer strong physically or strategically. How does he not see that he got outplayed BECAUSE his tribe (well, Debbie) is more strategic than him? She even went out of her way to make sure he felt comfortable when they returned to camp, smartly working to keep him feeling like one of the tribe in the face of the impending tribe swap
Speaking of which, Debbie is rocking this game so hard. I still think Jason and Anna have a good chance to win; however, Debbie is making a pretty strong case for herself so far. The fact that she’s survived this far means that I see her getting pretty deep into the game. She knows how to lay low and to play up her kooky personality intentionally in a way that I think she could easily disguise herself as a threat until they reach the merge. She’s adaptive, she understands how to speak to each person in a language that they’ll understand and respond to, and she’s also a hilarious, entertaining character to boot. Long live Debbie Waner, my favorite older female contestant since Denise Stapley.
Hot mess tribe is at it again. Poor Cydney was pretty knocked out by the heat after the reward challenge. It was great to see Jason’s softer side, as he tended to her side in a very tender and devoted way. But Jason and Scot’s behavior towards Alecia this episode was out of control. Jason was one of my top picks coming in, but it’s been so hard to keep rooting for him when I see him employing such horrible bullying tactics to get where he wants in this game. I usually admire people who are able to recognize that this is a game and that decisions made in the name of strategy are superior to walking on eggshells to avoid hurting a friend’s feeling, but Jason and Scot’s treatment of Alecia this whole season has been so horrible. Scot’s been more verbally abusive (such as this episode referring to her as nothing but a cheerleader and that he'd never consider her a teammate), but it was Jason who dehumanized her in the first epsiode with the upsetting and belittling nickname of Blondie. This episode, we get a confessional in which Jason basically admits that he’s bullying Alecia in order to set an EXAMPLE for his two daughters about how to be a strong, independent woman and Jason says when voting her out that he hopes she'll see one day that they're only doing it for her own good. Ugh.
It's been an interesting practice for me, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt and understanding the circumstances. They’re low on sleep, hungry, suffering from horrible sunburns, and forced to spend every waking moment with one another. Alecia clearly feels comfortable speaking her mind and has a personality which I could see becoming grating if you were around her every day all day long. They're both men who clearly rely quite strongly on their masculinity in order to define their identity and are feeding off of each other in that way as a way to bond together as a tight twosome. I’m hoping there was just something inherently frustrating to them about Alecia's personality in particular and that we’ll see a huge change in them now that she’s gone. If they find someone else to pick on though, I don’t see either of them having any chance at winning (nor should they). This game has a pretty great system of checks and balances which keep truly despicable people from winning the money in the end, even if they can get into the final two or three. Jason has said before that he thinks Russell is the only one who’s played this game right…but Russell basically bullied his way into the finals in two seasons, both of which he lost after not pulling a single vote his way. The bullying technique is undoubtedly a great way to get you to the end, but is not a winner’s strategy. If you lay out someone on the bottom, you establish a pecking order which sees you surviving another day. Once you get to merge, everyone wants to take you to the end simply BECAUSE they don’t see you winning any votes at the final tribal council because most people who play this game don’t want to give money to the bully—they want to reward the underdog.
I will say this is also making me feel like Cydney might have a better shot of winning the game. They’ll be going into merge as the minority with only three members, making them key swing votes in breaking up the almost-ties sure to arise between the beauty and brains tribes. Cydney has already shown she’s pretty good at playing two sides simultaneously, managing to keep Alecia pretty close while remaining tight with the boys. Plus, if she can use Jason and Scot as shields, larger physical threats in the short term and great people to sit next to if everyone hates them by the end of the game, she might be able to push her way pretty deep into the game.
Bring on the swap! I’m ready for a little mixup, a chance to see the power dynamics shift and see how these different personalities mix. Next episode should be another great one in the books.