The more things change, the more they stay the same. Not since the infamous swap in All-Stars that left Amber Brkich isolated from her tribe has the phrase “drop your buffs” achieved so little in shattering the status quo. This week’s tribe swap effectively split the dominant (and largely under-edited) Kama tribe in two, as the dominant Manu alliance of five became their own tribe while outcast Wendy was given new hope. Yet as the episode played out, this swap revealed a number of unexpected nuances.
Those in the yellow buffs of Kama may still be stuck in the pattern of the little-shown, challenge-dominant tribe, but New Manu revealed the extent of Wendy’s peculiar approach to Survivor. And the newly founded Lesu tribe were robbed of their easy vote and forced to turn on each other as they continued a losing streak that would make Ulong proud. Over on the Edge, too, the dynamics were growing more complex as Chris arrived to a decisively icy reception. In an age of Survivor where tribe swaps abruptly break the narrative and can prevent us from seeing the effects of long-term tribal dynamics, this episode broke the mould and gave us time to reflect on the strange families that arise on the cold, rainy beaches of Survivor.
“SPECIAL IN A VERY SAD WAY”
“Lesu is less than we even expected. Love in Tribal Council, but will it last? Good evening, I’m Rick Devens. You’re watching Lesu Evening News. This may be my last report.”
As the episode opened, we saw the solidifying alliance of 5 on Manu – Kelley, Lauren, Wardog, David & Rick – positioned with an easy vote against Wendy, the oddball outsider, should they lose yet another challenge. But the Survivor gods had a different plan, whisking the entire alliance away to a new beach where they would have to begin again and where there was no scapegoat to take the fall. One of their happy family would be on the chopping block should the unthinkable – but inevitable – happen at the Immunity Challenge. Sure enough, Lesu saw Tribal looming and had to take out one of their own.
What followed was an unexpectedly poignant reflection on the bonds that are formed in a game as challenging and draining as Survivor. Only 11 days in, this little tribe of five talked openly about how the mutual affection and respect they had for each other was making this vote particularly difficult. Even the veterans were affected, as Kelley teared up and David labelled the Tribal as the most memorable in his Survivor lifetime. It was a brutal change of pace from the loud Reem vote or the scrambling plans that led to the Keith and Chris votes, and one that was a little unexpected given David’s penchant over the last few weeks for targeting Kelley. Learning that the social bonds between these five players ran so deep helps to retroactively frame the context of their first eight days (and perhaps contributing to why David and Rick never pulled the plug on blindsiding Wentworth), just in time for this chapter to close with a sombre final broadcast for newscaster Rick.
However, the vote was not without its intrigue. It became a subtle and somewhat reluctant battle between the returnees and their acolytes, with David & Rick squaring off against Kelley & Lauren, each targeting the newbie in the pair. Lauren, missing home and feeling nauseous, was unable to eat, and despite her physical background as a collegiate athlete, her malnourishment threatened to become a weak link for an already faltering tribe. Rick, on the other hand, was deemed a long-term threat and the most likely to flip to the Kama opposition and sell out his Old Manu family to save his own skin.
Thus, it came down to Wardog, who for yet another week, held the power over the outcome of Tribal. In the expertly edited montage of his one-on-one conversations with each of his tribemates, he considered the options before making his choice, siding once again with Wentworth & Lauren, and leaving David out in the cold. For three weeks running, Wardog has shielded his alliance with Kelley (and by extension Lauren), and I imagine David & Rick were kicking themselves for not taking their clean shot at Kelley when they still had Chris’ vote on hand. But was it the right call for Wardog?
Wardog is such a curious character. He’s intelligent, calculating the odds of their unfortunate swap result at less than 1%. He’s calculating and aggressive, turning the votes in his favour and playing an effective strategy as the swing vote. He’s self-aware, recognising some of his own stubborn and intense attributes as aspects he needs to carefully manage in the game. His choices to target Keith and Chris followed a clear logic, but I’m a little surprised to see him take out Rick tonight.
The army veteran spoke of needing a dance partner, an ally to fuel his own game, and perhaps he saw David – if isolated from his ride-or-die Devens – as a candidate to fill that role. But I question why he didn’t take that tactic with Kelley instead, separating her from a homesick and unwell Lauren? With Kelley having drawn so much attention in the early game, and with Wardog’s tactic of using her as a shield, I suspect that he doesn’t see Kelley as being a good candidate for an end-game ally. But he wants to keep using her as his meat shield for as long as he can, and by keeping Lauren around, that insulates him behind that lightning rod of a “power couple.” Then again, the preview shows Wardog going after Lauren and planning the attack with Kelley. If one thing’s clear: Wardog’s gonna Wardog, and I have a feeling that his game is going to be one that won’t make complete sense except in retrospect.
Unfortunately, though, Wardog’s strategic play cut out one of the most entertaining castmates. Effortlessly humourous, Rick Devens was a great narrator and a perfect off-sider to the similarly witty David. It’s a shame to lose him so early from the game proper, but I am curious to see how he adjusts to Extinction. David, too, is left in a dangerous position. The only remaining Lesu to have voted for Lauren, he could quickly become the “easy” vote Lesu so desperately wanted at tonight’s Tribal, but David’s subtle social game can work marvels and perhaps he’s not as dead in the water as the vote count might suggest.
A GAME OF CHICKEN
Speaking of dead in the water, Wendy continues to be a complete and utter enigma. Before the tribe swap, she hinted towards her master plan to release the chickens when talking to David, and his bewildered response: “You want to win, don’t you?” Wendy’s game seems destined for a losing finalist at best, particularly if her antics continue, but she is an endlessly fascinating character.
Saved from certain elimination by the swap, she found herself in the unfortunate minority on her new Manu, outnumbered by four invading Kamas in Aubry, Eric, Gavin and Victoria. Although they too saw her as an expendable vote, Wendy seemed to ingratiate herself with her new tribe initially. Her bubbly personality seemed to draw affection, and as she spilled the beans on the dynamics of her old tribe, Aubry saw her value as an asset in being a font of information about the enemy (and implicitly, a potential number with no love lost for her old tribemates). But despite this fresh start, Wendy gonna Wendy.
Not even 24 hours into her new tribe, Wendy snuck into the night to follow through on her promise to jailbreak the chickens, releasing them into the wild to save them from her new tribemates who understandably were craving the protein. I could see the motivation to free her fowl friends when it also obliquely served the purpose of punishing a tribe who had ostracised her to the point of feeling bullied. But to go ahead with her plan when she’s fresh into a new start on a new tribe, and with people she actually likes? That’s galling in its absurdity. It’s incredibly short-sighted from the perspective of the game – as Victoria noted the following morning, it betrays Wendy as being unreliable – far from a desirable trait in a game built on both trust and deception.
Yet objectively bad gameplay can still be entertaining. Wendy’s antics sure hit that note, and it’s clear that the editors are loving the opportunity to play with this out-of-the-box Survivor character. From the shots of her thousand-yard stare as her tribemates discuss how cooking a chicken on Survivor would work, to her gleeful night-cam celebration of her tribe sabotage, to her shooing the chickens away from returning to the familiar campsite in the morning, it’s a reel of the ridiculous. Even the rest of the tribe gets pulled into the whirlwind – Eric’s exasperated confessional about the whole scenario, punctuated perfectly by the emancipated chickens clucking in the jungle, was one of the highlights of what turned out to be a very cleverly edited episode.
20 MINUTES EARLIER
I’m not saying there aren’t problems with the edit. It’s still frustrating that Julia has yet to give a confessional, even though she was actively involved in a minor plot tonight. It’s disappointing that even New Kama gets the short end of the story stick, only having one brief sequence dedicated to their tribe (compared even to the two scenes given to The Edge). I maintain that switching to three tribes with Extinction in play was not the right call given how thinly stretched the editors are on a good day. And yet the Survivor editors are still evolving their craft in fresh and exciting ways.
Dan’s Idol find in David vs. Goliath was the first hint we got of Survivor beginning to play with the timeline, and the idea was even further expanded this episode with a full flashback complete with a chyron. The new Kama tribe still left Joe and Aurora in a vulnerable position outnumbered by Julia, Julie and Ron. However, Joe sought to sway Ron as a swing vote over a transparent conversation at the well. Ron nodded along and managed to put forth a convincing performance to assuage Joe’s concerns (particularly given Joe had caught him and Victoria discussing voting out the returnees just last week), but as we moved to Ron’s confessional, the record scratched.
The well conversation wasn’t Joe’s idea – it was Ron’s. And it was a deliberate smoke-screen to keep Joe distracted and give Julia time to search the returnee’s bag for an Idol. Ruthless and calculating, Ron and Julia made an excellent and aggressive play – and seeing their ploy play out in an actual flashback was a memorable technique. I hope we see more of this in seasons to come – perhaps one day, even the scheming before a big Tribal Council blindside could be saved for an after-shock flashback. Nineteen years on the air and still going strong, it’s exciting to see Survivor find new ways to tell their stories.
This is even more evident to the approach on Extinction Island. Here, a myriad of techniques have been used to give the Edge its own feel. Just as the players abandoned there are isolated from the game, so to do the editing tricks divorce it from the rest to give it a tone that’s bleak, alien and disorienting. The fades in and out of black or lens focus, the dreary wide shots and the brilliant close-up, multi-camera confessionals make Extinction feel like a whole different show – which, in a way, it is.
Extinction is coming into its own, too, as more exiles arrive in the dead of night. The bitter reception Chris received from Reem and Keith was a surprise, reminiscent of Ponderosa conflicts of old. As Chris – and later Rick – experienced, Extinction Island is going to bring its own unique challenge of leaving a tribe that chose to cut you loose only to arrive at a new tribe of sorts, filled with people who are only pleased to see you for their own schadenfreude. Extinction is a place of unending unease – Keith grappled with the temptation to raise the white flag, while Chris mourned the loss of a perfect game while forcing himself to provide fish for Reem & Keith, uncertain of whether this strange family was to be a tribe or just a collection of misfit toys.
The mystery of Extinction is intriguing, and the editing and cinematography only enhance that experience for the viewer. While I’m still cautious on the twist’s impact for the game, I have to admit that the surreal novelty of Extinction has me enraptured.
Next week, it’s time for our bi-annual double feature with back-to-back episodes to race through the latter half of the pre-merge. This episode we met four odd little families of strangers – the crumbling alliance of Lesu, the bizarre antics on Manu, the cutthroat Kama and the literal outcasts of Extinction – and next week, we’ll hopefully get to explore these micro-dynamics further.