Welcome back on the trail everybody! This was certainly one of the most emotional episodes that there has been for quite a while and a different flavor than the show usually offers. Tears were shed, memories of home were conjured up over some hard-earned pastries, and mics were dropped over some mad rhymes. Let’s hit the road and get into all of the decisions this week.
Fork: Chasing the Dream
Let’s not dance around the issue here – simply put, from a strictly strategic point of view this episode was about as boring and simple as a Survivor episode can get, with one side picking somebody off from the other side with no drama involved whatsoever. I was hoping that the Malolo tribe would be victorious in the Immunity Challenge because I feared how dull of an episode could be produced if the No-Fun Navitis just voted out somebody from the Malolo Minority. Once the Malolos did lose, I immediately began hoping that Stephanie/Michael/Jenna would find an idol or a crack within the majority to exploit, eager for something to break up the monotony that I was anticipating in the upcoming pre-tribal scramble.
Yet, by the end of the episode, I came away smiling instead of frowning, because the show took a path I did not expect them to take. The biggest decision of the episode wasn’t any single one made by the players, but the decision by the Survivor Storytellers to forgo any pretense about whether the three people at the bottom could save themselves. Instead, the show chose to present the vote from their point of view, diving deep into their stories, their reasons for playing and what Survivor means for them. It let the audience know that for one of them, this dream of theirs was about to be ripped from their hands much sooner than they wanted. For Michael, it’s the need to prove that he can hang with much more experienced people as an eighteen-year-old, Jenna expressed a desire to overcome her RBF and connect with people better and Stephanie talked about the need to prove herself in the eyes of her kids.
Each of these Malolo minority members got a confessional where they expressed the different ways they were emotionally invested in the game. And then at Tribal Council, Jeff Probst, proving once again why he is so good at what he does, further probed the three and got them to talk about how they would come to terms if this immensely impactful experience were to end for one of them that night. What could have become a dangerously dull episode instead turned into an insightful and poignant story about the raw emotions Survivor players go through. It’s not an episode I would want every week, but it’s a nice change of pace and proves that Survivor is about so much more than the strategy behind who gets voted out each week. It’s a game populated with everyday people with their own dreams and motivations, and it’s nice to see them celebrated as such.
Fork: The Fix Is Not In
Before I touch on the decisions the actual players made this week, I also wanted to briefly check-in on Ghost Island and how it could have impacted the game. When Stephanie pulled the white rock and was sent to the Survivor Graveyard, this would have been an opportune time for her to catch a break. A likable underdog looking to claw her way out of a deep hole is an excellent candidate for production to throw an advantage towards to shake up the game and juice the narrative a little. The fact that this did not happen further backs up the idea that the Ghost Island Games are planned out ahead of time and, furthermore, that Survivor is NOT RIGGED.
All of the skepticism fans expressed about how last season ended should be put to rest. The show may make some questionable decisions from time to time – and take deserved ire for them – but it’s obvious production takes the integrity of the game very seriously. They would not rig a random season this late in the show’s run for some guy half of the audience is going to forget about a year from now. This week more than ever proves that if production is not going to rig Ghost Island here, they’re not going to rig Ghost Island anytime soon.
Fork: Leading the Next Lamb
Another thing that the show did really well in telling the story of the episode was capturing just how low-key and dull the strategy was behind this vote because the stakes were so low. Often, we see players scramble up until the last minute, fervently pushing their agenda over others to make sure their plan comes out on top or else their entire game could be ruined – this vote was not that. After having won the battle last week, the No-Fun Navitis were now up five-to-three over the Malolo Minority and this week they just had to make a simple choice of which of the three to send home.
We saw snippets of banal conversations amongst different members of the No-Fun Navitis that all roughly amounted to the same thing: somebody threw out a name for the group to chew on; the other members digested the input and then offered up their own opinions. The slow and laborious pace of these discussions are probably a great indicator of what most strategy talk on Survivor is like; it’s not always hushed tones and heated debates but rather a laid-back back-and-forth that could hinge upon the right thing said at the right time. Kellyn put it rather eloquently at Tribal Council when she said: “It may have been one sentence that changed our collective.” I don’t doubt that’s the case and kudos to the Survivor storytellers for giving the audience a more intimate taste of what the decision-making process can be like on the island.
Since the stakes were so low, I don’t think this was a vote where it made a whole lot of difference who got voted out, to some degree. Jenna has been presented as more of a sidekick to Stephanie and not someone who’s aggressive and high-spirited like her two Malolo companions, so the No-Fun Navitis can afford to leave her in the game. Between the other two, both Stephanie and Michael have been shown as engaged, passionate players who wouldn’t be afraid of taking a big swing, so the choice really came down to those two. Ultimately, the Naviti Five chose Stephanie, which is probably the safer choice. Having just been out to Ghost Island, there was an air of mystery surrounding her that the Naviti majority would be best served to take care of sooner rather than later, out of fear of some spooky retaliation later on in the game. Plus, Michael’s apparent physical strength is valuable right now for two reasons: he can help the tribe win challenges in the short term, and he’s a great target once the merge rolls around. Both players provided a similar strategic utility as a loyal vote for their side moving forward, so for now, its Michael’s aforementioned challenge abilities that kept him safe and gave Stephanie the boot.
Fork: Scurrying to Avoid the Boot
For the three Malolo Minority, they all seemed to abandon any desire to work together and took an Every-Man-For-Themselves approach, which was probably the best path to take. The reasons players have for voting other people out can be so fickle and specific that in this situation it was best for all of the three Malolos just constantly to be in the majority players’ ears. They spouted whatever reasons they could to convince the No-Fun Navitis not to vote them out, and all three of them took different approaches to keep them safe. Jenna used the Bat Your Eyelashes route, flirting with Sebastian and assuring him the hair-braid hook-up he has been searching for. Michael played up his physical strength but also smartly used his big play at the last Tribal Council to his advantage as well, touting the loyalty he displayed to his Malolo Minority members could be theirs if they kept him around. Stephanie’s approach seemed somewhere in the middle of the other two, laying out similar promises of loyalty like Michael, but also using more emotional appeals like Jenna, talking about her kids at Tribal Council and how they are her motivation for playing.
Sure, maybe Stephanie could have used her trip out to Ghost Island more to her advantage, either by playing up the fact that she could have a power to scare people away from voting for her or by emphatically denying she did not have an advantage to make the target on her as little as possible. Regardless, I don’t think either path was going to make much of a difference. Short of finding an idol, and I’m sure she spent hours looking, there was little she could do to avoid her fate. (Side Note: Just because we didn’t see her looking doesn’t mean she wasn’t looking and speaks to the idea that idols are much more difficult to find than the audience tends to believe). If the No-Fun Navitis decided Stephanie was their choice, she was going to get voted out.
Fork: What Does the Heart Want?
All of the stuff that happened on the current Naviti tribe didn’t have any significant decision-making moments, but rather set up things for the future. The one point that the story did make clear this week is that Donathan is having his heart tugged in multiple directions, which means he’s almost certainly being set up to make a big choice later on down the road. It’s too early to say whether going with Laurel or going with Chris is the right decision because right now their strategic value is not what’s important. Donathan’s big scene made it clear that he is going to go with whoever makes him feel the most comfortable and at ease with himself. Players like Donathan may not always make for the most strategically sound players, and provide difficult obstacles for other players to navigate, but make for really compelling TV. Watching emotionally raw and vulnerable players having to make big strategic decisions in a game rooted in deception has always helped in making Survivor enthralling, and I’m glad to see the show continues to put these types of people on the show to give it the healthy dose of heart that it needs.
Donathan and Laurel’s friendship moment was very heartwarming, and I’m going to be rooting for them to stick together so that I can continue watching them being cute together as the season goes along.
Although, that doesn’t mean I’m rooting against Chris, who continues to improve as the weeks go on. His move to talk to Donathan to strengthen his bond with him shows a group awareness we hadn’t seen from him yet, and his performance at the reward challenge was seriously impressive. Plus, after dropping those rhymes, we may be witnessing the greatest Wordsmith ever to play Survivor emerge, and I hope we get to hear more original material as the weeks go on.
Another week, another round of off-the-wall quotes from ol’ Sea Bass. I don’t know what a dead weasel smells like, but I can imagine it’s not an uncommon smell on the Survivor island.
End of the Line: Stephanie Johnson
What did Stephanie do wrong? As I alluded to earlier, she was in a really tough spot that provided very little wiggle room. Once she landed on the new Malolo tribe down in the numbers, she didn’t have a whole lot of options to improve her situation. After she, and her Malolo Minority members, tried and failed to make a big play with Michael’s Hidden Immunity Idol, her best bet this week was to simply win the next Immunity Challenge. Unfortunately, her tribe didn’t, and she was picked by the Naviti Five to be the one sent packing. The preview for next week shows another tribe swap on the horizon; if Stephanie’s tribe had managed to win this challenge, she would have made that swap, and the game would have opened back up for her. Sometimes, the fate of a player hinges on just one small thing, such as a challenge win, and if that thing follows one path over another, it can be the difference between staying in the game and losing the game.
Alas, Stephanie was one such player whose fate hinged upon one specific thing, and she will be missed. A passionate, long-time fan of the show that showed a lot of heart, positive attitude and some shrewd strategic thinking, Stephanie looked like she had the chops to go all the way. Her boot episode, and the story of her demise, will stand out in Survivor history as a defining tale of just how heartbreaking the game can be to the people who love it so much. Hopefully we will see those neon stripped leggings in another season down the road.
Thanks for reading everybody! See you on the trail next week!