Throughout this season, I’ve been impressed that Survivor has been taking the time to invest in long-term story arcs to build towards a satisfying narrative. However, that’s come at a cost, underselling more minor characters like Katrina, Simone or Roark, in favour of the bigger stories. This episode, another example of truncated short-term storytelling emerged and blindsided the viewers by skipping over the explanation for how it all went down. Simply put, the math didn’t check out.
Granted, a lot was happening this episode between the emergence of a new secret advantage, complex and chaotic idol drama and rising personal conflicts at camp. So rather than waste precious words on the preamble, let’s get down to business.
Every now and then, Survivor likes to mix things up with how rewards work and tonight’s private spaghetti feast was the most delightfully convoluted example yet. First of all, the odd-numbered tribe was divided into two teams for the reward challenge – leaving one castaway left over as the lottery winner, earning a free pass to the reward. It came with a catch, however, as the lottery winner, Joe, was tasked with choosing the order in which the winning team would enjoy their feast, one-by-one, sitting down in private to share the same plate of spaghetti. This alone could have fuelled intrigue as the table was literally set for suspicions of some players eating more than their fair share, but also as Joe – vulnerable after wasting his idol and losing an ally – tried to use his fortune to build up goodwill through filling out his roster.
Yet that was only the start of it as a clue to a new Hidden Immunity Idol, buried at the base of the tribe flag, was printed on the bottom of the pasta plate. Slowly revealed as more of the bolognese was consumed, Devon and JP missed the clues, but Cole caught on, giving him a huge leg up given he, too, was on the bottom rung of the tribe. The question was then how to prevent the subsequent diners from also finding the clue, and his solution was not the most elegant, shifting the rest of the pasta to a conspicuous linen tea-towel in an effort to cover up the plate. With Chrissy and Ryan next to eat, the keen-minded students of the game were keeping their eyes open for a clue and easily discovered it – with Ryan going the extra mile and hiding the glass plate in the woods to keep it far away from Joe.
The ingenious delivery system of the idol clue immediately planted suspicion as three castaways knew precisely where to dig – it would be a matter of who got their first. Despite almost blowing their cover by whispering too loudly, Ryan and Chrissy returned to camp and immediately went to work as Ryan took advantage of Cole taking a trip to the whizz-palace to dig up the idol unnoticed. Unexpectedly, it was Chrissy’s attempts to fill in the hole that escalated the situation with Cole immediately rushing over to beat Chrissy to the punch, leading to mayhem as the entire tribe got into the scramble for an idol that wasn’t there anymore.
Somehow, Cole came out of the drama in an even worse position than he’d started, as Ben and Ashley publicly accused him of having found the idol and blamed the disruptive scene on him. While the bluff of a fake idol can be used effectively, it’s generally more useful as an offensive diversion than a defensive shield, and with his opponents convinced he could have an idol, Cole was faced with two choices: win Immunity, or be voted out. Lucky for Cole, he succeeded in winning his first Immunity, and now, a new plan had to be devised.
CARRY THE ONE
With Cole safe, the Hero-Hustler alliance selected a new target, seemingly deciding to split the vote between Joe and Desi in case of an idol play. For an alliance with an actuary on the team, it seemed peculiar that the math did not check out: a 7-strong alliance cannot efficiently split their votes 4-3 against the Healer minority of 4. Evidently, this is where the story of the episode and the story of what actually happened began to diverge towards the ambiguous conclusion. Later, we saw Ben approach Mike about siding with the majority to put his vote on Joe – it was an olive branch for their relationship forged on Yawa and a ticket out of danger for Mike – and it seems likely that this conversation happened at the start to put the right math in play. A vote split of 4 on Joe, 4 on Desi and 3 from the remaining Healers.
But there was yet another spanner in the works, a nail in the coffin for the split vote, if you will. The morning after the Jessica boot, Lauren discovered the note hidden amongst the nails and found that it was a secret advantage allowing her to bank a vote. As with the other advantages this season, it had to be used at the next Tribal Council where she could place the advantage in the voting urn and abstain from casting a vote, instead stealing the parchment away to save for a rainy day. This was an exciting method of putting the extra vote into play that forced the castaway to have to weigh up the cost of sacrificing their vote now and the potential reward down the line.
Of course, it also created the dilemma for Lauren wherein not voting could easily upset the planned split vote, and she was forced to loop Ben in on her situation and shift the plan in a direction that would allow her to use her advantage. In response, Ben rustled up additional numbers (and in the narrative of the episode, this is where he approached Mike) or recalibrated the plan to allow for Lauren to bank her vote. Whatever he managed to do, it worked – when it ultimately came time to vote, Lauren subtly nabbed the parchment and put her advantage into play.
Already, it feels as though I’ve mentioned Ben in every paragraph and it’s clear that he is well-integrated into the tribe, trusted in his alliance and in a solid position. The trouble is that he is also a lightning rod for the cross-alliance conflict, drawing ire first with Cole when he accused him of stashing the idol, and again when he got caught in a confrontation with Joe. Trying to save himself, Joe understandably made a play for the Hustlers’ votes to target Ben – a conversation which Ben overheard. When Ben casually joked to Joe about whether he’d play an idol, Joe turned the tables and accused Ben of having lied to multiple people by swearing on the Marines. The accusation was a complete fabrication, but it got a rise out of Ben, who felt that his own honour – and the honour of his fellow servicemen and women – were being slandered. He grew angry at the blatant lies as Joe continued to toy with the bait and it escalated. For Ben, this was a step across the line, but for Joe, this was just the game.
Their heated argument caught the attention of the rest of the tribe back at camp, where Desi hoped that Joe’s instincts to stir up trouble would pay off yet again. Perhaps a naïve assessment given Joe’s theatrics at the last vote had led to the most innocuous Healer getting the boot instead, which was the position Desi found herself in that night. Nevertheless, Joe’s tactics of pushing people’s buttons and being actively irritating are clearly his modus operandi – but I struggle to foresee this aggravation propelling him to a winning game. He’s actively divisive in his gameplay – even talking over Ben as he tried to apologise for his anger at Tribal Council – and though it might have contributed to diverting the target off of him at this Tribal, his disruptive behaviour will get him voted out or see him lose votes at the end.
SHOW YOUR WORKING
But not tonight. For all of the talk about Joe being a threat and being an annoying presence in camp, the split vote between Joe and Desi suggested that it would ultimately be Joe who would get eliminated at the revote. But it wasn’t – in a near-unanimous re-vote, it was Desi who was picked off to become the first member of the Jury. And we were left wondering… why?
Throughout the episode, the Hero-Hustler alliance talked about how Desi was a physical threat (coming off an Immunity win, she again made the Top 3 in tonight’s Immunity Challenge, demonstrating her prowess) and a strong competitor, with her well-spoken nature and eloquent answers at Tribal revealing that she was not just a dumb jock, either. Desi was a clear danger, and there was ample reason for the Hero-Hustler alliance to choose to target her.
When you factor in the other Healers, there’s also a strong argument to take the same approach they’d taken with Jessica, anticipating that if Cole did have an idol, he might be more inclined to play it for Joe than Desi. Similarly, the question of Joe vs. Desi makes sense, as Joe’s approach to the game would continue to make him a target whereas Desi’s cool head could have allowed her to dive back under the radar.
The trouble is that we don’t really know exactly how it happened. We were led to believe that the primary target was Joe, and there was little indication that Desi was anything more than the fail-safe. When we also saw other unexpected votes come up – be it Desi’s throwaway vote for Lauren or Cole’s vote for Joe that may have been a part of the plan or may have been an unexpected hiccup for the majority alliance – it all contributed to a frustrating ambiguity that explicitly demonstrated that we did not see the full story.
It may be that there will be fallout in next week’s episode that will retroactively clarify the decision-making between this vote and such ex-post facto explanations have been seen before (e.g. Josh’s wayward vote for Baylor in the San Juan Del Sur premiere). The generation of suspense over a vote is nothing new, and blindsiding the audience can be a fun tactic for the editors to use, expertly employed with the JP diversion during Ali’s boot a couple of episodes ago, but generally, the rationale for the ultimate outcome is still apparent. By blatantly omitting critical parts of the strategic decision-making process – that is, the weighing up of whether to make Joe or Desi the primary target – the outcome felt irrational and unsatisfying. In a season that has largely succeeded in establishing its long-term stories, it’s a shame that this short story of Desi’s fall came so out of the blue.
SOLVE FOR X
With another Healer off the board and new idols and advantages in play, there’s still a lot happening on Solewa beach. Reason would suggest that the Hero-Hustler majority would stay the course against Cole and Joe, but with the web of intertangled alliances and personal conflicts, and a group of castaways who are all looking out for themselves, it would not surprise me to see an unexpected turn next week.
After all, Ben said it right at the top of the episode: “an individual can mess this whole thing up.” With numbers dwindling, it’s just a matter of which individual will make their move first.
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