Hello, Inside Survivor readers! Your regular recapper and head honcho around these parts is taking some well-deserved R and R, so I’m taking on the recapping duties this week. For those that don’t know me, I co-authored the Top 50 Survivor Episode countdown that ran during the offseason, and it’s an honor that Martin asked me to step in while he’s away, and in the midst of a pretty good season to boot.
This week’s episode, though, was a weird one. Whenever an episode of Survivor doesn’t end on a tribal council, it throws off the rhythm that fans have become accustomed to for 16 years and leaves you feeling that you didn’t get the full Survivor experience. The fact that this was the merge episode makes it even more unfulfilling. There’s all of this strategic and social maneuvering going on, the upcoming vote providing the final opportunity for players to declare their allegiances and set the course for the next couple of rounds. Then, suddenly Jeff shows up and yanks somebody out of the game, canceling tribal council and rendering all of the strategic buildups up to this point moot. It’s certainly frustrating, but there’s not a whole lot the show can do except present it how it happened, and march past this bummer of an ending to the next chapter of the story.
Having an episode end on a medevac is one of the biggest bummers there is. With Kaoh Rong’s “Toughest Season Ever” billing, we all knew we were in for some heartbreak. Heatpocalypse showed just how harsh and unforgiving the elements of Survivor could be if you don’t take care of yourself, but this was a reminder that the dirt, muck, and grime can be just as dangerous. It all started at the immunity challenge, where Jeff conducted a simple, round-the-horn checkup just to see how everybody was doing. It turns out, about half the cast had some infection, which was immediately a red flag to anybody watching at home. Infections hadn’t been made a story point up until this moment, but when Jeff asked for the verbal checkup it was clear that this threat of infection would spell doom for somebody.
Fast forward a short while later, and Jeff is walking up the beach with the Grim Reaper (aka Dr. Rupert) as they descend upon the camp ready to claim their next victim. It was almost as if they were all being fitted for a sort of death trap, as Jeff called one person after another to have their scrapes and wounds inspected by Doc Rup. Thankfully, Survivor nation averted a state of mass hysteria when Tai Trang, the first to be summoned by Jeff, was deemed safe from the medevac guillotine. One by one, Jeff asked several others to step into his Cambodian care center, and they all passed their medical exam until Neal Gottlieb got his turn. The infection on his knee, which he christened Mount St. Neal, was deemed too dangerous to be left untreated, and Jeff delivered the sad news that Neal was out of the game for good.
It’s hard not to feel for Neal at this moment. In his words, he “felt fine,” and seemed to be walking with no hindrance, unlike the similarly afflicted Jonathan Penner when he was taken out due to a knee infection in Survivor: Micronesia. The doctor made the call, and Neal bid a teary farewell to his fellow tribemates as he left the beach. It’s an especially tough exit to watch because it felt like Neal could have made a serious go of it. He was a strategic leader of the Brains tribe, a real competitor in the challenges, and had a hidden immunity idol to boot. Unfortunately, Neal leaves the game as a footnote rather than a central paragraph in the story of Survivor: Kaoh Rong. At least he gets to take a souvenir with him.
While no tribal council leaves us with more setup than resolution, this episode did provide insight into what a lot of these players are thinking as they enter this merge and how they might proceed going forward. First, there’s Nick Maiorano, who saw the biggest visibility spike of the whole season so far. He went from the douchey, inconsiderate creep to “the pretty girl at the dance” (his words, not mine.) He’s still kind of douchey but he seriously impressed this week with his gameplay; deftly navigating both sides and giving well-articulated insight into all of his strategies. Plus, he won immunity, thus avoiding the fate of the merge boot a guy with his build might typically face, if the players had gone to tribal council. At first, he didn’t seem long for this game, but now Nick could set himself up for a good run if he picks the right side.
Aubry Bracco was the other player who had a huge step up this week. Having been reunited with her closest ally Neal, she was ready to go to work to get the Brains the majority they needed. Unfortunately for her, her other Brain partner, Debbie Wanner, has started to alienate potential allies. Much like the other kooky characters before her, Debbie has begun to believe the mythology she has been perpetuating, believing herself to be the ultimate military strategist and others simply need to fall in line. Her straightforward alliance invitation to Tai, however, left a lot to be desired, which prompted Aubry into action. It was time for people to “get their heads out of their butts and start talking like normal human beings,” and that’s what she did. She spoke to Nick, she talked to Michele Fitzgerald, slowly trying to work the necessary numbers she needed to prevail.
Ultimately, she didn’t need the numbers for this round, and while Neal leaving is a blow to her game, it could also be a blessing in disguise. Now, the Brains are a slightly lesser threat moving forward, which could be exactly the change she needs to swing the game in her direction. At the end of the episode, to summarize poor Neal’s situation, Aubry said “sometimes you just get dysentery and die,” referencing the great classic computer game Oregon Trail. While that’s true in the game, the great thing about Oregon Trail is that you could always start over. Her life may be full of dysentery right now, but maybe this is the restart Aubry, or any of the other players, needed to begin their path to the end of the game.
While the momentum slowed down this week, there’s nowhere to go now but up. Hopefully, next week will bring the tribal council excitement that was robbed of us this week. Until then, cheers!