This week of Survivor South Africa was a welcome reprieve from the last week of toxicity. Granted, it wasn’t a great week, and there’s still more disappointment to talk about, but for the first time in a while, I can see the clouds opening up and a beam of sunshine poking through. We had a new take on the auction, a clutch Immunity win, a lot of solid strategic planning from a couple individuals, and a long-overdue idol find that could change everything. But most importantly of all, I see hope. So let’s dig into this smorgasbord of an episode which will hopefully set up this endgame the right way.
The return to camp offers a bit of deja vu as Rob consoles a shocked and blindsided Mike, assuring him he’s definitely not on the outs and definitely has a stable alliance with the Robfather. He even tells Mike he was left out of the Mmaba blindside for his own good so he wouldn’t have to vote another friend out of the game. I can’t even remember how many times Rob has come back to camp and personally settled the dust with a blatant lie, but that strategy hasn’t burned him yet, so it looks to be tried and true. Mike’s insatiable thirst for a big move isn’t quenched though, so he’s still ready to cut Rob down to size. The problem? Mike’s unaware of just how much control Rob has over the rest of the tribe. While the Robfather has spies lurking in every corner of the island, ready to relay information to him as soon as a revolt begins to bubble, Mike still believes Durao and Nicole are willing to make a move happen. And once again, Durao’s loose lips spoil the plan before it even has a chance at life.
With a more active cast of players, Mike would be a serious threat to win. Despite his young age and lack of life experience, he’s maintained one of the best social games, held back on showing his physical prowess until the time is right, and put himself in good positions without using any idols or advantages in a season full of them. But his hopes for a fluid game with voting blocs just isn’t happening. To use a poker analogy, he has a great hand of Hold ‘em, but he’s sitting at the Blackjack table and putting his money in anyways.
After the recent ugliness, I was happy to get a fun Reward Challenge. And to make it even sweeter, it just so happens to be a realized version of a popular think tank idea I’ve wanted to see on the show for years: a gift exchange version of the auction. Call it what you want: White Elephant, Yankee Swap, Dirty Santa, whatever. It’s here, and it’s cool. Perhaps not as fun as the auction itself because being able to bid gives the players more control over what they receive and doesn’t limit the players in the underdog spot to being at the mercy of the rest. But it’s the first time I’ve seen this challenge done so I’m going easy on any flaws in the design.
Instead of bidding, the players draw numbers and are given rewards in order. Player #1 is given the first item, and Player #2 can either steal that item or take the next item offered, and so on until Player #1 has their pick of any prize offered during the challenge. With Jacques on the outs, Nicole, Rob, and Steffi orchestrate a plan to prevent him from winning anything good. The only thing in their way is the presence of two covered items, one of which should contain a hypothetical advantage. Steffi and Jacques end up with the two mystery specials, which had me wondering why Nicole didn’t use her Player #1 power to make sure Jacques got stuck with a food item instead, but she really wanted a bit of everything and went for the “Beg for Scraps” item. But it didn’t even matter because Jacques got stuck with a nice breakfast and Steffi got the advantage (a trip to the Island of Secrets where who knows what is awaiting her.)
Overall, I think the challenge is a fun addition to the season. It’s got just enough strategy to it to become a game itself, but it also provides a lot of fun character moments—like Durao stuffing his face to the limit with biltong, everyone rushing to eat once Nico enforces a time limit, and Laetitia scolding Durao for spilling his beer. If only Laetitia was as upset about her position in the game as she is about alcoholic beverages going to waste, then we might be getting somewhere.
Steffi makes her fourth trip to the IOS, and at first glance, it doesn’t look like a great reward. A few skewers aren’t bad, but the lack of advantage make the trip a little less fulfilling than expected… until someone creeps out of the bushes to give Steffi the surprise of the season. It’s none other than her best friend and soul sister, Gina. The two women sit down and chat about the game Steffi—and this is when things get interesting. Steffi tells her the ideal plan is a Steffi/Rob final two, but Gina asks her if it’s really smart to take Rob to the end when he’s played such a great game. For the first time in over a month of playing Survivor, Steffi snaps out of her daze and realizes what needs to be done. Thanks to Gina, she has “permission” to play the game a little dirtier and take out someone she gave her word to all those weeks ago. Finally! Thank you, Gina!
Is it a stretch to say Gina is the best player of this episode? She’s not even in the game and has no idea who Rob is, but her read (or common sense) is amazing, and I just wish Gina could enter the game and flip the script herself. The women spend the whole night plotting Rob’s downfall on the newly renamed “Island of Steffi,” and this is where I felt that little ray of hope. Steffi has been Rob’s most loyal foot soldier this season, and her betrayal would be one of the last things he’d expect. It’s a classic case of the henchman turning on the boss when they realize the boss is holding them back, and if Steffi can overthrow the Robfather and seize control of the Amigo Mafia from within, she could have a legit case to win the season. Put the goat costume on hold, guys. She might still be in the running after all.
When it comes to the crucial Immunity Challenge, Jacques fails to make any progress on his house of cards while Rob and Mike duel for the win. Mike barely squeezes ahead to claim his second Immunity win of the game and makes it even harder for Jacques to escape his awful position. Mike probably would have been safe regardless, as long as Jacques didn’t win, but Mike’s been hiding his physical side until now and wants to win some challenges to impress the jury as a social, strategic, and physical triple threat. But now that he’s on the outs of everyone’s plans, he might actually need to rely exclusively on the physical side to get to the final three.
Mike can hand out as many loved one letters as he wants and come up with all the dead-on-arrival schemes in the world, but the rest of the players know he’s the most significant threat, and they won’t let him slip by for much longer. If this season had a social norm of taking the strongest to the end and rewarding good deeds, Mike would be in the leading position. Because the season is being played on a modern playing field, Mike is, unfortunately, lagging behind in the back of the pack. He’s ahead of those who can’t win a jury vote to save their lives, but behind those with mixed receptions who tend to make the finals most often.
When the tribe returns to camp, Steffi lies about spending the night with Gina by saying all she received was a bowl of rice. Jacques doesn’t buy it, but nobody in the majority wants to vote her out if it means losing their numbers and fracturing when public enemy #1 is finally vulnerable. Once all the men clear out of camp, Steffi brings Nicole and Laetitia together to have a little bonding session. She doesn’t bring up her real plan, but she does explain it to us: take out Jacques and Mike, then bring the three women to the end by blindsiding Rob and Durao. Of course, we have to remember there’s no guaranteeing Steffi’s plan will work.
As great as this plan is for all three women, there’s always a chance it could fail if Nicole decides to stay loyal to Rob, or if Rob goes on a lucky Immunity streak, or one of the women gets eliminated before the time is right. Plus Rob’s idol will always be an obstacle and require him to be taken out at the final four if they don’t take aim and fire next week, and leaving it to the final four is just so risky. I personally would love to see this plan succeed, but until it becomes a genuine attempt and not some confessional talk, I’ll have to put it on the back burner and wait it out. Just like I’ve done for most promising game plans since the merge.
On the other side of the beach, Rob grabs the strings and starts pulling like a master. Despite his obvious mistakes (especially one made at Tribal Council), Rob’s played a strategic masterclass game of Survivor and this week it continues. He goes to Mike and Durao and tells them the plan is to split the votes between Jacques and Laetitia, promising to make a big move against Steffi at the next Tribal Council as a way of repaying Mike for his loyalty. Rob’s lying right to Mike’s face though and wants his “ally” to feel the burn of 6th place. But as long as Mike’s not gunning for Rob and thinks they can work together in the endgame, the Robfather is happy.
To keep his allies in the loop, Rob pulls together the women and lets them in on the plan, just to make sure they’re calm and aren’t keen to panic at Tribal Council if their names come up. I’m not sure if this is Rob’s desired final four since Durao could take Laetitia’s place with ease, but it’s interesting to see the dominoes lining up to crush him if that all female final three manifests after all. He did say in his first-ever confessional that trusting the wrong people could be his downfall. Well, if he really trusts Steffi and the other women with his Survivor life, that confessional could have been prophetic.
But Rob isn’t done. Feeling like Jacques could find a third idol, he decides to narrow down the people getting votes from three to two. That way, there’s less of a chance that anyone could split the minority votes in a way that breaks free of Rob’s omniscient, control. Rob, Steffi, and Laetitia all have targets on their backs going into Tribal, so he pulls Laetitia into the safe zone and throws Steffi’s name out to Mike and Durao instead. Therefore, if Jacques does find an idol, Rob and Nicole have a better chance of protecting their alliance with their idols since they know where all the votes are going and don’t need to worry about one stray vote ruining everything. As long as nobody sways from the plan, everyone in the majority should be safe.
However, not everyone is feeling content. Jacques knows his only chance at surviving the night is finding the replanted merge idol that Mmaba went home with, and he’s willing to search for hours if he has to. He’s got nothing to lose, so it’s all-out time for our Little Snake That Could. Knowing the other idols he found were located around the base of the well, Jacques hopes for a third idol in the same spot. And in one of the most tragic scenes of the season, Jacques is just inches away from touching the package as the cameraman playfully zooms in between a cluster of branches. He practically looks right at the idol and probably would have seen it had the producers planted it with brightly colored packaging like the US producers love to do nowadays. Unfortunately, Jacques moves on to continue the search with no luck, brushing past Laetitia as he leaves the scene.
And because this is Survivor SA and we should always expect random insanity to break out when we least expect it, Laetitia sees “a brown thing sticking out” near the well and finds the idol without even looking for it. Back in the premiere, there was a scene of Laetitia fumbling around the well looking for an idol, and she came within inches of finding it. I joked about her coming closer to finding it than any of the guys with their clue ever could, but some things come full circle, and this was one of them. It only took a month of island time, but Laetitia finally got her hands on that idol, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Not only that, she’s actually learned how the game works when it comes to secrets and decides to keep her idol just that: a secret. She’s come too far and endured too much pain to have everyone flush it out, and now she’s ready to pull something off. Just what that move would be is still up for debate, but I’m just excited an idol found its way into some fresh hands and spiced up the board of potential winners with a new addition.
Go ahead, laugh at the idea of Laetitia winning. Her edit is dismal, and her strategic game is lackluster, but the jury is desperate to give someone other than the Amigos the money. So if Laetitia can make a bold play with her idol or at least play it in a manner that impresses the jury, she should take it. And with the Amigos wanting her in the final four and Steffi wanting her in the final three, Laetitia’s stock value in this game has now skyrocketed—just because she saw a brown thing and stuck her hand in a tree. She already became a bigger threat when the merge arrived due to her story of being the oldest person in the game, fighting to stay in it despite a wounded leg and playing Survivor on what I’d call the highest difficulty level: older woman. But this specific jury wants a player to win, and this idol could be the exact thing she needs to appeal to a gamer heavy group.
But just as quickly as Laetitia enters the fray, she fades into the background as Tribal Council looms. Once again, the jury is furious and frustrated with the Amigos and their attitudes. Nicole says she’d rather lose the game than betray the trust she has with her allies, which sounds like a broken record to a jury sick of hearing the same talking points and buzzwords over and over. Rob says it’s the third Tribal in a row where they’d try to vote Jacques out as a group, and the jury read it as a show of both arrogance and amusing ineptitude. Durao refuses to save Jacques because he doesn’t want to be targeted next, making him look like a spineless follower once again. The only people sitting there who aren’t viewed as jokes are Jacques, the guy who’s going home in about ten minutes, and Mike, the guy who’s about to go home once he loses Immunity.
Then, just to make the jury even angrier, Nicole and Rob argue that the jury “comes last” in terms of game importance or else none of the players could survive the actual strategic game. I imagine the argument they had in their heads sounded better than the one that came out of their mouths, but come on, guys. There’s no way you can tell the jury “you don’t matter” and not lose some points with them, especially when this jury, in particular, is craving some attention and respect like it’s water in the desert. If you need a good example, Geoffrey just zones out during Rob’s speech and calls him a dumbass, then questions when Rob’s “good blindsides to come” were actually going to happen because there sure haven’t been any for the jury (or the fans for that matter) to fawn over so far. That’s not what good jury management looks like.
In the end, the editors use Tribal to dunk on the Amigos and their associates once again and don’t even bother building any suspense. We all know Jacques is doomed and doesn’t have an idol to protect himself. It’s a closed case, and four “Jacques” votes lock it up and throw away the key. Not even a close 4-3 vote can get the jury to care for even a second. And to be honest, it’s a strange footnote of a send-off for such an important character in this season.
From the moment he set foot in Samoa, Jacques began a roller coaster of a journey with many ups and downs. He found an extra vote and an idol in the first week, only to blow his idol in one of the worst blunders of the season and land himself on the bottom. But a couple swaps saved his life and gave him a future with the Misfits and the Spit-Shaker Seven… only to lose his grip again when Seipei was blindsided, and he was left out in the cold. He managed to survive as a fan and jury favorite with the help of his idol, but after swinging for the fences and sinking his game with the Great Mofo Scandal of 2019, he couldn’t hold on any longer, and his torch was snuffed just one day from the family visit he so desperately wanted.
That’s the real tragedy of it. Jacques was so close to getting his wife on the island, either by winning the trip to IOS, using his reward steal to take it from Steffi, or surviving the night by reaching just two more inches to grab that “brown thing.” His reward steal went unused, and all the work he put into changing the flow of the game was for naught. So to see him leave in an episode that wasn’t really about him at all is just bizarre.
But this wasn’t just the Jacques boot episode. It was the episode that set up the rest of the game—three more episodes that will hopefully bring some shake-ups and an exhilarating finish to an otherwise lame duck of a post-merge. The common enemy is gone. Now it’s time to play. We might have to wait until the finale, but the seeds are planted and just need some water.
For as much as the episode shot down so many people’s hopes of a Jacques underdog victory, it also threw the game for a loop and recontextualized the narrative we thought we knew too well. Steffi woke up and pledged to fight for the win after weeks of being labeled as a goat. Laetitia stumbled upon the ultimate power and suddenly has a decent chance at winning. Mike broke out as a triple threat and has an underdog path to victory if he can manage to stay on that track. Rob set up the strings for Tribal Council but might end up getting one caught around his neck if he’s not careful. Nicole’s jury management has solidified her as the only person in the game who I can’t see winning in any final three combination despite her solid social game on the actual island. And Durao… unleashed his inner biltong chipmunk?
The status quo is on the verge of changing, and as the season nears its conclusion, we could be in for one hell of a shocker in the coming weeks. Prepare for anything to happen. Survivor SA is waking up after a short hibernation, and it could get bloody.