While it might not have matched the jaw-dropping insanity of last season’s second episode – one so good I refuse to spoil it for any SA: Philippines virgins who might be reading – this week’s episode of Survivor SA was full of surprises across the board. It made for a fun and surprisingly emotional follow up on last week’s premiere. So let’s get into it.
Sa’ula returns to camp and Seipei is thrilled about talking her way out of elimination. However, the Previously On segment gave credit to Nathan for convincing the whole tribe, so I don’t know who they want us to see as the true mover and shaker here. I want to give some credit to both of them since Seipei’s speaking skills were praised by her tribe, which is ironic considering her mouth got her into trouble before. Seipei is still on thin ice though; she has no strong alliances to fall back on and narrowly escaped elimination, so she’s got work to do to stay in it. But she does have options because Paul’s out of the loop and Nathan’s foot is still bruised.
Nicole aims to make a solid three within the rest of the tribe and meets with Paul for a little strat-chat. The proposal: Nicole, Steffi, and Paul (who’s still doing his best to honor 30 Rock’s Lenny Wosniak with that sideways/backwards cap look) will be the new majority once Seipei is out, leaving the bromance of Rob & Nathan as easy pickings if Sa’ula happens to lose a third immunity challenge. Nicole explains her two-sided strategy: strong alliances and integrity. I can already hear the groaning about “mateship” and “honor” on your message board of choice, but Nicole’s performance through two episodes has been pretty cutthroat. Whereas Rob and Nathan have sworn to a Day 39 pact just four days into the game and set themselves apart as an obvious tight duo, Nicole is keeping her options open while staying a couple of steps ahead of the others, never getting too close to anyone or letting anyone drift too far from her. Like I said last week, Nicole Capper is one to watch this season and with the right swap she could be set for a very deep run in the game.
The events on Laumei are a direct continuation of last week. Laetitia is liked, but she’s still the weak link, and to drive the point home, the editors zoom in on her knees Dan Lembo style as she walks through the jungle. Mike and Geoffrey remind us that she will be out first if Laumei loses, but things take a turn when Rocco tells his “guys alliance” that Mmaba should be voted out first because she hasn’t formed a close bond with him and could pose a threat later on. Mike tells us Rocco is still playing too hard. Gathering his secret alliance with Geoffrey, Mmaba, and Rose-Lee, Mike debates giving Rocco a taste of his own medicine by blindsiding him instead if he’s so set on saving Laetitia for another vote. Whenever this group goes to tribal, I’ll be on the edge of my seat.
While the other two tribes have solid majorities and obvious outsiders, Laumei’s power structure is up in the air, and their idol has yet to be found. I would be disappointed if all this blindside talk led to a predictable Laetitia boot, but I don’t think it’s going to be that simple when pen meets parchment. This tribe has some of the biggest gamers in the cast and the chance to make a huge move might prove to be irresistible if this tension between Rocco and Mike continues to build.
Ta’alo… sorry, TANI’Alo, is more of the same as well with the addition of an early morning idol hunt. Cobus wants to use his idol clue to build some trust with Jacques and the two work together to find it. But Jacques is crafty enough to solve the clue himself and dig the idol up when his hunting partner has his back turned. Stuffing it into his already packed pants, Jacques calls it quits and the pair return to camp. I have to say, Jacques is living the Survivor superfan’s dream right now. Not only does he have two advantages in his pants, but he also has people wanting to work with him, has all this crucial info to himself in a season where “secrets” is literally in the title, and the best part: he gets to spend 24 hours a day around Tania! Yay!
There was no way to ignore Tania this week. Following up the premiere like a perfect sequel, she continues to overplay and won’t stop talking strategy. Cobus is her main man at the moment, and all he can do when Tania starts talking is stare off into the jungle and play with his buff. No eye contact. No back and forth discussion. No interest. Nothing. It’s like he’s stuck listening to a bad lecture in college, but he knows he can’t get up and leave because his grades (in this case his Survivor game) depends on putting up with the pain no matter how badly he wants to do literally anything else. He even gives a line I never thought I’d hear in a 2019 Survivor season: “No strategy. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.” This is why Cobus is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. He has amazing delivery and knows how to throw some shade without trying too hard to be this snarky, badass character. Sure, he has no idea he lost an idol to Jacques and probably should’ve taken the flint on IOS since his tribe is still complaining about not having fire, but he’s still got a pulse on his tribe and has the right ideas.
Then we get our Trainwreck Tania moment of the week: The Great Samoan Shelter War of 2019. They drop us into this fight en media res, but from what I gathered, Felix left the shelter and Tania took his spot because it’s the driest area. “Survival of the fittest. You move, you snooze, you lose!” she says. Felix politely asks for his spot back, and Tania tells him to sit somewhere else, comparing the ordeal to Felix throwing an old woman off a bus instead of giving up his seat. Felix bites his tongue and sits in a new spot, only for Tania to jump up, curse like a sailor, and give him his place back anyways, claiming her new spot is drier than the one she just gave up.
At this point, I thought “Maybe Tania’s in on the joke and this is all some elaborate act. She’s gotta be playing it up, right?” But nope, they smash cut to Tania talking about “being the bigger person” and hoping everyone will see how unreasonable Felix was back there. Yeah, that’s not happening, Tania. Sorry. I thought there might have been some hope for her, some sliver of good fortune on the horizon. But the only thing that can save her is a swap, or better yet, an immunity run to the merge where she could become a consensus goat and hope for a good final two partner who has somehow played worse than her. But so far she’s become this season’s Marthunis: the socially unaware goof with no shot at winning unless the entire cast gets evacuated or disqualified. I still love her though, just like I loved Marthunis. She’s fantastic TV, and I can’t see myself getting tired of her shtick no matter how ridiculous it gets.
In a format change that caught me completely by surprise, there were two immunity challenges this week. The first challenge is a combined immunity/reward challenge where first place gets one tribal idol, and the second challenge is a showdown between the two losing tribes for the second tribal idol. If US Survivor’s producers are watching this season (and they should because they could learn a few things), I hope they use this format in future three tribe seasons. Not only did it give the traditional reward challenge more weight and make me feel more invested in the outcome, but it also gave the losing tribes two different challenges to win. If the first challenge wasn’t a good fit for your tribe, you’d still have a second challenge that requires a different set of skills to complete. It’s brilliant game design, and I really hope it’s not a one-off twist.
The first challenge requires a mix of brute strength and careful hands. One tribe member, tied to a bag of coconuts by a long rope, has to collect cups and balls to assemble into a tower while the rest of their tribe has to raise the coconuts to give them enough slack to reach the pieces placed around the course. The higher the bag is raised, the easier it is for the free member to collect and stack their pieces. Steffi continuously struggles, and it’s a close race between Jacques and Rocco, but Rocco and his long arms earn Laumei immunity and some chickens, leaving Ta’alo with fishing gear and the hope that whatever challenge is coming will play to their strengths.
But there’s more. Laumei also gets to send someone from the losing tribe (Sa’ula) to the Island of Secrets. They choose to send Rob, who arrives to find Ghost Island’s game of chance waiting for him. The game is simple: there are three boxes, one with an advantage that would let Rob exile anyone of his choice (himself included) to IOS before the merge, and two boxes with “NO VOTE” parchments that would cost him his vote at the next Tribal he attends. Rob assumes he’s in a good position and risking his vote for one tribal won’t hurt him, so he plays the game… and loses — womp womp. But Rob’s in good spirits about it and plans to tell his alliance so that they can work around his short term handicap. We haven’t seen anything new from IOS that we haven’t seen elsewhere, but with 16 more episodes to go, I’m sure something will surprise me. And hey, at least the advantages aren’t overpowered and actually expire soon. They have just enough power to make things interesting without completely breaking the game. Like I said last week, it’s balanced. That’s the key.
Laumei and Ta’alo return to camp and enjoy their rewards, but Sa’ula is in a little bit of a slump. Stone Cold Steffi Brink starts to crack over single-handedly losing the challenge for her tribe, so Nicole and Nathan comfort her with hugs as Paul awkwardly watches from afar. Steffi’s hopes are lifted when the next tree-mail says the second immunity challenge will be super physical and involve tackling and chasing the other tribe. And right away, that confidence (and dare I say cockiness) returns to Sa’ula. Ta’alo isn’t fazed by Sa’ula’s muscles though. Felix is optimistic and firmly believes his tribe has the tenacity and ability to win while Sa’ula only looks strong and lacks true strength. On the other hand, Cobus is 100% fine with losing since it means Tania goes home and Ta’alo finally gets the flint he left behind on IOS. Best trade deal ever. Never change, Cobus.
The challenge is Water Slaughter, aka the “Jeff Probst gets annihilated by a wave” challenge. Ta’alo annihilates Sa’ula in the first two rounds when Rob pulls the life ring to the other tribe’s goal post, and Nathan’s injured foot weakens him enough for Tania and Cobus to drag him across the field. Steffi manages to keep Sa’ula alive by running on water, but the force is with Dante and Felix (Tania’s words, not mine) and Ta’alo finishes strong with a 3-1 victory, proving Sa’ula wrong about the “science fair tribe” yet again.
There are two options on the table for Sa’ula: Seipei and Nathan. Rob explains that he lost his vote on IOS and Paul gives him the “group” idol to make sure he’s safe that night. The stage is set. Let the scrambling begin. Nicole and Steffi discuss mercy booting Nathan, figuring the Amigos will have to break eventually and winning challenges is the bigger priority at the moment. They agree to a ride-or-die pact, but Nicole is wary because she has no idea how many final two deals Steffi has made with the rest of the tribe, plus she’s so willing to blindside Nathan after promising never to write his name down.
I do feel bad for Steffi; she competes in games where winning is winning and losing is losing, and that’s that. There is no benefit to losing in sports or pageantry as there might be in Survivor. This is new territory for her, and watching her start to evolve as a player under pressure has been fascinating. It’s easy to write Steffi off as just another athlete who only cares about honor and integrity and honesty and all the other buzzwords that make superfans squirm, but Steffi has displayed the ability to wipe away her tears and play a level headed game amid an emotionally devastating losing streak. The problem? People see it, and they know she’s a threat. Her name is off the table for now though, so she’s clear for another couple days.
Paul joins the women at the water well, and they bring up that tight three deal again, ready to solidify it with all three members in one place. But for some reason, Paul doesn’t want to touch the idea of the tight three anymore. He wants to wait until after Tribal Council to make up his mind, just to see how the vote shapes up. Nicole hears those Kill Bill sirens blaring and starts feeling suspicious about Paul’s loyalty to her in the long run. He jokingly asks if he’s being blindsided and leaves the chat when things get tense. Awkward.
Rob meets up with the beauty queens and tells them Seipei’s going home, but Steffi and Nicole tell Rob it’s Nathan’s time to go. Rob returns to Nathan and has an emotional heart to heart with his bro. Nathan asks Rob to let him go, reminding him that he can’t vote and won’t have to pull the trigger on his friend tonight. Rob fights back the tears as Nathan tells him to use all his energy to get to Day 39 on his own, and Rob admits Nathan has to go after all.
Tribal’s topics of the night are trust and strength. The tribe as a whole says they’re not cocky per se, but leaned into overconfidence a little too much and got what was coming to them. Nathan says he went into that challenge with his game face on, but inside he’s suffering from throbbing pain and misery. That’s a pretty good metaphor for Sa’ula throughout these two episodes. They put on a guise of a well-composed, powerful, and unbreakable tribe, but inside they’re emotionally spent and wounded at the core. But like we’ve seen in other seasons, losing a lot can be a benefit if you survive the slaughter. The surviving Sa’ula members will have honed their skills and know what to expect from the rest of the game. Making these tough choices in the first week is painful, but it will only get harder as the game progresses. So you might as well start early and get yourself numb to the pain while the going is easy and there aren’t many variables to juggle.
Just seconds before the vote, Nicole, Steffi, Rob, Nathan, and Seipei begin eyeing each other and nodding as Paul speaks about long term and short term game plans. Something is up behind his back, and Rob whispers a new name: Paul. The tribe casts their votes and Paul is unanimously blindsided 4-1, his idol still around Rob’s neck. Okay then. That happened, I guess.
This vote confused me at first. Paul’s name wasn’t even brought up as an option until right before the votes were cast. The episode appeared to be a swan song for Nathan and stopped the music at the last second for a shocking twist. Now, I’ve seen a lot of people say this was a cheap viewer blindside that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, but I have to disagree after thinking it over. The editors left a lot of clues in the first two episodes to explain why Paul could be voted out. Go back and watch his scenes in these two episodes; they went out of their way to make him appear bumbling and awkward. I know I joked last week about Paul leaving Nicole hanging and how it would come back to bite him when the sound of doom accompanied her glare, but that ended up being a real piece of foreshadowing. Nothing is shown without reason. Keep that in mind.
So where did Paul’s game go south? Well, I can’t say it was ever heading north, but turning his hidden immunity idol into a public immunity idol was a horrendous move, and putting it around the necks of others made him a sitting duck ready to be shot out of the sky. Being stuck on IOS for the first day played a role in his early downfall too, since he missed out on the chance to form early alliances and had to settle for being the spare tire on the speeding bus that was the Four Amigos. And with Seipei proving herself to be valuable as a persuasive speaker, Paul really couldn’t contribute anything unique to the tribe and fell to the bottom of the totem pole where a bad conversation sealed his fate.
Something that must be said about this season is that it is firmly new school in design. There are idols. There are advantages. There are twists left and right. There’s a big cast. Yet what’s great about Survivor SA is that it never loses sight of what makes Survivor so brilliant in the first place: the people. With an idol, Island of Secrets, and a minor format change appearing in one 55-minute block, it’s easy to lose sight of the cast’s experiences and rely on the game itself to prop up the episode. We’ve seen Survivor US fall into that territory with the monotonous Extinction treasure hunts slowly replacing the emotional self-reflection segments and the show convincing itself into thinking that finding a lot of idols is somehow a character trait. Survivor SA has jumped over all these pitfalls and found solid footing, and I can’t wait to see where this season goes once these people have to make some even tougher choices.