by Ian Walker
Things couldn’t be going any better for the alliance of John Carroll, Zoe Zanidakis, Tammy Leitner and Robert “The General” DeCanio, collectively known as the “Rotu 4.” Having merged the previous episode, they eliminated the pesky “Boston” Rob Mariano, their biggest thorn in their collective side, at their first opportunity and now the rest was smooth sailing.
The group had their fifth and sixth votes in Paschal English and Neleh Dennis, whom they would use to defeat the Boston Rob stragglers, Sean Rector and Vecepia Towery, then Rotu outsider Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien and then Paschal and Neleh themselves. The plan couldn’t be simpler. One of the Rotu 4 was guaranteed to win this season of Survivor; there was no possible way they could lose- until the end of the episode when John becomes the next person voted out of the game.
Up through this point in Survivor history, the game strategy was pretty simple: make an alliance, win enough to challenges to enter the merge with numbers, pick off the other tribe, go to the end and win. There was potential for some deviation from that plan during the Final Nine vote of the previous season, Survivor: Africa, caused by the great Lex van den Berghe witch hunt of 2001, but that never panned out. Here in this season, though, the pieces were in place for a significant change.
Four people proclaimed to be the dominant alliance, marking the other five people for execution. They thought that they could get away with it because people in that group of five were opposite sides. Kathy, Paschal, and Neleh had never been on a tribe with Sean and Vecepia before the merge, so to the Rotu 4, it didn’t seem like a realistic possibility that they would band together.
That doesn’t stop the Rotu 4 from parading their power around camp, and some of the bottom-dwellers are starting to notice. Kathy becomes increasingly turned off by the foursome’s arrogant attitude and knows she’ll just be a pawn in the Rotu 4’s endgame if she doesn’t act quickly. So, she goes to Sean and Vecepia, who are immediately on board. The problem soon becomes bringing Sean and Vecepia together with Paschal and Neleh, who are very hesitant to align their games with original Maraamu members. For Pappy and Sweet Pea, everything is as it’s supposed to be. They’re back with their Rotu friends and are happy to ride out the rest of the game with them, unaware of the fate that John and company have already laid out for them.
Side-Note: This episode contains the “Go Fly A Kite” reward challenge where the castaways literally have to… well, fly a kite. The simplicity, and let’s face it, mundanity, of the challenge, compared to the epic scale challenges of modern day Survivor is hilarious. And the fact that nobody is any good at it apart from Kathy just makes it all the better.
Then, the immunity challenge happens, and everything changes. This episode sees the birth of the coconut chop challenge into the Survivor world, a challenge that would become a staple for many seasons to come. The game seems simple enough: everybody answers a trivia question, if they get it right they get to chop another person’s rope, with three chops sending that person out of the challenge. What seems like an innocent enough game, however, quickly turns into a look into the politics and group hierarchy of the tribe.
One by one, the Rotu 4 eliminate everybody not in their group, first Sean, then Vee, then Kathy, Paschal, and Neleh after that, a show of power that doesn’t go unnoticed. As the challenge is going on, Sean turns to Vee and Kathy and says to them “this is the order how it’s gonna go.” So now, Kathy, Vee, and Sean have evidence to present to Paschal and Neleh to try to convince them to come over to their side, it’s just a matter of whether they’re willing to listen.
Fortunately, Paschal and Neleh return to camp after the challenge with their ears fully opened. Neleh especially now sees the writing on the wall, coming to the realization that she and Paschal are just the extra votes to the main Rotu 4 alliance, and pleads with Paschal to take the opportunity to change their fate in the game. Pappy shows some reluctance at first but eventually decides to take this chance to join up with Kathy, Vee, and Sean to topple the Rotu 4.
That night at Tribal Council, the first major power shift in Survivor history takes place. The five people on the bottom band together and all cast their votes for John, sending the leader of the “dominant” alliance out of the game. Not to be forgotten, however, is Sean’s great voting confessional when he casts his vote: “Checkmate, brah. Thought you’d had me. So anytime you go to Vegas, bet on black. Well, we’re definitely going to have chicken and waffles when this whole thing is done.” The whole sequence was an unprecedented move that changed the core of Survivor strategy and showed both future players and fans alike that big shifts in the game are possible, you just have to have the guts and the smarts to pull it off.