This right here! This is what makes Survivor phenomenal and enduring television. It’s not the challenges. It’s not the mechanics of the game. It’s certainly not the ludicrous twists. It’s the people. It’s their relationships. It’s their emotions. It’s their journey through the brutality of the complex game. It’s about them.
I know it can be easy to fall into the trap of hyperbole, but I feel confident in saying that this episode was the best of the season thus far. It was the purest, old-school episode. No convoluted twists, an individual reward challenge with the winner choosing who else gets reward, a straightforward immunity, and a tense but unfettered vote. And in the breathing room of the classic Survivor format, magic was made. An incredible blindside, yes, carried out with finesse. But it was the people who shone through, their struggles and delight as the game turns the corner into the endgame, and it becomes time to make the crucial decisions of loyalty and self-interest.
It’s the central tension of Survivor: put a bunch of strangers on an island where they have to rely on each other to survive and then force them to turn on each other little by little. The gameplay arises out of that, but it’s the emotion in that central tension that makes this more than a brainy exercise in game mechanics.
So as this episode highlighted the blindside of the season’s breakout star Shan, it was refreshing to take the time to see how every step of the plan unfolded. Just straightforward storytelling, layered with complex emotion: from the tension of playing for the culture versus playing an inherently selfish game to the balance between transparency and deception, the episode basked in the most compelling qualities of the show: the genuine character and emotion of its players.
THE CORE FOUR
Over the past few weeks, it felt inevitable that the core four alliance that seized control at the merge—Danny, Deshawn, Liana, and Shan—would reach a point of breakdown. Tensions were rising between Deshawn and Shan, and with savvy players all around, it was only a matter of time before the four would have to question who was destined to be the fallen angel in an alliance of four in a game that goes to the Final Three. And yet, while the events of this episode were a culmination of that building conflict, it unfolded in a wholly unpredictable way.
Admittedly, the episode began as we might have expected, with Deshawn entertaining Erika’s pitch to blindside Shan or at least make an effort to flush her Idol. And yet, all of that theorising and strategizing hit a wall when Shan and Deshawn debriefed the next morning. In a moment of earnestness, the two acknowledged the temptation to turn but that they were caught between two principles. On the one hand, they’d each come out to play knowing that it was a selfish game, and each recognised the life-changing reward—a million dollars could go a long way to clearing student debts or establishing a home. The self-interested ambition in seeking to win Survivor is not a flaw in a person’s character; it’s the very drive that compels you to play this game in the first place.
But where Deshawn and Shan were both feeling the mounting pressure was in their mutual commitment to their core alliance. Being a group of four Black players, they felt a responsibility to represent the culture. No longer were they just playing for themselves or their family, but also their community: a global community. With 2020 being a gruelling year for the Black community, both players felt a responsibility to gift their culture a reprieve and something to celebrate: four black players taking the game all the way to the end together.
However, while that statement could be powerful, both Shan and Deshawn acknowledged that it could risk their own personal chance at victory. It’s something past Survivor players have spoken of when they’ve been conscious of being a representative of a minority group. They’ve felt additional pressure to not only play for themselves but also their whole community, and the weight of that pressure has impacted their games. So seeing that tension so eloquently and honestly discussed by Shan and Deshawn was a beautiful moment of transparency. Can you play for both yourself and something larger than yourself?
It’s challenging, and it’s clear that this was also weighing on Danny and Liana in their own way. Liana, especially, was confronted with a plan cooked up by Danny and Deshawn. The two men identified that Shan would be difficult to beat and looked to lock in Liana for their Final Three. Fair tactics—someone has to be left out in an alliance of four. But when Danny & Deshawn pitched a plan to weaken Shan’s control immediately by voting out Ricard, Liana felt anxious. Recalling the strong emotional bond she had formed with Shan on their journey, connecting as Black women and sharing personal stories about their mothers, she was also faced with a similar dilemma. Make a self-interested move, or play with earnest loyalty?
While she knew it might cost her the game, Liana felt driven to honour her connection to Shan and told her about the brewing plan against Ricard. The revelation drew them closer together but was yet further proof of how complex this game can be. Earlier in the season, Liana lamented not making the precise game-oriented plays on Yase, and now she was willing to risk going to the end with Shan, a bonafide Big Threat, even if it made her own road to victory rockier.
Shan was shocked. Losing Ricard was one thing, but Deshawn conspiring against her in the wake of their own conversation was salt to the wound. But there was still a tension. She approached Ricard to tell him of the plan brewing against him,and was willing to offer a counter-attack against Deshawn to protect him. But once Ricard emerged victorious at the Immunity Challenge, Shan backed down from going against her alliance, instead suggesting they go after an easy target in Erika (with a vague and flawed attempt to flush Xander’s Idol in the process). For Shan, the tension between choosing the path of self versus the path of the alliance could be delayed. Perhaps it could work itself out in time.
WHEN BONDS ARE BROKEN
Unfortunately for Shan, this opened the door for the final development in one of the most complex relationships we’ve seen on Survivor in quite some time: Ricard & Shan. At the Reward Challenge, where Ricard had won and gifted the prize to Shan, Heather, and Xander on the basis of their own lack of rewards, a curious aspect of the Ua Two’s relationship was clarified. Despite surviving the desolation of their tribe together and continuing to work as a unit post-merge, Ricard & Shan had plainly agreed that there would be a time when they would have to turn on each other. There was no Finals deal between them; rather, their agreement was a mutual agreement of inevitable betrayal. But as they told each other on the Reward, “not yet.”
The idea of working with another player so closely, with an understanding that it’s not forever, is a fascinating wrinkle in the social strategy of Survivor. It’s not without precedence, but it’s rare for it to be so plainly spoken. And yet, this retroactively sheds so much new light on the dynamics between these two characters through their arguments, their flirtations with betrayal, and their co-dependent loyalty. Such honesty bred greater trust. Knowing they were destined for betrayal and giving each other the permission to make a move with no hard feelings freed them up to consider their individual options in a self-interested game.
For Shan, having Ricard as a number on her side was valuable, especially as it became evident that Deshawn & Danny were angling to undercut her in their alliance. But for Ricard, he could see that Shan was an obstacle to his success. Maybe he’d have a harder time making it to the end without her, but he feared he’d have no shot to win if he went with her all the way. And knowing his name was already floating in the water, perhaps Shan would be willing to follow through on their mutual agreement to eventually dissolve their alliance if the numbers weren’t turning in his favour. Thus, he had to act now.
While Shan breathed a sigh of relief in not needing to kick the hornet’s nest, Ricard saw this as the perfect opportunity to strike. Xander was desperate for any path forward. Erika and Heather had limited options. If the four of them worked together, they could turn the vote onto Shan and send her home in a blindside. In doing so, they’d also fracture the core alliance controlling the numbers, and heading into the Final Seven, there would be no clear majority. It was crucial timing, and removing Shan (and her Idol) would remove a huge threat to win.
The only trouble was that they needed a fifth vote. I can’t say why we didn’t see Xander consider using his own Extra Vote in a perfect seizing of the numbers. I have to assume he considered it but was wary enough of whether he could trust Ricard that he wouldn’t commit to wasting it. Still, it could have saved a lot of hassle in the long run. But without that advantage, Ricard’s plan hinged on that fifth vote being Deshawn. It was a risky approach, given Deshawn had been championing a plan to eliminate him, but Ricard deftly handled his thin denials to get what he wanted. Shan was a threat, was entertaining coming for Deshawn, and this was a chance to take her out when she least expected it.
Deshawn was on board, but Erika remained uncertain. If Shan was tipped off or just picked up on a vibe and played her Idol, then it would be her on the chopping block. So Erika made a push to recruit one more to enable a split vote. She and Heather worked on Danny, proposing a split on Shan and Liana to protect against an Ido. While Danny (and Deshawn) were reluctant to throw Liana under the bus, they ultimately followed through with the plan.
Erika was mentioned by the players as an increasing danger, and this episode continued to subtly demonstrate that Erika is indeed becoming the lion she promised. Arguably, Danny and Deshawn had no incentive to split on Liana—doing so would burn that bridge even if Shan went home while allowing Erika to be the contingency plan could still allow them some measure of deniability. But the fact that Erika, an untrusted player and on the outside of the power dynamics, was able to successfully coordinate a split vote that protected herself is an impressive (if subtle) play.
In the end, the plans laid out on the beach came to fruition exactly as planned. Ricard’s assembled crew all stuck by the plan, and Erika’s scheme to split the vote 3 on Shan, 3 on Liana, with a revote taking out Shan, played out to perfection. The editing of the conspiring at camp, the Tribal, and the ultimate vote reveal was perfect: nuanced in its emotion and transparent in the execution. Barring a rug pull, the build towards Shan’s blindside was palpable. Certain. And there was a beauty in that transparency—further echoed by the grace Shan carried in defeat. As the votes turned over, she instantly recognised that she’d been outplayed and congratulated and assured Ricard that she was okay, understanding that he’d merely carried through on their mutual decision not to lock in a Finals deal.
Yet Shan didn’t leave without speaking her piece, specifically singling out Danny and Deshawn. It’s a really fascinating dichotomy: Ricard, Danny, and Deshawn all ultimately betrayed Shan, but whereas Ricard was honest about the need to go against her at some point, Danny and Deshawn promised commitment to an alliance that they turned their backs on. Did the additional weight of the culture add to the sting of the betrayal? Perhaps. Regardless, the contrast between Shan’s relationships here was fascinating: straight-up loyalty with Liana, earnest and mutual deception with Ricard, and the complex betrayal of Deshawn and Danny. Each came to a head in its own way, and even though Shan has seen her torch snuffed, the legacy of those relationships will surely carry forward as Viakana now scrambles to find a new power structure.
This episode was a perfect ode to Shan—an undeniably fascinating player who owned her strengths and her flaws. She was endlessly entertaining, from her scheming anthem (making a delightful cameo in this episode where she was caught humming it at the Reward) to her deep investment in the game and the people she was playing with in equal measure. She made some incredible plays and some colossal errors, but that duality in her characterisation on the show gave such depth.
I loved watching Shan play this season, and I am gutted to lose her at this point. But if there was a way for her to go out, this was it: meeting her end in an episode devoted to the social relationships on which she built her game and seeing how each handled the tension of a plot against her.
THE POWER VACUUM
Shan leaving the game here leaves a huge power vacuum. The core alliance no longer has the numbers, but the underdog coalition didn’t seem to assemble as a new alliance, merely a marriage of convenience. So now, power is up for grabs, and anyone could come out on top.
For Erika, Heather and Xander, this is pretty much a dream come true; it’s the lucky break they’ve been waiting for since merge. For Ricard, it’s a perfect opportunity to capitalise on locking in a new alliance—but after orchestrating the blindside and Shan explicitly stating he’d have her vote at the end, he’ll have to work to dodge the target. For the first time in the game, Liana is now a free agent; her closest ally blindsided and her own alliance throwing her to the wolves. And Danny & Deshawn have shot their own alliance to shreds; they could easily find themselves at the mercy of a surge of the underdogs.
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So it really frustrates me that it looks like the next episode will see a twist in play (and if it’s the rumoured twist, Survivor gods help us all). This episode was a perfect demonstration of how great Survivor can be in its simplest form: players who care will shine. And with the tribe in chaos, and at the Final Seven, the last major swing vote in a Final Three format, this is the absolute worst time for a twist. But all I can hope is that the show continues to find ways to capture what made this episode so brilliant.
Focus on the people. Their inner conflicts, their drives, their reasoning. Focus on their relationships. The intimacy of friendship and real connection, and the tragedy of betrayal. Allow it to breathe. The number of scenes in this episode where the score dropped out entirely to enhance the tension of the moment were phenomenal. If the rest of Season 41 can convey this, then we’ll finish out strong.