Highs to lows, this week’s episode of Survivor 41 ran the gamut. At one end, we delved into deep character explorations, and the players brought an eloquent and impactful conversation about race and representation to the fore. At the other end, we were going through the motions of one of the worst Survivor twists in the show’s history. From the stuff we love to the stuff we loathe, this episode swung from one extreme to the other and left us with a very muddled episode on the whole.
While I think the episode ultimately settled on the good side of the equation (thanks in large part to the idiotic twist failing to manufacture its Big Moment™), it only solidified my feelings on the season as a whole, and especially in the wake of the Shan boot last week. What has always made Survivor sing are the people themselves—the gameplay and the strategy is fascinating, but it’s because it comes to us through the lens of the players. By contrast, Survivor is often at its worst when it forgets about the people or shoves them to the side in favour of unnecessary game mechanics. And the litany of production twists has certainly been Survivor 41‘s biggest and most notable flaw.
Yet there is small comfort in the fact that even when we’re faced with a twist as ill-conceived as Do or Die, the right cast can elevate the show and make up the ground lost by production’s missteps. Even when there aren’t moments like this Tribal Council to counter a wonky twist or mechanic, the right cast can make all the difference, so we are once again blessed with how phenomenal the 41 cast has been.
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This Tribal was, in itself, a microcosm of the extremes of the episode and the season at large, and the long, player-governed conversation about blackness was a fantastic scene of human transparency. None of what was said was new information in our cultural context, but Liana, Deshawn, and Danny did an excellent job articulating their personal perspective, and a lived experience is always valuable.
Continuing to feel torn between his desire to represent the Black community and his desire to win out in a self-interested game, Deshawn made that internal battle public, bearing that raw emotion and vulnerability for the whole tribe to see. Liana continued, adding how the world’s perceptions of her as a Black woman first and foremost were constraining and how community with other Black women and men allowed her to connect and operate in a different way.
Danny also spoke of the value of allyship and his gratefulness for his cast’s openness and support. And Liana again added a pertinent meta-commentary highlighting that Survivor is a condensed representation of the broader world, and to want it to be devoid of the cultural consciousness of its time is a privileged and warped expectation.
No summary, especially from a white guy, is going to do justice to the words of Liana, Deshawn, and Danny. If for some reason, you’re reading this article and haven’t watched the episode, go to the source and listen to what was said by the people who said them – these conversations are important.
It shouldn’t be an expectation for minorities to have to be spokespeople for their community. But the reality is that a platform like Survivor creates the pressure of ‘representing’ whether a player wants to be or not. It’s exactly the struggle Deshawn described, but I’m grateful for these players actively shouldering a responsibility of positive representation for their community in the wake of recent events—the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 particularly. And while conversation is just talk, it is always meaningful to listen, for change can only come from informed action.
Worth noting is that the show’s presentation of the conversation was imperfect. With the topic being explicitly about minority experience and the pressures of representation, it felt conspicuous that Erika & Ricard, the two POC not included in the Black alliance, were not given a voice. Instead, the platform was given to Xander and Heather as the two white players on the field. And Jeff’s commentary and facilitation of the conversation had a self-congratulatory edge, patting the show on the back for the diversity casting initiative and for being a vehicle for these conversations, rather than just allowing the conversations to be organically led by the players.
But an imperfect conversation is still a conversation, and for that, I’m grateful for the transparent, open, and honest dialogue brought to the fore by Liana, Deshawn, and Danny. And Shan, whose support from the jury bench may have been silent, but was anything but quiet.
So with the impact of that scene, the context is unfortunate given this conversation arose in the centre of the Black alliance crumbling in on itself. In the aftermath of the Shan vote, Liana was rightfully frustrated that Danny & Deshawn had turned on her and betrayed an alliance that also stood for something larger. But even in the game context, Danny & Deshawn were on the backfoot, claiming to have been cornered by the numbers when they had the power to flip the script. Between the split vote dividing the opposition’s numbers, and Shan’s Idol, there was an avenue for their alliance to come out on top, but they chose not to take it, and Liana could see that.
The fallout was even worse for Deshawn, who became fixated on Shan calling him a snake as she exited the game, especially in contrast to her lauding of Ricard, who, from his perspective, had betrayed her too. Deshawn is such a fascinating player and character. He carries so much natural magnetic charm, but his defensiveness and impulsiveness can often get in his own way. Ricard articulated it well in confessional, perceiving that Deshawn’s inconsistency belies an uncertain and confusing game. Ultimately, Deshawn is at his best with a clear head, and he recognised that he’d dug himself an even deeper hole.
Meanwhile, Xander felt on top of the world, not only with his carefully retained advantages but with a new alliance and inclusion in a potential Final Four deal. Heather and Erika, too, had a decisive majority for the first time in the game. And if this had been a Final Seven vote with no funny business, it seemed likely the four would have stuck together, maybe pulled in a vengeful Liana and sent Deshawn packing. Despite his messy game, Deshawn’s charm and likability are still a threat at a Final Tribal, and we’re getting down to the wire now.
But this was complicated by a twist granting immunity to Deshawn, alongside Danny, who earned a beautiful Immunity victory aligning with his personal epiphany about his relationship with his late father (another highlight of the episode in its raw, personal emotion). If there was to be a vote, Deshawn and Danny were both safe, and this left Liana as the target by default.
That is ultimately how it played out. It’s disappointing to see Liana go out in a way that is largely influenced by the constraints of a game mechanic. She was a fascinating and flawed player, and it’s still possible to look back at her game and see where her choices led her to this point—abandoning Yase at the merge, especially, and to a degree, failing to take the shot at Xander pre-merge. Nevertheless, it was an anticlimactic demise and a bit of salt in the wound to lose her on the heels of her dialogue at Tribal.
Yet that’s sometimes the downside of the elegant simplicity of Survivor‘s core game structure. When the game comes down to the vote, majority rules, and when the majority doesn’t swing your way, there’s not much you can do.
It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that Liana (or Deshawn & Danny) could have helped pull off an upset here. They targeted Ricard for his emerging control of the game, his visible successful blindside of Shan, and his own likability making him the #1 threat. Their reasoning was sound, but their pitch fell on deaf ears. Xander saw no reason to go out on a limb to save Liana when she had so actively targeted him all game. Heather was… oh, who knows—even with only seven players remaining, the show continues to inexplicably excise Heather’s strategic perspective.
Meanwhile, Erika certainly seemed tempted to take the shot at Ricard. In many ways, playing the middle and sniping the top dogs is an ideal path to the end for her. But allowing Danny, Deshawn, and Liana to regain a foothold could be dangerous for her too, and she made the right call in the end to stick with a stable majority. Now, Erika might be the third number Danny & Deshawn need, or she’s got room to take out Ricard and ride to the end with Heather and Xander. She has options, and maybe she can catch the right break in this home stretch.
But what caught me by surprise—and is perhaps a bad sign for Erika’s flexibility—is that Xander finally burned the Extra Vote as defense against Erika flipping, turning a potential 4-3 into a 4-4 tie. It’s a flawed defence, given it would do nothing if Erika brought Heather with her on the flip. But the evidence that Erika was squirrely enough about her intentions to prompt Xander to play his Extra Vote in a suboptimal way is fascinating, given the Final Six vote is likely to hinge on which direction Erika and Xander swing.
Will Xander trust Erika more now that he’s seen she stuck with them? Will she see his Extra Vote as a lack of trust? It could get messy, and that’s very much the delicious flavour of the strategy this season.
DO OR DIE
And gods, I wish the show would just trust its players to create their own interesting strategy. The Final Seven vote is such a crucial tipping point in the game. It’s the last time that there are more players who won’t make the Final Three than players who will, and so it’s the last time to take a decisive shot at a clear three-strong alliance (yet another reason sticking to the Liana vote was the right call for Erika). On top of that, this was apparently the last time the Shot in the Dark could be played. So it is absolutely mind-boggling that production decided to implement an already terrible twist at this specific vote—and very likely skip a vote entirely in favour of eliminating someone by random chance.
After slogging through the production madness of Australian Survivor this year, and the mess of the ill-conceived hourglass twist, I’m honestly exhausted at having to eviscerate yet another twist that actively undermines the tenets of Survivor that have made it what it is. There is simply no logic as to why this twist was even given serious consideration, much less made it onto the show—and at the crucial Final Seven of all times.
Like much of Season 41’s twists, the twist is more complex than it needs to be, and the juice really isn’t worth the squeeze. The players are informed that the first player to drop out of the Immunity challenge will have to play the vaguely defined “Do or Die” game at Tribal. If they win the game, they earn Immunity and a vote proceeds as normal. But if they lose, they are eliminated on the spot and there is no Final 7 vote.
Thankfully, the players had an option to elect to sit out of the challenge. It’s wild to me that only two, Heather and Liana, chose to sit out and not leave their fate in the hands of a challenge they were not confident in (and one that can traditionally be quite swingy in how easy it is to fail).
There’s maybe an argument that production at least warned the players about the Do or Die, and so Deshawn, who dropped out of the challenge first after only a few seconds, wasn’t screwed over. He knew what he was signing up for, right? But there’s some real Squid Game justification here because at no point was it mentioned that the Do or Die game was literally just a game of chance.
Ultimately, Deshawn was presented with a Monty Hall problem—three boxes: one had safety, and two would immediately end his game. He chose one, Jeff revealed one of the “Die” boxes and offered Deshawn a switch. Mathematically speaking, the “right” answer to the Monty Hall problem is to take the switch as it increases your odds of picking the right box, but it wasn’t even like Deshawn won out on that statistical gaming of the system! He stuck with his choice and got lucky. Thrilling.
Survivor lives and breathes with the vote. It’s the climax of every episode for a reason because the inherent tension of the players being forced to choose who among them survives another day makes for endlessly fascinating television. Even in a straightforward vote, there’s still the question of why a majority alliance is choosing to stick together when not all of them can make it to the end or win. So a twist that actively seeks to bypass a vote in favour of an elimination by chance is ridiculous.
It undermines the game, and it doesn’t even make for great television. If Deshawn was eliminated by chance, it makes any strategizing irrelevant. There is no tension of whether or not Erika would flip! And what’s the story of Deshawn losing Survivor? He got unlucky. Not exactly a riveting drama or a compelling resolution to a season-long story. And if he ends up winning the game? Not only does he earn immunity after being the worst at the challenge, but we do a whole song and dance for a twist that doesn’t really change the playing field.
I really hope we never see anything like this ever again. Survivor really needs to look at this season and look at what worked and what didn’t. The worst parts of the season have been production’s interference: the hourglass, Do or Die, arguably the convoluted glut of advantages in the pre-merge. The best parts? The players and the organic and compelling gameplay that arises when they’re able to play strategically because they know the rules and bounds of the game they’re playing. And more importantly, their stories of personal journey and shared experience. Just trust your format, Survivor.