Any story is at its best when there are throughlines—narratives, the ebb and flow, consequences and repercussions of choices and developments. Unsurprisingly, Survivor is at its best when it embraces this and reflects the natural and inherent flow of the relationships and decisions of its players. It’s why disruptive twists so often land with a thud. Not just because the mechanics are often clunky or outright bad for the “Game,” but also because it overturns the natural depth of a story in favour of an artificial flash in the pan of a cheap thrill.
Was there anything particularly groundbreaking about this episode? Not really. Although the show continuing to experiment with transparently non-transparent storytelling, such as instilling 20 minutes of mystery around Danny potentially having an Idol, continues to demonstrate some of the positives of a more creative approach in the New Era. But at its core, the penultimate episode of the season was about consequence and transition.
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It was a culmination of the disintegration of the ‘Campout’ alliance and a continuation of the conversation about race and representation that sparked at the last Tribal. But it was also a story of shifting pieces on the board as the players took stock of their games so far and reevaluated their paths to the end. Who are threats, and how do they get to the end in a way they can win? Even though this episode was straightforward and didn’t reach the emotional highs of an episode like the Shan boot, the space for character, emotion, and gameplay shone through. Even an ‘obvious’ outcome can be compelling when approached with the right lens.
The episode began with a wonderful segment continuing the discussion from Tribal, and it was nice to see the show give space to that debrief. While it still wasn’t flawless, Ricard’s perspective as the only Latinx player on the cast still feels like a bit of an omission, and while Heather’s interest in listening and seeking to understand felt very genuine, the scene’s presentation felt a little off by framing the discussion about the Black experience through a lens of white naivety.
Nevertheless, I appreciated that the topic wasn’t relegated to a one-episode “moment.” The consciousness of race and representation has been front of mind for this cast. It’s been a part of the story from the beginning, amplified by the rise and fall of the Black alliance ‘for the culture’, and so continuing to give room for the players to organically and openly discuss it, in all of its complexity, was beautiful and fascinating.
Continuing the trend of the pressure of representation versus the pressure of the game (and the guilt of voting in individual interest over a greater cause), it was intriguing to see Erika actively voice the similar pressures she’s felt as a female player—and explicitly articulate the lack of female winners in modern Survivor. A woman hasn’t won in 6 seasons (notably, since the introduction of the fire-making twist), and only 3 women have won in the last 15.
Evvie voiced a desire to see women win out earlier in the season, but to have Erika pick up that observation again now, in the home stretch, and call out the show’s increasing bias is interesting. I’m not going to go so far as to say that this is the hint that a woman will win the season—the show has teased this sort of thing before. But the context of playing for a concept or an ideal—race, gender, or any identifier—versus playing for the individual has been such a huge theme of the season. I hope it not only encourages future players to consider these complexities, but also prompts production that the diversity casting initiative is a huge step forward.
As this segment came to a close, the show shifted into game mode, but refreshingly, it wasn’t a litany of convoluted twists or turns. It was just a transparent fallout a couple moves in the making. Ricard’s strike against Shan had rocketed him to the top of the threat chart, and he was increasingly in danger. And worryingly, he seemed to have trust in a few players that were actively plotting against him (namely Xander). The dismantling of the power structure also opened the door for Erika & Xander to start calling shots, culminating their struggle through the post-merge nicely. But the big story was that of Danny & Deshawn.
THE PIPES ARE CALLING
The writing felt like it was on the wall for Danny and Deshawn. They’d struck at Shan early and without the necessary support network, and this came back to bite them with losing Liana last week. Though they still had a chance to recover in the one scenario that didn’t play out (Ricard losing Immunity), there was an air of finality in their story. These two men started the game together with the water-carrying task and made a deep run. Deshawn’s impulsive and proactive game and Danny’s laidback social connections often complemented and supported each other. But with control slipping away from them, they were backed into a corner.
It was unfortunate, but it was ultimately a consequence of their own making. Despite their frustration at Xander, Erika, and Heather not taking the free shot at Ricard last week, they were in the privileged position of having a locked Final Three with Liana in that scenario. While it’s arguable that it would have behooved them to make the move (perhaps trusting Xander’s extra vote to give them the upper hand at a 3v3 Final Six), the wide-open playing field had been more beneficial to them. It’s afforded them the ability to dictate the game’s direction with a degree of independence they’ve yet to experience—and that’s huge for fringe players like Erika & Xander especially.
But was there anything they could have done this round? They put in some solid effort upfront, with Deshawn cashing in on the Reward victory to try to construct a new Final 3 and Danny taking advantage of a spare moment to go Idol hunting. But when their prime target won Immunity, they found themselves flat-footed without a backup plan, realising that they were backed into the corner of needing to vote for each other to have even a chance at survival. But, strangely, there seemed little effort given to an alternative.
While Danny seemed to accept the predicament with a degree of calm grace, revealing his NFL career to Deshawn and generally playing coy about the Idol, Deshawn seemed antsier. And yet, we saw very little about attempting to flip the vote. It seemed Deshawn had great ammo from his conversation with Erika at the well. She entertained the notion that separating herself from Heather could be good for her game (something the edit does not support at all, as it has regrettably painted Heather as less than impactful at every opportunity) and shared that with Deshawn. Could he have pushed Erika to make that move now?
Eliminating Heather has a number of benefits—most significant of which is increasing the odds of beating Ricard in the next Immunity Challenge. Plus, she’ll need to go out at some point if their agreed Final 3 sticks true. Alternatively, taking this information to Heather, a player whose strategy is a big question mark for the viewers but has seemed to be somewhat malleable. Perhaps igniting conflict on the beach could incite the distraction Deshawn & Danny needed.
It certainly seemed like Deshawn considered it a Hail Mary revelation when he tried to make it a performative truth bomb at Tribal. But that seemed to immediately blow up in his face, right in front of the Jury. It gave no time for any actual conflict to simmer and allowed Erika to claim she protected Deshawn after he drew a bigger target on himself. Unfortunately, this sloppy move feels indicative of a lot of Deshawn’s game. There’s some decent game instincts, but he often gets impulsive or narrow-focused and ends up misstepping. He’s inherently charming, but the game is actively getting away from under him in a very public way, and I’m not sure if he’ll be able to recover in the last few days remaining.
And all of this is bypassing the fact that Xander STILL has an Idol! Allowing him to survive this round guarantees him Final 4, so how Deshawn and Danny couldn’t get Erika and Heather to consider sticking Luvu strong and at least attempting to flush Xander’s Idol (if not blindside him) is wild. And perhaps indicative of the fact that the remaining players don’t view Xander as a danger to their games. But regardless, it was surprising to see that Deshawn and Danny didn’t push an alternative plan, or it was just such a non-starter that they had to back down.
Ultimately, Danny caught the unlucky outcome, with Erika & Xander being able to have their way over Ricard’s ideal target. It keeps their new Final 3 alive, and also keeps in Deshawn, who has been more polarising and actively messy compared to the steady, cool-headed and effortlessly charismatic Danny. Danny was a delight to watch, and his understated social game was phenomenal. He never received a vote or was even discussed as a viable target until this episode. He might not stand out as one of the top dogs in a pretty stacked cast, but I enjoyed every moment of Danny we got, and his calm, methodical elimination felt like a fitting conclusion for his even-keeled approach to the game.
THE FINAL FIVE
And so here we are—the Final Five. It’s a fascinating group and not the collection of players I would have anticipated as we headed into the merge. That has its positives and negatives, but I am genuinely excited that I can foresee paths to victory for almost everyone, and I really don’t know which way the scale will tip. For that, the storytelling gets a thumbs up, but there are still a few demerits.
The most notable is Heather. Barring an insanely unexpected finale and one of the most egregious edits of all time, there is no chance that Heather can come out on top. Honestly, that’s really disappointing—and not because I need to believe she has a chance. If Heather is legitimately drawing dead in this group, then that’s fair. But I just wish the show had told us more about why that was the case, rather than just implying it by cutting her out of so much of the story.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Heather might be the victim of the fire-making twist and be suffering the same edit afforded to Angela, Kara, and to an extent Lauren. The lack of player agency behind an elimination by fire-making makes it difficult to give the player a satisfying narrative arc because there is no motivation to their elimination. No one chose to eliminate them, much less why they were chosen to be knocked out on the cusp of the Final Tribal. So unless they were the “Big Threat” like Devens, or there was a “Big Moment” of shock (Devon) or emotion (Sarah), the person eliminated by fire gets robbed of a cathartic conclusion, and that ripples back into their edit.
That said, regardless of whether my prognostication is correct, I do wish we’d seen more of Heather throughout the season and had a clearer understanding of her place in the game—and, more importantly, why. By contrast, the other four players all feel like they have a potential road to victory, but all with significant obstacles.
On paper, Ricard feels like the odds-on favourite. He’s been identified as The Threat, two capital Ts. He’s played a shrewd and calculated game and has played the Most Game given the gruelling decimation on Ua, to which Shan can corroborate on the Jury. He’s also responsible for the biggest strategic play of the season—Shan’s blindside. This was the crux of the entire season. If Ricard doesn’t push that play, then odds are this endgame looks very different. But there’s also the question of whether it made Ricard too much of a target. There is almost no way he can make it to the end without Immunity by way of challenges or by fire. If he gets to the end, he’s got a strong case and would make an excellent victor to ring in the New Era, but all eyes are on him, and that’s dangerous.
Deshawn, meanwhile, feels like the opposite. In many ways, I feel like he has the cleanest path to the end, with only Ricard seeming to actively want to target him and Erika & Xander solidifying a Final Three with him here. However, despite his natural charm and earnest emotion, I don’t know that he’ll have the persuasive evidence to justify his case to the Jury. As Ricard articulated last week, Deshawn’s game has been all over the place, and he doesn’t really have a defining play to point to—at least not yet.
Maybe he’s able to make a crucial display in the finale (it’s not unprecedented), but he’ll also be working against the current perception of his snakey and impulsive gameplay. He’ll have to answer to Shan and Liana for blowing up their alliance, and his reactive truth bomb is the kind of thing that could make it hard for him to argue that he’s played a strong game. What he does have in spades, though, is pathos, and if he can spin his story the right way, I certainly wouldn’t count him out.
Xander is another eloquent player who might be able to spin a good yarn, and he has a little flash to his name, too, with “No, but you can have my fake one” being an instantly iconic moment. However, much like Deshawn, Xander has former allies he’s scorned who sit on the Jury, and whether he can claim moves that they were also involved in could prove challenging. Xander has done well to slide under the radar, and it’s possible that could earn some respect, but if he starts overhyping his efforts, it may come off as disillusioned.
The last few votes, Xander has not so much as scrappily survived as just faded into the background. Or he and his Idol have been actively dismissed as a threat, and in the latter cases, those will be tough obstacles to overcome at the Final Tribal. Again, it’s possible that a showy performance in the last few days could turn some heads, but I feel like there’s a bit of Dean downside for Xander. On paper, he’s got a lot of the traits of a modern Survivor winner, but is that what a New Era Jury will still value? I’m not so sure.
Lastly, Erika, the dark horse and my personal gut instinct victor. Now, let’s be clear, if Erika wins, I, and every other Survivor commentator, will be pickin’ bones over her lackluster edit, especially for the first female winner since 2017. However, I wouldn’t count her out. Her pre-merge story was about being the lamb who’ll become the lion, and she’s been continually identified by the other players as smart, strategic, and dangerous. She’s been in the firing line but survived by luck. First, a failed challenge throw, and secondly, the controversial hourglass.
But despite being on the outside of her starting tribe, Erika’s managed to position herself on the right side of every post-merge vote. She actively guarded herself against the split vote at the crucial Shan Tribal and is now in an actual power position (and is starting to make that clear to the Jury, such as her assurance to Deshawn after this vote). If things break her way in the finale—perhaps she can claim credit for taking out Ricard, she wins a crucial Immunity, she wins out in fire, she’s sitting beside the right people—there is absolutely a world in which Erika emerges as the unlikely stealth winner of Survivor 41.
TIDES OF CHANGE
Regardless of who emerges as the season’s champion, Survivor 41 has been a solid reigniting of the franchise. While it’s made some disastrously terrible decisions, the season has been buoyed by a complex and earnest cast, some clever traditional and emergent strategy, and an overall tone of light fun shaded with complex issues. At its best, the season has embraced the human emotion and relationships and rewarded the investment in those ongoing narratives with climactic resolution. I hope the finale can similarly give space for character and relationships to shine over game mechanics, and I am optimistic with a five-player finale.
The New Era isn’t perfect, and maybe it will get closer to my vision of what a perfect Survivor season would be, or maybe it will drift further away. But overall, Survivor 41 has given me a modicum of hope that while we might ebb away at times, the flow will bring us back to what keeps me coming back: the elegance of the game I love, but more importantly, the people and their stories, from start to finish.