Well, the new coat of paint on Survivor is already starting to wear a little, and that was unexpectedly fast. I still enjoyed this episode on the whole as the cast continues to deliver and the overall tone remains breezy and fun. However, this episode revealed some cracks in the shiny “New Era,” and while I’m hoping that this episode was the anomaly, not the norm, I’m not holding my breath.
Whereas the premiere (and to a lesser extent, the second episode) managed to balance the character beats and personal interactions with the twists and gameplay, this episode felt overbalanced. The unnecessarily complex game mechanics with the Beware Advantage Mark 2 ate up half an episode. This involved the explanation of how players were getting to their midnight summit (with a ridiculously toothless threat to lose your vote if you didn’t get on the boat) to yet another prisoner’s dilemma that was just different enough from the ship’s wheel as to verge on confusing.
I still appreciate the cross-tribal social element the summit twist is baking into the season. But it’s starting to feel like Survivor is overcomplicating things rather than just letting the players play. I enjoy twists (and still like the idea of the Shot in the Dark and the password-blocked Idols), but with every new twist introduced, it costs us airtime to explain it. I don’t tune into Survivor to read board game instructions—no matter how much I like games. It’s airtime that I’d rather go towards getting to know this stellar cast, and more importantly, to understand the relationships they’re building (or breaking) with each other.
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This episode’s twist-heavy nature feels exacerbated by the circumstances of Brad’s demise, which seemed to be triggered by his sudden spike in advantage-based powers in the span of this episode’s cycle. He begins the episode by finding both Beware Advantages and earning a Vote Steal at the summit, and his growing power leads to him being pre-emptively targeted, flushing everything he’d earned in the first half of the episode.
As such, the episode’s focus on twists may have accelerated Brad’s elimination, but it felt like a lot of time dedicated to advantages that aren’t going to impact the game long-term. In many ways, that’s just how the cookie crumbles. That’s what happened, and that’s why it was shown. But in the context of game design, front-loading the season with so many new advantages and game mechanics can result in this exact thing: episodes more focused on advantages than the far more intriguing social manoeuvring or strategic gameplay.
But! When all is said and done, this episode still had its fun moments, and the fall of Brad was a compelling narrative for a fantastic character.
EAT YOUR GREENS
Brad defied my expectations, launching from the almost immovable “Year 2000” mentality in the premiere to become an agent of utter, eager chaos. He was a whirlwind of excitement, but one that was impossible to contain. From his impromptu blind spy shack last week to his Bueller-esque sleeping dummy this week, Brad’s approach to the game was impulsive, but his joy was infectious. I’m very happy to still have JD in the game, but it is disappointing to lose Brad’s madcap energy this early. Nevertheless, after Ua’s first Tribal, it felt like he might be on borrowed time, so I am just thankful we got to see as much of Brad as we did.
In the wake of Ua’s first Tribal Council, the tribe had fragmented. Brad and Genie seemed to be in lock-step, believing Shan to be their third. But Shan also had strong relationships with Ricard and JD, independently, keeping her in the power position on the tribe she’d worked to attain in the game’s early days. However, it seemed as though she might be wavering on her trust in Brad after his spying antics last week, and so Brad’s luck seemed to turn at just the right moment.
After finding Ua’s part of the password Idol while out searching with Genie, as well as his ticket to a midnight summit, Brad recognised that he needed to foster trust with the third member of his alliance, Shan. Actively telling her about his advantages helped to earn some trust—and as we saw later in the episode, being upfront is something Shan values. It was a good instinct from Brad, but unfortunately, the mechanics of the Beware Advantage bit him hard as he faced the exact same situation that nearly saw Xander eliminated.
Much like Evvie and Liana felt uneasy about Xander’s advantage wealth last week, Shan grew to worry about whether Brad was not just a loose cannon but one who was also armed to the teeth. That made him dangerous. Brad was on the chopping block regardless, but taking him out now would neutralise that threat before the Idol had been activated and while he was disadvantaged without a vote.
That said, it seemed far from a done deal. While Ricard seemed eager to weaken the Brad and Genie duo (especially after Genie had thrown a vote his way at the first Tribal), he was ultimately amenable to Shan’s instincts, and she was torn between eliminating Brad or taking out JD.
It was ultimately a choice between two players who have played erratically. Whereas Brad’s erratic gameplay has been transparent and ultimately honest with Shan, in revealing his advantages to her, he was also on his own independent path. By contrast, JD was caught with his Extra Vote sticking out of his pants, and Shan was hurt that he’d kept it from her, leading her to doubt if she could trust JD.
However, the fractured trust immediately weighed on JD, and in a desperate play to regain Shan’s trust, he agreed to loan her his Extra Vote through the Tribal. While he risked her voting him out to keep it, he hoped it would demonstrate that he wanted to work with her. In that way, while JD has an energy of chaos, he was actively willing to be in Shan’s pocket and follow her lead. Two chaotic players but one independent and one dependent.
It was a tough call for Shan, who struggled with the inherent personal betrayal of voting out someone you liked. In a gut-wrenching confessional, she spoke of how having to choose evoked traumatic memories from her childhood where, at age 5, her parents asked her to choose whether she would live with her mother or father. It’s a choice no child should be put in the position to make. Seeing Shan, who came into this game with such enthusiasm to play the “mafia pastor,” be hit with the reality of disappointing her fellow players by voting them out was sobering.
This is part of what makes this game so compelling, though. And it’s why I’m always more interested in seeing the relationships of these players rather than an endless barrage of twists. To see how Shan resolved her inner conflict, ultimately siding with JD and voting out Brad on account of his increasing threat level, was fascinating.
It also seemed to be the right call. JD may be chaotic, but he is deeply invested in this game. His speech at Tribal, where he talked about how much Survivor and its icons like Ozzy, Malcolm, and Woo had inspired him as a kid, and how he hoped he could do the same for others, was clear proof that he would do anything to continue living his dream—whatever it takes to put the crystal of trust back together. Shan recognised that debt of gratitude could be parlayed into actual loyalty. And while Brad was transparent, he wasn’t necessarily committed in the same way (recall him telling Shan, to her face, that he was considering voting her out).
Brad was such a bright spark of a character, and to his credit, in his Final Words, he recognised that he’d overplayed with his eagerness. But in a season like this, it’s tough to lose anyone, which speaks to how strong the casting has been—and at least we’ll always be able to look back and like what he said about broccoli.
BETWEEN A TARP AND HARD PLACE
But we’re not done talking about Brad because he was all over this episode, including the midnight summit that occupied the first half of the episode. Dropped in plain sight at each camp, Tiffany, Sydney, and Brad were the lucky folks who stumbled across an invitation to the island of the prisoners’ dilemma. The whole “sneak out of camp or lose your vote” was needlessly complicated for an invitation that few would choose to turn down in the first place. But the trip to the dilemmas continues to deliver on highlighting the players who get to go as they forge potential cross-Tribal partnerships… or quite the opposite in this case.
Tiffany scoring Yase’s invite may have only increased Liana’s anxiety (as she questioned whether letting her game be controlled by Tiffany’s whims could sink her ability to play the strategic game she aspired to). Still, it did mean that we got to see Tiffany continue to ride the high of surviving the Voce vote on the back of her own (however misguided) plan. Tiffany has an intensity about her, which certainly translated into her night-time journey as she came face-to-face with Sydney, who seems poised to become Luvu’s villain.
While we have (regrettably) seen very little of the dynamics of Luvu, Sydney seems to be at the centre of the drama. She continued to vacillate on her opinion of Naseer, flipping back to deciding he needed to go after he confided in her about trying to target Danny. As she reported this back to her apparent allies Danny and Deshawn, she was also able to spot the Beware Advantage in camp and seized it to keep it out of her hot-and-cold adversary Naseer or Heather (who also seemed to be on the outs). Opening it without even realising it came with a warning, Sydney found herself seemingly shipped to the dilemma against her will, which did add some dry humour to the whole affair.
The three were faced with a new dilemma—choose a tarp for their tribe or a vote steal for themselves. If they all chose a tarp, they would all be rewarded with one. But if someone chose a vote steal, they’d receive their advantage while those that picked a tarp would get nothing. Yet if everyone tried to take the vote steal, no one would get it and they’d all lose their next vote. With no truly safe option, it was a nice advancement on the ship’s wheel from last week, and the ability for the players to discuss the choice led to a fascinating turn.
While logic suggests that it’s in everyone’s best interest to just take the tarp, Brad was eager and asserted that he wanted the Vote Steal, while Tiffany also seemed keen to attain one. Tiffany pushed for Sydney to choose the tarp, knowing she wouldn’t get it, in order for her and Brad to get the Vote Steal. Unsurprisingly, Sydney bristled at this, and it seemed the feeling was ultimately mutual as Tiffany also distrusted Sydney. This led both to protectively choose the tarp, which neither got due to Brad snagging the Vote Steal. But the most enticing thing is that this animosity between Sydney and Tiffany could become significant at a swap or merge.
Much like Evvie and Deshawn were able to solidify a cross-Tribal alliance last week, Sydney and Tiffany ending up at odds is fascinating for the long game. I’m intrigued to see if this otherwise innocuous experience builds towards a demise for either of them in the long run. I still maintain that Survivor is probably more convoluted than they need to be with the summits and dilemmas, but I do love that it is fostering cross-Tribal relationships in a way we haven’t seen in some time. I just wish it wasn’t all coming at the cost of getting a clearer picture of the relationships on each tribe (and especially the perennial winners Luvu).
PUT IT BACK TOGETHER
Overall, this episode was fun, but it wasn’t amazing. It got bogged down by a lot of technical advantage-based talk in the opening half of the episode. And while I love some non-linear storytelling, the editing needlessly relied on flashbacks which only added to the episode feeling a bit disjointed and disconnected. However, when we got to see the cast do their thing, the show still shone with moments of weightiness (Shan’s confessional, JD & Liana’s passion for the experience weighing on them) to utter gleeful silliness (basically everything Brad).
I’m not ready to say Survivor shattered its crystal of trust that it promised me with its new era. I like a lot of what the show is doing this season, and I hope that this was just a slip’s catch and we’ll be back in fine form next week.