And we’re back in action! After a fun, but overly twisty episode last week, this week’s episode brought the fun in full force and, besides that fantastic premiere, easily marked the best instalment of the season yet. Eclectic and intriguing, it felt like we covered a lot of bases, even with an extra challenge squeezed in.
We finally got a sense of what is going on at Luvu, especially with some much-needed characterisation of Heather and Erika. We continued to see some fresh storytelling tricks work in the show’s favour, utilising mid-challenge confessionals to enhance the story being shown. We saw BABY TURTLES and a continued turn in Yase’s fate. And with Ua’s trajectory heading in the opposite direction, we got our biggest blindside, and betrayal, of the season yet.
THE REALITY & THE FANTASY
Coming out of the premiere episode, JD was one of the biggest characters on the cast. Sure, he was at the centre of a lot of the action, including participating in the journey to Dilemma Island (which was a twist I did not miss at all this week). But he seemed to be being positioned as a major figure for the season’s story. His boisterous naivety never quite felt like the story was ultimately about his triumph, but he nonetheless felt pivotal in the fabric of the cast and the overarching narrative. So to lose JD here in one of the most unexpected (and I expect hotly debated) moves yet, and in doing so realise that he was merely a core part of the fabric of Ua, was a blindside in and of itself.
And honestly, I’m bummed to lose JD here. He brought so much earnest enthusiasm for the game and his humbling journey as he came to grips with realising he wasn’t the All-Time Great Survivor player he hoped to be was an incredibly affecting story. Especially for young fans, or long-timers who grew up on the show (like myself), I’m sure we’ve all imagined what it would be like to play. And even if we know we probably aren’t going to be as good as we’d like to be, we’ve probably envisioned a hypothetical killer move or giving an instantly iconic confessional or pitching our case at Final Tribal Council. The fantasy of success is so palpable as we’ve seen that fantasy become reality for so many over the years.
But the reality of the reality in the fantasy was what caught JD off guard this season. As he spoke about at Tribal, it’s so easy to imagine on the couch. But deprived of the relatively comprehensive information that viewers get, in addition to the physical deprivations, the real thing is much tougher than it might seem. This kind of arc—someone forced to readapt their expectations—isn’t exactly new ground, but it’s usually reserved for those who overcome it to make a deep run in the game, or it’s shadowed with the tragedy of disappointment.
While JD was evidently devastated by the intrusion of the game’s reality into his imagined dream, and especially by his brutal blindside, he took it all with a confident, hopeful stride. JD’s awareness of his own mistakes, even though it was often too late to course-correct them, and his willingness to still give it his all and check off as many boxes on his Survivor bucket list was beautiful to see. This lended a touch of sweetness to his bitter early departure.
It’s clear the show loved JD’s energy too. And I honestly would not be surprised to see him get a second chance at some point down the road and to see him emerge a savvier player with more experience under his belt. So I can’t fault the show for savouring as much of his dynamic personality as we could. Much like the shot-out-of-a-cannon Brad, I’m grateful the show let these big characters shine early.
But as much as I’m sad to lose JD here, he wasn’t the only shining star of the episode, and not even the only shining star on Ua, so let’s get down to the vote… and The Vote.
A ONE VOTE SWING
After Brad’s blindside, the Ua dynamics seemed pretty cut and dry. Genie was blindsided and vulnerable, and Shan, Ricard, and JD easily had the numbers to hold strong. Unsurprisingly, Genie resorted to the desperate hopes afforded to her. As the tribe’s appointed cook, she threatened to stop looking after her tribemates around camp if they weren’t going to look after her in the game. She tried to leverage JD to flip. She even weighed up whether it was enough of a lost cause that she should use her Shot in the Dark and pray for some magic, not unlike local survivalist Magic Nathan’s impressive Cirque du Soleil / stripper pole routine.
But at the end of the day, Genie was backed into a corner and it was better to hope than pray, choosing to preserve her vote rather than take the gamble. And it ultimately worked, but not seemingly because of anything she did.
Rather, the JD vote came back to the person who’s been at the helm since the start: Shan. With Ricard as her #1 and also having the stronger of that pairs’ relationships with JD and Genie, she was perfectly insulated. However, with Ua shrinking at an alarming rate, that insulation can only last so long, and numbers can easily swing. She realised that Genie’s best plan was to flip JD, but forcing a tie would be a risky play, especially given that JD was craving trust. However, in the heat of the Brad fallout, Shan revealed she’d known secret information about one of Brad’s advantages, leading JD to (fairly) call her out for grilling him about hiding his Extra Vote while concealing information herself.
And that exact Extra Vote could cause problems. If JD was feeling betrayed by Shan, or (rightfully) realised he was the third wheel in that alliance, he could easily flip to Genie, use his Extra Vote, and, all of a sudden, Shan is either out of the game or outnumbered.
Extra Votes have always felt like a relatively ineffective advantage, but on such small tribes, it’s so much easier to end up in positions where a one-vote swing could turn the tide. So Shan concocted a scheme, and underscored by the hum of her anthem, she made a risky play. She’d managed to guilt JD into lending her his Extra Vote at the last Tribal as a show of trust, but after he called her out on the hypocrisy after Tribal, she’d returned it. But could she get a hold of it again?
Approaching JD with false paranoia, Shan managed to deceive him into believing she was panicking about the vote being turned on her. Despite JD realising that the paranoia was erratic, especially for a strong and smart player like Shan, he ultimately acquiesced when she asked if she could hold onto his Extra Vote again as a security blanket.
As a move in and of itself, it’s incredibly risky. Playing paranoid can just as easily incept that paranoia. And there’s a world in which JD not only refuses to lend Shan his advantage but that he’s also unnerved enough by her panic that it leads him to flip to Genie and secure his own safety. Even if Genie was still voted out as planned, that paranoia could shift the balance of trust for JD. He might be confident he’s buying Shan’s trust by lending her the advantage, but his own trust in her might be shaken by her apparent unpredictability. And yet, Shan was able to pull it off. It was perfect, completely neutralising the threat of JD flipping, both in the numerical and social sense.
But once that Extra Vote was in her back pocket, the sneaky hum intensified. She had the advantage—couldn’t she just vote off JD and keep it for herself? While she had a close relationship with JD, which she described as a brother/sister dynamic, their strategic partnership had been messy and complicated. Plus, his aggrandizing over-confidence at challenges had foiled a few key victories. Would it be that harmful, in the context of the game, to cut him now, especially if it also allowed her to keep possession of the Extra Vote?
It’s ultimately the play she and Ricard made. But was it the right one? As with everything in Survivor, it’s a tricky balance. JD has fallen over himself to prove his loyalty to Shan, and not just the alliance, but Shan specifically. Come a swap or the merge; surely he’s sticking by her. Meanwhile, Genie knows she’s on the outs—and there is clear beef between her and Ricard after she voted for him at the first Tribal. So it’s almost a guarantee Genie would flip. On principle, there’s little reason to strike at a trusted ally over a known adversary.
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Except on paper, there’s the matter of the paper—the Extra Vote. Let’s say the alliance of three vote out Genie but lose again. Shan is likely in the middle, and it would be a matter of Ricard vs. JD. But what if JD panicked and played his extra vote to be sure? Depending on how the tiebreaker rules are applied, a tied vote could send her closest ally home or automatically eliminate her by rocks. By contrast, securing the Extra Vote for herself gives her immense power in the small tribe and a personal advantage at a swap or merge where Ua is likely to be outnumbered.
Without the Extra Vote in play, there is no way the JD vote happens. Maybe there’s an outside chance that it happens to try to flush Genie’s Shot in the Dark, and I would not be surprised if that was also a factor in Ricard and Shan choosing to vote JD. But in an episode that was, gratefully, light on advantage content, it’s fascinating that the episode hinged on the social and strategic manouevering to neutralise and seize an advantage.
At face value, I think Shan made the right call. A risky betrayal, but one that increased her own power in the game and cut an already stretched tether with an ambitious and unpredictable player. It’s definitely dangerous to leave a known outsider like Genie in the game (and the preview hinting at Genie finding an advantage could see the results retroactively orient this move to a bad one). Still, for now, in the immediate aftermath of the episode, my instinct is that it was the right play.
Shan is an absolute joy to watch, effortlessly effective in blending the strategic and social game. And if she and Ricard can survive Ua, especially if they’re able to make a merge or swap sans Genie, there is a huge possibility she can charm her way into good graces all over again.
However, small tribes can be their own curse, and it becomes much clearer much faster where the true power lies. Even opposing tribes might start to put it together that Shan is calling the shots on Ua, and that could be bad news down the line. And the kind of bad news an Extra Vote won’t be able to mitigate. But hopefully she’ll overcome it and we’ll be hearing her theme tune echo all throughout the season still to come.
But let’s move from a decisively effective move to a foiled one and finally talk about what’s happening over at Luvu. It’s not uncommon for the winningest tribes on three-tribe seasons to get the shaft in the editing—the Tandangs and the Healers of history, for instance. But it was exciting and refreshing to finally get a clearer glimpse at the tribal dynamics of the tribe that haven’t, and apparently can’t, lose a number.
Based on prior episodes, it seemed like Naseer and Heather were on the outside looking in. And which of the two was truly on the bottom seemed to vacillate—if Sydney’s shifting opinion of Naseer was anything to go by. This left Danny, Deshawn, Sydney, and Erika in the power position, and they seemed comfortable there. Even though the tribe might have rallied around Heather as she struggled and lost the Reward Challenge for her tribe, emotional connections don’t always overpower the game connections. Lest we forget Genie, clear outsider, tearing up at the thought of missing the people she believes are about to vote her out.
However, Erika popped up this week to start making a splash. In a very meta manner, she acknowledged she’d been playing under-the-radar but was ready to step out of the shadows. She approached Deshawn and pitched an unexpected blindside: Sydney. Erika argued that Sydney was not only unpleasant around camp but was also emotional and reactive, therefore unpredictable and dangerous. Highlighted by Sydney throwing down the machete in frustration as she struggled to make fire, Erika reasoned that she could be the loose cannon that could sink the ship as Luvu sailed into a swap or merge with numbers. It’s a reasonable pitch, but Erika misjudged her position in her apparent alliance’s hierarchy.
Deshawn was having none of it. As the telephone game of gossip seems to be the primary story of Luvu, it’s no surprise that he immediately reported to Sydney and Danny. Sydney was floored that it was Erika who was leading the charge against her, but it was seemingly Deshawn who was most perturbed by it to the point of suggesting throwing the challenge to blindside Erika. Danny had reservations, but based on the pair’s confessionals during the challenge, they both agreed to the plan. Deshawn worked overtime to slow and hinder his tribe, but he was no match for Naseer’s enthusiasm and skill which led Luvu to victory, foiling Deshawn’s perfect plan.
But was that actually a blessing in disguise? I’m not against throwing challenges in principle, but I don’t know if I agree with Deshawn pushing so hard to throw THIS challenge. It’s difficult to gauge because we’ve seen so little of Luvu, but is Erika really that big of a danger now? Does she need to be blindsided now in order to advance Deshawn, Danny, and Sydney’s games? Based on what we know, it seems like a huge over-reaction.
Erika clearly trusts Deshawn and seems to nominally be a part of their alliance. And though she’s wary of Sydney, it doesn’t seem like she’s actively working to strike out on her own—or that she would betray Luvu numbers at a merge or swap to take Sydney out. If anything, throwing the challenge and blindsiding Erika is just as likely to signal to Heather and Naseer that they aren’t part of the alliance, leading to them flipping away. Or, if they’re brought into the blindside, risk them reporting back to Erika and causing a whole new mess.
I understand why Deshawn was anxious to make the move. Waiting months upon months to get to play Survivor and then not being able to play the strategic Tribal portion of the game will make anyone antsy. Furthermore, the sudden realisation that the self-labelled “lamb” of the alliance is actually concocting a more cunning game than you realised is enough to spook someone. But when the person you don’t trust still trusts you, why should you go out of your way to stab them in the back?
It’s an interesting analogy to the Shan/JD situation, where I argued she did the right thing by turning on her ally. But the scenarios here are polar opposites. Shan was backed into a corner and made a call to give her as much manoeuvrability as possible moving forward. Meanwhile, Deshawn is luxuriating in a strong tribe in a sturdy alliance and was going out of his way to capsize the boat.
And that’s not to mention that a thrown challenge can be a huge momentum shift. We didn’t see much from Yase this episode, but their delightfully meta “Previously On” joke highlighted the fact that the perennial losers of the first couple episodes have started to turn the corner into becoming competitors against the odds. If Luvu willingly gives up their momentum, it’s very possible they could lose it entirely. And while Deshawn’s alliance has the buffer of Heather and Naseer, we’ve seen how quickly the game can shift—nothing is for certain.
Survivor 41 continues to be a refreshing redirection of the franchise. Imperfect, but light and enjoyable, and this week demonstrated that the frothy pastels of the colour scheme are starting to darken as the game’s intensity rounds the corner into a new intensity. Thirteen castaways remain. A very late and chaotic swap or a merge could be just around the corner. But it’s entirely possible the pressure cookers of Luvu, Ua, and Yase could be allowed to boil over.
In any case, it’s fascinating to watch. And even though we’ve lost a bright spark in JD, it’s clear that this cast has no shortage of entertaining players waiting in the wings for their turn in the spotlight. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing for their chances at the title of Sole Survivor? Guess we’ll have to tune in next time.