The mark of a great season isn’t in its highest highs—the episodes that leave you buzzing by the execution of a brilliant, innovative play or shocked by a bold play, an unexpected turn, or an iconic moment. What elevates Survivor seasons to greatness are the quieter moments, where there might not be anything groundbreaking happening, but the episode—the gameplay, the narrative, the characters—are just consistently and engagingly good.
This article isn’t belated because I was uninspired by this week’s more straightforward Survivor episode. If anything, the simplicity of this week’s events only demonstrated just how well some of Season 42’s players are playing and solidified that unless this season somehow crashes and burns in its home stretch here, it is destined for a high shelf in my season rankings. So even though it’s taken me a bit to find the time to sit down and write about this episode, it’s lingered with me in its understated classic quality.
Simple social politics and strategic manouevering were the main core of this episode. Without clunky sensational twists getting in the way (looking pointedly at you, Do or Die), and with this season’s editing being wonderfully balanced, we were treated to what felt like a pretty authentic picture of Hai’s downfall. We’ve seen his rise from the bottom on Vati to becoming a shot-caller in the post-merge game. We’ve seen the success of his partnership with Mike, but also the tension that’s arisen when Mike’s felt cornered. We’ve seen Omar utilise his social game effortlessly to advance his strategic game, and in recognising that tension, he exploited it with a tactical lie that bloomed into a perfect blindside. To top it all off, Hai exited the game with glee, relishing the execution of his… well, execution.
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Amongst the Hai blindside, we also got the big Lindsay episode we’ve been waiting for, seeing her emerge in a more proactive role as she began the groundwork to dissociate herself from a difficult ally in Jonathan, including besting him twice in the challenges. We saw Maryanne bounce back from playing her Idol out of principle last week to finding another—a secret weapon for her arsenal. We saw the whole tribe battle the gruelling weather, and the Reward winners bond over videos from home. Perhaps an unpopular opinion, but I found this so much more moving than the parades of loved ones the family visits had become, as we viewed it wholly through the characters we’ve come to know and their bonding over the experience.
While it may not have been as culturally significant as last week’s episode or as strategically thrilling as Vati’s first Tribal, this episode was perfect in its simplicity and crafting. Great fundamental gameplay and good storytelling—I couldn’t ask for more.
THE PUPPET MASTER
There are two players that drove the strategy in this episode, and it’s fascinating to me that both have been positioned similarly, through outright text or subtle implication, as Jonathan’s closest ally. Omar’s odd-couple friendship with the hulking challenge beast was a plot point on Taku originally, though especially since the merge, his independent role as a go-between had long-distanced that particular dynamic. Meanwhile, Lindsay has felt somewhat like she’d been shunted into the trope-y archetype of the plus-one—a player, often a woman, whose only role in the narrative is to be the ride-or-die ally of a main character, often a man.
It’s an editing trope I’m always disappointed by, especially as the plus-one is often more active (often socially, if not strategically) than their edit suggests. So turning that upside down this episode with Lindsay actively making a play to distance herself from that archetype and outright target Jonathan was an exciting turn. And one that very likely would have played out. At least, were it not for her ally Omar having planted his own seeds of a blindside against Hai that caught like a wildfire.
We haven’t really seen much of Omar and Lindsay together, They’ve both been framed more by their relationships with Taku’s default leader Jonathan or Taku’s comparative outcast Maryanne. So it’s fascinating to me that this round was the trigger for both to make their boldest plays yet. And while they were working together as players, both their plans became competitive.
Both moves would benefit both of them: Hai was a known strategic threat, and despite misreading Mike (opening the door for Omar to pull the strings), he was a definite opposition to them, while Jonathan had become increasingly difficult to work with due to his poor grasp of strategy. And for Lindsay, the added precedent of the big guy often overshadowing that plus-one ally if they ended up getting to the end together. Both were good plans, and both seemed to take when they were pitched to other tribemates. Had Lindsay and Omar been able to get on the same page earlier, it feels like they probably could have chosen one of these plans and executed it even more smoothly.
And yet that wasn’t quite the case. Immediately upon return from the split Tribal, Omar exploited Mike’s disgruntled demeanour about having his hand forced by Hai to vote out Rocksroy (even though, numerically, he could have easily thrown his vote on Romeo to keep his word on a technicality). Omar had been the one to get the ball rolling on taking out Rocks, but he expertly sidestepped the blame to let it all roll back onto Hai and begin splitting up the last Vatis in the game. Meanwhile, Lindsay began floating an even bigger move by turning on Jonathan. Naturally, it was an appealing idea when she pitched it to Ha. Jonathan’s capabilities in the challenges are ominous, and there might not always be the chance to take a shot at him. Two plans forming—two good plans forming. But only one could take.
In the end, Omar won the battle here and did so with the joy of a perfect Survivor villain, one who plays the game hard and well, and relishes the fun in a bluff, without a hint of true malice. As Lindsay won her first of two challenges and shared her reward with Omar and Mike, the three bonded over pizza, literal shelter from the rain, and videos from home. But here, Omar struck, accelerating his plan against Hai by concocting a lie that Hai had claimed Mike was his “puppet.” A total fabrication and an easily disproved lie. But Omar told it with such casual confidence that it stuck. Not just because it was “a good lie, not a stupid one,” but because he’d also read his audience perfectly.
He’d managed to deduce the root of Mike’s annoyance with Hai after the Rocks vote. It wasn’t really about Rocks; Mike had said himself that he was happy to let Rocksroy go at some point. It wasn’t really about what Mike was saying it was about—going back on his word. Mike voted out Lydia just fine, after all. It was about Mike’s sense of agency. Even though Omar didn’t witness it, it’s part of why Mike took everything with Chanelle and Daniel so personally, because he felt taken advantage of. It’s why he felt frustrated with the Rocks move because it happened on Hai’s schedule and not his, and he felt like a puppet. So Omar’s lie was simply making text what was already subtext in Mike’s mind. Mike was already frustrated with Hai and was looking for a reason to break his word while still feeling like he was true to his principles. It was a perfect lie because it was one Mike wanted to believe.
This was the whole crux of Hai’s inevitable blindside. Once Omar got in Mike’s ear about Hai allegedly thinking he was a puppet, Mike, ironically, became Omar’s puppet. As he had been dogged about targeting Chanelle, who he believed wronged him despite him pulling the same move against her, he became determined to see Hai gone immediately. And the rest of the camp would be happy to oblige. Maryanne had no allegiance to him. Romeo had bad blood with him (though, ironically, Romeo ended up as the only player to vote with Hai, not against him). Jonathan was quick to let him go once the word was out Hai was coming for him (as, much like Omar had, Lindsay side-stepped the blame of getting the ball rolling on that plan).
Meanwhile, Drea and Lindsay saw an opportunity to remove Hai and strengthen their Amulet into a Vote Steal—a more powerful tool as the numbers dwindled and they were heading into a potential single vote swing at Final 7 (impending dumb twist aside).
Ultimately, for this reason, I think Lindsay’s plan against Jonathan being overrun by Omar’s plan wasn’t inherently a bad thing. Lindsay gained a specific and independent advantage by cutting Hai here. While they collaborated on a potential Jonathan blindside, they didn’t seem like they were close conspirators. Certainly, by contrast to Omar, who even contemplated going back on his own plan because Hai did trust him, and if he was such a clear outsider, his threat level might neuter him to become a more malleable ally. But in the end, Hai going out was a perfect resolution for both Omar and Lindsay.
At the Final Seven, original Taku now holds a decisive 4-2-1 majority based on original tribe lines, having not lost anyone since the merge. Meanwhile, their opponents are split. Mike has turned on all his Vati allies, while Drea and Romeo parted ways at the merge, making all three of them loose numbers. Omar and Lindsay have good relationships within that mix and plenty of options. Getting the numbers to go after Jonathan next? Certainly on the table? Taking an easy vote at Romeo, who’s managed to just slip on by, sure? Picking off likable Mike? Who’s going to stick their neck out to save him? Blindside Drea, who is known to hold the Amulet and an Extra Vote (and has the secret Knowledge is Power)? Yeah, make a gutsy play! Omar and Lindsay are in a perfect position coming out of this vote to nearly have a pick of the litter.
I am curious if this episode’s narrative framing of Omar and Lindsay’s competing plans is also an indication that, ultimately, they’re playing very similar games. Socially oriented, quietly strategic, stealthily effective, and fascinatingly, the person who’s closest to knowing how big a threat they are? Each other. I could easily see a world in which these two end up battling it out, with whoever comes out on top winning out in the end. But regardless, there’s still a little ways to go yet, and with numbers dwindling, they can’t hide in a crowd. So it’s a good thing there are plenty of big distractions to worry about first.
GOING OUT ON A HAI
Just to eulogise Hai, though, I was elated by his energy after being voted out. No sour grapes at all—and an active celebration of getting blindsided. Naturally, many players leave the game with heartbreak or disappointment, even the superfans who “know it’s a game” but feel the loss deeply because Survivor means so much to them. And this isn’t to say Hai wasn’t or couldn’t be disappointed, but it was clear from Day 1 when he joyfully smeared himself in fake blood: Hai treated the whole experience as not just a game but a fun game. Survivor takes more out of you than an evening marathon of Monopoly, but it’s still to be enjoyed. The game thrives in the strategic manipulation, and a blindside isn’t a betrayal any more than invading Kamchatka to knock your little sibling out of that game of Risk. If anything, a blindside is an honour and one to be worn proudly.
But what I loved about Hai—and this is as much the editing of his character and story—was that his enjoyment of the game was allowed to feel real. His personality and character shone through, even as he broke down objective strategy or made calculated plays to cut allies or solidify a plan. He played a wonderfully sound game, and his biggest misstep felt like it was simply a misread. He wanted to talk to Mike about the Rocksroy vote because he didn’t want to blindside his ally, but his ally took Hai’s attempt at collaboration as an attempt at strong-arming him.
And let’s be fair: Hai had other missteps too—whether it was getting frustrated at Romeo “causing chaos” when Romeo had rightfully deduced he was vulnerable or his iffy attempt to placate Jonathan by promising to play a (fake) Idol on him. Nevertheless, Hai didn’t hold back. He played with gumption, enthusiasm, and determination. He stood his ground early on in the iconic Vati Tribal that nearly went to rocks and became a force to be reckoned with that could have absolutely won out if fate had broken his way. Nevertheless, I will miss having him in the mix, but I am excited to see how Kula Kula looks in his absence, especially because he leaves behind a tribe full of competitive and capable opponents.
DO OR DO NOT
I can’t wait to see how this smorgasbord of disparate characters, relationships, and plans plays out next. And I’m inconsolably frustrated that we might lose the pivotal Final 7 vote to the empty charade of Do or Die next week. But I’m crossing every finger and toe that the Survivor gods grant us the mercy of the twist fizzling out and allowing us to see what continues to elevate Season 42 towards the top echelon of Survivor: a great story with great characters playing a great game.