This may not have been the most thrilling episode of the season, and to be fair, it would be hard to top the rush of last week’s exhilarating insanity, but it managed to be a solid and engaging instalment in a strong season. Compared to the “lull” episode of last season’s pre-merge, where a litany of twists felt like they stifled any real sense of character, this episode was all about character—even if it was really just doubling down on what we already knew.
On paper, aside from the ultimate swerve with Tribal expectations of the relatively innocuous Swati catching heat instead of Tori or potentially Drea, the presumptive targets when last we checked in on Ika, this episode was here to reinforce the dynamics at play. Often by montage. Sometimes even with the in-confessional direction of the players themselves (well played, Romeo!). That said, the reinforcement of established dynamics was far from redundant (as opposed to another show, *cough* Australian Survivor *cough*) and instead felt like good storytelling, progressing from the foundations laid in the first few episodes to the next development of the narrative.
Jonathan is still godlike at challenges, but his articulation of his individual dominance being his way of “serving” and providing safety for his tribe was a nice addition. And a delicious contrast to his loose lips on the challenge mat, claiming to be a tight Taku four and putting targets on his whole tribe come swap or merge. The last thing they need is a Tony-esque “Top 5 Baby” that puts them in the firing lines of the other tribe or sets them up to be the collateral for a shot at challenge god Jonathan. And seeing Maryanne & Omar express that frustration took the underscored theme of Jonathan’s strength and advanced it towards the inevitable target it’s going to put on him.
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Meanwhile, Vati remained an anticipated disaster in the fallout from last week’s Tribal. Daniel realised his bridges had been burned and desperately tried to smooth it over. Chanelle happily kicked Daniel to the wolves and let him take the heat for playing both sides when she’d helped put her alliance in a mess to begin with. Hai & Lydia still tried to get their bearings but recovered nicely while Mike scrounged for any stable ground.
Mike and Hai both made excellent use of the opportunity to forge a new connection. Hai & Lydia had won the battle thanks to Hai exploiting Daniel’s desire to avoid rocks, but they still needed allies. Meanwhile, Mike was unmoored from Daniel upon realising he wasn’t his closest ally and needed security, especially without his vote. With Chanelle and Daniel now mortal enemies, Hai and Lydia could become a swing pair. By Mike latching onto them, he was not only protected without a vote, but if he regained it alongside an Idol, he’d potentially have a more reliable and steady alliance again.
Meanwhile, Ika was the episode’s primary focus after sitting out last week’s episode entirely, but we also saw more of the same general themes. Of the three tribes, Ika feels the most steady in tone, even if they’re a dysfunctional tribe. The tribe is possibly the most fluid strategically, but it’s all masked with simmering paranoia and disdain rather than the explosive confrontation of Vati or the bubbly energy of Taku. It means that Ika doesn’t necessarily pop off the screen quite the same way, and it probably contributes to this episode feeling a little more even-keeled. However, there’s still plenty going on, even if it all sources back to what’s already been established.
THE NON-VIBE TRIBE
Rocksroy remained an obstinately old-school player, more concerned with survival and camp contributions than any complex strategy. And his straightforward and regularly commanding demeanour was still being felt. But whereas Tori continued to bristle at being told what to do, going so far as to dub him a narcissist, Romeo took the gentler (and more savvy) approach of biting his tongue and just doing his best to placate Rocksroy’s orders to keep him on side.
Of course, Rocksroy is far from a great player. His bullishness isn’t engendering much social capital, but there is still something fascinating about seeing someone like him play in the modern Survivor era. He’s just as much a contender as the gamers, but while he’d need to adapt a bit to earn an ultimate victory himself, seeing how he impacts the game around him is fun, whether he’s an asset or an obstacle.
Meanwhile, Tori remained as messy as she’s been all season, bouncing from person to person, dropping information, and selling out anyone she needed to secure her place in the game. Given her clear position on the outside of the tribe, it’s understandable, made explicit by Swati revealing the pecking order. But Tori’s approach seems rooted in dizzying chaos over nuanced manipulation. She was offered a lifeline by Drea—a potential women’s alliance that could start by targeting Rocksroy, someone with whom she has no strong relationship. However, when Swati decided to try to throw Drea under the bus, a plan that necessitated working with Rocksroy, Tori jumped at it. Yet when her attempt to build trust with Rocksroy failed, revealing Drea’s extra vote to him, she ended up right back on the bottom of the tribe until she threw Swati under the bus and aligned with Drea and Romeo.
It’s all over the place and entirely reactionary, and this episode drove home that Tori lacks nuance in her gameplay, and her read of the room is regularly off-base. While trying to build a rapport with Rocksroy isn’t a bad plan, arming him with ammunition against her by revealing Drea’s advantage was a terrible misread. Even selling Drea out in the first place is bizarre, given Drea wanted to give her what she needed (an alliance!) and had also been sympathetic to her side of the story back at the Zach vote! But Tori’s cyclonic gameplay is somehow working. Twice now, she’s been the presumptive vote at Tribal, yet she’s managed to throw enough doubt onto another (one of her own allies each time, mind you) to survive.
How is such a clearly fickle, desperate, and unreliable player able to turn the tables on Zach and now Swati? Is it just her chaos giving her more control of the narrative? She’s driving so much of the rumour and rhetoric that she’s putting younger, shyer players on the back foot? Or is her chaos just making her a known, manageable quantity compared to quieter players trying to play both sides, and thus a more predictable opponent for the likes of Drea and Romeo especially. She’s the devil they know over the devil they don’t, perhaps?
At the end of the day, wasn’t Swati also playing a game that bounced between many allegiances but in a more understated way? It’s fascinating that Swati took the heat for her more subtle, if transparent, betrayal of telling everyone she was their number one, compared to Tori leaking information and actively throwing people under the bus in bigger ways. Swati didn’t necessarily play well, but I think she became a victim of Tori’s forceful narrative, made out to be a bigger traitor than she was.
Swati certainly was playing both sides. And it was her inclination to betray Drea after the proposal of the women’s alliance that precipitated this whole chain of events. Was this the right play? I don’t think so. Like Tori, Swati was low on the hierarchy, and leaping from the likely fourth place alongside the Romeo, Rocksroy, and Drea trio to being a part of the core three of women should have been a good bump and probably enough to secure her a good path forward. The problem was that this allegiance was putting Rocksroy in their sights, and it’s clear that Swati and Rocksroy had a good rapport. Maybe her recent military training made Rocksroy’s demeanour around camp less jarring? But there was something of a parental/child dynamic developing between them (as hinted at in Rocksroy’s defence of her speaking up for herself at Tribal).
For Swati, just being a part of a female trio wasn’t enough. She wanted to form an alliance around the people she wanted to work with. That’s how the odd pairing of trying to unite the oil and water of Rocksroy and Tori came about. These were her preferred allies, but the problem was that the sturdy old-school Rocksroy and messy modern gamer Tori would never be compatible.
Swati pushed her luck too far, and it backfired. If she’d been willing to cut Rocksroy and stick with the women, or at least work to flip the vote onto Romeo instead, or if she’d been quicker to distance herself from Tori after she bungled the Rocksroy chat, there’s a real chance she doesn’t go home here. But as it stands, the tide turned against her, and she couldn’t escape it. It was such a clear shift that she knew she needed to play her Shot in the Dark, and while it didn’t work, it is remarkable that every time it’s been played so far, the person who used it had the right read.
Swati’s age and experience did feel like it worked against her a little, and I do think that if she’d played a few years down the road, she might have had a little more confidence to play the game she wanted to play. But then again, hurricane players like Tori can disrupt anyone’s plans, so there’s no guarantee. Swati certainly made mistakes that led to her demise, but they weren’t egregious. Over-promising allegiance is something many winners have done, and trying to forge your own ideal alliance is never a bad idea in theory. It all just requires finesse.
But from that perspective, did Drea & Romeo make the right decision? This pair ultimately became the swing votes, and ultimately, I’m impressed with their level head. Romeo has stood out as the voice of reason since episode one where he talked down his allies turning on each other at the first Tribal to keep his Day One alliance intact, even at the cost of losing his own skinny boy sidepiece. Drea, meanwhile, came in swinging hard and with pinballing allegiances that almost rivalled Tori’s, but as the game has settled in, so has she adjusted. She handled the revelation of her extra vote remarkably smoothly, and though we didn’t get to see whether that’s really fractured her relationship with Rocksroy (who didn’t know until Tori told him), there’s nothing to suggest there’s animosity – and ultimately, Drea elected to save the person who sold her out.
However, was it the right play? Tori is undoubtedly the more dangerous player in that she’s chaos incarnate. However, Swati is not a wallflower, and especially after being caught out with her sneakiness, her quieter demeanour may lead her to shrink back and learn from her mistake. Swati could evolve to keep her cards closer to her chest, but with Tori? You know exactly where you stand with her, which is basically nowhere because it can change on a dime. By my read, Romeo and Drea were never deciding who they could trust more; it was about who was more beneficial to their game.
If they’d voted out Tori, they resume the path towards a calmer tribe, but they’re also facing a dilemma. Swati and Rocksroy are close; he even avoided voting for her here, either out of ignorance or loyalty. And there’s every possibility the two of them lock in as a pair. This would either force Romeo and Drea to turn on each other or face a deadlocked tie. While Drea’s extra vote could break that tie, why facilitate the situation you’d have to burn it pre-merge if you don’t need to? By contrast, striking Swati off the board leaves Drea & Romeo at the core of the tribe. They’ll get the choice of who to work with from here, and both Rocksroy and Tori seem poised to target each other over targeting the two in the middle.
Maybe I’m giving them too much credit given this wasn’t made explicit in the edit. But regardless of whether this was intentional or not, this feels like a play that will hugely benefit Romeo and Drea should Ika face Tribal again before the merge. But even if they don’t, and this four hit the merge together? Rocksroy is sturdy, and this might be able to be exploited with old-school tribe loyalty.
Meanwhile, protecting Tori here (while also insinuating an alliance with her) may help keep her close at hand as a potential ally or as easy fodder to offer up as a sacrificial lamb. After all, she was the one who called out Jonathan as Goliath, which he did not appreciate, and if there’s one thing they can rely on Tori for, it’s that she can probably put a target on her back.
The season is flying by, and if we stay on pace with Season 41, next week’s episode will be the last before the merge. This instalment may have been a bit more straightforward, but even though it didn’t shock with plot twists or mindblowing gameplay, it was never boring. Every story needs moments of calm, and this episode inched forward future stories and told a comprehensive and compelling tale of the vote. It was well-rounded, if straightforward, but I grow more invested in these players with each episode, and that’s what makes the game shine.