Surprise, surprise. An episode all about player interactions, exploring their motivations, and paying off long-running storylines in a satisfying way without any twists clogging up the runtime… was the best episode of the season! While I and many others have raked this season’s poorly designed game structure and editing choices over the coals, we still have to give credit when the show delivers a stellar return to form.
In the wake of Frannie’s vote out, Carolyn is pissed and lets everyone know about it, especially Yam Yam and Carson, who quickly realize their plan to regain her allegiance may have backfired. While it’s not a good look for Carolyn to boldly call out their deception in front of the entire tribe and potentially taint the perception of future jurors, props to her for speaking her mind and giving us good TV. It’s such a relief to see someone taking a blindside poorly and allowing themselves to express those emotions again, rather than immediately shrugging it off in the spirit of “good game!” and similar platitudes.
But that’s not the only drama happening because Danny’s on the hunt for who put his name down, forcing Heidi to wipe the proverbial egg off her face and provide a cover story. Her pitch? She voted for Frannie, and either Yam Yam or Frannie herself voted for Danny. And to make matters worse, she got votes again and expects to be a recurring target heading into the endgame. But at least Danny’s off her case and puts all his trust in her, and she has an idol. So it’s a mixed bag.
The drama can only last so long, though. Jaime leads the final seven in a group meditation at sunrise, uniting them all as an island family again and reminding everyone it’s not the end of the world if they play a little cutthroat. Carolyn’s flames of revenge have been doused, and she’s ready to accept apologies from her Tika allies and get the gang back together. The blindside hurt, but she knows it wasn’t some personal attack, and she needs the guys for at least a couple more rounds if she wants a shot at the title.
With Tika back together, they immediately throw Heidi under the bus to Danny, hoping to fracture Soka for good and keep the targets off their own backs. Danny isn’t open-minded to the thought of Heidi betraying him, especially with her doubling down with her lies and refusing to budge, but he lets the rogue vote go for now. Because as potentially untrustworthy as Heidi may be, she’s only one player. The Tika trio, on the other hand? That’s a solid alliance heading straight for the finale, and someone needs to break them up before they finish the job. And so a new anti-Tika alliance is born: Danny, Heidi, Lauren, and Jaime. Their target? Social god Yam Yam who’s played all sides.
Meanwhile, Carolyn gives us the Little Mermaid remake we actually asked for, taking a dive around the island’s reefs with old lobster shells adorning her body. It’s a nice day away from the frantic paranoia of the game, though Yam Yam will hit her up for a brief strategy talk. They settle on Lauren and Danny being their next targets, starting with Lauren because she’s won immunity and won’t vote with them like Danny has every round. And once Danny’s served his purpose, he can go as well.
With the targets set, it’s off to the immunity challenge for another run of the torturous Last Gasp, hopefully with less forgiving tides this season. Unlike last season’s attempt at reviving this challenge, nobody outlasts the tide to force a tie. Instead, it’s a brutal showdown between Heidi and Yam Yam for the necklace, with Yam Yam cheerfully emerging as the winner against what he believed were insane odds. And with Yam Yam safe, Danny’s plan changes to targeting Carson, whose intense Last Gasp bathtub training wasn’t enough to save him here.
At camp, Danny sells a split vote between Jaime and Lauren as the smokescreen, hoping the Tikas will take the bait and leave themselves exposed come Tribal Council. Heidi has no issues with it because her name seems to be off the radar, and Jaime and Lauren are already worried about another Carolyn meltdown in response to her island son Carson going home. But they shouldn’t be cocky just yet, because Carolyn’s again turning their underestimation into a golden opportunity to show her Survivor skills.
With only her social reads, she figures out the plan is likely four votes on Carson, with Danny leading the charge and lying to her face about everything. Even when she expresses false interest in targeting Carson, she can’t get him to admit it, so off she goes to turn things around with her secret weapon: the Tika bird-cage idol. If this one move of saving Carson can protect their alliance, make a name for herself beyond her wacky antics, and wow the jury with a flashy endgame play… why not go for it? The risk of playing an idol on Carson only to find herself getting votes is scary, but Carolyn’s trusted her gut all season. Why stop now?
At Tribal, it’s once again the Carolyn show as she argues with Danny, Lauren, and even Jeff to justify and explain her experiences and perceptions in the game. A bit of a faux pas to some, but Jeff brings up an interesting take on her bluntness, saying it’s a commendable quality in a game where people should be speaking up to defend and progress their games at every turn. Not to mention it’s simply great TV, especially at Tribal Council, which for several seasons now has felt like a pointless formality stocked with ho-hum discussion and analogies so awkward they make my English major brain ache.
After Carolyn takes several minutes in the voting booth doing the math on her fingers (as well as crossing out her Lauren vote to officially write down Danny’s name), she’s ready to strike, whipping out her idol and playing it for Carson. But even after all the hype spent on this play, so much so you’d think Carolyn just won the whole season a few days early… the idol wasn’t even needed. Jaime and Lauren, for reasons not explained whatsoever, went from debating between Danny and Carson to throwing their votes on Heidi, sending Danny home with just the Tikas’ three votes.
Maybe it was an idol-proof split vote with Ratu joining Tika. It could be Jaime and Lauren being spun for a loop by the Tikas so a plurality vote could knock out their target. Perhaps the Ratus threw their votes to buy good will for the next round and keep options open. We’ll just have to wait and see what the logic and motivation was here, but it screams “we just threw the whole game to the Tikas” to me based on what little we saw. The math checked out: going to final six with the Tikas is probably a death sentence, so the four non-Tikas should stick together and brute force their opponents out of the game. Nowhere did throwing two votes on Heidi come into play as a foreseeable and understandable move.
Regardless of the Ratus’ logic here, Danny puts on his best De Niro impression as his torch gets snuffed, capping off a wacky journey with an equally wacky sendoff. From his early bird-cage hijinks to eating an idol clue to farting during an endurance challenge to his rise and fall as Carolyn’s biggest rival, Danny brought chaotic energy to the season that helped carry it through some dire straits. But ultimately, his threat level grew too big for his own good, the numbers fell out of his control, and a well-timed idol from the woman he gravely underestimated sealed his fate.
With two episodes left, could… could we actually be in for a solid, twist-free endgame?! I didn’t think it was possible, but the third act of this season seems to be heading in that direction after all. It will never make up for the brutal slog of advantages and unfair gimmicks that plagued the season’s first few episodes, but even with the season struggling to tell coherent stories and a complete Tika domination seeming unavoidable barring an insane plot twist, this endgame is doing its best to finish strong and leave us with a relatively satisfying ending.