Two episodes deep, and this is a tale of two seasons. One is a wacky misadventure with some huge characters living their best lives on their favorite show. The other is a ton of idol-hunting scenes that do nothing to advance our understanding of the already hazy tribe dynamics. So yeah, to say this season is a mixed bag for me would be putting it lightly. But even with its flaws, it’s still fun, and that’s what ultimately matters. Idol cages and key hunts are temporary. Great characters and players are eternal.
Anyways, this season is following in 43’s footsteps by explaining last week’s vote in the cold open. Matthew’s out of nowhere Shot in the Dark play was not a last-second bout of paranoia but a calculated move to keep his tracks covered and avoid showing his cards too soon. While I doubt the average player in their first Tribal could get away with this trick, I do think this was a smart play here. Matthew is the only person on the tribe who can play it off as a genuine reaction to the fear of being mercy booted for his injury. Anyone else would look suspicious and put a target on themselves, but Matthew can casually slip back into the shadows and move forward.
But you know who can’t sit back and relax? Kane, the only person in sight to actually cast a vote for Brandon in the wake of Ratu’s messy Tribal debut. Brandon will maintain his composure about the ordeal and laugh it off in public, but he’s keen on taking out his only visible enemy when the time comes. And with Matthew on his side and Lauren allegedly close with him based on some clutch exit press revelations by Maddy, Brandon’s probably getting his way should Ratu face another Tribal.
Meanwhile, Soka is ground zero for showmance development as Matt and Frannie continue bonding, wonderfully compared to “two dorky magnets,” as the latter says. But showmances have a spotty track record game-wise, and this one might lean towards the “pre-merge disaster” end of the spectrum as they aren’t particularly good at hiding their connection. Claire does her best to hide her sheer disgust at their PDA (as in she doesn’t hide it whatsoever) and gives a foreboding warning that we shouldn’t get too attached to the adorkable Fratt ship so soon.
But as romance blossoms and dislike grows more potent, firefighter Danny is out idol hunting without raising much suspicion. It’s not long before he finds the key to Soka’s idol cage and wisely keeps it a secret from the others. Stealth Mode Danny sneaks out to the cage, nabs his prize, does a cringeworthy Fortnite dance to celebrate, and puts the bag back as though it had never been touched.
In theory, the idol cage twist is fun, and I’m excited to see how people use the bonus fake idol medallions to cause potential chaos. Still, with the twist requiring twice the amount of airtime to show than a regular idol find, it does come at the expense of the character development and explanations of tribe dynamics. I can tell you what Danny has, but not who he has on his side. Not to mention the likes of Josh and Heidi are nowhere to be found this week after already low-key premiere edits.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, is Carolyn, who continues to be the season’s breakout star. As the five Tikas decide to go on a public hunt for their key, Carson, Helen, and Sarah have only one goal in mind: making sure wacky outsiders Yam Yam and Carolyn don’t find it. At first, the only action seems to be Carolyn nearly being spooked out of a tree by a snake. But channeling her memories of fishing her son’s swallowed tooth out of his poop (an actual inspirational flashback segment of all things!), she keeps searching until the key is finally hers.
But whereas Danny nailed the execution of unlocking the cage and making a clean getaway, Carolyn is less graceful. Waiting until the other four are at the well, she scurries down to the cage, stuffs the bag down her pants, and runs back to the shelter. Only then she realizes she’ll be sussed out immediately if she doesn’t return the bag and lock the cage up again, so back she goes to leave a messy crime scene that creates a wave of paranoia among the other four and turns Tika beach into an episode of CSI: Fiji.
Carson tries his hand at analyzing body language and makes a wrong read after all his boasting, believing Helen’s crossed arms give her away as the thief. Yam Yam reads too deep into Sarah’s nervousness, swearing she’s hiding the idol in her bra. And Sarah returns the favor by suspecting Yam Yam, if only because he searched more than anyone. All the while, Carolyn goes totally undetected by these bumbling body language experts because she’s always acting weird, meaning there’s no behavioral baseline to actually use against her.
Tika will have to sort out that drama sooner rather than later because a trip to Tribal Council awaits them after a close immunity loss to Ratu and Soka. On paper, you have Carson, Helen, and Sarah as a tight three, Yam Yam as a fourth wheel, and Carolyn lurking on the outs with an idol ready to cause chaos. But the majority trio have some problems. First is Sarah’s lack of a vote. She still won’t tell anyone, hoping a 3-1 vote on Carolyn will cover her tracks. Though, to be honest, they probably all know by now, and the editors opted to hide that fact for suspense. But that leaves Carson and Helen in a tricky spot because Yam Yam’s not leaving Carolyn to die on the bottom when he can scoop her up as his goofy partner in crime.
And to make the majority even less secure, Carson gets second thoughts about working with Sarah and Helen as Tribal looms large. The two women are easier to work with strategically and offer an easy majority without ruffling feathers but damn it, Carolyn and Yam Yam are just more fun to play with, even if they’re all over the place. Not to mention he’s still not ready to trust Helen after Cage-Gate. It’s between head and heart for the guy, making him the presumed swing vote between the two factions.
At Tribal Council, it’s a refreshingly short and metaphor-free stint that wastes no time in getting to the votes. Carolyn and Yam Yam target Helen, agreeing she’s the bigger threat between herself and Sarah. Sarah can’t vote, Helen votes for Carolyn, and Carson opts for the big move and saves Carolyn the trouble of playing her idol to send Helen packing unanimously. But digging into the dynamics here, there was nothing Helen could really do. Even if Carson tried to stick with his original majority, they’d still only achieve a deadlocked tie at best. And given he already wanted to flip, I doubt he’d be the type to force an episode two rock draw instead of jumping ship on the re-vote.
As Yam Yam and Carolyn dance their way back to camp with Carson as a third wheel and Sarah left as easy pickings, we bid farewell to Helen, an early favorite turned early boot. From Bruce’s evacuation weakening her tribe right away to Sarah losing her vote to Carson having some terrible body language reads to incorrectly pin the idol theft on her, there wasn’t much she did wrong herself. It ultimately came down to her and Sarah for the boot this round, and once the two outsiders settled on her based on early impressions and Carson felt the slightest temptation to flip, it was a done deal.
Next week seems to have fun in store, though, between Kane mastering the immunity blade to survive on the bottom, Tika’s big stars continuing to shine with wacky antics, and Danny pulling a page out of the Survivor South Africa playbook by eating a clue. But I do hope that with all three idol cages unlocked, the rest of the pre-merge can devote time to sorting out tribe dynamics and showcasing these fantastic personalities over the excessive parchments and packages.