Whether it’s a blessing or a curse is a matter of opinion, but Extinction Island isn’t just shaking up the game with its format shift. For the second week going, the season’s big twist has led to an unexpected and largely unprecedented conclusion to the episode. Last week, it was Reem’s journey through a horror movie and into the dark desolation of Extinction. This week, it was a bonafide cliffhanger as Keith anguished over the decision to leave the game or continue fighting – while Reem contemplated whether she could continue to stick it out on Extinction alone. Your mileage may vary on the tension in the situation, as it seems like it’s almost a foregone conclusion that young, eager superfan Keith will ultimately elect to continue playing, but it’s clear that the Survivor storytellers are taking every opportunity to play with our narrative expectations.
It’s only the second time we’ve seen a cliffhanger on Survivor. The first was all the way back in the penultimate episode of Panama as we cut to black right before Cirie Fields and Danielle DiLorenzo squared off in a fire-making tie-breaker at the Final 4 in what felt like a contrived way of keeping Cirie as an active player come the finale. The loose end of Keith’s choice still feels drawn out for the sole purpose of leaving the audience hanging, but it’s less of a cheap ploy and more of an experiment in the context of this unusual season.
For 38 seasons, the rhythm of a Survivor episode has been a steady beat. It’s tried and true, and the drama of an elimination at Tribal Council is a reliable climax for the episodic installment. And while I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for a complete overhaul of that system (never forget Australian Survivor’s deflating decision to literally end an episode on a random sunset in its first season), I am excited by the prospect of more unconventional storytelling. Playful and engaging editing excites me whether it’s an out-of-order Idol find or a well-executed montage or something much deeper, and with the complexity that Extinction Island adds to the story due to its inherent unpredictability, I’m eager to see how the editors convey a unique Survivor story.
THEIR TIME TO SHINE
But that’s enough about the last 30 seconds – there’s a whole episode to dig into! One of the clear and continuing stories is the precarious dance of the returning player. With savvier newbies eager to play their own games and avoid the pitfalls of those who came before, the four returnees find themselves in a dangerous position. The new players have the right idea – in a game as inherently unfair as Survivor, any chance to even the playing field should be seized. The returnees make for easy targets and effective shields, but more than any captains season in the past, it seems like the returnees genuinely are the “temporary players” that Christine Shields Markoski once spoke of back in South Pacific.
It’s a shame that it’s a challenge facing returnees I root for, but it does keep the game – and the show’s story – interesting. Seeing Aubry, renowned for her ability to strategically manoeuvre the social game, foiled by the social dynamics of the Kama tribe was heart-breaking. The montage of her seeking “a dialogue” with Victoria, Julia and Gavin was a superbly edited sequence of something largely innocuous – we all have phrases that fall into our pattern of speech – but it was evidence of something Kelley Wentworth articulated on Manu; the new players have the advantage of knowing how the returnees play.
These newbie superfans know Aubry is able to draw on social bonds and manipulate them to propel her game, they recognise Joe’s physical assets and have seen it doom him in the early merge, they understand that Wentworth is a scrappy, determined and aggressive player, they know that David is likable and a clever strategic force. While their experience with the game might give them a better foundation coming into the game, the unpredictability of their new competitors – who are barely hiding their desire to ensure a newbie wins out in the end – diminishes that advantage.
Nevertheless, the returnees are fighting to integrate. While Aubry reluctantly joined in with the kumbaya dance troop of Kama, the Manu tribe had already seen where the lines had been drawn at their first Tribal. Yet while it had given Kelley and David the ostensible majority, they were far from safe. Kelley felt the danger firsthand as Wendy, isolated after losing her only ally Reem, set out on the warpath against Wentworth. Recognising the danger of an underdog with nothing to lose, Kelley remained fixated on getting Wendy out of the picture. She mobilised the idea of an open Idol hunt to keep it out of the outsider’s hands and sought to solidify her allegiance with Lauren and Wardog, but the target still hovered around her – unshakable. But she kept fighting – and that’s what Wentworth does best.
Wendy was scorned and refused to drink Kelley’s kool-aid and sought the allegiance of a different cordial, recruiting Rick “OH YEAH!” Devens to the notion of turning on the three-time player. It wasn’t a bad move by any stretch – though voicing the opinion to cut the returnee in front of another experienced player like David seemed like a riskier pitch. Or at least, it would have been if David wasn’t so eager to make the move himself. David is in a fascinating position this game – he’s the only two-timer among the returnees, and that seems to have helped lessen his threat level at the outset. It’s allowed him to get in close with Rick, forging an alliance of trust between two like-minded players who wield strategy and humour in equal measure. Rick is certainly aware of David’s threat level – referring to the weedy TV writer as one of the “big guys” he hoped to buddy up to – but whether he just uses him as a short-term shield or honours his (joking) agreement to betray him at the Final Four, it’s a valuable allegiance for both parties.
However, David isn’t looking just to coast along, and displayed a receptive approach to the game, taking on Wendy’s suggestion to blindside Wentworth as a brilliant opportunity to eliminate a threat he couldn’t fully trust, but then happily rolling with the punches as Wardog turned the vote onto Keith after the challenge. He’s willing – and eager – to make moves, but he’s not going to be the one in the driver’s seat just yet, and that could help him immeasurably in a cast of new players all wanting to make their voice heard.
And hear them we did. The Manu tribe was a constantly shifting web of strategy in the aftermath of their second Immunity loss – and a compelling showcase for a wealth of competing strategies. Speaking of players reticent to drive the bus, Wardog has been toeing a surprisingly delicate line. He advocated hard to vote out Keith initially – pitching him as a challenge liability and someone who wouldn’t serve as a valuable ally for him moving forward, particularly in contrast to the loyal meat shield he perceived in Wentworth. Yet he was willing to tone it back and take another course if the rest of the tribe wanted to go their own way, not wishing to be too dictatorial or overtly strategic (even David believed Wardog was averse to strategy until the last minute). For the archetype of the intense East Coast guy, it’s a welcome variation to see Wardog play it cool and subdued – though I’m curious to see how long that will last.
Meanwhile, this episode marked Chris’ introduction after being largely absent from the premiere. Like Wardog, he wanted to see the vote benefit him in the long run, but where the law student saw the value in a Wentworth shield, Chris saw the opportunity of a faithful ally in Keith. After his dismal performance in the challenge – struggling again in the water and botching his attempts to make up for it in the ring toss – Keith apologised to Chris and swore that he would always have his back. Seeing the benefit in a ride-or-die like Keith, Chris approached Rick about turning the vote on Wentworth, adding an unexpected voice to the chorus of players willing to make the move against Kelley. Rick and David were ecstatic that numbers could be in their favour, but ultimately it seemed like Wardog had his day, managing to persuade Chris out of the move – and by extension the rest of the tribe.
While blindsiding Kelley would have been a huge and exciting blindside (and would have given us viewers the thrill of Reem and Kelley stranded together on Extinction), it would have a dangerous move for many in the Manu tribe. Not only from the perspective of physically weakening the already struggling tribe, but it would have exposed anyone who was in on the move as an aggressive player. Players like Rick, Wardog and Chris could have easily been labelled as bold strategic players for their part in the blindside, and it would have left David exposed as the only returnee – a possible target for a scorned Lauren, or underdogs like Wendy or Keith just trying to survive.
Seeing someone eliminated based on challenge performance always feels like a raw deal, but Keith wasn’t able to make up for it with the promised loyal relationships he preached. After all, just last week he jumped ship on a possible ally in Reem when he sensed danger but was unable to get a foothold with the rest of his tribe. It’s unfortunate, and as evident by his anguish at the crossroad to Extinction, he’s clearly taken the blow to heart. But I hope he finds the courage to continue to fight in the game to resolve his unfinished business.
IDOLS FOR WOMEN
Last season marked a turning point in Survivor where the gender disparity between Idols was acknowledged and emphasised by the show. Angelina’s quest for the Idol in the David vs. Goliath finale may have been iconic, but it felt like an unsatisfying conclusion to the narrative of women finding idols established in that season’s premiere given that every other Idol and Advantage that season was found by a man. Yet tonight’s episode made it clear that Survivor isn’t finished with the story of gender politics and Idols.
As the men of Kama slinked off into the shrubbery, Idol conversation came to the forefront as Julie, Victoria and Julia discussed whether they should be out looking for Idols – and why they were standing around talking about it instead of just starting the hunt. Julie voiced a rationale long bandied about by fans and former players alike, attributing the disparity to primal gender roles. It’s a likely factor – but not a line impossible to overcome.
The scene acted as a prelude as we cut back to Manu beach as Lauren followed in the footsteps of her “Survivor Queen” and ally Kelley Wentworth. By chance or by commitment, Lauren found the holy grail and her own Hidden Immunity Idol. Intelligently, she chose to keep the knowledge to herself, and it positions her well to have that advantage in her pocket. While I’m not expecting the stats of the Idol gender imbalance to be miraculously solved overnight, seeing the show acknowledge and validate the unfortunate trend and follow it up with female players rebelling against the data to claim Idols is a start. Hopefully, it helps to start shifting the narrative and encourage a change for the better.
So we end the episode on uncertainty – for our returning players in dire straits, for Keith and Reem each facing a major decision, for our new players hoping to leave their mark on the game. Hopefully next week’s episode resolves some of these dangling questions in a satisfying way and continues to intrigue us as we march deeper into the unknown.