The more I watch this season, the more shades of Ghost Island I see. A great pre-merge with fun, wacky characters and some iconic early boots I’d like to see again? Check. A twist-laden island where players go to get advantages or safety every week? Check. One dominant group with a tribal alliance at its core controlling the game despite a single early setback? Check. Several failed attempts to flip the game on its head, resulting in a series of unsuccessful uprisings? Check. But here’s the thing: I still like this season.
This cast and the way the story is being told are both interesting. This season could have been a black and white story with overly produced suspense and a possible coronation arc, but instead, we’ve been given a narrative with no true heroes and villains, where everyone is respectably flawed as people and players. That doesn’t mean the actual game going on is incredible TV because it’s definitely getting stale, and there’s only so many weeks of failed coups I can take, but the finished product on the screen has salvaged what appeared to be a lackluster game on the island. The editors are the unsung heroes this year and deserve all the appreciation in the world for pulling this off.
But first, we need to talk about the return to camp. Jacques, dramatic with his words in the most wonderful way, describes getting three votes as taking three bullets and surviving an assassination attempt. A fun comparison, but considering how the Amigos split the votes, it was more of a warning shot than an actual shot to kill as Steffi says. Cobus is still willing to keep the Spit-Shakers together despite the obvious trust issues though, and it’s frustrating that being left out of multiple votes by the alliance he created himself isn’t enough to instantly wake him up to what needs to be done. There’s only so far one super alliance can take you, and Cobus learns it the hard way.
Steffi isn’t taking their failure to flush his idol well though, making that whole “nobody ever remembers second or third place” quote from the opening look like some serious foreshadowing. Her motto this week is hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and it begins when she says she wants to see “truth, love, and respect” in her allies, and that any deceit on their part would mean instant elimination at her hands. Ironically, Steffi herself spouts lies and disrespect throughout the episode, and it even bleeds into the preview for next week’s fallout. Her argument: Cobus and Jacques are playing up to the jury, and it’s a dirty way to play, even if it gets them more votes, so they need to go. It’s a good case of having the right read but totally missing the point. Steffi believes jury pandering is cheap, but Jacques and Cobus are liked by the jury for a reason and shaming them for completing the goal of the game is ridiculous.
On the other hand, Steffi is building a beautiful goat costume hair by hair, and at this rate, she’ll be wearing it to the Final Tribal Council where she’ll just be ignored if she’s lucky. But to be fair to Steffi, it is an edited show that’s telling a story, and she just happens to be a villainous figure in it. We can be frustrated and want to punch the screen when she tells Jacques he has the only idol in the game when she knows Rob and Nicole have idols as well, but she’s playing the game her way and the result she’ll get is the one she deserves regardless of how the show presents her and her philosophy.
The same goes for Nicole, whose reputation with the jury is collapsing in on itself in glorious fashion. Nicole preaches honor and integrity and sticking with her allies, and even though she calls Steffi out in a confessional for her blatant hypocrisy, she doesn’t have much room to talk when she cut Nathan’s throat and neglects to seriously own her game for the sake appearing honorable. Geoffrey called her “nauseating” from the jury bench because her answers at Tribal sound scripted, rehearsed, and insincere. It’s that pageant queen spirit coming out, and it wants to please everyone. But if she continues on her current path, she’s likely going to end up in the same leaky dingy as Steffi, sinking into the losing finalist spot as someone else rows away with the prize.
However, I do think Nicole has played a solid strategic game and deserves more credit than Steffi as a player. Her move to cut Nathan was a mistake, but her ability to recover and adapt impressed me at one time. She went from an outlaw to the sheriff’s right-hand woman in just three days and moved on like nothing ever happened. That’s good gameplay. But the way she’s managed the jury has been a nightmare and I’m afraid it’ll be her ultimate downfall. Her best chance at winning is to drop the honor and integrity mantra and own the game she played, but I don’t think she’ll be able to do it. She’s too concerned with her image and moral standing to appeal to this type of jury. Throw her in a past SA season where strategy was seen as a sin punishable by death, and she might have a chance. But against a jury that values gameplay (and to be honest, authenticity) she’s in a terrible spot and should pray for a final two with Steffi.
But enough about the impending jury trashing. Let’s talk about the Reward Challenge, which just so happens to be the weird “not the auction but supposed to replace the auction” challenge from Kaoh Rong. There are three rewards up for grabs: a steak dinner, a letter from home, or a mysterious advantage in the game. Nicole, Steffi, and Rob win their respective prizes, but all I can think about is how this challenge serves as a perfect microcosm for the rest of the post-merge. You have Durao casually surrendering to an Amigo for no apparent reason and Mike strategically letting an Amigo get the upper hand and hoping it pays off for his game down the line. Then you have Mmaba actually putting up a fight and not standing a chance because nobody wants to compete alongside her to take down Rob, preferring to stay at a safe distance instead.
In the end, the Amigos walked away with all the spoils while everyone else heads back to camp empty-handed. But for one more bit of irony, you have Rob, the presumed leader of the Amigos and the one holding the strings on his allies, getting an advantage that sent him to the Island of Secrets where he receives the same rewards Nicole and Steffi won, plus an advantage in the upcoming Immunity Challenge that none of them know about. Though the Amigos succeed as a unit, Rob is the real winner among them and comes out ahead. If that’s not a great representation of where this game is at, I don’t know what is.
The Immunity Challenge is a case of history repeating itself when another practice advantage helps crown a winner: Rob. Also, Rob wins a new Mahindra XUV300 which he’ll receive once he returns to South Africa. Oh, wait, sorry. He gets to test drive the car for a month. It’s one of the oddest rewards I’ve ever seen, and I assume the actual vehicle is being saved for the Fan Favorite prize, but it’s still bizarre. I actually didn’t even notice the fine print until after the challenge ended, so I was sitting there wondering why there was almost no fanfare or an actual car revealed before the challenge started. I just thought this cast wasn’t really into free cars or something. But does the car curse still apply since he didn’t actually win his own car? That’s the real question we need answering.
In terms of the actual scrambling, this is one of the most intense weeks yet. Jacques and Cobus want to get back in with the Spit-Shakers, and Jacques even agrees to burn his idol as a sign of loyalty. But behind the scenes, the Spit-Shakers arrange a vote split on Cobus and Jacques. If they get their way, Jacques’ idol will be gone and either he or Cobus, two big threats, will be out too. It seemed like a surefire plan, but the only thing sure about it was that it wasn’t totally surefire. Cobus finally realizes he is on the bottom and can’t stick with his Spit-Shakers for another vote, so he goes to Jacques and pitches a plan to swing the numbers needed for a deserved Steffi blindside. Unfortunately for them, Mike has other plans.
From the beginning of this season, Mike has played a killer social game, and nobody has written his name down once. He has the ammo locked and loaded, but he’s patient with taking his shot. Patience can be a good virtue to have, seeing as potentially great players in Survivor lore fired too early and got themselves taken down by their own tendency to overplay. But a part of me wants to say Mike missed a good shot this week by waiting until the final seven to target the Amigos. There’s no way to prove the plan would have worked out because the plan got leaked according to the voting confessionals, but between this route at the final nine and the route at the final seven, this week was much wider and had fewer obstacles in the way. At the final seven, Mike could have two idols, secret Amigo informants like Durao, and the 1 in 7 odds of an Amigo winning immunity to contend with.
This week’s chaos provided a decent cover for any scheming. Jacques and Cobus were on the outs and fighting for their lives. The Amigos trusted the plan to go through, felt pretty safe, and didn’t play their idols. And Mike still had several “loose change” players (as Dante called them) hanging around for spare numbers. I do see the argument for making the move at the final seven because it leaves fewer votes before the finals, but I think the risks outweigh the rewards if you go with the final seven move. But regardless of what happened this week, I’m interested in Mike’s plan. Do I expect it to work flawlessly? No, if anything I expect him to be taken out in 7th place by an idol. But I hope it does work because they have been teasing Mike’s big move for weeks and I’m still waiting to see him put in the work. I just can’t tell if it’s the story’s way of calming annoyed viewers and assuring them of change or building Mike up as a worthy adversary for the Amigos to beat.
While Mike’s biding his time and dreaming of Rob’s elimination, Rob himself set up the votes for the night and uttered some magic words: they should put more votes on Jacques “if they were smart.” Yeah, good going there, guys. Good job. But he does bring up a plan to convince everyone his “advantage” gives the ability to know how two people are voting at one of the next three Tribals. We didn’t see this go anywhere, but it’s yet another obstacle for any future revolution. With Steffi and Nicole fiercely loyal to Rob and two idols in their possession, things are looking grim for the outsiders unless they can come together and break the Amigos apart once and for all.
Jacques is one to make that attempt. The reward steal he received from IOS is put to good use as a bargaining chip. It’s the same move Adam Klein made in his US season to get back in the good graces of the tribe and throw a big target off his back, and Jacques plays it very well. Making promises to let Cobus and Mike benefit from his plan to steal the family visit was the right move even if it didn’t pan out, because now Jacques has Mike thinking about helping Jacques survive until whenever the family visit happens instead of leaving him out to dry. He can’t make too many bargains with it, or people would compare notes (or just run and spill the beans to the Amigos because that’s the running theme so far), but if he was going to bargain with anyone, Mike is a good choice because he has the best bonds. I’m still not a fan of stealing the family visit in the first place and find that to be a game-ruining move if handled poorly, but we’ll deal with that move if or when Jacques actually pulls it off.
Tribal Council is actually really entertaining, due in part to the jury being super vocal and dishing out some insults to the Amigos, who were out and about with their high and mighty remarks. Rob confirms he voted Dante out because he was hangry and Geoffrey calls him a joke as the rest of the jury roll their eyes. Nicole simply answers a question, and Geoffrey calls her nauseating. Then she preaches about trust and loyalty, and the jury almost falls over in frustration. And when Steffi opens her mouth, only Seipei could stomach to even look at her. Jacques didn’t receive great reviews either for his “just make the loved ones visit” agenda (which I seriously hope is just a cover for his real plans) and remarks about shaming “passive players.” Jacques has been a jury favorite for a few weeks now, and watching one of their favorites acting like his head is out of the game is just as frustrating as watching a smug majority alliance run said game.
On the other hand, you have under the radar players like Laetitia and Mmaba hitting harder than usual and defending themselves with vigor (and bushbaby metaphors), something the jury seem to enjoy. I know it sounds nuts, but someone like Laetitia, Durao, or Mmaba could stumble into the million rand simply by not being an Amigo. A notable move of their own to point to couldn’t hurt, but with how openly hated the Amigos are by this jury, we could be in for an upset come finale night. Even Rob might lose a jury vote despite his visibly strong game depending on how the rest of the season plays out and what the jurors say to each other week to week. Cobus likes Rob, so it’s a nice start, but he’s on thin ice with Dante (someone the jury grew to like) and needs to tread lightly.
When the votes come in, it turns out the Amigos failed to split the votes correctly once again, and Jacques keeps his idol, tucked nicely under his buttoned-up shirt. If you ever want to see the everyday act of buttoning up a shirt become the most epic move of the night, look no further because Jacques pulls it off. With how Steffi was portrayed, I was almost sure this would be a big blindside once those two votes against her showed up. But like the jury, I threw my hands up in disappointment when that heart-breaking fourth Cobus vote was read. At the very least it was a nice change of pace to see a vote remain up in the air until the last second to keep me on my toes. I’m bracing myself for another round of shattered hope, but I’m still optimistic.
What should we expect next time on Survivor SA? Apparently, Jacques says something terrible that ruins his game and turns everyone against him. Everyone was already against him anyway, so I doubt whatever he says will be that much of a game-changer. I just hope it’s nothing super horrible that would send Jacques to the pits of infamy alongside the likes of Will Sims and Colton Cumbie because I don’t want that kind of ugliness to show up in any season. Steffi angrily vowing to destroy Jacques and crush his dreams in horrifying night vision is one thing, but a super uncomfortable moment isn’t what I’m here for.
As it stands, the table is set for Rob, Nicole, and Steffi to run the show all the way to the end with their idols and strong connections providing a serious buffer. With Mike waiting to strike, Jacques on the outs as the final Ta’alo member with his only allies being his trinkets and balls of steel, and everyone else floating in the void of vague alliances and trust, the moment of truth is growing nearer and the time left to make a move is waning. I know Mike wants to wait until the final seven to cement his Laumei Four alliance, but with Jacques still able to save himself or at least terrorize the Amigos with his idol some more, he might have to strike a little early and use Jacques as a number while he and the rest of the loose change players are still around.
With only a month left until the winner is crowned, I’m hoping for a dynamic endgame or at the very least a shocking ending like last season. The ever-changing number of jury seats tells me nothing about whether this season has a final two or final three. The Island of Secrets is still supplying new twists and advantages to those lucky enough to visit on a good day. The jury is feisty, and very few people are purely beloved. Though it might seem impossible for the bus carrying the Amigos to break down or even pop a tire, there are still five episodes left. Anything can happen. And depending on what format this endgame uses, and what awaits in the jungle on IOS, the game is still anyone’s to win. Nobody should be written off until Nico pulls the last vote of the game out of that urn.