I think I’ve found the most frustrating episode of Survivor ever filmed. And I say this just two months after the universally panned Edge of Extinction finale, an episode that tested my patience with the show and left me feeling as if my dulled mind was floating in a void, unsure of what to think for several hours. But yeah, that one somehow got topped already. Not because something super game-breaking happened, or the show lost its mojo to a violent swarm of idols and twists, but because everything that could go wrong for me this week went horribly, horribly wrong. And to make matters worse, it was topped off with a serving of smug self-righteousness. What fun.
So let’s just start this train wreck off with the moment that cast a dark shadow over the whole thing: Jacques and his “one-word” downfall. The previews leading up to this episode made it seem like Jacques would say something really terrible. Like something that would put him in the Hall of Shame alongside the likes of Colton Cumbie, Will Sims, Alicia Rosa, and other loathed players in Survivor lore. But what we got was Jacques making a light threat against the top dogs by calling them, to put it politely, “mofos.” That’s it. He didn’t even single anyone out in particular. All he said was he’d take down “the biggest mother-f*****” with his idol, and that’s what sent everyone into an outrage.
Now, I’m not an expert on South African culture so perhaps the term is far more offensive than it is in other parts of the world, but the reaction itself was completely overblown considering Jacques meant it in somewhat of a jest, apologized for saying it, and remained humbled throughout the episode instead of arrogantly fighting back and making it worse.
What basically happened was an alliance of people had a common enemy, wanted to put a target on his back, already had some animosity over him keeping his idol for the second time in a row, and blew a collective fuse when he pushed some buttons. Plus it’s easy for everyone else to pile on the tribe scapegoat and keep the heat off themselves for a couple days. What looked like a real-life version of the Two Minutes Hate scene from Orwell’s 1984 was just pure sociology at play. And in a self-branded social experiment with intense conditions where everyone’s unnerved and on edge, I’m not shocked to see it get this dark. The Amigos have basically formed an island government, laid down the law, and enforced it with direct threats.
What followed was a whole episode of mean-spirited ostracism where Jacques was left all alone and had to find a way out of the hole his old allies buried him alive in. And just to make it harder for him, the Amigos created a camp rule that prevented anyone from talking one-on-one with Jacques. Anyone seen doing so would be punished according to the Manumalo code of honor, trust, and integrity. It’s the kind of gross, uncomfortable social strategy I hated in Redemption Island when one Robfather was enforcing it, and I hate it just as much under another Robfather’s control.
Perhaps that Orwell reference wasn’t a cheeky allusion after all, because this tribe is dystopian at its core. You have a bunch of corrupt top dogs creating a “perfect” society on the island, and almost everyone is brainwashed into believing they’re benefiting from it. A couple people might be savvy enough to realize what’s up, but the thought police are in full force and making sure any bad eggs are taken down on sight.
Regardless of how the whole mess went down, Jacques is still out of allies and must fight for himself every day if he wants to win. It’s a near-impossible position to win from when it’s only the final eight, but it’s not over yet for the “Little Snake That Could” as Dante called him at Ponderosa. He still has an idol as of the blow-up, could find another in the future, has a chance to win immunity or visit the Island of Secrets, and has other underdog players from Survivor history to take inspiration from when planning his next moves.
On the other side of the game (or basically everyone else but Jacques), there were bad moves galore, a figurative cringe buffet up for grabs, a masterclass in what not to do on Survivor, or whatever catchy saying you want to roll with. It doesn’t matter what you call it because it doesn’t change that fact that almost every single person in this episode came away looking awful in one way or another. Some came out as unlikable, sour villains. Others came out looking as dumb as a bag of hammers. That’s where the real frustration kicked in. Jacques being excluded was terrible, but the rest of the episode only amplified the negative emotions swirling through my body and had me sighing in anguish every five minutes.
Let’s start with Mike. The guy’s waited all this time to make his big move and knock the SA Robfather off his throne. With Jacques getting a ton of hate thrown his way, Mike decides it’s time to move ahead with the plan and pull off this blindside while the spotlight is on someone else—made easier by Mike’s own move of spoiling Jacques’ reward steal and his family visit scheme to the Amigos. However, the choices Mike picked to accompany him on this quest to slay the dragon weren’t the best. Mmaba wasn’t a terrible choice since they’ve been allies from Day 1, and I can’t blame him that much for choosing Durao since he’s an OG Laumei and plays the double agent role rather well. But for some reason, Mike wanted to get Nicole in on the plan too. That’s the one that confuses me to no end.
I got the vibe that Mike wanted Nicole in his party because he knows the jury despises her, therefore making her the ideal goat to drag to the end, but the pitch should have been to the other non-Amigos. Telling them to fear the obvious Sa’ula final three would be the most natural case to make. It would take some real persuasion to get them to work with Jacques, but the five needed to come together if they had any hope of controlling this endgame. Heck, convince them to take Jacques along as a perceived goat if you have to and cut him later. Just make sure the non-Amigos understand just how dire the situation is for all of them. Trying to include Nicole is like asking a cow to turn on the meat grinder and jump in. It makes no sense for her to blindside another Amigo and if Durao wouldn’t spill the beans, she would.
Unfortunately for Mike (and the audience), many of our worst fears were realized when Durao did precisely what Mike and we said he’d do by running to Rob and immediately spoiling the plan with a goofy grin on his face. I had a horrible feeling it would happen ever since Rob and Durao made that secret alliance, but it didn’t lessen the pain of realizing this plan, one the show had put faith in for several weeks, would end up failing like those that came before it. And because it had to get weird, the plan lived and died to the tune of “Jingle Bells” of all things. I wish I were kidding.
We got to witness another really dumb move when Rob handed Durao his idol as a sign of loyalty. I stood up and clapped when that idol landed in new hands, only to scream in horror when Durao made an even dumber move by handing it back to Rob. A capable player who’s in it to win it would kill to be given a power player’s idol out of nowhere, especially when said power player could be blindsided that night and open the door for others to win. That’s a thing you’d only expect to find in fan fiction. And yet Durao totally squandered the golden opportunity and latched himself back onto Rob’s coattails. I understand loving Durao as a source of comic relief, but as a strategic player, he’s such a tragic mess that even the idea of him falling backwards into a win by default against two Amigos would be bitter-sweet. But if his best shot of winning is to go with the Amigos to the final four and hope for a miracle… can we really blame him?
I thought the tragedy was peaking but little did I know it was only beginning. This week there was no reward challenge. Instead, two people were chosen by the tribe to go to the Island of Secrets. Mmaba and Laetitia volunteered since they’d never been and wanted to see what it was like, but Steffi interrupted and demanded to go, just in case there was protein since she hadn’t eaten anything good since the merge feast. Strategically it’s a good move, just to keep an eye on whoever goes with you and stop them from getting any advantages. So I can give props to Steffi for stonewalling any chance of Mmaba and Laetitia plotting together.
IOS was indeed full of food (and Bio-Strath which I have recently heard tastes horrible from a reliable source or two), so Steffi and Mmaba rejoiced over a good meal. After eating, they were tasked with battling for an advantage in a game of the last thing I expected to be a Survivor challenge: giant Connect Four. We’ve already had KerPlunk get a coconut-filled upscale back in Survivor: Samoa, so I welcome the addition of more classic games as Survivor challenges as long as it means less “balance balls on a thing” designs which this season has thankfully avoided. What’s next? Giant Mousetrap? Giant Tic-Tac-Toe? Giant Monopoly? Giant Sorry? I think the last one is due after how Jacques was treated, that’s for sure.
Mmaba doesn’t even break a sweat and crushes Steffi 3-0, winning her first taste of real power since the merge in the form of an idol clue. The catch: this idol is hidden inside the lid of the voting urn at Tribal Council. I was too angry about every other upsetting thing happening this episode to realize four idols were in play at the final eight, and that’s just bad game design. For a day there was a chance that you could have a final five where every single person was immune. Please, no more Advantagegeddons. I don’t need to see Survivor SA’s craziness go down that rabbit hole. We already have enough to worry about at the moment.
It doesn’t matter what anyone else manages to accomplish though because Rob’s putting his fake advantage lie into play after teasing it last week. I incorrectly heard it as “null two people’s votes” instead of “know two people’s votes,” and that’s on me, but now that I know what he really said I have to ask myself: what kind of lie is this and how the hell did it work? The threat of being able to see how two people voted is scary, but the mechanic is a big head-stratcher once you think about how it would be carried out in action. Would Rob follow two people into the voting booth and creepily watch over their shoulders as they voted and gave their confessionals? Would Nico require the people tagged by Rob’s advantage to sign their parchments? Would Rob be informed by Nico leaning into his ear and whispering the goods?
The idea is cool at first, but the more you think about it, the harder it is to rationalize the mechanics. I actually wish Rob had gone with what I mistakenly thought he said because being able to block two people from voting (or one person if you wanted to make it sound more realistic) has been a twist used in other editions of the show. Survivor SA’s had some bonkers twists over the years, but nothing like a “see how two people voted” advantage. Yet despite how bizarre and dumb it sounded, it actually worked to spook Mike into calling off the coup and getting back in uniform with the rest of the Amigo Mafia.
I have a love-hate relationship with Rob and his game. He’s demonstrated an impressive ability to dominate all facets of the show, take out his enemies without endangering himself, and somehow isn’t being targeted even though he’s the clear top threat to everyone remaining. Plus his allies are fiercely loyal and do his bidding without question, some of them willing to lose to him at the end just to make sure their alliance wins as a unit. For Rob to do this on his first season is remarkable and calling him the male Kim Spradlin wouldn’t be too far off base. But Kim ruled with love and kindness. Rob is far more ruthless and villainous, and you can see it in the reactions of the jury. He’s played with emotions and fear to the point of cutting his closest ally as soon as she thought about changing their course. He’s preached about loyalty and trust despite accepting the woman who cut his original closest ally back into the alliance.
If Rob indeed wins the game, it won’t be a wholesome win. It will be a bloody, unsatisfying vote for the jury, but if he’s there with the right people (Steffi and Nicole if he gets his way), he likely gets enough votes to win if not all of them. I don’t blame him for pushing for this Amigo final three though. While Nicole and Steffi want it for the sake of appearing as honorable people, Rob wants it because it’s his best shot at winning. He’s seen how the jury reacts to his fellow Amigos, and he’s not some dumb, hungry brute without a goal. He knows what path is best for him even if it’s not the best path for the entertainment value, and you can’t hold it against him.
Going into the Immunity Challenge, Jacques knows he has to pull off a clutch win. The idol is only good for one vote and extending its life is the number one priority if the Amigo Mafia won’t fracture. It’s a close battle, but Nicole slips past Jacques on the puzzle by three pieces and wins immunity. Her own clutch victory is celebrated by non-Jacques members of Manumalo in a very public and very loud display of happiness while Jacques depressingly completes his own puzzle for the sake of it.
After the challenge, Rob lies about his fake advantage and sends Mike scrambling back to the original plan he thought was happening: blindsiding Laetitia. The votes nearly fall on Mike, but someone else has made themselves into a bigger threat. Because Mmaba was forced to have a friend over at her IOS party, she had to come up with some story to tell Steffi so she wouldn’t appear untrustworthy. After all, we just saw Steffi rip into someone for keeping secrets from the Amigo Mafia, so coming back and saying “It was nothing” wouldn’t cut it.
Mmaba’s lie isn’t a bad one per se. She says she won an advantage at any challenge of her choice until the final five, which is believable. The problems? Well, first of all, it’s super powerful. And secondly, Steffi goes and blabs right away and gets the target put on Mmaba’s back, fearing she could stop their steamroll with the right timing. And not only that, Steffi says Mmaba can “snatch” a reward or immunity, so the phrasing would suggest she can just steal it without even playing even though Mmaba clearly said it was a basic challenge advantage. So now Mike’s suddenly off the block, and Mmaba’s in his place alongside Jacques, who’s still the primary target. Thankfully both outsiders have idols, so the potential for a huge idol-fest and a total reshuffling of their power is building.
Tribal Council was another busy night for the jury, who were even more vocal than they were last week and also talked with the people in the game. If you didn’t quite get the message that this jury hates the Amigo Mafia and everything they’ve done to grind this season to a stagnant halt, they let you know how they felt with eye rolls, groans, face-palms, sneers, and looks of pure disgust towards the final eight. I love when a jury gets invested like this. Not to the point of literally twerking on someone’s grave as they get their torch snuffed as we saw in Edge of Extinction of course, but the jury is so sassy this year, and I love it.
I’m not lying when I say the jury saved this episode. Right now, they’re the audience surrogates in this story, stuck watching as everyone manages to be infuriating, unlikable, spineless, or all three at once. Jacques got some dirty looks for his swear word too, so even the obvious jury favorite isn’t without his weak spots. Though they laughed it off in Ponderosa and said Jacques used the accurate word later that night, so his reputation with the jury is still intact if not improving by grinding the Amigos’ gears. To pay homage to one Tyson Apostol, pissing off the Amigo Mafia won’t win him their votes, but it might win him everyone else’s votes.
But Jacques isn’t about to let the game slip away from him just yet. Taking a move out of the Ben Driebergen playbook (something I hope I never have to reference again), Jacques plays his idol before the votes are even cast, says he’s voting for Rob and lets everyone sort out the votes without one of their original targets up for elimination. He hopes to get everyone to turn on Rob or at least crack the Mafia in half, but nobody is willing to step up to the plate. He calls out Laetitia and proves the Spit-Shaker Seven alliance is a fraud with Seipei and Cobus sitting on the jury, but she deflects by saying there are still some Spit-Shakers left in the game, so Rob is still trustworthy. He begs Mmaba to make a move and stand up for herself since she has some power to create change, but she doesn’t give an answer. Everyone else remains tight-lipped, and it’s voting time.
Mmaba grabs her new idol from inside the lid and returns to her seat. But because this post-merge is brutal and cruel to me, Mmaba doesn’t even get to keep her idol for more than ten minutes. Nico returns with the votes, and I wish I was recording my reaction to this moment because it was the biggest doozy of the season: Mmaba and Mike voted for Jacques even though he was immune. They literally wasted two votes. Nico confirmed that idol was legit and Jacques was safe. The only reason they voted for an immune player was to prove their loyalty to Rob, but the jury nearly collapsed from shock when those two votes came in, and I’m with them. It might appear to be a decent move if you’re trying to stay connected with the Amigos and prove loyalty, but as a viewer, I just saw it as a sign that a couple people lacked quite a few vertebrae that night.
How much Amigo flavored Kool-Aid must one drink to vote for someone with immunity? Obviously, that stuff is potent because Mike got totally schooled in what was supposed to be his big episode, but somehow there was someone with an even more humiliating result because Mmaba didn’t even play her idol. Jacques and even Nico were all but begging her to do something, her gut told her to use it, and she put her trust in the wrong people, falling victim to a 5-1 vote and leaving with tears in her eyes. How she thought she wasn’t totally on the bottom despite sitting there for several rounds is beyond me, but it’s the most frustrating part of the night by far. If that idol got played, Rob plays his idol, and three idols are out of the game at once. Mike probably ends up going home on the re-vote, but it puts another idol or two back into the game for someone like Jacques or Mmaba to find and wreak more havoc with.
So what lesson do we take away from this week? Where to even start? First of all, if you’ve been on the bottom and randomly luck into getting an idol, play it to be safe if the other person on the bottom is already immune and you’ve been a target for days. That’s a given. Another one is don’t treat other players like second class citizens over a mother-f****** swear word. That’s another given. If the biggest threat gives you their idol, don’t hand it back right away. That’s a pretty good one too.
Oh, I have a really solid one: if someone’s offering a major flip, and you know the people you want to take out have idols, good numbers, and advantages, don’t turn them down because it’s not the right time unless you’re 100% certain you’ll be able to pull it off later. I was scared of Mike’s “waiting game” strategy, and my worst fears were realized after a week of dread. Pulling the move off at the final nine wasn’t a guaranteed success though, just to be clear. The Amigos got wind of the plan somehow (probably Durao’s daily report) and pushed their votes on Cobus to avoid losing a number. Steffi said she put the wrong name down, but I feel like there’s a lot of messy information about that top nine vote, and I’m done with it for now because there’s other stuff to talk about.
That being said, Mike’s plan to strike at the final seven is basically dead at this point and the previews won’t trick me again. Durao wants to make a move and stop riding coattails? Not according to this episode, where he expressed joy in possibly making the final four with the Amigos. Laetitia and Nicole want an all-female final three? So much for Jacques or Mike scooping Tannie Laetitia up as an ally, and I imagine Nicole is simply telling her what she wants to hear to keep Laetitia in line. Nicole and Steffi aren’t flipping unless Rob guns for them first, and Rob has his goats right where he wants them so he should be pushing for an Amigos final three like his life depends on it.
If there’s somehow an upset next week and an Amigo does go home, I would cancel my Christmas list. That would be enough of a gift for 2019. You know what? Make it an Amigo going home before the final three. I’m not picky. I just don’t want a complete steamroll with a predictable ending when Survivor SA is the series of unpredictability. Let’s have a competitive endgame with moving parts and good spirits, something the season was thriving on in its early stages.
However, I’ve never quit a season of Survivor. I love the show and the game too much to throw in the towel and walk away over one ugly episode. Never judge a season in the middle of its airing because you don’t know what story is being told. This could be the story of the Amigos crushing the competition and getting raked over the coals by a jury that must vote for one of them (Rob) at the end of the day. Or it could be the story of Jacques and his twisted, impossible journey to the win as an underdog. Or anything else between those destinations. With at least one non-Amigo guaranteed to make the final four, the path is there for a clutch final immunity win (assuming it’s a final three) that allows one lucky soul to defeat the Amigos and steal their victory in one fell swoop. As grim as it may look for an underdog pulling out a win, I won’t give up hope for a good endgame or at the very least a good finale.
P.S. Don’t go attacking anyone from the season on social media. It’s an edited show telling a focused story, and while we can definitely react to what we see on the screen and hope the people involved move past what happened like adults, it’s only 1/48th of what happened in this cycle. While I definitely don’t condone the behavior of the Amigos this week, they, as well as anyone who made a dumb move this week, are still real people and should be treated as such. Just keep that in mind moving forward.