Survivor SA: Island of Secrets – Episode 16 Recap – Showing Your Cards

Cory Gage recaps the latest episode of Survivor SA.

Photo: M-Net

Another week passes by, and another episode of Survivor South Africa ends exactly like you’d expect it to. Within the first 15 minutes, you could figure out what was going to happen, and hardly anything came as a surprise until Tribal Council. That’s when some games went up in flames and chaos took center stage for the first time in what’s felt like months. That being said, I still liked the overall package despite the down-time. I’m not normally a fan of family visit episodes, but this was one of the most well done editions I’ve seen in a while.

Once again, Rob returns to camp and tries to convince the person he just betrayed that they’re still good moving forward. In this case, it’s Stone Cold Steffi Brink, who just had her name thrown out as the split vote. Ironically, Rob truly meant what he said. All he wanted to do was protect his alliance by limiting the number of targets. Steffi had to be the one in the firing line to make sure the plan went through without any trouble. But Steffi’s done. Done with Rob’s antics. Done with taking his orders. Done with bowing down to him as the boss. Done with Rob in general. Now it’s time for what she calls the Silent War. She won’t gun for him openly because he still has the idol and could swing the votes to get rid of her if she makes it obvious, but she’s ready to plant the seeds for his elimination and strike when the time is right.

Unfortunately for the viewers, the “right time” ends up being delayed and might have to wait until the finale, but I appreciate Steffi’s determination here. I once wrote Steffi off as this strict, no-nonsense athlete with no intentions of actually playing the game at a highly strategic level; someone who would fall back on honor and integrity instead of making the moves necessary to win the million. But she’s really come alive these past two episodes and won me over. Now she just needs to make the move happen, and given the amount of moves that were hyped up and ultimately failed this season, we’re not out of the woods yet. A lot can go south with Steffi’s plan, but I still have hope that she can be the one to lead this shake up.

The Immunity Challenge comes early and with a bonus reward: love. That’s right, it’s loved ones week here on Survivor SA, and I have to say, loved ones visits are always better when you get to know the players well. Something the US seasons have struggled with is having family visits with a lot of underdeveloped players left in the game. Why should I care if that random purple player has their sister on the island? Who even is she? But with this final six, I feel like I have a genuine connection to each of them. Even Laetitia, the most under the radar player on the show, feels like a legitimate human being I’ve known for months, warts and all. We’ve watched these players grow and evolve from their little cast bios into fully realized TV characters, and it makes the family visit so much more rewarding as a viewing experience.

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Nicole’s boyfriend, Laetitia’s daughter, Rob’s mother, Steffi’s best friend (and potential savior of the season), Durao’s mother, and Mike’s dad arrive in Samoa. Somewhere out there, Jacques’ wife is sitting in a room alone, and the thought of it kills me. Anyways, the challenge is played in pairs by castaways and their loved ones. Most of the loved ones struggle to untie the knots in the first phase, but Rob and Laetitia get an early lead. Unfortunately, Laetitia’s not a great thrower and ends up nearly hitting Nico instead of the targets, allowing Rob to breeze past the competition to an easy Immunity win. As the necklace goes around his neck, any hopes of Steffi taking him out this week die a quick death.

But because it’s a Reward challenge as well, Rob gets to select two people to go back to camp with their loved ones while the other three players say goodbye and spend the rest of the day on the Island of Secrets. I’ve always said to never win the loved ones challenge if you can help it. Rob definitely needed protection, even if he didn’t realize it, but there’s always a risk involved when it comes to winning this specific challenge because it’s so easy to break hearts regardless of who you pick.

Rob’s first pick is Laetitia, and the reasoning behind it is unintentionally hilarious. Strategically, he wants to isolate Mike and Durao and has to take two women on the reward. But he wants Mike and Durao to think he’s still got their back, so he needs to come up with some other reason for his picks. And so for Laetitia, he gives this long spiel about how poor, old Laetitia might not have much time left to live or get a chance to hang out with her family on a tropical island again. It sounds sweet at first, but the more I thought about it, the funnier it became. Rob basically handled her like a Make-a-Wish grandma who just wanted to do this one special thing before she died, but… she’s not that old. She’s 58. You’d think she’d be on her death bed with that speech Rob gave, but nope, she’s fine.

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The Robfather also takes Steffi back to camp, with the story this time being “She’s hungry.” I, for one, love this ridiculous characterization of Steffi as a bottomless pit that craves protein no matter how many times she gets a food reward. She just went to the Island of Secrets twice in a row and got fed a feast both times, so to say she’s starving for a good meal is a little ridiculous. But again, these are purely strategic picks, and Rob had to find a good cover story. The tribe doesn’t like the Steffi pick though, and that’s when cracks start to form in Rob’s plan.

Nicole has the biggest reaction when she breaks into tears. Even though she knew what was coming, thanks to Rob explaining the plan beforehand, it didn’t make it hurt any less. Having to part from her boyfriend and not hear anything about her children back home kills her. It’s by far the most emotional she’s been so far, and I really felt for her, especially because she knew there was nothing she could do to stop Rob from moving ahead with the agreement. She just had to live with it and understand it’s what was best for the Amigos. Or was it best for Rob? I’d go with the latter. But her boyfriend tells her to play hard and play to win. Thanks, man. She needed that kind of advice. Now, whether or not she’ll followit is another question, but it’s a start.

This episode sees the return of a twist from last season, where the cast is split into groups and aren’t allowed to talk game with the others until meeting at Tribal Council. On the one hand, it’s an excellent way to encourage a more lively discussion at Tribal. But on the other hand, it stops any kind of plan from forming against the majority, unless a very unique split happens. That’s not to say there was much of a chance of a big flip happening once Rob won Immunity and dictated the rest of the day, but if all six people were on the same beach for more than the pre-challenge period, there’s always the slim chance of the game going a different way.

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On the Island of Secrets, Mike pitches the idea of blindsiding Steffi to Nicole, assuming Rob is bound to keep his promise from the day before and let the Laumei guys make the final five. I’ve always wondered why Nicole was told about so many plans when she seemed like an obvious member of Rob’s court, but after watching some Ponderosa videos and reading exit interviews, it’s become clear that Nicole is playing an incredible double agent game, tricking everyone into thinking she is a crucial number for any outsiders. It’s why Mike thought of her as a valuable ally for several votes when she had no intentions of working with him, and I think Nicole deserves some credit here. She’s clearly outwitting and outplaying those on the bottom and keeping them powerless for her own benefit. However, the jury’s intense hatred of her neutralizes all her good work. Whether they hate her for not making a move, giving obnoxiously repetitive answers at Tribal, or coming across as less genuine than others, she’s doing something wrong, and it’s doomed her to a likely runner-up spot unless we as viewers are getting majorly misted by the editing team yet again.

As for Nicole’s performance this week, it’s… a mixed bag. I really enjoyed the more emotional side of Nicole we got to see. Being forced to give up hearing about your children for the sake of maintaining your alliance’s power has to be one of the hardest things to go through on Survivor, and for a while, I wondered if the devastation could be enough to encourage her to flip. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. She went through the wringer, but after all is said and done, she understands why she was put in such a depressing position and stays her course with Rob and the Amigos, leaving Mike and Durao in the dark.

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But because the editors love to mess with her, they include one of the more infuriating Nicole confessionals I can remember. With a sly grin, she assures us that she’s not Rob’s puppet. She’s simply, as she puts it, a “collaborator.” While it may be true from her perspective, it certainly doesn’t look like that from mine or the jury’s. The man ripped her boyfriend and news about her kids away from her, caused her to have a meltdown on IOS and at Tribal, and she still went back to him while getting no benefits out of the situation. And she was happy about it. It’s like an employee thinking their boss is just some co-worker. Sure, they’re operating in the same business and aiming for the same goals, but Rob’s getting paid handsomely (from an editing perspective at least) while Nicole’s picking up the scraps he leaves behind.

Back at camp, Rob, Steffi, and Laetitia return with their loved ones and enjoy a refreshing South African braai as if they never left South Africa. It’s so exciting that Laetitia suddenly reveals her idol before the food’s even cooked. Let’s just stop here and talk about how Laetitia didn’t even make it 24 hours after saying she’d never tell anyone about her idol. While she didn’t need to flush it by Rob’s decree, obviously because that idol is in some hands he trusts and flushing it could allow Durao to find it the next day, it’s clear that nobody in this game can keep any advantage a secret. If there’s an idol in this season, at least two people will end up knowing by the next day.

But seriously, Laetitia spoiling her idol removes almost all her chips from the table when it comes to making a huge move. The jury needs to see her do something significant with that key to unlock her path to the win, but it looks like that window has been slammed shut and locked up for good. And now Rob has more information to work with—as if he needed any more. That’s all I have to say about this move. It’s bad. But on a side note, I did chuckle at Steffi scolding Laetitia for telling people about her idol just a few episodes after scolding Jacques for not telling anyone about his. Hey, I’m pretty much desensitized to the hypocrisy at this point. I’m just along for the ride now.

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Speaking of Steffi, she decides to reveal that her story about getting a bowl of rice on IOS was a big lie. Her excuse: she got to know the family visit was coming up but didn’t want to spoil the surprise for everyone. Honestly? It’s not a bad lie. It covers her just in case Gina gives it away, or Rob is feeling suspicious (and judging by his reaction to Steffi’s lack of excitement over seeing Gina, he might have been on to something). But I don’t get why she didn’t just say she got to spend time with Gina in the first place, because it sounded like Steffi framed it like she got a clue, not the actual loved one. Nobody seems to push any questions on her after the fact, so I’d call it a decent recovery.

The reward scene is a tale of two schemes. Rob brags to his mother about how safe he feels even without Immunity while Laetitia and Steffi brainstorm the rest of their games. The two women start with Mike’s easy elimination, before knocking Rob off his throne at the next vote, and ending the game with a comfortable Durao boot. As Laetitia says, the ideal ending is “Beauty Queen, Beauty Queen, Granny” for the women, and Rob has no clue about it. And what’s best is nobody else knows either. Mike and Durao? Don’t tell them. They’ll find a way to run back to Rob with that juicy info, and everything will go up in flames. Nicole? She’s someone I’d be afraid to tell thanks to her undying loyalty to Rob, but after her emotional episode, she could be turned if you hit her with the info at the right time. As far as this plan is concerned, it should be on a need to know basis. And only three people in this game need to know.

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As Tribal commences, I don’t expect much. Mike’s going home, and nothing can really stand in the way of that. But what transpires is the best Tribal of the season, thanks to Nicole’s sudden outburst and Rob’s slightly waning trust in his close ally. Nicole snaps and says it has been the worst day of her life—taking all that built-up frustration out on Rob in a flaming fall from grace. It might have actually helped her reputation with jury because she appeared to be 100% genuine at Tribal for once. But it’s like trying to jump-start a car after it sat at the bottom of the ocean for a month. Whatever Nicole gains for her authenticity can’t compete with the utter trashing she’s received since the merge, and again, I’m sad about it because, on paper, she’s played a good game. She’s just missing some important pieces.

This blow-up ultimately leads to Rob asking her if she’s still on board with the plan and the term “day one bonds” comes up. And then all hell broke loose. It starts a chain reaction that exposes the Amigos and shows Mike the game he thought he was playing for the last few weeks had been a big, fat, juicy lie. But Mike can really do is laugh. No tears, no anger, no meltdowns. Just a smile and a chuckle, plus with witty banter with Durao, who needs to be coached through the whole ordeal like a struggling math student in high school. Apparently, Durao thought “day one bonds” between Rob and Nicole meant… something other than the original Sa’ula Tribe. I have no idea what he was thinking, and I still don’t know because he just kind of threw his hands in the air and went right back to the Amigo cult, thinking it was easier to trust them anyways and hope it works out.

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This is what I’ve been talking about when it comes to Durao. He’s a great character, but hilariously awful when it comes to the strategic game. And yet the jury doesn’t really seem to hate him. They definitely don’t take him seriously, but they’re finding it hard to dislike him despite his lackluster game in the presence of such a dominant force like the Amigos. Chalk that up to his wholesome nature, and chalk up the random timeline where he actually wins this season to it as well.

Then we have Mike, voted out after a futile last stand. He teased big moves all season and never made any, which has earned him some ire from the fans I don’t think he wholly deserves. Do I have issues with his game? Oh yeah, definitely. He waited too long to make the right moves and failed to read the situation with Durao and Nicole: a virtual one-two knockout punch to his chances. But Mike had the tenacity and the connections to win if the game fell in his favor earlier on and the Amigos didn’t have total control at the merge.

Let’s give Mike some credit here: he’s a 21-year-old guy who managed to become the biggest jury threat from the halfway point and came within a couple Tribals of a guaranteed win. For someone his age, that’s pretty incredible. A lot of past players talk about refusing to give the money to someone his age, but Mike overcame that obstacle and played a great if very flawed game. But what I’m taking away from Mike’s time on Survivor above all else is his wholesome spirit and desire to do good while playing a cutthroat strategic game. He might have been too nice for the game, but in a world full of unpleasant darkness, his respectable humanity is really lovely to have around on our screens. Like he said, it pays to be nice. Be like Mike.

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With Mike gone and the jury left with five people they don’t like, we’re getting down to the crucial votes. All two of them. Common sense would say Durao’s either leaving 4-1 or getting eliminated by default when those idols get played. Seems pretty cut and dry. However, and this is a big HOWEVER, Rob isn’t totally safe yet. “But he has an idol at the final five?!” says the confused viewer. “He’s guaranteed a spot in the final four no matter what!” Well, according to the previews, the women will try to convince him not to play his idol. Not just Steffi and Laetitia, but Nicole as well. And let me stop you right there, I know what you’re thinking. There’s no way Rob will fall for it. He’s not that dumb, and anyone expecting anything different than Rob idoling himself into the finale will be disappointed. And besides, what kind of pitch would actually work? Well, let me explain the one I think could stop Rob from playing that idol.

Basically, the three women need to make sure Durao loses Immunity, which shouldn’t be that hard. Then they need to make sure Rob doesn’t win Immunity, which could be a little more difficult. From there, they need to pitch to Rob that playing all their idols and defaulting Durao out of the game would be immoral. They have to make it look like that result would be too cruel and unfair to someone that sweet and innocent; that Durao deserves a proper Survivor send off via being voted out like everyone else. After all, the resounding vibe of this majority alliance has been for the longest time “morality, honor, integrity,” and it’s entirely in character for Nicole and Steffi to make that case.

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There’s enough trust there, at least from a viewer’s perspective, to make Rob at least consider this plan, especially if he’s worried about Durao’s jury vote. He can clearly see the jury isn’t a fan of his, and according to Jacques’ Ponderosa, he’s probably losing unless someone like Mike explains his game in a really positive way from inside the jury (and Mike didn’t completely vouch for Rob in his own Ponderosa by the way). So giving Durao a decent exit and being merciful could redeem his image. I still think it’s the absolute longest of long shots and asking him not to play that idol will most likely tip him off immediately, but it might be their only chance of taking Rob out before the final four where he’d only be one necklace away from totally shutting down the last possible big move of the game and waltzing into the finals with a nearly complete Survivor checklist.

Oh, and Durao still has that fake idol, aka the one-time idol that died pre-merge. People on the jury know it exists, so the people in the game probably do as well, but if for some reason it’s still an unknown entity to the Amigos and Laetitia, he could pull a bluff with it. You know, if he can actually tell a convincing lie about having an idol. I’m not getting any hopes up about that though.

And that’s it for the final six. With the last two episodes approaching, the final three is in sight, and the win is still very much up in the air. The jury doesn’t straight up likeanyone left, so it will be a competition to see who’s the best of the worst. There’s only so much that can be done in the last four days to win over the jury, and it looks like whoever takes Rob down or at least gets the credit for it, would be the most likely winner. And if he escapes defeat and makes the final three… does he even win? It’s a good question, and I don’t think anyone has an answer. It all comes down to whether or not the jury has been poisoned against Rob beyond repair and we get a “vote against” jury. Regardless, the season has finally become interesting as a game once again. I’m peeved it took so long, but better late than never.

Written by

Cory Gage

Cory is a writer and student from Texas. He's a die-hard Survivor fanatic who's seen over 50 seasons worldwide, hosted his own season in high school from scratch, and hopes to one day compete on the show himself.

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