Should I even bother dealing with the two winning tribes this week? I’m debating making this recap all about Ta’alo and brushing the other tribes under the rug because there is so much insanity to unpack there. Between a controversial Island of Secrets twist to an even more controversial series of moves, Sa’ula and Laumei were fighting for a place at the table and barely got their seats.
Obviously, there were important things that went down on these winning tribes, so let’s start with Sa’ula. They just voted Paul out for being untrustworthy and Nathan’s decided not to call it quits after all. Good. SA: Philippines was nearly flawless except for a couple of early volunteer vote outs, so Nathan pulling himself together brought me quite a bit of joy. Seipei has also found a home as the fifth Amigo as the rest of her tribe apologizes for leaving her out of the group for the first five days. It’s been a quick turnaround for the Biker Queen after a near disaster of a first day, and she even admits that losing so much made her and the rest of the tribe stronger for the future.
But Sa’ula can’t make it a day without some more bad luck plaguing their beach. It turns out Paul felt safe enough to keep their flint in his bag, and now Sa’ula is living without fire again. Thankfully, Nathan’s foot is healing up, and Sa’ula is able to pull off a jackpot victory in this week’s muddy immunity/reward challenge, earning themselves a ton of comfort items and a deluxe fire making kit to make up for their heavy losses. Camp life is all sunshine and rainbows as the remaining five have a beach party and bask in the glory their first win, ending the era of the Sa’ula doldrums and uniting them as a humbled, prepared force heading into whatever comes next.
Laumei is strictly about strategy this week. Geoffrey is still in the middle of two majorities but swears his allegiance to Mike, Mmaba, and Rose-Lee instead of Rocco and Durao. (Yes, there’s a person named Durao on this season. I’m serious. He actually exists. He might only have a handful of sentences and no confessionals, but he’s real). But Rose-Lee doesn’t feel totally comfortable with this four-person alliance because she’d be on the bottom and doesn’t want to put her trust in anyone. With the swap coming up and flipping on her mind, she’s going to be a pivotal player to watch. Mike, Geoffrey, and Mmaba might see their alliance lose a member (or two) if someone presents Rose-Lee with better options.
And then we have the main course of the week: Ta’alo. I really want to rush to the big talking points, but let’s handle this mess step by step. Don’t worry; we’ll get to the juicy stuff soon. It’s a long journey to this episode’s ultimate conclusion and there are a ton of moving pieces to pin down.
First thing in the morning, Jacques pulls a sleepy Ting Ting into the Samoan jungle at night to build some trust. How? Well by showing her his entire arsenal, of course. Yep. He shows her his extra vote and immunity idol: not just one advantage, but both. I wasn’t against the idea of showing her the extra vote or the idol because revealing your advantages can be a good way to win trust with the right person (and Ting Ting was definitely the right person with how much trust she put in Jacques after this). But revealing both items leaves Jacques totally exposed with no secrets to himself if things go awry or get complicated. And of course, things got complicated. And they went awry. It’s a hot mess double feature this week.
Meanwhile, Tania is starting to realize her tribe wants nothing to do with her. They haven’t outright said it to her face, but she’s finally felt the unmistakable negative vibes radiating from the other six, so now she’s decided to take a step back and let things cool down. Unfortunately for Tania, it’s too little too late, and the other six are locked in on voting her out if they happen to lose. When discussing the upcoming challenge, Tania suggests sitting out a couple of stronger players so they can save their energy for the immunity challenge, but the rest of the tribe shuts that down and puts her on mute. Dante and Cobus are perfectly fine with losing immunity and would rather have the reward instead, especially since they still can’t get a fire going and desperately need some flint. (Side note: they’ve mentioned not having flint every episode and the camera always cuts to Cobus looking more annoyed every time. I love a good running gag.)
It turns out it’s not just a reward challenge, but an immunity challenge as well. Ta’alo struggles on the muddy obstacle course and narrowly loses immunity by a split second, leaving them coated in muck and empty-handed. It seems Ta’alo can go no further low than the Ta’alo low (in Sea Bass speak), but then we get to this week’s Island of Secrets pick. Sa’ula gets to choose one member to take the trip, and it’s an easy choice – Tania. She thanks Sa’ula for the chance to save her game and heads to IOS, leaving the rest of Ta’alo peeved about the possibility of Tania finding a way to save herself at the worst possible time.
Tania arrives on IOS and finds a dilemma waiting for her. She can either go back to her tribe and join them for Tribal or she can stay on IOS, skip Tribal altogether, and join the tribe of her choice at the upcoming swap. If this was Episode 1 or 2 Tania, she might be crazy enough to believe her vote is crucial and head back to camp. But Tania’s wisened up in the last couple days and makes the smart move of taking immunity, forcing the tribe that was dead set on voting her out to scrounge up a new plan.
I figured this would be controversial from the moment I paused and read her parchment. Tania was outwitted and outplayed by six people in the first six days, both socially and strategically. She would have been mercilessly voted out had Sa’ula picked a different person to visit IOS or had this exact advantage not been waiting for her. It’s an incredible stroke of luck, so unbelievable that I’m sure some tin foil hats are coming out. So let’s just cut to the chase. Do I think this was rigged to save Tania for another couple days? I highly doubt it. Immunity by exile is nothing new and has changed up set-plans since its introduction. Astronaut Dan was twist-screwed when Sally Schumann was exiled way back in Survivor: Exile Island, and recently Chris Noble was spared of being a third boot by random draw in Ghost Island, leaving Morgan as that week’s victim. This twist has happened since the exile format was introduced, and it definitely won’t be the last time someone gets spared or screwed in similar fashion.
That being said, I can’t argue this twist wasn’t a little too overpowered in Tania’s favor. Had someone from a narrow majority been sent to IOS, then the two options would be a little more even. Do you selfishly take immunity and power for yourself and let your tribe sort it out, or do you head back to camp to protect your allies from what could be a game-changing power shift? But Tania was outnumbered 6 to 1 and going back to camp would have no benefits whatsoever, so there was no choice to be made unless she actually wanted to be voted out. Plus she has a considerable advantage at the swap by being able to choose which tribe she joins. And if she decides to join a tribe of six, she also picks who gets moved to the tribe of five to make room for her.
The dilemma boiled down to “get voted out pre-swap and look like a moron” or “survive to the swap, avoid the luck of the draw entirely, and decide your fate.” If I was designing this twist, I’d give players more incentive to go back to camp without immunity. Make the safety cost them something, like their vote at the next Tribal they visit. They already gave out one “NO VOTE” parchment, so why not give out another? Or if they wanted to throwback to past SA seasons, curse them with a penalty vote at their next Tribal, forcing them to work their ass off to pay back the Survivor Gods for letting them hold that much power. Anything to make the dilemma actually feel like a dilemma and not a free powerup for whoever is lucky enough to visit IOS on that specific day.
Don’t get me wrong though; I’m absolutely ecstatic that Tania was saved and has a second chance in this game. She’s the breakout star of the season by far, and I don’t care if she’s not everyone’s cup of tea. She’s the agent of chaos this game needs heading into a swap, someone with no allegiances who can flip to any group of people and completely change the game because she feels like it. My gut says she’ll find the swapped Sa’ula majority if there is one and ride that bus since they saved her from certain doom. If she’s still bitter about her old Ta’alo members leaving her out to dry, she’ll probably gun for them as soon as possible for the sake of revenge. This woman took some real joy in trolling the other six with her immunity, and I wouldn’t blame her if she became a focused Ta’alo huntress in the coming weeks and made it her goal to outlast the other Ta’alo members.
The Ta’alo tribe receives tree mail, and much to their horror they learn that Tania has immunity and won’t be joining them at Tribal. It’s such bad news that they don’t even believe what they’re hearing at first. They think Meryl is just joking around and tell her to read it again, but nope, it’s legit: “Tania won’t be returning, so there’s really nowhere to hide.” I do love how meta and shady that tree mail is though. Whoever wrote that little poem made it the biggest punch to the face possible. But awkward silence follows as reality sinks in. Not only did they lose the reward they wanted, but they also lost the one good thing about losing itself: the scapegoat. A real worst case scenario has manifested. Tani’alo is no more and Ta’a-low is where it’s at.
With no Tania to be the easy vote, the tribe shifts the target to their backup plan: Ting Ting. Jacques is starting to panic and comes up with a plan to save her by playing his idol on her and taking out Cobus with their two votes. Then, just to show off, Jacques will wear the clothes Cobus left behind at camp as his trophy. A nice tribute to Australian Survivor’s Luke Toki there. Oh wait, he specifically wants his jacket? Scratch that. A nice tribute to David vs. Goliath’s Angelina Keeley.
Dante and Cobus are confident that Ting Ting is toast and Jacques tells them he’s in on the plan, so it should be a huge blindside. At this point, I was going to be disappointed no matter who left. Ting Ting and Cobus are both players I enjoy watching, and they seemed like potential picks to win, plus I’ve spent the last two weeks expecting a 6-1 Tania boot, and with this IOS twist stepping in, it definitely feels like one of Ting Ting and Cobus will be cut prematurely, to say the least. Little did I know this vote would get even crazier in ways I could never have imagined.
Tribal is mostly everyone complaining about Tania not being there, but it quickly becomes public knowledge that Ting Ting will leave that night. Nobody is hiding it. It’s in the open. She knows. Everyone knows. It seems like a vote set in stone, but Ting Ting, with a sly smirk on her face, suggests she’s done everything she can to stay in the game and lets Nico commence the voting. Jacques and Ting Ting fist bump as the urn is brought out, and when Nico asks for idols to be played, both of them raise a hand. Jacques stands up and reveals his literal key to victory, shocking the rest of the tribe. He flaunts his idol and reads the faces of his tribe Joe Mena style, then decides he should play it for himself, leaving Ting Ting with one of the greatest blindside faces of all time. If you ever want to see someone be rendered speechless, just watch that scene again. It’s hilarious, and the camera holds on her face for so long I thought my computer froze.
Jacques is immediately stunned as all four Ting Ting votes come out of the urn, capping off this crazy episode with the season’s latest Brantsteele moment, a term I’ve used to deem something so randomly insane and fanfiction-like that it feels like I’m watching a Brantsteele simulation play out on my screen. This is a Tribal where every single person was blindsided one way or another. Ting Ting was blindsided by Jacques’ last minute move, Jacques was blindsided when he misplayed his idol, and the rest of the tribe was blindsided when Jacques pulled out the idol in the first place. Not to mention, all six of them were blindsided by Tania trolling them from across the sea. It’s a quadruple layer blindside – four for the price of one. In some alternate universe, this is a predictable 6-1 Tania boot. Instead, we got this bizarre timeline. I love Survivor SA. I mean, I low-key hate this because it’s super tragic and only happened because of a twist, but I still love it from a television standpoint.
So Ting Ting is suddenly gone, and I’m shocked because I never saw this coming for a second, but let’s break down this move by Jacques because… Yikes. I don’t know where this would rank in the pantheon of bad Survivor moves, but it’s pretty bad. The one good thing I can say about Ting Ting leaving is that Jacques is now the only person who knows about his extra vote. And I guess the fact that he survived Tribal is always good. It’s not like he idoled himself out or anything. But with one sudden move he wasted an idol, lost a super close ally, exposed himself as a schemer to the tribe, proved to Cobus he can’t be trusted with information, and made himself look like a clown in front of his whole tribe which could hurt his chances if he makes it to the end. Again, yikes! I joined Jacques in burying my face in my hands because as a fellow superfan, that would be one of the most frustrating moments of my life. I said last week that Jacques was living the Survivor fan’s dream, but in the span of a day, his dream became an utter nightmare, all thanks to Tania taking the night off.
There was a brief moment where Jacques told Ting Ting he wanted to draw the votes onto him and play it for himself. Given we never saw him put that plan into action in the episode itself, I’m assuming the editors left those scenes out to make his rogue idol play more shocking. I imagine the beginning of next week’s episode will clear the mist and give us a look inside Jacques’ head following this blunder. This whole ordeal is a head-scratcher for sure, but one that leaves me begging for more instead of pulling my hair out from frustration. Survivor SA’s storytelling has managed to balance shock and sense to create a subtle narrative style that rewards close viewings, re-watches, and a good memory. And this was no exception. While it might appear to be an out of left field plot twist meant to get some cheap jaw drops, going back and finding the little clues that pointed to this disaster is a lot of fun and shows how these editors are thinking several steps ahead of their audience.
So what should Jacques have done? In my opinion, letting Ting Ting go home and saving the idol was the best move on paper. He keeps his trust with the rest of the tribe secure, keeps his idol a secret, and even if it means screwing his number one ally, it makes sure nobody in the game knows about his armory of advantages. (Unless Ting Ting was bitter enough to spill the beans on her way out, but I think she respects the game too much to sell out Jacques like that). In a season called Island of SECRETS, secrets are going to be important. While everyone will be looking at the IOS visitors as possible advantage holders, Jacques could have flown under the radar until he needed to strike. But that’s totally out of the realm of possibility right now, and he might have to change his trajectory for the time being.
Where does Jacques go from here now that his game is in flames? His play in the first few days showed me he was a good strategist who could form close bonds and get people to trust him, but after this blunder, he might as well start over with some new tribemates after the swap if he can’t repair the fallout between him and the other Ta’alos. I’d look at Laumei first. I’m sure he’d fit right in with fellow superfans Mike and Geoffrey, and I can’t see Rocco turning down another man to add to his imaginary bro-squad. Even Laetitia should be willing to join forces with him if it gets her a single solid ally in this game.
Sa’ula might be a harder nut to crack since they’re such a tight group and Tania’s already considering herself indebted to them, but Jacques still has a path there if he falls into a swing vote position. Without that idol, it’s going to be tricky, but he has a shot at surviving to the merge and getting things back on the right track. The only question is if he can get there. Survivor SA hasn’t been afraid to send major characters home early after building them up as possible end-gamers or even winners, so a part of me fears Jacques could face the music sooner rather than later.
With a swap coming up, I’m hoping the game will get thrown in the air and take the heat off the obvious targets for a while. None of the first three Tribals sent home the obvious Day 1 outsiders (though you can blame the IOS twist for the latest instance of that), but the axe was ready to come down on them sooner or later, and the timing couldn’t be better for a shakeup. I’m not usually a fan of early tribe swaps since they tend to prevent the audience from really learning about the starting dynamics, but the first three episodes of this season have done about as good of a job as they could aside from Ta’alo’s non-Tania dynamics remaining underdeveloped and Durao striving for the Purple Kelly medal of Invisibility.
Of course, a cast of 21 will always be a harder sell on screen than a cast of 18, but the extra run time each week has remedied some of the concerns I had coming into this journey. I have no clue what to expect from next week’s swap and the impending fallout of everything that happened this week, but as long as the season continues to ramp up across the board, it’s going to be a fun ride with a lot to look forward to in the coming episodes.