This episode was probably the least climactic of the season so far, which is ironic considering it’s the first tribe swap, another idol was found, a fight broke out, and we finally heard Durao’s voice. And I say this because the episode was primarily setting up things to come rather than providing a solid, standalone chapter in the story. It’s a transition episode with not much pay off to old stories but a ton of build up for new ones.
And you know what, I’m fine with that. Not every episode has to be some grandiose, Shakespearean tale with a huge climax. And that’s how it should be if you ask me. US Survivor prefers to give us more boom for our buck, but it can end up feeling disjointed and nonsensical when every episode tries too hard to be a suspenseful thriller. Survivor SA gave us a fairly predictable episode but still managed to set up the pieces for the next few votes so those episodes will be more satisfying when they drop.
Anyways, it’s swap time, and here are our new tribes:
New Ta’alo: Dante, Laetitia, Meryl, Nicole, Rob, and Rocco
New Sa’ula: Cobus, Geoffrey, Mmaba, Mike, Nathan, and Steffi
New Laumei: Durao, Felix, Jacques, Rose-Lee, Seipei, and Tania
I’ve been relatively linear with my recaps this season, taking the episode minute by minute and running through the details. But this week, just as the game changed, I shall change as well. Instead, I’m going to hit on the big talking points, starting with the Sa’ula family and their long-distance relationship.
None of the starting tribes got a great swap layout, but Sa’ula got hit the hardest with a 2-2-1 split. I know the modern take on winning challenges is “you don’t need to worry about winning as much because swaps are right around the corner,” but Sa’ula’s early losses put a big dent in their hull and made it hard to gain ground after this swap. And to make it worse, Nathan and Steffi returned to their old camp without flint again when Rob carelessly put it in his bag and took it to Ta’alo beach. What is it with this tribe and losing flint? It’s nowhere near as pathetic as San Juan Del Sur’s Hunahpu trading their entire camp away to replace a lost flint only to find it buried in the sand the next day, but it’s some seriously bad luck that kept Sa’ula as a tribe cursed by name. Thankfully Rob was kind enough to give Nathan and Steffi their flint back after the immunity challenge, proving the big guy is there to look after his family from across tribal lines.
Also, just to make sure a Sa’ula avoided elimination, Rob and Nicole convinced their new tribe to send Seipei to the Island of Secrets for the night. Seipei might not have liked the gift since it killed her plan to gain experience with each Tribal she attends (as if she plays by an RPG experience point system), plus the Island bore no hands-on advantage as it had before, but you can’t fault Rob and Nicole for protecting her. They had no idea whether or not Seipei was in danger as the only former Sa’ula on her tribe, so for them, it’s a case of better safe than sorry. While it might not be best for her long-term game, it’s hard to be mad about getting free immunity, and it shows her old tribe considers her a true family member despite her rocky start.
The old Laumei members found both amazing and terrible luck awaiting them during the buff draw. Geoffrey, Mike, and Mmaba miraculously stuck together to join the new Sa’ula tribe (Sa’2la as I call them), giving them the 3-2-1 advantage. It’s about as great of a swap as you can get for an alliance, with the top three members sticking together and holding the power at the moment. Rocco once again found himself becoming a hero in the challenge, and now that he’s away from the likes of Mike and Geoffrey, the target on his back is getting somewhat smaller. But he’s out of allies, and there are other buff guys to carry the tribe’s weight, so his life is in the hands of the others. Laetitia… is still the easy boot, unfortunately. They didn’t dwell on it much, but it was said straight up that she’d be the first to go yet again. Thankfully she’s on yet another superhuman tribe of Gods and Goddesses, so she might be able to sneak into the merge without ever visiting Tribal Council.
Rose-Lee and Durao, on the other hand, found themselves in a terrible position. I don’t see how they could have gone home on the original Laumei tribe, so you know what this means: they were swap-screwed. It’s a bit ironic that Rose-Lee was all set to flip on her alliance, only to be separated from them and picked off before she could play the game her way, but that’s how Survivor works sometimes. She showed promise as a cunning player, but ultimately a bad buff draw took her out.
Do I think she could have saved herself? Possibly. With Seipei sleeping on IOS and three former Ta’alo members holding all the power that night, her only move was to sell out Durao for his terrible challenge performance and hope they took the bait. But from what the show told us, the two former Laumeis stuck together and tried to preserve their tribe’s numbers. It seemed like a case of admitting defeat, especially when Jacques, Felix, and Tania were one poke away from totally fracturing and didn’t keep it that hidden. As usual, I assume we weren’t shown certain things because they didn’t really matter to the outcome of Rose going home and would only take away from the implosion of the Ta’alo three, but it seemed a little strange for Rose and Durao to isolate themselves.
But they didn’t give up though. First, they went on a little idol hunt that went nowhere because Durao recited a botched interpretation of the clue Rocco found in Paul’s pants a week earlier. Rose and Durao couldn’t figure it out, but they did attempt to craft a fake idol and use it as leverage. However, they played it so poorly that it never could have worked. Jacques already knew both what the idols this season look like and where the Laumei idol was: in his pocket. Plus they never really tried to utilize it beyond vague threats. They just said they had a real one like “Yep. We have the idol. Uh huh. We got it. Yeah.” Fake idols only work if you can both make a convincing mock-up and properly put it on display to scare people (or just stick a rock in your shorts because if Rupert Boneham can pull that off, anyone can).
Rose-Lee took the hit this week, and Durao, who finally joined us this season after receiving a grand total of six sentences in three episodes, actually survived, to my amazement. These purple characters tend to burst into existence and get snuffed right away, but somehow the SA Mariano lived to see another day. He’s on the bottom, he sucked in a challenge, and now has to find a way to survive against the odds. Too bad we knew nothing about him until twenty minutes into episode four or this might have been a little more compelling. Although, I do always love the trope of an invisible character randomly breaking out with a super negative episode that kills their chance of winning even more. I hate it for Durao though, since he seems like a cool dude who didn’t sign up to be less memorable than Nathan’s foot (which seriously has a Twitter fan account, I kid you not).
But two weeks in a row, Ta’alo is where the story is at. And not the new Ta’alo (2’alo as I call them) who acted as the week’s sponsor mouthpieces by hyping up those amazing looking Steers ribs (side note: if I ever visit South Africa I’m beelining it to the nearest Steers as soon as I leave the airport). No, it’s the old Ta’alo, who is slowly descending into madness after Jacques’ botched idol play. The editors fulfilled my wish and explained Jacques’ thinking right away, clarifying that he just had a bad read and panicked at the last minute. But for Jacques, actions have consequences, and the rest of the tribe was fed up with him for not trusting them on what was supposed to be a simple, agreed upon vote. Jacques said his game was ruined and that he’s in the Survivor hall of shame, but lo and behold, the swap arrived at the best possible time and gave him a chance at redemption.
Because all three starter idols are hidden in the same spot on each beach, Jacques was able to bolt over to the well when nobody was looking and dig up his second idol, replenishing his armory of advantages. Only he decided to tell Felix about his new idol to rebuild that trust, which is where things went off the rails yet again. Felix told Jacques that he’d fully trust him if he let him hold the idol that night, but Jacques refused to give up his only protection. Smart move, in my opinion, but this conflict opens a new crack in Ta’alo as both men set their sights on each other for a future vote.
As for me, I’m on Team Jacques with this one. I doubt Felix would have stabbed Jacques in the back because it would be stupid to give up the numbers like that and show yourself as a backstabber, but Jacques is already on thin ice and mentally worn out after the last Tribal. I don’t blame him for keeping his idol on his person whatsoever. Now, showing off the idol to someone who was pretty pissed about his last idol play? Perhaps it wasn’t the best move here. It opened a can of worms and made things way more complicated than they should have been. But I get where Jacques is coming from – he’s in a desperate spot even with the numbers on his side, and he doesn’t want anything getting through his defenses if he can help it.
And then we have Tania, returning from IOS in her best Coach Wade cosplay. And by cosplay, I mean holding a big stick. Only this stick was sharpened into a pointy spear. Side note: I was very disappointed that none of these superfans dropped a callback to Rob Cesternino’s quote about Creepy Matt’s sharp machete. “Why does Tania need the stick so sharp? I think she’s going to kill us,” would be one of the greatest international references ever, and if Keith Nale’s quote about taco burps can make it into Survivor SA (I’m not kidding, just ask Jeanne Michel), I don’t see why we can’t get another shout out to a US season from across the pond.
Anyways, back to Coach Tania. She chose to join the new Laumei tribe (I can’t come up with a tacky name with a 2 in it, sorry) because Seipei was there and the old Ta’alo would have the numbers, giving her some options. An… unexpected choice considering how hyped I was about Huntress Tania going full Predator on her old tribe last week, but after seeing it play out, I can say it’s the right choice for her game. Somehow, this woman became the safest person in the tribe overnight. I’m not joking. She’s in a great position and might be the player of the week.
It’s easy to write Tania off as the Debbie, Phillip, or Coach of the season, who doesn’t have any idea about what she’s doing and only serves to create big, dramatic character moments instead of making good moves, but credit is due here. Tania played this swap perfectly. Okay, maybe not perfectly because calling out her old tribe for voting out a “friend” of hers instead of “weak” Meryl was… not a good move, especially since Ting Ting wanted to get away from Tania for as long as they were on the same beach and definitely wasn’t Tania’s friend. But Jacques and Felix were desperate for numbers, and Tania’s act of loyalty to her old tribe was an offer they couldn’t refuse, so they obviously played along.
Even though she got two votes from Rose and Durao, Tania is still in a solid position, so let’s break it down. She has Seipei on her side for sure. The Biker Queen saved Tania’s bacon last week, and Tania personally thanked her, so I can’t see them splitting up this soon unless the guys team up to take one of them out. And then we have Jacques and Felix, who just a couple of weeks ago were fighting with her and complaining about her entire existence. Yet against the odds, Tania has ended up in the middle of this new civil war between the men. Jacques laid out his gameplay, and Tania wasn’t even on his list of targets. Seipei and Felix are both higher on his hit list than her. If anything, she’s his closest ally unless Jacques gets close with Durao in the next few days. And then on Felix’s side of the battle, he sold out Jacques to Tania in private to get her on his side for the eventual showdown. Tania has become a crucial swing vote and a top tier ally thanks to her IOS trip. It’s honestly hard to imagine a swap working out better for her, and it was all in her hands. Give the woman some credit, people!
Now she just has to keep her mouth shut, not start another Shelter War, or piss off the guys who want to take her to the next stage of the game, and she should be golden. We can joke about Tania winning this season because it’s even more ridiculous than last season’s ending, but I wouldn’t put it past her to make a deep run or even sit in the final two or three after this week. She’s placed herself in the perfect spot, and we should give her credit for not only using her advantage well but working her way into this new crack. Will she get credit? I doubt it. Most viewers won’t take her seriously and haven’t since the premiere, so anything she does will get laughed at unless it’s a super move like orchestrating the biggest blindside of the season or going on a record winning streak. And even then, a chunk of the cast themselves probably won’t take Tania seriously no matter how well she plays from this point forward because her start on Ta’alo was so horrendous and game-killing.
Like I said, this episode was a lot a set up for future pay off. We saw Rose-Lee’s plan to flip on her alliance cut short by a nasty case of swap screwing (which I suppose could be interpreted as laser-guided karma if you’re morally against betrayal or got busted by Rose’s crime scene analyst skills at some point in your life). But aside from her story, there wasn’t much resolution to be found. This is Survivor SA’s standard though: long-term investment over short term excitement, with bits of nutty insanity to whet our appetites for the time being. It’s a winning formula, and even a relatively “weaker” episode still managed to be fun and memorable as part of the larger, overarching narrative building in the background.
It feels like we’re actually going somewhere with the season, unlike some recent US seasons that felt like the car was swerving off the road every other hour and getting flat tires on the way to Wally World. But the fun part is that I can’t really be sure about what our destination is this time. I was too confident in knowing how SA: Philippines would end and got cocky, only to be deservedly slapped in the face for my arrogance by its unexpected ending. So I’m not even going to guess how this season will play out. I’m just going to let the editors work their magic and enjoy the show.