“It serves as a vivid reminder of how the past can haunt,” Probst said as he described the cultural history of Cambodia in the stunning opening to last night’s Survivor premiere, an ominous foreboding that set the episode’s tone. This season premiere was all about the ghosts of Survivor past coming back to haunt our returning castaways. Previous mistakes were at the forefront of players’ minds as they tried desperately not to recreate the same errors. Past glories became burdens which suddenly had to be played down. Reputations dangled from their necks like Jacob Marley’s chains.
One player plagued by past mistakes was Abi-Maria, the Brazilian firecracker, who spent more time calling people morons and issuing death threats than she did playing the game in Survivor: Philippines. Abi’s natural instinct to fly off the handle at the drop of a hat (or the accidental theft of a bracelet) is a constant internal struggle for her. She knew that her temper and fiery personality were what caused her downfall the last time she played, and she was determined to improve her social game in Cambodia. But within minutes of hitting the beach with her new Ta Keo tribe, she was pointing fingers and passive-aggressively accusing her fellow tribemates of stealing her bag.
But unlike Abi of old, who would have screamed and cursed and hurled insults (and sometimes coconuts), she tried to maintain her composure. She was very aware of her past reputation and even though it was hard for her “not to pull out the fangs”, she did manage to stay relatively calm. But “relatively calm” for Abi-Maria is still pretty scary. After discovering her lost bracelet in Peih-Gee’s bag, clearly an innocent mistake, Abi buzzed around camp informing each of her tribemates of what had happened. Maybe she was having flashbacks to the Philippines when she discovered the immunity idol clue in RC’s bag. Try as she might, the paranoia and tension that Abi created reverberated around camp, and immediately put her on the backfoot.
15 Years Later
Seeing first ever runner-up Kelly Wiglesworth on Survivor again is almost like seeing a ghost. Her mere presence on a modern day season, amongst all of these new players, is an odd, almost alien image – like seeing Donald Trump in the US presidential campaign. Wiglesworth played 15 years ago, and here she is replaying her triumphs and failures of Survivor: Borneo; from the opening marooning to the Quest for Fire immunity challenge. For a woman that has admittedly not watched a season of Survivor since her own, you couldn’t blame her for thinking she was in a time-warp. She was probably waiting for Sue Hawk to walk around the corner and call her a rat.
It was funny watching her tell Jeff Probst that she had thought about her loss to Richard Hatch every day for the past 15 years. Stephen Fishbach’s reaction summed it up nicely; now there is a man that has thought about his loss on Survivor every day since he played. Wiglesworth doesn’t even own a TV. I bet when they called her to play again she asked: “That show’s still on?”.
Neat Moment: The other second chancers giving Wiglesworth a round of applause when Probst introduced her.
Fishbach Out of Water
As I said above, Stephen Fishbach is a man that has been contemplating his past mistakes for a very long time. He succeeded in making it all the way to the Final Tribal Council in Survivor: Tocantins, just like Wiglesworth in Borneo, but lost to J.T in a unanimous vote. His awkward beginnings in Tocantins were back to haunt him in Cambodia as once again he found himself on a tribe surrounded by alpha types. While Joe and Savage were building fires and chopping down trees like rugged models in a Diet Coke commercial, Fishbach was fumbling around with a broken branch; having more trouble with a stick than Jason Siska in Survivor: Micronesia.
It was unusual to see Fishbach with the socially awkward goofball edit because, despite his Woody Allen New York nerdy Jewishness, which could certainly make you an outcast amongst the usual Survivor types, he was able to position himself well socially and strategically in Tocantins. He overcame his initial fears and anxiety and connected with his fellow tribemates fairly quickly. But this time around, Fishbach didn’t see a J.T amongst his alpha-male tribemates. Rather than overcoming his fears and anxiety, he let them overpower him, and it set him into defense mode. Stephen has written countless blogs and talked ad nauseam about Survivor strategy over the years, and I don’t think even he would suggest wandering off alone to search for an idol on Day 1. Especially while the rest of your tribe are building the shelter. When Kass is integrating better socially with the tribe than you, then you have to start questioning yourself.
Neat Moment: Old schooler Kimmi Kappenberg of all people calling Fishbach out on his sketchiness “I think he’s looking for an idol.”
If you are going to search for an idol in the first three days, then you have to do it with a little panache and forethought. Kelley Wentworth is interesting because while the rest of the cast are battling the stigma of past reputations, Wentworth doesn’t really have a reputation, to begin with. She only lasted five episodes in Survivor: San Juan Del Sur and had a very under the radar edit. Wentworth never got the chance to make big moves or carve out her own game. In that sense, she is a blank slate coming into Cambodia, and she is hoping to prove her worth this time. It’s that lack of reputation that probably made it easier for Wentworth to slink off into the jungle unsuspected, unlike Fishbach who set off radars as soon as he disappeared out of eye-sight.
Hiding the immunity idols within the challenges is a genius twist. Credit to Entertainment Weekly writer Dalton Ross for the suggestion. Survivor has tried many twists over the years, including the extra vote last season, and a lot of the time they fall flat (thanks, Dan). But you couldn’t have written the way this idol twist played out any more perfectly. It was thrilling to watch; making an already tense first immunity challenge even tenser. Wentworth played her role beautifully; her expressions told the entire story. She initially walked past where the idol was located, and it seemed as if she’d blown her chance. But she kept looking back and with every head turn the tension amped up. I think everyone watching was invested in Wentworth’s dilemma, in fact, I’m sure I heard the echo of 10 million Americans yelling “GRAB IT!” all the way over here in the UK. And grab it she did, completely undetected. Sneaky, sneaky.
Neat Moment: The first instance of potty-mouth Wentworth when she discovered the clue to the idol “Shut the f**k up!”
Keeping on the topic of the challenge, Joe helped the Bayon tribe to victory with his long, strong pole (Probst started it!). Joe pretty much started where he left off in Survivor: Worlds Apart and the golden boy edit was still intact. I don’t quite understand Joe’s long term goals, though. He seems to be in a comfortable position right now: he’s providing for his tribe, building the fire, leading them to challenge success, teaching them the art of “Joega.” But where does he go from there? He talked in his pre-game interviews about how he wanted to play differently, but he appears to be playing the same way.
He is currently Joey Amazing, and that is all fine and dandy for the pre-merge game. Jeremy, who went to work putting together his allies early just like he did in San Juan Del Sur, is already talking about how he is only using Joe as a meat-shield. Joe can help win his tribe all the challenges he wants, but as soon as the merge is in sight they will have no trouble cutting his throat, and he needs to start preparing for that inevitable as soon as possible.
Old School vs. New School
The episode came down to a battle between Old School mentality versus New School mentality over on the Ta Keo beach. Terry, Varner, and Wiglesworth were the old school representatives and quickly adopted Vytas and Woo into their line of thinking. On the flip side, you had the new kids on the block, Spencer, Shirin, and Wentworth, who had seemingly scooped up Abi and Peih-Gee; this is the narrative that the CBS edit put forward. But what this was was a story of pre-game alliances and the ghosts of Varner’s past.
Neat Moment: Varner busting out some unintentional Dr. Seuss rhyming as he was bitten on the buttocks during a confessional: “Shirin is hitting on the gas/What just bit my ass?!”.
What Was Really Going On?
Jeff Varner made it no secret in his pre-game interviews that he was pre-gaming, and he was pre-gaming hard. So were many others, but they weren’t quite as forthcoming as Varner. Shane Powers, who was on the ballot for this season but failed to make the cut (never forget), had put together a four-person old school alliance with himself, Terry, Varner, and Wiglesworth. With Terry having played with Vytas’s brother Aras, Vytas was sort of an outlier of this group by proxy. This alliance even had conference calls with each other like a bunch of Wall Street businessmen in the 1990s. From all accounts, it seemed like the most solid pre-game alliance going into Cambodia.
On the other end, you had a pre-game relationship between Spencer, Shirin, and Wentworth. I’m not going to call it a pre-game alliance because they certainly weren’t on conference calls or AOL chat with each other. But you can tell from their pre-game press that there was clearly a friendly understanding. The dilemma arises when you consider that Varner was also involved in this friendly understanding – as he stated in his pre-game interviews. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the producers put all of Varner’s potential pre-game allies with him on the same tribe. What it really came down to was not a battle of old school vs. new school, but a fight between Varner’s pre-game alliances.
So why did Varner decide to go with the more loosely formed Spencer, Shirin and Wentworth alliance? Why did he turn his back on the more secure conference call agreement? Well, one must think that his demons from the Australian Outback affected his decision. In Survivor: The Australian Outback, Varner went out on 5-5 split vote; at the time the rules stated that in the event of a tie, the person with the most previous votes cast against them would be eliminated. You would be a fool not to think that played a significant part in Varner’s thought process. He did not, under any circumstances, want this to be a tie vote situation.
While Terry, Vytas, Wiglesworth and Woo all thought they were solid with Spencer as part of their “shelter people,” Varner knew the truth. He was aware that Spencer would be voting with Abi, Shirin, and Wentworth against Vytas. If Varner voted for Abi, it would be a 5-5 split vote, his worst nightmare. Varner didn’t campaign his crab-pinched ass off and come all the way out to Cambodia to risk a tie vote and a rock draw. Members of the press who were present at the first tribal council explained that Varner stopped the proceedings to ask a question to Peih-Gee and Wentworth; he asked them if they were still voting the way they told him on the beach earlier that day. With Peih-Gee and Wentworth both confirming their position, Varner knew what he had to do. Just like that, what was seemingly the most stable pre-game alliance crumbled to pieces like the ruins of a Cambodian temple.
While Joe was having Reverend Jim Jones levels of cult-like success with his yoga classes on the Bayon tribe, Vytas’s impromptu yoga sessions on Ta Keo came off more Vince Sly. Vytas is a prime example of a player that was haunted by his past reputation. In Blood vs. Water, he was able to use his past reputation as a reformed bad boy to curry favor with the women of his tribe. However, out on the beaches of Cambodia, his documented history as a manipulative game-player made him a threat. His yoga, and his touching, and his “How is your body?” concerns came across, as Shirin so succinctly put it, “smarmy”.
Instead of owning his villain like qualities, Vytas tried to play down his past reputation and present himself as a spiritual guru just there to have fun. That didn’t wash with the women on his tribe, this time, particularly Shirin who quickly saw through the facade. Had Vytas owned his manipulative qualities and been more open to strategic conversations with Shirin and Wentworth then there is a possibility he could have kept that target off of his back. Hiding his strategic chops and instead trying to schmooze with compliments and awkward touching only made him more of an ideal first boot candidate.
We didn’t get to see the complete inner workings of this vote off due to the tribe heading immediately to tribal council after the challenge, but you surely have to give a lot of credit to both Shirin and Wentworth. Those are the only two that we heard explicitly say they wanted Vytas gone. Shirin appeared to be spear-heading the Vytas vote-off, and keeping both Abi and Peih-Gee on board despite the tension between them, must have taken some gentle and smart handling.
The premiere of Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chance was one of the finest premiere episodes in the show’s history. The opening with the 20 castaways walking through the historic cultural sites of Cambodia was beautifully shot and directed – in fact, I’d go as far as to say it was Survivor’s best opening ever. The sights, the colors, the atmosphere. It all added to this mythical quality of rebirth and redemption. The music too was superb throughout. It is a travesty that this show hasn’t won more Emmy awards; show me another reality television program that looks as gorgeous as Survivor.
The cast is dynamic and packed with potential. There were moments of drama and humor. And the gameplay was sharp from out of the gate; the Vytas boot surely setting a tone of ‘anyone is fair game’. I was very critical of the previous season, Worlds Apart, but with such a strong start in Cambodia, let’s hope we can put the past behind us and watch Survivor once again rise from the ashes.