This week, Survivor brought us the biggest family visit to date. I had long been preparing for this mammoth of a family visit since our very own Martin Holmes broke the news of it last summer, but I still spent most of the episode in awe of just how much time it took up. When we were about halfway through the episode and the family visit was still happening, I wrote in my notes, “what am I even going to talk about in my recap?” Thirty minutes of cute kids and loving reunions may be good for the soul (especially during these trying times), but it’s not much to work with when you have to write a recap.
Thankfully, we finally got some strategy and an incredibly chaotic Tribal Council after the immunity challenge to balance out the parade of teary eyes and adorable children. But God, this was a mess of an episode in terms of pacing and laying out a coherent narrative. I’d go as far as to say that it was my least favorite episode of the season by far from an editing standpoint. I’m not heartless—I love seeing cute kids on Survivor as much as the next guy, and I’ll try not to be too negative in my recap beyond laying out my general qualms with the episode. But needless to say, I was less than enthused with the way things shook out this week.
LOVE IN THE FORM OF FAMILY
We open right at the family visit, which is an immediate sign that this episode will be rushed as hell. Our final ten are clearly shocked to see the loved ones visit happening this early, and there’s definitely something to be said for Survivor shaking things up a little and catching the players off guard. One after one, our ten winners left in the game rush to their loved ones, and Jeff does his best to offer meaningful commentary. With most of the players getting multiple loved ones (many of them young children), this was a historic family visit. To make things even more memorable, Jeff announces that, for the first time, there will be no loved ones challenge. Everyone gets to spend time with their family, with no strings attached.
And by everyone, Jeff meant everyone. After lots of shots of kids playing in the sand and heartfelt confessionals from players like Sarah, Ben, and Tyson, we cut to the Edge of Extinction. Ethan and Rob spot an ominous boat on the horizon and debate whether it’s something good or something bad. “It’s never good,” Ethan says. “It’s like, the Edge of Extinction.”
But this time it’s very good because that boat is carrying all of their families. The Edge inhabitants are even more shocked than the players still in the game, not just to be getting a loved ones’ visit this early, but to be getting one at all. The emotion is palpable as partners, kids, parents, and in one case, a twin sister, step onto the Edge. I, for one, thought it was a crime that Nadiya was there and not a single “twinnie” was uttered, but we can only hope that Natalie’s advantage at the second EOE challenge will be Nadiya yelling “COME ON TWINNIE!!!” from the sidelines.
Towards the end of the episode, I saw a tweet from my friends over at the Bitter Jurors podcast that described this as “a bad episode of Survivor but a good episode of TV.” I’m inclined to agree with that assessment: these dramatic family reunions and tearful declarations of love tug on the heartstrings and shine a spotlight on the human side of Survivor. Still, this momentous family visit would’ve worked better in another universe, one where Survivor episodes are longer than 45 minutes each week. As we see in the back half of the episode, this week’s family visit was at the expense of any strategic content until the last fifteen minutes of the show. If an early family visit succeeded in catching the players off guard, it also, unfortunately, succeeded in taking up crucial airtime right before the most complicated Tribal of the season.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
At the immunity challenge, patience is key. After several players lose all of their blocks, it comes down to a close race between Ben and Tony, with the Cagayan champ ultimately pulling out the win. It’s Tony’s first individual immunity win ever, and the irony of TONY being the person to win a challenge requiring a cool head and patience isn’t lost on him. Much of his storyline in the pre-merge focused on his ability—and sometimes, inability—to play it cool, calm, and collected instead of building spy shacks and letting paranoia get the best of him. This particular immunity win plays nicely into that storyline and suggests he might be able to play slow and steady all the way to the end, even if he might have a few hiccups here and there.
Back at camp, Jeremy has his sights set on breaking up the Sarah-Sophie duo, but Tony’s not down for it. Sarah wants Kim out, but Tony’s not down for it. When Tony spots Jeremy and Kim walking off together, he finds his target in the Cambodia winner. Meanwhile, Kim and Jeremy round-up Tyson for a pep talk. Kim bluntly points out that Jeremy and Tyson, like herself, have no friends left in this game. Kim plans to (hopefully) play her idol correctly and send Sophie packing. Jeremy, with his Safety Without Power advantage, weighs the risk of playing it and abandoning his alliance vs. not playing it and potentially being sent to the Edge. Tyson, who’s already been to the Edge and back, hopes this hail mary idol play from Kim will buy him another few days.
Heading into Tribal, this is how the lines appear to be drawn: on one side, we have Sophie, Sarah, Tony, Ben, and Nick, who are all seemingly planning to vote Jeremy out. Sarah is the linchpin of this alliance since she’s in an established duo with both Sophie and Tony. Ben has previously been shown to be aligned with Tony as a “big threat,” so it makes sense why he’d be working with Tony again, even if the “big threat” alliance suddenly disappeared this episode. Nick’s presence is less clear, but he was sitting with Tony and Ben when the Jeremy plan was hatched, so it’s not completely inexplicable.
On the other side, we have Kim, Tyson, Jeremy, Michele, and Denise. The Kim-Tyson-Jeremy trio is essentially the remnants of Yul’s prophesized poker alliance, so it doesn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but it’s less clear why Denise and Michele are connected to this trio. Denise is close to Jeremy, and she just lost a close ally in Adam last Tribal, so her siding with Jeremy isn’t surprising, even if it’s not explicitly stated. Michele’s position is especially confusing, though, since Nick had previously been shown as her closest ally left in the game. Leading up to the vote, they’re set up as being on opposite sides for some reason, with no confessionals from either to explain why that is.
Long story short: this rushed pre-Tribal scrambling and the potential for another Advantagegeddon muddied the waters heading into the final ten vote. This would’ve been a confusing vote in a family visit-less episode, but the lack of pre-Tribal strategizing time exacerbated the confusion. And once we get to Tribal, things get a whole hell of a lot messier.
At Tribal, the whispering starts immediately, with Tony sitting pretty as the only person who’s truly safe. When Jeff asks if everyone’s ready to vote, Sarah and Jeremy have a standoff to see who will play their advantage first. Jeremy ultimately decides to play his Safety Without Power advantage and leaves Tribal.
We’ll have to see how his remaining allies respond to this next episode, but I think Jeremy made the right call. He indeed abandoned his allies, but at best, they were always hoping for a 5-5 tie and banking on Kim playing the idol correctly. Jeremy leaving means his alliance is down 5-4, but it also means there’s one less target for Kim to play her idol on, increasing her odds of her playing it correctly in their best-case scenario. Playing such a visible advantage when he’s already a target won’t help Jeremy much long-term, but it saved him this episode and didn’t screw his allies over as much as you might think at first glance.
Amidst the chaos of Jeremy’s abrupt departure, the scrambling and whispering starts up again until Sophie stands up and pulls her alliance to the side so they can safely and quickly dictate the vote away from the minority alliance. I’ve gone back and forth on how good of an idea it was for Sophie to so obviously pull aside her alliance. On the one hand, she definitely increased her profile even more by being the person to make the call, which isn’t great for her, especially since her name has started coming up more and more as a power player in recent episodes. On the other hand, it was a really smart move. Her alliance has the numbers, and Sophie knows that Kim has the idol and that Sarah has a Steal-A-Vote. All they have to do is agree on a vote split and prevent the plan from leaking to Kim’s side.
This situation reminded me of the Malcolm blindside in Game Changers when J.T. leaked the plan to vote Sierra to Brad, which resulted in Tai correctly playing his idol on her. The chaotic Tribal whispering makes for dramatic TV, but it can be a headache for the players since it also increases the possibility of someone unintentionally leaking a plan to the wrong person. Sophie’s move to physically pull her alliance aside was a bold one and will definitely increase the size of her target in the days to come, but I think it was ultimately a good move to secure her alliance’s plan and prevent a leak in the midst of Tribal chaos.
Sarah plays her Steal-A-Vote on Denise, which at first seems a bit excessive, but ends up working as a great misdirect to trick Kim into playing the idol on Denise instead of Tyson. The vote turns out five votes Tyson, two votes Sophie, and two negated votes for Denise. Tyson heads back to the Edge, now voted out for the second time.
Michele ended up voting Tyson, as revealed in the YouTube voting confessionals, and it’s unclear why. The edit led us to believe she was in with Denise-Kim-Jeremy-Tyson, but she voted against them in the end. With Michele getting another zero-confessional episode, it’s hard to tell where she really stood going into the vote, and how much that chaotic Tribal changed or didn’t change her position.
As for Kim’s idol play, her best move here would’ve been to either play the idol for herself or not play it at all. Once the Steal-A-Vote came out, it drastically decreased her alliance’s chances of having the numbers to take out Sophie, even if she played the idol correctly on Tyson. Michele, again, is the confusing factor here. If Michele had voted Sophie with Kim and Tyson, and Kim had correctly played the idol on Tyson, Sophie would have gone. But since Michele didn’t vote with Kim and Tyson, it didn’t matter if Kim played the idol correctly or not, since Denise would’ve gone home on a revote if Tyson was immune.
If Kim expected Michele to vote with her, her move makes a little more sense, since they hypothetically could’ve gotten Sophie out with the correct idol play. But with Michele voting Tyson instead of Sophie, Kim’s idol was effectively useless in protecting her alliance. She also took a huge risk by leaving herself exposed, and she’s lucky that risk didn’t send her to the Edge. Kim’s idol play isn’t a bad move per se since she made a pretty logical decision based on the information she had (especially if she didn’t know Michele would vote Tyson). Still, it would’ve been a better call to save the idol for herself since she effectively wasted it here.
This Tribal is chaotic any way you slice it, but with a little more exposition and time, the narrative could’ve been a lot more coherent than it was. A continued frustration I’ve had with Survivor in recent years is the tendency for alliances to emerge and evaporate at a moment’s notice. And I felt a bit of that happen here with the sudden disappearance of the “big threat” alliance, the resurrection of the so-called “poker alliance,” and Michele’s bewildering position at this Tribal. This is clearly a pretty fluid post-merge, so we should, of course, expect some anarchy. But the confusion tied to this vote had more to do with the lack of set-up and strategic content than the actual vote itself. We got a family visit for the ages, it’s true, but in turn, we missed out on a lot of insight into the most complicated vote of the season so far.
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