Yes, we know, we've said this before, but we still think Survivor is harmed more than helped by hidden immunity idols. Yes, they do create the opportunity for drama, as Pete aptly demonstrated. But on balance, we still think they act as a narrative crutch, at the expense of character development (a fancy way, perhaps, of saying, "There's a Katie on this season?"). So for their continued screentime-sucking excesses, it's time to once again award hidden idols the Trolly.
Look, we get why they're interesting from a narrative standpoint: from finding the clues, to keeping the clues secret, to finding the idols, to keeping the idols secret, to having the constant threat of someone playing an idol, they're a story with a predictable structure, one in which the contestants are all too eager to participate. Yes, it's hilarious when Pete plants a previously-hidden clue under a bag, and shrill antics ensue. And we appreciate the fourth wall breaking when Russ Swan stalks around Matsing's camp, talking about exactly the editing sequence that is being shown, with the camera operator zooming in and out on the idol and Russ looking for it.
But at what cost does all this come? In the past couple of seasons, hidden idols have pretty much gone unplayed, and everyone knows the vote-splitting drill for flushing them. This season, pretty much the entire Kalabaw and Tandang storylines in camp have been people (RC, Abi-Maria, Penner) looking for and finding the idols. Which would be great, except that it's been ultimately a lot of wheel spinning, since neither tribe has attended tribal council yet. True, there have been shifting alliances within those tribes, and the idols have played a part in those power struggles. But again, it's all been meaningless so far, since nobody has had to vote anyone out. Lisa and Penner have both gone from doomed underdogs on paper to.... safe on paper! Hooray! Meanwhile, who are Artis and Katie, again?
The one good thing that might be said about what seems like the imminent dissolution (by either continued failure or some sort of tribal shuffle/switch) of Matsing is that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to learn who some of those people on the non-blue tribes are.
We knew something was off about this episode. Maybe it was the unnerving paucity of Lisa confessionals. It might have been the discovery that there's apparently a third dude on the Kalabaw tribe, whose name is neither Jeff Kent! nor Jonathan/Penner. And he's even capable of speech! (We don't really remember what he said, so that's probably the last we'll hear from him. Or, in editor's parlance, "Ach! Back to the loch with you, Nessie!")
Eventually, however, the problem dawned on us: Who removed Michael Skupin and his incredible string of terrifying yet disturbingly amusing injuries from our teevee????!!!! Apart from a brief Artis/"Magnesium Boy" firestarting pep talk, all we were shown was a silent shot of his scab-covered face, to remind of happier times. Hurty-er times. Same difference.
We're normally irritated when Survivor pares itself back to one challenge per episode, but if the challenges could all be as great as "Swing Break," we'd never utter a peep of discontent. Okay, maybe not peeps, exactly, but perhaps a few tweets, here and there. Come on, we're only human.
Back to the issue at hand, however: In the entire history of the series, there may not have been as spectacular a sequence as the challenge-ending focus on Kalabaw's final pot. First, Jeff Kent's initial shot with the wrecking ball lightly grazes the side of the pot, knocking it over. For a second, the pot rocks atop its post, threatening to fall, and thereby kill Matsing's desperate attempt at survival. But just as the intact pot settles back into position, and the breath from the audience's collective exhale causes an ember of hope for an underdog victory to glow afresh, there comes the wrecking ball back into the frame, the combined forces of gravity, fate, and rotational torsion tugging it downward into an inescapable collision with the pot. The ceramic shatters, sending its beans cascading down, like so many now-extinguished hopes of Matsing survival. A crushing defeat for Matsing, encapsulated in a few brief frames.
Beyond even this one, perfect shot, this was a superb overall Survivor challenge: the initial carrying of the pots combined strength, agility, balance, and endurance. When mixed in with mud, smashing things, and a potential equalizer at the end that required both skill and a bit of luck, it's exactly what we'd want out of Survivor. Even more impressively, this was a challenge that could have been done by one, two, or three contestants per tribe, or perhaps even more.
All in all, "Swing Break" was a true Beasty of a challenge. Great planning and great execution on the challenge crew's part. Somewhat less great results for the ragtag band of fighters in Matsing, but... those are the breaks.
We admit it, we were tempted to throw another strategy award Denise's way. After all, with her tribe down to three people at the last tribal council, at least two of whom were guaranteed to receive votes, Denise emerged from the vote once again completely untouched. It's a testament to her social mastery that when it came down to a do-or-die vote, both Malcolm and Russell saw her as the person they could truly trust.
And yet it seems somehow inappropriate to continue rewarding the Tribe That Failed. So we're forced instead to recognize Peter "Pete" Yurkowski, the Sith Lord in the pink hoodie. To be honest, his underhanded tactics for sowing dissension within Tandang ("hiding" the idol clue in plain sight, under someone's bag) are absolutely the kind of game we imagine we'd play ourselves, mainly because it doesn't require actually interacting with other people. And it's mean.
Overall, though, was this a smart move? In the short term, creating intra-tribal chaos is an amusing way to pass the time in between the challenges you always end up winning. In the long-term, though, dividing and conquering your own tribe right before an imminent merge seems like something that would only make sense to Russell Hantz. Yes, by all means, let's let the other tribe with huge numbers be the one that's unified and solid! (In retrospect, maybe we should revisit that Denise option again.)
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Russell Swan