Survivor's editors now seem to have this season's Trolly award firmly in their grasp. They were competing against themselves this week, drawing attention to their own gameplay in two ways: (1) Investing an inordinate amount of narrative time in two players (Lisa and Mike Skupin) who not only have barely been playing Survivor (apart from the challenges), but in Lisa's case, played for part of the last episode, then spent most of this episode actively disavowing any intention of ever playing it again in the future. (2) Not only that, but the narrative arc of the episode, including the core scene of Penner actually addressing the construction of the season storyline, gave the completely erroneous impression that, in the end, Lisa chose to play, and sent Artis (and his unappreciative alliancemates Pete and Abi) packing. This strongly implied conclusion came crashing to the ground only when you read the footnotes at the end (the flashing of the votes as Artis gave his final words, showing that Skupin, not Lisa, was the Tandang who voted against Artis).
To be clear, the fault here is not with Skupin and Lisa themselves, but with editing's overemphasis of them. They seem like nice people, they're both clearly longtime Survivor fans, they've been solidly rootable underdogs most of the season. That said, they just don't seem to be controlling the game in any way, at least not to a degree that you'd expect, given their amount of airtime. So far, perhaps Lisa's most illustrative soundbite this season came during the negotiated stalemate reward challenge ("Bog Roll," Ep6), when Tandang was deciding whether to continue or accept Kalabaw's rice. Lisa's vote was boldly announced: "I'm with the majority." (She then promptly criticized the majority's decision to end the challenge.) For Skupin, his Ep1 confessional in which he laid out his plan to try to fly under the radar as much as possible, and "go with the flow" more, seems to still ring true. Up until this episode, both have largely been out of the loop in Tandang decison making, and have maintained a (mutually) disdainful distance from Pete and his plotting, while still loyally following along when it comes time to vote. Clear eyes, full hearts, hands ritually washed.
But after last week's episode, Lisa was suddenly conflicted: she'd broken a promise to Malcolm (to keep quiet about his hidden idol) in order to save Skupin, who had become PEte's target of choice once Penner won immunity. Worse yet, she'd even entertained the idea of voting against Pete. But in the end, she stuck with her original tribe, and Skupin was saved. Partial success! Loyalty maintained! Yet instead of a celebratory scene, most of this week's episode focuses on Lisa being wracked by guilt and regret for being so duplicitous. And by "focuses," we mean scene after scene of tearful Lisa getting talk therapy from Penner, hugs, confessionals about situational ethics, Tribal Council speeches about "This game is bigger than me" (which is true, since there are 17 other contestants, some of whom are even shown occasionally), and so on. But at least it all pays off at the end with... Lisa continuing to stick with her original alliance. Never before has so much attention been paid to so little progress*. It's the hero's journey, in which the hero never actually sets forth.
Not to belabor the point, but what was cut to make room for this episode-long red herring? Malcolm had just (dis)played a hidden immunity idol at the previous Tribal Council. One he had managed to convince his bosom Team24 alliancemate and friend, Pete, that he did not have. Come on people, Pete looked into Malcolm's soul! So... there should have been some pretty spectacular fallout from this cataclysmic betrayal, right? If there was any, it wasn't shown. Perhaps Pete and Malcolm spent the entire three days just staring in the opposite direction, pretending the other no longer existed. Who knows?
But good news, everybody! We can now be pretty sure that Lisa was a former teen actor. Because she apparently wouldn't lie about that, right?
*Less-smarmy footnote: We hold out faint hope that this story is actually a two-episode arc, and that the new majority five were thinking one Tribal Council ahead, and will still need Lisa's vote in order to flush out Abi-Maria's idol (three votes for Abi, three for Pete).
You've got to feel for Artis a bit here. Going into this episode, he was seemingly in the power alliance. Sure, he'd barely been seen (except to badmouth Skupin), but judging from his final words, this was because editing needed him to be unlikeable, as part of the alliance with Abi-Maria and Pete, so they just tossed every scene in which he wasn't scowling, leaving them very little to show on TV.
Just how ignored was Artis? According to this thread at Sucks (by ZombieLinda's count), Artis had a total of just eight confessionals over the entire nine episodes in which he appeared. That as many as Lisa had just this episode. So the moral is: if you're going to apply 15+ times to be on Survivor, make sure you've previously been a famous teen actor beforehand, if you want to be shown.
While the past two episodes have featured one (or both) returnees winning reward and immunity, it's been hard for the newbies to get their camera time through challenge dominance. (Honest question: are Malcolm and Denise sandbagging these a bit, to allow the returnees to mess up Tandang's plans by winning immunity?) Nonetheless, one person has been a consistent force in the challenges: Pete.
He hasn't won a single one yet, but he's been a late contender in all of the individual immunities, narrowly missing in all three tries. Which raises an obvious hurdle for the patchwork Kalabaw+Matsing+Skupin alliance's plans moving forward: If Pete wins individual immunity next time, and Abi-Maria still has her idol, who will they target? Lisa? Obviously, even though he has yet to win, Pete has established himself as a threat to do so, making him the new "dead man walking." Unless he can win immunity, of course, or talk Abi into giving up her idol.
We changed our minds several times about this award this week. Clearly, Penner dominated this episode, edit-wise. His scene with Lisa, getting to the root of her wanting to be liked, was an amazing performance (by Penner), even in spite of all the tears and hugging. He almost single-handedly won the reward challenge for his team, by proactively digging up the remaining ball bags ahead of time. Then he was the great, or at least "Normal," entertainer as the winning team visited the village for the reward. Not to mention that he was front and center at Tribal Council, adopting a serene Jedi pose as the votes piled up around him, yet still surviving the onslaught.
Penner comes across as completely sincere in his interactions with Lisa, and he could well be. What's impressive, however, is that he prefaced the scene by stating in general terms that he had to turn Lisa and Skupin to his side by targeting their sense of honor. So he was knowingly manipulating Lisa, while not appearing to do so. That's an enormous leap from his first-episode performance, in which he appeared to selfishly and short-sightedly focus on finding the hidden idol, at the expense of establishing personal connections with his tribe. From an also-Hantz to the pretty much the exact opposite.
But all the same, it seems like Denise had the better strategic episode. Every one of the ex-Kalabaws and ex-Matsings knew the numbers were against them, unless someone flipped. The focus of the episode was on Penner's attempt to sway Lisa, and the end result of all that effort was that he failed. In contrast, Denise was shown hatching the plan (with Carter and Malcolm) to target Artis, because he seemed the least likely to benefit from any Abi-Maria-based idol largesse. This ended up working flawlessly, and Denise voted out her 7th person so far this game.
True, this may be more of a tactics-vs-strategy argument. Denise may have won the episode, but Penner's collective performance this episode elevated him from "dead man walking" to a highly plausible candidate for the overall winner. And also, someone was successful in getting Skupin to flip, even if editing hid this negotiation (probably to generate Tribal Council suspense). That person seems highly likely to be Penner, who's been shown multiple times since the merge trying to get Skupin on board. Skupin's anti-Artis vote ended up saving one Jonathan Penner, and handed him seeming control of the game. Advantage: Penner, who does indeed win this week's Slitty. (Sorry, Denise.)
Then again, can we really award Penner the ultimate strategy prize, after seeing Carter (Carter!) having to lay out the math of the previous episode's vote to him? Carter! Sigh. Yes, we can.
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Artis Silvester