This episode, foreshadowed since Episode 2, hyped by Jeff Probst since Episode 3, seemed like it was destined to be innocuous enough at first. Probst claimed it would be a "great episode." Instead, it was just embarrassing. A microcosm of everything that is wrong with this show in its current form: exploitative, stagey, cheap, and ultimately empty. This episode was not funny, not entertaining, and generally just awful to watch. Survivor used to be better than this. Just last season, even. But apparently CBS wants to become TLC. Sad.
"You're on the radio going... oh my God, this is great! Great Episode 5! Yeah, you're never gonna... intervene when somebody burns [the camp] down? If we were going to intervene, it would be to give them kerosene!"
- A giddy, smiling Jeff Probst, 2/28/13 (nine months after the events of this episode happened, two weeks before they aired).
The number five will come up a lot here. "Great Episode 5!" Five months between Probst goading the South Pacific reunion audience to cheer for his brilliant idea of a "Russell vs. Brandon" season, after Russell spent the entire season (and much of the reunion) criticizing his nephew. Fifth appearance on Survivor by a Hantz family member in the last eight seasons.
It's important when thinking about how this episode played out to look at Jeff Probst's multiple roles in it: As executive producer, he's running the show - making creative decisions about the season's structure, having a say in casting, and directing the flow of the game as it happens. He's also the show's public face, hyping this season, even during the airing of the previous one (Philippines, which, again, was very good), as "...the result was fantastic. It really worked." Most conspicuously, he's also the host, who gets to be on camera and interact with the contestants whenever needed. And as we saw in this episode, sometimes that Host gets to intervene in the "created reality" the Executive Producer sets in motion.
Quite simply, this didn't have to happen. Brandon had all of five months to recover from the airing of South Pacific before heading back out to film Caramoan. Again, five months. "Too soon" seems a bit of an understatement. He clearly struggled throughout his first season: trying to balance the expectations of underhanded gameplay the "Hantz family name" brings, versus his more virtuous instincts of acting as a tribe provider and setting a positive example for his children as a Christian man. He cried repeatedly at Tribal Council, was easily manipulated by Coach and Albert, and was unable to keep his alliance's plans secret. He was 19, seemed emotionally unstable, was a loose cannon, and probably shouldn't have been there in the first place. Yet, despite all his flaws in the actual gameplay of Survivor, he was well-liked by his castmates.
While South Pacific was airing, Brandon also endured a torrent of ridicule from viewers for his poor performance on the show, most notably from his uncle, Russell Hantz. All of this culminated in a showdown at the finale and reunion show, which aired December 18, 2011. To whom did Jeff Probst turn during the reunion show, providing a platform in the audience for someone to further excoriate Brandon? Yup, Russell Hantz. Five months later, in May, 2012, Brandon is out playing Survivor again, promising to do things "Hantz style." Yeah, there's no way anyone could have seen this coming.
Speaking of which, even the sordid acts of this episode -- the food destruction, the verbal assaults -- weren't exactly spontaneous. As shown in Episode 2, Brandon had been threatening to wreak his vengeance on Bikal for voting out Francesca since the night of Day 3. That he actually held off until Day 13 is something of a surprise. Or maybe it's that he simply dumped the rice and beans, rather than peeing in them. Furthermore, Probst clearly knew Brandon's in-camp food-tossing tantrum had already happened (what he said above about hearing it "on the radio), before giving him another opportunity to publicly scream at Phillip and the rest of his tribe at the "immunity challenge." You know, in case the cameras hadn't gotten enough of the conflict on tape in-camp.
So has Probst apologized for his role any of this? Nope. His only statement thus far has been to claim absolute astonishment that Brandon would do something like this. "He was great in our pre-game interviews!" Well, that and Probst did also make that "kerosene" quote at the top.
Every time a critic/blogger claims Probst "deserves an Emmy for the way he handled" this incident, an angel gets its wings torn off. That sentiment was warranted in Redemption Island, when Probst successfully aired, explored, and defused Phillip's accusations of racism, because it was a real and spontaneous conflict, not to mention one that happened to touch on deep, culturally relevant problems.
This, however, was a manufactured event: one part mixing combustible personalities and hoping for "fantastic" results that "really worked," one part a young adult bowing to family pressures and acting up for the cameras (no doubt egged on by producers asking if it was "in the blood?"), one part a troubled kid with a history of rage issues reaching the breaking point, exactly as expected. Probst the Executive Producer stacked the kindling, threw on a few logs for fuel, then doused the entire fire pit with the aforementioned kerosene. Shockingly, in the extreme environment of another Survivor season, a fire was lit. Then Probst the Host bravely stepped in to act as the heroic firefighter, putting it out. The extended monologue Brandon was afforded did not provide a forum for perceptions of racism, or any of the other myriad cultural forces underpinning societal conflict, which the "sixteen strangers from all walks of life" original conceit of the show still occasionally illuminates. But it did touch on the Hantz family playing villains on reality TV.
That's not great reality television hosting, rising to meet the demands of an stochastic altercation. That's attempted arson.
Instead of listening to Probst, look to Erik's and Dawn's reactions to the events of the episode. Those were honest, compassionate, and humane. And they also remind us that there's still a game going on, which will play out over the following weeks. Hopefully the remainder of this season will be far less wretched than this episode. It has nowhere to go but up.
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Brandon Hantz