Despite an initially interesting reward/immunity challenge, another solid Houdini impersonation by Vytas, and the threat of an impending merge, this episode seemed to be more an effort by the editors to whip together something passable than an hour that impressed with its intrinsic drama. The Kat/Hayden question of swapping out was at times touching, but also laden with a little more emphasis than really seemed necessary. And Vytas's again escaping the axe surprised almost nobody, since there's no way the editors would have spent this much time building up his "rivalry" with Aras, only to have that storyline snuffed the day before the merge. So while the middle of the episode had some legitimately entertaining stuff, it was bookended by what seemed an awful lot like fluff. So, in "Midway mayday?" we deliver our mid-season report card.
With the close of Episode 7, we are exactly halfway through this 14-episode season. As such, we'll eschew our weekly in-depth analysis of the episode that aired (except maybe in the vidcap gallery captions), in favor of a zoom out to the pre-merge as a whole. Which is (tl;dr version): Well done, Survivor. In direct contrast to Caramoan's pre-merge sounding a near death knell for the series, Blood vs. Water's opening half has been a triumph. And it's done so despite the vituperous pre-season objections of people like us. So, uh... shows what we know.
The Blood vs. Water twist
Despite some questionable casting decisions, this seemed like the most likely twist to pay off, and it has done so, handsomely. Think of the many additional strategic layers that having split pairs of loved ones playing against each other has added, just in the first few episodes: (1) Voting out someone to punish their loved one on the other tribe; (2) voting out someone to try to bait their loved one into swapping out at Redemption Island; (3) inducing people who no longer have active loved ones to band together, to target remaining pairs; (4) hoping the other tribe votes out your ally's loved one, to remove any doubts of their loyalty, and so on. Had the season gone differently, there could also have been competing groups of pairs angling to scoop up a small number of straggler solo players at the merge. There's still room for more strategic exploration here, so we're not upset at all that Jeff Probst seems intent on repeating this theme in the Survivor 29/30 timeframe. Bring it on.
Pre-merge Redemption Island duels: Yay!
This has been the biggest surprise of the season. All-Stars already proved that splitting up loved ones had dramatic potential. Nothing in the two previous iterations of RI suggested it could be anything more than a pathetic eyesore. But to our extreme surprise, RI has worked this season. Or at least it has pre-merge. Where it's worked has been the clever choices to (1) bring both tribes together to watch the duels, and (2) allow wholesale airing of grievances by the people already booted. In this situation, where loved ones were playing on separate tribes, this provided built-in drama, in both the shock of seeing a loved one voted out of the other tribe, and the chance for the bootee AND (sometimes) their loved one to react to this vote. All of this together gave the show a massive dramatic boost, especially in the early episodes when most of the pairs were still active.
Post-merge Redemption Island duels: Yikes!
What worries us going forward, however, is that the slim chance of potential benefits to keeping Redemption Island around post-merge are hugely outweighed by its pre-existing, certain, glaring drawbacks. To be fair, we don't know for sure that RI will be there post-merge, but there's no reason to believe it won't be. In fact, famous historic re-inaccurator Jeff Probst, despite claiming to Dalton Ross that "the player who returns to the game often dictates which way the game will tilt" (which has never, ever happened), goes on to say that person might get "a quick vote out and sent right back from where they came." (As, we should point out, has actually happened every single time.)
This is extremely disappointing, because all of the reasons RI has worked to this point will essentially become moot post-merge. There will be no straining to see who was voted out last night: everyone there was present and/or involved when it happened. There will be no need for back-and-forth bickering between the attendees and the duelers: almost everyone present was in on whatever went down. There should be precious little Worst of all, the fundamental unfairness of jury-phase RI remains intact: it's a place where a Matt Elrod or an Ozzy gets free reign to pander to jurors as they pass through, while keeping their own hands clean, and never having to actually play Survivor.
Swapping out for loved ones at RI
This has also paid substantial dividends, despite our early misgivings. And not just because it tricked Rupert into taking himself out of the game before it started. (Which, in retrospect, was the only time this twist worked as intended, and then, didn't even take place at Redemption Arena.) Where it's been particularly and surprisingly effective is in making it that much more painful for contestants to see that their loved ones have been voted out. Just moments after that initial shock, they're then forced to decide whether or not to swap out. And in some cases, making the strategically correct but emotionally wrenching decision of not opting to leave the game and play duels on RI has continued to wreak psychological havoc, long after the dust of that first avoided duel has settled.
But this is also another arena in which post-merge RI will probably fall flat, since mathematically, it's likely to end soon. Of the 10 people still active, only two pairs remain (with a potential third in Laura M/Ciera). Maybe the show will get lucky, and half of both Vytas/Aras and Katie/Tina will remain in the game, while their loved one battles to remain alive on RI, right up until the finale. But chances are that won't happen, and instead, the bleachers will house a slouching horde of disinterested spectators, forced to watch their non-loved ones participate in crappy three-person duels.
Hidden idol clues at RI
This is the one area in which the creative team whiffed. At first, the Culpepper-led drive to burn every hidden idol clue was cute. But on the third go, it became tiresome, and with now four times and counting, there's little hope the social dynamics that enabled it will change any time soon. Maybe going forward, with the people booted now knowing who else is at risk in the (single) merged tribe, someone will actually accept the clue and find an idol. But it seems likely we're due for a few more episodes of pointless pyromania first.
All in all, this has been one of the most compelling pre-merge half-seasons in a while, rivaling even Philippines. We're still a bit apprehensive about how long the formula will work, as we have very few pairs left, raising the risk of this being just standard Survivor with Redemption Island crammed into it. But there's at least hope.
This Kat at least has two lives
Kat pitches a new reality game show: Who Wants To Date Someone Who Was Out Before the Merge?
Try as he might, John cannot escape this conversation
As silly as Kat's fears of losing Hayden over her early boot may seem, they were apparently real
The previously unseen Fake Hike to Redemption Arena ritual
Sorry, Hayden. Oh, and also you, Ciera. And Candice, wherever you are.
Hold me-ow? (Ed. note: We are very sorry.)
Hayden bravely remains on a step to avoid actually standing in Redemption Arena, which is a known source of cooties.
Aw. Somehow, we feel partly at fault.
Think, dude. Think. How are we going to talk Kat into not swapping out?
We presume Kat went on an extended Shakespearean soliloquy here, which was trimmed to make room for a hilarious ad for The Millers.
Wait, did Hayden just say he cares more about Kat than this game?
Uh... to the extent that there's no way I'm blowing up a prime spot to do this duel. Yes?
See? I feel really bad about this.
Survivors (and Kat) ready?
Bags chopped down, puzzles begin
Definitive proof that a Kat can do better on this puzzle than a Fox
A few seconds in, John is almost done.
Whew, almost broke a sweat
Right piece, inches away, attempt #1: So close.
Attempt #2: Why must you taunt me so, smooth-piece-with-a-point?
Meanwhile, Laura is close to done.
Attempt #3: D'oh!
Laura's done. Sadly, the smooth-piece-with-a-point was doomed never to find its place
We are happy to report that Kat successfully placed the buff in the fire.
The clue? Eh, screw it. You jerks will just burn it anyway. You pick, Probst.
I hope I'm convincing you that I'm grateful for this clue I'm about to burn
No, seriously, Kat. The duel is over. Everyone has gone back to camp. You can stop now.
Tyson: That's rough. I've been there, bro. Which was thanks to you, by the way.
The crew hooked me up with this 'Kat's Boyfriend' tattoo for my lower forearm. I hope she likes it
Is my #coconutbandit hashtag chyron back down there yet? No? Dang.
The king stands alone. Then fruitlessly tries to recruit fellow meditators.
The king sits alone. Apart from the camera crew on the ground and the helicopter circling him.
Come on, editors. He's visualizing Jeff Probst. Surely if you can splice Russell Hantz into South Pacific, you put a little effort in here?
Meditate it up, fuzzball.
With Kat out of the game, Hayden resumes his quest for invisibility.
Ha ha, don't be silly. I'm the lone woman on a tribe of dudes. I'm the invisible one.
Don't fight, kids. You're all invisible to me.
Since Vytas is Laura B's substitute Rupert, she has requested that we caption this 'Roar.'
Good morning! Have you made me any grandbabies yet?
I'm not sure how grandbabies are made nowadays, but I'm pretty sure it involves clubs and caves
Katie contemplates warning Vytas about the hawk that's about to swoop in for the kill. Thinks better of it, remains silent.
Vytas compliments his own efforts at humility
Galang tests the maximum capacity of the hammock. Apparently 127 combined years is okay.
Laura B emerges from Rupert's shadow, finds herself still under Tina's thumb
Team Tinatie reads the Galang treemail
Fatigue, you say? This is great news for Galang!
A physical challenge? With these tribes? That seems fair.
What's this 'we' thing you're talking about, Monica?
All this talk of winning has left Laura B emotional. Especially if there's an America's Tribal Council this season.
Look! They finally did another interview with me, apart from the day 1 one, and the one last week where I talked about Vytas=Rupert!
Come on, Probst. We could do this with our legs chained together. Oh, the other tribe gets that, too? Cool.
A Southern feast!?! And all we have to do is win?!!? Oh, wait...
Well, let's get this over with.
Whoa, forced conflict in getting bags? This is actually kind of cool.
Not sure holding the other tribe up really accomplishes much, but go for it.
Oh, yay. Untying and retying. That's always fun to watch.
And... bolos? Can we retroactively make this a DIY challenge?
Swooping in for the kill...
Wait for it...
Ah. There it is.
So sorry, Laura B. I did my best to avoid booting you.
Wait, who let Lil back on the show? #lilface
This shot is totally staged, but also great. Especially since it looks like they're racing to eat corn on the cob. Who does that?
I got so lucky with the swap! Except for losing whatshername... oh yeah, Kat.
Really, Kat. If it doesn't fit, you must, uh... quit. Go home.
You guys, the optimal strategy is to let me eat all of this, that way you'll have less diarrhea.
Still plenty of lukewarm corn on the cob left, guys. Anyone?
I think I speak for all us in saying: Good news, Vytas. We're voting you out tonight!
Gracious! The ground has suddenly become incredibly interesting to stare at!
I would just like to point out that, in having a penis, you're ineligible for our alliance. Those are the breaks. But you're still a great guy! #nooffensebenaffleck
In other news, Monica has picked a zombie costume for Halloween
Sometimes I feel like my skills are being wasted over here
Psst, you guys: there's another couple still left in the game
It would be smarter to vote off Vytas here, but SOMEONE keeps talking about grandbabies
The depleted Galang tribe, about to get depleted-er
Vytas's Tribal Council speeches: sure to bring smiles to any audience
Laura B's Tribal speeches: May induce drowsiness. Avoid operating heavy machinery.
Sweet, now Laura M and I can discuss the pain of being snuffed.
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Kat Edorsson