Despite the bait-and-switch from the preview's overhyping of Woo falling out of a tree and Tony's spyshack finally amounting to something, this was a surprisingly solid episode, especially for an even-numbered post-merge boot. Jefra managed to flip, then flip back again, all within a single episode. Yes, the prior alliances held at Tribal, but Tony's idol fake-out and Spencer's idol misplay made it interesting, at least. But mostly, we're excited that with seven people left, it's still not obvious who will win, and that there are multiple contestants remaining who conceivably could. Because of this, we'll look a bit more in-depth at who we see as the current winner favorites.
Before we begin looking at who's left, a few words about the reward challenge. First: Why did the boats (still) have Aparri and Solana tribe markings on them? They were never used in a tribal challenge until this point (although they're probably the same boats used in the opening Blood vs. Water challenge, since re-painted). Secondly, it seemed to take a long time for the contestants to solve the puzzle, which seems partly due to the confusing way it was set up: The paddles had different letters on both sides, so that, when filmed from the back (as at the top of the page), the solution would appear on the back of the paddles as it reads (in the reverse direction) on the side the contestants are looking at. So the paddles had markings on them (yellow or black stripes just below the blade, in the orange team's case) that showed which side the contestants were viewing. It didn't matter which side they picked, as long as all the paddles were showing the same side. But that was still too confusing for Team Orange/Fake Aparri, which had a mishmash of both sides facing forward (above). We really liked the combination of physical strength, teamwork, and mental acuity required in this challenge, especially compared to the excessively languid immunity challenges, but it seemed like production may have made this unnecessarily complicated, just to make filming more easy for themselves.
Tony! Tony! Tony?
Overall, we're thrilled that Tony is on this season. Sure, there are flaws. Most notably: we spent another episode, title and all, on his #spyshack, which again ended up being a story that didn't go anywhere (like the time I caught the ferry over to Shelbyville...). The knowledge he gained from spying on Trish and Jefra ended up having no impact on how he or his alliance voted. If anything, it could have driven a wedge between them, but luckily it didn't. While the spy shack certainly could have been useful, it wasn't. And as such, it evoked unfortunate flashbacks to some of the extraneous, over-the-top filler that recent players like Phillip Sheppard have used to construct elaborate shrines to themselves in the edit. And we're not surprised that some of Tony's less-exuberant castmates seem a bit perturbed at his scene-chewing monopolization of screen time. Despite that, however, we're inclined to think Tony actually did build the spyshack to advance himself in the game, and as such, it's hard to second-guess his actions when Tony is playing this game full-tilt, with every ounce of energy he has (and he seems to have quite a bit). He's not just turning it on when the cameras are around, and that relentless pursuit of activeness has paid off handsomely at times.
Some players are brilliant at masterminding long-term, high-yield strategies; others thrive in the moment. If you need someone who can adapt to changing circumstances right this second, or come up with a new move on the fly, Tony is probably in the top tier of Survivor players, ever. He combines his knowledge of the show's history with his own creative gameplay to create new tactical uses for otherwise worthless idol clues (as with targeting Jeremiah with one during the raid), or found idols (bluffing Spencer during this week's Tribal). It may not work perfectly, but it's exciting to watch. Where Tony may fall short in the end, however, is with the more slow-tempo, subtle stuff, particularly his social game. From the start, he's been isolating himself from his tribe: making spyshacks, hunting for idols, and so forth. His thirst for the big move led him to alienate three members of his own alliance in order to execute the LJ boot. Kass and Trish understood his (valid) reasoning after he explained it, but Jefra clearly didn't. That's a problem. He also seems to underestimate the threats some of the women in the game present to his chances. Tasha may be the strongest all-around player at this point, but Tony looks across at her alliance, and sees Spencer and Jeremiah as his prime opponents. Closer to home, Trish seems to be quietly putting the pieces in place to secure a solid social game victory. In theory, super-powered Tony ought now be the favorite to win, but these dangling loose ends create a sizeable amount of reasonable doubt.
Trish vs. Tony: Advantage Tony?
They've been together for the entire game, and as we've noted before, throughout the season, there's been a subtle battle for strategic supremacy between Trish and Tony. In the scene where the losing RC team returns to camp, Tony is fretting about Jefra being away with the opposing alliance, and wants to talk strategy with the group, but Trish instead wants to gather papayas. For all the great moves Trish has made thus far (ousting Cliff by recruiting LJ, flipping Kass at the merge to boot Sarah), it's now difficult to imagine her winning after that. For Trish's chosen path, the end result was Woo falling out of a tree. In contrast, as Tony predicted, Spencer, Tasha, and Jeremiah successfully (albeit temporarily) recruited Jefra to their side. Advantage solidly Tony. Right?
Trish vs. Tony: Advantage Trish?
Well... maybe. In the end, Jefra returned to her previous alliance because of her strong social ties to Trish, then Trish further facilitated mending the distrust between Tony and Jefra (which, obviously, Tony caused himself, by blindsiding LJ). If anything, being out of the loop on the LJ boot has worked wonders for Trish, because she's now Jefra's closest ally and confidante. And should she and Tony reach the finals together, is LJ more likely to reward the friend who saved him post-switch, or the guy who stabbed him in the back? Furthermore, Woo totally absolved her of any blame for "busting my ass" while collecting papayas. As much as Trish trusts Tony, others are now saying openly that they don't like him (Jefra and Kass find him annoying; the opposing alliance all want him out immediately). In contrast, everyone seems to like Trish, even though she's not racing around the forest, finding idols, and grousing about having to play the game alone. Or perhaps because she's not.
Poor, poor Spencer
Spencer appears to remain the tragic hero of this season (well, at least since LJ left). He's demonstrated a thorough understanding of optimal Survivor play. He says the right things, such as preparing to pick up the stragglers from the bottom of the other alliance in the aftermath of LJ's blindside. He does some of the right things, such as actually picking up that straggler, Jefra. But once again, it all blows up: Trish pulls Jefra back in, destroying his flimsy hope of at least going to rocks. He calmly but firmly tries to convince Jefra (at Tribal) that she really is on the bottom of her alliance, and she should join them, as should anyone else not named Tony, all to no avail. In a last-ditch effort, he intelligently plays his idol (at worst a 50-50 shot at working, with a 100% chance of his lasting one more Tribal), and it still fails when the votes fall on Jeremiah. Nothing continues to break in his favor. For all his youth, he's rapidly turning into Ol' Gil.
While the post-merge immunity challenges have been exclusively under-active affairs (standing still on a doghouse, standing still with wood on your head, standing still while dropping colored tiles into a slot, standing still while holding a ball on a plate), Tasha has excelled so far, with two first-place finishes and a second-place in the past three. Staying in one place appears to be her forte. While Tasha made solid efforts to mediate tribal disputes in Luzon and post-switch Aparri, it's odd we haven't seen more of a social/strategic game from her since Kass's flip. She was stood up by LJ, yes. But why haven't we seen her trying to repair her relationship with Kass, or trying to sway Jefra and Trish? With Jeremiah's departure, women now outnumber men, 4-3. What about a female alliance? Accountants may be great with numbers, but the only way to make yours grow is to subtract from the other side, and we've seen precious little of that from Tasha. Whether that's just because these scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor, or it's due to actual lack of movement by Tasha, either way it bodes poorly for her long-term chances.
Kass has stated that since her flip at the merge, she's now trying to build trust with her new alliance, and to avoid making waves. While doing so in this social game certainly makes sense, this has resulted in approximately zero screen time for the past two episodes. Yes, Kass has certainly removed the target from her back that the merge flip created, but it's difficult to see what she's done since then to build a winning resumé (mainly because she's not being shown). On the other hand, the next episode's title ("Chaos Is My Friend") offers hope for a Kass revival, even if it's Tony that says an approximation of that in the preview. But, you know... there's a long way to go.
Before we forget: The super-special idol formerly known as Tyler Perry
On the one hand, at least this idol is slightly less powerful than Yul's and Terry's - that one could be transferred to another person, as long as it was done before Tribal Council (an odd, drama-draining choice that never came to pass), whereas only Tony may use this one. But apart from that: groan. Conveniently omitted from Tony's delighted discovery reel was the important question: How long is this idol active? Can it protect him all the way through the final vote, or does it expire before then, like a regular idol? We'd assume it's just a regular idol except as specified, but it's hard to know for sure.
Either way, the main problem here is that there's now almost no chance that the minority alliance can successfully engineer a power shift. (Unless they do it with Tony in tow, which seems unlikely, because why would he anger potential jurors now?) It all but guarantees a boring Pagonging the rest of the way, which is quite disappointing in light of Tony's just having flipped on his alliance on the previous vote. This was not huge. He really didn't need this. But at least they didn't officially call it the Tyler Perry Idol. At least we have that. Also, if it is like a regular idol, we take comfort in the fact that all three played so far have had exactly zero impact on the vote.
And then there are Woo and Jefra
Both had their moments in this episode, with Woo providing the (painfully) comic relief, and Jefra the emotional core. While they seem like nice people, there's almost no indication that either player is likely to serve as anything more than a pawn in the endgame. They're accessories to the season's action, but are hardly the drivers. As with Jeremiah before them, we expect a low-key, almost confessional-free exit lies ahead of them, sometime in the near future.
Recaps and commentary
Exit Interviews - Jeremiah Wood