This episode absolutely limped out of the gate, blowing a whopping six-and-a-half minutes on the Kass-Tony argument about whether Tony called Kass a "bitch" (he didn't, which almost everyone knew). It had the feel of a scene in dire need of trimming, of an SNL sketch unfortunately blown up to movie length, of a deleted scene that had to be reinserted at the last minute when a full day's worth of footage went missing (such as all of Day 32, which did not appear in the episode*). And just when you thought it was over, it came back again after the first commercial break.
Why was all this so unsatisfying? First, because the audience knew it was a bogus argument (Tony didn't actually say it), compounded because Kass didn't mind turning the screws on Tony to make him more paranoid, and then compounded further because Spencer and Tasha both (logically, but no less frustratingly) stated a willingness to just sit back and watch the fireworks. So it just kept going, and going, until its purported "climax," in which Tony stated he has the special idol. But this scene had already been shown in the previews, so it was a long, painful slog to a point we already knew was coming. There was no payoff. Not only that, but even that payoff swiftly crept back into the red: Tony didn't actually reveal the special idol, so the two people most threatened by it (Spencer and Tasha) remained skeptical about his having it throughout the episode. Not only that, but Tony ended up not playing either idol, AND Kass ended up voting with him. Way to punish the audience, editors.
*Note: From Tasha's exit interviews, it appears Day 32 was in the middle of a massive rainstorm, during which the contestants were unable to keep their fire going, so they didn't eat or drink for two days, and probably spent that entire day huddled in the shelter. Apparently that real-life survival stuff is less TV-worthy than pointless bickering.
Sandbags vs. puzzles
We enjoyed the concept of the reward challenge, which seemed like a direct response to fan complaints (mostly ours) that Caramoan's challenges had eschewed puzzle legs in favor of carnival games involving sandbag tossing. This one had sandbag tossing at puzzles (which were then re-built). We were a bit confused as to why these 25-piece puzzles seemed so difficult, when the contestants had been staring at them through the first half of the challenge, but we'll attribute that to general Day 31 mental lethargy. Still, we echo the growing chorus of complaints (RHAP, Know-It-Alls, Dom & Colin) about the overdependence on "random draw" team challenges. Going into the penultimate episode, there have been ZERO individual reward challenges this season, and we're unlikely to see one in the finale. Individual RCs force the winner to make tough strategic choices, about which people accompany them on reward, and who is left behind to complain/plot.
To be fair, we get that some of the more strategic-minded players were intentionally throwing RCs to avoid being put in this public decision-making position, and maybe production decided to go with team challenges to thwart that. Fine. But at least let strategy enter into it a tiny bit, by forcing the contestants to pick their teams. Whatever happened to Survivor's long-standing love affair with the schoolyard pick? Is Wanda Shirk now in charge of challenge design?
Showing Survivor interacting with -- or in this case, explicitly giving back to -- the host community at the filming location is always a welcome addition to the series. The "feast at a local village" gives a glimpse into local culture, although those visits always seem a bit off, with otherwise well-off Americans (competing for a million-dollar paycheck, no less) being treated as honored guests, being fed and entertained thanks to the combined efforts of subsistence-level locals. In contrast, giving educational supplies to schoolkids seems like a much more equitable cultural exchange. That Woo then stepped to center stage and put on a martial arts/basketball performance? All that much better.
Sure, Woo and Kass were probably initially excited that they finally got to go on a reward (Trish is still reward-less), but the interactions with the kids really made the visit work. Woo's irrepressible enthusiasm sparkled in this sequence, bringing a much-needed human heart to an otherwise somewhat dreary episode. That's what Survivor's all about, baby. (Yeah, we know, it's not. But we like it, anyway.)
Memories... faded, water-logged memories
We really liked the execution of the immunity challenge. It was a welcome departure from the almost completely immobile ICs thus far (unless you count pulling a single rope up from under the sand). This is a fairly athletic cast, and they've had to do far fewer strenuous activities than Dan Lembo or Scout Cloud Lee were ever expected to try. Forcing the contestants to run back to the (out-of-view) item tables before re-attempting the combination lock added an endurance element, and an additional layer of difficulty to what otherwise seemed pretty straightforward, apart from the all-but-uncountable bamboo pile.
Despite all that, it's a pity that this challenge in particular came after the contestants had just spent two days not eating or drinking water, because it clearly affected their ability to compete. But, you know... that's apparently the great return production gets for intentionally filming during typhoon season. Even if they can't be bothered to include the actual storm in the show itself.
The unfair case of the unflushable idol
As Rob Cesternino suggested on Know-It-Alls, it sure looked like Kass was trying to bait Tony into playing his idol at Tribal Council this week. The sad thing is, because Tony also had the special idol, there was exactly zero incentive for him to take that bait. This is doubly unfair, because not only does Tony have a superpowered, unbeatable idol, he's also the only person who knows its rules. Thus, the other contestants have no way of knowing how to play around it. They have every reason to believe it needs to be played when Probst says "If you have a hidden immunity idol, now is the time to play it." They also know for a fact that he has a regular hidden idol. From their vantage point, the correct play is to at least flush his regular idol by making Tony think people are voting against him. Kass did that. But because Tony had the special idol, he doesn't really care whether people vote against him or not, because the worst-case scenario is he receives votes, then cancels them out with the special idol, leaving his regular idol safely in his bag of tricks.
Had the non-Tony contestants known the special idol rules, they would have realized they needed to actually write his name down here, not just bluff that they're going to, in order to force him to play the special idol. He'd still be safe either way, but at least he'd only have one regular idol heading into the final five. So why wasn't everybody told how the special idol works, pre-season? How does this pass game-show rules muster? Tony had bulletproof power in this episode (and will again next episode), simply because the contestants are not playing on a level, fully informed playing field.
Idols galore, set to expire
Fortunately for fairness and balance, the next episode's vote is when both Tony's idols expire (h/t @ChannonSarah). He can use them (or not) next week, but then they're done. Because of this, Tony will be the kingmaker next episode, and the choices he makes may be the most critical ones this season, and could well decide who ends up winning.Tony has his special one for himself, one person will have the immunity necklace (which can theoretically still be transferred if Tony wins it, right?), and Tony can pass his regular hidden idol to another player. Tony can cement his alliance by protecting the right people here. But in doing so, Tony has to choose someone he can trust not to then turn on him at the next vote, and lead or join a 3-1 vote against him. So what should Tony do?
Probably Tony's ideal scenario is if Spencer wins immunity next episode, forcing Tony's remaining allies to take one of their own out. Assuming someone other than Spencer wins the following (final four) immunity, the remaining people will then have an easy vote against Spencer, which would protect the now idol-less Tony. So for the final five vote, Tony's best target is probably Kass. Even though she's likely the safest person to face the jury against, she's also an unreliable ally, and a considerable threat to lead a revolt at final four (as she almost did in this episode). But Woo also seemed willing to get on board with Spencer and Tasha this week, and Tony correctly detected Woo's post-reward lies... in other words, Woo did almost exactly what Jefra did the episode before she was booted. If Spencer wins immunity, Tony could potentially screw everything up for himself by protecting Trish, leaving Kass in as a goat, and targeting Woo. Targeting Woo also makes some intuitive sense, since Woo would a physical threat in the remaining ICs. But it's a far more difficult path to the end for Tony if Kass, Spencer, and Trish all survive the next episode.
If someone other than Spencer wins the final five immunity, then Spencer is the obvious best target. Leaving him in is too risky, since he can both win immunity all the way to the finals, AND potentially turn the others against Tony.
Recaps and commentary
Exit Interviews: Tasha Fox