Over and over again this season, we've been teased with the prospect of a better, more interesting style of gameplay being just around the corner, if only this event or that plan goes through. But it never does. Dale picks up a tchotchke in the premiere, and four episodes later, he has all but convinced Jon that it's a self-preserving hidden idol, but the whole scheme falls flat. Josh spends the pre-merge coddling Baylor as a key ally/goat, only to have her abandon him the second she reunites with Missy. Josh and Reed successfully convince Jon and Jaclyn to boot Jeremy at the merge, only to have it all unravel when Julie quits. Jeremy might later save himself, but instead is sent to Exile Island for two nights, where there's no idol and no way to convince anyone to stay with him. Reed concocts a foolproof scheme to blindside Jon, under cover of a vote split against Keith and Wes, but is completely undone by Keith's foolishness. Reed almost gets Jon on board to save himself again, but nothing comes of it because Jaclyn is mad at Jon for being dismissive. Natalie has everyone on board to blindside Jon, then he wins immunity.
This excruciating series of almost-plays is San Juan del Sur in a nutshell. It has constantly baited viewers with tantalizing glimpses of the season that could have been, the one the strategists almost pulled off, if only they could have overcome the inertia and the bewildering unpredictability of the non-players. As a season, it's the Little Engine that Couldn't. It puffs up the hill, confidently declaring "I think I can! I think I can!" Its efforts inspire hope and optimism in its loyal but long-suffering audience. This is it! The summit is in sight! All will soon be forgiven!
Then someone blurts out a poorly thought-through comment, spooking someone else into dropping an idol onto the track, and the entire train derails, killing everyone on board.
But wait! The Little Engine miraculously ends up back on the tracks again, at the bottom of the hill, and is giving it another go! Hope springs eternal!
Maybe we should just drop a rock on its skull such that red paint drips out of it, and be done with it.
Meh, two weeks to go. Too much work.
Counterpoint, Natalie: Something finally worked
There was, in these two hours, however, one tiny, glimmering moment of success: Natalie's move, to keep Keith around as a capable challenge foil for Jon, instead of Alec.
Perhaps it was oversold, in the edit's emphasis on the stunned reactions of Jon, Missy, et al. to the vote outcome. Yes, she failed to inflict any permanent damage on Jon, or Jaclyn, or Missy, or Baylor. Yes, when you think about it, she merely succeeded in voting out one of the two people already on the block. Maybe we, like the anthropomorphic engine of the title, just keep clinging to hope. Maybe our judgment is clouded from too many rocks dropping on our skulls. Maybe we just like liking things.
But at least Natalie did... something.
And yet, as with Reed last week, we suspect this is probably Natalie's high-water mark. Why? Well, obviously, four of the six remaining people are now pissed at her. But more ominously, the undertone of the reward sequence all but spells doom for Natalie, at least as edited. First, Natalie reveals to Missy that "Baylor and I have an idol!" Once the shrieking subsides, a calm Missy glowingly reflects in confessional that "my daughter found an idol!... She's really playing this game!" It would appear that someone's role in that idol discovery, possibly even that of the person holding the idol, has already become an afterthought. Then, one final bit of foreshadowing, as after Natalie firms up a final three alliance with Missy and Baylor, the reward segment closes with this exchange:
Natalie (to Baylor): "You wanna split a brownie?"
Baylor: "Yeah... no, I want a full one."
Yeah... nothing but bliss ahead for Natalie in that final three alliance.
Of exiles and idols
We've long criticized the fundamental unfairness of the ("classic") combination of solo Exile Island trips with hiding idols there. Only one person (at a time) has access to the idol, and the power majority can easily control that access (especially with a team-dominated "individual" RC, as was seen in the first hour). This completely subverts the modern conception of hidden idols, which are viewed as an equalizer, a lifeline to the powerless, assuming they're proactive enough to look for it. But here we are in post-merge San Juan del Sur, and solo Exile trips, sometimes with idols, are back. It's as if production, faced with the criticism of the pointlessness and potential-disaster-baiting of keeping Redemption Island around post-merge in the original Blood vs. Water, thought long and hard about "What could we do that would be worse?"
And lo, they found it, poorly concealed under a couple of obviously out-of-place rocks in their back catalog of twists (unless Tyler Perry suggested it first): Send one person to Exile Island and give them two days there to find an idol that requires minimal effort to find (as seen in this episode). Unless (as also happened in this episode, but was not seen, since it's unwatchable) they're one of the unlucky people sent there after the easy-to-find idol is easily found. Then, the exilee's choices for the two days are (1) stew in their own juices, or (2) make a good show of looking for an idol they're pretty sure isn't actually there.
Not surprisingly, Jon found the re-hidden idol using the first, exquisitely detailed clue, volunteering for the trip mere hours after saving himself (which was entirely his idea, just ask him) with his first idol. The rich get richer. And just as with Jeremy and Wes before him, the already-doomed Alec was further punished with two days of hopeless non-screentime, shortly before being booted. Hooray, twists.
Blood vs. Water - finally answered
So... one of our pet peeves this season has been the constant (mostly Probst-based) refrain of "this is truly Blood vs. Water!" in situations where, say, Baylor is battling Missy in a challenge. That's not "blood versus water," that's two people with a blood relationship competing against each other. If anything, it's blood vs. blood. (We'll ignore for the moment that both Rupert and Probst seem to believe that marriage is also a blood relationship.)
Relatedly, despite the first hour being consumed almost entirely by marginally compelling interpersonal drama (Missy and Baylor hate Reed, Jon's kingly airs are beginning to annoy everyone, Jaclyn won't talk to Jon), that did, finally provide an answer to the previously unexplored implicit question of the concept/title: "What's stronger in a pairs season of Survivor? Blood, or water?" When Reed called Baylor a brat, Missy's response was swift and decisive: Reed is clearly at fault, nothing Baylor does should ever be questioned. Blood is an extremely tight bond. (At least in the parent -> child direction; in the reverse, Baylor, to her credit, neglected to tell her mom about Natalie's idol for several days, and kept quiet about Natalie's plan to boot Alec over Keith.) In contrast, Jon and Jaclyn's argument briefly gave hope that the pair might even vote with different alliances that night at Tribal Council. As with all hopes for strategically interesting developments this season, that evaporated before it could actually happen. Even so, water bonds are clearly much more fragile (which is just basic chemistry, obviously).
This episode also addressed the larger question about "blood" ties vs. "water" ties as it applies to the game/show of Survivor: Which is better to have? The answer, of course, is: Neither. Both types of pairs are cringe-inducing impediments to both the storytelling and the gameplay of this show, especially here, in the endgame. If the concept is never repeated, we will not utter a peep of complaint. (Now that we have said that, we can no doubt look forward to both seasons 31 & 32 being Blood vs. Water seasons. Hurrah.)
Team reward challenge complaints - the swift retribution
Just last week, we complained about the excessive post-merge reliance on team reward challenges, which had devolved into an unexciting battle between seemingly random assortments of people we didn't get to see pick each other (usually poorly), followed by an eyeroll-inducing extravaganza of winners swapping themselves out for losers in order to curry favor with the already powerful. As luck would have it, our first reward challenge in these two episodes was individual! Finally!
We are very, very sorry we complained. You showed us all right, production! Of course, it's kind of your fault, for scheduling this particular individual challenge at final 8, where the majority alliance would clearly have just established power over the minority, and nobody was likely to flip. It's not terribly surprising that they colluded to shut out the stragglers entirely. Still, this was so wretchedly unwatchable that even Jeff Probst couldn't stomach getting through the second set of chops, once Keith had been eliminated. Which is a pity, since it was supposed to be the triumphant return of "Fallen Comrades," all but banished since SEG screwed it up in Africa. Was there some reason the second RC couldn't have been used first? (Apart from the obvious: It was visually identical to, and used the exact same stands as, the previous week's IC.)
All in all, a colossal failure, capped off by Alec's skull getting knocked off the stand by the rock, rather than breaking. Maybe that was the real reason Probst halted the action.
Stats corner: Keith and Baylor, now failing at failing.
Just last week, there was still hope that Keith and Baylor could build something out of nothing for this season, and at least set some records for futility. Keith was 1-for-6 in voting people out at Tribal Council, poised to tie Gervase's 1-for-7 Borneo mark, or perhaps (gasp!) even approach Eddie's nine times not voting for the person booted. Two unassailable fortresses were about to be breached!
Not so fast. Keith pulled off two straight vote-for-boots this episode, voting out Reed, then Alec. So now he's a pedestrian 3-for-8, and with only three (elimination) Tribals remaining has no numerical possibility of even coming close to Eddie's record.
Then there's Baylor, who's still stuck at 14 votes against, five short of Laura Morett's 19 in Blood vs. Water. Even the doomed Reed couldn't, on his way out the door, manage to cast a throwaway vote against the contestant he vilified as a "brat." Worse yet, Baylor's now being counted on by both the Jon/Jaclyn/Missy alliance and by Natalie, so she's unlikely to pick up any votes soon, unless she's a departing Keith's target of futility.
San Juan del Sur Episodes 11-12 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Reed Kelly
Exit interviews - Alec Christy
Podcasts - Episodes 11-12