Between this season and Millennials vs. Gen X, the new Survivor trend appears to be having eight people left in the second-to-last episode, eliminating two there, then going from six down to three in the finale (over four days instead of the traditional three), with three immunity challenges and three Tribal Council boots.
That's a lot of action in a short amount of time. This schedule means there are five Tribal Councils in which someone gets voted out in a six-day span, from Day 33 through to Day 38. Then on Day 39, there's the Final Tribal Council, where the jury chooses the winner, obviously. This rapid-fire set of eliminations marks a huge departure from the more sedate days of seasons 1-7, where the boot from 8 down to 7 happened on Day 27 (Jenna Lewis in Borneo), not Day 33.
Production likes this new format, for several reasons:
*Ed. note: There is no actual scenario in which Troyzan wins this season. Sorry.
For the audience, the Final 6 finale format is actually pretty good. Sure, it can seem a bit rushed. But three challenges, three boots, and the jury vote fill out the two hours allotted to the finale far better than, say, The Australian Outback's dawdling arts-and-crafts project day, or the (always death) Rites of Passage staged stroll past extinguished torches.
No. Please, God, no.
Unfortunately, while overloading the final two episodes with contestants gives production much comfort, and hedges in favor of entertainment value for the viewers, there's one key group that it potentially hurts: the contestants. And potentially the game itself.
This episode ended with the Final 7 vote, going from seven to six players left. That's a key odd-numbered Tribal, and theoretically one person could completely upend the game by flipping to a different alliance. In The Amazon, for example, Rob Cesternino abandoned Heidi and Jenna's alliance at this point, to vote out Alex Bell. True, modern Survivor typically sports a dominant five-person alliance, and that's far more likely to be torpedoed at Final 9. But it's still a position in the game that's a prime opportunity to shake things up.
But if a surprise power shift at Final 7 does change the game (which, for some reason, we thought was admirable in this season), trying to recover from that is now a significantly larger hurdle than it used to be. As Vytas Baskauskas rightly noted after Blood vs. Water, changing people's minds is significantly more feasible when you have three days to maneuver than when you have just one day. (Fittingly, Vytas paid for his insolent deployment of reason on his next appearance by not being allowed to scramble at all between the IC loss and Tribal Council. Lesson learned: Never complain.)
Power shifts are fun to watch from the comfort of your couch. But if the structure of the game is now potentially hindering them, at least in the finale, is that a good thing, even if it means more action in the final episode? If the action is simply more challenges and another vote-off, we'd prefer the potential for actual strategic opportunities. Isn't there some way we could have both?
The other obvious casualty of the compressed schedule is that cramming all that action into a single episode can sometimes result in votes that are extremely difficult to follow. Which leads us to...
Cirie's Big Move: Blocked by production (and Sarah), mocked by editing
We really have to give credit to Cirie for trying to swing for the fences. Had her gambit worked as planned, she would have used Sarah's vote steal to prove to Sarah that Tai was plotting against her, and eliminate Tai and his idols in one fell swoop. Furthermore, as Ben pointed out, she came up with this plan to trick Tai in the middle of a confessional. You could see Cirie's strategic wheels churning, almost in real time. But it was not to be. All because because of one hyphenated, possibly misspelled word: "non-transferrable [sic.]"
Most of the credit for the way this turned out should go to Sarah. Michaela revealed in her interview with Josh Wigler that Sarah (having read the instructions), did not physically hand the advantage over to Cirie until right before Tribal, meaning Cirie did not have time to read it in detail. Presumably Cirie was under extreme time pressure to scan the advantage before leaving for Tribal, and if the first few lines were exactly what Sarah had described, it's understandable Cirie would just trust Sarah and move on. Clearly, Sarah worked the rules, both in the document itself and in the mechanism of how contestants are shuttled around, entirely to her own advantage. This move was on par with Tony giving Jeremiah the wrong tribe's (useless) idol clue in front of everyone in camp, during a camp raid. In Tony's case, Jeremiah looked suspicious in front of his tribe. In Sarah's case, Cirie looked foolish (and disloyal) in front of the jury. Without a doubt, a great play, but it's sad that Cirie was the victim, especially since its success hinged on the "non-tranferrable" line, about which even Probst was apparently unaware. (Read Ben Martell's column for a full argument about why this rule was dumb in the first place.)
This marks the second time in her last three seasons that Cirie's path to victory has been kneecapped late in the game by production decisions. To be fair, at least this piece of fine print was in writing on Day 25, when Sarah found the advantage. Given that production at least was partially responsible in making this happen (by putting the rule there in the first place), however, it's also disappointing that they later chose to make Cirie look as foolish as possible in the editing. It's a curious decision, especially since Sarah looks even better in the complete telling. Maybe because they can't show the Survivors being herded into a truck or boat to leave for Tribal Council?
Furthermore, again because of the compressed schedule, Cirie will now have limited opportunity to deal with the fallout of the F7 Tribal Council. Can she repair her trust with Sarah? With Tai? She's almost certainly not saving herself by winning immunity. Cirie finds herself now in an extremely tough spot, with just under 24 hours to fix everything. All because of one hyphenated word. Sigh.
Michaela's attempted move: Also mocked by editing?
The scene preceding the Andrea boot in which Michaela told Brad to go fishing also seemed to fall victim to trying to tell too much story in too little time. As presented: Michaela was hungry, wanted to eat fish, and asked/told Brad to catch some. With the bonus advantage that Brad would thus not be looking for idols. Watching in real time, it seemed like maybe there was some other level to it that was unexplained, because when she confronted him, Michaela appeared to be speaking in some kind of code, trying to save Brad. A code that Brad wasn't picking up on. Either way, Brad reacted angrily, and would have none of it.
After hearing Michaela's exit interview with Rob Cesternino, it's clear that something else really was going on. In trying to convince Brad to visibly fish/not look for idols, Michaela was trying to keep Brad around, because the target had already shifted to Andrea. But she couldn't tell him that directly, because Michaela still didn't want him finding an idol. And she did want fish, and was trying to hint that he might be able to save himself by fishing. That could have worked out well for all involved (except Andrea, obviously). Instead, it earned Michaela a mocking #GoFish hashtag, and was probably included as some sort of faux justification for her eventual boot at the end of the episode.
Clearly, Michaela could have been more diplomatic, or given extra hints when it became clear Brad wasn't following. As with Cirie's move, the editors had to know what was actually going on, and chose to underexplain in a way that made someone who isn't Brad or Sarah look bad, and left Brad's explanation that Michaela was a "diva" making "demands" as the interpretation of record. Oh well.
Looking forward to death: The game changes to 'over'
So here we stand at the precipice of the finale. Brad and Troyzan seem to be a tight pair, and Tai may have been convinced at the last Tribal to realign with them. Sarah is guaranteed a spot in the Final 5 due to the Legacy Advantage. Troyzan has an idol. Tai still has two, and may or may not be distributing them to the other men. The immunity challenge (shown in the end-of-episode preview, above) is an epic maze, which historically tends to favor someone young and athletic. (Sarah? Brad? Although Tai's marathon training may benefit him here.) Suffice it to say: Things look pretty bleak for Cirie.
Sarah's path to the end still seems a bit fraught. Perhaps her best bet at Final 5 is to convince Brad and Troyzan to divide
and conquer the remaining Kaoh Rong duo, sending either Tai or Aubry home, then regroup on the next vote, and try to eliminate either Brad or Troyzan. From the jury interview secret scenes, the jurors clearly seem to be waiting to give Sarah the million, but have doubts she'll actually reach the finals.
Most likely, Brad, Sarah, and someone else will get there, and the final Survivor morality play will be the jury weighing the relative virtues of the Neat Man vs. the Criminal. Zeke (the former Harvard debater) is already giddy in anticipation of giving a full-throated Erik Cardona speech on Sarah's behalf. But Brad's authenticity, and his unlikely path to the finals after his alliance's power was toppled with the Sierra boot, stands in stark contrast to Sarah's strategic backstabbing and advantage wielding. Sarah has irritated a number of jurors with her moves. Brad hasn't. It could be close.
It's probably not the ending everyone was hoping for when the season began. But it should be interesting to see how it turns out, nonetheless.
Other Game Changers Episode 13 recaps and analysis
Episode 13 exit interviews: Andrea Boehlke
Episode 13 exit interviews: Michaela Bradshaw
Episode 13 podcasts