After worrying last week that the three-tribe format had precipitated a decrease in action, this episode maintained the same tri-tribal configuration, but delivered more action than the two previous hours combined. Those hijinks included: A tribal swap, a reward challenge, a tour through the three newly reorganized tribes, the discovery of a hidden advantage, a Cole-fired dispersal of information about that advantage, a separate immunity challenge, Joe making a scene to draw votes, Devon receiving the "advantage," a fiery Tribal Council, Devon's blocking by Jessica, and Joe's successful idol play. Phew!
Not only that, but the swap was a complete (even though random) success—alliances were splintered, storylines converged, drama in places expected and unexpected. All capped off with a memorable, action-packed Tribal Council. The table has been reset; this season is finally starting to serve up some solid Survivor.
Couples united and broken - the swap
From a storytelling perspective, the swap served as a potent narrative crisis, separating multiple couples, power- and otherwise. The first three episodes had focused largely on building up these nascent relationships, primarily in pairs. One (Ali and Patrick) was severed at the last Tribal Council. This episode leapt directly into carving up the rest of them.
At the end of the last episode, we were left with three (or four) main power couples on the original tribes. Three of those pairs were separated with the shuffle to new tribes: Ben & Chrissy, JP & Ashley, and Ryan & Devon. (Perhaps importantly, Ben and Chrissy's parting received the sole immediate post-swap mention.) Ironically, the sole pair to remain intact post-swap was Cole and Jessica, and that duo spent the episode tearing itself apart, as Cole betrayed Jessica's confidence by telling every remaining non-Healer member of the new Yawa tribe about Jessica's advantage, and Jessica finally acknowledged that maybe Cole wasn't someone in whom she could place her trust. (In further irony, Cole stated in confessional that he had shopped around Jessica's advantage info in order to gain trust, and ended up doing the exact opposite, particularly with Lauren.)
The early episodes had also presented us with two antagonist pairs (Joe vs. Desi, Alan vs. Ashley), and when all ended on the new Levu tribe together, that combination seemed primed to spontaneously combust in a fashion of which reality producers usually could only dream. And, more or less, they did. Except... the previously combative couples both worked together out of necessity, and the only real fireworks were between Alan and Joe.
Finally, there was also the three-episodes-later payoff from the premiere's single-use Super Idol twist. Ryan and Chrissy, united across tribal lines by that Super Idol gift, finally had the opportunity to greet each other and connect over their mutual love of idols, Survivor, and... New Jersey. Overall, this episode demonstrated conservation of coupledom: Several couples separate, several more are formed. (And then one was permanently torn asunder at Tribal, alas.)
Advantage-geddon no more, or advantage-geddon all the time?
The yin and yang of expiration-date advantages was on full display in this episode. Yes, single-episode, must-use advantages are a major improvement over the previous incarnation, where numerous advantages accumulate that remain active until the finale, leading to the Game Changers final 6 "Advantagegeddon," where idols and Legacy Advantages that had been hoarded throughout the game amassed, piled one on top of the other, ultimately to collapse and engulf Cirie's fourth and perhaps final chance at a win, in one of Survivor's greatest acts of futility. Having advantages expire in the same episode is definitely a step up from that. But the hidden peril of forced advantage use is that it may still end up being too much. Especially by being hidden, and adding peril. Here, nothing really happened as a result of the advantage play, but next time? One twist too many, the finger on the scale that scuttles a meticulously executed strategic or social plan, rendering the game nothing more than utter, random chaos. Just as the Game Changers final 6 was.
Let's overlook that the vote-block/ extra vote "advantage" has a sketchy history of its own, and has yet to really pay off as a game-altering twist. Here, with newly swapped tribes and a deus ex machina/ prankster god mechanism in place to ensure meddling with the vote no matter which tribe attended, the ingredients seemed ripe for Ye Olde Vote Blocke to finally pay off. Historically, the main problem with swaps from a gameplay perspective is that people who had otherwise been playing solid games find themselves in the minority due to bad luck of the draw... but at least they have an opportunity to make new bonds with their new tribemates, however briefly. Does also allowing a random person to secretly block some poor Tribal Council attendee from voting really alleviate that unfairness? Seems unlikely to really help someone, and more likely to hurt.
And yet, in the end, it didn't. Not really. Devon didn't vote, then nobody voted for Devon. A misfire. Furthermore, it would have been trumped anyway, as a lot of plans and schemes and advantages tend to be, by Joe's hidden immunity idol.
Even so, what if it had made an impact? Would that have been fair? For example, if Ben or Lauren had received the advantage, they might well have thought, "Wow, all six Healers are still here, I should block one of them from voting. Desi seems like she probably doesn't have an idol." Had that happened, it would have allowed the Heroes plus Devon to split their votes, 2 on Joe, 1 on Desi, protecting them against any possible idol play, because in the worst-case scenario, it's a 1-1 tie between Desi and whomever Joe voted against, and on the re-vote, whichever two of Heroes/Devon are still voting cast their ballots for Desi. (Fulfilling Desi's concern that Joe ended her game before she even attended Tribal.)
With respect to the question of fairness: If in that scenario, Desi had done nothing wrong save be on the wrong initial tribe (and seem less sketchy than Joe), would that be fair? Or, as in most of the other situations, when the idol superceded whatever the vote blocker attempted, does the unfairness of the vote block appearing out of nowhere, with no fingerprints, exceed or negate the inherent unfairness of a hidden idol? At what point will the vote become obsolete, and Tribal Council just a matter of passing around a pistol loaded with an unknown number of twist bullets, pointing said weapon at your head, pulling the trigger, and hoping for the best?
We estimate that point will come when, on one of these tiny tribes, multiple idols and advantages are played, ending up with only one person left being eligible to be eliminated, and probably someone who wasn't even a target of the vote. Could even be next episode! Hooray! Advantagegeddon all the time!
(Side note: Would Joe have been allowed to play his idol if he'd been vote blocked? He probably would, but do we know for sure?)
In praise (mostly) of Joe's edgy aggressiveness
Fan reactions to Joe's idol play have varied widely, from unbridled delight to worries that he wasted a valuable game tool. "Wasted" seems a bit much. One key lesson of Millennials vs. Gen X was that novel idol-hiding systems (in marked items in MvGX, following tree clues here) provide anyone who's already found one a massive headstart toward finding a second one. Joe was legitimately at risk of being voted out, but has survived. So it was not really a waste, when he should know exactly where to look for a replacement idol the next morning.
Socially, however, Joe's game seems to be careening between Tony Vlachos and Russell Hantz. Both displayed Joe's in-your-face, refusing to back down approach when confronted by an opponent. But Tony had Trish to help smooth things over after his various Tribal antics, and Woo to flip with him each time. Hantz just threatened his way through the game(s), with little thought to mending fences. Can (or will) Desi serve either of the Trish or Woo roles for Joe? If so, great. But she didn't seem to have much interest in doing so all of one episode ago, when Joe was flinging potatoes into the jungle. Did he earn her trust by playing his idol? Maybe. He didn't, after all, play that idol for her. But to some degree, success breeds respect. Maybe Desi will join him and take advantage of his people-reading skills, maybe she won't. Then again, going along with Joe produces another 2-2 split, unless they can recruit Devon. The easier path would be simply joining up with Ashley and Devon, for a 3-1 majority. But that's a majority at risk, because... well, again, Joe knows how (and where) to find another idol. (The well, again.)
All in all, Joe is playing an extremely risky game, but it's also one that's highly entertaining to watch on TV. It's far more enjoyable to watch a daring risk-taker going all out at every opportunity, than someone cautiously fading into the center and never attracting attention, even if the latter is a proven path to the end. To be sure, it's difficult to imagine Joe turning this style of gameplay into an alliance, or a majority of jury votes, but that's what everyone thought about Tony at this point, too. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. At the least, Joe should continue playing hard until he's out.
Challenge beast Mike vs. challenge goat... Devon?
Through this week's episode, Dr. Mike's tribe has finished first in all five challenges in which he's appeared. The Healers were the first tribe ever in a three-tribe season to finish in first place in the first three challenges. Mike managed to sit out of their second-place, block-misplacing (Ep3 IC) streak breaker, but his new Yawa tribe wasted no time in finishing first twice this episode. In looking back through Survivor history, this is the best individual performance for a three-tribe start. While that's a fairly limited pool of seasons, it's still fairly impressive because in three-tribe format there are two opponents at each challenge instead of one, plus with six-person tribes at most, there is less room for a poor performer to hide than on a bloated 10-person tribe. Furthermore, in two of those victories—the Ep1 IC table maze and Ep2 RC/IC crossroads puzzle—Mike (with Desi) actually moved the Healers from last place entering that stage all the way up to a first-place finish.
Still, there's also a fair degree of luck involved (such as sitting out of that one second-place finish), which brings us to the omega to Mike's alpha: Devon. As part of the hapless Hustlers, Devon finished dead last in three of the first four challenges, and finished second in the fourth only because the Heroes' final ball popped out of the hole on the Ep1 IC's table maze. Then came the swap, and Devon... finished last twice more. These have hardly been Devon's fault—his table maze work (with Ali)—gave the Hustlers that second-place finish, and he and Desi were helplessly waiting for the Levus to lasso their sled in this week's RC, as the Yawas ended it. This is the difficulty in calculating individual stats for team challenges. But regardless, there would be your official challenge beast and goat, thus far this season.
In case you're wondering, here's our attempt at a list of top individual opening winning streaks (in which sit-outs count neither for or against the streak) in tribal and/or team challenges. With a Yawa RC win in Ep5, Mike can tie the illustrious Liliana Gomez!
|T-1*||Jeremy Collins||SJdS/ Cambodia||9|
|4**||Rupert Boneham||Pearl Islands||7|
|4**||Burton Roberts||Pearl Islands||7|
|9||Sandra Diaz-Twine||Pearl Islands||5|
|9||Jonny Fairplay||Pearl Islands||5|
|9||Trish Dunn||Pearl Islands||5|
|9||Shawn Cohen||Pearl Islands||5|
|9||Mike Zahalsky||Heroes v Healers v Hustlers||5|
Notes: *Jeremy had an intact 7-game team/tribal winning streak when he was voted out in San Juan del Sur. Extending that to Cambodia, he also managed 9 straight wins. It broke in the first post-swap IC, where he found the idol mid-challenge.
**Rupert and Burton's streaks both included non-Drake wins - Rupert while kidnapped by Morgan, Burton with the Outcasts (making it a partially 3-tribe format streak) and in a post-merge team challenge.
Because this column is already very, very late, no vidcap gallery this week. Sorry. Better luck next week.
Other HvHvH Episode 4 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Alan Ball