Survivor works best when it's about scheming and plotting, not screaming and shouting. Subtle manipulation, not in-your-face hostility. This week's episode, which has been widely praised as "great TV" due to the high-intensity dramatic blow-ups in camp and at Tribal Council ... was not that.
While this episode did give the Survivor lexicon some new memorable catchphrases and voting booth shenanigans (which Ryan Kaiser rightly celebrates here), those came only after some fairly ugly, deeply personal, line-crossing verbal attacks. It was a disappointing turn of events, because Jeremy was a really fun, dynamic, interesting player in Episode 2, and had some moments of real character depth early on this week, but with his back against the wall heading into Tribal, went a bit too far in fighting for his position in the game. (Then he continued to cross lines in his exit press.) For her part, Natalie held her own and mostly stayed above the fray, which is admirable. But the bickering in camp and at Tribal were still unpleasant to watch.
Reigning Survivor champ Wendell Holland went on the On The Island Podcast this week, and shared his similar discomfort with the Natalie-Jeremy fighting, with some wise words: "From my perspective, there's already enough negative stereotypes of black people on television ... I felt the need to go to the end with someone who looks like me, and show America that there are other images that can be portrayed."
As late as Episode 2 (just last week), Jeremy seemed to have the same intentions with respect to playing alongside Natalie. He approached her and tried, as a fellow person of color, to help prevent her conflicts with other people, by giving Natalie some straight talk about how she was coming across to her tribemates. His overtures were not well received, things spiraled out of control, and we ended up with the mess we saw this week. So how did all this happen?
Mostly, Survivor decided to put Jeremy on a tribe with someone who had little chance to win, mainly due to being at least two decades older than the bulk of the tribe (which has six people in the 24-30 age range), and with a personality geared for conflict over the "Can't we all just get along?" Rodney King motto (ironically) emblazoned on Mike White's shirt. As the only other African-American on the tribe, Jeremy felt a responsibility to try to help Natalie, and he became the target when that backfired. Which would be sort of surprising, if it were a novel development.
Except it wasn't. And it's just not that fun to watch two people verbally attack each other, especially when the situation seems so contrived. This is the exact same set-up we saw fifteen seasons ago.
Jeremy's dilemma is almost *exactly* the scenario in which Francesca Hogi (who was also an attorney who lived in New York!) found herself during Redemption Island, just with the genders reversed. Well, that and being on the purple tribe instead of the orange one. Right down to the conflict-maker being an LA-based African-American in their 50s (Phillip was even initially listed as a [software] CEO, before becoming a "Former Federal Agent?"), and Franny's only actual ally being a wealthy, white, late-40s LA-based Survivor fan (Mike White is the new Kristina Kell). And the majority alliance being chock full of recruits.
So yes, even though each season's contestants made choices and performed the actions they deemed optimal in their respective situations, Survivor mixed together approximately the same ingredients two times, and produced the same combustible reaction twice. A fireworks display, after which Jeremy and Francesca were each voted out, the first time their tribes attended Tribal Council.
Maybe it's not following a script, but it does seem like it's following a recipe.
Of course, the other part of that recipe is the reactive ingredient: making someone so isolated, so dissimilar from the rest of their tribe, that they retreat into cantankerous hostility, rather than trying to blend in. It happened with Phillip, it happened with Debbie in Game Changers, it happened here. Other times, the response of the isolated older contestant has been to become the genial clown (Tarzan in One World, and somewhat Phillip later in Redemption Island). But whatever the outcome is, it's usually not something that leads to winning.
Having older contestants around is great: they have a deeper perspective on life, and have usually faced and overcome more challenges than, say, the token teenager. What's needed to prevent them becoming anything other than obvious cannon fodder is surrounding them with at least one or two like-minded people. Rudy had Hatch and Sue Hawk in Borneo. Joe Del Campo had Debbie and Aubry in Kaoh Rong. And as was just seen in Survivor AU: Champions vs. Contenders, Shane Gould had several people (Sharn, Mat, Steve), and she went on to win, at 61.
It can be done. Just not like this.
Risk vs. reward: swap danger rankings (minor potential tribe number spoiler)
The press photos for the next episode show that, somehow, we'll be swapping up to at least three tribes (orange, purple, green lanes visible at the challenge, at least). This will apparently be an unbalanced swap, with two tribes having six people, and one only five. That'll be a huge swing in numbers for the smallest tribe, which will end up with just half the population the Goliath tribe had less than 24 hours earlier. So who benefits, and who is most at risk from this new situation?
As always, the composition of the new tribes and how they're populated by the pre-existing alliances matters a lot, and that's something that the show has relatively well kept hidden. Still, some other small-tribe axioms should also hold true that could guide our thinking about the swap. So let's look at the people most at risk, and those most likely to be rewarded by a swap at this point:
All in all, this swap doesn't change the dynamics all that much, at least without knowing the distribution of the players. People who were already in trouble will probably continue to be, unless they're potential challenge assets, like Carl and Davie. But if a Carl or Davie is outnumbered by Goliaths, they're still in trouble. There's also the potential for some major power swings if a previously comfortable Goliath somehow ends up outside the numbers on a new tribe. At the very least, we should (hopefully) be spared any further talk of "as a David" and "as a Goliath" going forward.
That's a reward for everyone.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other David vs. Goliath Episode 3 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Jeremy Crawford