One of the good things about the waning episodes of each Survivor season is that, with the expository delving into the castmembers' motivations and alliances out of the way, and fewer people to film, there's more time to focus on the strategy and manipulation that goes on. Which is what the interesting part of the show is, anyway.
Okay, we'll admit it. That's what would be good about Survivor's final episodes in a fantasy world. In reality, what you're left with instead is Mark Burnett forcing you to sit through half an hour of the contestants weeping, then the remainder of an hour padded with strategizing that doesn't actually come to pass. After all, Survivor is a great, exciting mystery, and the pure, delicate nature of the massive secret of who gets booted can't be sullied by pedestrian tactics such as having a coherent plot. Nobody, not every spoiling board on the net, not even naive Early Show host Jane Clayson, could possibly have guessed that solitary, unaligned General Robert would be given his discharge. Oops! Did we just spill the beans? (Hey, keep your distance there, Clarence.) No, of course we didn't. Everybody knew that part.
The problem is, despite the supposed rebirth of the series due to its return to its island roots, along with the alleged "free-wheeling" atmosphere invoked by this, these people still do exactly the same thing past contestants have done. Neleh and Paschal are nothing if not the exhumed corpses of Elisabeth and Rodger, now appearing as animatronic robots with even more perky/ folksy/ patriotic /fervently religious dialogue to mouth. And despite a brief power struggle resulting in John's ouster, the dominant group has since proceeded to ritually dispatch the remaining members of his alliance, same as always. And to cover this up, we've been given the same runaround Burnett has provided in seasons past. Well, this week is more of the same.
But at least we're given entertaining themes to distract us in the meantime, such as "Kathy has become borderline psychotic, and should not be trusted with sharp objects." We open, coincidentally enough, with a manic-looking Kathy, hair leaping at strange angles from her head, crouched over something with such feverish intensity in the early-morning gloom, that you have to blink twice to be sure you didn't see a shopping cart and a freeway overpass in the background. Then we learn, through a veil of tears, that despite not talking about him once in the past month, she's desperate to see her son again. Okay, yeah, that must explain it.
Apparently this is some sort of virally-borne illness, because Pappy soon starts breaking down too, while contemplating the fact that these five other people are now as close to him as his immediate family (excluding Neleh, of course). True, any sane person might start bawling if faced with the prospect of 900 straight hours with these people, so we'll cut Pappy some slack, here. Robert, of course, is standing tall, and keeping family (and pretty much any other) thoughts clear out of his head, because he's leaving this hellhole in two more days.
Having seen all this family talk (okay, it was probably all filmed after the challenge, but play along with us here for a second), Jeff Probst rushes off to Mark Burnett with a suggestion. "We've got a problem. We need to give them some sort of challenge, but most of them, with the exception of the General, are now so weak they're barely more than slightly-breathing corpses. How can we keep kicking them while they're down, but not in such an obvious way?" Burnett responds, "Well, we could continue taunting them with the family members we flew out last week." Probs last TC. You should have seen their faces! Oh wait, you did... anyway, these extra people are costing us a bundle. How can we best use them to prop up our ratings?"
A dark cloud passes overhead, encircling the Evil Executive Producer's head in a penumbra of darkness (from Probst's perspective, anyway). "How about we let the family members fight each other in a challenge... say, blindfolded jousting? No, people have thought of that before. Screw it, let's just take an old challenge and put them in it. Here's a little tip for your directing career, Jeff: Tears equal quality entertainment. The more tears you see, the better the show. We'll have these people sobbing so loudly, the Emmy voters will probably hear it all the way back in L.A."
And so it comes to pass. After sneaking in a product placement for Cingular's new Spider-Man cell phones, Probst unleashes the lachrymal floodgates as he introduces the parade of friends and family. They compete in the Borneo challenge "Squared Off," now made completely novel and unique, due to the replacement of the old, boring squares with snappy, zippy hexagons. One by one, the family members are eliminated, and as each one leaves, the tears form an ever-rising tide of salty water, welling up around the Survivor's ankles. Luckily, they find an outcropping of rocks upon which to escape the flood (this must be the catastrophic rainfall the promos promised).
Eventually, Kathy's son Patrick wins. Which is a good thing, because if it had been anyone other than a blood relative, she might have mistaken it for a wild animal the next morning, and done a little hunting with her trusty machete. Made all the more likely because, as opposed to previous family rewards, there is no car, yacht, or elaborate feast waiting for the O'Briens. "Sorry guys," Probst says, "We blew the budget for this challenge painting all those hexagons. Here's a Buff™ as a consolation prize. Try not to get it too dirty, because we'll want it back when you leave."
This of course invites even more crying, as Patrick not only is stuck spending a night with the tribe, but also has to wear an attractive magenta head-tube-thingy while doing it. He seems a bit aghast at this prospect, warily eyeing the hairy, stinky, half-crazed group of starving people. As well he should. After all, Colby and his mom at least got to spend their conjugal visit in the back seat of a spanking new Pontiac Aztek, whereas Patrick and his mom will be doing their spooning on top of a raft, right in front of everyone. After expressing a bit of concern that his friends might tease him about this, Probst assures him that, this being Survivor 4, nobody will be watching.
Once he gets to camp, things rapidly go downhill. First, the castaways put him to work smashing shellfish and coconuts with rocks. Then he has to spend hours with his mom, patiently explaining to her over and over again the obvious strategy she needs to adopt to reach the final two. Which she promptly forgets. Then he is asked scintillating, deep questions around the campfire about food. The firelight sparkles off of Robert's bared teeth, as he runs his finger along the machete, and asks Patrick, "You look like you enjoy dessert. Why don't you tell us about it, while I mentally calculate how much wood it would take to roast a large hu..., uh, 'pig'... on this fire." Silently, Patrick decides "friends be damned, I'm sleeping with Mom tonight."
Soon (probably not soon enough for Patrick) the morning comes, and Patrick races into the surf to swim out to Probst's speed boat. "Not so fast there, Sonny," growls Pappy, and forces Patrick to hug and/or kiss every contestant first. Luckily, just as it looks like it might turn ugly, Probst arrives to whisk Patrick away to three weeks of decompression and psychological counseling. Kathy, apparently in the depths of an acid flashback, raises a peace sign and cackles maniacally. Then there are more tears.
After the furor dies down about the meal's, uh, "guest's" departure, things quickly get back to normal. Robert, whose nickname "The General" rightly suggests a master strategist, suddenly realizes he's the last member of his alliance left. Sean makes fun of Neleh, because the script called for some misdirection to distract the viewers from the General's brainstorm. And in a stunning display of SEG's masterful editing techniques, Neleh appears to be able to speak several seemingly complete sentences, none of which contain "Oh my heck."
So it's come to this: the immunity challenge is the only thing that can save Robert from his imminent demise. Unfortunately, rather than coming up with a rigged IC uniquely matched to Robert's skills (which would appear to be, uh... log splitting. Hey, haven't these people heard of the Outdoor Games?), MB opts to regurgitate the now-traditional plate-breaking slingshot challenge. Only this time, to better conceal the alliances, and preserve the "suspense" of the final two episodes, the contestants are forced to shoot at particular targets each time, and not gang up on one person.
Remarkably, none of the colored rocks "accidentally" miss too many targets, nor do they find themselves whizzing in Jeff Probst's direction. Robert, of course, is quickly eliminated, and we learn that the mysterious "chick dance" was the same one used in the Bangles' "Walk Like An Egyptian" video. Who knew? Oh yeah, and Vee wins.
"Oh sh..., I mean, oh my heck! That wasn't supposed to happen! Now Burnett's going to play up the infinitesimal possibility of me getting booted for the next fifteen minutes! But still, I'm so happy to be here!"
The rest of the show is devoted to making the audience think Neleh is about to be voted out. We're not sure how effective this was, seeing as Robert was clearly going, although after a while we did start to wonder exactly how MB was planning to dig the plot out of this Neleh hole. Answer: why bother? Pile it on! This is especially true at tribal council, where Probst asks everyone to list five things they really hate about Neleh. This takes a while, because Pappy has trouble coming up with any. And to keep up the charade, none of the votes, nor the catty parting comments in the voting booth are shown, probably since none were for Neleh. Okay, Sean probably managed to slip in an anti-Neleh dig with his vote for the General, but it was curiously omitted. And so, as vote after vote comes up with the General's name on it, the Burnett-created hype balloon slowly deflates.
As his torch is snuffed, the General glares over at jury members John, Zoe and Tammy, and says, "Wait a second, I'll bet you bastards voted for me too, didn't you? Some alliance this is." As Probst explains again that the jury is not to be spoken to, nor can they vote, Robert remembers, "Oh yeah, right. I'm the last one.... Well, at least I left with my knapsack intact!" Then, looking behind him, he mutters, "Aww, crap."