For the two long weeks that spanned episodes eight and nine, Survivor: Thailand wallowed in an audience-enervating morass of maudlin self-pity. Okay, to be honest, there was a lot of that to go around for rest of the series too, but the two previous episodes piled misery on top of pathos. Ending up with little more than a steaming pile of the stuff Magilla likes to fling at the walls of the cave.
But that was the last two weeks. Thankfully, this week someone in the editing department saw fit to cast this episode as a straight comedy. Because nothing is quite as entertaining as watching these remaining Richard Hatches confidently cackle about how they alone have the one correct master strategy ensuring them of the million-dollar prize. True, there's more to laugh about when there's sixteen of them going at once as the game begins, but at least by this point you can be fairly sure which ones are destined to fail.
There is a ray of light as the episode starts, and that is the sunrise on Chuay-Jai (nee Chuay-Gahn, soon to be Chuay-Gahn once more) beach. For once, the episode is opening in the first day of the three-day period it's supposed to cover! Guess Ken the Cop must have confiscated the camera crew's nightvision equipment as he left camp in the previous episode. Either that or nobody had anything remotely interesting to say in response to Ken's dismissal. Given the content of the two previous episodes, we know which option we're choosing.
As the sun rises, we can see it's a different world at Chuay-Jai: the women are rowing off in the boat, and the men are sitting around camp, tending the fire! No wait, there's Ted, glowering out at the ocean again. And rolling his eyes at a Sook-Jai (in this case Jake), telling him a vague half-story that poorly explains the three votes against Ted. Apparently Jake's brilliant strategy is to curry favor among the Chuay-Gahns by appearing secretive and calculating, rather than sowing the seeds of discontent by exposing Clay's treachery directly. As you might expect, this works almost as well as Jake's previous concept of going into the merge with a majority by throwing challenges and purging his tribe of all the strong people that would otherwise have helped win them.
Since there is precious little talk of dissension among the Chuay-Gahns themselves with which to distract us from Penny's impending boot, we're instead given every member of Chuay-Gahn's opinion that Jake is a deceitful snake, one with whom the tribe must deal immediately. This is news of course, because they said the exact same things in the previous episode, right before they booted Ken. And all of this talk of snakes reminds Clay that (1) he's a genius, and (2) he's hungry. Not that either of these thoughts is ever far from Clay's lips, but it does serve as the traditional lead-in to the Reward Challenge, which, in a stunning and completely novel development, involves the chance to eat lots of food.
Similarly, the challenge itself resembles the form of recent ones. As in, a straightforward challenge made complicated by multiple stages and elimination steps. This one is an obstacle course, with no less than five stages (including the automatic elimination at the start). While it's unlikely we'll ever feel nostalgic for the relative simplicity of remaining motionless underwater while breathing through a tube, we suspect the ever-more-elaborate staging of the challenges is merely a secret ploy by Jeff Probst to get more screen time, since the more parts to the challenge, the more he has to talk. Either that or the "mental" part of these challenges is remembering what the hell Probst said the rules were half an hour ago, when he started explaining the first leg.
Which might explain poor Jake's sudden dismissal at the RC's start, as he is unable to remember to pair up with someone after Jeff says "Go!" True, it helped that the only person likely to take him up on such an offer was Penny, and she was too busy racing over to Ted to notice. Penny and Ted, despite their combined bulk and brainpower, still manage to advance to the next stage, thanks entirely to Jan's inability to walk in a straight line without falling over. Which leads us to suspect the Clay's beer may not have been the only alcohol smuggled in to the cast in this episode.
Next up, it's crawling, which apparently the men of Chuay-Gahn have been practicing in between rounds of golf, since they all win handily over Penny. There are lots of crude jokes we could make here involving cheerleaders and kneeling, but we know you've come to expect a higher grade of humor from this site. Besides, what could a former cheerleader, allegedly from Texas, whose schooling instead took place on the East coast, possibly do that would be worthy of ridicule? That would just be Bush league.
Next up, it's a contrived but theoretically revealing leg, in which the three remaining players must cooperate to scale a large wall. Clay vaults over it first, but who will he choose to lend a hand to, allowing them to continue? And by "theoretically" revealing, we mean not at all. Undoubtedly, the challenge designers felt this would allow a fascinating peek into unseen tribal political dynamics, perhaps forgetting that no matter how the race had been run to this point, two of the three participants would have been paired up at the start of the race. Shockingly, Clay picks that person, Brian.
And finally, Brian and Clay "race" across a final set of logs. And by "race," we mean, in Brian's case, taking two-hour breaks at times, to allow fall-happy Clay to catch up, since it appears Clay has also been partaking of the tribe's contraband liquor supply. So, eventually, Brian wins another reward challenge, and again confounds all attempts by the producers to shoehorn some conflict into the challenge by selecting his race partner and second-place finisher, Clay, to accompany him on a whirlwind trip to the mainland. The follow-up confessionals to this decision are a highlight of must-see TV: "Golly, I sure would have liked to have gone myself, but that was the fair thing to do." "No complaints here!"
Back at camp, we get the sense that the impending reward adventure must be something pretty special, since Brian has changed his shirt for the first time in almost fourteen straight days (not to worry, his grubby gray sleeveless shirt miraculously manages not to spontaneously combust in his absence, and he switches back to it as soon as he returns). And the journey itself? Well, if you've seen any previous Survivors, it's pretty much exactly the same script: "Golly, this sure is beautiful." "Let's put this on Jeff's Visa™." "I never would have thought I'd see something so amazing." "This is the best food I've ever tasted." "Let's steal some food to bribe the people back at camp with!" "We laughed, we cried. It was much better than Cats."
Lookit here, Brahn! Ah'm bigger'n a dang elephant!
Yes, perhaps the only novel feature of this expensive and exquisitely-shot segment was Clay's giddy discovery that elephants, in addition to being aroused by the sight of Frank Garrison, can fart like, well, elephants. (We're sorry to report that shortly after the show aired, Special Forces agents descended on the site of the Survivor: Amazon filming, and arrested Mark Burnett for portraying the symbol of the Ruling Party as a lumbering vessel of flatulence. Within hours, CBS announced that the sixth installment of the series would now be titled Survivor: Guantanamo). Plus we can be reasonably sure that Brian hasn't done any porn scenes while riding on the back of an elephant.
But as the title would have us believe, the real "excitement" of the episode is happening back at camp, while these two are busy enjoying their pachydermal immersion experience. Jake is hard at work trying to sell Helen on the fact that she could win. Helen remains unconvinced: "I dunno, I really think Brian ought to. After all, he is the King." And, well... that's pretty much it. Apparently it was also supposed to be exciting that the women and Jake then waded around in the surf with sticks. Or that the producers forced the contestants to sing another Christmas song in the middle of July. Or that Jan would practically leap out of her skin at the sight of beer.
Beer? Sure, you can have my beer. When you pry it out of my cold, dead hands!
Or maybe it was Clay's brilliant strategy of bringing back gifts for the tribe in exchange for surefire jury votes when he's in the final two. Sure Clay, we'll bet nobody remembers that Colby did this in Australia, and used it to buy himself second place, by picking the old woman to go up against the jury with him. Still, Clay cackles with glee at the thought of how novel and ingenious this move is. Okay, maybe that last part was kind of funny.
As is only sporting in the episode in which she gets booted, Penny gets to make a cameo, explaining that she's keeping her distance from Jake, trying to blend into the fabric of Chuay-Gahn. We must admit, based on her screen time, that we're surprised Chuay-Gahn noticed she was there in the first place.
Apparently Clay has, though, because he's busy buttering up Penny by promising her a spot in the final four with him, as long as she votes the way he tells her (i.e., for Jake). Then, in a confessional, Clay giggles that he's told everyone in camp they're going to the final four with him, he just rotates out a name each time. This is indeed pretty clever, especially if none of these people ever talk to each other. Which, of course, they'd never dream of doing, what with all the sitting around gabbing they're so busy doing.
So let's get this straight now: Clay has promised everyone left that they will be in the final four with him. Brian has made the same promises, but has beefed it up to the final two. Jake seems to be working the "you yourself will be the final one, if you do this..." angle. In footage that was edited out (because she wins), Jan drew the "you're in the final three with me and Ted" straw, Helen got "final five," and Penny got "You'll be in the final six." Sadly, Penny's attempts to use this had to be edited out, because everyone replied, "Well yeah, duh, because we're voting you out." And poor, poor Ted, ever the overlooked mathematician fighting for scraps, got stuck with final seven, which he burnished by telling everyone they'd be in the 150th, no the millionth, percentile.
Basically, everybody that's breathing is trying to pull a fast one on at least one other person. Except Jan, of course, but that's because, except in extreme situations such as when there's liquor or small, dead animals involved, we're not really allowed to know she's breathing. Given the relative dearth of physical challenges this time out (despite early promises they would require a combination of brains and brawn), we're beginning to suspect that Mark Burnett's alleged desire to make Survivor "more like the Eco-Challenge" dealt mainly with his plans to start popping up on the screen every five minutes to remind the audience how important teamwork is to finishing this race. But fear not, we're told this Pop-Up Mark Burnett feature will be an option when Survivor: Thailand comes out on DVD.
So, where were we? Oh yeah, Clay was busy cackling about his multiplicitous final four pacts. He then leaps to his other favorite activity, which is badmouthing poor, desperate Jake, by telling Ted that Jake needs to shut his damn mouth. Not that there would be any reason for Clay to worry about Jake's stories, apart from the one about Clay encouraging the Sook-Jais to vote for Ted in the previous tribal council.
Eventually, we get to the IC, which turns out to be another "all new challenge," a complete reworking of "Parang Swing," the coconut-dropping trivia challenge from Survivor: Marquesas. And by "complete reworking," we mean the trivia questions are now about Thailand, instead of the Marquesas Islands, and instead of chopping down color-coded coconuts, getting a correct answer now allows the snuffing of someone's torch (apparently, the producers were worried that this crop of contestants might have too much difficulty connecting the symbolism of hacking away at someone's survival in the game with, uh, survival in the game, so they opted for the more direct approach with the torches). That, and the cubes the contestants used to flash the multiple-choice answers in Marquesas have been repainted in a nifty faux-Thai script. All new, indeed. It's just sad that Robb was not still around to partake in the fun.
Of course, once it starts, it becomes apparent that the primary challenge here was finding questions that at least one contestant could get right, even by multiple choice. Usually, that contestant is Helen. The masterful Chuay-Gahn men collectively manage a whopping three correct answers in 18 questions. To be fair, head genius Clay was hindered by being eliminated after the third question, although to be completely accurate, at that time he had answered, well, zero questions correctly. Including somehow not knowing that Thailand used to be called Siam (perhaps he thought the show was being filmed in the birthplace of the bow tie). But after a lengthy elimination process, Helen wins.
What was interesting about this challenge the last time we saw it (all of six months ago) was that it revealed the pecking order within the dominant tribe, allowing outsiders Kathy, Paschal, and Neleh to unite with the minority tribe remnants and take over the game. Here, almost exactly the same thing happens, as we learn that nobody much wants Penny or Jake to stick around, which they capitalize on by, well, doing the same thing they have been since they arrived: fruitlessly attempting to charm their way into the hearts of the Chuay-Gahns.
Which, as Ted reminds us, isn't working. He sees Penny as a Trojan Horse. By which he means, of course, that when everyone's asleep, a bunch of swarthy men with swords and leather tunics crawl out of her belly, and prepare to take over the city. So it's dangerous keeping her around, because if everyone falls asleep at tribal council, as usually happens when Probst drones on and on with the same questions he asks every week, those little men are going to want to vote, and it'll probably be for a Chuay-Gahn.
Still, it wouldn't be Survivor if Mark Burnett didn't pull out all the stops trying to convince us that someone else is getting booted instead. This week's lucky stand-in is Jake. Shockingly, he sticks around for another week, and Penny leaves. There's no word yet on if the little armor-clad men will be allowed to vote on the jury. But either way, we bet they'll be brilliant, too.