The three-episode span of Episodes 10-12 of Survivor: Panama is the first post-merge stretch where the Casayas finally have to start picking each other off (except Bruce, whose colon picks him off first).
With just eight (then seven, then six) people left, we get a lot of every contestant over these three hours, and with the game finally truly individual, we hear a lot more of each remaining player's approach to the endgame. Who can they work with, who do they want to face, and who do they absolutely want out? Through it all, the real star of everything here is of course Cirie Fields.
We saw glimpses of Cirie's social/strategic prowess in the premiere, when she was forced to turn on the charm and convince Ruth Marie and Melinda that Timber Tina was somehow a threat to their longevity. After that she intentionally (as she announced in confessional) faded into the background and became a loyal cog in the Casaya machine. Aras and Shane were the ones talking strategy at the merge, not Cirie. But with the finish line approaching, Cirie turns the engines back on, and is arguably controlling the game over the Episode 11-12 votes.
What's important here is two-fold: (1) Everyone really likes Cirie, and (2) everyone likes her so much, they are willing to overlook obvious betrayals to get her on their side. Take Shane, completely left out of the loop on the 3-2-1 Courtney boot (by design, because Cirie, Aras, and Danielle all wanted to eliminate the chance of Shane and Courtney teaming up with Terry, which could theoretically lead to a Shane-Courtney final two). Aras and Cirie had already cooked up an alibi — Shane was off up the hill somewhere, and it was a last-minute vote switch, because Terry was trying to take out Aras. Cirie convincingly delivers this massive lie, and Shane is 100% reassured that it's him, Aras, and Cirie to the end.
That's after Cirie also left Shane off of her reward spa trip the previous episode, instead taking her actual allies, Aras and Danielle (a rare strategic misstep). Shane kicks up a huge fuss when they get back, but Cirie's social skills are so great that she calms him down and convinces him that, again, it's Shane-Cirie-Aras, and that he's overthinking if he suspects otherwise.
Even Terry, in his one sales pitch that almost works, thinks he
can get Cirie to work with him. In Episode 11, Terry plausibly
flips Courtney to take out Aras, and thinks he also has Danielle
on board, but they need a fourth vote, and for some reason, Terry
thinks they can pull in Cirie. (Courtney does the actual
recruiting this time, which may explain the perceived success.)
And Cirie really sells that she's with them, leading to the 3-2-1.
Which we'll get to below! But first ....
Episode 10: Cirie wins a challenge!
It's not really clear what Cirie ever did to invoke the wrath of the Survivor gods (voting out the lumberjack lady, I guess?), but Cirie's run of bad breaks really kicks off here in Episode 10. But you wouldn't think so at first.
That's because here in Episode 10, she wins her first individual challenge: A coconut chop-style reward challenge in which everyone repeatedly roasts Courtney. It's still Cirie's only individual challenge win, across 27 lifetime challenge appearances. (Spoiler, I guess.) But that's good right?
Oh, no. It's not. Immediately upon winning, Cirie realizes she's made a huge mistake, because Shane becomes irate when she picks Danielle over him to accompany her and Aras on an overnight spa reward.
From there, things get worse: Back at camp, Bruce is in increasing amounts of pain, and eventually, the medical team has to remove him, so Cirie, already feeling a bit guilty about not being able to take everyone in her alliance on reward, now feels even worse upon returning to camp the next day. There's no immunity challenge. There's no Tribal Council. Cirie's once-in-a-lifetime spa trip devolves into everyone just worrying about Bruce (more or less). Maybe winning challenges isn't such a good idea, after all.
Can't Cirie have even one nice thing in this game, Survivor gods?
(To be fair, the next episode may be the greatest of Cirie's career, as she catches the biggest fish of the season, and pulls off the very first 3-2-1 move. So maybe it's not all bad for Cirie here.)
Episode 11: Anatomy of a 3-2-1
We touch on other parts of Cirie's big episode (11) below, but the magnificently complex 3-2-1 vote deserves its own section. Here's how it broke down:
The two: All episode, Terry had been trying to convince Danielle and Courtney (who joined him on reward) that if Aras doesn't win immunity, they should seize the opportunity to vote him out now. This makes a lot of sense for Terry: With Aras out of the picture, he has virtually no competition for immunity, so it clears a path for him to the final two. Courtney decides she's also on board: She's never been all that close to Aras, and he'll be tough to beat at the end, whereas she thinks she might get some votes from a Casaya-heavy jury against Terry. (This might even be accurate.) So as Tribal approaches, Terry thinks he has at least three of the six votes: His, Courtney's, and Danielle's ... and maybe Cirie's? In the end, it's just Terry and Courtney voting Aras.
The one: Meanwhile, Shane is convinced the Aras talk is all just the decoy plan they're feeding Terry, when the real plan is to ditch Danielle, whom he's never particularly liked or respected. He thinks she's lazy, and hasn't really contributed around camp. She's not part of what he sees as the Casaya Core: himself, Aras, and Cirie. He also has designs on taking Courtney to the end, because he's aware she's about the only person he can beat. So he starts pushing his plan to vote Danielle. He's the only one who does.
The three: That's because the real Casaya core is Cirie, Aras, and Danielle. Danielle mentions in confessional that she sees Cirie as her number one. From the following episode, where Cirie talks about the alibi she and Aras came up with to dupe Shane, it appears Aras and Cirie are each other's number one. Earlier in the episode, Terry tipped his hand to Danielle that he's probably hoping to take Courtney to the end, not Danielle. The Casaya trio suspects that's Shane's plan, too. So they all want Courtney out. This is clearly all Cirie's plan, too, because Aras has been away at Exile (for no good reason) since the reward challenge.
What's weird is, as she states in confessional before Tribal,
Danielle's still a bit of a wild-card on this particular vote,
because she's close to Courtney, and isn't really sure she can
beat Aras or Cirie at the end. In the end, though, it seems like
she'd rather one of them win, than risk Terry doing so. So
Danielle stays Casaya strong, Aras stays in the game, and Cirie's
historic Big Move goes through as planned.
At least someone has their eyes on the prize
(Hint: It's not Terry.)
Episode 12 opens with Terry lamenting that he failed once again to convince anyone to vote with him (on the Courtney boot), and closes with a neat reinforcement of what the game of Survivor is actually about. One in which the editors even give Aras the chance to correct Jeff Probst on his utter misread of how the game works.
By the end of Ep12, Terry has now won all five individual immunity challenges, and has an overpowered idol in his pocket. He's also won two of the three individual reward challenges. He's an unstoppable challenge beast (except on lily pads). Thanks to his idol, he doesn't even need to win the next IC, so he's guaranteed a spot in the final three.
Then there's the other part: by the end of Ep12, Terry also will have attended six straight Tribal Councils without voting anyone out. He's repeatedly tried to sell people on just giving up and siding with him, because he's such a great guy, and wins all the challenges. He's the good guy here! But so far, only Courtney has done so, as she was voted out. Terry keeps stepping to the plate, but the result is whiff after whiff after whiff.
At that episode's Tribal Council, Probst tries to engage Aras in a spirited, jolly-good-old-sport discussion of his athletic rivalry with Probst's hero and personal savior, Terry. Aras says sure, the competition is fun, he likes getting to take a fresh crack at beating him each time, but "[Terry] knows this: It just takes one crack, and he's done."
Probst, of course, isn't having this. "At what point do you stop saying, 'Just one crack and he's done,' and start saying, 'Terry's looking pretty good right now'?" Terry is an American hero! He's so good in challenges! He's obviously going to win, right?
And this is where Aras perfectly, succinctly summarizes both how Survivor actually works, and the all-or-none nature of Terry's game: "The challenges are just one part of the game. You can win all the challenges you want, but if you don't win the people over, you don't win the million dollars."
(Terry responds with the smirk above: This 24-year-old thinks he knows better than the guy who's won every immunity AND found the shrunken-head idol thing in five minutes? Come on!)
Thirty seasons later, Jeff Probst still seems to be struggling to learn this lesson. Or at least change the game enough so that it's no longer true. Maybe someday Russell Hantz will watch this season and figure it out, too.
The yin and yang of Shane Powers
At the start of his run on Panama, Shane was an emotional, nicotine-jonesing mess. Completely out of his mind, but mostly authentically so. By the end in Episode 12, Shane's still acting wacky on occasion, but it's mostly as a joke for the cameras and/or his tribemates. (Like the driftwood Blackberry, which gets an extended verbal eyeroll from Danielle.) It's a bit, a shtick. And that's the fundamental disconnect between Shane Powers, actual three-dimensional person with a huge, bombastic personality, and Shane Powers, cartoon character. Survivor sort of toys with presenting the former here and there, but really seems to prefer to keep pushing the latter, and Shane seems honor-bound to keep providing the material.
It's disappointing, because Shane occasionally had decent gameplaying instincts: he formed an early alliance as soon as the re-picked Casaya hit their beach (even if he bizarrely selected Courtney, sight unseen, over Cirie or Bob Dawg). He gradually becomes a Casaya-loyal, team-first guy. Alongside Aras, he's one of the loudest, most strident proponents of keeping Casaya together at the merge. It's not reinventing how the game is played, but it's effective.
After La Mina's gone, though, so is most of Shane's clout. Cirie, Aras, and Danielle leave him out of their plans in back-to-back votes. He apparently wanders off on his own for extended periods, making him easy to leave out of plans. He's a non-entity in challenges, ending his run with a sit-out and two last-place finishes, leading to the ninth-lowest mean % finish of all time (single-season). His read of the game is so bad that he's sure he's pulling something over on everyone, when everyone else can see he wants to take Courtney to the final two.
Still, there are many authentic moments for Shane here, near the end, that show he's a sincere person with a big heart. He's a puddle of tears at even the thought of his son Boston being there, and their reunion in the loved ones episode gets all the emotional airtime the editors can wring from it.
But maybe the best moment is during the Episode 11 reward. Terry, Danielle and Courtney are away, eating barbecue, Aras is on Exile. So it's just Shane and Cirie back at camp. Also it's Shane's birthday. Cirie catches a gigantic fish, brings it back to camp, semi-mock-singing "Happy Birthday," and Shane is legitimately overjoyed for her, giving her a big bear hug, and crowing "Cirie Fields caught the biggest fish out here. The girl from Jersey! Captain America has been swimming around here for three weeks: Nothing!"
Nobody who appreciates Cirie Fields could be a bad person.
- This will be on the test: The Ep11 reward challenge features the same "lily pads" that will eventually topple Terry in the final IC. The editing highlights how Terry is somewhat unstable on them, stopping twice to get his balance, while Danielle and Courtney each dash across easily, to copious Probst praise. So very foreshadow-y. (Side note: Why the black vs. white color scheme for these post-merge team challenges? So bland. Did they run out of orange and purple paint?)
- Bonus challenge weirdness: In that same challenge, what purpose was served by having Aras depart for Exile and Shane and Cirie head back to camp *before* Probst announced that Terry, Danielle, and Courtney would now compete for the GMC Yukon? Did production hope it would remain a secret? They didn't want a live audience openly rooting against Terry? Just a super odd choice for a product placement, for no obvious reason. It's especially weird that nobody ever mentions it again after the reward, for the rest of the episode (or after). Even at Tribal! So, uh ... thanks, GMC?
- Expanded F6/5 episodes for the win: Maybe the final five episode could have been shortened, but the 3-2-1 final six vote would have been tragically crammed into the first half-hour of the finale in a modern season. So while there are certainly unwelcome things here that could be cut (absolutely pointless trips to Exile chief among them), there's a lot of golden moments in Episodes 11-12, so we should appreciate the extended time we were given.
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, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes