Jeff Pitman's S15: China rewatch recaps
The leader curse
By Jeff Pitman | Published January 22, 2018
Survivor: China rewatch Episodes 3-4 recap/ analysis

The leader curse


In Survivor: China's first episode, various people (Chicken, Aaron, Dave) expressed extreme reservations about being perceived as leaders. Hearing this with modern ears, that sounded hilariously quaint, because this doesn't seem to be as much of a thing any more. Furthermore, thinking back, it hadn't been *that* long since Tom Westman had won Palau while maintaining an iron grip on the Koror tribe, or since Aras and Terry had butted heads as opposing leaders in Panama. Or, for that matter, Yul and Earl winning the two seasons just prior to China. So what was the perceived downside to leading, exactly?


Even so, despite these prophecies seemingly making no sense, they clearly ended up coming true. Chicken left in Episode 1, after both trying to be a leader, then trying not to be one. Just in this episode, everyone at Zhan Hu was irritated by Dave's (admittedly autocratic) leadership, and at Fei Long, James immediately got angry at Jean-Robert's "orders," which were merely translations of the Chinese fisherman family's requests.


To be fair, Dave did seem to come across as an exceptionally dour, dogmatic, consensus-avoiding leader. Frosti tried to warn him that he was annoying the tribe, and needed to tone it down, but Dave didn't listen (or at least couldn't adjust). Surprisingly, a sharp contrast was drawn between that guy (ugh...) and the wacky, over-the-top goofball who shows up when kidnapped by Fei Long. He's on vacation! Dropping his pants! Hugging everyone! Staggering around, giggling, like a drunkard! That's the Crazy Dave we were promised in the pre-game, and it's difficult to recognize Fei Long Dave and Zhan Hu Dave as even the same person. So it's disappointing that Zhan Hu's absolute rejection of any sort of guidance in camp, while also saddling Dave with the leader role he desperately wanted to avoid, robbed us of so many episodes of goofy Dave. If only production had swapped Dave and Jean-Robert on the original tribes! Oh well.


Still, it's not terribly surprising that the starving youngsters of Zhan Hu, each out to try to win a million dollars for him- or herself, didn't take kindly to having some gray-haired guy order them about. Which makes us wonder: could this general antipathy to being led (by anyone) be a part of the resistance to older contestants winning? Does being older automatically imply some degree of authority, and therefore annoyance? Leslie was tagged as "Mom," despite never being shown telling anyone on Fei Long what to do. To be fair, she was probably mostly voted out (as was Ashley) for being sick/weak early on, and also for having perceived ties to several Zhan Hus, thanks to her being kidnapped. (Maybe this season it's more the kidnap curse than the leader curse?) But could being seen, even subconsciously, as a parent be enough to trigger resentment?


Either way, as good as this season otherwise is, it's a bit sad that of the first four boots, three were the precious few "older" people (with Dave and Leslie having reached the ripe old age of their late 30s) on this heavily young-skewing season. China still has the youngest average age, at 30.1, well below Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers's 30.6. At least until Ghost Island (28.1) airs, that is. As current-day Survivor continues its younger-and-younger casting lurch, it'll be interesting to see if the China situation casts a similar pall over "older" (i.e. > 35) players' chances.


Weaponized kidnapping

Weaponized kidnapping


This two-episode arc also demonstrated a swift evolution in the kidnapping decision. Everything seemed fairly innocent way back in Episode 2, when Fei Long picked Jaime for no obvious reason. But by Episode 3, when Zhan Hu returned the favor (apparently at Jaime's suggestion), and brought Leslie over to their camp, change was already afoot. The change of scenery seemed like great news to Leslie, who had already connected briefly with Jaime over at Fei Long, and now had a chance to further discuss her Christian faith with Jaime and Erik, and lament not fitting in with the cynics over at Fei Long.


In relaying that seemingly innocent part of her visit (three of the Zhan Hus being Christians) back to Fei Long, Leslie immediately raised Aaron's hackles, who now saw Leslie as an imminent threat to flip, come the merge or a swap. (Which is somewhat ironic, because being sent into the Zhan Hu lion's den in Ep.5 is the event that ends up taking out Aaron, instead.) As shown on the show, Todd and Amanda were all settled on either Courtney or Jean-Robert as the target at Fei Long's first Tribal Council (in Ep.3), until Aaron raised objections, asserting that Leslie's cross-tribal connections loomed as a larger potential menace than Jean-Robert's general Jean-Robertness.


Fast forward to Episode 4's kidnap decision, and now Fei Long seems to realize the full potential for mischief. Zhan Hu reacts at seeing Fei Long arrive sans Leslie at the nighttime RC. Then during the challenge, as Zhan Hu races to catch a fumbling Jean-Robert/James pair in the final leg, Frosti and Peih-Gee are yelling advice at Dave, which he doesn't take, resulting in disgruntled faces throughout Zhan Hu as they lose. Sensing that Dave is on the outs, Fei Long kidnaps him, which both gives the Zhan Hus a chance to enjoy camp life without Dave, and keeps him away from any strategy talk for two full days. Had they taken Sherea instead, maybe Dave relaxes and Zhan Hu runs smoothly. Instead, Dave seems even more of an outcast when he returns, and he's promptly gone.


It's interesting that production kept this going for two more (post-swap) episodes, even though some of their favorites (James) started getting picked. And that the kidnapping actually ended up helping James. Or it would have, in theory, had he felt the need to play one of his idols.


Shorter takes

Heel James


  • Digging his own grave: For all the positive, modest, hard-workin' workhorse treatment James got in the first two episodes, he took a real heel turn in Episode 3. Right after Leslie complains to Zhan Hu about being misunderstood due to her faith over at "cynical" Fei Long, the editors show us James saying (as Jean-Robert giggles): "The people that pray the most, sin the most. That's why they're praying! 'Cuz they know they're going to Hell." (The people already inclined to side with Fei Long laughed, though.) Amazingly, that same shot served double duty, as James and Jean-Robert then immediately launch into a discussion about how they and Denise need to stay, while Courtney is obviously first out. While Courtney and Todd are standing within hearing distance. That's a nice-a segue. Then... Jean-Robert: "But you like Courtney.... A million dollars is one thing, but if you can get a million dollars and some ass?" [Cut to Courtney and Todd nearly rolling on the ground, laughing. Then swearing to vote both James and Jean-Robert out as soon as possible. As they should.] Fei Long is truly an all-star tribe for spontaneous reality.


  • Courtney's lament: Courtney made an excellent point about the unfairly all-physical challenges through the first three episodes. Clearly, the individual challenges after the merge aren't going to be pure feats of strength. So why were the first five tribal challenges almost exclusively of that nature? If you're going to cast both extreme ectomorphs and endomorphs on the same season, why stack the early challenges to exclusively favor the former? This pendulum has swung back and forth throughout Survivor history, with modern tribal/team challenges at least mixing puzzle/non-strength elements in fairly frequently, especially in early challenges, to even things out a bit. But there was no changing the fifteenth season as it was happening, no matter how logical Courtney's argument.


  • Courtney's vote: Courtney voted exclusively (and incorrectly) for Jean-Robert pre-merge, but at least she did so with style... "I am voting for you, because when you snore at nighttime, it sounds like someone's choking a walrus." Brava. Although it's a bit worrisome how quickly Todd's righteous pledge to take out "garbage" Jean-Robert dissipated as soon as Aaron objected to losing Jean-Robert's challenge strength.


  • The fall and rise of Jean-Robert: In Episode 3, we were exposed to super-creepy Jean-Robert—snoring like a walrus, allegedly groping people in the shelter at night, openly chatting with James about which girls on his tribe he finds the most attractive. It's not hard to find something to dislike there, and Courtney and Denise seemed perfectly justified in doing so. But then in the very next episode, all of a sudden it's Jean-Robert Redemption Hour, and he's working hard in camp, conversing with the local fishermen and their adorable kids in fluent Mandarin, even getting bickered at by Underdog Hero Courtney after he attempted to keep her from burning herself. Which, while a bit confusing, is also great: people are complex, and nobody is exclusively good or bad, and we shouldn't expect them to be. It's also a welcome reminder that the editors of reality TV shows have the power to turn real people into either ogres or saints, as they see fit, and today's loathsome villain might just be the next episode's hero. It doesn't change the fact that Ep.3 Jean-Robert made Courtney feel unsafe. But it's at least a more nuanced view of the guy who ends up mostly being the season's villain.




  • More and more location love: These two episodes included one of the best camp visits ever, with the fishermen family (cormorant fishing!), and one of the coolest challenges ever ("Warrior's Duel")... mainly because everyone got to dress up in ancient Chinese armor, then break porcelain stuff. One could argue the anime-esque editing flourishes in the Ep.3 sword-chopping IC and the porcelain smashes during "Warrior's Duel" are really Japanese culture-specific, and not Chinese, but they were still fun. We'll take it.


  • The gift that keeps on not giving: The running practical joke that is the "Open in Private" tube delivered again in Episode 4, as Dave stole into the surrounding brush and delightedly opened it... then his face promptly fell when he realized that the clue had to be given to someone else. He put on a brave face, though, and at least acted happy that he could cut a cross-tribal deal with Todd for future information. Information Dave will now definitely not be receiving. Had Dave actually received that info in Episode 4, he might still be playing. But... ha ha, apparently.


  • The trouble with too much information: Sometimes constructing the calendar can be a bit puzzling. The pre-season behind-the-scenes videos included a glimpse of the shooting schedule, replete with actual calendar days, allowing exact placement of challenges and Tribal Councils and rewards, and so on. The only problem is, the in-show date stamps occasionally differ. Sometimes with respect to each other. The shooting schedule placed the Ep.3 RC on Day 8. Hooray, Day 8! But in Episode 3, Zhan Hu is shown introducing Leslie to their camp on Day 7. Okay... hooray, Day 7! Two ad breaks later, Leslie is shown talking about the "Open in Private" reward clue, on "Day 9." Unfortunately, she starts that discussion off with "Yesterday, at the reward challenge...." So, uh... hooray, Day 8 again?! Apparently, it's Schrödinger's RC. It took place on both Day 7 and Day 8, and its actual temporal location depends on which time stamp you use to measure it. (In the end, Leslie's Tribal Council admission that "I spent a night [singular] with Zhan Hu" won out.)




That's it for Episodes 3-4 discussion, but feel free to (rewatch and) comment below. See also:

Jeff Pitman's recapsJeff 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