Episodes 5 through 7 of Survivor: China serve as a self-contained mini-story that bridges the transition from the tribal to the post-merge portion of the game, by way of the battle for numerical supremacy following the swap (and merge). It's also the last gasp of Zhan Hu as credible winners. At the end of Episode 5, things look like they might be breaking in their favor: They've turned a 7-5 deficit into a 6-5 one, and have a plan to even things up at 5-5. But by the end of Episode 7, that's a distant memory, they're now down 7-2, with Frosti having defected, and only Peih-Gee and Erik left to carry the Zhan Hu torch. All, the edit would have us believe, because they chose to throw a challenge.
Peih-Gee and Jaime emerge as short-term villains, for that unforgivable sin of intentionally not winning immunity, all to remove one high-performing player (Aaron), while putting a fan favorite (James) squarely on the chopping block. Todd and Amanda, meanwhile, become heroes desperately trying to save James, via giving him an idol and the means to find a second. Then at the merge, one of the villains takes a fall. It's the feel-good story of the mid-game.
It's also an inversion of the events that followed the original swap, back in Africa. There, future finalists Ethan and Mama Kim (also of the yellow tribe) threw a challenge to take out the young, telegenic leader of the red tribe, who had just been tricked into switching to their camp. Except there, perhaps because Ethan went on to win, throwing an IC was presented as a brilliant maneuver, while the victim (Silas) had spent a couple of episodes being painted as the villainous lout running his former tribe into the ground. But the results are different in China. Very, very different.
The big swap
The brief period where Zhan Hu convinced themselves that not only had production seen fit to just give them Aaron and James, for no obvious reason, but that this also meant they would now have a 7-5 numbers advantage over Fei Long? That was HILARIOUS! Frosti and Peih-Gee, both of whom have been pretty on the ball about everything else in the game, gave gushing, delighted confessionals about this alleged development.
Once they figure out what's actually going on, though, it's Erik, of all people (recently annointed as the most trustworthy by Jaime, due to his virginity), who immediately figures out they can just take out Aaron by losing. He mentions this before Frosti and Sherea have even departed for Fei Long camp. Peih-Gee and Jaime eventually take it a step further by throwing the immunity challenge, and perhaps because he had already exhausted himself trying to win, Erik then seems significantly less enthusiastic about that plan, but the tactic was there in the open from the start.
This particular method of switching up the tribes (the shopping list, er... "swapping list"?) has never been repeated, and probably because (1) except perhaps the San Juan del Sur people, or maybe Cagayan's Beauty tribe, there are simply too many people familiar with the show in current casts for such misguided hilarity to ensue, and (2) production both really loves challenge beasts like James and really hates people throwing challenges, so if a tribe as naive/ strategically suspect as Zhan Hu can figure out this quickly that their optimal play is to sabotage the opposing tribe's leader by throwing an IC, just about anyone can. Except maybe the San Juan del Sur people.
And you know what? That's fine that it hasn't been attempted again. This iteration played out perfectly, and a ham-fisted attempt to recreate the same conditions would only cheapen its memory.
The bigger throw
That was fun to re-watch, but it's surprising a bigger fuss wasn't made about this during the challenge. Jaime was completely transparent, with an ear-to-ear grin throughout, yelling at Aaron and Erik to take a break and rest between dives, then discarding one puzzle piece and intentionally mis-placing others, all while James yells at her and Peih-Gee to "focus!" This subterfuge is so obvious, in fact, that even Probst, standing on the Fei Long end of the beach, called out Jaime's obvious lack of effort. "You'd never know there was anything on the line." He also took a few digs at Peih-Gee, "So Peih-Gee, you good at puzzles?" Prompting Peih-Gee's classic response, "I'm good at Sudoku!" Aaron and Erik delivered Zhan Hu's puzzle "team" a substantial lead, clearly at great physical effort, so it was a double disappointment for Aaron.
Hearing Probst's voice dripping with disdain as he tosses back the "missing" Zhan Hu puzzle piece after the challenge, "that... really didn't come into play, anyway," it's pretty clear how the host viewed the situation. And in retrospect, it makes some sense. At that point in the show's run, Probst was purely there as the host, so the challenges were Probst's domain, his time to shine (along with Tribal Council). He's also present not just as an announcer, but also as the sole referee, enforcing rules to ensure a fair competition—for example, verifying that each diver made it back to their mat before the second one could jump in. So when contestants intentionally try something this unfair, that is, in effect, showing him up. Not only were Peih-Gee and Jaime trying to pull something over on James and Aaron, but Probst pretty clearly felt they were also trying to pull something over on him. As you might guess, this displeased him.
Having said that, it was production's own twist mechanism that created this situation in the first place. They have only themselves to blame. When presented with the opportunity to pluck two Fei Longs away from their tribe, Zhan Hu's very first thoughts were delight at being able to weaken the seemingly unstoppable Fei Long, by removing their leader. It's the obvious goal of such a swap. It was clearly only a short distance from noticing that, should Zhan Hu end up losing, Aaron and James would be at a 2-to-3 disadvantage, so they could still cripple Fei Long by booting one of them. Credit should be going to Jaime and Peih-Gee for recognizing their optimal play, and executing it. Instead, they received editorial scorn.
Footnote: What if...
Then again, as Zhan Hu leaves Tribal, Probst warns them that "if your assumptions are wrong, it could be trouble." It seems that, especially five seasons after Palau, Probst may have been dangling the possibility of either a delayed merge, or no merge at all. Which begs the question: What if Zhan Hu had thrown the next IC? Would production have followed through on that threat, and not merged, forcing Zhan Hu to keep competing, while down 7-3? Luckily, we'll never know, because of what happened in the next episode. Let's hope production wouldn't have put their finger on the scales to that extent.
Mission accomplished: A successfully executed plan rebounds to despair
The cold shoulder Sherea offers to Peih-Gee when their paths intersect (in private, even) during the next episode's reward challenge sends Zhan Hu into a remorseful spiral of self-doubt back at camp. What if their hilarious "sacrifice" turns out to have been for naught, and Frosti or Sherea (or both!) sticks with their new Fei Long friends at the merge? Most likely, a producer had nudged that paranoia along by asking a related question after the three losing Zhan Hus returned, empty-handed to camp. Either way, it's fascinating how low the remaining Zhan Hu trio was brought by this, from simply losing a toilet-paper sponsored reward challenge—and maybe their friends, too!—just one day after intentionally throwing an IC.
Still, after all this second-guessing introspection, guess what Zhan Hu's take-home message from their post-challenge discussion ends up being? You guessed it: "We have to win immunity."
Whether it's just the psychological burden of repeated losing, or mulling over Probst's post-Tribal admonition, or some combination of the two, this is a complete reversal of Peih-Gee's plan (already 50% accomplished) of throwing the next two immunity challenges. In retrospect, considering James would soon have not one, but two idols... yes, in fact, they really did need to win the next immunity. But that simply did not logically follow from their losing out on a reward. Very odd.
The idol find(s)
At the start of Episode 6 (Day 16), with three full clues in hand, Todd still hadn't found Fei Long's idol, and enlisted Amanda's help. It's not clear if he showed her the clues then, but as far as the audience can tell, even then, the pair of them still can't find the idol.
This seems a bit thick-headed to modern eyes, mainly because China's are really the first truly modern idols—hidden in plain sight, in camp, readily available if you just look in the right place. The difference here is historical: Up until this point, idols had been *buried* somewhere (at least in Panama, Cook Islands, and Fiji), with multiple clues and triangulation needed just to figure out where to dig. The concept of finding an idol without a clue seemed so ridiculous as to be sheer fantasy. You would have to dig up the entire camp! Maybe even remove an entire foot of dirt, everywhere!
Even with that perspective, the repeated editorial flourish of flashing a shot of the unfound idol *every time* someone as much as mentions looking for idols starts to get a bit grating around this point. Yes, we know where it is. Yes, it's that bat carving you keep showing us. Yes, we know. Please stop. Why can't those dummies find it?
So it's a huge relief when they finally do find it. For as many complaints as fans make about the modern show spending too much time on idol hunting, these idols took up significant chunks of five full episodes. But eventually, everything comes up Todd. Well, and Amanda. Aaaand Frosti. And then James. But it was Todd's doing, initially.
During the Ep.6 teahouse reward, Todd gives a confessional stating "Sometimes it feels like I'm the only one playing the game." He's then shown promising to save James, in exchange for what (freshly kidnapped) James has in his sealed tube. This is why casting sharp superfans like Todd frequently pays off—he's immediately grasping changes in the game structure (idol clues given by people who are kidnapped), and leveraging information that he's been privy to, in order to advance his own game. Amanda also knew about how the clue distribution worked, but as far as we were shown, she did not approach James and attempt the same exchange of info. Todd did. Best of all, Todd's telling the truth: He really can help James save himself, and he does.
As winner's edits go, this was fairly blatant, but it's still cool to see the smallest guy on the cast, playing head and shoulders above everyone else strategically.
Another significant edit-related point: This span of episodes laid significant groundwork in the case for Todd as the winner over Amanda. Clearly, Todd and Amanda worked together throughout the game, and a lot of their strategic decisions were made as a pair. Both contributed, and they have virtually identical strategic résumés. Furthermore, by the end of the game, Amanda's challenge prowess has set her apart as an all-around physical/social/strategic player, whereas Todd is clearly not a physical threat. So why does the jury give Todd the million dollars, and Amanda third place?
At least from the edit, this was clearly Todd's game strategically. He gets Dave to share his idol clues through social interactions. He (Todd) then convinces James to do the same, then retrieves the idol and hands it over to James for future (non-) use. And in Episode 6, as Fei Long has a mini-crisis over whether to target Sherea or Jean-Robert, Todd is shown as the one with the superior read of the tribal mood, advocating for Jean-Robert against Amanda's preferred choice of Sherea, because continuing to dictate the boot and overriding the valid concerns of people like Courtney (and Frosti) makes Todd and Amanda seem like "power players," who will swiftly become targets. Ironically, this vote goes Amanda's way, and in the end, it's Todd that ends up being voted against at each of the last four Tribal Council eliminations, while Amanda never receives a single vote against her. But at least he has the title of Sole Survivor as consolation.
The throwing coda: Zhan Hu can't lose!
The back-to-back scenes in which Todd informs both Denise and Courtney that James has the idol, and that it's now incumbent on Fei Long to win immunity, so that James can play the idol and take out Jaime, seem a little odd on the first pass. Why is Todd bringing them in on this plan? But it completely fits in light of how the (gross food) immunity challenge plays out: Courtney and Denise both know the goal is simply to beat Zhan Hu, giving James an opportunity to idol out Jaime. Yet in their matchups, including (ironically) Denise against her close buddy James, they can't eat their assigned delicacies. Courtney simply can't match Jaime's eel-consuming pace. As for Denise, she simply refuses to eat balut. The exact opposite of the plan! Giving Zhan Hu the (eventual) win!
It's a great, entertaining inversion of the original script, and of Zhan Hu's successful challenge throwing. James even predicts that it shouldn't be hard to beat Zhan Hu, since they're throwing the immunities, anyway. The challenge unfolds replete with disgusted glances exchanged between Todd and James. All of Todd's meticulous planning gets thrown out the window, all because of a simple chicken fetus (and an eel).
Even so, everything still ends up working out in the end. Jaime just ends up leaving an episode later. Phew!
The merge: Idol threats
Jaime's attempt to pull in an already-immune Frosti with her (non-functional) immunity idol revealed just how completely Frosti saw himself as part of Fei Long. As he states in confessional, he was there when Todd got the actual Fei Long idol, so he knew exactly what it looked like. Yet he didn't offer this information to Jaime. Frosti also hadn't directly been told that James had found the Zhan Hu one, but he did know Jaime had found two idols in James's bag. So he probably guessed that whatever Jaime had found probably wasn't a real idol (he seemed unsure in confessional). But again, Frosti doesn't mention this to Jaime. It was a logical play by Jaime, to secure the (original) Zhan Hu numbers going into the vote. It just didn't work.
Jaime received the brunt of negative editing over this three-episode stretch: she's the grinning ringleader who eventually receives comeuppance for throwing the Ep.5 IC; she's the butt of James's ridicule for thinking the non-idol was real; she's edited as a fool for hilariously trying to cut a deal with Todd (exchanging idol info for Ep.7 safety); then she's mocked by the "I'm Not As Dumb As I Look" title quote. Despite all of that, Jaime actually was a pretty solid social/strategic player.
She never really received much fan credit for her game at the time, partly because this series of events surrounding her departure all blew up in her face (not to mention that the public romance with Erik probably wasn't an ideal strategic choice, even if it did pay off in real life). If anything, though, Jaime's performance in China was a better fit for the flirty, femme fatale backstabber slot in Micronesia than was Parvati's in Cook Islands. But that didn't come to be, and Jaime never made a return appearance. Even though things didn't work out here in China, Jaime was consistently playing hard over these episodes, and making decent plays. She just didn't have either the numbers or the info she needed to make the very best plays. Todd did, and he came out on top.
While the results favor Todd's central role in making that happen, Fei Long really did seem to make a wise decision in targeting her first out of the remaining Zhan Hus.
That's it for Episodes 5-7 discussion, but feel free to (rewatch and) comment below. See also:
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