Jeff Pitman's S17: Gabon rewatch recaps
The elephant in the room
By Jeff Pitman | Published: December 6, 2020
Survivor: Gabon rewatch Episodes 5-6

The elephant in the room ...


When an elephant appeared across the river from Fang's camp in the opening part of Episode 5, it was fascinating. This mammoth mammal was destructive and powerful, knocking down a tree, flinging a branch with its trunk. The unguarded look of sheer delight on Matty's face when he sees the elephant is fantastic. It's a great sequence, and the Gabon location finally pays off.

Unfortunately, it was also more interesting than most of the rest of this episode (apart from Bob and Marcus taking turns getting shocked by an electric catfish over at Kota), and the one that followed it. These are an exceptionally frustrating pair of episodes.


A location gives, and a location takes. Like a lot of the landlocked locations (Africa, Guatemala, Tocantins), you can sort of feel the inability to venture much beyond the confines of the camp areas starting to wear on the contestants. (There have been several visits to a beach, for challenges, for the swap, later for the fake merge ... why weren't the camps closer to/ on the beach?) In Fiji, in contrast, Earl was hiking up to the top of some hill just about every episode. Here, there's the huts, the dock, and treemail, and that's it. They're only two weeks in, and everyone's formerly brightly colored clothes are already a homogeneous dirt-brown. It's grim, it's a grind, and that's part of what was weighing on GC.


But this particular location also gives this vibrant intersection between depleted people and a rampaging wild animal. It's a balancing act. In this situation, though, the elephant was so much more lively than the contestants, it really cast a shadow over the rest of the episode. Especially when GC more or less quits. Especially when the edit builds up the possibility of flushing Sugar's idol, only for nobody to even bother trying. And then it lazily floats the same trick the next episode. Especially when both votes are yet another lopsided tally in a long series of blowouts. Even after the swap, there's been very little suspense here.


At this point in Fiji (Day 18), Earl and Yau-Man had already twice collaborated in subterfuge to allow Yau-Man time to dig up the idol, and the second time he was successful. We're almost at the point (Day 19) where Lisi gives Alex and Edgardo the info they need to steal the remaining idol out from under her as she sleeps. Here, in contrast, there's one idol, everyone knows who has it, and for two straight Tribals, nobody has even bothered to try to flush it, instead settling for consensus easy votes — GC, then Kelly.


Once again: having multiple idols in or near camp is vastly preferable to having just one, then further restricting the access to it by putting it on Exile Island. Imagine how much more interesting this season's pre-merge could have been if someone like Ken, or even Ace, had been able to find an idol near camp, and shake up a boring unanimous vote by using it.

But at least we were briefly distracted by an elephant.


Failure to capitalize

Failure to capitalize


The Fang majority put in all the work in Episode 5: They searched Sugar's bag. They found her idol. They agreed she needed to be blindsided immediately, to put the idol back into circulation. And then GC's decision to quit apparently superseded everything, and they forgot all about their plans.


(Spectacular camerawork above in using a skull in the foreground to capture his announcement, though.)


This may be the head-scratchingest moment (so far) in Gabon. What on earth was the Fang majority thinking? If GC wants to leave, fine, let him leave. But at least make *some* effort to maintain Fang's numerical majority. At least force Sugar to either play her idol or have it leave the game with her in the meantime. GC can quit after Sugar's voted out, if he wants. At least do *something*. It's unbelievable that with this perfect cover — GC legitimately wanting to leave the game — the Fangs couldn't convince him to hang on just long enough to flush the idol first.


The Champions tribe — not exactly a Buff-collecting convention of superfans — managed to do this with Shane Gould's idol in 2018's SurvivorAU 3: Champions vs. Contenders. Moana Hope was super sick, and asked to be voted out. But everyone knew Shane had an idol, as she'd made absolutely zero efforts at stealth in looking for and finding it. So the rest of the tribe at least made a convincing show of claiming they were voting for Shane, while actually voting out Moana. It can be done.


Anyway, back to Gabon. From the post-Tribal reflections early in the next episode, it sounds like there was a lot of deep, emotional stuff covered at Tribal. Even Ace described it as "sad." As shown, GC was deeply conflicted about the direction the game was pushing him morally, and felt it was dredging up some uncomfortable memories of his past. So maybe it felt unseemly for Ken and Crystal to push GC too hard to stick around for game purposes. Maybe there was a humane reason not to force the issue. But it still seems like a massive unforced error. Is it possible Matty and Ace made their (alleged Ep6) deal before GC's quit, and Ken knew, and there were just no numbers with which to pull anything off?


These (other) people are so dumb! (a.k.a. the case for Ken and Crystal)

The case for Ken and Crystal


Anyway, in the show's version, in Episode 6, Ace and Matty walk off to treemail together to form a brilliant, super-secret alliance, and pledge to protect each other, and Sugar (for Ace) and Ken (for Matty) until the merge. Crystal sees through this almost immediately, in part because she never really trusted Matty in the first place. (Important reminder: Matty was not part of Crystal and Ken's original alliance with GC on Fang, and had the swap not happened, Matty, Susie, Dan, and Randy were planning to vote the three of them out.)


After Ace loses the IC for Fang, Crystal wants to blindside Ace or Sugar, because (1) Ace lost the immunity challenge for them, (2) is a bit of a pompous ass, and (3) seems super sketchy. So she tells Matty she wants to blindside Sugar, in part because that was what they had planned to do the previous round (until GC quit instead), and in part because she's noticed Matty and Ace spending time together. Matty refuses, giving nonsensical reasons (mostly tribe strength, when, again, Ace just lost the IC for them).


Crystal and Ken then confer, and Crystal tells Ken that she's pretty sure Matty and Ace are working together (which Ken would probably know already, since Matty is supposedly protecting him). So Ken tries instead to pry Sugar away from Ace, because, again, Ace is super sketchy. This leads to a highlight of the season so far, in which Sugar just straight-up asks Ken whether she should ask Ace for her idol back! Even relative Survivor novice Ken can't believe the words that just came out of Sugar's mouth.


Ace, Sugar, and Matty – just an absolute facepalm of an alliance.


What is Matty thinking here? It's poorly explained in the episode itself, but it appears he's worried that Fang will lose every remaining immunity until the merge (a good guess!), and that they won't merge until there are nine left. (The only matching point of reference for that last bit is Cook Islands, where the jury started at F12, but the merge wasn't until F9. Every other season to this point has merged at 10.) They're currently at 13 left, so with four more boots coming, that would leave just Matty, Ace, and Sugar angling for that final boot ... and Sugar has an idol. So Matty wants to flush it. Ace convinces him not to by simply repeating "She can't play the idol, trust me. Trust me!" (Ace was currently holding Sugar's idol.) Well then, good enough for Matty, apparently.


So why would Matty agree to an alliance where he's #3, and not in a co-equal pair with Ace? Why is Ken the assumed boot when four are left? Why would Matty move himself out of the #3 position in the original Fang alliance, where they could at least theoretically get Dan and Susie back (Randy now appears unwelcome) at the merge, and he would be the swing vote within that five, only to instead be #3 to Ace, who will almost certainly either abandon him at the merge, or has no real allies on Kota? None of it makes any sense.


And then, lost in all this maneuvering, there's still Kelly, the forgotten Fang. We don't really hear from her at all strategically this episode. Ace calls her dumb, which apparently we have to take at face value, because she was allowed to speak in just two episodes the entire season (the swap and this one, and then, only about Crystal crying).


Sigh, these people.


For all Randy's ranting about Ken and Crystal, they seem to have a decent idea of how the game works and what they need to do. They're not the greatest players ever, but they have good reads, and good ideas; they just can't seem to get their plans across the finish line. They both recognize the Ace/Sugar pair as a threat, but their goal of targeting them keeps slipping through their fingers. They might have accomplished some stuff if they'd had slightly better numbers. They *almost* had them after the swap. If only they hadn't let GC leave.


Ugh, Randy (a.k.a. it's hard to win while being an asshole)

Ugh, Randy


Randy's whole shtick is being a surly curmudgeon. The problem with Randy is, you're never really sure how much of that is an act, and how much is Randy actually being Randy.


There is good and bad to to coming off as sour and hostile. On the one hand, it's hilarious when Randy pledges to play his heart out for his new Kota tribemates at the swap, "despite hating each and every one of you." This gets a good laugh out of everyone, both in person, and the audience. Humor is a great tactical shield in Survivor (as Tyson will begin demonstrating the next season), and it's also good TV. We need more of that! It's also sort of funny when he vents about tribemates that annoy him in confessional. Often this ire is earned, mostly from people not understanding how Survivor works. A lot of the time, he's the voice of the audience. And he's still providing accurate commentary, such as talking about how Dan is irritating everyone on Kota by taking extra food.


On the other hand, Randy also has a nasty habit of mocking people after they lose in challenges. Case in point: After Kota wins pastries in the Ep6 RC (Hot Pursuit while carrying a giant snake), Randy gloats about getting to eat in front of the losing Fang tribe. Then he openly mocks Crystal for crying. (He did similar stuff after Fang's first victory in the Ep3 RC, which seemed less regrettable, since they'd fought so hard for their first win.)


It's one thing to be a cartoonish, stage-y, mustache-twirling jerk, winking to the cameras while making a scathing comment. It's another thing to kick people while they're down. That's being an actual jerk. And it's terrible Survivor gameplay.


Sooner or later, despite the occasional laughs, people aren't going to want to work with Randy. Crystal has already written him off, and never forgives his bad sportsmanship. Had Randy reached the end, even against devoutly non-strategic players like Bob, he'd never get Crystal's jury vote. He probably wouldn't get Ken's. If Sugar's also on the jury, Randy's definitely not getting hers. That's almost a majority on a seven-person jury. Voting for Randy might also a reach for some of the more team-oriented original Kotas, like Charlie and Marcus, especially if he's up against their old ally, Bob. By gleefully burning bridges, Randy has probably cost himself a million dollars.


For all his superfandom and knowledge of the game, this is Randy's Achilles heel — being an actual heel. He has a Yau-Man-like ability to think through challenges and crack them to his tribe's advantage. But he pairs it with a Russell Hantz-like ability to just be an asshole at uncalled-for times.


Randy certainly faces a tough grind being one of the only people on this season eager to play a modern, fluid Survivor game, only to find himself asea amidst a group of timid, inflexible recruits. But he's also showing he can be his own worst enemy.


Shorter takes

Shorter takes


- 'Whoa, cool, flying fish' revisited: Speaking as we were of elephants in the room, Ace has one over his shoulder as he's giving a confessional in Episode 6. It all looks remarkably similar to the location where everyone was watching the elephant in the previous episode, but whatever. Are we alleging this "surprise" was staged? — as in, after Ace and Matty paddled over to look at the elephant, the producers decided to film a couple of confessionals with the elephant in the background? Maybe! But you never know, maybe it was a spontaneous, organic event. Either way, it's a fun callback to Greg Buis, who, now that we think about it, was much more entertaining than Ace. Good call for bringing it up, Survivor! But at least Ace seems genuine in appreciating the beauty of the beast behind him.


- The tribal edit imbalance: The Kota tribe is almost invisible over these two episodes. We get a brief peek at Dan eating all the food, and we get Marcus and Bob playing with electric fish, but that's about it. To be fair, that's about right, because all the relevant action is over on Fang. Kota is barely playing the game. They're Fiji's Moto tribe, reincarnated, just without a bed or silverware. Also this time the winner comes from there.


To put numbers to that: We're at Day 18, almost halfway through, right about where we'd expect a merge in most modern seasons. Matty, Ken, and Crystal have now been to Tribal Council five times. Marcus, who always seems to pop up on lists of second-chance-deserving players? He's been there once, and that one vote was a boring, keep-the-tribe-strong, 7-2 majority vote against Paloma. (He'll be gone in another two episodes.) Actual future returnee Corinne? Also once. Through six episodes, neither has really done much that was memorable. Which is a bit of a bummer, because a fair number of the original Kotas actually felt like they had a grasp on the game. But you can't make Big Moves™ if you never go to Tribal.

- Change is a-coming: For all the ennui the first six episodes have generated, the next two will obviously be packing some (production feeling desperate and throwing everything at the game until something happens) punches. There's a forced double boot (so that the Kotas will at least have *some* Tribal experience), and a fake merge, followed by a second swap. On Day 22! WTF?!  And we're about to shed all three big beefy dudes (which is remarkable, because if not for GC's quit, the first six boots of Gabon would all have been women, with Sugar in Ep5 and Kelly in Ep6 ... another big part of the boredom factor). We'll finally have not only our first 1-vote margin at Tribal, but our second ... and our third! (And after that, the dust will settle, and it'll all be pretty much over except for the complaining for the rest of the way.) But at least for now, there's still some semblance of hope.


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