In this, the post-Hantz era of Survivor, it's hard to believe that someone could screw up the virtually written-in-stone strategy of the unlikable goat who gets dragged to the end. And yet somehow, some way, Abi-Maria forged a means for doing so, one that turns out to have been deceptively simple: just call the people you want to drag you there "moron" and "idiot," to their faces, at Tribal Council. Still, in the grander scheme of things, this is a great way to get attention and airtime, and to convince people like Jeff Probst that you're a "great villain." Technically, the standard goat routine also earns you a prominent place in the edit, but let's not quibble over details.
Moreover, this event was indicative of Abi's season overall. On the one hand, she was a virtual non-entity in the challenges, nobody took her "hidden idol" charade seriously, and her goat routine was so extreme, she was far more of a contender for the weekly boot than for the million. Throughout the season, it was unclear how much of Abi's activity was genuine, how much was playing up to be seen as a goat, and how much was simply playing up for attention. From feuding with RC over the idol clue (after Abi had already found Tandang's idol), to flashing her idol at Tribal Council seconds after Malcolm had boldly revealed his, to playing up her Brazilian heritage and "cultural differences" for potential martyr points, it was unclear how to read the attempts. Apart from her IC advantage purchase at the auction, there was almost no game there. On the other hand, in the larger game for being invited back for another season of Survivor, she appears to be a clear winner. So what do we know?
For an inanimate object that got more camera time than Artis and Carter combined, the Matsing hidden immunity idol sure ended up being a bit of dud. We saw the camera crew panning to it, tauntingly, when Russell Swan needed it. Then it starred again as last-minute Matsingers Malcolm and Denise found it. Then Lisa miraculously found it in Malcolm's bag at the merge. Then Malcolm brandished it at Tribal Council. Then everyone talked about it, and talked about it.
And in the end, this all leads up to? Souvenir.
For this reason, in a sort of reverse-ICU! award, we question why this idol received so much attention. Beyond its obvious role as the tangible contrast to Abi's imaginary idol, of course. Was it the idol's fetching blue paint? Its attractive monkey design? In the end, we suppose it broke new ground as an "idol threat" (sorry), as in, Malcolm maximized the idol's effectiveness by publicly advertising it, then saving it as long as possible without using it.
But this final iteration of that same move also seemed to drive an unspoken wedge between Malcolm and Denise. When Denise asked for, but did not receive, Malcolm's idol, he broke the agreement they seemingly forged when they (mostly he) found it, especially since he already had the immunity necklace. Denise tried mightily not to betray her paranoia, as she rushed in to fill in Malcolm's unspoken reasons for hesitating, but it was pretty clear from her voting comments that even though it seemed clear Skupin and Lisa had decided to vote out Abi, Denise was feeling the pressure. And in doing so, Malcolm may have screwed up. Doubly.
Going forward, Denise has reason to be wary of Malcolm. By not giving Denise the idol, Malcolm revealed he was willing to take the risk that she might get voted out, probably because he sees Skupin and Lisa as easier-to-beat jury opponents than Denise. But if that had happened, wouldn't that actually hinder his chances of winning? Malcolm has consistently had great reads on the social dynamics of his tribe (since the Angie incident, at least), so he ought to realize his standing with the current jurors probably exceeds Denise's: most of the jurors are men; he was briefly on Tandang with RC, Artis, and Pete; Abi-Maria likes him far better than the other remaining three; and has he forgotten that he and Pete are both 24? So where's the harm in showing loyalty by ensuring Denise sticks around? Had Denise been voted out, Malcolm is suddenly down 3-1 against original Tandangs at the final four IC. What if it's a repeat of the balls-on-the-paddle challenge, and Skupin wins? Easy final four boot for Malcolm. And if he did reach the final three after passively allowing Denise to get the F5 boot, the chances of his receiving her jury vote are much lower than if she got taken down in a fire-building competition at F4, after a vote split down original tribal lines.
To be fair, because we haven't been privy to her plans, Denise may have been having similar thoughts about taking out Malcolm. But after this non-move by Malcolm, she now has an incentive to go against him at F4, even if she had been planning to stick with him until the end. And Skupin and Lisa are an ideal audience with whom to play up the poor me/ broken loyalty angle. Should such an idol backlash come into play in the finale, maybe the season-long focus on it was not unwarranted, after all.
It probably shouldn't come as a surprise to those who saw him lose to Colby in "Water Torture" in The Australian Outback - only because the pole he was holding up broke - but even 11 years later, at 50, Mike Skupin is a challenge threat. He had a solid lead in both challenges this week, and last week's IC, and in the buoy-pushing IC that Carter won. Yet while the puzzle in this IC did throw him, Skupin has curiously been overlooked during every discussion on voting out people based on perceived threat status. Will his reward win change that? Probably not, because Malcolm and Denise are both plausible threats themselves.
No matter how much his former tribemates like Abi-Maria and (to a lesser extent) Pete try to belittle Skupin's strategic gameplay, he's at least been a solid competitor in the challenges. Not only that, but in his own, go-with-the-flow way, he has made wise strategic decisions. The post-merge has featured a revolving door of the people most in danger of being booted going to Skupin, trying to swing him to an alternative alliance that would save them. He always nods dutifully, says he'll consider it, then votes them out. And despite the fact that, as a potential swing voter, he screwed them over, this is something he can sell to the jury: by ultimately deciding against their offers, time after time (with Pete, Penner, Abi-Maria) Skupin has chosen not to become someone else's pawn.
Assuming there's one immunity challenge remaining in the finale, Skupin and Malcolm are likely to battle each other (and Denise) for the final challenge win. And surprisingly, considering how little fuss he's made along the way, Mike Skupin is also a serious, overlooked contender for the ultimate win as well. (Although the one final four member not pictured at the top seems the most likely, for reasons we can't fathom.)
Denise, thanks to her mystery wound, was less than all smiles this week, but she still put in seemingly the best strategic performance. First, she successfully avoiding strangling Abi-Maria while they were trapped in camp together during the reward. But the other key scene - in which Lisa and Skupin prayed for her swift recovery - showed her building closer ties to the Tandang two, right when she needed to do so.
Compare the hands-on prayer session with Denise's reaction to Roxy speaking in tongues back in Episode 2. Denise did not mince words (in confessional) in relaying her reluctance to bring God into Survivor. But faced with two alliance-mates attempting to bring divine blessings down on her immune system (prior to an immunity challenge), Denise graciously (to the extent we were shown) accepted.
In the short term, this bonding probably helped solidify her position, and avoid this episode's boot. But in the long term, she's also improved her standing should neither she nor Malcolm win the F4 immunity. Chances are, Skupin and Lisa will vote against one of them, and now it's less likely to be her. (True, Lisa has already made it abundantly clear that she'd prefer that target to be Malcolm. So... less likely.)
Special addendum: kudos to Lisa for jumping on Denise's Tribal Council sneer at Abi's challenge prowess, and turning it into a grandstanding-before-the-jury patriotic barnburner about the spectacular, unquestionable awesomeness of the Tandang tribe. It's amazing anyone bought into it, but Artis appeared to be doing so. Wow.
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Abi-Maria Gomes