More and more as this season progresses, I've found myself not just permanently cured of wanting to play Survivor, but questioning why I'm even bothering to continue watching. Immediately after the San Juan del Sur finale, Jeff Probst kicked off the preseason marketing of Worlds Apart by promising "this was one of my favorite seasons of all time." At this point, Worlds Apart is clearly not one of Survivor's best seasons. Depending on how the last four episodes go, it could even end up being the exact opposite. At best, it's been a mediocre President: Adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable. This episode was very much the latter.
Instead of a top-tier, well-played struggle for supremacy, what we've been shown is a joyless collection of scenes of generally hostile people yelling at each other, interspersed with challenges that only one or two people can win, with the sole bright spot being the occasional release from captivity as someone gets to leave. (To be fair, Rodney's impressions were a brief glimmer of comic relief, but that's about it.) The post-merge game has been anything but an epic reality-competition social/strategic battle. It's been more like the Stanford Prison Experiment. Chance and/or producer decisions brought a few people into power (the original Blue Collar tribe, which only won one challenge in the three-tribe phase, now makes up half the remaining players). Those in power appear miserable and/or paranoid. They demonstrate their power by deriding the powerless, then sending them away. Then the process repeats. Lovely.
Furthermore, there has been almost no actual gameplay, apart from the fleeting excitement of Jenn's idol play, which ultimately did nothing to alter the balance of power. Despite this season's initial three-tribe format, there have been no dramatic strategic shifts, nor even the hope of one, really. As Jenn and Joe revealed in their exit interviews, the majority alliance has been rock solid in refusing to even talk to people in the minority alliance about the game, thereby leaving no possibility of anyone shaking things up and making a vaunted Big Move, as occurred often in Philippines and Cagayan. There isn't even the distraction of looking for idols, since both have been found, and neither is likely to be played any time soon (maybe next week, but probably not if Mike wins immunity again). And for its part, the show seems to have embraced this absence of strategy, and decided that the volatility and verbal abuse is what it really wanted to show, anyway. Even a potentially game-changing new advantage such as Dan's vote doubler is completely ignored in the ads (and also mostly in the show) in favor of scene after uncomfortable scene of ugly emotional outbursts. Or the sole big-ish move of this episode: Mike switching from the dominant to the minority alliance. Instead of actually showing it -- which according to Jenn happened when Mike was ostracized after the auction -- the show completely buried it, and pretended it took place last episode, according to a highly revisionist history "Previously on..." recap segment.
No wonder Jenn just wanted out.
Well, guess what, Survivor? It's not really all that fun to watch starving, over-stressed people pass the time by making personal attacks on each other. Even if Rodney's act of flying off the handle in a near-coming-to-blows fit of steroidal rage is mostly for show, it's still unpleasant to watch. It's even less fun to write about it. Sure, there's still a scintilla of hope that this season could turn around. An underdog such as Shirin (who the show's editors have ridiculed extensively) or Mike (who only became an underdog after briefly trying to make a power move in this episode, then reversing course) still has a theoretical chance to win, especially since the entire current jury would probably vote for one of them. Yet the next two episode titles ("Survivor Russian Roulette" and "Holding On For Dear Life") don't really inspire much confidence that this is the case. And if the underdogs don't hold on? Then this is the story of two groups of people in power who came together, formed a bigger group of people in power, destroyed the smaller group of powerless people in every way possible, then gave one of their own a million dollars.
Great, uplifting story there, Survivor. Best season ever.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
Dear Jeff Probst: No, the drama between Will and Shirin was not fun to watch. And let's be frank: Your production decisions instigated this. Just as they almost destroyed the show in Caramoan, when you giddily threw "kerosene" onto the smouldering powder kegs of Brandon and Shamar, then topped that by smugly shoving a shiv into Brenda and Dawn's relationship by forcing Brenda to choose between enjoying her just-won Loved Ones reward herself, or letting the others have it, after she'd already picked Dawn to join her. Which accelerated Brenda's boot, made it seem particularly callous, and left a wound that festered until one of the the most awful Final Tribal Council moments, ever. All of which, again, was probably egged on by the producers, who cleared Brenda's jury question beforehand.
So here we are again, two years later, and instead of an grounding, humanizing experience, Survivor is once again using the lure of loved ones as a thumbscrew to inflict pain on its castmembers. Hooray, entertainment!
Will was clearly already broken up about missing his family way back in Episodes 3&4. To then trick him into bidding on an auction item, thereby screwing himself completely out of any chance to join his companions in hearing from loved ones, was pretty reprehensible. That was your doing, Probst. "Ha ha! What a great moment! He thought he was buying food, and instead we really messed with his head!" Sure, giving Will a (potentially) secret cache of food when he returned to camp slightly made up for that. But even that was either poorly thought through or calculated to instigate strife. Production obviously saw how Mike & Dan's selfless Ep.1 act of choosing the larger bag of beans for their tribe ended up backfiring, raising the suspicion of their tribemates (mostly Sierra), instead of earning their praise. Given that those people are almost all still around, why should it be any different now, when Will tries something similar?
It's understandable that Will, already off-balance from production double-crossing him at the auction, would be outraged after having his selfless gesture questioned. It's inexcusable, however, that he then snapped and channeled his anger into a vicious, highly personal verbal attack on Shirin. Maybe Will didn't know about Shirin's past history of domestic abuse, but he certainly should have noticed she'd already been suffering as the go-to scapegoat of every tribe she'd been a part of this season. And it's hard to feel any empathy for Will when he doubled down on his hostility at Tribal Council, even after hearing Shirin's full backstory. Despite all that, there's one important thing to remember: Will didn't leap willingly over this line, he was pushed. And Probst was grinning like a Cheshire Cat when he pushed him.
To be sure, Shirin had a powerful moment in the next scene, when she reluctantly raised her hand in defiance of Will's attempt to barter with Probst for his letters from home. On the one hand, it was great that Shirin was given this opportunity, since she no other recourse by which to stand up to Will's bullying, having zero chance of voting him out. Shirin's arm raise was a tremendously brave act, made moreso because she had to know it went against basic strategic common sense (don't stand out, don't be the only person to do something, and most of all don't directly antagonize the other players, especially potential jurors). Yet it was an act that was completely necessary. Bad behavior shouldn't be rewarded, especially via a transaction where Will would be taking no actual risk, and giving up something all-but-worthless (he was in no danger of being voted out, and also in no danger of winning the challenge).
On the other hand, though, Probst's choices here made things worse, not better. Instead of smoothing over the Will-Shirin conflict (as he did in the "Rice Wars" episode of Redemption Island), he all but dared Shirin to make it worse. By extending the possibility (again!) that Will could finally receive his letters from home, if only everyone agreed, Probst just ratcheted up the anger potential. He created an unwinnable situation where Shirin's only choices were to (1) roll over and play dead, or (2) be the bad person who was mean to Will. This made neither person whole. Nor the audience. Especially when the end result was a Probst-incited Will making an even more awful series of outbursts at Tribal Council than his initial tirade in camp. But hey, "bring the popcorn," America.
So sure, let's debate the relative atrocity or merits of Will's diatribe and Shirin's response. And in doing so, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It's highly unlikely this would have happened if not for the opening auction twist of sending Will away empty-handed, while everyone else had a chance to buy letters from home. Why do that to someone? Stop using loved ones to exploit your contestants, Survivor.
Or at least join Shirin in trying to turn this into something positive: https://twitter.com/theshirin/status/591319553705119745
Worlds Apart Episode 10 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Jenn Brown
Podcasts - Episode 10