On the whole, we liked this week's episode a lot. Maybe it was that, as Probst said a few episodes ago, we had hit bottom, and had nowhere to go but up (thank you, Chicago Cubs). Maybe it was that this episode was mercifully light on Abi. Maybe it was that we finally were allowed to spend some time with the new Bayon tribe (out of necessity, but still), and remembered that we liked Stephen and Spencer and Jeremy and occasionally even Kimmi and this previously unseen character named Monica and oh, is that Kelly Wiglesworth moving silently through the background? Whatever the case, this episode seemed more fun than the last two, and we say that despite the editors all but announcing in the opening minutes that Monica (or maybe Kimmi) was going.
You see, Magenta Monica had been all but completely absent from the first four episodes, snaring just three extremely perfunctory confessionals over that span. Two of which were filmed in the same sitting, but shown in different episodes (another confessional from the same interview appeared this episode). So when she showed up not only in the Previously On... recap but also narrating the sole pre-intro scene (other than the post-Tribal check-in with Angkor), it was as if the editors were barking "Take a good gander, folks! Glimpse the rare Magenta Monica. She'll be gone in 55 minutes; 42 without ads. No shoving, please, everyone will get their turn."
So when that time expired, and the last three (not so shocking, except to poor Monica) votes were all for Monica? That was okay. Because, unlike with the still-raw wounds from Varner's exit, we'd barely even seen her. Who's going to miss a character they only vaguely remembered when she was in the voting pool, and who also was barely on this season? She was, essentially, a George R.R. Martin prologue POV character. Hello, nice to meet you, sorry that the Others/Faceless Men will be offing you on the way out. Valar morghulis.
Still, for as well-executed a blindside as that was (with bonus points for keeping Wigles and Spencer entirely in the dark themselves), it's a pity that the editors didn't expend a tad bit more effort in also hiding it from the audience. Did we really need 70 scenes of Abi Abi-ing in the past two weeks? Couldn't we have spent some of that time doing more than a cursory one-dispute scene with the NuBayon women? Were they actually in an alliance with each other? Is Kelly Wiglesworth only allowed to be seen and not heard in the context of women's alliances when out fishing? Is the depletion of giant clams on Koh Rong Island, Cambodia something we should be taking more seriously? Do we need the hammer? So many questions.
Lay off the 'redemption' angle, Probst
It took a while for us to detect the pattern, but even though almost all the challenges appeared in at least one contestant's first season (except for last week's "Stompede" hero challenge, which we assume was an unannounced T-Bird memorial), Probst only plays up the Previously On aspect if the contestant or their tribe lost the first time. Not only does this allow him to utter his favorite word ("Redemption!") on camera, but it also sets up the heartwarming, albeit square, learning-from-past-mistakes narrative that this season so desperately wants to hammer into whatever round holes it finds in any episode's plot. That's why two of the three ex-Luzon members (Spencer, Kass, Tasha) were presented as possibly "redeeming" themselves in the re-running of "Draggin' the Dragon" in Ep.2, but Woo (whose Aparri tribe won that challenge) was unmentioned. Even though Woo's new tribe lost, spectacularly. Which is okay, we guess - everyone likes to see people succeed - except, that is, when the whole "redemption" thing is so forced it's farcical. Yes, Ciera's Tadhana tribe lost this week's "In the Barrel" RC in Blood vs. Water, but Ciera's entire "role" in that challenge was to stand at the end of the course and cheer for Hayden. Here, she allegedly helped Joe and Keith roll Kelley in the barrel (no pushing was actually shown, since they were too busy criticizing Monica on Bayon), and then... stood at the end of the course and cheered for Keith. Total redemption!
Why not allow some exploration of Woo's first-to-worst peformance in "Dragon"? Or Monica's transition from puzzle-solver in the Samoa "Yank Yer Hank" ("Galu! Galu! Galu is in the house!") to puzzle-swapped-out-for-er in the Cambodia one? Or Varner's journey from Kucha's last-second win in the original "Blind Leading the Blind," to Angkor's sad collapse in the most-recent one? Or... er, we'll stop there. Nobody cares about either the Worlds Apart or Cambodia versions of "Air Raid."
The point is: second-time success is not the only story that's interesting here. Especially when that alleged success is stretched as thin as Ciera being somehow vindicated by mostly standing around while Keith and Kelley performed the two main tasks in a challenge. Even Ciera herself seemed a bit hesitant to smile and nod and play along with Probst's effusive praise. Why can't Survivor explore something more soul-searching, along the lines of "Wow, my tribe was really good at that challenge the first time. Now I'm older, and we lost. Is it me?" Life has both ups and downs, not just non-stop raises. Every person booted thus far did worse in their Second Chance than they did in their first, yet it's all brushed away as "Well, they didn't learn from past mistakes." What glaring prior mistakes did Monica fail to rectify? Come on Survivor, you're better than this. This is allegedly reality-competition TV, not the Stuart Smalley Weekly Affirmation hour.
Slingshots! How do you screw up slingshots?
We've said it before, we'll say it again: "Air Raid" may be the lamest use of slingshots in a Survivor challenge, ever. It has none of visceral thrill of, say, the South Pacific version, where the contestants flung coconuts to satisfyingly smash on masks and/or knock the masks over. Or any of the hundreds of variants just using rocks and handheld slingshots to smash plates. Slingshots are fun. You use them to break things. Dennis the Menace had one. Bart Simpson had one. There is no way you could possibly use slingshots in a challenge and not have the end result be fun, right?
Not so fast. Somehow, Survivor managed to suck all the enjoyment out of slingshots, and replace it with waiting. The end result: "Air Raid." Here, you wait an interminable amount of time for the launched sandbag to reach the target area, where it may or may not be close to a target, but who remembers how they were aiming or how far back they pulled, when they let the shot go 15 minutes ago? Then if you're lucky and it hits, you get to wait even more time for the flag to raise. Because why would anyone want to watch a flung object hit something and have an immediate payoff? If we wanted to wait, we'd go hang out at the DMV. Oh, and when a team wins a surprise victory? You guessed it, more waiting. The victorious shooter is miles away from the rest of their celebrating tribe, and they have to clamber back over all the ridiculous obstacles before eventually reuniting with their tribemates for awkward, long-since-enthusiastic hugging. Way to capture the moment, Survivor.
Especially with three tribes, this could have been far more interesting if the contestants had been shooting (intentionally) at the other tribes' targets. First tribe eliminated gets nothing. Do the majority-original-Bayon tribes collude to snuff hapless Angkor? Does Angkor beg Bayon to take down the all-powerful Ta Keos? Final two tribes then battle head-to-head for the better reward. Do you risk letting someone take multiple shots when a selection of various juices are on the line? Oh, the tension! (And again, it would even better if it was just smashing things with slingshots, instead of this delayed reaction crap.)
Other Second Chance Episode 5 recaps & commentary
Exit interviews - Monica Padilla
Podcasts - Episode 5