Just last week, we talked about how, in pumping up the Second Chance theme, Survivor seemed to be telling only half the story, focusing exclusively on the on the positive, "I-learned-from-my-mistakes" stuff. Wow, did this episode deliver on the other half, or what? A deep, dark, episode that allowed people to fail, dreams to be crushed, and legitimate, earned tears to fall. Some of it was uncomfortable to watch, but it was above all real.
As you may know, we have a love-hate relationship with the loved ones/family visit. On the one hand, it's a great opportunity to humanize the contestants, draw them out of the game for a brief time, and re-establish their connections with the outside world, reminding the audience that these are real people competing in an artificial game for a million dollars. On the other hand, production sometimes goes overboard in leveraging the opportunity to extract additional emotional suffering from these same people (for a particularly egregious example, the unnecessarily cruel twist they put Brenda and Dawn through in Caramoan), and seems to delight in every additional tear they're able to wring from the cast.
So while it wasn't fun to watch, the reverse family visit in this episode, in which Terry left the game to be with his family, racing home to be with his then-gravely ill son Danny in the hospital, should be applauded for striking exactly the right tone. The departure sequence was foreboding but not overbearing. And while tears flowed freely, it felt earned in a way the by-the-numbers, pre-planned loved ones visit often doesn't. The subsequent emotional discussion with the Angkor and Bayon tribes the next morning matched this high standard. Probst guided the discussion in a way that adequately explored the gravity of the situation, without it feeling exploitative. And the post-final-words update, featuring video of Terry and Danny reflecting on the situation, paired with a plea for organ donation, was a welcome touch. Let's hope there's never a repeat of this scenario, but it's laudable that, faced with a unique and potentially tragic situation, Survivor handled it with grace and aplomb.
Internal demons also come to visit
The confessional in which Stephen broke down talking about his struggle to make sure that this time, he makes the right move at the right time, was also touching and tear-filled. (If he succeeds, and Joe goes out right after the merge again, we suspect some in the audience will also weep.) But it was also another reminder that these are real people playing (and re-playing in their heads, ad infinitum) an artificial game for a million dollars. Former contestants often talk about losing sleep thinking about how they really could have won, if only they'd made this one tiny change. Online fans love to armchair quarterback this sort of thing, and analyze, debate, and joke about where Player X went wrong in their game. It's what we do. But Stephen's confessional was a vivid demonstration that for many of the people who did not win (and probably some of those who did) this is not just talk, it's a real problem they grapple with constantly.
To which we say: It's okay, Stephen. Nobody could have beaten J.T. in Tocantins. The jury loved him. Loved him. And J.T. started winning immunity right when your ragtag band of Jalapaos finally secured the numbers. Even if you could have persuaded someone other than Erinn to vote with you, you never would have brought along Taj or Coach. So these two points seem to be mutually exclusive: (1.) J.T. gets voted out, and (2.) you still go on to reach the finals. Imagining otherwise is just fan fiction. You played a great game, even if the jury vote total didn't reflect it. It was a Kobayashi Maru situation, and your failure in no way reflects poorly on your abilities. Don't beat yourself up. Or as Jeremy said: "We've got confidence in you! Have it in yourself, man." Or maybe as Beth from Rick & Morty said, "You can't make people like you. You just have to wait for hating you to bore them." Either way.
Multiple/early swaps preserve the majority?
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Original Bayon was the love tribe, and like all other similarly challenge-dominating supermajorities (Rotu in Marquesas, Galu in Samoa, even Tandang in Philippines), they were supposed to be falling apart by now, rent asunder by unaddressable internal divisions. But they haven't, and in fact, original Bayon has maintained or regained majorities in each swapped tribe into which they've been shuffled. First Tasha and Savage managed to turn a 4-2 disadvantage on Angkor to their favor, and now Kass and Ciera have marched into a 4-3 minority on New New Ta Keo, and booted one of the four original Ta Keos. How did this happen? Shouldn't they be worried?
The short answer is yes, probably: Kass & Ciera teamed up to kick Savage's legs out from under him was on this week's vote, and over on Bayon, three original Bayons just ditched Monica, and now Joe wants Kimmi out, while Stephen is eager to blindside Joe. Storm's a-coming. But in the short term, it does appear that the earliness and the frequency of the swaps has demonstrably helped Bayon maintain their overall numbers.
What's perhaps different about this season is that the first swap happened early enough (Day 7) that divisions within Bayon didn't really have a chance to fester. Probably it also helps that they had Joe and his hammocks, and not Abi and her tantrums. Whatever the reason, original Bayon's apparent pledge to stay "Bayon Strong" following a swap or merge appears to have been successful. At least more successful than any designs the four S28 people had on staying Cagayan strong.
Who gets credit for Woo's boot? Ciera or Kass?
They've been together since Day 1, and this really seemed like a collaborative effort. But someone has to claim the scalp, right? Kass herself described Savage's original boot-Spencer plan as having been "served up" to her, and was still into it until Ciera announced getting rid of Spencer before Woo was "stupid." Meanwhile, Ciera's resistance to being Savage's go-to decoy target initiated the plotting for Plan B (for Blindside Woo). A plan to which Kass initially seemed highly resistant, because it didn't involve booting Spencer. So one strategy was Savage's idea, while the other at least started with Ciera. Yet Kass does make a good point: ultimately, the decision of which plan was carried out was entirely hers. Still, this was Ciera's plan, and it actually worked, so let's celebrate that.
That's a celebration we're happy to make, because it was part of her larger, nuanced arc within the episode. Initially, she failed to redeem her Blood vs. Water gross food performance, although as she mentioned, she tried (then cried). But that immunity loss ultimately enabled her to put this strategic move into action. As she warned at Tribal Council, "We're all second-time players, and we all have plans. And somebody's plan is not going to work out." Ciera's plan, however, did work out. In the season premiere, she talked about wanting to play as robustly and proactively as she did at the end of Blood vs. Water. As crazy as it seems, five episodes later, this is the first chance she's had to attend Tribal Council this season. And she made it work.
The confounding case of Spencer Bledsoe
Spencer is putting on an extremely perplexing performance this season. All indications from the edit are that he's a solid contender for the win. No other contestant has embraced the relentless "I have learned from my past mistakes" mantra quite as vociferously as the Young Lad. Much of this season's narrative, even in the episodes where Spencer's tribe avoided Tribal Council, has been told from his perspective. He has far and away the most confessionals of anyone still playing. Yet even a cursory review of the numbers reveals that if Spencer is going to win, either he has a lot of ground to make up, or he's playing a fundamentally different game than have past winners.
Through six episodes, Spencer has been to Tribal Council four times, where he's already picked up 8 votes against him, spread over three of those appearances. Aras in Panama-Exile Island is the record-holder for most votes against in an entire season by a winner, with 9 (many of those coming from one Terry Deitz). Furthermore, the only time Spencer has controlled the vote was in Episode 1, where he (and Shirin and Kelley) booted Aras's brother, Vytas. His survival was at the mercy of a split vote here and Episode 2 (Shirin's boot), and he was completely out of the loop last week. So marketing Spencer as a strategic mastermind seems a bit of a stretch.
Despite all of that, Spencer clearly does love, study, and understand the game, and is clearly one of the brightest people out there. If there's one critical misstep he's taken this season, it ironically came during his brief flirtation with majority power, when he and Shirin fell for Varner's "Aw shucks, this newfangled game is so gosh-darn fast! I can't keep up!" charade way back in the first episode. Since then, Spencer's been down in the numbers almost the entire time, happy for any alliance scraps that get tossed his way (Abi AND Kass? Hooray!), and surviving on a steady diet of solid performances in immunity challenges... and luck. In Episode 2, he was Varner's target until Shirin got wind of it, and wound up getting herself booted instead. He was saved by the swap in Episode 3, then contributed to a couple of immunity wins, only to have another " schemey" female player take a bullet for him last week, when Monica unintentionally ran afoul of Kimmi the Enforcer. Even then, Spencer had to ambush Jeremy and Stephen's private discussions for them to give him plausible-sounding phony voting instructions. Swapped again this episode, Spencer's only shown alliance was an entirely one-sided one with Savage, belatedly undermined by unsolicited damning info from Kass. Even then, had the whims of Kass taken a turn at Tribal, Spencer still could have been out.
While Spencer has been present through many of the game's twists and turns to this point, he really hasn't been driving the action, despite an obvious desire to do so. And yet for most of the season, the story seems to have been about him. Everybody loves Joe (except Stephen), but we almost never hear from Joe. Jeremy and Kelley each have confessional-baiting hidden idols, and have made a number of strategy-framing confessionals, yet combined, they barely match Spencer's screen time. What are we to make of this?
Other Second Chance Episode 6 recaps & commentary
Exit interviews - Terry Deitz
Exit interviews - Woo Hwang
Podcasts - Episode 6