Jeff Pitman's S4: Marquesas rewatch recaps
Survivor's season of self-loathing
By Jeff Pitman | Published: September 23, 2020
Survivor: Marquesas rewatch Finale recap/ analysis

Survivor's season of self-loathing


Compared to a modern season that embraces gameplay, strategic maneuvering, and Big Moves, Marquesas's edit is a nearly relentless shock-therapy assault on those concepts. The players held up as the "good guys" — Paschal and Neleh, Gina, Gabriel, and to a lesser extent Kathy — vocally decry "playing the game" and "manipulation." They value hard work (except when it's just Kathy doing it, then hard work is bad) and being honest, and they wrap themselves in the American flag. Hooray, flag!


There's one episode where it's actually okay to break your word, backstab, and deceive: Episode 8, where the underdogs overthrow the oppressive tyranny of superfan John and his Rotu alliance (that tyranny mostly being having the numbers to vote people out). Don't worry, it's okay to betray people in this context, because it's the good guys who do it. Immediately after that, it's right back to sneering at having options, building relationships, strategizing, and playing the game.


Vecepia, the ultimate winner, is someone who actually did play the game, but most of that was edited out. What they did show of her was the part of her life the editors probably thought would most rub the audience the wrong way: Her loudly vocal Christian faith. Vee has a great strategic confessional in the finale, coming clean about her overall approach to the game: Make moves, then ask God's forgiveness (and the forgiveness of the people you moved against) after the fact. Implicit in this announcement is the realization that Survivor is a game, not a morality play. Why was this saved until the last hour of the last episode? It makes Vee, who has almost exclusively been shown praying, look like a hypocrite. Most notably, this confessional, despite being wedged between Day 38 and Day 39 in the show's chronology, was made when Vee was wearing a Rotu buff (see above), so it's from at least 20 days earlier, or half the game. So Vee has been playing like this all along, and we just weren't shown it, because it didn't fit the theme of "Playing Survivor bad, honesty and integrity good."


In fact, at the Final Tribal Council, Tammy calls out Vee's double dealing ... which again was completely cut out of the show, so Tammy's comment made no sense, unless you were a sharp-eyed viewer who noticed that Vee voted against Boston Rob at the merge. (The show did sort of highlight it with a Vee confessional in the next episode, but gave no context for *why* she did it, just mentioned that she told Rob ahead of time that she would be doing it.) What actually happened, as hinted at in the recap episode that aired after Episode 8, was that Vee had used her social game — building relationships with every person, as she states at Final Tribal — to successfully infiltrate the Rotu Four. They thought she was with them. She passed the first real test, voting against Boston Rob at the merge. Then she promptly flipped back to Sean's new coalition to blindside John. (Tammy obliquely refers to this in her EW exit interview, here, saying that she didn't want to propose forming an alliance with Vee AGAIN at final seven.)


Again, none of this made the regular 13-episode show. Why not? This is Survivor, why would you hide the winner's victorious gameplay?


Instead, we had an extended focus on being nice and playing fair and "deserving" to win, based on some unspecified moral calculus. Even the perception of "playing the game" was held at arm's length. Multiple people (Tammy and Sean especially) commented throughout the season that they thought Neleh was playing up her "innocent girl-next-door routine," amplifying her sweetness as a strategy, befuddling and beguiling Paschal to use him as a shield, and to keep the target off of herself. Huge, if true!


But alas, no. At Final Tribal, Neleh stresses that no, absolutely not, she was not "playing the game." Her being nice was not strategy, she was 100% being her true self (except on Day 24/ Episode 8). Playing the game is bad! And she loves everyone! Truly! It's sort of a foreshock to Monica Culpepper's 23-seasons-later Final Tribal lament, "Have y'all never met a neat lady?"


The only thing that really makes sense — certainly in the context of all the flag-waving — is that this was the first season filmed and edited post-9/11. It's hard to disentangle this season from that event: Season 4 was supposed to film in Jordan, then filming was delayed because of 9/11, and the location had to be changed. Maybe there was simultaneous pressure from the network to be more uplifting, to promote more positive storylines, tone down the skullduggery. Then again, Survivor had already been on that path, following up Richard Hatch's win with the wholesome Tina/Colby duo, then with real-life good-guy winner Ethan. Maybe this was an organic push from the show itself to make the game seem more palatable, and less about gamesmanship and strategy. Maybe that directive came from Mark Burnett himself. Who knows?


Whatever the reason, the overall theme of this season stands out in its implicit rejection of the show's entire premise, or at least the premise as articulated by its first winner. In this season, it wasn't about voting people out and then convincing them to give you a million dollars. In Marquesas, apparently, the goal was to be the nicest person possible, and for everyone else to fall on their swords and allow themselves to be voted out, simply because your niceness and upstanding moral character made you the most "deserving." Paschal banged the "deserving" drum all season long. Thankfully for the show's future, this jury (just barely!) ignored him and upheld the concept that no, gameplay is actually sort of important in this, a game.


The many Survivor heresies of Paschal English

The many Survivor heresies of Paschal English


Throughout this rewatch, one thing has been increasingly clear, something that was less obvious way back in 2002: Paschal is a terrible Survivor player, and he made the show less enjoyable. Except maybe that one time a crab pinched his finger.


It's galling that on paper, he played a great game: He voted correctly 8/8 times (until the tie vote that rocked him out, at least), and never received a vote against him. He even won a fairly physical individual reward challenge shortly before the starvation drove him to the brink of physical collapse. By SurvAv scoring, he had the best performance this season, if you don't include jury votes.


But when you look at what he actually did, at how he played the game, and listen to his confessionals and private conversations, it's clear he was the actual worst. He's the loudest complainer about people "playing the game," as if that was anathema (to, well, playing the game). Yet the editing canonizes him as this righteous, gentle man plucked directly from Andy Griffith or something. In reality, he was a massive hypocrite who constantly criticized people for things he himself did, all while demonizing the game itself. To wit:


Paschal's confusing crusade against alliances: He has an agreement with Neleh not to vote each other out. That's fine! But he's completely against other people forming alliances. The only "fair" thing in his eyes appears to be original tribe loyalty (he never explains his moral code directly, that's the best we can divine from his lectures on honesty and integrity). That explains why it's okay for the three original Rotus (himself, Neleh, Kathy) to all vote Gina out of Maraamu, despite that looking an awful lot like an alliance. But two episodes later, when the Rotu Four has a numbers advantage over this same three, that's very, very bad, and evil, and unfair.


This is pious Paschal at his sanctimonious worst. Alliances, and/or "making agreements to vote people out," are really the only strategic option at this point in the show's history. Despite that obvious point, Paschal is generally content to let production's assigned original tribes override all of that. Except, of course, when alliances benefit him. Then he constantly complains about other people using "deception and manipulation," which doesn't appear to mean to Paschal what it does to everyone else. John was completely straight-up with Paschal. Sean, as far as the show presented, also was a completely open book about his intentions, and stayed loyal to Paschal after the John boot. Same for Vee, who even took additional pains to be extra nice to everyone, and play the peacemaker in camp when Sean and Paschal were at odds. Paschal was eventually opposed to all of them for ... reasons.


Paschal's unbreakable word: He can justify his alliance with Neleh because he gave her his word that they wouldn't write down each other's name. Again, totally fine! Call it an alliance, call it an agreement, whatever. It's cool, that's playing Survivor. But he also gave John his word at the merge, then promptly voted him out. His word is unbreakable to Neleh, but eh, with John a little flexibility is okay, apparently. (Speculation: Was this because John didn't feel comfortable revealing his homosexuality — which is of course irrelevant to the game — to the fair, open-minded, older Southern judge?) Paschal's abject hypocrisy on this betrayal is never called out directly on the show, and the edit continues to dodder along and present him as this noble sage, dispensing timeless wisdom as the moral center of the season.


Paschal the wise observer: Paschal gives (right before betraying John) an extended confessional lauding himself for his ability to sit back and observe the lay of the land before making a decision. But one episode prior, he's already decided without having met them (based on Gina's stories) that Boston Rob, Sean, and Vee are terrible people for not working constantly at Maraamu (also, in a weird coincidence, for voting out her ally, Hunter ... but again, manipulation is bad in Survivor). He gets to the merge, knows instantly he's going back to his Rotu "family," and can't even be bothered to even talk to Sean, Vee, or Rob (if he did, it was never shown). At final five, he repeats that he doesn't trust Sean and Vee, and never has. Despite Sean's bonding with him on their Marquesan feast reward, despite Vee's continued efforts to avoid drama, despite the fact that they've remained loyal to him since the overthrow of the Rotu Four. He never even entertains the idea of voting out Kathy instead, which probably would have worked for all involved (except Kathy). Apparently some lands are easier to get the lay of than others.


Paschal the hard worker: One of Paschal's most frequent complaints about other people in the game (again, mostly Sean and Vee, who coincidentally happen to be Black) is that they're lazy. By Episode 12, he's also convinced himself that Sean and Vee have "coasted" through the game. Strategically, this a bald-faced lie: the fall of the Rotu Four was at least 50% Sean's work, and Vee worked overtime to have potential alliances with just about everyone. Meanwhile, Paschal himself attended just two Tribals pre-merge, both of which were decided by original tribe numbers, and he found himself in that majority by chance at the swap. Zero of the post-merge Tribal Council decisions were engineered by Paschal or Neleh (except maybe Sean's boot). He may have been referring to work around camp, which Sean really did seem to do less often. But the last time we saw Paschal doing any of that himself was catching crabs half a season ago, back in Maraamu, and after Episode 11 or so, his only discernible activity was napping. In fact, Paschal never really visibly does any work, apart from the effort he expends grousing about other people and praising the American flag. John was the cook. The General chopped wood. Kathy made the fire. Zoe, Tammy, and Kathy collected shells. Everyone collectively went to get water, but Paschal didn't seem to be the one carrying the jugs. Maybe he was too busy giving patriotic confessionals.


Through it all, Paschal congratulates himself on his fairness and integrity, despite these obvious biases. Most importantly, he objects to the game itself — on unspecified but apparently self-contradictory moral grounds. That's certainly his right, people don't have to like this game. But why is he playing it, then? And why, apart from his being generally harmless, was he allowed to coast all the way to the finale?


Thankfully, as Survivor has aged, it's moved away from the Paschal types in casting. Coach maybe had a few parallels, maybe Brad Culpepper, but both were mostly winking nods to the archetype, using it as cover for more cutthroat gameplay. It took Survivor a while to learn not to cast people who constantly shit on the entire concept of the game, but it's a relief they eventually did.


Final Tribal trials and tribulations

Final Tribal trials and tribulations


Kathy's big question: Kathy asked both finalists to name their one biggest move, and if they made it alone. Neleh's response should be in the running for the worst answer in the history of Final Tribal Councils. She says "I really started playing on Day 24" (which is fine, to a point) "... and I made the decision with Paschal." Oof. Then she goes on to say she was planning to stay Rotu strong the whole way until Final SIX, and that she had to hope something changed that allowed their TWO to break up the other FOUR (with Paschal as the other half of that two, obviously). Double oof.


She's seemingly obliviously telling Kathy to her face that Kathy was never in their plans, just as Kathy had suspected. Neleh then continues, giving Sean credit for making that Day 24 move happen (when Kathy was also working HARD to convince Paschal to join them). Triple oof.


Overall, just a devastating dismissal of Kathy's entire place in the game, while also responding with a firm "I didn't really make a move by myself" in response to Kathy's question. So what does Kathy do in response? She votes for Neleh, anyway. To be fair, Vee's betrayal of Kathy was still an extremely fresh wound, so her reluctance to reward Vee is understandable. But man, Neleh really fumbled that response.


It's fair to question the hypocrisy of trumpeting one's religiosity while playing a game involving deception (see also Coach in South Pacific), as Tammy and John do. But both finalists were guilty of this, perhaps to different degrees. So setting that aside, from a modern game-playing perspective, Vee gave a confident, owning-her-game Final Tribal performance. It's generally what jurors want to hear these days. In contrast, Neleh's performance seemed every bit what you'd expect from a genuinely kindhearted but minimally game-aware 21-year-old: "I love you guys! *Heart-eyes emoji*!" It's amazing the final tally was so close, and that John appeared to have such a tough time deciding.


No questions at this time: This Final Tribal was also awash in people making self-aggrandizing speeches in lieu of questions. Tammy kicked it off. Paschal followed. Then Zoe. The only actual questions: Sean, the General, Kathy, and finally John. To be fair, Paschal was never voting for Vee, and Tammy was never voting for Neleh, so there was no need for them to pretend by asking a question. (Who knows what the hell Zoe was thinking? Neleh neither worked nor played particularly hard.)

Still, having almost half the jury just standing there spewing seems like a bit much. The current Final Tribal "open discussion" format has its problems. But these monologues could and probably should have just been edited out, if only the editors didn't have so much real estate to fill elsewhere. (Not when the available filler is even more paddling outrigger canoes, arts-and-crafts body-decoration time, or wistfully lingering even longer on the parade of snuffed torches.)


Quirks of the necklace

Quirks of the necklace


All season long, Probst has asked if the immunity holder wants to give up their necklace. Obviously there was little chance Neleh was going to do so at F3, but he notably did not ask that one last time (or if he did, it was cut). Very sad.


Speaking of the necklace, in recent seasons, at least, the person who won the last IC does not wear their necklace to Final Tribal Council. That makes sense: nobody is being voted out, and removing the necklace levels the playing field a bit when facing the jury. The necklace reminds the jurors of past success, it gives the wearer an aura of power. Yet for some reason, Neleh wore the necklace here. Was this an accidental oversight, or production putting its thumb on the scale?


For reference, this wasn't done in any of the first three seasons, nor in the following one, Thailand. The only other instances in the first 12 seasons were Jenna Morasca wearing hers in The Amazon, and Lill in Pearl Islands. Amber didn't in All-Stars, Chris didn't in Vanuatu, Tom didn't in Palau, Danielle didn't in Exile Island. The first item of business in the Guatemala Final Tribal was Danni taking her necklace off. So there's no obvious pattern there (unless production was pushing for Lill?), so maybe it was nothing nefarious. But it was still weird. Maybe Neleh still has the necklace today!


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