This was it: The overthrow. The rise of the underdogs. Pagong's revenge. The first big power shift in Survivor history, proving that if the people on the bottom know where they stand, they can always band together and seize power for themselves. This was the biggest episode in Marquesas, the episode that changed the entire season's trajectory, and one that still stands out today as a seminal moment in the show's evolution.
It's important to note here that John didn't really do anything all that wrong. Much like Kim Spradlin at the final five in One World, he came into the merge with "options": his three ex-tribemates coming back from Maraamu, with whom he still had a solid connection, or the three new arrivals who'd started the game on Maraamu. Either group of three gave him a solid 7-person majority, and each group even had at least one person (Rob, Kathy) who stood out as an easy consensus target, depending on which way his Rotu Four decided to go. It should have been pretty foolproof.
But he ran into a formidable opponent in Sean (and Kathy). Both Sean and Kathy kicked into high gear trying to assemble a counter-alliance in this episode, but it was really Sean who most vocally capitalized on the Four's cockiness and casual revelation of their intentions during the coconut chop immunity challenge, loudly complaining "it's a conspiracy!" (slipping some truth in, masked as a joke) then telling Kathy "This is the order, how it's gonna go" as the chop order emerged.
John's final words also remind us that he was one of the first superfans to play. At the time, strategy-minded fans were just a tiny handful of Survivor's massive early audience (51 million for the Borneo finale, 45 million for the Australian Outback premiere), people who both intuitively grasped and embraced the combination of alliance-building and backstabbing that Richard Hatch's game established in the first season. People were still largely here for the camping/challenges, or the being-on-TV aspect, or the lure of the million-dollar prize, not for the love of the game. John was probably a little bit all of the above, but mostly the latter, and his emotional breakdown in his final words demonstrated that. A solid player who just let himself get too comfortable. It happens.
Good old immovable Paschal, the man who almost destroyed the season
As the Soliantus head to Tribal Council, the show decides to let Paschal take the credit for the upcoming power shift, as the valiant, heroic man who has come to the conclusion — all on his own, mind you, through his special ability to sit back and assess the lay of the land — that it's time to act.
It's hard to overstate the degree to which the single greatest obstacle to this power shift was Paschal. Early in the episode, Kathy warns him that Zoe was absolutely planning to vote her out first at the merge (thwarted by Kathy winning immunity), and has since continued to lie about it, and that the Rotu Four are planning to use them (Kathy, Neleh, and Paschal) as pawns to get to the end themselves. Paschal's response? A sneering, "So?"
Later, Kathy tries again to work on him logically, repeating that she doesn't want to be John and Tammy's pawn, and saying "I just want this to be fair." Paschal shakes his head, gravely: "This game's not fair." His obstinacy and abject refusal to consider his own position within the alliance very nearly sunk this season.
Paschal is also adamant about voting out Sean instead. "I'm not aligning myself with Sean and, and ... Vee." He goes further: John is honest and "deserves to win," even though he organized the Gabe vote, which just a week earlier had left Paschal heartbroken, feeling as if he'd lost a son. Conversely, he is also absolutely sure that Sean and Vee (with whom he has now been living for five days) are not trustworthy or honest, and that Sean winning would be "an embarrassment."
Hmm, what ever could have caused him to take these positions? Let's think. What could possibly be different about Sean and Vee that an old, flag-waving White guy from Georgia might take offense to? Is it the frequency with which they vocally express their Christian faith? No, no. That doesn't quite seem right. There must be something else there, something I just can't quite put my finger on ....
Oh well, it's a mystery apparently. One that, again, almost sunk this season.
Key Paschal quote this episode, presented as heroism: "I don't know how to play this game. I have no clue how to play it, I don't want to know how to play it." (Survivor: Shitting on the superfans since 2002!)
In the end, the savior here was of course Neleh, who would famously describe this to the jury as her starting to play the game on Day 24. After Sean and Kathy (and probably Vee, but we're never shown what she thinks or does, more on that below) spend the entire episode hammering home that John and Tammy 100% do not plan to take them to the end (including during the IC itself), that the numbers are 5-4, and they won't have this chance again, Neleh finally realizes that whoa, maybe Kathy and Sean were right. And at that moment, she somehow finally provides the nudge to roll Paschal over the hill of his potential energy barrier. Neleh took a lot of heat for the Day 24 thing, but Day 24 is a much better time to start playing than the next day, when it would have been too late. So thank you, Neleh.
There's a great foreshadowing scene at the start of the episode, where Paschal sits by the fire "to think about my wife and daughters." (Of course he did. Ahem.) He stokes the fire, covers his face, then settles down for a nap, because all that thinking is mighty tiresome. The win knocks two big trees down, right next to the shelter. He's startled by the noise, looks around, but declines to get up and investigate.
Good old immovable Paschal. It's fitting that he eventually gets taken out by a rock for refusing to change his vote.
He's the actual villain of this season: a grumpy, sanctimonious old anti-strategy stick-in-the-mud, the cop clamping down on 90% of the fun, hating on the game with every confessional. Even by his own standards he was the bad guy this episode, giving John his word — "the only thing an old guy like me has left" — just one day before voting him out. And yet, despite almost ruining everything, Paschal still gets a golden coronation edit every minute of every episode.
Paschal, the sage, thoughtful judge, was perfectly happy to stick to his guns, sit back, and vote out the only two Black players back-to-back (then get picked off himself), all because his refusal to examine his preconceived notions felt right. He wouldn't accept or consider the (accurate!) evidence presented repeatedly by Kathy (a woman) or Sean (a Black man). It took production staging an intervention during the IC (followed by Jeff Probst himself at Tribal Council, just in case they missed it), and then Sean and Kathy loudly pointing out what was going on, to persuade him to change, and then only really because they were able to convince Neleh.
Just imagine what might have transpired if they'd had an auction instead of the reward challenge, and had used the kite flying challenge for immunity.
(Sidenote: Didn't Paschal's presence on this season violate the application rules? Judges are elected officials in Georgia, are re-elected every four years, and politicians running for office are not supposed to be eligible to play.)
Survivor: Marquesas and the act of actively erasing the winner from the edit
Again, we've been shown a *lot* of Paschal over the past few episodes. Know who we haven't seen? The eventual winner, Vecepia. She has zero confessionals over Episodes 6-7, and just two in Episode 8. To be fair, the show was rightly more focused on a compelling mid-season power struggle narrative here, with both Boston Rob and then John seemingly seizing control of (parts of) the game, only to be toppled, with this episode's payoff being the triumph of the underdogs. But it still could've used more Vee.
With that feud now gone as a storyline, we've made it through almost 2/3 of the season, and have yet to really see any hint of Vecepia's game from her own perspective. She's had occasional camp-life-narrating confessionals, getting a dig in at Sarah's sense of entitlement here, a complaint about Patricia's bossiness there. She's been shown saying "too much drama!" in response to Rob's aggressive, confrontational style. She prays. But apart from that, especially when it comes to overarching strategy, or even episode-to-episode voting plans, she's been purpled out of the first half of the season.
Obviously, Vecepia will receive more screentime coverage as the season progresses and the other available options disappear, but the degree to which she was underedited in the first half, especially in comparison to Kathy, is shameful. This does not feel like accidental, this feels like intent. Kathy is a great narrator, and she's a solidly rootable character, but her confessionals do tend to feel repetitive (it's hard not to when there are 10+ per episode — see also David Genat in SurvivorAU: All Stars). The editors were mad Kathy (or maybe even Paschal) didn't win, and made sure the audience had no real connection to the winner.
- We've seen this before (or, we will see it again): The circa-merge storytelling here is remarkably similar to San Juan del Sur — we entered the merge with two men leading the main original tribe alliances. One man is gay (with a four-letter name starting with "Jo," even), and is shown getting soaked in Episode 5 (fire = life, so water = death). Their opponent? A straight dude from the Boston area, who is also a huge Patriots fan. They soon come out swinging for each other, and both are taken down, one after the other, right after the merge. Both seasons even had a coconut chop challenge in which the majority alliance conspired to win. And the eventual first- and second-place finishers? A woman from each original tribe. (And, notably, a woman of color who was barely shown in the pre-merge ends up winning.)
- Kathy's solo vacation: Why have an individual reward challenge but then only send one person, without giving them the chance to invite someone else? Did they really only have the money for one SCUBA slot? Even after all that sweet, sweet Snickers money? Had the show not yet figured out the conflict-generating potential of this decision? Or had they, but they didn't want to do anything more to put Kathy in danger? There was precedent for solo rewards in Borneo and The Australian Outback, but also plenty for a guest or two in Africa, so ... eyebrows are right to be raised here.
- "Play Freebird!": One of the better confessionals in Survivor history — Sean on his newfound perspective on the game, now that Rob's gone: "[farts] Oh! See how happy I am?! I pass gas and I feel free as a bird!"
Jeff 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