The fall of the Rotu Four was the peak strategic moment in Marquesas, and the subsequent change in attitudes (and fortunes) after the ouster of John is pretty palpable, but it also makes for fairly dull gameplay.
Once the minority group of five seized power in Episode 9, there was no reason for any of them to break from that alliance until the dregs of the Rotu Four had been eliminated. Sean and Vee briefly considered teaming up with Tammy and the General in the Tammy boot episode, but they quickly realized that Paschal and Neleh (and probably Kathy) would be unlikely to forgive such a betrayal, and with an all-Rotu jury, they would be screwed if they flipped on their new alliancemates and a Rotu snuck in to the finals with one of them. So ... stasis ensued.
In the meantime, though, we still have to get through those boots. A common complaint about modern seasons is that, because of all the time wasted on idols and advantages, there's not enough time to learn who some of the contestants are. Anyone who feels that way should absolutely be forced to watch Marquesas again.
Vecepia through the first half? Virtually invisible. (Thankfully, this started to change around Episode 10 or so.) Patricia? She was the camp mom who came up with an idea for a tool tree, and people didn't like it. Zoe? She was apparently friends with Kathy (never shown, only talked about), then turned on her (again, mostly seen through Kathy's perspective). We finally see Zoe in her boot episode, making necklaces for everyone — except Tammy, whom she allegedly never liked, which is new information.
Even Tammy, highlighted by Kathy as the co-leader of John's cabal, had almost no screen presence until John's boot. Her one memorable pre-merge scene was her seeming not super excited about maybe throwing an IC to take out Boston Rob (it ended up not being an option, since they were tethered together). When Tammy's suddenly on the hot seat after John's boot, we're supposed to root for her (I guess?) due to her superior stilt skills, but her shrieks of victory ring hollow and fail to land. Who is this person, who now, nine hours into the season, has had one memorable line — "Zoe is a bitch" — and that happened in this same episode?
As for the General ... he lost a chunk of skin from his toe, has a tattoo that says "The General," and he chops *a lot* of wood. (The recap episode's airing of a minute-long segment with his voodoo doll was 50% more character development than he'd received to that point.) Both Robert and Tammy got confessionals in their boot episode along the lines of "I'm not going down without a fight," or "I'm going to keep pushing," but that's boilerplate stuff that could have been recorded on Day 3. Hardly deep personal insights.
It's a massive narrative imbalance. We've seen a ton of Kathy, Sean, Paschal, and Neleh. We had plenty of John and Boston Rob, and a fair amount of Gabe, Hunter, Gina and Sarah. At least enough to get a sense of who they are, and their approach to the game. But this Zoe-Tammy-General boot stretch is a bit of a rough slog, not only because there's nothing any of them can really do to change their fate, but also because we really have no storyline attachment whatsoever to these people, and that feels like a deliberate editing decision.
It doesn't help that Kathy handed off the decoy boot tiara to Neleh in Episodes 10 and 11. In Episode 10 (the Tammy boot episode), the narrative was "Everyone is sick of Neleh's innocent routine, she's too close to Paschal, we have to vote her out." Then Tammy goes instead, and nobody actually votes against Neleh. In Episode 11 (the General boot episode), the narrative was "Everyone is sick of Neleh's innocent routine, she's too to close to Paschal, and Kathy is really, 100%, going to follow through, form an alliance with Robert, and vote her out this time." Jeff Probst even helpfully asks everyone leading questions about how much they object to Neleh's gameplay at Tribal. The end result of all these efforts? The General gets the boot (5-1), and nobody actually votes against Neleh.
On the one hand, this does help explain the eventual jury (especially the Rotu Four) antipathy to Neleh. On the other, it also generates a lot of eyerolling by the audience. It's as if the editors said, "Look, we're as mad as you are that nothing's going on strategically here, but we're going to punish you for it by actively lying to you. And also by not telling you who these stray Rotu Four people are."
That's not to say there's no entertainment to be found in this stretch. Episode 9 has Sean and Paschal bonding during a reward feast together, with Sean doing wacky Sean things, such as crushing his balls on a saddle, and Paschal finally showing character growth as an accepting, open-minded person, drinking in every bit of his late-50s discovery of foreign cultures and people with diverse life experiences. (Albeit also someone who has now decided that his new allies are good people and his old allies are evil ... one person can only grow so much.)
Episode 10 had the saga of Neleh's half-eaten mint, plus the debut of Sean's Neleh impression, which is pretty spot-on and hilarious (further developed in Episode 11).
(Side note: Kathy was allowed to bring back a Snickers bar from her dive trip in Episode 9. In Episode 10, Sean and Paschal literally stuffed their pockets so full of food that Paschal was afraid his pants would fall down while learning Marquesan dancing. Did production crack down on the smuggling with Paschal and Neleh in Episode 11? And why did all the blame fall on Neleh, when Paschal also didn't bring any food back?)
Love or prison?
Also in Episode 11: a welcome amount of time spent on the loved ones visit, which departed from current standards in ways both good and less great. The decision to have the "reward" be a loved one getting to live in camp for 24 hours is actually something that would be fun to try again. It's not clear that Kathy's son Patrick really saw it as "fun," of course. What young man in his formative years (high school? college? it's unclear) wouldn't want to be shown spooning with his mom on national TV?
It's important to remember that this was the first time everyone's loved one was flown out to the filming location and appeared on camera. Borneo just had Sean's dad on a yacht. The Australian Outback had Colby's mom in an Aztek. Africa pared back even those efforts, and just had videos from home. So you can forgive the growing pains here with the comparatively dismissive, arm's-length treatment of the loved ones here, especially as compared with the extravagant love-fest we saw in Winners at War. This is the loved ones visit beta version.
Here, the loved ones show up, get a contact-free pre-challenge greeting, then are shoved straight into competiung in a challenge. No hugs, no tearful, arm-in-arm discussions with the former host of The Jeff Probst Show about what it means to be a sibling (which is, in fact, a nice change). Just as you're starting to get a sense of who's with whom, they start to leave as they're knocked out of the challenge. Probst at least allows everyone a hug before they depart for good, but wow, pretty grim. Clearly there's no loved ones feast coming after the challenge, because they're all just gone.
Patrick's reward for winning this challenge? A Soliantu buff. Then getting to go back to camp with everyone (awkward!) and being forced into hard labor, because everyone else is so depleted physically. Again, they wouldn't have been collapsing from starvation if the show had just given them some rice, or if they'd had a now-traditional loved ones feast. But whatever. Choices made, lessons sort of learned (then forgotten again for Ghost Island).
Hits and misses with post-merge challenges
This is just season four, so it's hard to get too bent out of shape about challenge quality, since it's still very early days for the challenge department. A lot of these are new ideas, and not everything is going to be a winner straight out of the box, so we have to give the show credit for being willing to try wacky new things, like the kite challenge (Ep8 RC) and the stilts challenge (Ep9 IC). Still, while on the plus side at least we've moved past rowing in every challenge, the early post-merge selection was pretty sketchy. To wit:
The best challenges test a variety of skills and/or athleticism, or are mind-over-matter affairs (such as "Last Gasp," the hold your breath under a grate challenge), or are simple concentration/patience tests (balancing things on a wobbly table). Stilts and kites, as we've seen, are more "oh, by a fluke, this one person is good at this, while everyone else is terrible." That's not fun to watch.
For all the criticisms the challenge crew takes for repeatedly tossing out the same stale set of stand-in-one-place endurance challenges after the merge, at least the modern post-merge challenge repertoire isn't *this* bad. Still, would it kill them to throw in another puzzle? Boston Rob somehow sat out of the only two they had all season.
On the other hand, the later post-merge challenges all were better, but still had some flaws.
So much foreshadowing: The mechanics of the the Ep11 IC aside, it was a masterpiece of chilling visions of things to come. After eliminating the last man (the General), Kathy says "The girls are in the finals!" and the three women do their "chick dance." Then Vee and Neleh knock Kathy out, together. Then the challenge features a tight battle between Vee and Neleh, with Vee narrowly beating out her young opponent. A massive dose of foreshadowing, all made possible entirely by chance. Thank you, Jesus?
Will you please take off your necklace? Pretty please?
Without fail, the funniest part of each episode is Jeff Probst, very sincerely, very hopefully, tossing out his offer to allow the immunity winner to pass the necklace to someone else. This was production's big new post-merge twist this season. Collectively, he's spent almost as much time making that offer as was spent asking questions in the entire first Tribal Council.
It's funny, because nobody ever takes him up on it. Not this season, not the next. Jenna Morasca finally acquiesces in The Amazon, perhaps just to shut him up. Ten seasons later, they finally get another bite with Erik Reichenbach in Micronesia. (Then, despite that being the one thing from Micronesia that everyone who's ever seen a single episode of Survivor knows about, and was the winner of "dumbest move ever" at the Heroes vs. Villains finale that his uncle appeared on, Brandon Hantz somehow does it again seven seasons after that, in South Pacific.)
The fact that every mournful Probst request was left in the finished show is a questionable choice, but maybe they didn't have anything better to include. There are only so many monologues about honesty, telling the truth, and playing fairly that anyone can really stand.
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