The Baker's Dozen - Survivor 41
Let me count the ways
By Andy Baker | Published: November 28, 2021
Survivor 41 Episode 10 recap/ analysis

Let me count the ways

Every Survivor SuperFan has a story of how they fell in love with the show: they started with Borneo back in 2000, or they joined the party part-way through and then caught up with a back-catalog binge, or they streamed the entire series during the pandemic. I’ll go out on a limb here: almost zero of us were sucked in by islands full of people who might come back, powerful medallions, and final four firemaking. Invested viewers almost always prefer players over production: we want to see a bunch of strangers learning how to navigate social politics and strategy (you can throw in challenges, too, if that’s your thing).

Which is why this past episode reminded me how much I love Survivor. In a season full of twists and advantages, the players were front and center. And what we saw was transcendent, complex, and messy; flawed perfection. More than anything, it was human. And when the game feels this real — well, reality television doesn’t get much better.

Most of the time, the Dozen overflows with critique and criticism, perhaps inevitable when Survivor so often no longer resembles the show that made us fall in love in the first place; this column, however, will be different. Thanks to a great cast, we have been given a glimpse of what the game once was and could be again. So let’s take a look at how and why “Baby With a Machine Gun” joins the pantheon of greatest Survivor episodes, shall we?

1) The essence of tragedy

The essence of tragedy

When I would talk with my students about texts like Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men, I’d explain that the essence of a tragedy is that the ending is inevitable. We don’t want it to happen, but it must. And if it’s crafted well, we feel rather than see it coming, and when we look back, all the signs are there.

So it was with the Shan/Ricard narrative. We knew long before the merge that they would have to turn on each other. For much of the season, it felt like Shan was supposed to triumph, but in retrospect, we should have known it would be Ricard: as Shan’s game became increasingly chaotic, Ricard was emerging from her shadow. What we saw unfold was the ending that had to happen.

Everything about this is tragic: Shan being voted out, Ricard engineering her demise, the game requiring players to do this to one another. Love her or hate her, Shan made the season better; love him or hate him, Ricard did what he had to do. This may not be how we wanted or expected their relationship to end, but this was the ending that had been written from the earliest days of the game.

There’s a reason we find tragedy compelling: there is beauty within the agony. And we got that this week, right when it seemed like the season was going to become predictable. I, for one, was surprised — and grateful. (Happy Thanksgiving!)

2) Producers and editors

Producers and editors

A tip of the cap to everyone in production involved in shaping all of the stories that converged this episode. Shan/Ricard, of course, but also Shan/Deshawn, Shan/Liana, Shan/Liana/Deshawn/Danny, Shan/Liana/Deshawn/Danny/Ricard, Shan/Erika. There’s clearly intention here: the narrative threads were introduced, revisited, and woven together to give us this episode. Masterful.

3) Shan’s game and departure

Shan's game and departure

Everyone knew that Shan was a threat, and yet it took an epic move by her closest ally to finally take her out. That, my friends, is a dominant game. Yes, she made a lot of missteps (I’ve been writing about them for weeks), but she showcased a lot of significant skills from the start of the season:

** She had a lot of players who felt that she was their #1 (JD, Brad, Ricard, Liana).
** She and Ricard hatched and executed clever plans that ended up with her holding an extra vote and an idol.
** She helped construct and maintain the only significant post-merge alliance.
** She had Liana willing to go to the end with her even though Shan would win.
** She did a brilliant job with Tribal double-speak; she’s substantially responsible for so few Shot in the Dark dice being rolled so far.
** A war was brewing between her and Deshawn, and yet Deshawn kept delaying the confrontation until she came after him.

No matter what happens from here, Shan’s boot is the biggest moment of the season. Even the music editors knew it. That Tribal soundtrack was a fitting accompaniment to the tragic end of an exceptional player.

4) Ricard for making the move

Ricard for making the move

There was so much Ricard content to love this week:

** Taking credit for the Naseer extra vote plan; with Shan gone, that move is now his.
** Challenge beasting with his back against the wall.
** Taking a massive risk bringing Heather and Xander on reward (unwise in the moment, but it paid off later).
** Realizing that as much as he loves Shan (and she, him), he needed to let her go.
** Putting aside his distrust of Deshawn, knowing that Deshawn could be the fifth vote he needed.
** Talking about the “perception of oneself” at Tribal. Sophisticated and thoughtful.

In the first half of the season, he was a mustache-twirling villain. And now we’re here. How did that happen?

5) Erika coming up with the vote split

Erika and the vote split

One underappreciated Survivor skill: realizing that the time to ask for what you want is when it is mutually beneficial, or at least minimally disruptive to the plan in place. Could Erika have gone with the alliance of five and trusted that Shan would feel safe and not play her idol? Sure, but there was still a chance she would go home. Pulling in Danny was not without risk, but he probably needed to be involved anyway (Deshawn wouldn’t want to blindside him), and if he was on board, then they could guarantee that Shan or Liana joined the jury. It was a well-conceived and well-executed plan.

Don’t look now, but Erika is building an endgame résumé, and, if the words, plans, and votes of the other players are any indication, she is perceived as a threat. You know what? Given all the reminders we’ve had that Erika is smart and sneaky, she may very well win this thing. Even more shocking: I’m not entirely sure that would be a horrible ending.

6) Deshawn striking first

Deshawn striking first

After the Survivor: Caramoan finale, I wrote that Cochran had articulated one of the last Final Tribal arguments that had not been as artfully expressed before: that Survivor is about getting them before they get you. He was speaking to Malcolm, but he might as well have been talking to the entire jury: they would have come after him, so he made the first move. As a defense of backstabbing and betrayal, it’s just about perfect: Cochran was expressing admiration for the other players while reminding them that he got the better of them this time around.

So, is Deshawn this season’s Cochran? I don’t know. Somehow, I doubt it. Last week, I had him pegged as a potential winner, but now I wonder if he’s just another “build him up to knock him down” character. Still, he did follow in Cochran’s footsteps and help take out a major threat before it was too late.

There’s a lot to appreciate about Deshawn’s journey in the game. His confessional about playing as an individual versus doing what’s right for his alliance and, more profoundly, his community was a thing of tearful beauty. That’s legitimately great Survivor, and his struggle helped elevate this episode to instant classic status. I don’t know that it’s enough to get him the win, but it’s certainly enough to earn him a second bite at the apple at some point down the road.

7) Liana and the emotions of the game

Liana and the emotions

It is all too easy to rip Liana for being willing to sit beside Shan at the end. Heck, Liana was giving herself grief at the very moment she admitted she would do something that stupid. And yet, her thought process highlights a foundational truth about Survivor: to make it to the end as a threat, you have to get people to make choices that are not in their self-interest. You have to build relationships so strong that emotion overwhelms intellect.

I see this happen all the time in the Survivor-based live reality game that I help run. Players make strategically illogical decisions because they’ve grown close with the people around them. And that’s in five days! Emotion is exponential: in a game that’s 3.5 or 5.5 weeks long, it becomes alarmingly difficult, at times impossible, to turn on those who have enabled us to endure.

Liana explained it best: she bonded with Shan over race, gender, and family. The game was less important to her than her relationship with Shan. Some of that is youth, some of that is Liana’s position in the game, but a lot of it is simply the humanity at the heart of it all. Being ruthless is harder than you think.

8) Danny striking a balance

Danny striking a balance

Danny’s ability to target players (Naseer, Evvie, Ricard) but not get blamed is uncanny. The straight-shooter persona is clearly working for him. The danger, of course, is Danny not getting any credit for the moves being made, but that has an obvious solution: get rid of Deshawn. Not sure Danny will ever do that, since Deshawn is seen as a “snake”; Danny likely believes that he’ll be the more palatable option if they’re sitting next to one another. But it would be interesting to see him try.

One thing I worry about when it comes to Danny: in a season full of tears, Danny’s cheeks are dry. We’re not seeing him connect with the other players on an emotional level. He may pay a price for that, either by getting voted out before the Final Tribal or not getting any votes once there.

9) Xander playing it cool

Xander playing it cool

Sitting on an idol when your alliance has fallen apart is very, very hard. And yet Xander does so time and time again. When there is paranoia everywhere and truth is in short supply, having faith in your read and keeping your weapons in their holsters is incredibly impressive.

Right now, Xander is at F7 with an idol in his pocket. If he can sneak in an immunity win this week or next, then he’s in the Final 5. Who would have predicted that after he and Evvie pulled their fake idol stunt?

Is he the Yase turtle that gets to the end? Not impossible, but improbable. What argument would he make to the jury? “I’m not supposed to be here”? Not sure that would work.

Still, whatever euphemism you want to use — ice water in the veins, cool as a cucumber, balls of steel — Xander possesses the enviable ability to remain calm under pressure. And now, with an idol in his pocket and the numbers making it tough to split the votes, it gets harder and harder to get him gone. He could easily ride that reality all the way to the finale.

(Watch him get screwed by the twist this week.)

10) Heather playing the only game available to her

Heather playing

In sports, there’s a familiar saying: you can’t win the championship at the start of the season, but you can lose it.

I think Heather lost Season 41 long before the merge. Had Luvu gone to tribal, she’s probably a target. She certainly never had any power. Things didn’t get any better after the merge; the only thing of note was her ineffectual Live Tribal solo shot.

And yet, here we are at F7, and Heather finds herself in an interesting position: she’s partnered up with Erika, there are targetable threats everywhere (Xander, Ricard, Deshawn, Danny), and pretty much everyone wants to sit next to her at Final Tribal.

Heather could have thrown in the towel. Over the years, a lot of players have checked out after they realized that they couldn’t win. But instead, Heather has chosen to fight. That’s admirable.

Don’t get me wrong: Hers is not a great game, not a winning game, but it was the only game available to Heather, and she’s chosen to play it. As a result, there’s a good chance that on finale night, she’s sitting in front of the jury rather than in it. Not bad, at least when you consider the alternatives.

11) Casting


You crushed it, Jesse Tannenbaum. Take a bow. These people know how to play. (I hope you send them all holiday cards apologizing for the twists and advantages.)

12) Probst


Even Jeff is going to get some love this week. Here’s why:

** As the Executive Producer, Probst signs off on all of the major decisions. This episode is only possible with Probst deciding to showcase all of the stories involved. He may be excruciatingly heavy-handed with the twists and advantages, but the guy knows a good story when he’s got one.

** Probst the Tribal Council emcee/host/therapist should get the Emmy every year. Production has a good idea of what's going to happen, but Probst’s ability to explore the possibilities, the tensions, and the truths is unparalleled. His role in giving the tragedy room to breathe, to sink in, to play out cannot and should not be overlooked.

13) Prediction

Here’s where I take back all of that Probst praise. Another one of his beloved twists is arriving this week — just in time to mess up F7, the last true flip zone (because a locked-in F3 is still outnumbered). If you don’t want to know anything about it, do not read ahead.


The logistics of the twist are pretty straight-forward: if you come in last in the immunity challenge, you’ll have to do something at Tribal (flip a coin?); get unlucky, and you’re out. To avoid being put in that position, players can forgo the challenge and a shot at immunity. How the players might choose (assuming that the stakes are clearly explained, which certainly is not guaranteed):


Xander: Could sit out thanks to his idol, but he probably won’t. Likely feels like he can win the challenge, and if he gets immunity here, then his idol gets him to F5.

Liana: Left out of the Shan blindside and was the backup vote. She’ll play.

Ricard: Has been kicking ass in challenges, and probably feels like a potential target, given his growing résumé (and Shan saying he has her vote).

Erika: Unless the challenge is right in her wheelhouse, she may sit out, worried that she’ll come in last. But she knows that she needs more than the hourglass smash to define her game, so she stays in, despite having doubts.

Deshawn: With the merge tribe having been divided into Shan vs. Deshawn (according to Evvie), with Shan gone, Deshawn has to worry that he’s next.

Danny: Will assume he won’t come in last and, given that he struggled with the decision to throw a challenge, his pride may keep him from sitting.

Not Compete

Heather: Has to worry that she’ll be out first, and why risk it? She’s not on the chopping block. Maybe she’s clinging to a faint hope of having an argument to make at Final Tribal, and thinks that sitting out is a bad look? But even so, she should sit.

No matter how the challenge unfolds, only one player is leaving the game: either the twist claims a victim or the tribe votes someone out (a double boot would mean a four-person finale, and that’s not happening). There’s no way to know who will be out first (the challenge will have to be an “anyone can win” set-up, not because that’s the only way to be fair — the producers really don’t care about that — but to make sure that everyone is tempted to play), nor what the exact mechanics of the twist will be. Which means that prediction is even more pointless than usual.

Still, there was a moment last week that stuck out to me: Shan emphasizing that a woman can’t win the game sitting next to a man. While this quote helped inform us why she needed to target Ricard, I wonder if it was put into the episode as a hint of things to come. We’ve heard a lot about gender this season, most notably Danny talking about voting out the women ….

So what if the Final 3 is Erika, Liana, and Heather? It’s possible: one of the guys goes out thanks to the twist (Xander leaving with his idol would make the F6 & F5 votes a lot easier), and then the other three are gunned down because they’re challenge-beast winner candidates.

That would continue the “build them up to knock them down” theme and explain why we keep hearing players talk about Erika .…

No wonder they went all-in on the Shan boot as the culmination of the season: this is the way the game ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

Andy Baker Survivor recapsAndy Baker When he’s not blogging about Survivor, Andy Baker helps run a Survivor-based LRG and is podcasting about TV shows. Which is to say he spends entirely too much time in front of the TV, typing on his laptop and muttering about bad narrative decisions.

Andy can be found on twitter: @B13pod.