This episode was easily one of the best of Survivor 41, and it deserved a better fate than the graveyard timeslot of the night before (US) Thanksgiving. It had everything you could possibly want from Survivor, especially its in-depth examination of the emotional strains of having alliances with people you will eventually have to turn against, and a massive blindside of the season's star player, one that pushed up directly against those pressures.
It had that rarest of events in recent Survivor seasons, an individual reward challenge, after which the winner had to select companions and leave-behinds. It had a huge move at the final eight vote! It had a vote in which no idols, advantages, or Shots in the Dark (okay, that's not so rare) were played. It was just eight people taking stock of their respective places in the game, and deciding that the person who was obviously going to win actually didn't need to, if they just got together and voted her out.
It was, in essence, a classic episode of Survivor. One where production eased up on the gas with the twists for a second, allowed the contestants space to think, and let *the players* dictate the course of the game for once. As hard as it was to lose a charismatic, hard-playing character like Shan, this is how Survivor is supposed to work. With nary a bag of rocks in sight.
Competing loyalties - relationships vs. gameplay
The central dilemma posed by this episode was one that every Survivor player faces, to some extent: In the end, are you playing for yourself, for your alliance, or for something bigger? Can you do all three things at once? Different players ended up answering this question differently, and the contrasts were fascinating.
1. Deshawn and/vs. Shan - The opening segment digs in deep to the motivations the four Black players (Danny, Deshawn, Shan, Liana) collectively felt in forming an alliance "for the culture." Deshawn talked about this in confessional, and teared up talking about how difficult 2020 was for Black people, and how this alliance — in which the goal was to uplift each other, rather than tear each other down — was intended to be a beacon of positivity for their community. At the same time, both Deshawn and Shan (especially these two) recognize that they are also playing a game for a million dollars, both of them could really use that money, and it would be silly to throw away such an opportunity. While both feel discomfort at explicitly going against their alliance, they're each willing to do so for the million. It's a fraught decision, though, because they know not everyone in their alliance is making the same calculation. Still, thanks to the editing team for giving Deshawn the confessional space to talk about how much this alliance meant to him as a Black man playing Survivor.
2. Ricard and/vs. Shan - The complex relationship between Ricard and Shan also receives an appropriate amount of weight here. They're the last two Ua standing. They've persevered and thrived together since Day 1, coming from a tribe that voted four people out before the merge. Ricard is well aware that if he's sitting next to Shan at the end, Shan wins. They both acknowledge during their reward trip that they'll probably have to turn on each other at some point, but that time is "not yet." Yet when Shan lets Ricard know before the IC that Danny, Deshawn, and Liana hatched a plan to target him while they were away on reward, Ricard realizes that with seven people left after this round, Shan will have a solid majority of four to pull off such a plan whenever she decides to do so ... so in fact, the time to stop her is right now. It's still hard, because they're friends. But they each want to win, and neither is okay with setting their own game aside to allow the other to take the million. It's a more rational, nuanced balance between friendship and gameplay that grew out of trust forged in their early votes together on Ua, something that Shan and Deshawn (or Shan and Danny) didn't have the chance to build, due to the chaos of the early post-merge.
3. Danny (and Deshawn) vs. Shan -
When news gets back to Deshawn and Danny that Shan told Ricard
they were plotting against him (and tried to flip the vote
onto Deshawn instead), that crosses a line for Danny. If Shan
is willing to break up the Four to advance her own game, then
he knows he has to be willing to do so as well. Danny clearly
views their original Core Four alliance as something bigger
than the game, definitely more important than Shan's "19-day
friendship" with Ricard. Everyone else in the alliance to some
degree considers winning the game more important than the "for
the culture" aspects of their agreement, but for Danny, it's
the reverse. It's an interesting contrast. Definitely a more
early-season Survivor hero/ "good guy"-type stance
than the now-prevalent "it's just a game" perspective.
4. Liana and Shan - For a completely different view, Liana's so committed to her relationship with Shan that Liana explicitlys say that if sitting next to Shan at the end costs her a million dollars, she's okay with that. Liana talks again about herself and Shan instantly connecting on the hike up the hill — over their mothers, over their shared culture, over their womanhood. Not even the "19-day friendship" Danny mocks, a single afternoon! But clearly, it's a connection that has matured and strengthened over the subsequent eight days, and it's one that's deeply felt if Liana is willing to risk her game over it. It's a reminder that everyone has their own reasons and motivations for playing Survivor, and what's logical for one player isn't always logical for the next one.
Disconnects: Edit vs. game
Not only are people playing for different reasons, but the way they view the game around them also differs from person to person. There are two to three scenes this week that demonstrate just how different the players' perceptions of the game in the moment are from the post-game, edit-influenced perspective of the audience, who have the privilege of a high-level overview of what everyone's actually doing. (Except Heather, obviously.) They also highlight the delicate balance between being recognized for making moves by future jurors and getting blamed for betrayals by the people voted out ... who are also future jurors at this point. Or even worse, not being noticed at all.
1. Ricard doing things, Shan getting the credit- The episode starts with Ricard explaining how he engineered the Naseer blindside (since half the tribe missed it). Immediately after that, Deshawn and Erika go off to talk, and are raving about how *Shan* has all these idols and advantages, and now, "She did this too?!" In the early game back at Ua, Ricard had quietly been coming up with schemes, and letting Shan use her people skills to execute them (such as getting JD's extra vote from him). He explained it all at Tribal during the Genie boot, but Shan is the only person left in the game who heard it. Now Ricard is openly telling everyone what he did, and Shan still gets the credit. It's tough being the evil mastermind!
2. Danny planning things, Deshawn getting the blame - While the reward quartet are off enjoying (?) pizza under the stars, Danny gets Deshawn to join him "looking for crabs," where Danny pitches a plan to take out Ricard, who just won the reward challenge. They see Ricard's challenge prowess starting the emerge, and they're worried that when it comes to final five, a Shan-Liana-Ricard trio would probably be happy to vote out a Danny or a Deshawn. When news eventually gets back to Shan about this plan, she's mad at Deshawn. Now, this misperception could be because when they loop Liana in on the plan, Deshawn does most of the talking. Danny's been doing a lot of good threat reduction in the challenges, but at some point, he needs to start owning his moves, because otherwise he'll be the Ricard to Deshawn's Shan. (Although this episode offers an obvious remedy for just such a predicament.)
3. Everyone blindsiding Shan, Deshawn getting the blame - Obviously, the most important part of the episode was Shan's blindside. The plan originated with Ricard, who got buy-in from Heather, Erika, and Xander, for four of the eight votes. They just needed a fifth, so Ricard recruited Deshawn. Once Danny also joined (it's unclear whether Deshawn or Erika got to him first), Erika improved on the scheme by arranging a 3-3 vote split, to ensure that if Shan played her idol for either herself or Liana, one would still be voted out. As Shan heads off to have her torch snuffed, she says "Ricard, you have my vote for a million dollars. Deshawn, you're a snake!" None of this was Deshawn's idea! He wanted Ricard out, which also wasn't his idea! Even worse for Deshawn, as Shan heads off to Ponderosa, the camera shows the self-satisfied grin of Erika. No doubt others were smiling too, and this probably has six people who view it as their move, but any blame looks like it will 100% fall on poor Deshawn.
Ricard says during the episode that he doesn't respect Deshawn's lying to him, so it remains to be seen whether other jurors would view Deshawn's game as praiseworthy. (From the limited evidence we've seen on-screen, Deshawn's lies don't seem that believable ... maybe that's what Ricard objects to, and not his game as a whole?) But just as David Wright became the obvious winner in MvGX (should he have reached the end) simply because everyone else was saying it, it's going to be hard for Deshawn to shake the "snake" label, when it's an influential person like Shan hitting him with it as she leaves the game.
Similarly, even though the only "devious" thing she's done so far is engineer a vote split and go along with other people's plans, Erika is "shady," or she's "sneaky." (Well, also destroying the fabric of space-time with a hammer, but she didn't really have a choice there.) If the former lamb/current lion does get to the end, will the jury respect her? Or will they just default to the usual and give the million to whatever man is next to her? Ricard was probably right in thinking Shan could have broken that pattern, but it's not clear that Erika has the same social/strategic standing.
What this all shows is: Survivor is a tough game, and it's hard to ever have an accurate read on it. The audience sees only a fraction of what goes on. The players know (at the time) only a fraction of what their competitors are doing, and none of them can really trust what anyone else is saying. Is it better to make the moves and not get credit, to try to make moves and be seen as "sneaky," or to just get the credit/blame for all the moves, even when they weren't your doing?
- Ricard the beast: Through four individual challenges, Ricard now has three wins and a third-place finish (out of five). That gives him a 90.0% Mean % finish, which would put him at #2 on the all-time single-season leaderboard (minimum 4 challenges), right behind Worlds Apart-edition Joe Anglim (92.5%). Obviously, this will probably change because Ricard is still in the game, and could have upwards of four more challenges to go. But it's still an impressive feat. Considering everyone's coming for him anyway, no reason now to tone it down and sandbag from here on out.
- The plan for Xan: Heading into Tribal, Shan wanted to blindside Erika. Part of her plan was to just not tell Xander a name, so that he would be worried and play his idol. That's a passive way to get the idol out of the game, and it might well have worked. But there are only three more votes left (four immunities), and that's well within normal range for an immunity win streak. So the next time Xander doesn't win immunity, everyone not named Xander *has* to target him. How to dodge his idol, though? Clearly, the answer is obvious: just have Ricard beg him to play his idol again. Foolproof.
- Survivor's YouTube channel, your source for ... ? The official SurvivoronCBS YouTube channel used to be a one-stop shop for pre-game interviews, challenge videos, Ponderosas, secret scenes, and occasional in-depth Tribal Council voting confessionals. In recent seasons, it's withered away to mostly challenge clips. This season, you're lucky if you get even that. This would be a great week to know how that first round of voting on the Shan blindside went, for example. You'll find no help on the Survivor YouTube. It's been almost two weeks since the Naseer/Evvie double-elimination, but their Ponderosa — which is really heartwarming and lovely — still hasn't shown up there. (Ponderosa also used to have its own section on the CBS site, now it appears to live near-exclusively on Survivor's Instagram page, although Shan's still isn't there. And don't bother looking for anything except full episodes on Paramount+, because ... oh, who knows.) As we complained earlier this season, the YouTube videos were also the only remaining official source of challenge names, but some new challenges that debuted this season never showed up on YouTube. Now the channel has this week's immunity challenge (which combined elements from multiple old challenges) up, but with last week's challenge's title ("Uncomfortably Numb," which was unfortunately accurate for Naseer). These are all small complaints, but it's sad to see all these little audience-enrichment features slowly disappear over time.
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