Jeff Pitman's Survivor 41 recaps
A season in search of a story
By Jeff Pitman | Published: December 14, 2021
Survivor 41 Episode 12 recap/ analysis

A season in search of a story

Survivor 41 intentionally did away with a traditional twist- or location-themed title in favor of the simple numerical one it bears today. In doing so, the overarching story of the season is a little more abstract than usual. It's not a story of a David vanquishing Goliath(s). It's not about a Brawn-y winner following through on his threat to "stomp on Beauty, then stomp on the smarts." Maybe it's sort of left to the audience to decide what the point was.

There have certainly been big stories so far. There was the early-season "monster" talk, which thankfully has subsided, although it's just given way to just an endless barrage of new, often unnecessary and regrettable twists. Is that a theme? Not really. But big topics like the open talk of the impact of race on Survivor (and society at large), the importance of representation and diversity, and playing for a larger purpose in the first season after the pandemic break have all been front and center, especially in this latter part of the game.

Since this was a pretty straightforward episode, with no twists, and no real deviation at Tribal Council from the strategic situation at the beginning of the episode, let's skip ahead to looking back on the season as a whole, with an eye to how that might portend the winner.

It's not yet clear whether the winner will embody and amplify one of the above storylines. But it's possible if not probable they will, and as such, let's look at the remaining five players, and how their potential winning story could shape the game, roughly in descending order of win possibility.

Deshawn: Race and balancing social and in-game pressures


Of the five, Deshawn has had the most solid story from the premiere through to the finale. In the first episode, he was simultaneously bonding with Danny and overtly Playing The Game by sneaking off mid-water-task (with Danny) to look for idols. He's talked consistently about being a superfan of the show, having a strong social game, and his struggle to find a balance between being a positive role model for Black Survivor fans, and celebrating the work the Black Survivor Alliance put in to expand casting diversity, all while playing a complicated social-strategic game, where sometimes he has to do things like vote out Shan, which goes against the first part of that.

He's been a consistent narrator throughout the game, even when Luvu had little screen presence because they kept winning immunity in the early game. A Deshawn win is far from a given — for all his social game talk, he's had some friction with people like Shan, and that could come back to hurt his chances with the jury — but it fits with Survivor's usual highlighting of the winner, and having their view of the game be one of the main perspectives.

Again, that's not to say Deshawn's course through the game has been smooth sailing. He spearheaded the failed attempt to throw a challenge and boot Erika back at Luvu. He butted heads with Shan, almost from the minute their alliance began. His "truth bomb" at this week's Tribal was messy, didn't accomplish anything, and could have resulted in his leaving in Danny's place. At the same time, though, he's personable, and he's been shown constantly communicating with players not technically in his alliance, efforts which include everyone left in the game.

Heading into the finale, though, Deshawn is obviously in a bit of a tough spot. On the one hand, his strength is the connections he has with everyone left — the episode opened with him having personal, one-on-one conversations with Danny, with Heather, with Erika. It featured an alleged final three alliance with two of them at the reward, and closed with him shaking Xander's hand before they headed to Tribal. Yet it's hard to overlook that all the other members of his Core Four/ all-Black alliance have now left the game back-to-back-to-back.

We didn't really see any big strategic attempt to thwart the Danny/Deshawn vote split this week. Is it possible Deshawn was fine with Danny leaving? Again, Deshawn has (or had, at least) good connections with Erika and Heather. Ricard is still the obvious next target, and Xander becomes the probable plan B with Danny gone. As the sole player left from his alliance, Deshawn is no longer much of a threat to anyone, either. He's just one vote!

If we get a Deshawn confessional along these lines at the start of the finale, that's probably where the endgame is headed: Deshawn is your winner, and he did what he had to do to get to the end, even when it meant voting out his allies. It's a solid winning argument, and one that might resonate with his (former?) friends on the jury.

Equally likely though, is the fate foretold by one of the few pre-merge Luvu scenes: Despite practicing making fire at home with his family, Deshawn struggled with it at Luvu (while Erika offered encouragement). If Ricard loses the F5 IC and joins the jury there, Xander is the runaway favorite to win the final (F4) IC, and Deshawn is an obvious pick for F4 firemaking. Meanwhile, as Ryan Kaiser reminds us, Erika successfully made fire at her merge exile. If it's Deshawn vs. Erika at fire, we've been given our necessary foreshadowing, right?

One of the weirdest things about Deshawn's edit this season is that schemes that were his idea were credited to other people. According to Sydney's exit interviews, Erika's early-Luvu plan to target Sydney was actually Deshawn's doing. Similarly, in Danny's exit interview with Mike Bloom, he says the whole "We need a men's alliance" thing around the merge was again actually Deshawn's idea, Danny was just going along with it.

Is the Deshawn erasure from these plots a positive thing? A negative thing? Simply sharing the storytelling wealth? It's hard to come up with a coherent explanation for it. Either way, if Deshawn ends up winning, it's an odd editorial choice to show him doing less scheming than he actually did, especially since the more complete story backs up Shan's parting "Deshawn, you're a snake!" comment.

Erika: She played like a lion, and women can still win Survivor


Stephen Fishbach is right: If Erika wins this season, that's great for her, and it restores some sense of balance for the show, but it's also atrocious storytelling on Survivor's part, since she was barely seen for the first half of the season.

But objectively, if Ricard doesn't just win out and take the title, Erika has the best résumé of  the non-Ricard players: She's voted five people out in six Tribal Council visits (the second-highest total behind Shan and Ricard's seven), and she's received just two votes against her (tied for the fewest with Xander). She's the only woman to win individual immunity this season. She's been an active participant in most of the Big Moves, including the vote split that took out Shan. And she's stuck around despite being labeled as "sneaky" and "dangerous" way back at Luvu.

From an edit perspective, the few glimpses we've seen of Erika have generally been positive. She had a solid backstory segment when she was exiled at the merge, and she did have a traditional "winner's quote"-type treatment there, with the Episode 7 title quote, "Ready to Play Like a Lion." Unlike some of her competitors, her takes on the state of the game have generally been the correct ones. If she does win, those few early confessionals could plausibly be strung together in a winner's montage.

Most importantly, this episode reminded us that Erika is also conscious that she's playing in a season where one of the overarching themes — representation and diversity — is important. She's the first Filipina-Canadian player, she's well aware that men have won the last six seasons, and really wants to see a female winner ("ideally me"). The all-male victory circle since the debut of F4 firemaking in season 35 is an extremely sore subject in the fandom, and it would be incredibly tone-deaf for the editors to give airtime to this problem without a reasonable chance of the audience seeing a remedy for it in the near future. After all, Angelina tossed out the then-ridiculously lopsided idol-finding gender disparity stats in the David vs. Goliath premiere, and lo and behold, in the next two seasons filmed, women found 12 idols.

So a woman has to be winning soon. Maybe not *this* season, but certainly either this one or the next. And Andy Baker is right, Erika feels like she could be that winner, despite the bizarre decision to all but edit her out of the pre-merge.

Ricard: The challenge beast/strategist who might actually win


Is it a good thing to be person about whom everyone else says, "If they get to the end, they're obviously going to win"? It didn't work out so well for David Wright. Nor for Elaine Stott, or Janet Carbin, or Rick Devens, or any number of late-game boots in recent seasons.

In Ricard's case, he was the 100% locked-in boot target this episode, until he won immunity. His competitors' perception is probably accurate, too. He's tied with Shan for most people voted out (including her, which was his move), he's already on the all-time single-season leaderboards for individual Immunity Challenge wins (and overall individual challenge wins), which is quite an accomplishment in a season that will end up with just 9 individual challenges, one of which he nobly sat out. He's charming, he's well-liked, he has a fantastically rootable life story. It would be absolute game suicide for any of the other four contestants to intentionally go up against him in the final three.

As such, it seems highly unlikely he'll get that chance. True, he's been all-around great in individual challenges, with an 86.7% Mean % Finish, which clocks in at #4 all-time in a single season. Having said that, in the last two challenges that ended in a puzzle (the Ep10 RC that ended in the starfish puzzle, and this week's IC with a word puzzle), he entered the final stage with a lead and only barely held off a late surge from Deshawn. Both times. So while Ricard only needs two more wins to guarantee himself a spot in the finals, and is the prohibitive favorite to win those two challenges, there *is* an Achilles heel there that Deshawn might be able to land an arrow in, if he just gets to the puzzle a little earlier.

Still, Ricard's edit since Shan's departure has been perfectly normal Survivor winner material. We learned about his being hard of hearing in one ear, an added degree of difficulty in a season already desperate to convince us it's the hardest ever. We were also reminded that he's Puerto Rican, and that he's gay. We were told back in the premiere that his husband was back home as this was being filmed, expecting their second child (and from the preview, that's probably what he's getting emotional about as he talks to Xander). All of this fits perfectly with the season-long diverse cast/representation theme.

Ricard has played the best all-around game of the five people left, and would absolutely be a worthy representative for this season, should he win the million. Now he just needs to get to the finals. Will he?

Xander: Maybe butterflies are drawing-dead games saying hi?


And then there's Xander. Contestant X. The guy who mysteriously seems like he should be the top contender, based on his omnipresence in the edit (and title quotes), yet seems to be welcome in everyone else's final three plans. He pulled off a Big Move™ in faking out Liana, getting her to waste her Knowledge is Power advantage. He then voted her out (twice, counting his extra vote), achieving an allegedly massive victory over his nemesis. He's now the last contestant standing who was born after Borneo.

Despite all this, nobody seems to consider him a threat. Xander is a young, athletic White dude, one who looks an awful lot every "golden boy" player from seasons 1-38 or so. He's a man just like the last six winners, which doesn't really square with all the "new era" talk, nor with everyone else gushing about finally having a season with broader racial and ethnic diversity, one in which people such as his nemesis, Liana, can play alongside "people who look like me." They gush because this was not really a thing that happened in all but a handful of the show's first 40 seasons.

But it's not just that Xander is a White dude. It's probably also a lot of other things, as well. Since the merge, we've heard "Xander doesn't have any connections," so his social game may be lacking. Xander could well be viewed as a combination of Dean Kowalski (a finalist whose "game" was mostly wielding idols and advantages) and S31-edition Spencer Bledsoe (a young, zero-vote finalist who came across as a bit of a gamebot, someone who just didn't click with the jury). From his confessionals, he's seemed completely sincere in his various selfless actions (giving up rewards, sitting out immunity for food for the tribe), and in his visibly emotional words of support for Deshawn at last week's Tribal and the top of this episode. But it's certainly possible that his tribemates see it all as gameplay. If he doesn't have "connections," who's going to bat for Xander's intentions?

He's also *really* young, at 20. Will this jury full of people with hard-scrabble backstories really make their standard-bearer a White kid attending an elite, really expensive private university (University of Chicago), one who draws more attention to their decision by breaking the record for youngest winner? Xander will probably make a million within a few years of graduating. Maybe somebody else could use the cash more?

Most of all, though: What is it really that Xander has done this season? We've been reminded almost every week that he's had an extra vote and an idol. The first was a gift from Danny. The second would have kept him perpetually vote-less until the merge (at which time the idol would have expired), if not for the eventual assistance of Shan and Naseer. And so far all he's done with these powers is decline to play them for two of his original tribemates/allies, Tiffany and Evvie, when they desperately needed them, and also cast an unnecessary second vote against his other original tribemate, Liana. Apart from Liana, the only other person he's voted out this season was Abraham, way back in Episode 1, which was a simple unanimous vote.

He did win an individual immunity, and he was a solid challenge performer in the late pre-merge for Yase. So was Tiffany, though, and she will probably be unimpressed if he lists that as a résumé bullet-point. Outside of his feud with Liana, Xander doesn't really have much else to point to that was his.

It's certainly not a bad game, because he has a pretty clear path to the end. But is it really a winning one, taking everything else into consideration? If Xander wins, what is the message of the season? Survivor: As long as you're a dude, you don't really need to do much of anything except have an idol and an advantage?

Heather: She didn't give up


It seems highly unlikely Heather will win this season, but she's still had a good story (when shown). Key among that: never giving up.

Her defining episode/highlight will probably end up being the Ep4 RC, where she repeatedly tried and failed to complete the opening task of tossing a ball up into a trough, running through an obstacle, and catching the ball at the other end. She kept going, even though it wasn't working, and received support afterward from Danny (also Sydney, who was clearly only doing so because the cameras were on). If that wasn't already her defining moment, Jeff Probst helpfully reminded Heather of it as she took her time on the obstacles in this week's IC.

She also had her attempted Live Tribal that ended up not really being one. Still, she's voted out five people so far, while Xander has voted out just two. It's not the best résumé, but she's also had a lot of worthwhile non-challenge, non-strategic moments, like her discussion with Deshawn at the top of this episode.

She may not get the "win," but she came away with a winning experience, one filled with listening and learning. That's something we could all use a little more of.

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