The "new era" of Survivor is one at war with itself. One where twists combine to prevent contestants from playing idols they found. One where those same twists later provide a disincentive to actually use the idols once they've been activated. One where every player knows where every idol and advantage is, because they were forced to be discovered or activated publicly. And one where close to 75% of the post-merge boots have now been decided not so much by the players, but by a bag of rocks.
This week there were two Tribal Councils springing forth from a rock draw. One featured a straightforward blindside that confusingly required an extra vote to avoid catastrophe if two of the five people played their idols. The other featured a straightforward Pagonging, brought about largely by the luck of the rock draw.
While Naseer's boot probably would have happened around here anyway, because he was out of the numbers and held an idol (that everyone knew about), Evvie had just clawed their way back into a position where they could be a number in an interesting power shift or two. Moves that were put on hold, then abandoned, because of the double Tribal, which also foolishly erased one of the traditional best opportunities for a change in the power structure: The final nine vote. (As @Kirblar024 noted before the episode even aired.)
What was gained from all this? Well, Erika and Xander each got to live out a superfan bucket list moment in winning individual immunity, so that was cool. (Although there's no reason they couldn't have just had two people immune and have all ten people vote. Hell, even have them vote twice, as with the bottle twist in Cook Islands.) But just as a movement was starting to gain momentum to topple a majority alliance that was growing so comfortable they would just openly separate themselves to plot together, that revolution was snuffed before it even started. By a bag of rocks.
Because, you see: Survivor wanted two people out, and apparently the only way they can do that in the "new era" of season 41 is the same way they did it in seasons 36 and 39. Oh well. (Heretical idea: Want a real shake-up? Have the tribe do a schoolyard pick for teams — not a rock draw — *then* announce that it's for separate Tribals with one immunity winner per team.)
Was it fun? Not really, since we lost two of the most popular players this season. But Survivor is not a show to look back on its actions and re-evaluate things. That is unless it's retiring a puzzle that Evvie memorized.
Naseer - Handcuffed by the idol rules
Naseer didn't have nearly the same grim, multi-Tribal vote-less slog to idol activation that Xander did, since Naseer found his idol just one day before it was activated. Still, they both (as does Shan) share the same post-activation downside: Because the idols were activated in public before the immunity challenge, everyone knows they have one. Had they not, Naseer is merely a pleasant guy who's useful around camp, albeit one with no obvious allies — not nearly the critical target he was here.
At Tribal Council, Naseer talked about the effort required to activate his idol, and how that made him less enthusiastic to play the idol for someone else, especially when he would need it himself eventually. (Obviously not the best gameplay to announce all this publicly, especially when he's not picking up that he's a target right now.) But his reluctance makes sense, and it could go a long way to explaining Xander's similar tight-fistedness with his idol.
Clearly there were more factors than just the public nature of the three Beware Idols in Naseer's blindside. Ricard and Shan convinced Naseer he was in a tight three alliance with them, and Heather and Erika credibly played it up that Heather was doomed. From his exit interviews, Naseer considered Ricard and Shan the only people he could really trust, and just wanted to get through this vote before probably playing his idol on himself the next round. So the rock draw just worked out exactly wrong for poor Naseer. Good gameplay by everyone else; bad luck for Naseer.
Still, Naseer had managed to keep his idol find secret from the entire Luvu tribe. If it had just been a normal idol that nobody knew about, he wouldn't have been a target at this point (especially since his right arm was numb, so he was no longer a challenge threat). Shan probably would have pushed harder to take out Heather, to weaken Erika. Erika and Heather might have convinced the harmless-seeming Naseer to join up with them and take out Shan or Ricard, since they were outnumbered 3-2 by original Luvus. Who knows?
Evvie – Handcuffed by the rock draw
Like Naseer, Evvie was blindsided fair and square, it's true. Evvie truly believed that Deshawn was voting with them, in part because that pair's relationship and plans of working together stretched all the way back to their hike up the hill together in Ep2, and had been revisited multiple times since the merge. He didn't, and now Evvie is getting haircuts at Ponderosa.
All that said, it's clear from Evvie's exit interviews that far more than Naseer, Evvie was a victim of the rock draw. Change was afoot in Viakana camp. Deshawn had his public blow-up with Shan. He has quietly been gathering allies for Team Deshawn. Ricard also was questioning his connection to Shan. For her part, Shan was also reconsidering whether she could continue working with Deshawn (less so for Ricard, at least as shown). There were signs camp could soon be split down the middle.
Furthermore, as we saw in the opening scenes, the Core Four (plus Ricard) were getting sloppy and openly flaunting their power, angering the likes of Evvie and Xander, who we hadn't previously seen plotting together. Xander *did* have an extra vote (although so did Shan) he could have used to turn a 5-5 split into a 6-5 victory. (Or more likely, saved it in hopes that Deshawn or Ricard would flip.)
There were multiple ways the power structure could have started crumbling this episode, and none of them involved Evvie being voted out. Importantly, these were all organic, contestant-driven potential power shifts. So what did production do, seeing these nascent game-changers swinging into action? Slammed on the brakes, via another random rock draw.
Evvie could not have ended up with a worse five-person draw here. Well, okay, maybe Shan-Liana-Danny vs. Evvie-Xander (with Xander immune) would have been more clear-cut. But that would actually be better, because the problem here for Evvie was that they reasonably thought Deshawn *might* be with them. (So then Evvie's vote was critical for a 3-2 split, so no Shot in the Dark possible.) It looked like Deshawn was really considering it, too, at least until Danny shut it down. Danny is clearly Deshawn's real #1, and it would be near-impossible for Deshawn to come back from crossing a Day 1 ally like that. Deshawn made the right decision, even if time is running out for him to put a Big Move on his résumé. (You can only get so much credit for two attempted thrown challenges, after all.)
So instead of a power shift, the rock draw gave us stasis. There's still a chance the Core Four/Five could splinter later on. Maybe Ricard now has built enough trust with Heather and Erika to break away from Shan, alongside Deshawn (after they blindside Xander, who clearly is never playing his idol). Maybe something else happens.
Once again, this is a cast of gamers. They're more than
capable of rising to the occasion and bringing us some
authentic surprises and shocking blindsides. They did it this
week, even if the actual results were less exciting than what
might have been without the rock draw/split Tribals. And
they'll do it again in the future, If only production can stay
out of their way long enough for them to actually do so.
The Shot in the Dark — Handcuffed by tiny Tribals
We have now completed nine episodes and 10 Tribal Councils (two in Ep1 and Ep9, none in Ep6). In that span, how many of those do you think have had more than six people present? Right, just two: the merge vote in Ep7 (where only five were vulnerable) and last week's, Ep8.
Relatedly, how many times in those ten boots has someone played their 1-in-6-chance Shot in the Dark die? Right, exactly once (Sydney, above). It was at the merge, when 11 people were present. Every other person booted has said something along the lines of "I couldn't risk giving up my vote" because the numbers were too small. This week, had it been a 10-person Tribal, maybe Evvie plays their Shot if/when it's clear Xander won't be playing his idol or extra vote. (It's not clear why Tiffany didn't last week, when it was clear she and Xander were the original split-vote plan.)
Shot in the Dark is not a bad twist. Obviously it has very low chance of success, but it still offers a ray of hope for a minority group hopelessly outnumbered, such as the obvious target Yases. (Hope beyond futile dreams of Xander sharing his largesse, at least.) And it has a built-in risk/reward structure that in any other season would have led to more-frequent usage. It's something someone like Elizabeth Olson would have loved to have at her disposal at the merge vote in David vs. Goliath, no?
But that hope has now foundered on the shoals of arbitrarily skipping the F10 and F9 votes in favor of a pair of random five-person votes. At this point, the only odds lower than the Shot in the Dark paying off for someone are those of someone actually using it. And the chief hindrance to using it: The very people who put it in the game in the first place.
This just encapsulates this season so perfectly: So many twists that one cancels another out, rendering it unusable. Great work, Survivor.
- Some welcome spotlights: Even though the twist of the split Tribal seemed particularly dumb here, when the game was just starting to become fluid, there were still some great moments this episode. As Ryan Kaiser talked about at length, the story of Ricard thriving in the game despite being hard of hearing was a wonderful backstory moment. (And despite the late-breaking nature of this storyline, he wasn't even booted!) It also came at a point in the game where the edit suddenly showing Ricard's role in a big move, something almost completely hidden in the pre-merge (leading to a weird sequence at the Genie boot Tribal Council where Ricard talked about how he planned all the moves and Shan put them into action, something that clearly did not faze Shan or anyone else present, but had not at all been supported in the edit). Similarly, Evvie's shoutout to queer teens in their final words (along with the surprisingly touching heart-to-heart Tiffany and Evvie have on the word "queer" at Ponderosa) was a great moment in the episode.
- Survivor: Come for the parasites, stay for the nerve damage: According to his exit interviews, it's only been in the past month or two that Naseer's arm has regained full feeling. Naseer injured his arm on May 1. While it was obviously a fluke injury, that's still an unacceptable souvenir from playing Survivor, and it's not the first to come from an endurance challenge. Back in Redemption Island, David Murphy gave himself nerve damage in one leg from hanging from a bar (in the Ep9/Final 10 IC, no less). If they can toss a puzzle because a superfan memorized it, maybe Survivor should consider retiring the what-were-they-expecting-titled "Uncomfortably Numb" (as they appear to have done with the Murphy-injuring "Gang Hang").
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