There was some extreme wobbliness in the middle, but finally this week, Survivor AU: Brains v Brawn delivered some straightforward, contestant-driven strategic maneuvering and exciting gameplay, most of it even largely trinket- and twist-free.
That's not to say there weren't some questionable decisions (five people immune in Ep17), but on the whole, the producers stepped back a bit, and allowed the players to play. Three Tribal Councils, three people sent to the jury. And everybody was allowed to vote each time, so ... progress? Well, okay, Cara did find a tree idol right when she needed one in Ep18, but at least she declined to play it, and instead joined the majority in an entertaining 4-3-1 vote.
For those keeping score at home, we're up to ten idols and two advantages so far this game, which is a lot. It's more than any US season, except the ridiculously over-idoled Edge of Extinction (which had 12). Four different people have already found two idols each (Kez, George, Cara, Simon). Presumably the pace will slow down eventually, but there are still 10 days left, so ....
Episode 16: George's blindside-within-a-blindside
The highlight of Ep16 was the multiple schemy plans, some in backlash to other schemy plans, only for it all to be hijacked by George bringing the original Brains together, and having them take charge, however briefly.
George's move was impressive as a Brains bonding experience. (Which lasted for exactly one round.) It's unclear if it was really worth the effort, though, since Emmett or Dani leaving the game would have been far more useful than Gerald. George characterizes him as "a physical threat," when Gerald was dead last in Mean % Finish in challenges. Literally every other player was more of a physical threat, even the famously brawny Wai. (George also picked Gerald as the least likely recipient of Flick's idol, which according to Gerald's exit interviews, was almost an extreme miscalculation.)
Gerald could fairly be characterized as a social/strategic threat, though. Like George, he seemed to be working from the shadows. He was the one who spotted Simon finding his idol, then alerted his Brawn alliancemates. Gerald was the one who suggested to Emmett (after the swap) that the ex-Brawns' (now Brains) best move was to throw challenges and pick off the original Brains. Gerald was also loyal: he and Flick both looked alarmed when Dani suggested targeting Emmett. So in that sense — as a loyal Brawn who could conceivably plot a path for them through the game — Gerald made sense.
But maybe this reveals something about George's actual game. It's bizarre to say this, considering he's had 115 confessionals so far, but the one thing we've never heard George talk about is his overall strategy. He's talked about being king, about winning, about controlling the game, but never what his general, long-term plan for doing that is.
In the next episode, where his double-agent plan starts to fall apart, the other contestants figure out that part of what George is doing is simply flipping with Cara, back and forth, between Brains and Brawns, slowly taking down the numbers of each. This is more or less what Tony Vlachos did in combination with Woo Hwang in Cagayan. But that seems like an oversimplification. It appears George was instead combining that approach with Jeremy Collins' famous "meat shield" approach.
That is, George is indeed pendulum-swinging back and forth between Brains and Brawn, but at each flip, he's intentionally leaving key short-term threats in the game, while taking out jury threats. He could have gone along with Dani's plan to blindside Emmett, or with Emmett's counter-blindside of Dani. Instead he chose to leave both of them in the game, and take out Gerald instead. Emmett's a challenge beast, Dani likes to target alphas. They're known entities. They have résumés. There will always be someone willing to take one of them out. But Gerald was well-liked, straight-up, and loyal, and could plausibly have commandeered a majority of votes from a Brawn-heavy jury. It's a smart move.
Or at least, that's what it looks like from the outside. Without hearing as much directly from George, it's also possible it's just random, reactive chaos. Who knows?
Episode 17: A fun new idol, a less-fun new twist
We obviously can't talk about Episode 17 without discussing the tragic opening, where Flick learned her (surprisingly young) mother had passed away, after living with dementia for many years. Flick was able to talk to her family, who encouraged her to make the incredibly difficult decision to keep playing. It was news that clearly affected not just Flick, but everyone around her seemed to be holding up better than even some of her tribemates when JLP hugged her before the immunity challenge. It's great that she made the decision to use the experience to raise awareness for dementia research, and she has set up a GoFundMe to raise money for research, here: Flick's Fundraiser.
In that light, the seemingly random decision to have FIVE people immune at Tribal Council may well have been an attempt to ease the burden on Flick in the moment. She received the phone call about her mother on Day 34, the immunity challenge was the next day. It was an almost purely physical challenge, and producers may well have predicted Flick could easily end up in the top five. Let her have one round to regain her focus and composure, then play on. If that's what happened, it was a solid, humane choice.
The evidence supporting this hypothesis: the last time there were multiple immunities (just three episodes earlier), there were three necklaces. Here, there was only the one.
The evidence against, supporting instead that it was always planned this way: In design, it was virtually identical to the log-collecting task on Edge of Extinction during Winners at War, a competition so grueling that Ethan needed medical assistance.
So this was a (nearly) purely physical, heavily endurance-based task. Ah, but with a puzzle! See, it's fair! Brains AND Brawn! Checkmate, bro! (Not really: The puzzle was not a particularly difficult one, because any piece you grabbed could be placed at any time, and once you had a couple pieces in, or saw someone else's, it was clear how it worked. Unsurprisingly, people finished the puzzle in roughly the order they started it.)
Whatever the impetus for more than half the tribe being immune, the result (while predictable) wasn't great: Four women, "the four slowest runners" in Dani's phrasing, were the only ones eligible to be voted against. With five immunity slots available, fit young men like Andrew and Emmett were all but guaranteed to have a free pass this round. That's pretty unfair. The only real suspense was whether Hayley or Emmett would finish second, and it was for a placement without a meaningful difference. Second and third place were just as immune as each other. Neither was in any particular danger of slipping into vulnerability.
It was exactly the kind of challenge Survivor AU loves: Brute strength and/or endurance. It's also one that belies the season title. There was very little brainwork involved here, more like 90% (or more) brawn. This kind of thing is fine when it's a throwaway, time-filling exercise where already-eliminated people earn fire tokens. It's pretty game-breaking when it makes the majority of the contestants ineligible to be voted against.
But there was one thing that could save one of the four women who had the misfortune of being the slowest runners: A new kind of idol. George found the clue in camp, which led him to a key, which unlocked an idol in the voting table. The idol was like an idol nullifier: A disc that you write the person's name on that you're playing it for, then slip into the voting urn. Except it's much more enjoyable than a nullifier, because it works like an idol, just one that the bearer can play in secret.
On the one hand, it was perfect timing for George, because it gave him a chance to save Cara, who otherwise would have been voted out again, this time unanimously. On the other hand, the secrecy was ruined because the person he saved was Cara. Not a single player was fooled by his claims to the contrary: EVERYONE knew George was the one who had saved her. Even Andrew!
As a one-off idol variant, this was a fun wrinkle on the concept, and it would be interesting to see it used again in a different season, with different players. It also stands in contrast to the extremely public idol Hayley grabbed in the challenge, which was also entertaining. Steal these concepts US Survivor! (You won't see them until Survivor 43 at the earliest, sadly.)
Episode 18: A clean, epic blindside
The week closed with the blindside of a major character, with Emmett and Andrew's (and Dani and Flick's) newly formed all-challenge beast alliance being torn asunder by the people they brought in as numbers: Hayley and Wai.
It was a move that George told Hayley would be *entirely* hers (and Wai's), would be a bullet point on her résumé ... and then proceeded to loudly (and hilariously) announce his vote for Emmett from the voting booth. Gee, which player do we think Emmett will associate with his ouster now? Good old George, never stop double-crossing your allies!
It was also a move that made you wonder whether maybe the key events of the episode were edited out of order. True, it came immediately after George played his secret idol for Cara, saving her. But when the six non-George/Cara got together to go through with the obvious plan to boot one of them, Wai proposed a 4-2 vote split, just in case George and Cara came up with another idol. As it happened, George and Cara *did* come up with another idol, but (allegedly) much later.
Meanwhile, Hayley and Wai were square in the middle — should they stick with the plan and take out George, or flip to their old Brains tribemates, and blindside Emmett, the challenge beast? Easing the decision-making process, Emmett takes Hayley aside, and generously offers her fifth place ... in an alliance that doesn't even include Wai! So it's a hard fifth place, with no chance of improvement, unless she manages to win the final few immunities. Oh, and the other people in the five are all the folks who are good in challenges. It's perhaps one of the most terrible offers of all time, vastly worse than the guaranteed chaos of working with George and Cara.
Side note: you wonder whether Cara's idol find actually came before the IC, because it's weird that if the six were so gung-ho about taking them out, nobody bothered to keep an eye on them in the few hours between the IC and Tribal. It's also elegant how the vote-split plan works so perfectly as a 4-3-1 when Hayley and Wai both leave to join the other side, so elegant it's hard to believe it wasn't planned ahead of time. (Best guess: Cara actually found it while the other four were away at reward the day before.)
At the very least, it seems likely that we also were not shown some key discussions between the George/Cara pair and the Hayley/Wai duo. We do see Hayley and Wai weighing their options by the well (as does George, in his words "in deep shit," literally laying in animal dung as he snooped on them), but we never see a closing sales pitch by George. George and Cara never appear to disclose their idol to Hayley or Wai. Yet Cara and George are also somehow sure they don't need to play the idol that round. Clearly, something was cut to preserve the suspense.
Which is perfectly fine, that's how the show's edit is supposed to work. Hayley and Wai could have gone with either offer, and their choice changed the game. The audience gets surprised along with the person booted. Classic Survivor. Still, it would be nice to know what sort of promises were made between the pairs of Brains before they left for Tribal. (Secret scene, perhaps?)
- Almost a second self-idoling: In Episode 18, with his back against the wall, and full knowledge that Emmett was spearheading a planned 4-2-2 split vote, with four votes on George and two on Cara (and George and Cara planning to put their two votes on Emmett), George and Cara go looking for an idol, and Cara finds one. The day is saved! In the immediate aftermath, George asks Cara to play the idol for him. Keep in mind here: George had already listened to Hayley and Wai talk about the vote split plan (as shown on TV, at least), it's unclear if Cara knew. Had she played the idol for George and the vote proceeded as planned, that creates a 2-2 tie, Cara vs. Emmett, and on the revote, Cara is almost certainly out. So George was pushing Cara to idol herself out for him for a second time in the same game! (Obviously, Hayley and Wai bailed on the plan and voted out Emmett instead, and it's possible George and/or Cara brought that about, but still ... so close!)
- Missing from action: In the pre-season ads, there was a clip of JLP commenting on someone struggling with the hill run challenge, pushing through the pain, totally spent. For whatever reason, that comment did not make the cut for the episode itself. Who was he talking about? Wai? Someone else? Pretty weird to tease something from Day 35, then not even show it.
- Andrew, what are you even doing: Just last week, we questioned the folly of Emmett's plan to just win every immunity. Obviously that fell a bit short. Now we see Andrew spouting the same inane "strategy." We're still only up to Day 38, mate, with 10 to go. There are probably six more ICs coming (including one for a non-elimination). It's certainly *possible* he could win them all, but not very likely.
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