It's a testament to the success of the central theme/concept of Survivor SA: Immunity Island that Santoni was able to go from probable first boot on Vuna all the way to sixth place, Day 33, Episode 13, thanks in large part to an early Immunity Island visit. She was one of the eldest women on Vuna, not a physical asset in challenges, a superfan who had applied repeatedly. But that Episode 2 trip to Immunity Island protected her in the short term and propelled her forward in the long term. She found two idols. She voted nine people out, many of which were her idea. She played double agent most of the game, with just one true ally in Chappies. She persevered, and even thrived, all while wreaking havoc and stirring things up along the way.
It's also perhaps appropriate that she went out in this way, in a chaotic cascade of shifting strategies, collapsing new plans, and multiple idol/ advantage plays. Even up to the very last second, right before Tyson's late-roaring fire burned through his string, it looked Santoni might miraculously survive another day. She didn't — she was so close! – but now she'll take her seat on the jury, and hopefully remain a huge character from there.
Santoni's departure also marks the expiration of Immunity Island, and of idols and advantages. As Immunity Island's most-frequent visitor (tied with Anela) and the queen of idols and/or clues, that also feels like this was the right time, the correct exit pairing. It'll be a clean, classic game from here on out. It'll certainly be a lot quieter, a lot less vibrant in color and personality.
Nobody can truly replace Santoni's presence in the story. But who will be the chief mischief maker/ double agent in her absence? Based on his actions this episode, the early signs point to Anela.
As soon as Chappies won immunity (more than 24 hours before Tribal Council), the wheels started turning at Osindile camp. (For their part, not shown, Chappies and Santoni apparently told Kiran they're voting Tyson, and Kiran said he'd join them.) With Chappies immune, Kiran, Tyson and Anela's obvious move was to target his closest ally, Santoni. Kiran, however, foresaw an obvious risk in that plan: Nicole is much more likely to win immunity at final four than Santoni, so Kiran wanted to vote Nicole out instead.
But Anela wasn't keen on this plan. He has a (side? main?) alliance with Nicole, and turning on her this early would anger her friends on the jury (Marisha, Amy, Renier, maybe Shaun). Kiran pointed out the obvious: If the three have to turn on each other at F4, one of them is out. Also, if Chappies wins immunity again the next time, they'll be forced to vote Nicole anyway. But still, Anela wasn't having any of it. That move looks good for Kiran, not for Smash!
So Anela (prodded by Nicole) came up with a counter-plan: Instead of voting against Nicole, he and Nicole should target Kiran instead. Blindside him while holding an idol, no less! This would be a big tick on Anela's résumé. They need another vote, so he recruits Chappies, telling him about Kiran's idol. Chappies is instantly on board. Eventually, as Tribal approaches, he also brings in Santoni. Okay, everyone's in.
Except ... Anela wants to put all four votes on Kiran. He won't see it coming! There's no way this can fail! Santoni points out that this plan is unwise, because if Kiran *does* plays his idol (for himself), it's Nicole who goes home due to Kiran and Tyson's two votes, not Kiran or Tyson. She proposes a 2-2 split, and then no matter whom Kiran plays his idol on, himself or Tyson, it will end up a 2-2- tie, and they can just vote Kiran/Tyson out on the revote.
Anela, however, says this is too complicated. Nicole proposes a 3-1 (Kiran-Tyson) split, and if Kiran plays his idol, well, she can just play her fire idol, and maybe save herself that way? Eventually the four settle on the 2-2-2 split plan, which seems wise since Nicole has only made fire once. Anela swears he's happy to do it that way.
Except that Anela is very much NOT happy. These guys changed his plan! Anela wanted all the credit! Why couldn't they stick with HIS original plan where Nicole maybe goes home accidentally, to pay Kiran back for proposing to target Nicole intentionally?
So he goes back to Kiran (minutes before Tribal Council), tells him the entire blindside plan, and says that he'll scrap it all and vote for Santoni. Kiran, understandably, is not thrilled by this news. This guy, the guy he and Tyson put all that effort into recruiting for the League of Shadows, now wants to blindside him? But Anela swears it's okay, because he thought better of it due to ... numbers or something? As Kiran says, "It's utterly perplexing" why Anela would reveal all this. (For all the hilarity and never-seen-this-before-ness of it all, Anela does seem completely sincere in wanting to make amends with Kiran here.)
Had it not been for his last-minute reversal here, Anela's flip-flopping here feels a bit like Kass McQuillen at the Cagayan merge. Kass made a last-second flip to spite Sarah, who as the obvious swing voter, was dictating the vote. At least from his perspective, Anela turns on Santoni for much the same reason (even though Santoni's plan made more sense than Anela's). But the impetus was still the same: Kass was pissed off that Sarah waltzed in at the last minute, telling everyone how the vote was going to go down. Anela's feeling here lean more towards wanting ownership of/ credit for the move (as Kiran correctly pointed out at Tribal). But the end result is the same: Chaos. (Anela's just comes before Tribal, not at it.) Chaos Smash it is.
The loved ones visit twists and turns
The loved ones visit was packed with surprises, the biggest one being that the winner of the reward challenge (Chappies) was able to decide who ... competed in the next immunity challenge? What?
There was good and bad in this twist, in roughly equal parts. On the one hand, all the contestants were able to spend time with their loved ones. Especially for a season filmed in a COVID bubble, this felt like the right choice. (Presumably the loved ones had to quarantine before appearing, which would have been a lot to ask, to put them through all that, only to send them off again after a 10-minute challenge.)
We also saw Kiran getting assistance from Nicole's brother in grabbing the idol, only for Kiran to turn around and propose targeting her the next day. That was also pretty fun. Even if that specific irony didn't pay off, the combination of his having that idol and making that decision is what started the ball of chaos rolling.
The twist/ decision to let Chappies choose his two IC opponents, however, felt less great. On the one hand, Chappies was probably favored to win regardless, and had he lost, he would have been an obvious boot. Also, none of the people excluded from the IC were voted out (although Tyson almost left the game, thanks to Nicole). Also, Kiran and Nicole already had some degree of protection by way of their idols. Still, it seems unfair to yank away Tyson's ability to protect himself.
Maybe this twist was just supposed to be a surprise, a shock. A fun turn of events, upending the expected "loved ones RC winner gets to pick the loved ones who accompany them on reward" trope. As such, it worked. Production probably also would like to disincentivize the superfan conventional wisdom that you should always throw the loved ones challenge (*cough* Kiran out in seconds *cough*). If this was a warning shot for that, message received. But the message was delivered after the (alleged) throwing had already happened, so ... ?
- Fire idol fireworks: Tyson's irate response to Nicole playing her fire idol managed to hit just the perfect balance of justifiable self-interest and hypocrisy. Of course he should be mad that she almost sent him to the jury, on a throwaway play by his own "ally," no less! He voted for Santoni, not for Nicole! On the other hand, just hours earlier he was 100% on board with Kiran's plan to target Nicole at this vote, and shortly before Tribal, Nicole thought he and Kiran were voting for her. So of course she'd want to play her fire idol, just in case. Especially after Kiran played his idol! They both made the right moves for themselves, and both almost (but didn't!) got the other out. Now these people have to figure out who they can really trust, as they navigate 2-3 more votes without idols. Should be fun.
- Idle hands, etc.: This episode is a great example of why it's always best to give the contestants *more* time to scheme and plot, not less. The League of Shadows trio had a solid plan to vote Santoni out on Day 32, the day Chappies won immunity. But by Day 33, Kiran was already re-thinking that, and his attempts to get Anela on board kick-started the cacophony of shifting plans. Contrast this with forced snap votes, like going directly to Tribal with no discussion after the first IC of Cambodia. Why go out of your way to deprive the audience of the glorious back-and-forth of plans, backlashes to plans, and all this nervous uncertainty?
- The fire is too damn high: Is there a considerable difference in the amount of fuel supplied for US Survivor firemaking contests vs. Australian and South African ones? Or is the string they burn through just higher up? Because both Santoni's and Tyson's fires here and the massive bonfire Dani built almost exclusively out of coconut husks in Survivor AU: Brains v Brawn a couple of weeks ago seemed to be constructed almost entirely out of rapid-burning tinder, not from sticks. These conflagrations just don't happen in US Survivor. On the one hand, this way speeds up the action, sure. On the other, it doesn't seem like knowing what you're doing really matters all that much. From her exit interviews, this was the first time Santoni ever made fire with flint! (Still, nice foreshadowing in the episode at the start of Day 33, with Santoni staring into space, about to comment on the titular "weird vibe," while Tyson stokes the Osindile fire.)
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