How do you solve a problem like Abi-Maria? Not by rigging Survivor

In the aftermath of last week’s Survivor Philippines Tribal Council, Abi-Maria returned to camp having been thoroughly beaten up by the tribe, who told her exactly how her behavior was being perceived. Even though she lacks self-awareness, even she knew that she was done the next time Tribal Council rolled around. Luckily, she had a secret weapon: Jeff Probst, the show’s producers, CBS, and Jesus all fixed the whole episode to make sure she’d stay and continue to be good television.

Please.

The conspiracy theories that erupted on Twitter and have been discussed elsewhere seem to be along the “we’ll keep her because she’s good television” or “let’s have a good comeback story.” Neither is a convincing argument for many reasons, but especially because over 25 seasons, Survivor has given us not only many comebacks and other “holy shit” moments, and also plenty of far-more-compelling characters who went home too early.

The “Abi’s win must have been rigged!” thing seems to be coming from the disparity between her previous actions and last night’s episode, and probably also just from dislike.

But I digress, because arguing against a conspiracy theory is about as effective as arguing with Abi: it’s pointless, because crazy people are going to believe whatever they want. For the record, Probst denied it twice, though of course that will do nothing but cause the torches to burn brighter.

Also: There is so much more to get upset about on Survivor, from Redemption Island to returnees’ unfair advantage to producers giving fire to tribes to jury members talking and influencing each others’ votes. The real manipulation happens in subtle ways that have nothing to do with big-picture game play and everything to do with our perception of the events.

Most importantly: What actually happened last night is so much more interesting than some bullshit conspiracy theory. Yes, she had an amazing comeback, but one that made perfect sense in the context of what happened. Abi went from certain elimination to safety thanks to her own actions, from winning a challenge (she has lots of energy from never participating in previous challenges) to creating a strategic lie that, however weak it may have seemed, was a decent attempt.

Abi was so defeated she went into the auction reward–the auction!–determined to keep her $500 because she was going to be voted out. Yes, she nearly sat herself out of another challenge. That is until Probst said that the next item involved an “advantage,” and she bid $500 immediately.

That move was not unprecedented: Denise immediately paid $500 for pancakes and bacon, and Skupin paid $500 for wine and cheese before Probst could even say a word. (How amazing was Lisa’s huge bite of her sub, or that orgasmic look on Penner’s face as he ate fried chicken?) Also, Abi’s win of that advantage was a clear result of the rest of the tribe ignoring her as a potential, if temporary, threat. No one seemed concerned about buying an advantage; they just wanted to eat.

Abi’s performance in the immunity challenge was the biggest surprise, and not just because she’s spent nearly every challenge on the sidelines–which she did again, since she got to skip the first two parts thanks to her advantage. Yes, the third part seemed to be the least physical, and she did have an advantage in being able to skip the first two parts (thanks to what she bought at the auction) and because she had no weight (Carter screwed up the question and she didn’t). Update: CBS has video of those unaired Q&As online.

The twist of quiz questions was a good way to keep a somewhat familiar challenge interesting, though I do think that penalty made it unnecessarily difficult. Having to carry weight presented a problem not because of the weight, but because the bag it was in was so unwieldy. Those who claim it was made easy for Abi forget that challenges are planned months in advance and built weeks in advance, though it was quite the coincidence that Abi ended up on the part of the course that had a lighted path and scissors attached to every knot and mace to spray at her opponents.

More significantly, the winners of such advantages in the past have nearly always won immunity, so that the challenge would favor her is unsurprising. Still, even despite that, Abi’s win was remarkable because she’s been such a non-player; that was clear from her tribemates’ reactions, since they thought she’d lose easily on a challenge that involved climbing and knot-untying. And when she didn’t, they were shocked. “You gotta be freaking kidding me,” Denise said. “I want to throw up.”

Interestingly, Malcolm didn’t seem to mind, knowing that getting rid of a strategic threat Penner was a better choice than getting rid of annoying Abi. I also appreciated Malcolm trying to tease out what exactly Abi’s advantage could have been. After he mentioned two possibilities, he asked, “Is there any other scenario you can think of?” The editors showed Carter staring blankly.

Before the immunity challenge, Abi came up with a plan to attempt to convince the tribe that she won not just an advantage in the challenge, but also a clue to the location of an idol. She fumbled her way through the lie when Probst asked her to read the advantage out loud, and her dramatic tearing up of the clue was over-the-top and probably alerted her smarter tribemates to the fact that she made up the part about the second clue, because she protested way too much.

Because Abi was safe, Penner was targeted, and though he was upset that Lisa would vote against him, he knew why he was in trouble: “I did not choose a side.” Malcolm reiterated that point at Tribal Council: “You didn’t trust her enough to make the alliance.”

Just as Penner failed to manage the two alliances, the tribe failed to manage Abi. Sure, that’s like trying to stop an overflowing toilet with a q-tip, but they didn’t even bother. More significantly, attacking her last week, they created someone who had nothing to lose. Pre-Tribal Abi may have just purchased food at the auction, not the advantage, because she wouldn’t have felt like she’d been shoved into a corner.

Penner, meanwhile, went out in style: mad, bitter, but charming. Besides (intentionally?) voting for “Denies” and saying “wonderful” when Probst announced he was going to go tally votes, Penner told the tribe, “Keep your sunny side up and suck eggs,” and then whistled his way down the path, popping back into the frame after he disappeared, ever the performer.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.