Survivor’s fun sponge finally squeezed, drenching us in joy

I am hyperventilating like a Utahn mother who just lost her teeth: holy fun sponge, that was fantastic. As Cochran said as he cast his vote, “This is why I freakin’ love Survivor.”

This season represents the best and worst of Survivor, with tonight’s episode being nearly perfect, despite a pair of familiar challenges and the lack of the tarsier (though there was a new creature introduced after some amazing foreshadowing).

This Tribal Council goes down in history for me in part because it was a blindside not just of a person, but a blindside of an entire dominant, majority alliance. And it still happened even though two of the three of the minority alliances had known immunity idols, the second hidden immunity idol having emerged when Malcolm just reached into a hole in the rock and pulled it out while several people were watching him. (Remember when we used to think it was odd when people just randomly found idols?)

When Malcolm pulled his other idol out of his pants, and Eddie’s face lit up and everyone else’s face sank, that was reality television.

I was shocked in part because Malcolm did that before the vote: one of the perks of the hidden immunity idol is that it can be kept hidden until after the vote. I wasn’t quite clear on the strategy of revealing all three to the tribe. Why not just play them, ensuring you vote out the person you want out?

It was Erik, of all people, who pointed out–after asking Probst if he could talk, heh–that they might not actually play their idols. Revealing and not playing them would affect the vote, causing the alliance to turn on itself and vote out Phillip, but they’d still have their idols.

Probst, never losing an opportunity to control the game, hammered that point over and over. I’m curious if that had any impact on the majority alliance’s decision to go with their original votes and/or on the bros to play their idols, because ultimately how the alliance voted didn’t appear to be affected by the idols.

Of course, their votes had an effect. To the jury they sent Phillip Shephard: author, specialist, private eye, apple of Jeff Probst’s eye, filler of too many minutes this season, and, as Malcolm called him, “the fun sponge,” which was squeezed so that all the fun he’d soaked up finally offered a moment of satisfaction and joy.

I was so amazed watching those votes unfold that I missed some significant continuity errors: the reaction shots of Andrea, Malcolm, and Eddie during the vote actually came from before the votes were read, because they were still wearing their idols. But who cares? Phillip’s out and won’t be able to talk until the finale.

Also fun: open scrambling at Tribal Council, though Probst kind of stepped all over it by commenting on it instead of just listening to what people were saying. Cast members are not supposed to talk or communicate after they leave camp until they get to Tribal Council, since they’re not being filmed as they’re driven there. That doesn’t guarantee communication does not take place, but it explains why votes are usually locked in well before a tribe shows up to face Probst.

Phillip’s exit was gracious, as was his day-after commentary (compare that to this horror), which makes him seem so much more intelligent and tolerable than what the editors subjected us to each week. I’m not a fan of his strategy, but I really appreciate his thoughtfulness here and that it really was a strategy, however obnoxious.

Earlier, Phillip’s decision to sit out the immunity challenge would have been one of those head-smacking moves, except he never had a chance at winning–no one did, really, with Reynold and Malcolm competing. Also, Phillip’s childhood experience was horrifying (not that anyone on his tribe wanted to hear about it, not that I could blame them after enduring him all these weeks) and I don’t think he deserves any judgement for sitting out. That said, I am curious why last week’s grate challenge didn’t bother him but this did, considering that was basically a recreation of drowning while this was swimming under water, and the platform had a huge hole in it through which they could come up.

I also appreciated the viewer fake-out: the preview from last week made it seem like this would be a Dawn-centered meltdown episode. There was a spectacular meltdown, but it had a pretty rational origin, and gave us the incredible scene of Brenda materializing out of nowhere to put on a snorkel and mask to search for and then fetch hysterical Dawn’s teeth from the water.

That from the bond that formed between Dawn and Brenda after the deep-teeth fishing expedition will be interesting to follow, but in the immediate, Brenda will probably disappear and the focus will be on how Malcolm, Eddie, the two Reynolds will overcome their idol-less deficit. Did they just buy themselves a week? Or will that move plus the absence of Phillip allow for some realignments? I’m excited to find out.

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.