Survivor: throw momma from the tribe?

How many times in the history of Survivor have we heard someone say, “it’s just a game” as a way to excuse hurting others feelings? Sure, it’s a game, but it’s also one that involves developing and then manipulating and/or betraying relationships with people, and we saw a completely atypical illustration of that last night.

Survivor Blood vs. Water gave us a big helpin’ of that kind of drama, thanks to the last remaining pair in the game, Laura M. and Ciera, who voted her mother out. It was a brutal yet necessary decision to save herself in the game, though it’s not clear if Ciera’s minor attempt to save her mother–by brilliantly lying in order to catch Katie in a lie about the hidden immunity idol, and then gently suggesting they dump Katie first–will make her a target, especially if Tyson becomes a target first.

Ultimately, the alliance decided a pair was a bigger threat than Katie. Their decision was clear when Probst showed one vote for Laura, one for Katie, and then another for Laura; clearly, there were no more Katie votes. But then he surprised us: the last vote was for “Laura (Mom),” and it was devastating. It’s well-known that Probst arranges votes to be as dramatic as possible, but considering his likely ecstatic response when he and other producers were reviewing votes and deciding to show that one last, I’m surprised that vote wasn’t stuck to the others.

While I’m dinging Probst, the episode began with a Very Special Episode of The Jeff Probst Produces Survivor Show after the duel–itself a surprisingly dramatic challenge as Tina pulled out a surprising early lead but lost it at the very last second, but came back to defeat Aras.

Probst tried to create a Moment between the brothers after Aras lost and was sent out of the game forever. In order to get Vytas and Aras to talk about their bond and how Survivor has affected it, I was actually surprised Probst didn’t just walk over and operate Aras and Vytas like marionettes. “Hi, I’m Vytas. I did drugs and hate my brother.” “Hi, I’m Aras. I do yoga and I hate my brother.” “We’re the Baskauskas Brothers and Survivor saved our relationship. Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo.”

Compare that unnecessarily heavy-handed scene to the one with Ciera’s confessional intercut with the difficult strategy conversation she had with her mother, which showed us everything we needed to know. We didn’t need Probst narrating it: Ciera: upset that she has to vote out her own mother! Yes, the music was manipulative and the editing carefully constructed, but there’s a difference between being well-produced and so over-produced it’s burned and inedible.

The conversation was one of the best in Survivor history in part because it was just so honest and straightforward. “I think I have a better shot of winning than you would,” Ciera said, explaining that if the alliance decided to vote out her mom, she’d join. Laura told the camera, “The fact that my daughter has the courage to say that to me, shows that she’s grown as a woman.” She also said, “that’s an amazing gift this game has given me.”

Sob.

As much as I love the dynamics that Laura’s return created, I couldn’t help but cringe at Redemption Island’s consequences: 1) the lack of a reward challenge (I’m just not going to get over that, kind of like I will never think it’s somehow noble and smart to give up one’s reward, as Monica did after hanging on longer than anyone expected her to in the immunity challenge, which is more a metaphor for her life in the game than that snake was for anything that happened this episode), and 2) Probst telling Laura, “for the second time, the tribe has spoken.”

Incredibly, Laura may actually have a third opportunity to hear those words, since she has a pretty strong chance of returning to the game. So, I think, does her daughter, whether or not Ciera wins. Considering how many chances people get to play Survivor now, there was some nice comedy when Ciera was worrying about what to do and said, “I get one shot at this–one shot, and I don’t want to mess it up.”

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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.