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As Rob Mariano marches toward a win, is it possible to care about anything else on Survivor?

The most dramatic and exciting part of Survivor Redemption Island‘s episode was not Andrea being blindsided, nor the duel that sent Steve home and gave Mike a reward that was more like a punishment. It was the immunity challenge, a difficult physical challenge that involved climbing up and down the same flight of stairs, adding one step at a time.

But that was not dramatic because of the competition, which, surprisingly, had little consequence. At this stage in the game, that challenge is one in which we’ll typically be rooting for or against several people. And the action was dramatic, as Grant and Andrea weren’t far behind Rob at the end. But ultimately, there was no consequence because of what has happened: Rob Mariano is not just controlling the game, he’s the only interesting part left.

Even if Rob lost that challenge, it’s difficult to imagine that creating the only remaining blindside I’d care about: the tribe turning on him and voting him out. At one point, Rob said, “All they have to do is talk to each other, but they won’t.” I think he’s right.

However, the challenge itself was thrilling because Rob won by pushing himself so hard that he collapsed afterwards, leading Jeff Probst to ask if he needed medical attention and then, amazingly, causing Rob to ask his tribe, “Hey, can you guys help me stand up?” That they were willing to help him, this man who is marching toward victory in the game, is a significant accomplishment.

This is Rob Mariano’s game, and he knows it: “I’m playing my best game,” he said at one point. It’s hard to root against him, and I say this as someone who was never a Rob fan before, nor did I even think he should have been allowed to return for a third shot. If you (incorrectly, I’d say) think his social game isn’t that strong because he’s on a tribe of people literally willing to carry him, his challenge performance is impressive enough to justify a win.

Even if you wanted to root against Rob, who is there to care enough about? Perhaps this is the fault of the editors, but the rest of the tribe–except Phillip–blends together blandly.

Perhaps Rob’s greatest threats are Grant, who can win challenges and seems likeable, and Phillip, who this week revealed himself to be crazy by design. During the family visit, he told his sister, “I’m prepared to go crazy if I have to. That’s what works for me,” and he told us in an interview, that his flip-outs are “salt in the wound to make sure folks don’t forget that” he is the villain. Phillip also told us, “Honestly, I think I could defeat Rob.” I’m not so sure about that, but having Phillip think that is one more piece of insurance that Rob can use to stick around and bulldoze through the rest of his tribe.

What about those on Redemption Island, one of whom will reenter the game? Well, they’re insufferable. Again, in a normal season, I’d be fascinated by the potential for someone from the Pagonged tribe to return to the game and seek revenge. Not now. Matt’s streak of challenge wins was interrupted by his breakdown and attribution of his victories to God, and while Mike’s performance is impressive, he’s now starting to do the same thing, giving credit for his win to a higher power: “I asked God to help me win,” he said, adding that giving up his reward was “what he asked me to do” in exchange.

That reward was a visit from family members. First, it was ridiculously obvious that the family videos shown on product placement phones were filmed in Nicaragua, likely at the hotel where the family members were staying. If they’d been filmed in the US, we’d have seen Amber, not Rob’s sister, who traveled to see Rob. Plus, they were filmed in HD (easier to get a camera crew to the hotel where they’re staying instead of sending HD crews around the country), and the exterior locations all looked the same, while the interior ones seemed generic and not like someone’s real house.

The winner of the duel, Mike, got to spend time with his loved one. But of course, there was a twist. Probst said he could give up that and instead “buy some goodwill in a jury situation”: either by letting the two other Redemption Island inhabitants spend time with their loved ones, or by letting those remaining in the game–the people who voted him out–spend time with their family members.

Mike babbled something about Jesus that didn’t quite make sense but then said he wanted to do “the most good for the most people” and said “that’s the only play here,” choosing to let the remaining Murlonia tribe get the reward. Probst was flabbergasted that Mike gave that to “the six people who single-handedly decimated your tribe,” saying he thought there was a “less than zero” chance that would happen. Mike said it was “not a strategic” decision and said if he gets jury votes as a result, that’s a “great bonus.”

While I understand why Survivor gives people choices like this, it’s one thing to do it with a sandwich, and another to use a twist like this to emotionally manipulate emotionally fragile people. The worst part was that the production flew family members all the way to Nicaragua and then had them stand 10 feet away, unable to even hug or talk for a moment before departing. Dramatic, sure, but transparently manipulative and not worthy of this show.

In a normal season of Survivor, this should be the most dramatic time of the game as strategy works up to a fever pitch. Instead, producers are burning through votes and Tribal Councils. Sure, there’s been some drama recently, but it’s kind of amazing how flat it is despite everything that’s going on.

About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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