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Survivor Borneo’s players actually strategize, and almost oust Rich and his ego

This summer, I’m recapping Survivor Borneo week by week, 20 years after each episode premiered. Today, Survivor Borneo, episode 9, “Old and New Bonds,” which originally aired Wednesday, July 26, 2000.

As I’ve rewatched Survivor: Borneo, I’ve been surprised at how unassuming Richard Hatch has come across so far, at least compared to his reputation. Sure, he has a moment here and there, but the villainy and even the ego? Barely there—until episode nine, that is.

A considerable amount of attention is given to Rich this week, and he opens the episode with an interview in which he said, “Outright lying is absolutely essential, especially when you have a host like Jeff who’s as bold as to ask, So Sue, tell me, is there an alliance? What a question!”

Rich insists that it’s an “outright blatant lie” that providing food is why he hasn’t been voted off. “I’m staying around here because I’m bright. It has nothing to do with catchin’ fish,” he says.

“They’re not voting me off because I’m not letting them,” he adds. Ah, there’s that ego!

Rich gets visibly annoyed and unloads to the camera—though he’s admirably self-aware about his own frustration, and at his frustration with people trying to calm him down.

After he catches several rays and Rudy cooks them into inedible char, Rich says, “Rudy’s clueless when it comes to fish … half of the three rays were wasted, and that infuriates me.”

For something Rich says isn’t important to his game (catching fish), he’s sure upset about it, and decides he’ll punish the rest of the tribe, as if they were children. “They need to appreciate it,” he says. “We need to take a break and let them kind of hunger for them.”

But in the first of two really clever juxtapositions, the editors show us the women retrieving a fish from their trap and talking about how disappointed Rich must be. The act ends with a tight close-up on his face, looking concerned, and a fade to commercial.

The other players are laser-focused on him, even members of his own alliance. And one of them even turns on Rich, sort of.

Throughout this, there’s a lot of the other players reacting to Rich, as a player and a person. Gervase and Sean talk about Rich’s fishing, and Sean casts Rich as a sort of buffoon, saying “we call him all kinds of names.” But then Sean also acknowledges Rich’s “ideal position” in the game, and says he’s the “epicenter of the power right now.”

Rudy’s observations veer into uncomfortable territory. “I sort of liked him before I knew he was queer,” he says, as if Rich’s sexuality would change his mind. Later, Rudy observes the women, including Kelly, spending more time together, and says, “I even thought about lesbianism, but maybe not.” Okay, old man: Maybe “not in a homosexual way” was funny and charming, but now you’re just being homophobic. People of the same sex can hang out together without having sex, unless you know something we don’t.

Rudy is also not kind to the women even while admitting they have power: “It could happen if they had enough brains,” he says.

There’s a surprising amount of viciousness this episode. Colleen says Rich “thinks he’s so above everybody” (true) but then immediately suggests he go home to get liposuction (cruel, unnecessary).

Also unnecessary: Rich’s nudity.

First, for what it’s worth, I don’t think people should be shamed for their bodies, nor ashamed of bodies, and find our culture’s puritanical attitudes toward sex and human bodies to be absurd and often rooted in sexism and misogyny—after all, men are generally permitted to take off their shirts in public, but women generally cannot.

But even though Survivor’s players are living on a beach, it’s still the set of a televised game show, a workplace, and consideration and respect for others matters. Rich wandering up to the campfire naked—or, in a later season, participating in a challenge naked—seems equivalent to a Price is Right contestant stripping off all their clothes before running down the aisle to the Contestant’s Row: not appropriate at all.

Rich decides to spend his 39th birthday naked, and this is where the show itself finally acknowledges that this is problematic behavior—though the show does so in a problematic way, by associating Rich’s nudity with his sexual orientation.

Rudy characterizes it by saying he’ll tell his wife that the contestants included “a queer that ran around bare-ass half of the time.”

Jenna says, “I wanted to get away” from naked Rich. “It felt awkward sitting next to a naked gay man.”

The identification of his sexuality is unnecessary: it’s a problem that Rich is making people uncomfortable, period. It has nothing to do with him being gay.

Even Rich acknowledges that his nudity is a problem for others, though we don’t actually see him modify his behavior. At Tribal Council, which has taken several leaps and bounds forward toward what we now think of as Tribal Council, Jeff Probst tells Richard Hatch that “a couple of people voiced concerns.”

Rich says, “it did make a couple people uncomfortable, so I thought, Why bother?” Will his public nudity stop in future episodes?

Probst’s question is considerably more confrontational than Probst has been to date. He also calls out Sean for his alphabetical voting strategy, and kicks off an actual confrontation.

Sue is not kind, saying Sean is “neurotic, he’s an idiot,” and suggests he votes that way because “he doesn’t have enough balls to make a decision.”

Sean actually says something I completely forgot about, or never actually heard: He points out that “a lot of the Pagong people” are toward the beginning of the alphabet, while Tagi’s members have first names at the end of the alphabet. He doesn’t elaborate, but he’s basically saying this allows him to vote with his tribe but without joining the alliance.

Sean repeated this idea in a recent (i.e. 2020) interview, and I expressed skepticism about that rationale, suggesting that he might just be retroactively justifying his dumb strategy. But this is clear evidence that he was at least thinking that way on the island. Whether it was smart or not remains a different question.

Actually, I’m confident in saying it was not smart, at least during this episode. Sean’s dumb ABC voting strategy 1) results in Jenna going home, even though he told her he’d change his vote if she was at risk, and 2) his vote could have been used to vote Rich out.

That’s because the final vote is:

  • Jenna: 4
  • Rich: 3
  • Sean: 1

That lone vote for Sean was Kelly, who bailed on her own alliance. That she bailed on them yet didn’t vote with the Pagong members is somewhat baffling. It would have resulted in Survivor’s first tied Tribal Council vote, unless Sean had also joined that rebel alliance and voted out Richard Hatch. Ultimately, Rich was just one vote away from going home.

So yes, on day 27, Pagong is finally ready to play, and there’s legitimate strategizing at camp. Colleen points out that “Sean’s a swing vote” and says to Jenna, “you, me and Gervase could definitely do something,” noting that the Tagi alliance will “pick people off” if they don’t.

Colleen does hesitate, though, telling the camera, “Do I try and strategize, try to make a difference?” It’s amazing this was even a question!

So to recap in my recap: The episode begins with Richard Hatch insisting he’s controlling everyone’s votes, and then ends with him perilously closed to being voted out of Survivor and becoming its second jury member.

That’s the major arc of the episode—a clear, strong storyline—and all of the supporting elements of the episode have similarly stepped up their games.

The immunity challenge is awesome: a massive grid of tiles with Survivor’s logo, that first looks like it may be our first-ever puzzle. But instead, it’s a game of strategy. The players all start on the edges, and take one step forward, flipping over the tile they were just standing on. The goal is to not get boxed in by your own moves or by other players, and last as long as possible.

This is an awesome challenge, one that requires strategic thinking, not physical strength or endurance. Survivor repeats so many challenges—why can’t they repeat this? Or rework it? The grid could be bigger, and maybe some tiles could have rewards or advantages (like the ability to skip a turn). It’s just great fun to watch, as have been so many challenges in season one.

The reward challenge is also terrific: it opens with a beautiful crane shot of the rope spider web and its 16 obstacles, and then Probst previews the reward for them, which is new. He even acknowledges that, saying, they’ll “switch it up and show you the carrot, the reward, before the challenge.”

The whole thing is still kind of casual, as it starts with Probst walking down the beach with them. And Probst is still more of a friend than an autocrat. During the reward challenge, as Jenna crawls under Gervase’s legs to traverse a ladder, Probst says, “Way to work together, guys.”

Complementing them on cooperating during a competition! Yes, this is the same host who will eventually become a host who screams and berates cast members for not meeting his standards of competitive effort.

The reward ends with Survivor (and reality TV’s?) first-ever punishment for a reward-winner: having to choose one person to join them, thereby putting them in a precarious position. After her challenge win, Colleen interrupts Jeff Probst when she senses that what he’s about to ask her to do: “don’t even make me pick one.”

Thankfully for Colleen, it’s an easy choice: She picks Jenna, since the reward includes a letter from home, and Jenna was screwed out of her video from home.

It’s here when the Survivor editors give us a laugh-out-loud segment, contrasting Jenna and Colleen gorging themselves on a barbecue buffet with sad images of the other players eating pasty rice off of sticks, which is scored with sad piano music. It’s a wonderful scene in the middle of a wonderful episode, delivering a reward challenge with a comedic editing; substantial strategizing; a confrontational Tribal Council; and a close, surprising vote.

All of my Survivor: Borneo episode recaps

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  • 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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