This spring, I’m recapping Survivor’s second season week by week, roughly 20 years after each episode premiered. Today, Survivor: The Australian Outback, episode 12, “No Longer Just a Game,” which originally aired Thursday, April 12, 2001.
The flood that washes through the tribe’s camp is an epic, cinematic moment, and so is basically everything that precedes and follows it. This is the kind of reality that makes reality TV so great: unexpected, genuine, consequential.
Survivor: Borneo was notable for its big personalities and what happened when people played a social game. While the game play is ramped up this season, I’d argue that the story of this season is more about survival than strategy. At the very least, the elements and survival get a lot of attention this season.
These are the kinds of moments that made Survivor, and the flood is the kind of moment that Survivor, in its more-recent years, reaches for so hard you can feel Jeff Probst straining.
The episode starts with the tribe lamenting how exhausted they are, how hungry and tired. They’ve become “drastically primal,” Elisabeth says.
The reward challenge offers some hope, plus dinner, a cot, and a breakfast of eggs and bacon. Colby worries that his challenge wins are putting a target on his back, yet he easily wins the reward challenge, and puts on his cowboy hat and blends right in as he gallops off—into the middle of a torrential downpour.
The tribe can’t return to their camp, because the road is flooded. (I’m assuming they were being transported by the crew, since we’re told that they were three miles away from camp at the place where the road washed out. Did the vehicles have to stop and the players just got out to wait? Or were they actually walking some of that route?)
The tribe isn’t at their camp, but a camera operator—or a producer with a camera—is there. That allows us to watch the water literally rush down the dry river bed and pour into the camp, taking supplies and the rice tin with it. What we don’t see are any crew members trying to rescue the players’ belongings. (I can’t imagine Mark Burnett would have allowed that; after all, Burnett said he’d fire a camera operator who tried to help someone during a medical emergency.)
We watch as their can of rice, traded for their tarps and Colby’s flag, floats down the river. Perhaps it’s that image of the tin, which Jeff Probst brought to their camp last episode, that caused me to conflate these two incidents. I would have bet $1,000 that Probst arrived with rice after the flood, and I was gratified that several of you recalled the same thing. It must be Survivor’s version of the Mandela effect. Or maybe we’re all from the timeline with the Berenstein Bears, not those imposter Berenstain Bears.
When the remaining five players do arrive, they’re essentially in shock by what this natural disaster has done to their camp and their ability to survive: they have no food, no shelter, and no matches, as they eventually discover.
Keith spots the rice tin stuck in branches across the river, and in the dark, starts to inch his way across a tree that’s fallen across the river and, with the swift current, basically creates a mini-waterfall. Rodger offers a rope; Tina worries that he’ll be swept away. But then Tina jumps in downriver and swims over! It’s impressive and terrifying and successful: they have their food.
Without matches, though, they spend a miserable night cold, hungry, and wet, huddled together for warmth.
Earlier, as Elisabeth says “we have no food,” the editing brutally cuts to Colby’s reward, a roaring campfire, shelter, and food that keeps running right through Colby as fast as he can eat it.
Jeff Probst visits and takes an artful swig of a Bud Light on camera, which reminded me of the video of his 1990s commercial work, and Colby expresses his anxiety about his winning streak and the politics of it. Yet the next day, after returning to camp to find out what everyone else endured while he was in relative luxury, Colby shows up to the immunity challenge and wins again.
Perhaps because of all the times Colby and the edit call attention to how this might come across to the other players, I wondered: Should he have thrown this challenge?
It’s the first appearance of an iconic Survivor challenge, one that requires the players to target each other. This version has them using slingshots to smash plates. Each player has three plates suspended in a grid; the last player with an intact plate wins immunity.
It’s not an immunity challenge where Colby’s strength or ingenuity works in his favor. And it’s an easy one to throw: just miss, or accidentally hit your own plate. No one expects anyone to be an expert at slingshotting macadamia nuts.
On top of that, winning requires intentionally targeting other players, and thus putting an even greater spotlight and/or target on you. The players were good-natured about this, at least externally, but thinking ahead to this season’s conclusion, I have to wonder if this had an effect.
I thought about that again at this Tribal Council, when Ogakor once again goes after one of their own. Amber is voted off and joins jury because her tribemates perceived her to be too much of a threat, at least according to Keith’s confessional. But she’ll be back.