Last week’s Survivor was approaching unwatchable, a mess of confusing advantages that completely lost track of the actual human beings playing the game. But Survivor 41 rebounded with its fourth episode, which seemed like it came from a season that aired 10 years ago, and I mean that as a genuine compliment.
New Survivor is better when it resembles old Survivor—and to be honest, what has been “new” in the previous three episodes has mostly been window dressing, but otherwise a continuation of the show’s longtime shift toward Big Brother, with producers manufacturing drama instead of trusting their format.
Not this week! We opened with a scene after Tribal Council! And then went to a reward challenge! There was a legitimate blindside! And along the way camp life, developing relationships, and some fascinating strategizing on two tribes. There was even b-roll of snakes and spiders and metaphors, oh my!
Plus: Zero new advantages! No summit! No sneaking out of camp! No dumb scripted lines said at the challenge! No obvious producer manipulation in the game!
It felt like an entirely different editing and producing team was responsible for this episode, but that is not a complaint.
I suppose you could argue that one of the previous episode’s advantages, JD’s extra vote, which he lied to his tribe about receiving, was at least partially responsible for the blindside. But unlike last week, the focus wasn’t on the advantage itself—nor was it even used—but on relationships, and in particular Shan’s lack of trust of JD.
And oof, did she play him well—and even had time to score her own deliciously diabolical theme song, too.
At the start of the episode, we saw the aftermath of Brad’s blindside, which annoyed Genie, who was so mad she was basically like: Leave me alone, I’m doing everything by myself from now on. Then Shan broke the news that “Brad had an advantage that he didn’t tell you about,” and twisted the knife: “Brad wasn’t taking you anywhere, boo.”
JD, who’d given up his extra vote to Shan before Tribal Council, took this news as evidence Shan “played” him, because she was concealing information. Yet he once again he ended up giving his extra vote to her, after she convinced him that she was paranoid about Tribal Council.
It was incredible, right down to her saying, “Thank you for trusting me.” Shan told us, “What if I just keep the extra vote for myself and vote out JD? … I might never get this opportunity again.” She added, “I don’t want to be a villain, but I do want to be an assassin.”
Mission accomplished! Also, bravo editors for making me think Genie really was at risk and might even give up her vote for a chance at immunity. It was the kind of editing deception that didn’t make me go “What?” at the end, but kept me surprised.
I felt for JD, who showed up with full enthusiasm for playing this game, which is always a pleasure to watch, as is a player who has self-awareness. During Tribal Council, he acknowledged that his fantasies haven’t matched reality: “I have not played the game that I imagined myself playing,” he said. I imagine this won’t be the last time we see JD on Survivor.
A quick aside: When I went to find photos to illustrate this story on CBS’s press site, I noticed something. Of the photos CBS made available to press immediately after the episode, there were 59 total. Not including group shots at the challenge, there were:
- 4 of JD
- 2 of Genie
- 0 of Shan
- 11 of Xander
That’s quite the disparity, especially considering Xander was basically not in this episode, while the three people of color central to the vote only have about half as many photos combined.
The photos don’t yet include Tribal Council photos, and CBS typically posts more the day after an episode airs, which will probably change these numbers. But that’s only what’s available to us now, and is a good example of how on-camera representation matters, but what happens behind the scenes matters even more.
Challenge drama! Baby turtles!
I love a two-challenge episode. Multiple challenges in one episode is one of the many reasons I like Tough As Nails, which now follows Survivor. It has a team, an individual, and an elimination challenge in every episode.
Survivor 41’s challenges weren’t exactly new or innovative, but both delivered great drama.
During the reward, Heather could not get past the first round, sinking her tribe’s chances. Despite having screamed at people in the past for pathetic challenge performance—like, you know, last week—Jeff Probst was thrilled with Heather.
“You’ve got to admire Heather,” he said, praising her for not giving up. After the challenge, he said, “For me, one of the reasons I’m still here, 21 years later, is because of moments like that. I love the gameplay of Survivor, but I really like it when somebody’s vulnerable and lets us watch.”
Wait, lets us watch? Or shouts exposition while it’s happening and then gives a monologue about it to make sure we noticed? Hmm?
While one of the changes this season was supposed to be a lack of lavish rewards, I actually thought the rewards were excellent: a fish for the second-place tribe, and a visit from a Fijian, Nathan, to help the winners learn how to fish and otherwise live off the land. Both of those are considerably better than a pile of limp, cold, sunburned pizza.
Nathan made for some great TV, climbing down a palm tree upside-down (“the best stripper you’ve ever seen,” Genie said) and smashing a coconut open with his hands. But we didn’t really see him teach too much, which is too bad.
The rewards did give us time at camp, from just cooking a fish to watching Nathan perform, and that was nice. And it was time we spent with the players at Luvu that made the immunity challenge truly an exceptional viewing experience.
The players there are doing well—no one among them has been voted off—but that’s frustrating those who want the Tribal Council part of the expereince. Erika was ready to rock the boat, illustrated by members of the tribe literally flipping their rowboat in the water.
After Sydney failed to make fire and left, crying, Ericka floated voting off Sydney to Deshawn, who then immediately told Sydney, who immediately told us how amazing she is: “I’m like the threat of threats, I’m savvy as hell, good looking, I’m a physical threat,” and then gave the episode its title: “They hate me because they ain’t me.”
Deshawn told us that Erika “is sneaky, sneaky, sneaky” and declared it’s necessary to “cut the head off the snake,” and because their tribe is full of physical strength and general competence, floated the idea of throwing the challenge so they could actually have a chance to vote out Erika.
This suggestion rubbed NFL player Danny the wrong way, and if there was one thing missing from this episode, it’s how Deshawn got Danny to go along with the plan. “As a professional athlete,” Danny said at camp, “that goes against everything I’ve ever worked for.”
But at the immunity challenge, they both worked hard to throw the challenge: swimming slowly, walking slowly, tying knots instead of untying them, trying to lose the key needed to unlock the rings, and then throwing those rings in the most absurd way possible.
Alas, they were competing against the yellow tribe, who was behind them despite all of those shenanigans, but more importantly, they are on the same tribe as Naseer, who captures my Survivor fan heart every single time he’s on screen.
Naseer was so committed to winning that two players trying to thwart their tribe’s progress couldn’t slow him down. That led us to a showdown at the ring toss, which is much better than a showdown at a puzzle. It came down to JD and Naseer each throwing; the first to land won the second immunity, and finally, Naseer landed one.
The entire challenge was hilarious and tense and just perfect television.
I was also convinced that Deshawn was going to be successful, since his tribe got most of the focus before the immunity challenge, so it was genuinely surprising.
Speaking of surprising: the challenge ended with Yase’s first-ever win. Yes, the yellow tribe, the one that sucks and only has four people! They won both challenges, coming in first during the immunity challenge.
Evvie—who earlier had jokingly narrated a “previously on Survivor” segment that the editors used overtop past footage, thus creating the exact same kind of “previously on Survivor” segment that’s been trashed this season along with the Survivor theme song—also narrated the journey of some tiny sea turtles.
As the turtles scampered toward the ocean in the most adorable way possible, Evvie said, “We’ve just never given up. … Those little turtles, they were doing the same thing.” I will take the turtles’ lead and not give up on Survivor, .