Shan’s exit from Survivor 41 made for easily the best episode of the season so far, and dare I say it: an all-time-great episode of Survivor.
Shan was technically blindsided, leaving with an immunity idol in her pocket, but it was not the surprise that made it great.
There was not a particularly great Tribal Council discussion. There was no advantage play. There weren’t even great challenges, as both the reward challenge and immunity challenge were more of the same-old stuff: obstacles/puzzle, balancing/foot fetish.
Yet what still made the episode so terrific was how well it illustrated that, at its core, Survivor is a game of relationships played by people who genuinely connect with one another, and are still competing for $1 million.
That’s been evident since season one of Survivor, when Kelly and Sue’s bond fractured and reverberated throughout the rest of the game, but this season the players have too often taken a back seat to twists, as the producers forgot to trust their format and cast.
Survivor 41 began its pre-Thanksgiving episode by suggesting that fracture was coming. We had extended confessionals from both Deshawn and Shan about their alliance, and both talked about how strong their connection is—and how fragile it is, too.
“I wanted to do it for the culture and let us all duke it out,” Shan told Deshawn, who said, “I would love that.”
Shan explained that “we want really want to give the Black community back home something to celebrate because we know that 2020 was a hard year, so whenever we refer to doing it for the culture, that’s what we’re referencing. I wanted to do that, too, but I also made all the other other connections in the game that go beyond the color lines.”
Deshawn, emotional, said something similar in an interview: “The year that we just had, 2020, it was rough bro,” and added, “you get this opportunity, the opportunity you always wanted, and you feel like the number-one person standing in your way is your biggest supporter and your biggest ally.” He added, “I don’t want to turn my back on any of the three of them, but what am I going to do for myself?”
These are tough, unenviable choices. They’re also what makes Survivor so great.
On Big Brother this past summer, The Cookout alliance was remarkable and impressive in part because no other alliance of six has actually made it to the final six. Especially on Big Brother, alliances turn against each other, especially once they realize how much of a threat some of their allies are.
That certainly happens on Survivor, too, though typically more towards the end of the game. It’s always fascinating to see who breaks, why, and how it happens. It’s not always that the people in those alliances are so connected as these players are, by their shared life experience and their time together in the game.
Earlier this season, Shan, Deshawn, Liana, and Danny decided to work together: for each other, and for the culture. But now, three of them are faced with the fact that “Shan is the biggest threat to win,” as Erika said earlier. Will they stay together?
Meanwhile, Ricard won the reward challenge, and chose his friend and ally Shan to join him, along with Heather and Xander. Their prize: the “best reward of the season,” which was “pizza under the stars,” as Jeff Probst explained. Instead of being piled on a plate, the pizza was in boxes, so that’s a definite upgrade!
The best moment at the reward was Shan and Ricard bonding over their friendship, and then Shan humming her devious theme song. “What’re you singing over there?” Heather asked, and Shan said, “Nothing. I was thinking.” Of course, thanks to earlier episodes, we know what she was thinking.
Danny, Deshawn, Liana, and Erika were left at camp by themselves during that overnight reward, and as Danny said, “You have to knock the people out who you think can beat you.” He was referring to Ricard.
In a rather hilarious moment, Danny floated this idea to Liana, but without saying Ricard’s name, so she guessed the threat: “Shan.” And then had to keep guessing: “Erika? Ricard?!“
Ultimately, it was another bond that put that Liana and Shan’s connection that led Liana to tell Shan what was happening. Liana said “there’s nothing in this game more precious to me” than her time with Shan on the summit island, remembering them “connecting over our moms and our Blackness and our womanhood.”
If I have to give some credit to the design of this season—which I’ve mostly been annoyed with—the summits definitely did a great job of creating early yet strong relationships between people on opposite tribes, which affects the post-merge game in a positive way.
“Beyond this game, I just feel a love in my heart for you,” Liana tearfully told Shan, and then told Shan about blindsiding Ricard.
Shan told Ricard, and he told her, “let me process it,” which immediately led to Shan being paranoid: “you don’t believe me?” “Are you going to go say something to them?” What’s fascinating is that Shan and Ricard are very clearly extremely close. But the game keeps getting between them, and they’re both smart enough to know they cannot fully trust the other person in a game for $1 million.
What would have happened had Ricard not won immunity? I’m curious. But he won both challenges this episode, and thus thwarted that plan.
Erika seemed like the easy target—well, Heather is the easy target, but everyone’s keeping her around as an easy vote or an extraneous final-three seat-filler. Erika is far more strategic, and was, in fact, the person who started the ball rolling, recognizing Shan as a threat and floating the idea to Deshawn early on.
With Ricard safe, Shan told us “I don’t really have to go to bat for him,” and said, “I could get Deshawn out, but because Ricard is safe, I want to keep the waters super-calm.”
But before and after she talked we repeatedly saw storm clouds (even though it wasn’t actually stormy during all of the pre-Tribal Council politicking), and there was even amazing footage of a water spout. The b-roll made it clear: the water is not going to be remotely calm, especially not for Shan.
And then came the thunder from Ricard: “I’ve decided today’s the day for Shan to go,” he said. Working with Erika, Xander, and Heather, he’d only need one more vote to get to a majority of five. He approached Deshawn, someone he doesn’t have a great connection with, and Deshawn lied about wanting to vote out Ricard. But Ricard needed that vote.
Ultimately, both Danny and Deshawn joined; the six split their votes in case Shan played her idol, creating a tie between Liana and Shan. During the revote, Shan was voted out unanimously, and knew she would be: “Don’t trust anybody,” Shan said to Liana as everyone cast their votes.
This may have seemed like a simple vote, or a relatively uneventful episode, but that vote—and everything that came before it—was deeply felt.
“The new Survivor is forcing you to have relationships with lots of people,” Probst said during Tribal Council, apparently having forgotten about the preceding 20 years and 40 seasons and all of the relationships with lots of people that have always been on Survivor.
Thankfully, this episode realized that those relationships and interactions the most-interesting part of Survivor, and reminded us of what the show is capable of—and what has been lost in episodes that have minimized those relationships while focusing on advantages and twists.