“I busted my ass on that challenge. To learn that it don’t matter any more is really tough for me to process,” Danny McCray, former NFL player, said during Survivor 41, shortly after the events of last week’s episode were completely erased, as expected.
Danny’s frustration is shared by many of Survivor fans, including me. Deshawn basically agreed, telling Jeff Probst, pre-challenge, that this is “not the game I’m used to,” and “maybe that is the new Survivor. Maybe everybody who’s watching this now and who’s here should know this is what to expect.”
I applauded, and I also wondered what the conversation at camp was really like, because I’m sure it wasn’t just Danny and Deshawn who had some feelings about this change-everything twist.
Reacting to Danny later, though, Deshawn also said, “What is fair? We came into this game knowing that Jeff had some tricks up his sleeve for 41,” and added, “Fair or not, that’s how the chips fell, and now we have to find a way to respond to it.”
He’s right about that too, of course, and that’s always been true on Survivor: it’s about playing the hand you’re dealt in the moment. It’s just too bad that what Jeff Probst has had up his producing sleeve is a bunch of twists that Big Brother would have rejected for being too heavy-handed and over-complicated.
Despite having an epic conclusion, there was quite a bit of nonsensical nonsense in this episode, such as Jeff Probst saying, “Look what you caused, Erika,” as if she was responsible for the other players’ actions, or Jeff Probst saying “you all made the merge” to people who’d just voted together as a merged tribe.
But all of this nonsense did produce a particularly thrilling Tribal Council, even if it did have way too much whispering, and even if it would have been even better had it been preceded by six coherent episodes of Survivor that cared about things like character and relationship development.
As a bonus, this episode ended up purging both the Knowledge is Power Advantage and Sydney, whose short appearances on screen seemed like a screen test to play Veruca Salt, and while that may have just been the editing throwing her under the bus as the first post-merge boot, her exit interview just solidified the image we’d been given.
“I’m relieved I’m not on the jury so I don’t have to see their faces ever again,” she said, in part. “That makes me feel good, even if it’s super immature.”
Survivor 41’s game is reset, and the scrambling starts
Survivor 41 has, so far, had very little strategizing and intrigue. This episode tried to make up for it by spending nearly the entire episode on pre-Tribal Council politicking and then Tribal Council itself.
After Erika revealed that she’d smashed the hourglass—of course, duh—there was an immunity challenge for the newly no-longer-immune players. It was a repeat of foot fetishists’ favorite challenge, where players stack blocks with their feat.
Ricard won the first individual immunity of the season, and then evaporated from the episode.
Back at camp, there was a series of “Who knows what about which advantage?” conversations that were very brief on screen but gave just enough information to follow them.
Liana didn’t want to vote out her tribemate Evvie, but eventually Evvie became the target.
Meanwhile, Xander decided he’d play his idol for Evvie, which made Evvie emotional. “Frankly, I don’t know if I would have done it for him,” she said.
Xander told Danny that Evvie would be safe at Tribal, because he intended to play his idol; Xander also shared that Liana has the Knowledge is Power advantage, which he knew about because Shan previously asked Liana about it in front of Tiffany. Why was he sharing all of this with Danny? That’s the kind of detail that was missing in this sudden scramble.
Of course, Danny tothen told Liana, who said the obvious: “That could mess up everything.” She planned to play the Knowledge is Power advantage, and reviewed the 72-page textbook that came along with it to make sure she did that right.
That Liana’s attempt to steal Xander’s idol would backfire was foreshadowed by her overconfidence (“I can’t wait to take the idol from Xander”) and by some subtle and nuanced editing. When she said she’d play the advantage, steal the idol, and “then we are the most powerful four people in this game,” the next image was of a fish head with flies on it.
Meanwhile, Deshawn was worried that he’d be targeted, and thought their alliance should go after Sydney instead of Evvie. They ultimately split their vote.
With 23 minutes left in the episode, they went to Tribal Council. As Jeff Probst said earlier, “Everybody goes, everybody votes, but the only five that can receive votes are Evvie, Sydney, Desahwn, Naseer, and Danny.”
Just a reminder that it’s absolutely preposterous for half of Survivor’s post-merge tribe to be immune—and for the people who are vulnerable to be the ones who actually won the immunity challenge. But that kind of producer-created absurdity was lost by the drama of Tribal Council.
The first major event was Xander reaching into the front of his pants and pulling out his packaged idol. “It’s no secret that I have the hidden immunity idol,” he said, and that is quite true. But showing everyone that he had it in his possession—and then showing them the actual idol—seemed completely nuts, as did Evvie’s confidence that he was going to play it to save her.
But while their ploy might have seemed like obvious Knowledge is Power bait, it actually worked. Liana played her advantage, after reading its text (which I assume took 45 minutes in real life, with time for footnotes and endnotes and the poem Jeff Probst wrote about how dangerous that advantage is).
Liana asked Xander if he had an immunity idol, and in a spectacular moment, he said, simply, “no, but you can have this fake.”
In an actually useful flashback, we saw Xander giving his real idol to Tiffany, and then, even earlier, constructing a fake idol. Keeping that from us made it a surprise, but also nice to see how it came together.
That move triggered immediate scrambling, with people standing up and whispering and throwing names around. While I appreciate that there was real-live drama here, I strongly dislike Tribal Councils that devolve in this way, because it’s impossible to keep track of what’s going on—especially this season, when we’ve had so little actual strategizing.
During all of this, Jeff Probst said, “I have such a great seat,” and I actually think that may have been the most revealing moment in the episode: Jeff Probst is just entertaining himself now.
After the vote, Sydney revealed that she’d played the very first Shot in the Dark. She gave up her vote for a one in six shot at immunity, but learned she drew a “not safe” scroll. (Earlier, Probst told us that the Shot in the Dark became more “dangerous” now that there are 12 scrolls and two have immunity written on them. Someone please give Jeff Probst a scroll with the definition of the word “dangerous” on it.)
Evvie wanted Tiffany to play the idol for Evvie, but Xander insisted “you’re good” to Evvie. He was right, but barely—so barely he even apologized before the final vote was read and said, “I’m sorry, Ev.” I was in disbelief that she was about to get voted out despite that idol.
But no! The votes were read, and Desahwn received three votes, Evvie four (including Deshawn’s extra vote), and Sydney ultimately received her fifth and final vote. “Should’ve just fucking kept my vote,” Sydney said on her way out.
Sydney leaves the game having never actually cast a vote, and also after having actually won immunity—even though it was, of course, taken away.
Ultimately, the episode ended with the easiest, most-predictable vote, but there was a long, winding, and frequently wildly entertaining road to get there.
Still, I’m left wondering if the entertainment was the result of the players playing a game, or a game playing the players. Did the twists or the players make it possible?
The real answer is, of course, both, with the players doing a great job of “find[ing] a way to respond to it,” to quote Deshawn. And I loved those moments!
The flood of advantages and twists that have consumed this season made their actions possible, so perhaps this is an argument for Survivor’s producers being so heavy-handed with twists and advantages.
Of course, we’ve also seen advantages “pay off” in the past.
That’s why I’d argue that watching the players navigate a minefield laid out by the producers—which is what most of the scrambling was about—is far less-interesting than watching them navigate their growing and shifting relationships with each other, which is what early seasons delivered so spectacularly. Since we’ve seen virtually nothing of those relationships this season, maybe this is the best that Survivor 41 has to offer.