SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
One of the most fascinating things about the revamped Survivor 41 is that it didn't come in response to a crisis. Ratings weren't in freefall. CBS wasn't considering pulling the plug. Instead, it just seems that after a year in COVID purgatory and left to his own devices, Jeff Probst couldn't keep from mad-scientisting the show he's hosted for 20 years. Speaking generally, fans and critics had two common complaints: 1) that the game had become too choked with immunity idols and other advantages, and 2) that Season 39's sexual harrassment scandal brought to light that structural changes needed to be made. Probst has at least given lip service to addressing the latter concerns, making a point in the Season 41 premiere of opting for more inclusive language. But when it comes to many fans' belief that Survivor's once-simple, elegant strategies have become glutted with too many idols, advantages, and secret twists, Probst has noted those concerns and doubled down anyway. If you're a Survivor lover and those complaints resonate with you, Wednesday night's episode was likely not your favorite.
Things were already headed this way, after the first two episodes each featured tribe members scaling a mountain in order to play prisoner's-dilemma games to score extra-vote advantages. This was in addition to Xander finding an immunity idol that can only be activated by two other players speaking the cursed password phrases like they're at the Cave of Wonders. Of course Xander was the only person to find that particular "Beware Advantage" last week, leaving him as a butterfly swinging in the breeze. Which might have been why this week's episode featured a new set of Beware Advantages that weren't so much hidden as they were laid out in plain sight while the players slept. This is how Ua tribe's Brad, Luvu's Sydney, and Yase's Tiffany ended up nearly tripping over the secret messages, which instructed them to secret away at night to another island, where they got to play — sing it with me now — another prisoner's dilemma, forced to choose between an extra vote and a tarp for the tribe. If they all chose wrong, they risked losing their vote at Tribal Council.
Brad ended up being the beneficiary of this new twist, earning an extra vote to go with the immunity idol he ALSO found this week, along with Genie, although Brad was the official parchment-opener which ended up being quite the mixed blessing, since this was another Xander-style three-way idol that only works if the three holders all say their little magic words at the immunity challenge. If that doesn't happen, Brad loses his vote at Tribal.
I'll say this: I'm not sure this is a very good advantage, but it is making for some jaw-droppingly awkward television as Xander again had to speak his little butterfly parable in answer to Brad now having to say some garbled nonsense about broccoli. I would pay money for just one talking head from an unaware tribe member attempting to make sense of what for all the world must look like two grown men having simultaneous strokes before the challenge begins. But campy antics aside, this type of idol is a strategic problem because it's going to take forever for all three parts of the idol to activate. Especially when one of the idol holders gets voted out which, um, Brad does. To recap: in one hour of television, Brad found an immunity idol, played a game of trust to earn himself an extra vote, said "the celery stalks at midnight" or whatever the hell in front of the entire national television audience, and then got voted out without even being able to cast a vote in his favor because a third person didn't also say an insane phrase.
Did you follow all that? I did, but a) just barely, and b) I'm being paid to. What's even crazier is that these advantages and idols and conditionals and twists have been mostly window dressing when it comes to the actual voting. Brad not being able to cast a vote wasn't the reason he went home this week; he'd still have been outvoted 3-2 if his vote had counted. No idols have been played, nor extra votes been cast. No one has rolled the die at tribal for safety (yet another new twist). But at some point, there's going to be a tribal council where three idols and six extra votes are cast, and it's anybody's guess who will go home amid such chaos, and I'm reasonably dubious that they'll have deserved it.
At its core, Survivor is a very simple game. Amid extremes of hunger, fatigue, and athleticism, the contestants must play a social game to vote out their competition. That's the game. No, it could never stay that simple; as early as the second season, players were figuring out how to most efficiently master the game. Efficient mastery of a formula isn't good TV. Jeff Probst has always known this and has attempted to keep the show one step ahead of its students every season. Maybe this bells-and-whistles version of Survivor is the inevitable result. It's also, I have to admit, kind of fun to try to make sense of this whirlwind of new rules and gadgets. But a whirlwind it is, and this week, Brad found himself whooshed away.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: Just as last week came down to Evvie deciding which side of her tribe to go with, Shan decided this week's elimination. She maneuvered pretty well, I'd say. J.D. — who was back to being incredibly extra this week in almost all respects — served himself up on a platter by clumsily failing to conceal his extra-vote advantage. Shan and Ricard busted him, and it looked like he would make for a very easy vote. But after a little prodding from Ricard (who is definitely the 1B to Shan's 1A on this tribe), Shan saw the value in the fact that she now kind of owns J.D. This bore out when Shan got J.D. to give her his extra vote as a gesture of trust. So now Shan has an extra vote, a tribe member in her hip pocket, and she got to vote out a guy who she knew had an immunity idol in Brad. All this plus the editing loves her. Shan's in this one for the long haul.
Honorable Mention(s): Ricard, as mentioned, played the good consigliere to Shan's mafia pastor. They could very well end up being the game's power duo.
Sketchy Strategy: It feels like Tiffany could have easily scored herself an extra vote after her deliberations with Sydney and Brad. Sydney was 100% set against going for an advantage, while Brad was 100% in favor of it. With their votes split, thus taking away the risk that all three could go bust and lose their votes, Tiffany had an open field in front of her to opt for an extra vote. Instead, she fell victim to a classic Survivor error, deciding that because she didn't like Sydney (understandable, as Sydney pretty much exhales mean-girl vibes) meant she couldn't trust her to behave predictably. Tiffany hasn't shown herself to be a great player thus far, and this was just the latest example.
Alliance Report: We've addressed Shan and Ricard, and we didn't get much of Yase at all this week, but we did get a decent lay of the land at Luvu, where Sydney appears to be consolidating her tribe against Naseer. Again, the mean-girl vibes are strong with her, and the Naseer-bashing she orchestrates is giving summer camp, but for now it looks like Luvu has a 5-1 split.
Coming Next Week: The tease sees Luvu talking about throwing the immunity challenge, seemingly to get rid of Naseer, but that's a heck of a risk to take.
People are talking about this week's Survivor in our forums. Join the conversation.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.