SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
All right, Jeff Probst, you win this round. After weeks of secretly (or actually not so secretly) making fun of the three-way immunity idol twist that required the players who found it to speak ridiculous phrases before the immunity challenge, we got the payoff moment Thursday night, and honestly … it ruled.
Credit where it's due, that moment at the challenge, after Xander and Shan tried (and deeply failed) to sound casual while musing about broccoli and butterflies (in Xander's case, for the third week in a row, the lunatic), and then Naseer chimed in out of nowhere with his secret phrase about astroturf, even though up until that point we had no idea he'd even found the third idol, was one of the greatest reveals in Survivor history.
It's a much-needed feather in Probst's cap when it comes to the many changes he instituted for this season. Five episodes in, Survivor 41's meta-narrative has been an existential battle between Probst's desire to keep re-shaping the game with twists and turns versus the genuinely likeable and compelling cast who are playing this season like they've been waiting to play Survivor their whole lives, and in that one glorious moment, Probst claimed a crucial victory.
Survivor's editors have been toying around with non-linear editing for a few seasons now, springing scenes from earlier that we didn't realize had already happened. It goes right along with this season's foray into backstory, where we've been getting photos or video clips from the contestants' past in order to better build their characters. We got one such moment tonight, in fact, when Shan told the story of having lost her mother, her years spent in foster care, and how the church ended up giving her a path. The non-linear editing has been useful in delivering suspenseful moments without resorting to false tension, but the Naseer reveal tonight was truly the apex of this trend so far, for a few reasons.
For one thing, we'd been rope-a-doped into thinking that the three-way-idol twist would once again be a dud, with the scene focusing more on the comedy of Shan and Xander sounding like idiots. For another, Naseer rules and was fortuitously the perfect choice to emerge with the third clue. The man seemingly has gone five episodes without gaining a single ally on his tribe, but he's been single-handedly winning immunity challenges and keeps getting character-building segments talking about his upbringing or his family. And now he has a fully powered immunity idol! Much like the astroturf of which he so eloquently spoke, he's all up in the game now.
As far as the advantages-versus-characters balance goes, this week's focus was yet again all on the Ua tribe, and once again, Shan was our unquestioned main character. With only three players left on the tribe, the vote was going to shake out to a 2-1 count against someone, and yet despite some perfunctory strategizing between Ricard and Genie while Shan was on her post-challenge walkabout with Liana (more on that in a second), Shan was never in serious consideration to get voted out.
In fact, the person who gave the most thought to Shan getting voted out was Shan, as she got paranoid that Ricard was planning to snake her. We got an incredibly tense stand-off between Shan and Ricard, two allies who have been gaming so hard in tandem that they now can't fully trust that the other one isn't going to blindside them the way they blindsided Sarah, Brad, and J.D. The whole thing had a very Reservoir Dogs feel to it, with Ricard refusing to surrender his weapon (the extra vote that Shan gave him earlier in case she got her vote stripped by a twist) since doing so would give Shan incentive to get rid of him. But the old allies stuck together and got rid of Genie, who will sleep well knowing that fire back at camp is probably going to extinguish without her.
In hindsight, Shan probably should have voted out Ricard, even if it meant her extra vote died with him. Headed into a probable merge or swap, the more straightforwardly loyal Genie is a way better asset to her than a scheme-happy Ricard who she can't even trust now. I'd ding Shan for bad strategy if she weren't currently the recipient of the show's most heavily weighted winner's edit. The clues are all there: every Ua tribal vote has been told through Shan's POV. This week provided viewers with an emotionally engaging backstory as she opened up to Liana (a new ally for after the merge) about her mother. She's even got the music department playing her scheme-y theme music as she plots. So, picking Ricard to stay over Genie is most likely going to work out just fine for Shan, even as they move into the merge (or whatever quasi-merge scenario Probst was teasing in the preview) at a huge numbers disadvantage.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: Gotta give this one to Ricard for sticking to his guns and refusing to hand Shan back the extra vote until she voted to keep him. Whether or not Shan actually would have voted him out if he wasn't holding any collateral, he correctly saw that this was exactly how the two of them had screwed over J.D. last week. He knew he was in a game of chicken with Shan, and kudos to him for not bending to the pressure to be a good, honorable guy. She's playing the part of the mafia pastor, but he's not trying to be her latest hit.
Honorable Mention(s): Liana managed to make a strong post-merge ally in Shan and score a rather complicated (sigh) advantage for herself: the Knowledge Is Power advantage, which empowers her with a one-time ability to ask another player at Tribal if they have an immunity idol or an advantage (they have to specify one or the other), and if the person asked does have the item requested, they are compelled to hand it over. Yes, this is Survivor inching closer to becoming a tabletop role-playing game. No, I don't like it either. Played correctly, though, it could essentially serve as an idol nullifier, and that's a big card for Liana to have in her deck.
Sketchy Strategy: Xander continues to impress with his consistent ability to have just the right amount of hair flowing free out from under his buff. Without mirrors, I'm genuinely fascinated as to how he's been able to pull off that look so cleanly. That said, he's a terrible liar, and Tiffany catches him fibbing about when he found his various advantages. She already didn't trust him, but he blew an opportunity to fool her into changing her mind.
Alliance Report: Tiffany and Liana are plotting against Evvie on Yase, further evidence that Evvie might've been better off keeping Voce a few weeks ago. Danny and DeShawn approach Naseer to throw the immunity challenge (again), and when he's not too keen, it pretty much confirms for them that Naseer will remain on the outs of the Luvu power core.
Coming Next Week: The players think it's a merge. Jeff Probst is like "kiiiiiiinda?"
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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.