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Survivor 42 Confronts Its Own Optics at an Emotional Tribal

A split-tribe twist yields two vote-outs and a serious conversation about race.
  • Drea Wheeler at this week's second Tribal. (Photo: Robert Voets/CBS)
    Drea Wheeler at this week's second Tribal. (Photo: Robert Voets/CBS)

    SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.

    Up until the 45-minute mark of this week's Survivor, I was pretty sure that this recap was going to be about the tone players take when talking to their allies and how it can get them into trouble. Because that sure seemed like that was going to be the big theme of the night. Rocksroy's attempt to forge a Big Strong Boys alliance (because, in his words, "every single Survivor, the guys don't get together, which… hmm) ended up crumbling because of his domineering and off-putting communication style, which turned off both Omar and Hai so severely that they upended what was going to be a very simple landslide vote against Romeo to oust Rocksroy instead. Meanwhile, Jonathan had won immunity but spent the whole rest of the day doing his level best to turn one of his closest allies, Lindsey, against him by being an obstinate and condescending communicator.

    But then that final 15 minutes happened, a fascinating series of dominos falling that veered from Survivor strategy to outside-the-game emotion with lightning speed. This only ended up being possible because of the episode's twist, which saw the final ten split up into two groups at the immunity challenge, with two winners, followed by both groups going to Tribal Council, one after the other. And while the first vote, the Rocksroy vote, was surprising given the way the game had been going, it certainly felt within the realm of what happens on Survivor when majority alliances get overconfident. But then Jeff Probst sent Rocksroy to sit on the jury with Chanelle, and you could start to see it. And when the next group walked in to Tribal and Drea got a look at the jury, she certainly saw it, and it read all over her face. First off, it was Rocksroy, her ally from her original tribe, blindsided without her having even an inkling that he was in danger. But the second thing read even more clearly: two jurors, two Black people. And that's when the episode became about something else.

    What Drea — and eventually also Maryanne — saw was a repeat of what they'd seen play out dozens of times as Survivor viewers: Black players all too often marginalized and ousted early, subject to the kind of unconscious bias that Drea vocalizes tonight. It's something many Survivor viewers have observed before, and it's been exacerbated by the fact that, up until recently, Survivor and CBS weren't casting enough people of color on the show. Race may not have been why Chanelle and Rocksroy were voted out, but the optics of that jury were a cold reminder to Drea and Maryanne about what they're up against in the bigger picture. Of course Drea was going to get twigged into playing her idol. Of course Maryanne was going to come to the conclusion that she couldn't, under any circumstances, write Drea's name down.

    Of their tribemates, only Jonathan took the defensive posture, accusing Drea and Maryanne of calling him racist for intending to vote Drea out, and when Drea asked him not to portray her as "aggressive," he volleyed back that she was being aggressive (for the record: she wasn't). It was the culmination of an episode that put a good bit of tarnish on the narrative halo the edit has been affixing on him.

    To the show's credit, Drea and Maryanne got enough space to fully articulate exactly it was about the optics of two Black people banished first to the jury that hit them wrong without Jeff Probst barrelling over them to show that he gets it (as he's done in the past when social issues have arisen at Tribal) or turning the focus towards their white tribemates to show that they get it (like when Sarah Lacina somehow became the protagonist after Zeke Smith got outed on "Game Changers"). Drea and Maryanne got to articulate their position in front of their tribe and the television audience, as well as be there for one another in a way their alliances hadn't really called for them to be up until this point. And yet they each had to sacrifice a hard-earned immunity idol in order to ward off — as Maryanne verbalizes — the impression that they "played the race card." It's a high price to pay, but they'll both be back to fight another day.

    As for the rest of this week's happenings…

    Player of the Week: Omar and Hai worked together this time to engineer Rocksroy's ouster and consolidate their place at the top of this season's strategic mountain.

    Honorable Mention(s): Everything else aside, good on Drea for realizing she was in trouble and immediately deciding to play her idol.

    Sketchy Strategy: Jonathan alienating Lindsay is going to end up costing him.

    Alliance Report: It remains to be seen how the shards of the busted up majority alliance settle, but I'd be surprised if next week was as simple as a straightforward Romeo vote.

    Advantage Report:

    • After playing her idol, Drea still has one Advantage Amulet, one extra vote, and one Knowledge Is Power advantage (which allows her to steal someone else's advantage if she plays it right).
    • Mike has an immunity idol.
    • Maryanne an extra vote.
    • Hai has an Advantage Amulet.
    • Lindsay has an Advantage Amulet.

    Coming Next Week: Jonathan's becoming a target.

    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.

    TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Jeff Probst