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Survivor Comes Back from the Brink with Its Most Human Episode of the Season

Trust issues, throwing challenges, one single fish as a reward? That's classic Survivor.
  • J.D. gave his extra vote to Shan as a show of trust. Big mistake. Big. HUGE. (Photo: Robert Voets/CBS)
    J.D. gave his extra vote to Shan as a show of trust. Big mistake. Big. HUGE. (Photo: Robert Voets/CBS)

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

    The promise of this season of Survivor, as laid out by Jeff Probst before it began, was twofold: the survival stuff would be harder, with fewer supplies and food rewards, and the strategy would be shaken up with all kinds of new rewards, risks, and advantages. Until this week, those two elements have been at odds with one another. The increased emphasis on survival aspects suggested a back-to-basics approach to the show, but until now that's been overshadowed by the onslaught of advantages and complicated immunity idols, exemplified by an episode last week so weighed down by the intricacies of its advantages that we couldn't properly enjoy the last hurrah of chaotic doofus Brad.

    But if last week's episode was an example of Probst's excess run amok, this week's was the back-to-basics hour the show desperately needed, with some compelling human drama and a few tried-and-true Survivor strategic gambits that recalled the very best of the show's first 40 seasons. The old school vibe began in the episode's first minutes, with the Ua returning from tribal council and Genie — who'd been left out of the plan to vote out Brad — telling her remaining tribemates that if they're not going to include her in their strategy, she's no longer interested in cooking or building fires for them at camp. This was the kind of base level conflict that Survivor was initially pitched on: could these players balance the rigors of having to live and cook and build shelters together with a social strategy game that had them voting each other out every few days? As the years have gone by and the players have gotten more savvy, it's come to feel like players no longer take survival elements into account, nor do they take votes against them personally. It's just a game, after all. That's been a positive development overall, but sometimes it's nice to see players threaten to stop cooking dinner for the ingrates who just voted against your ally. It's bad strategy, sure, just as it was bad strategy for Shan to snap back at Genie and reveal that Brad had told her about his advantage, leading to an argument with J.D. But sometimes "bad strategy" is also "human nature," and often the greatest Survivor moments come from the players being human.

    Jeff Probst reminded us of that very thing at the reward challenge, when Heather's struggles led to the Luvu tribe's downfall and she collapsed in tears. Probst's tendency to make sure we in the audience at home don't forget we're watching human drama unfold before our eyes made it all feel a little hokey when the rest of the players applauded Heather's effort, but it was still a nice moment. Another sign that we're in a back-to-basics episode of Survivor, by the way? The reward for winning the challenge was a single fish.

    That wasn't Luvu's only fraught competition moment this week. After four episodes' worth of performing well enough as a team that they've yet to face Tribal Council, some of the tribe members have begun to get antsy to "play the game." Specifically Erika, who you might be surprised to hear is a contestant on Survivor this season, because this is the first we'd heard from her. Which I suppose proves her point about wanting to play the game. The problem is, she confides to Deshawn about wanting to blindside Sydney, and Deshawn is very closely aligned with Sydney. So Deshawn (who I think is also pretty eager to start playing the game) pitches to Sydney and Danny that they throw the immunity challenge and vote out Erika the sneak.

    Throwing challenges is a longstanding tradition on Survivor, albeit one with a spotty history of success. On a strategic level, you're willingly decreasing your numbers for a post-merge situation just to get rid of a perceived bad apple. This is risky! You're also betting that you won't lose any other future challenges, at which point you might have to start voting out people you like. You're also, on a karmic level, really tempting fate. And you should know that if Jeff Probst catches wind of your attempts to fail on purpose, he will try to call you out on it. There's also the fact that three-team challenges are VERY tough to throw because there's twice as many teams you need to let beat you. Deshawn learned this one the hard way this week, as he struggled mightily to fail against teams like Yase and Ua, who both seemed determined to lose. And then there was Naseer. Sweet, wonderful, capable Naseer, who wasn't in on the plan to throw the challenge, because his tribemates keep excluding him. So he didn't know that he wasn't supposed to step up at the end and throw rope rings onto pegs like a champ and basically win immunity for his tribe by accident. Naseer was the human element that Deshawn couldn't account for, and he unwittingly saved Erika's butt for one more week at least.

    The human element was ultimately what decided this week's outcome at Tribal Council for Ua. No immunity idols were found nor advantages played for. And while certain advantages were in play that might have affected the strategy — J.D.'s extra vote, which Shan convinced him to give to her as a show of trust; Genie contemplating rolling the Die of Destiny or whatever it's called if she felt like it was her only option — ultimately, this vote came down to the most simple of Survivor dilemmas: who to trust. Genie was the obvious sore thumb from the previous vote. She'd declared she was over the rest of the tribe. Just get rid of her. But Shan ultimately never got over seeing J.D. with that extra-vote advantage sticking out of his waistband last week. She lost her trust in him, and while he probably was more loyal to her than Genie, Shan coaxed his extra vote out of him and then cut his throat. The wounded look on J.D.'s face after getting blindsided was both heartbreaking and also the perfect end to an episode that was Survivor at its most basic, at last.

    As for the rest of this week's happenings…

    Player of the Week: Giving this one to Naseer. There was no strategy at play, he's well outside the loop of his tribe's power center, and it probably didn't make a bit of difference when it came to his chances of winning the game, but powering through and winning that immunity challenge simply because he didn't know not to? Icon behavior.

    Honorable Mention(s): Somewhat begrudgingly giving this to Shan, who came out on top at Tribal, and with an extra vote in her pocket to boot. But I'm still not sure she played this week all that well, starting with that unnecessary antagonizing of both Genie and J.D. at the beginning. J.D. was so loyal to her that he handed over his extra-vote advantage to her twice. Genie, meanwhile, told her she wasn't cooking for her anymore. It's hard to convince me that Genie would be the better person to keep around for her game. Yes. J.D. was chaotic, and yes, he kept his extra vote a secret from her, but she had him in her pocket. Entering a merge with Genie, I'm not sure she can say the same thing.

    Sketchy Strategy: All that said, J.D. played this all wrong and ultimately has no one to blame but himself for getting voted out. You could tell he was almost there in his head. He correctly clocked Shan for being hypocritical to him, getting mad at him for hiding an advantage when she wasn't honest with him about Brad's idol. He clocked her again for being overly paranoid when they were strategizing for votes. These were red flags that should have made him far more uneasy. He let his friendship with Shan blind him from connecting the dots that all these indicators from Shan were reasons he ought to have taken his extra vote to Genie and flipped the vote against Shan and Ricard. Ultimately, that's good on Shan for making him feel that comfortable with her, but it cost J.D. the game.

    Alliance Report: It's now pretty clear that the power over at Luvu is in the Deshawn/Danny/Sydney trio, with Erika their new target, Naseer their old target, and Heather along for the ride as a number. Prove me wrong, other members of Luvu. Prove me wrong.

    Advantage Report:

    • Xander is back to square one with his butterfly idol now that Brad has been voted out; he now once again needs two people to find the idol clue and decide to play the password game.
    • Xander also has an extra vote (though he can't vote at the moment).
    • Deshawn has an extra vote.
    • Shan started the episode with the extra vote that J.D. gave her, then gave it back to him, then got it back from him before voting him out. It's hers now.

    Coming Next Week: Genie finds an advantage. What are the chances she tells Shan about it?

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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.

    TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Jeff Probst