This week’s first reward challenge was a classic Survivor device that forced players to reveal their pecking order by directly eliminating others. When the five-person majority alliance remained, they stood around and looked confused about what to do next. This moment is a perfect metaphor for this season. The game is still Survivor, but it’s a strange version sidetracked by random subplots. When Jeff Probst shut down the challenge, he essentially admitted failure with this group. Why spend the time on a challenge if it will go nowhere? This feeling pervaded much of this week’s two episodes. There were some really fun moments and interesting maneuvers from Natalie, but most of the play didn’t go that far. Reed and Alec going home made sense given their status as outsiders. Even so, I’m left questioning where the season is heading as we move closer to the final Tribal Council.
Following the challenge, Reed called Baylor a “brat” and earned the ire of Missy. The telling moment was when she called out Reed for lying. His exasperated reply showed just how little gameplay is happening. Missy is more concerned with protecting Baylor from name calling than considering the end game. While Jeff loves this type of drama, it’s frustrating if you’re looking for more strategic play. Admittedly, Reed didn’t help his cause by attacking Baylor and recognized that he should have been smarter. What’s more telling is how similar Missy’s reply was to previous moments in the show. We’ve seen her step up repeatedly to defend her daughter, but this isn’t new information. In fact, it hurts both Missy and Baylor’s games to get embroiled in this type of bickering.The reward challenge ended abruptly but created drama between Reed and Missy.[/caption]
I raise these points because they introduce questions about the season’s overarching story. We’re down to six players and have only one remaining episode before the finale. A sense of normalcy resumed with the two expected boots, yet the editing wasn’t that concerned with them (especially Alec). We spent a long time with Jon and Jaclyn’s fight in the first hour, and Reed still faced a 7-1 vote. The second hour covered Natalie’s attempt to blindside Jon, but his immunity win stopped that effort. The groundwork has been set for him to fall, yet it may not happen given his discovery of the idol. Why spend so much time on a situation that may go nowhere? The editors can only work with the material that exists, but they seemed too focused on dead ends this time.
Alec joined Wes as the second juror that received limited attention from the editing. He flirts constantly with girls, even those with a boyfriend at camp. He’s surprisingly bad at challenges yet went out quietly despite claiming he would go out fighting. It’s hard to really blame Alec, though. He’s young and didn’t have the numbers, so what could he do? The benefit of his exit is retaining Keith, who provides good TV despite not really understanding the strategy. He joins Natalie in the small club of players who seem able to stop Jon’s march to victory. Missy, Baylor, and Jaclyn are locked into their alliance and haven’t done enough to stand apart from Jon. With two pairs remaining, there are limited options for strategic moves. This fact reveals a potential culprit in this season’s challenges — the Blood vs. Water concept.
Is the Formula Limited?
When the first Blood vs. Water season was really good, I was among the surprised fans. Having pairs seemed to limit the strategy on the surface because there were obvious allies. The main reason it worked was the casting, which included likable returning players and loved ones that brought something unique. The ending wasn’t a surprise, but the formula seemed fresh because of the entertaining group. Something has felt off about the concept for much of this season, though it was better during the post-merge chaos. This week’s two-hour episode revealed the limitations with stark clarity. Jon and Jaclyn fought and wouldn’t speak to each other, and it was an interesting look at their relationship. Even so, it dominated the second half of the first episode. It also occupied the discussion at Tribal Council, where Reed pointed out the challenge in trying to play the game in the middle of their fight. While that is a different aspect of a season with pairs, that doesn’t mean it’s very refreshing.
In a Blood vs. Water season with no returning players, the focus shifts to the relationships between the pairs. Jeff stopped multiple times this week to talk to people with tears in their eyes. There’s a clear disconnect between fans that value strategy and competition versus the emotional drama. Cagayan provided over-the-top characters, risky moves, and exciting surprises. This season has treated those scenes as secondary to relationships that often aren’t that interesting. Jeff tried to sell the complexities in the second Tribal Council, but he’s stretching to connect the strategy with the emotions. This combination can deliver great TV when it works, yet it’s often fallen short with this cast.
The Shifting Narrative
A frequent discussion topic this season among fans has been the winner’s edit and who’s receiving it. This editing tactic depicts players in a triumphant light and gives them sole credit for group moves. It also reveals personal obstacles that would make us root for a player. This person usually receives a lot of confessionals and often narrates the action. Josh was a candidate in the early going, and many thought Jeremy had it until his surprise exit. Some seasons have an obvious winner’s edit like Redemption Island, while others like Gabon or South Pacific aren’t so clear. You could make the case at this point that Jon has received the set-up for victory. We’ve learned about his father’s cancer and interest in adopting kids because Jaclyn can’t have them. He’s been likable and has received a lot of attention from the editors.
On the other hand, you could read the same moments as setting up Jon for a fall. He survived last week because others convinced him to play the idol, and Jon awkwardly tried to sell the move as his choice. His interest in wine made him look silly, and he doesn’t appear to understand the game. If Jon was blindsided next week, it wouldn’t be shocking because he’s been shown as overconfident. Natalie took Jon on a reward and plotted behind his back. The stage was set for Natalie and Baylor to join Alec and Keith to remove him. Predictably, this build-up meant that Jon would win immunity. It’s a classic Survivor ploy, yet it felt less convincing this time. Have the editors miscalculated our interest in Jon? I’d rather hear more from Natalie and Keith, but they’re shown as the antagonists in Jon’s story. If he wins the game, it may not deliver the “hell yeah!” moment they expect.
I’m viewing the narrative based on a lack of excitement for a Jon victory. He seems like a good guy, but his win probably won’t deliver a thrilling finale. What’s missing? Part of the issue is out of his hands. Jon went to Exile Island and found the immunity idol, and it’s hard to root for the front runner. Natalie is the classic underdog who lost her loved one in the premiere and is working to usurp the leader. We’re inclined to root for her because of the challenges. She also doesn’t take herself that seriously and is having fun being sneaky. It’s endearing to watch someone known for being loud on The Amazing Race accomplish so much in a subtler way. Natalie’s been a revelation and is creating great TV every week.
Playing from the Middle
Jon and Jaclyn were swing votes again during the first hour and talked openly about that spot at Tribal Council. They seem amazed to occupy that role again, but it’s all of their own doing. Like Monica in the first Blood vs. Water, they’ve shown a willingness to consider any offer. While this gives Jon and Jaclyn control of their destiny, it also depicts them as wafflers unwilling to stick with their alliance. I don’t believe the jury is buying their astounded reactions to falling into that spot. This week, Jaclyn appeared to consider joining Reed and voting out Missy. Jon even seemed to be winking at Reed in a hilarious moment that you could read several different ways. The chance of a switch didn’t seem likely, however. Reed was playing too hard and wasn’t trusted by anyone. It’s telling that the votes fell 7-1 against him. What’s challenging for other players (and viewers) is seeing Jon and Jaclyn constantly shifting course. If either or both make the end, will they be able to sell the clear reasons for each move?
Monica tried to sell her decisions at Tribal Council by claiming, “It’s my night!”, but she stuck with Tyson and Gervase to the end. Jon and Jaclyn have flipped on allies, but they’ve stuck with Missy and Baylor for each vote. If Natalie and Keith don’t make the jury, who will stand out for the four-person alliance in the end? Will the jury reward Jon because he overcame a larger target? Missy has the clinical approach to sell her moves, but she doesn’t seem well-liked. Jaclyn may struggle to stand apart from Jon, and Baylor has the reputation as a follower. Jon probably wins against the others, but playing from the middle could doom him against Keith and Natalie. They can sell their individual games as outsiders that didn’t waver. Keith has made some gaffes, but the guys might reward him for being direct. Playing from the middle as swing votes could doom Jon and Jaclyn even if they make the finals.
An Easy Idol Search
At last week’s Tribal Council, Jeff discussed the lack of idols being used this season. That changed with Jon and Keith’s plays, and it delivered a crazy Tribal Council. Natalie also found an idol, so they may have an impact during the next few weeks. This late in the game, hiding another idol seemed problematic because it would give one player a huge edge. Even so, it’s been common for production to keep re-introducing idols in the post-merge game. The idol hunt in Cagayan provided great drama because the outcome felt so uncertain. None of that excitement happened this time when Jon found the idol on Exile. Beyond handing the idol to the front runner, this moment revealed other problems with the placement. It probably took Jon a few hours to find the idol, but there was no competition. It was only a matter of time before he found the right spot and grabbed a major edge.
Hiding the idol on Exile reveals a lack of imagination from production. Giving Jon a vague clue to an idol at camp would have introduced great fun to the search. Instead, they basically dropped the idol in Jon’s pocket. Once he chose to visit Exile, there was no doubt that he would find the idol. I’m not opposed to the idol, but making it so easy minimizes the variables in the game. It also reveals an issue with Exile when only one person goes there. Wes and Alec didn’t get any scenes there, and Jon’s happened because he found the idol. Exile’s largest role was separating Jaclyn and making her feel like an outsider. Without Jon at camp, she flirted by Alec and considered Reed’s plan to change the game.
The key decision in the second hour was Natalie’s choice to go against the plan and vote out Alec. She had this opportunity because of Jon’s idea to split the votes. Once again, the downside of splitting votes became clear. By joining Keith to vote for Alec, Natalie flipped the script and sent the young lad home with a 4-3 vote. Jon and Missy’s confused looks after the vote were priceless but may spell trouble for Natalie. Was it worth the risk? Everyone trusted her, and this fact would make blindsiding Jon easier. Switching her vote puts Natalie on the radar as a player to watch. Jon, Jaclyn, and Missy could realize the danger in keeping her around and change their plans. Of course, having the idol gives Natalie room to maneuver. If she can avoid the target at the next vote, Natalie has a free ticket into the final four.
Why did Natalie vote out Alec? There are two likely reasons. The first is his bond with Baylor, who Natalie’s chosen as a primary ally. Alec purposely opens up to Baylor to curry favor, and it’s a painfully awkward moment. It may have worked, however. Natalie wants Baylor on her side to take out Jon, so having Alec there too could introduce complications. The other reason is building a connection with Keith, who could be a trustworthy partner when the alliance of five crumbles. Keith is the wild card that could switch up the game if he’s used well. If Natalie can get Baylor and Keith to join her against Jon, that’s enough to avoid a split vote scenario. She could use the idol and remove her biggest threat.
Once Jon won immunity, the obvious move would have been to take out Jaclyn. Natalie could use Alec and Keith and wouldn’t even need Baylor because of the split votes. They could have created a 3-2-2 blindside that would nullify Jon’s power by removing his closest ally. The downside of this move would be the blowback after Tribal Council. Natalie should be able to explain the Alec vote with a few small lies, but there’s no going back after voting out Jaclyn. Natalie knows that Jon has the idol, so her chances of blindsiding him at the final six are gone if she makes the move at seven. I’m still intrigued by what would have happened if Natalie had targeted Jaclyn, but I understand why she didn’t go that route.
Who’s in the best position? Who’s in trouble?
With only six players remaining, it’s time to look at each person individually and figure out where they stand. The previews for next week suggest a major event that could change everything, but I’m not going to read too much into that moment because previews can be misleading. The order of this group is inconsequential. I’ll start with the pairs and finish with the free agents.
Jon: Since Jeremy’s exit, Jon has played in front and received the attention from the minority alliance. He’s found an idol, won immunity, and narrowly avoided the vote. Jon remains in a good position to make the end. The holes appear when you consider the perception of Jon’s game from the jury. They saw Natalie save him by pushing for him to play the idol. Jon isn’t giving the impression that he’s running the game but will try to sell that story. If he’s up against the wrong people, the jury may not reward him.
Jaclyn: Early in the game, Jaclyn received little screen time and didn’t seem that important. It’s been surprising to note how much impact she’s had on the key votes. Jon and Jaclyn are a pair that makes decisions together, even when they disagree. This means that Jaclyn has a chance to sell her game if Jon doesn’t make the finals. On the other hand, they could both lose if they face an outsider like Keith or Natalie. Jaclyn needs to avoid this situation at all costs if she’s looking to bring home the million.
Missy: From a strategy perspective, Missy has played an underrated game. She formed a solid alliance at the start and hasn’t been seriously targeted during the game. When strong players like Josh and Jeremy left, it only increased her power. The challenge for Missy is the social game, which could eliminate her chances of winning. She spends a lot of time defending Baylor and doesn’t have a warm personality. She needs to sit next to her daughter and Jaclyn to have the best chance to win.
Baylor: It’s easy to dismiss Baylor as a weak player who follows around her mom, but it isn’t that simple. She’s trying to play and was willing to consider voting out Jon. Missy treats Jon like a son, so Baylor wouldn’t have her mom’s blessing for that plan. The challenge for Baylor would be explaining her game to the jury. I don’t see a scenario where she could pull the upset and win.
Natalie: I’m totally biased and rooting for Natalie to win. She’s the most entertaining player and seems to enjoy playing the game. The obvious connection is Sandra in Heroes vs. Villains, who plotted against Russell and was the viable alternative for a jury that didn’t like him or Parvati. Jon isn’t the same type of villain as Russell, but Natalie occupies a similar position. She has a shot to defeat him in the finals, but the best move is removing him. She can sell that blindside as her big move and grab the win. My worry is that she follows Spencer and leaves in fourth place after losing right before the end. Jon and Missy would be wise to take her out, and this week’s vote could push them in that direction.
Keith: The biggest wild card remaining is Keith, who survived by the grace of Natalie. He isn’t a master strategist but could steal a win if the jury wants no part of the main alliance. It feels like a long shot given his gaffes, but his genuine approach could change their minds. If Keith can reach the finals and not face Jon or Natalie, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him edge out the others. He’s a threat to win challenges, and a victory next week could introduce serious challenges for the rest of the players.
This week revealed the limits of the Blood vs. Water concept and this cast, but all hope isn’t lost. There were entertaining moments in both episodes, including Natalie enjoying spaghetti with Jon and Jaclyn on a king-sized bed at camp. There’s potential for a strong finish if everyone plays to win. When you’ve reached the final six, cautious game play will put you in third place. Will Natalie take a chance and really go after Jon? Will Baylor vote against her mom’s wishes? Can Jon reach the end and convince the jury he deserves the win? These questions leave enough uncertainty to promise an interesting last two episodes.