The following is a post from Rob Has a Website Contributor, Andy Baker
My central focus in this column is nothing quite so grand or divisive as conspiracy theories – it’s hard to get one’s hackles up after the producers deliver an episode overflowing with entertainment and emotion – but I do have some thoughts and questions for you, so read on, fellow SuperFan, read on.
1) At one point this summer, while watching an eviction episode of Big Brother, I was struck by how hard it must be to be voted out of Survivor. In BB, the evictee walks out of the front door – and is greeted by applause, cheers, and the Chenbot. What awaits a castaway after Probst snuffs their torch? A long, dark, lonely walk away from the Tribal Council set, and a limo drive with a psychiatrist. The contrast is a stark one, and the psychological impact for a Survivor player must be both profound and painful.
Let’s back up a moment and set the stage: A hopeful applicant is selected for the semi-final round from a sea of thousands, makes it to the final round of casting in Los Angeles, and then they get The Call. At that moment, all of the hopes and dreams that have built over endless weeks of anticipation transform from gossamer ghosts (which forever haunt those whose phones don’t ring) into palpable and plausible visions of a preordained hero’s journey to the final tribal council. From that moment on, losing, being voted out, having to stare Probst in the face while he extinguishes your torch – that is a death to be feared, the death of a dream, the end of something that was the all and the everything, if only for a whisper of time.
Now, imagine you’re Russell Swan. You’re playing the game in Samoa, and everything’s going well; the dream is coming true! You can see the path, you can see the light, you can see the end! But then, tragedy strikes; your body betrays you, and you’re removed from the game. An abrupt end to the journey…
… but not as bad as it could have been. You never had your torch snuffed. People tell you that you played a great game, and that it’s a shame fate intervened. The narrative of your season casts you as a successful leader, the “good Russell,” the Russell who should have shaped the story of Samoa.
And that becomes your Survivor identity: A medevac who may very well have won the game… if you hadn’t almost died. It’s a positive legacy, and a memorable one. People knew Russell, liked him… and wanted him to have a second chance.
Second chances are funny things, though. In movies and fictional TV shows, the redemptive hero with an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past almost always succeeds. Former failings inform the future fight, and the hero – older, wiser, and weather-worn – emerges victorious from the ashes of a fabled, yet troubled, past.
That’s the story Russell wanted. But it isn’t what he got.
Russell took a huge risk in coming back: he was wagering his Survivor identity against the possibility that this time he might show us, and more importantly himself, that he was destined for greatness in this game. And yet, despite the risks, when Russell got The Call, he didn’t hesitate; he simply shoved his chips into the middle of the table and said he was all in.
Unfortunately, Russell lost the bet.
Over his ten days on the island, Russell realized he was playing against a stacked deck; as he put it, he was saddled “… with a smoker, a lunatic, and a beauty queen.” Once Matsing lost that first challenge, the decimation of Russell’s tribe – and the elimination of Russell himself – possessed the dramatic inevitability of a Greek tragedy. It didn’t feel fair then, and if Russell’s exit interviews are any indication, it doesn’t feel fair now.
Russell went into Survivor: Philippines as a hero with hope, the central figure in a mythic “What if?” story who was being given an opportunity to rewrite the ending. Instead of augmenting his legacy, however, Russell did the exact opposite; he exited this season as the reluctant leader of what many are calling the worst tribe in Survivor history.
People are fond of pointing out that Survivor has only one winner, and this is true. But it ignores the fact that not all “losers” feel the same pain. From first boots to final boots, the agony which accompanies each elimination is unique in depth and duration.
Of the 385 players who have played the game over the past 12 years, I don’t think anyone has felt the pain Russell is feeling right now.
In the realm of Survivor, he has lost everything.
Which makes me feel really, really bad for the guy.
2) Like everyone else watching this season, I’m really curious what the producers are planning to do with Malcolm and Denise. The teaser for this Wednesday’s episode shows them tearing apart their camp as they search for the hidden immunity idol – more importantly, they’re searching together. Do they suspect a merge of some sort, one that will end with them leaving the Matsing beach for good? If so, what sort of merge will it be? The easiest and most obvious solution – sending one Matsing player to each of the other two camps – also feels like the most fair way to go about it: Tandang and Kalabaw have earned the right to remain intact. Of course, Survivor has never much concerned itself with fairness where tribe swaps are concerned; castaways are told to smash an egg or grab a buff, and fortunes are altered in an instant. And yet, I’m not getting the sense that we’re due for a random reshuffle or even a school yard pick; too much screen time has been dedicated to the storylines in the Tandang and Kalabaw camps for all of that tension to simply dissipate in a complete tribal overhaul. And so I go back to the easy approach: If Matsing is dissolved this week (and how can it not be?), Malcolm goes one way, Denise the other, and perhaps the twain shall meet at the merge.
3) Speaking of the merge, I was taken aback when I realized how close it is. If there’s going to be a final three with a nine person jury, we’re – can it be? – only TWO eliminations away. This is good news for Malcolm and Denise fans: If our fearsome twosome can avoid the headsman’s axe over the next two weeks, then they’ve got a puncher’s chance to get deep into the game. Given all of the conflict brewing in the other two tribes, I wouldn’t be surprised if Malcolm and Denise are both playing for individual immunity – and not-so-secretly working together – in the weeks ahead.
4) How’s this for a scenario: Malcolm joins Kalabaw and Denise becomes a member of Tandang. The edit thus far supports this possible outcome: Over in Kalabaw, the women appear doomed in the battle of the sexes; why else would Katie, Dana and Dawson be so invisible thus far, particularly when compared to the Four-Fingered Handshake Alliance? So, what if Malcolm joins the other alpha males and swings the balance of power over to the men? That makes sense, doesn’t it? And then, over at Tandang, the edit suggests that Pete (and his alliance) is being set up for a fall; might Denise join up with the rational members of the tribe (namely Skupin and Lisa) and turn the tide against Pete and Abi? Hmmmmmm. Last week, I was all for Malcolm and Denise joining the same tribe; now, I think they might have a better chance if they head their separate ways… for now.
5) Since I’m talking about the edit, anyway, we might as well take a step back and examine the story the show is telling us; that’s right, it’s time for an EDIT AUDIT! Hard to believe, but we’ve just raced past the quarter pole: more than one fourth of the season is behind us. Unless the producers are actively concealing endgamer identities, the legitimate contenders must have been active participants in the episodes we’ve seen, right? That rules out Artis… and almost all of Kalabaw (Katie, Carter, Dana, and Dawson have all been, to varying degrees, invisible). Now we’ve got nine players left… but all edits are not created equal. Abi is being portrayed as emotionally unstable, Pete is being set up to fail, and R.C. is being depicted as a blindside waiting to happen. That leaves us with six: Malcolm, Denise, Jeff, Penner, Skupin and Lisa. If I was forced to cut down the list even more, I’d scratch off Malcolm and Jeff; the former will be an immunity threat without a majority alliance, and too much has been made of the latter’s knee injury for it not to cost him at a time when he desperately needs individual immunity. And now we’re down to four: Denise, Penner, Skupin and Lisa. Your winner, if the edit is any indication, can be found on that surprisingly short list.
6) Of those four, the player impressing me the most right now is Denise. Sure, Penner has an idol, but he’s also made a dangerous alliance (who is the scorpion and who is the frog?); Skupin has all but disappeared from the show over the last couple of weeks; and Lisa is playing far too passive a game for my liking (I prefer castaways who take control of their destinies). Meanwhile, Denise is being portrayed as the calm and controlled voice of reason. To whit:
** She points out that, in any relationship triad, one person is always on the outside… and then makes Russell, who had been frantically searching for the hidden immunity idol because he knew he was on the outside, feel like he was on the inside. (One of the greatest social Survivor skills is the ability to reassure a player that he/she is accepted, wanted, and needed, when all evidence points to the contrary; Denise possesses this ability in abundance.)
** She talks about meaningful silences. Why is this important? Because she’s listening, even when nothing is being said. Think she’s going to pick up on the tensions and fractures at whichever camp she soon calls home? Yeah, me too.
** In her insider videos, she talks about humility, and how as someone playing a game, one has to learn to lose with grace. I think it’s safe to say that she’s never going to rub her new tribemates the wrong way, even if they start losing challenges; while others implode around her, Denise will be there to pick up the pieces.
** She understands, and more importantly, believes that she’s playing a game: she’s not above searching Russell’s bag for the hidden immunity idol and knows that she’s “not going to lose her soul” for doing so. Why create rules where none are needed? All’s fair in love and war… and Survivor is a war we love.
7) One more thing about the Midwestern sex therapist: During Matsing’s fourth and final Tribal Council, Denise is identified as a formidable final three opponent, something which no doubt fills her with both joy and dread – joy, because she’s getting external validation she’s playing well; dread because she’s been publicly identified as an endgame threat due to her social skills. That said, two things are working in her favor here: one, there’s only one witness left who can speak to her early-game performance, and he’s on her side; and two, I doubt we see this footage unless she either makes it to the final three or she’s voted out just before the Final Tribal Council because she’s a jury threat. Either way, Denise is being edited as the underdog who somehow finds a way to win… or at least get very, very close.
8) Both the devil and the divine can be found in the details: After Russell’s post-challenge tirade, we get two quick shots of Kalabaw players, one of Penner and the other of Dawson. Penner is shown tossing something – a piece of urn, maybe? – in Russell’s general direction; this, as a social psychologist would tell you, is a non-verbal sign of disapproval. Dawson, meanwhile, is shown looking over her shoulder at the Matsing players as the Kalabaw castaways are leaving the site of the challenge; the expression on her face is one of compassion and commiseration. Dawson’s display of empathy, particularly when coupled with Penner’s momentary lack of it, humanizes her in a way we haven’t seen before; was this an editing trick to infuse some emotion into the end of the scene, or was this a hint that Dawson’s social game will become a factor once we hit the merge? I’m going with Door #2.
9) Okay, I’ll admit it: My pre-season read on Abi was waaaaaaaaaay off. Not only is she a villain, but she’s a delusional one; Abi is a special kind of crazy. It’s one thing if Abi were to tell us, “I know I betrayed RC first by finding the idol without her, not telling her about it, and entrusting Pete with both the clue and the whereabouts of the idol, but that doesn’t change the fact that I now believe she went searching for the idol without me, too. Forget for a moment what I did to her – she was trying to backstab me! I can’t trust her, which means she’s gotta go.” Instead, Abi is engaging in “Irrationalization,” which, if it isn’t a word, really ought to be: She’s rationalizing her own actions while irrationally condemning R.C. for the same behavior.
Armchair psychology interruption: There’s a social psych principle called the fundamental attribution error which states that people will ascribe their own actions to circumstances while attributing what others do to their personalities. Simply stated, I do what I do because I have to; you do what you do because you want to.
Abi has clearly been embodying the fundamental attribution error throughout “Clue Gate,” while also showing a complete lack of self-awareness and displaying a disturbing amount of crazy. She’s a villain with an idol, which makes for good TV, but she lacks the awareness and acumen that could turn her into the Hantz without pants. A shame, really.
10) Time for another update on some of the more enlightening secret scenes over at the CBS/Survivor web site:
** Apparently, Carter had already decided to work with Penner (but hadn’t told anyone about this master plan), and it was merely a coincidence that Jeff approached him with the idea of including Jonathan in an alliance of three. Hooookay, Carter. I’ll give him credit for understanding the advantages of working with Penner, however: As a returning player known for his strategic cunning, Penner could prove to be a bigger post-merge target than Carter, AND Carter knows it’s wise to be aligned with the idol (he assumes at this point that Penner has it). I’m of two minds about Carter at this point: he understands the game better than I thought he did, but he’s playing an extremely passive game – and it’s clear that no one takes him seriously.
** Speaking of players we can’t take seriously: In a short clip, Katie sagely points out that going to Tribal Council can be useful, for it is there you find out whom you can trust and where you stand in the tribe. But it’s clear in how she talks about the Kalabaw tribal dynamics that she has no clue how things are going to shake out or where she is in the pecking order. Which means she’s not aware of Survivor commandment #31: If you don’t know who’s going – it’s you.
** Jeff Kent continues to impress: in a perceptive and thoughtful confessional, he reveals that he understands that Survivor’s middle game is the great unknown, and that it would be wise for him to team up with Penner to navigate it, given that the savvy vet has experienced it twice before.
And yes, I can’t believe I just wrote ‘perceptive,’ ‘thoughtful,’ ‘wise,’ and ‘Jeff Kent’ in the same sentence either.
** I can’t be the only one who, when Penner talked about what great aim Jeff Kent had while swinging the rice pot wrecking ball, was thinking, “HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW WHO JEFF KENT IS?! HE PLAYED BASEBALL FOR THE DODGERS AND YOU LIVE IN LOS ANGELES! THE MUSTACHE HE SHAVED OFF HAS GROWN BACK IN – HAVE YOU EYES?! YES, THAT’S A RANDOM SHAKESPEARE QUOTE, SORRY.”
** Pete, contrary to the portrayal on the aired episode, didn’t put a lot of thought into Clue Gate. He had the hidden immunity idol clue in his pocket, RC’s bag spilled out in the shelter, and he impulsively put the two pieces together. Obviously, the move was far more effective than he ever dreamed it would be, but should he really be this thrilled that his tribe is coming apart at the seams? If Tandang had a numbers advantage, that would be one thing… but Kalabaw hasn’t voted anyone out either, and they’ve won just as many challenges. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Pete’s short-sighted power grab is going to lead to an earlier exit than he expects, proving once again that Russell Hantz’s “sowing the seeds of discord” approach to the game is far harder to implement than his castaway devotees realize.
** Malcolm’s insider clips were rather nondescript this week, but they did solve a riddle for me: I finally placed his voice, something that had been plaguing me since the start of the season. There are long stretches of screen time when he sounds EXACTLY like John Corbett (who was in Parenthood, The United States of Tara, Sex and the City, and Northern Exposure). Whew. That was driving me NUTS.
11) Fortunes falling: While it’s really not fair to put her here two weeks in a row, I have to go with RC. Frankly, I’m a bit baffled that she doesn’t understand why Abi’s so mad. Setting aside Abi’s insanity a moment, RC knows that the catalyst/excuse for Abi’s outrage is the sudden appearance of the hidden immunity idol clue. How hard is it to figure out that Abi assumes RC looked for the idol without her? Sadly, RC is ignoring an important Survivor commandment: If someone in your alliance won’t talk to you, then your alliance is over (and you best watch your back).
12) Fortunes rising: Lisa, whose narrative is being carefully crafted as the early target who, against the longest of odds in the roughest of waters, navigates her way to the endgame. Among other things, her confessionals, both on the show and in her online clips, reveal:
** She’s going to play the cards which are dealt to her (while letting others overplay their hands). It would be one thing if she were simply being passive, but there’s an element of aggression in her analysis of the Tandang tribal dynamics; she knows that if she simply stays out of the way, the power players are going to start taking each other out.
** That she’s “adding oxygen to the fires” around camp, and that she’s more than happy to watch the other Tandang castaways “flame themselves out.” Again, there is aggression lurking within Lisa’s passivity.
** And she’s wired for empathy (which I feel is one of the most important, if not THE most important, skill in Survivor): She understands Russell’s passion and feels his pain… she’s so troubled by the annihilation of Matsing that she loses sleep over it… and she notices subtle social cues like how Denise smiles even in defeat. While she sometimes gives more credit than she should – she genuinely believed that Russell might sacrifice himself so that Malcolm and Denise could remain in the game – she is obviously someone who can see the best in people and, perhaps, help people see the best in themselves. If there’s one player who would welcome a Matsing member with open arms, it would be Lisa – and that’s something that might well fundamentally alter the fortunes of everyone in Tandang.
13) Prediction time: At this point, the dissolution of Matsing is a foregone conclusion; the producers want Malcolm and Denise in the game, and they don’t want to run an immunity challenge that was originally designed for larger tribes with teams of two. For all of the tension at the Tandang camp, I think the editors need to give us another week of intel before that volcano erupts: What does Skupin know/think/feel about the growing divide between RC and Abi? Will the other players figure out that the idol has been claimed (the coconut disguise on the rice container can’t last forever)? When will Artis converse with anyone in his tribe? So many mysteries. Anyway, I think we’re due for a Kalabaw non-factor to be sent packing, so take your pick: Katie… Dana… Dawson… one of these three is heading home. Which begs the question: Which is worse, never getting on the show, or being given an opportunity to play, only to have almost your entire experience end up on the cutting room floor?
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – be sure to check out the columns from Sarah Freeman and Glenn Holford, and I’ll see you next week!