Photo: Robert Voets/CBS
This week’s episode took me back to Survivor in the mid-2000s. And not just because we almost had a Billy and Candice moment with Maryanne confessing her crush on recently eliminated Zach. It was a strong, character-driven episode that put personal stories and human connections above twists and turns – something I previously feared would overwhelm the season. The essential facet of Survivor was brilliantly exposed as players grappled with the dichotomy between their values and the moral gray area in which the game exists.
“I love everyone, but there’s a game to be played…it’s as simple as that,” Jonathan says at the end of an open and heartfelt Tribal Council. Jeff Probst laughs, almost mocking the assertion. Sure, Survivor may seem simple at first glance, but the emotions wrapped up in the game add an undeniable layer of complexity. That’s why we’ve seen so many ugly tears and bitter jury speeches over the years – getting the torch extinguished hurts! And we see it in this elimination of Marya, a woman who opens up to her fellow Taku tribesmen, sharing the heartbreaking story of her late brother, a nurse who was the first healthcare worker in the United States to die of COVID-19. Marya felt connected enough with her fellow gamers to share something so personal, displaying a vulnerability in a game that often forces people to hide their true feelings. Still, someone has to go there in a small tribe of six, no matter how difficult it may be to write their name.
If it wasn’t Marya, it probably would have been Maryanne. The computer science student has great energy “just got out of 12 months of lockdown”, which is probably accurate given that this season was filmed in the summer of 2021. She has the childlike joy of a child on Joybuzzing on the beach humming the Survivor theme song and swinging a machete like a slasher movie villain. As Marya says, “Maryanne is 100 all the time,” and that kind of energy can be great for tribe morale. But, as Lindsay says, it can also get “exhausting” after a while. However, for now, Maryanne lands on the good side of sweet; her fellow tribesmen warm to her enthusiasm and calamitous stories of unrequited love. So, as guilty as the tribe feels for voting against Marya, the prospect of erasing the adorable smile from Maryanne’s face would have been an even more difficult task.
The moral complexity of Survivor is littered throughout this episode, and not just when voting. In the Vati tribe, Hai struggles with hunger pangs while trying to stay true to her vegan lifestyle. Without rice provided to the tribes this season, food options are very limited. So when Chanelle catches and cooks a pot of hermit crabs, it’s like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner rolled into one. But while the rest of his tribe enjoys the food, Hai crumbles, knowing he will have to make a tough decision. Does he put his values aside and eat meat? It’s not just about hunger, although I’m sure that plays a huge role. It’s all about his position in the game. If he doesn’t eat, it means less food, which leads to less energy and strength to complete challenges. This could make him a weak link and an easy vote if Vati ends up on Tribal Council. So, I don’t blame Hai for choosing to eat crabmeat. “How do you feel?” Chanelle asks him after his first bite. “Good,” he replies, “and guilty.”
Religious values also play a role in the episode. In another example of the Taku tribe’s openness to each other, Omar tells his fellow tribesmen that he is a practicing Muslim, which means he will take private time to do his daily prayers. “So if I leave camp, that doesn’t mean I’m looking for an idol,” he says in a fun moment that shows how the game intersects with these real-life daily routines. It’s also a sweet bonding moment, as Maryanne offers to weave a prayer rug from palm fronds and Jonathan offers to answer questions about Christianity in exchange for learning about Muslim traditions from Omar. “I’m not really a big Jew,” adds Lindsay, foregoing Judaism classes. But the Taku tribe’s eagerness to understand each other’s differences is truly refreshing in a show that these days can get too mired in strategy and numbers. These differences are perhaps best illustrated in the growing ‘bromance’ between Jonathan and Omar, who has the potential to be the next big thing. Survivor strange couple in the tradition of Richard and Rudy and JT and Stephen. Jonathan even makes Omar string bracelets…it’s the sign of a true love of alliance!
Of course, the episode is not completely without strategy and twists. But he gets the balance right, which makes him such a perfect Survivor episode. Mike finds the first Beware Advantage at Vati’s camp. It’s the return of the phrase-activated three-way idols we saw last season. After lamenting that his sentence requires praising the sport of football, Mike proceeds to bury the idol and tells Jenny and Daniel about his discovery. This casting is very loose, but I understand Mike’s intent here. Not having a vote until the idols are activated means he has to rely on his connections. So if he can use this information to cement closer bonds, why not? Also, it leads to the hilarity of Mike dragging Daniel through the jungle in search of a Y-shape after he forgets where he buried the idol. Daniel finds the situation not only amusing, but potentially life-changing. Having this information means he and his close ally Chanelle can essentially control what happens, whether it’s rejecting Mike at a later date or using his idol to their advantage.
Finally, the Ika tribe puts the pieces back together after its first tribal council. Tori feels sad, not because she had to reject someone, but because she is jealous that Zach can eat and sleep in a comfortable bed. Tori is definitely the most likely of this cast to shoot an Angelina and asking for someone’s jacket after rejecting it. However, if Rocksroy is successful, Tori will leave next. But that doesn’t really sit well with Drea, who would prefer an all-girl alliance with Tori and Swati. She even tells them about the extra vote she got in the last episode. Like I said, loose lips! Unfortunately for Drea, her plan backfires because as soon as she leaves, Swati offers Tori to vote against Drea next. Swati recognizes that Drea has sway and influence, and now an extra vote on top of that? It’s too much power and it needs to be dealt with. Tori agrees and is no doubt already boiling over which pillows Drea might soon be laying her head on.
• Just in case you thought the episode was getting a little too deep and emotional, here’s the classic blindfolded health and safety hazard challenge. You know that one – one person calls out directions as their blind tribemates rush headlong into obstacles. There were some funny moments here – Jonathan shouting so loud he sounded like the leader of a death metal band, Lydia shouting, “You two bitches get back here! and Daniel’s secondary comment: “You have to protect the bullets, Rocksroy.”
• While Omar talks about his religion, he admits that he has never tasted alcohol or had sexual relations. It is very good. But later, completely disconnected from religious chatter, he admits never having peed while standing up until the age of 22. Too far, Omar!
• Like Zach last week, Marya uses her Shot in the Dark, but it goes back to Not Safe. Despite her early release, I hope she got the sense of closure she was looking for there on the island. Also, it was a good idea for CBS to post a message thanking healthcare workers at the end of the episode.