This post is filled with spoilers for Wednesday’s episode of Survivor.
Host Jeff Probst probably says “for the first time in Survivor history!” at least three times per Survivor season. But even given that, Wednesday night’s tribal council felt exciting: two tribes, Nuku and Mana, went to tribal council to vote one person out. Without any prior cross-tribe deliberations.
This was thrilling TV. Survivor is at its best when a tribal council becomes a “live tribal” — when players start whispering and any plans made back on the beach (or in this unique case, beaches) are suddenly up in the air. And when J.T. Thomas walked over to Brad Culpepper, a member of the other tribe, to tell him who his tribe was voting for …
The immunity challenge came somewhere around the 34-minute mark of “The Tables Have Turned,” and this tribal lasted 11 minutes. The sheer length of TV time the producers needed to unfold this moment should say everything about how fun and dramatic it was. The Nuku tribe — six of the 11 players voting Wednesday night — didn’t even know a hidden immunity idol was in play! Who could possibly be going home? I think I held my breath through the whole thing.
Nuku put all six of its votes on Sierra Dawn Thomas, but Tai Trang saved her with an idol before the votes were read out. In a cruel turn of events, Malcolm Freberg saw his torch snuffed. A player getting idoled out like this is always bittersweet — it’s great drama, but it also stings for whoever goes home, despite being in the majority. Malcolm’s exit was the cruelest I’ve ever seen in the game. Not only did he have the votes, but he didn’t even have a fair shot at bargaining with the five players who cast him out. I don’t think a player has ever been more screwed than Malcolm was.
The episode was great because of how it undermined what Survivor is built around. The tension at the heart of the show is how contestants go about getting tribe mates to vote their way — or at least, to not vote against them. How do you make connections without putting yourself in a too-visible position of power? How do you vote off the players you need to without making enemies? And in the pre-merge game, how do you vote out threats without making your tribe so weak as to lose all the challenges? All of this creates a complicated web of strategic and social gameplay that is interesting, on its own, every season.
But Malcolm didn’t get a chance play the game. He couldn’t make a case to the players who cast him out. When contestants are voted off, Jeff leaves them with his parting words, “The tribe has spoken.” But Malcolm’s tribe didn’t speak! Every single one of them voted with him! Some other tribe, one that he didn’t get to play with or bargain with, “spoke.” That’s the real Survivor first in this episode — and it’s a bad one. (By the way — this would all hold true even without Tai’s idol play. If Sierra had gone home it would still have been the result of another tribe, not her own.)
If the Nuku tribe goes to tribal council alone, I don’t think Malcolm is voted off. He was too good at challenges and too well-liked to be ousted this early. Same for the Mana tribe; I don’t see those players putting the votes on Sierra right now, either. It’s hard to say that this vote was reflective of Sierra or Malcolm’s strategic, social, or physical gameplay. And isn’t that what Survivor is supposed to be about?
Instead, you had two completely isolated groups of people who each took a shot in the dark. Except one had an idol, used it correctly, and won. I hope we don’t see something like it again.
There’s an argument to be made that CBS needed to introduce some chaos to keep all these veteran players on their toes, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the foundation of Survivor’s gameplay. It’s just not a satisfying way to watch someone go home.
If you’re looking for a villain (outside of the producers) to blame for Malcolm’s ousting, look no further than J.T. He told Brad where the votes were going, which allowed Tai to put his idol on the correct player. I’m guessing J.T. thought that the Mana tribe was putting its votes on Sandra Diaz-Twine, since he was buddies with Malcolm and likely didn’t want him to go home. Oops! Sorry, J.T. You did this to yourself.
A lot of people enjoyed the episode. I did too, but only as it was happening! What it comes down to is this: Do you see Survivor as a reality TV drama or as America’s best pseudo-sport? Is it about shocking twists or gameplay that tests the tenuous balance of relationship-building with calculated strategy? If you prefer the drama, this episode was a blast. But I can’t help but be frustrated with the way that twist undermined the gameplay that has made the series so great for 34 seasons. I hope it’s a Survivor first and last.