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‘Survivor’ Has Twisted Itself Into a Pretzel

In Season 34, the show is relying a little too heavily on narrative trickery

(CBS)
(CBS)

Wednesday’s penultimate episode of Survivor was exciting, dramatic, and fun, like most episodes of Survivor. It was also utterly exhausting, and in that way a great reflection of this All-Star season — the show’s 34th — as a whole. It was a double-boot episode, with two tribal councils, so the hour was always doomed to move at a hectic pace. But the second council was so confusing that the player who went home, Michaela, didn’t so much as have her name thrown out as a possible boot all episode. It was the worst kind of Survivor deception: The blindsiding not only of a player, but of the audience. And, unfortunately, it hasn’t been the first confusing boot of the season.

Wednesday’s episode culled the remaining players from eight to six in advance of next week’s finale. The first boot, Andrea’s, was a relatively straightforward but satisfying blindside. But just try to follow along with the second boot: It seemed like Michaela wasn’t at risk until tribal council turned upside down, when Cirie tried to play a vote-steal advantage that would have allowed her to negate someone else’s vote while she herself could vote a second time. Sarah had given Cirie the advantage, but there was one caveat: It was nontransferrable, and Cirie hadn’t read the fine print. And it appears that when Sarah took the advantage back she also made the decision, right there at tribal, to flip and send Michaela packing. Michaela’s boot couldn’t have been more chaotic, which makes sense on the most chaotic season of Survivor in years.

All-Star seasons are always whirlwinds of gameplay and strategy — these are the professionals, after all — that often sacrifice some personal storytelling. But this season has been uncharacteristically hard to follow at times. The confusion began with the Tony boot in the show’s first week, which looked like a showdown between Tony and Sandra but ended confusingly when Sandra didn’t get a single vote, and has continued apace. We’ve already been over Malcolm’s tragic ouster. Now we have a final six where two players — Aubry and Troyzan — have gotten barely as much screen time as Monica Culpepper, who isn’t a contestant this year but has been mentioned multiple times and made an appearance during the coveted “loved ones” reward.

Survivor is at its best when it feels like the contestants are playing island-themed chess: when they’re methodical, but also ruthless. This season has felt like a Seven Seconds or Less Suns team, but with Russell Westbrook sprinting out of Steve Nash’s shoes. That’s exciting (really!), but makes for a muddied narrative experience.

And that’s before we even get to the twists. Because this season is called Game Changers, CBS has felt the need to spice things up. There have been, by my count, six twists: two tribe swaps, a joint tribal council, a legacy advantage that grants immunity to its holder at the final six, an extra vote advantage, and a vote-steal advantage. That’s in addition to the five idols in play (three are still in the game), the brief exile island trip Debbie went on, a rules change that sees no revote in the event of a tie (hasn’t yet come into play), an idol being hidden at a challenge, and an unwieldy merge with 13 players left. It’s a lot to handle in a 20-player, 14-episode season. It’s also largely unnecessary, as far as making great Survivor goes.

Possibly the best returnee season ever, 2009’s Heroes vs. Villains, featured exactly one twist: a double tribal council on Day 15. That season had plenty of turns, but they were ones of the players’ own making, not the production crew’s. That season had time to breathe, and the result was thrilling. This season has had its pedal bolted to the floor since the first episode, with little time for character building or personal moments.

And now we’re staring down what might be the most hectic tribal council in the show’s history. Tai has two idols and only two tribals left to play them. Sarah has her legacy advantage that she has to play at that same tribal council, and it will almost certainly grant her immunity. Someone will win the immunity necklace. Troyzan, when he sees Sarah and Tai play their immunities, will be almost forced to play his idol to protect himself. That leaves Brad, Cirie, and Aubry vulnerable, though one will have the immunity necklace.

Remember the twist that says they won’t revote in the event of a tie? There’s a decent chance that all the votes in next week’s tribal end up on players who later become immune, and the remaining two players will have to draw rocks to see who goes home. Which means we could see a scenario where Cirie, who hasn’t had a single vote cast against her all season, could leave on a tiebreaker. Does that sound like it’s in the spirit of the game? Or does it just sound exhausting? OK, it sounds fun as hell. But it would be nice if the player who goes home this week does so due to their own mistakes, not an unexpected twist.