Now that was a triumph of reality television storytelling.
Survivor was tasked with an almost impossible feat very early in this game: Create a compelling narrative from a story with an inevitable ending. Once Matsing started down its path of impending doom, it was fairly obvious nothing was going to stop its slow and steady march toward tribal death. Instead of twiddling its story thumbs and sticking to the typical script, Survivor instead turned its normal editing style on its head. The result was one of the most visually striking and purely enjoyable episodes of the show in quite a while.
By embracing Matsing’s miserable fate and centering the entire episode’s story around the tribe's desperate effort to simply hold on one more day, the show was able to build an emotional connection to the immunity challenge that is rarely ever—if at all—possible. This wasn’t Survivor as we know it; it was Survivor as horror story, with Matsing as its unwitting stars. This desperation is palpable in every bit of the show leading up to the immunity challenge, with the lingering shots of rain over plaintive music and increasingly morose Matsing sound bites creating an all-or-nothing attitude that inform the challenge in the best way.
It helps that the immunity challenge is finally a bit of a break from the obstacle course/puzzle combinations we’ve been seeing the entire season. Instead, it features brute strength, combined with an obstacle course, combined with a bit of aiming skill at the end, removing most of the brains from the competition and challenging the tribes on pure force. Even though Matsing is forced to use Denise when both other tribes can sit out all of their female members, Matsing takes an early lead in the challenge and appears to be on its way to actually winning. But as Jeff Probst’s screams get more and more insistent, slowly, the other tribes catch up, until everything around Matsing starts to come undone, and it comes down to Matsing versus Kalabaw, with the tribe's life on the line. In an absolutely gorgeous sequence, the show milks every drop of tension out of the moment, employing swelling music, slow motion, and an epically heartbreaking shot of Kalabaw snatching victory right in front of Matsing’s eyes. It’s simultaneously exciting and tragic in a way I almost forgot Survivor could even be.
The beauty of this episode is that the heartbreak doesn’t end there: the show rolls right along with the tide of Matsing, embracing this crushing defeat and slowing down its pace to match the tribal mood. The episode even finds time for a strange little Russell and Denise conversation, a slow sojourn into Russell’s childhood psyche. This conversation is great because it fits perfectly with the mood, but also because the way Denise gets Russell to open up to her and then slyly shifts into game mode is a great indicator of her as a player and how potentially great she could be at this game if given a chance. Between her and Malcolm, Matsing at least has some great personalities to make up for its horrible challenge skills.
The episode cleverly comes to a head by emphasizing just how strange this elimination will be, with only two people left in Matsing afterward and so much power available to each one of them at this moment. Even though it seems obvious that Malcolm and Denise will stick together and vote Russell out, to the show’s credit it manages to present the vote in a way where it almost seems like the precise thing you are expecting just might not happen. Even Tribal is a lighthearted round robin of an affair, with everyone just telling Probst why everyone else should be voted out, in the most jovial way possible. After being in the trenches together these past few days, Malcolm, Denise, and Russell almost rise above this misery at Tribal and simply talk about the game with no other agenda. It’s a fun ride to go on with them.
In the end, Malcolm and Denise stick together and vote Russell out, and Matsing is now down to two. How much longer the show will let the tribe go on like this is anyone’s guess—I figured it would merge this week with only three left—but if being put into narrative corners like this inspires great episodes like this one, I say keep that tribe together until it dissolves into dust.
- Tandang is still dealing with Abi’s insanity, but this time, Pete is using it to his advantage to drive a permanent wedge between her and RC by planting the immunity idol clue in RC’s bag where Abi can find it. Evil, yet awesome.
- Kalabaw is turning into a boys vs. girls club, with Jeff, Jonathan, and Carter (who?) deciding to work together. Dawson—who is turning out to be a really savvy player—realizes what’s happening and puts together a tentative female alliance in retaliation.
- I’m pretty sure tonight was the first time the third female in the Kalabaw tribe spoke, and I still don’t know her name. There’s Dawson, Dana, and that girl. You know. The other one.
- Malcolm, on Russell: “He’s met my low expectations the entire time through.”