CBS

After episode upon episode of boring status quo punctuated by horrible personalities, we’re finally starting to see what can happen with this cast when people play like they have something to lose. Mike’s monster immunity dominance has created something more than a weird inverse underdog narrative: It’s finally forced game’s boring main alliance to shake things up and do some strategic thinking for once. The result in this episode is a great blend of an exciting challenge, some satisfying strategic maneuvering, and the emergence of Mike as a sabotaging agent of chaos, which comes together for the best episode of the season so far.

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From the episode’s outset, it has a strategic energy other episodes this season lacked, even if that energy was “Mike needs to go at all costs.” Everyone spends so much time worrying about Mike that they forget to actually worry about themselves, which comes back to haunt them when Mike inevitably does win and now they must scramble to figure out what they are going to do. The glorious part of this whole thing is that Mike and Carolyn going on a reward challenge together (I’m not including Will in this, because Will is useless) ends up affecting the ending in two ways: It gives Rodney, Dan, and Sierra time to get resentful and plot against her while she’s gone, and it gives her just enough time with Mike to put a wedge in what she thought was a solid relationship with her core alliance.

Where I think this season is going to redeem itself—at least for a little while—is that Mike has a strategic streak and a willingness to use that streak to mess with other people’s games. When Mike heard they were going to vote Dan (which was a lie, as Carolyn was the true target) he could have sat back, voted Dan, and watched Carolyn go home. Instead, he takes this opening and runs with it, going to Dan and telling him his alliance is working against him, then to both Carolyn and Sierra and trying to turn them against Dan. It’s essentially the sort of last-ditch chaos move people who have no alliance try to pull when they are fighting for their life in the game. The only difference here is that Mike is choosing to do it at a time when he can’t be voted out, and he seems to partly be doing it because he thinks it is fun. Basically, Mike knows he has nothing to lose so he’ll try anything. While he ultimately doesn’t get anyone to change their votes, he seems to get in their heads enough to affect the final outcome at Tribal Council.

Another reason the episode was so great is how the story built its narrative to the Immunity Challenge, and then carried that narrative throughout the challenge to make it one of the better edited challenges the show has done in quite a while. For something that ended with people essentially standing still, the editors built the suspense of Mike’s win masterfully, giving it an almost cathartic feeling of relief when his ball finally fell into the winning slot. Survivor loves to tell an underdog narrative—even (or perhaps especially) when that underdog is a strong, white, male, challenge beast—and that love shows here.

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The real star of this episode, though, was the Tribal Council and ultimately the final vote. Tribal was a pretty normal affair, with Jeff focusing on trust and getting rather rote answers in return. (Well, except for Rodney’s extended mental breakdown about being too fatigued to even think straight. Get that kid some protein.) Where things picked up was after the vote, when Dan decided to use his advantage to place an extra vote, then Carolyn decides to use her immunity idol and effectively immediately wipes out Dan’s advantage and prevents herself from being voted out. It’s an incredibly exciting sequence of events, all seemingly influenced by Mike’s strategic scrambling earlier in the episode. Mike may not make it to the end, but this episode definitely makes him this season’s MVP.

Stray observations:

  • At this point Carolyn and Mike are the only two people who feel like legitimate, worthy winners of this game. I’d be interested to have them in the final two to see how people vote.
  • Was that the most ridiculous reward challenge of all time? Granted “A Reward With All The Fixin’s” is a horrible puzzle phrase, but the level to which these people couldn’t get it despite Jeff’s incessant clue-dropping was pathetic.
  • Also pathetic: Rodney’s continued reward begging, and Jeff’s continued encouragement of that begging. Sure, Jeff is doing it as a way to prolong this incredible story of Rodney’s reward failure, but it’s still hard to watch. Carolyn refusing to give Rodney her reward was basically the best.
  • I’m still unsure what Sierra and Will are doing. Where do they see themselves in the alliance pecking order?
  • Dan says he wanted to come on Survivor and be remembered. I wonder if he’ll enjoy his legacy.
  • “A Reward That Will Fix Wishin’.” That is a thing Rodney said.
  • Mike: “Please do not let Rodney beat me in this game.”
  • Dan: “I suck at life.”

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