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Survivor: “Survivor Russian Roulette”

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At this point it’s hard to even know what to say about this season of Survivor, other than it continues to be deeply, deeply unsatisfying to watch. Any hope that last week’s awfulness would be left in the past was dashed almost immediately upon Dan’s arrival onscreen, and the general unpleasantness lasted pretty much throughout the entire hour. The only thing that could really save this mess at this point is the rise of smart, fun, strategic gameplay from someone—anyone—but the more the game progresses, the less and less likely this scenario seems to be. This is a long, slow march toward something, but what that something will ultimately turn out to be is still unclear.

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What is clear is that the non-shocking result of this episode’s vote is perhaps the perfect analogy for this season: a generally unpleasant situation that seems like it might be promising, then ultimately turns out to be a crushing disappointment. At this point in the game it is basically Shirin and Mike versus one of the least interesting, strategically anemic final six alliances we’ve seen in quite a while, with no one really looking that far toward the end of the game except the two on the outside looking in. It’s clear now that the defining moment of this game so far was when Dan and Sierra were lured into joining an alliance with Rodney and his final four, but what’s frustrating is how the editing of that storyline over the course of the season has been a complete failure, leading to the actual culmination treated like an afterthought, like it was something we were somehow obviously supposed to know all along.

Just two episodes ago, it seemed like Mike was clearly in charge of his relationship between Sierra and Dan, with Rodney’s boastful claims of being in control of the game with a secret alliance appearing to be more about his ego than anything else. But no—Rodney was correct, and all it took for him to cement his status as the leader with Mike as the outsider was for Mike to actually realize what was happening and call him out on it in front of everyone. In a strange combination of Rodney’s overconfidence, Mike’s bad timing, and Dan and Sierra’s complete inability to see that Mike was right, the situation actually turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. If one thing about the dynamic is clarified in this episode, it’s that although Rodney thinks he is in charge of his alliance, Tyler is doing a lot more of the actual strategizing and gameplay. It’s Tyler who gets the camp scenes talking strategy with other players. It’s Tyler who realizes Dan has an advantage and steals Dan’s bag to find out what it is. Tyler is the closest thing that alliance has to brains, and that makes him a target. Or at least it should.

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Once Mike wins immunity and leaves Shirin as the only vulnerable player, the narrative that Tyler is the true threat finally starts to surface, with both Shirin and Mike working on Sierra and Dan in an attempt to get them back on their side. Moments like these are frustrating because everything Shirin and Mike are saying is completely true—Sierra and Dan are on the bottom of their alliance of six—but it’s both impossible to prove and impossible for Sierra and Dan to believe. Part of this is because both of them are still stuck in the narrative Tyler and Rodney have so carefully created that Mike “flipped” on their alliance, and the other part is that Sierra and Dan are genuinely not very good at playing Survivor. It’s not even like Sierra and Dan flipping would be definitively good for them at this point, but their lack of thinking beyond the next vote is definitely hard to watch (and something Tyler notes that he plans on capitalizing on for as long as they are in his alliance).

Essentially, the whole episode is leading toward Shirin going home, and that is exactly what happens. Before that can happen, though, Mike at least attempts to do something interesting when he pulls out his hidden idol and threatens to use it on Shirin so the alliance of six is forced to cannibalize itself. His ploy is obviously a ploy and it doesn’t work—Shirin goes home in an easy vote—but it does cause two people in the alliance to switch their votes to Dan and promises some (probably small, probably meaningless) fireworks in the next episode. Because that’s really all this season has been: A lot of random, frustrating hullaballoo that ultimately leads to nothing. But hey, at least Mike tried.

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If there’s one bright side for Shirin in going to the jury, it’s that she’ll actually get to hang out with people who aren’t sneering, misogynist idiots (at least until Dan and Will inevitably end up there). Will is more overtly awful to her, but the show does a great job here pointing out all of the ways that Dan is just as sinister a presence. The difference between Dan and Will is that Dan doesn’t think there’s anything antagonistic or problematic about the things he says, especially when he doesn’t say them directly to Shirin’s face. Take the very telling moment where he uses a confessional to make the point that Will did horrible things, but they were horrible things that were probably all completely and factually correct, so they weren’t all that bad. For him to hear the Tribal Council interaction between Shirin and Will and have the takeaway be that Shirin is “hypocrite,” “drama queen,” with “no gratitude or appreciation,” well, that tells you everything you probably need to know about Dan. Luckily he doesn’t limit his horrible comments to a confessional and lets the jury hear that he considers his childhood growing up with adoptive parents to be equivalent to dealing with domestic violence. Tell us more about your horrible life, Dan. No, wait: Actually, shut the hell up.

Stray observations:

  • Tyler stealing Dan’s bag: Good play or dirty play? Dan is dumb for leaving that lying around.
  • Shirin’s comment about having a Pavlovian reaction to men yelling at her is one of the most sympathetic, heartbreaking confessionals I’ve ever seen on this show. Damn.
  • Everyone being so sure Shirin would get no jury votes was fascinating. Who do they think will get jury votes, other than Tyler or Mike?
  • “So you had domestic violence in your upbringing?” Sometimes I love you, Jeff Probst.
  • Speaking of loving Probst, his obvious attempt to call out Dan’s disingenuous concern that Rodney hadn’t had a reward yet was pretty stellar as well. I wish Rodney wouldn’t have let Dan off the hook so easily, because it was fun to watch him squirm.
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