The merge is supposed to fix a weak season of Survivor. No matter how uneven the teams might be, or how the team dynamics have grown stale week-over-week, the merge creates a new dynamic and the possibility of something truly eventful happening even in an up-to-that-point uneventful season.
As Carrie’s reviews—I’m filling in, she’ll be back next week—have outlined to date, San Juan Del Sur is a weak season of Survivor, and you could sense the producers desperate to get to a merge, which is why Julie’s decision last week was even more frustrating than usual. I legitimately felt bad for the producers, in truth: it was the worst possible time for someone to quit the game, and was yet more evidence in support of this season being among the weakest in recent years. Even if we argue that a weak season begins with a weak cast, which was entirely in their control, there’s undoubtedly been some bad luck along the way: a tenth couple was pulled from the game before it began for medical reason, for example, which kept them from holding last week’s tribal council after Julie chose to quit (as it would have depleted the numbers too quickly).
That being said, “Wrinkle In The Plan” ends up getting a fairly distinct Survivor scenario out of Julie’s decision, which is growing less and less common 29 seasons in. Last week, Jon and Jaclyn had made their decision, choosing to align with Josh and vote out Jeremy—it was a major decision, less of a blind side so much as a clear line in the sand regarding the dominant alliances in the game. But when you suddenly have three more days where you need to continue playing both sides, and where challenges and rewards and exiles will threaten the certainty that they had before Julie ended everything, it creates the potential for people to make mistakes and upend the decision that had been made beforehand.
It becomes one of the more satisfying contained narratives of the season, with the certainty of Jeremy’s exit picked away bit by bit as the episode goes on. The producers’ way to try to save the game comes in the form of the least hidden immunity idol imaginable, which Jon finds behind a clearly producer-placed rock on Exile Island. Idols have often been used as a way to keep a season lively, but they don’t make much of a difference when it’s the person who finds it is in the driver’s seat. Jon getting an immunity idol could pay off later on, but here it’s a sad bit of manipulation that shows the producers scrambling to create drama.
Thankfully, for them and the season, the players themselves were willing to step up to the plate to create some tension. Although the reward challenge—a giant temple puzzle preceded by pushing the heavy pieces on a cart—does not result in intense strategy sessions among the winners on their Taco Bar reward, it gives the editors the chance to establish Wes’ gluttony. It seems like a frivolous little sidebar at first, complete with obnoxious “#TacoOverload” hashtag, but it becomes a pivotal moment in the behavior of Josh’s alliance at this stage in the game. Never before has flatulence been so central to an episode of Survivor, to the point where I almost wonder if they specifically designed this reward to maximize gastronomical distress having heard the complaints around camp over the previous three weeks.
What unfolds after the reward challenge is nothing strange for Survivor, but it’s a welcome series of events for the season. Josh pushes a little too hard on Baylor while Reed is gone on the reward, claiming she owes him a vote for having saved her previously. She’s unconvinced, but she’s also much more motivated to see him eliminated, which makes the whole exercise more about Josh feeding his indignation than any sort of strategy. It’s a silly decision that’s then multiplied by the testosterone-fueled culture around camp created by Alec and Wes. This isn’t new behavior: Baylor expresses frustration with Alec’s treatment of her throughout the game, and there’s no sense that Wes or Alec has become necessarily more obnoxious than they were when the game began. However, the problem is that the stakes of the game have increased, and their behavior has a better chance of rubbing someone the wrong way.
The casual chauvinism of Wes and Alec is reflective of their age, and reflective of the way their alliance has self-selected as all-male—they became so comfortable in their homosocial bonding that they failed to put together that they risk disrespecting one of the two votes—Jaclyn’s—they need in order to get through the next vote. The editors couldn’t have scripted a better moment than Alec yelling “Yo, girls, keep the fire going” and then audibly telling Wes that “Natalie will do it, I don’t know if they will. “ We then cross-cut between two very different conversations: the first is Jaclyn telling Baylor and Natalie that she will never vote with people who are so intensely disrespectful to her, and the second is Alec reassuring his alliance that—and I quote—“Jon’s riding with the boys, I’m telling you.”
The show often uses gender as a way to bring tension to the surface in editing, but it’s rare that it manifests so aggressively in a situation where the alliances have never actually self-identified as male or female alliances. Those are less common in a “Blood vs. Water” structure of gameplay, where gendered alliances after a tribe swap or a merge can never be absolute provided there are any mixed-gender pairs remaining in the game (unless someone backstabs their loved one, which would be awesome). And it’s possible it wouldn’t have emerged in such a big way if Jeremy hadn’t won the memory block immunity challenge in a final showdown with Josh. When Jon returns from Exile Island, he returns to an environment where the target has shifted from “sympathetic to a jury,” physically strong Jeremy to lazy, “annoying” Baylor—aligning with Josh’s alliance at this stage would mean aligning with the culture of misogyny that led to Jaclyn being completely ignored in his absence.
It’s a successful editing job in that it makes tribal council about more than the game itself, which has done very little to create the momentum or storytelling necessary to make this engaging in its own right. Jon and Jaclyn were placed in the middle of not only two alliances, but also in the middle of what became framed as a moral quandary. If Jon and Jaclyn go with Jeremy, Natalie, Missy, and Baylor, they’re taking a stand against the way the alliance has treated Jaclyn and the women around camp; if Jon convinces Jaclyn to ignore her concerns and vote with Josh, Reed, Keith, Wes, and Alec, then it’s further reinforcing the patriarchal tribe structure as Jon ignores his girlfriend’s perspective and “forces” her to do otherwise. The way tribal unfolds supports this, with the editors highlighting Missy and Keith’s fight over camp decorum and making this the Fart Vote to end all Fart Votes.
It wasn’t really the fart vote, of course—I loved the editors’ choice of cutting Keith spitting in right before the votes, and it’s hard not to see the selection of Alec’s repugnant “Sorry, you can’t handle hanging out with the big boys” callout of Baylor during the voting section as part of this narrative, but this was ultimately a vote that got decided by the sheer unpredictability of human beings playing the game of Survivor. You can talk strategy all you want, but there’s a point where who you are and how you treat people becomes your life or death on the island. In his exit interview, the eliminated Josh says as much, lamenting that he let people see too much of himself and paid the price.
Jon attempts to claim during a talking head that Jaclyn is wrong for playing the game with her emotions, and he’s not entirely wrong; however, there’s a point at which you need to embrace Survivor as an emotional game. It’s only after you do so that you can learn to harness and unleash emotions strategically, which is how you win the game of Survivor instead of sitting on the sidelines wondering how your foolproof strategy got undone by not saying “excuse me” around the campfire.
It’s an entertaining and dynamic episode, which upends the status quo established before Julie’s exit and at least offers the promise of change moving forward. The preview for next week is even more explicit, doing everything it can to suggest chaos where systemic picking off of minority alliance partners is more likely. “Wrinkle In The Plan” successfully taps into external stakes to create a satisfying episodic narrative, but it’s unlikely to do much to keep us engaged in the struggles of players that aren’t interesting enough to have stakes of their own.
- The biggest problem this season is that we have no narrator. There should be someone complaining about how short-sighted so many of these people are being, and someone who has an eye for strategy, but it just seems like that person never materialized. I’ve got reason to be hopeful we’re getting a better narrator next season, but it’s limited the degree to which the editors can make boring gameplay work in their favor.
- Any bets on whether Jon actually found the “hidden” immunity idol immediately but then pretended to look in impractical locations for the cameras to keep it from seeming such an obvious plant?
- “He’s thinking really far ahead, which is stupid”—Jaclyn, I sort of understand where you’re coming from here, and agree that Jon is maybe a bit ahead of himself. However, taken out of context, this is an unintelligent thing to say in the game of Survivor.
- If Survivor is going to use hashtags, they need to avoid using entirely upper-case letters with hashtags where the first word ends with the first letter of the second word. #TACOOVERLOAD looks weird—#TacoOverload looks normal. I acknowledge this is an absurd point of contention but I feel very strongly about hashtag procedure. It’s all I have.
- “They’re not at the Hilton”—there’s undoubtedly an undercurrent of class in Keith and Missy’s argument in addition to a gender component, so I found his choice of Hilton here telling. I wonder if we could break down class or regional distinctions based on what hotel chain/hotel name they would use to indicate the primitive environment in which they’re living.
- “I haven’t heard Wesley fart lately, or spit”—I’m with Keith that farting is a normal bodily function, but I am not convinced that his personal testimony was going to win Missy over on this one. Although I’m not a parent, so maybe parents keep careful note of their adult children’s farts.
- “Perception is reality to the perceiver”—Jeff Probst, this is a nonsense phrase and you know it’s a nonsense phrase.
- I will admit the editing had me fooled—not only did they show Jon looking totally unengaged by Missy’s discussion about Keith admitting their were voting Baylor, but I could’ve sworn Jon’s pen position before they cut away was more likely to create a B than a J. We all obsessively check pen position, right? Right?
- Carrie will be back next week, and if she found the hidden immunity idol while on Exile I’m NEVER going to be able to blindside her.