At the beginning of every Survivor finale, Jeff Probst offers a narrative of the season thus far. It ostensibly serves the purpose of filling in gaps for those who either missed episodes or have forgotten what transpired, but it’s also a way for the producers to articulate the stories and characterizations that have been dominant this season.
Probst’s voiceover was selling me a narrative of Blood vs. Water the most interpersonally complex Survivor ever, suggesting—for instance—that Ciera’s decision to vote out her mother was the toughest thing anyone has ever had to do in the game of Survivor. And while I would ultimately argue the “loved ones” twist has been a nice change of pace this season, the best thing that happened in Blood vs. Water was when it stopped feeling like it was about the gimmick. The opening spends a lot of time on the early days of Rupert stepping in for Laura, John not stepping in for Candice, Colton’s dramatic exit from the game, and Brad’s dramatic Redemption Duel showdowns, but for me the game became far more interesting when its interpersonal dynamics were more subtle, and when the game had developed its own history versus being caught up in the game’s larger past. The season became compelling not because of its conceit, but because the people they chose to bring back within the conceit made compelling choices and gave the editors strong stories to work with.
Unfortunately, despite those strong stories along the way, it’s not the strongest final collection of players the game has seen, given that Tyson has singlehandedly been running the game. His dominant alliance with Monica and Gervase made the outcomes of the episode predictable: It didn’t matter who came back from Redemption Island (it was Tina), and it didn’t matter who won the first immunity challenge (it was Tyson), because in the end either Ciera or the person who came back from Redemption Island was going to go home first. While the previous two tribal councils were fiery and emotional, the results took a lot of suspense out of the game, and created a tribal council where Monica really only had one choice. With a jury dominated by players who Monica helped vote out with her alliance and who would vote for either Tina or Ciera over her in the end, Monica was always posturing in the hopes that she would be the more sympathetic option when she sat next to Tyson and Gervase. As it turns out, the first tribal become doubly redundant when Gervase played a hidden immunity idol and rendered moot the two votes he received to Ciera’s three.
The editors try to create aftershocks from Tyson’s panic move of giving Gervase his idol—which Monica rightly points out indicates they were uncertain regarding her loyalty (and which Tyson had offered her as a token of his loyalty). But the moment Tina fails to win immunity, there’s no universe in which anyone would risk bringing her along to a jury sympathetic to her and bitter about the other two players. Rather, the penultimate tribal council becomes a sort of preview of the final tribal council, in which Monica and Gervase are both working to make the jury believe they’re more than just the people Tyson aligned with early on. It becomes a battle between the two of them for the jury’s sympathy, with producers planting the seed of Monica wanting to make a big move and force Gervase and Tina to make fire to say that she made a big move in front of the jury. However, even with Gervase taking offense to Monica’s physical hindrance during the challenge, such a move would never make sense, given the governing logic of who you want to be with in the end.
By the time the game reaches its certain conclusion of the alliance of three as the final three, there’s a strange detachment to the task at hand. I don’t think anything Tyson, Gervase and Monica did was particularly villainous, as they simply played a smart game and weathered the challenges against them (even drawing rocks in the process). I went into tribal believing Tyson most deserved to win, but did I really care? Would I really mind if Gervase smiled his way into a victory by being the less devious right-hand to the real mastermind? Would Monica asserting her independence from her husband be that undeserving a Survivor narrative? And were there really any jury members whose opinions could change my feelings on this issue, or who had anything substantial to contribute?
Shrug. That’s where I landed on Survivor: Blood vs. Water’s conclusion in the end, a game that had a bunch of good moves and a collection of solid players but came to a dull conclusion. Laura going after Monica for lacking an identity and pushing on her insecurities is dramatic, but it’s also inert, as it doesn’t contribute to any sort of meaningful characterization: The idea seems to be that the jury thought Monica to be cold and unfriendly, but that narrative felt pulled out of thin air, as though the editors realized as they were editing the finale that they had forgotten to give either Monica or Gervase clear narratives in the game. The absence of those narratives made sense when Tyson walked away with a blowout 7-1 victory, with only Vytas—who swore to Tyson he would never vote for him if Tyson voted him out—throwing a vote in Monica’s direction after Tyson’s sharp gameplay was combined with a sympathetic narrative of playing for his eliminated girlfriend Rachel.
In the end, Survivor: Blood vs. Water struck me as Survivor getting lucky. With both Rupert and Colton—poxes on any game of Survivor they play—going out early, and with the cult of Brad Culpepper being removed from the game right about the point at which he was becoming an annoying presence (or rather the point at which Probst’s obsession with the man became unbearable), the game settled into a nice rhythm of people who seemed to understand the game and who played it well. None of the casting was mind-blowingly great, and none of the challenges or gameplay structures were all that exciting, but the loved-ones dynamic was enough to make this feel, if not brilliant, than at least distinct. The reunion basically confirms this, stringing together a collection of engaging characters and stories that reaffirm why Survivor works without making the claim that it worked remarkably well in this case. Going into this season, there were concerns about this twist being a sign the show was going too far in an attempt to keep things fresh. Those fears would seem to be unfounded—and as the show looks to be moving away fro open casting calls, a repeat of this twist is unlikely. But even if the finale was disappointing, Survivor: Blood vs. Water was a solid season of a consistently solid show, even in its 27th season.
- The first immunity challenge with the blocks was an interesting one, although it became pretty uncompetitive. I wonder if there was more back-and-forth that was edited out, or whether it was really that straightforward.
- The second immunity challenge was your classic two-stage Survivor puzzle challenge, with a third stage wherein the puzzle is a clue to a combination lock. I will say that the various different obstacles were fun, or maybe I just like the idea of pulling myself along a rope in a bathtub.
- Interesting that they eschewed the In Memoriam Walk in favor of more strategy time. I imagine this was to try to create some semblance of a narrative for Monica and Gervase (who would have otherwise been non-entities), although I wonder if we’re living in an age where CBS could make it available as bonus footage online?
- The smile on Tina’s face as she goes through the second immunity challenge is really charming—she’s a fun player to watch play the game, and although she was never competitive after her return into the game I still liked her presence in those final challenges.
- I would challenge anyone to be snarky with Katie and Tina’s earnest, heartfelt appreciation to their Survivor family after the death of their brother and son Taylor, respectively—they were both remarkably composed, and the show did a nice job being respectful of their situation.
- It was a fairly dull reunion overall, but Cochran’s pre-produced skit with Will Arnett based on his time working on The Millers was a nice bit. Could have used a fart joke, though.
- I skipped through the parts of the reunion episode focused on Rupert and Colton. I have no regrets.
- Next season is Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty, which sounds... sigh.