Is it me, or is the fightin'-est season of Survivor yet? For the second straight week, the reward challenge involved the sweaty, grubby, underwear-clad contestants grabbing on to any exposed flesh they could find and whipping their opponents around–in this case off a pier and into the water. Zhan Hu's self-appointed leader Dave decided to take the challenge one step further by stripping down to his bare ass to fight Viggo-style, which prompted a classic piece of Jeff Probst halting play-by-play: "Dave crouching down like a cat this is odd." But as often happens on Survivor, a physical challenge developed into a mental one: first as the contestants worked out strategy on the fly, trying to decide when and who to charge, and later when they got back to their camps, and realized what the challenge had revealed about their respective tribes' strengths and weaknesses.
So here was the dilemma kicked around by Fei Long this week after the tribe lost both the reward and immunity challenges: Should the tribe's core alliance vote out one of the weaker players, Leslie or Courtney, who were largely responsible for the blown challenges, or should they target one of the stronger players, James or Jean-Robert, who have proved annoying around the camp and will likely be dangerous in the weeks to come? I have to confess, it's this kind of careful calculation that makes watching Survivor so fascinating to me–much more so than the personality clashes between passive-aggressive creeps from different parts of the country.
Although Survivor: China has plenty of that going on as well. I missed seasons 3 through 12 of the show, so maybe I'm off-base about this, but of the five seasons I've watched, Season 15 so far has come closest to what Mark Burnett and company stated as Survivor's original intention: to observe how humans form societies in unusual circumstances. This year seems less about strategic alliances and food-gathering and more about day-to-day living. For example, there's been a lot about Dave's inability to listen to anyone's advice without getting defensive, and his tribe's inability to perform simple tasks without talking about it at length (and debating whether it will interfere with their need to "conserve energy for the challenges" which is now going to become my go-to lazy-man's excuse when my wife asks me to clean the kitchen).
Meanwhile, back at Fei Long, gravedigger James catches a crab in one of his traps, and the tribe twists itself into knots trying to figure out what to do with it. James wants to cut it up and boil it for stock, so that everyone can have some with their rice. Aaron thinks that's pointless, because it'll be stretched too thin, so someone else suggests that since James caught the crab, he should get to eat it. But Aaron doesn't like that either, because it's not fair. If there's a recurring theme this season, dating back to the elimination of "Chicken" on episode one, it's contestants who criticize the choices being made without making any helpful suggestions of their own. It's like watching a presidential debate.
Also at Fei Long, Jean-Robert fails to understand why his female tribesmates wouldn't want his half-naked self to hug them in the middle of the night, while Leslie proves her lack of social skills by publicly complaining that her tribe makes her uncomfortable "as a Christian." (Which prompts James' chuckly warning about Leslie, that "people who pray the most sin the most.") Leslie, who gets kidnapped by Zhan Hu after the reward challenge, is convinced that Zhan Hu is a superior tribe because they have three Christians, and they don't roll their eyes at her declarations of faith. But of course she's not around Zhan Hu on the days when Dave is bossing everyone around and suffering their withering, hate-filled glares. (Not much forgiving going on then.)
Because Leslie raves about Zhan Hu to her Fei Long tribemates, they decide to eliminate her at tribal council, lest she form an unbreakable alliance with the other Jesus Freaks after the merge. But the decision to cut Leslie doesn't come easy, since diminutive gay Mormon string-puller Todd still wants Jean-Robert gone (because he's physically strong and personally obnoxious), and Jean-Robert makes a strong case for stick-like New York brat Courtney, whose inability to swing a machete hard enough to cut a rope costs Fei Long the immunity challenge. (In a half-boast, half-complaint, Courtney eschews Jean-Robert's "let's huddle for warmth" advances at night by saying, "I weigh seven pounds, I can't keep myself warm.")
But instead it's Leslie who hears the call, as to the last the woman derisively nicknamed "Sister Christian" by her tribemates lives down to the worst stereotypes about evangelicals, from the way she awkwardly shoehorns her faith into every public declaration to the way she proudly carries around a massive persecution complex. As the great theologian Dolly Parton once said, "Get off the cross, honey. Somebody needs the wood."
-The Asian-accented soundtrack cues continue apace, but this week added a new stylistic nod to this season's surroundings: Hong-Kong-action-movie-style freeze-frames! Hiiiiii-yah!