In one of the best moments of the otherwise weak-ass previous season of Survivor, Jeff Probst ordered a randomly drawn group of contestants to go to tribal council immediately, with no time for consultation. The unexpected move busted up a strong alliance, and turned a fairly dull game on its ear. Because while alliances are what Survivor is all about, in some ways they spoil the show's drama. (And as Sherea said tonight: "I want some drama.") On any given week, we may not know who's going home, but we can be pretty sure of who's sticking around. So the more the Survivor producers can throw curveballs and keep the contestants from making long-term plans, the more the show becomes about those contestants living by their wits, moment-to-moment. And thus, the more unpredictable the show is.
This week was definitely interesting, and maybe one of the best episodes of Survivor in about a year. Out of the blue, the tribes were ordered to draft two players from their opposite number, with the "why" and "for how long" left unknown. The crafty gamesmen of Fei-Long immediately figured out that two of their own were bound to go as well, and not knowing the permanence of the arrangements, they started strategizing for every eventuality. Zhan-Hu, on the other hand, assumed they were being gifted with two extra players–despite having done nothing to earn it–and when they found out they were also losing two, they scrambled to figure out how to turn this to their advantage.
Their plan, as it turned out, was diabolical. Peih-Gee–who'd asserted herself as a leader back in episode one and then pulled back once she realized she was irritating people–convinced innocuous blonde Jaime to join her in throwing the immunity challenge. The goal? To eliminate one of their adopted tribemates, James or Aaron, and assure that when the merge comes, they'll have a numerical advantage (presuming the maintenance of a pre-existing alliance with their old tribemates). This crazy scheme opened up the episode in all kinds of ways:
1. Once again, we got to see how hard it is to put anything past Jeff Probst. Much like Ozzy's strategic challenge-throwing two seasons ago, Peih-Gee and Jaime's gambit didn't fool our host for one minute. (It didn't help that they were both grinning like cats throughout.) Probst chastised Zhan-Hu for their sloppiness, and couldn't disguise his disgust when sending them back to camp. If there's one thing Probst can't abide, it's survivors who overthink their strategy, rather than just playing hard and making themselves useful.
2. Since half the fun of Survivor is debating the players' moves, this Peih-Gee/Jaime Plan (or PGJP) offered a lot to pick over. For example, what happens if their old tribemates form new alliances in the days to come? After all, what really binds a tribe together if they change buffs not even halfway through the game? Will Zhan-Hu weakening their own tribe intentionally be the equivalent of Lou Pinella pulling Carlos Zambrano early from a game he was dominating, in order to keep him fresh for a Game Four that never happened?
3. The most devious part of the PGJP was that the two ladies failed to inform the only other member of their alliance, Erik The Musician (a.k.a. Erik The Virgin, following a confession he made to Jaime, his new girlfriend). Erik could've easily been irritated enough by this to have joined forces with the ultra-powerful James and Aaron. But love is stronger than justice, as some dopey old pop star once said, and so–apparently entranced by the idea of finally getting laid–Erik maintained the alliance.
After some teases to make us think James was a goner, Zhan-Hu voted out Aaron, another strong player, and a likable one to boot. Both James and Aaron were clear front-runners from day one. Now Aaron's gone and James is a sitting duck, unless the producers twist the knife again. And while losing a player as easy to root for as Aaron hurts this early in the season, at least we now have two new players to root against.
-In a clever subversion of conventional reality show grammar, this episode began with a lot of footage of Jean-Robert, as well as scenes of Jean-Robert trying to up his camp workload and act like a leader (to the annoyance of his tribemates), and also the ever-self-aware Jean-Robert realizing that the loss of James and Aaron means that, "Today is a godawful day for Jean-Robert." Despite all this, Jean-Robert was actually never in danger this week.
-Who knew that James and Denise were so chummy? Turns out it's for good reason, too. James admires Denise's work ethic, saying that she's his idea of "a strong, good woman always there to help you." But this didn't stop James from blasting Peih-Gee's lousy challenge performance by saying of Denise, "A lunch lady figured out the puzzle!"