My favorite thing about Lisa’s time on Survivor this season is how visible it makes the impact of social gameplay on the strategic portions of the game. Jonathan Penner was never a huge strategic threat, done in by his unwillingness to make a big move at a crucial point in the game, but his impact on the game was immeasurable in his shepherding of Lisa through the difficult emotions of playing Survivor. When Lisa struggled back on the old Tandang, Survivor was calling it a “#SurvivorBreakdown” as she cried on her lonesome; when she was overwhelmed post-merge, Penner patiently worked with her, a counselor in ways that aren’t evident in the midst of a challenge or at tribal council.
It was a reminder that casting is not just about characters, but also about chemistry, and the loss of Penner is a major change in the chemistry of this season. Penner’s presence was a stabilizing one. Just look at how Carter, who lost his longest ally in Jeff, just sort of casually started voting with Penner. Penner was an open book, someone players seemed comfortable with no matter whether he was on their side or the other one, a role that seems strange when you consider how quickly he was identified as a threat by Jeff Kent early in the game (although Penner has suggested that was selective editing more than anything else).
Penner’s absence is quickly filled during “Shot Into Smithereens,” though. Wasting no time to get to the Reward Challenge, Probst introduces a new stabilizing force into the game: loved ones. Suddenly, each player has their own Penner, someone they can talk to about the game without fear of being voted out over it. And when Malcolm and his brother Miles—I’m presuming he spells it this way, and not the right way—win the Reward Challenge (which involves throwing “mud bags” at sticks in a relay-style challenge common for loved ones week), he’s in charge of a decision that will temporarily alter the game’s chemistry: Two other players get to bring their loved ones back to camp. His decision is designed to maintain chemistry in his own alliance: Lisa gets more time with her brother Justice, and Skupin gets more time with his son Michael.
Although Malcolm points out his brother is a knucklehead who just turned 21 and could potentially compromise his gameplay, the subsequent visit back at camp barely features Miles at all. Instead, it focuses on the stabilizing force of Justice, who gives Lisa a V-neck to cry—like really cry—into and a level-headed person who can help convince her that she really does want to make strategic decisions that may upset her sensibilities. While Penner seemed unwilling to play a strategic game, and thus unwilling to use his power over Lisa to help pull off a big swing in the game, Justice has no such qualms. When he hears the story of the last time Lisa tried to blindside Malcolm, he raises a logical point: Why not do it again?
For a brief moment, the episode turns into a tragedy, pivoting on the moment when Malcolm chose to give his alliance mates the very stability they needed to realize they should vote him out when they have the chance. Lisa, Skupin, and their respective loved ones become their own alliance, allied with God, praying that either their plan works or His plan is revealed to them. As though transferring their stabilizing power through the shirts on their back, the visitors leave their cotton armor behind; Skupin and Lisa wear that armor to the Immunity Challenge that follows, an Immunity Challenge that has been transformed from Abi’s last chance to save herself to Malcolm’s chance to stave off a threat he doesn’t even know exists yet.
Although Abi does her best to throw the narrative light onto herself, actively throwing the challenge once she’s far enough behind, so as to continue her “I Have a Hidden Immunity Idol” performance art piece, this becomes Malcolm’s story, if only because Malcolm isn’t aware of it. He isn’t urgent about the challenge: He doesn’t panic when he falls behind retrieving bags, or when he struggles to get one of them untied, or when other players are taking a crack at pushing the button with the long sticks they’ve constructed (in a play on the “retrieve a key with a long stick you tied together from smaller sticks” challenge component). And yet as someone who has been rooting for Malcolm since the early days of the season, I felt all the suspense he didn’t seem to feel, all of the stress and pressure that wasn’t on his shoulders. When he won, my feeling of relief was perhaps even stronger than his own, if only because he had no idea what he had just saved himself from.
His victory does save “Shot Into Smithereens”—Lisa’s description of what happened to her plan after Malcolm’s victory—from becoming a far more interesting episode as it approaches its conclusion, although it still continues a great set of episodes for the series. Somehow, even though all logic going into the episode would have seen Abi and her imaginary immunity idol heading home, it wasn’t exactly a shock to see the alliance of four put their heads down and vote out Carter instead. It’s reached that point in the game where a threat is dangerous, even if that threat has barely strung a sentence together on camera and has made zero strategic moves. At this point, the threat isn’t that Carter could potentially disrupt an alliance through some kind of devious scheme. Instead, it’s that he could keep casually shrugging his shoulders and winning immunity, a threat that his two previous wins—and his close finish with Malcolm here—made too clear. At this point in the game, tribal chemistry isn’t about what people make for the most peaceful experience; it’s about ensuring that there’s no one around who could break down the fabric of the tribe. Carter was that threat, not Abi, and so Malcolm and Co. agree to play the game with a “bitch” for another three days and let what Skupin calls ”a heck of a guy” ride off into the sunset.
In Carter’s defense, this was easily his most human episode to date, if by default. He strategized for roughly two seconds, sharing a high five and fist bump with Skupin and Malcolm after stating his case that keeping him would mean keeping someone whose game they respected. But Carter is a threat precisely because he hasn’t actually played the game on a strategic level, while generally seeming well liked by the players and successful in challenges. He made himself into a threat by never doing anything to make himself into a threat, his sub-humanoid existence the precise kind of gameplay that could win you a million dollars if you’re sitting next to players who made tough choices to outlast their fellow castaways. While never a threat to tribal chemistry up to this point, too innocuous to have any impact on any group of people you could imagine, Carter was a threat to the delicate balance required at the end of the game.
And with his departure, that balance must survive at least one more week of Abi’s self-delusions. It’s unfortunate in the sense that Abi annoys me, but it gives an episode that was ultimately procedural—majority alliance votes someone out—a sense of momentum. After the Malcolm blindside was off the table, an Abi departure would have—in Lisa’s terms—closed the door on what has been a season-long narrative. Instead, Survivor gets to delay Abi’s comeuppance for another week: a frustrating proposition as far as Survivor justice is concerned, but one that can continue to positively benefit the season as a whole if the rest of the chemistry remains strong, as it did here.
- Highlights from the Loved Ones challenge: Denise’s incredibly tall husband carrying her around like a ragdoll, Abi’s mother criticizing her daughter for her throwing ineptitude (“Throw it harder, daughter!”), Skupin believing his son would not remember meeting Jeff Probst and screaming “THAT’S PROBST,” and Carter’s shocking reveal that he rarely suffers from feelings. (I kid about Carter, because come on, but his affection for his Mom made me feel feelings too.)
- Highlights from the Loved Ones visit: Skupin Jr. proving just as accident prone as his father, and the discussion in which Justice, Lisa, and the Skupins imagine what it would be like if Jesus were to play Survivor and suggested that he would look like Malcolm and play like Carter, the latter of which is a sick burn on Jesus.
- I appreciate Lisa’s approach to religion in the game: She’s going to pray, and have her faith, but she does not consider God spiteful—or lazy—should things not go as she desires them to go. I still think there’s something strange about believing God is invested in the result of a reality television program, but provided you understand that maybe your God has something else occupying His mind at the moment, I don’t find it too egregious.
- For a second, I was convinced Abi was going to start purposefully mistranslating her mother’s sentences as part of her elaborate scheme. “What’s that Mom? She wants me to tell you all how proud she is of my Hidden Immunity Idol.” And then I realized even Abi isn’t that crazy. I think.
- Abi’s quick to absorb logic, although not always in logical ways. Jeff’s notion that her struggles may be cultural remains entirely unfounded—as Denise so eloquently points out in a talking head—but the way she suggests that they would never keep someone from Brazil over someone from Kansas is Abi picking up the ball and running with it. Or throwing it, if she wasn’t paying attention to the rules of the challenge.
- I enjoyed that Probst’s voiceover in the “Previously On Survivor” segment actually called Abi’s scheme crazy, as though that is not an opinion but a fact.
- Tomorrow, I’m going to be having a serious conversation with someone, and suddenly stop and say “Look at the size of the ant on that tree.” It’s going to go over great.
- While I am greatly appreciative of the chance to weigh in on my favorite season of the show in a very, very long time, Carrie will be back next week. Thanks for having me, everybody.