Some of you complained that last week's tribe-switch came too soon in the game, and sent home a strong player unnecessarily. I'm sympathetic to that point of view, because I liked Aaron too. But physical strength isn't everything on Survivor. Voting strategy and what the contestants call "the social game" matters just as much, as this week proved. All of Peih-Gee's gamesmanship in throwing the challenge last week may not have amounted to much, since her former tribemates didn't look her in the eye during the reward challenge, even when she tried to explain what she did and why. Then Todd's even more complex master plan–involving passing an immunity idol on to James and having him throw a challenge–came a cropper when Fei Long couldn't muster up the will to win immunity for themselves. Meanwhile, a seemingly airtight alliance was almost punctured because of personal animosity. So it's not just strength, it's not just smarts, it's not just affability and it's not just cunning that makes someone a Survivor champion. It's a precise combination of all four.
For about the first 40 minutes or so, this was a terrific episode, full of suspense, surprises and even a little bit of justice when James is asked to join his old tribe for the first challenge's reward. And what a reward! A trip to a tearoom and spa, complete with soapy hot baths and refreshing snacks. (James repays the invitation by stripping down in the shower and showing the ladies his strong gravedigger ass.) Then, while James is quartered with Fei Long for the night, Todd brings him in on the immunity idol/challenge-throwing scheme. But first Todd has to retrieve said idol, which he does in broad daylight, in front of a camp full of people. And once Frosti figures out what's going on, Todd has to let him in on the secret. Then Todd lets everyone in on the secret, with the exception of Sherea (the other import from Zhan Hu) and Jean-Robert (whom everyone hates).
The problem is that Todd picks the wrong day to try and engineer a challenge-based coup. The contestants are faced with an eating challenge, and as much as James tries to pretend that he can't stomach eating feathered chicken fetus, he knows that if he doesn't swallow them, his old pal Denise will have to. And lunchlady Denise–who probably serves up worse to her kids on Sloppy Joe day–just can't choke these chicks down. In a moment of oddly touching friendship–or perhaps just weary resignation–James eats the fetuses, and effectively wins the challenge for Zhan Hu. (It doesn't help Fei Long's cause that they have the skeleton-thin Courtney on their side, though one would think that she'd be skilled in the art of binge and purge.)
After all the action of the two challenges and the jockeying in between, the lead-up to tribal council is kind of a letdown. Sherea's the obvious choice to go: She's an interloper from the other tribe, and a haughty slacker to boot. But Courtney can't abide Jean-Robert–"I just don't like him. He's a horrible person."–and Todd the Survivor expert worries that if he doesn't accommodate her desire to boot JR first, he'll be exposed as the puppetmaster he is, which may hurt him down the road. (Judging by the teaser for next week's episode, I should get to talk more about Todd's shrewd strategizing soon.)
This of course ends up being the Survivor producer's way of building drama where none exists. Sherea, who barely appears in the episode this week until the end, has to go before the merge–a piece of strategy the producers pointedly don't show Todd discussing, though he's undoubtedly aware of it–and so Sherea's gone, bitching all the way out the door. And it's because of Sherea and Courtney that I can't give this episode the grade it probably deserves. Those two just get under my skin, and listening to the them pick apart the undeniably obnoxious but basically harmless Jean-Robert at tribal council I found really hard to take. Both of these women are hateful, hateful, hateful, and I want to see them both punished for their awfulness. (Just like it bugs me that Taylor on Kid Nation gets away with being a b--t week after week.) Instead, Sherea alone goes home, convinced that she's been "stabbed in the back" because she's "strong at challenges." It's that superiority and self-delusion that I won't miss.
-Whatever happened to tree mail? Lately, the tribes just show up at challenges, unbidden.
-I've written in previous reality TV blogs about how much eating challenges make me queasy, and this week's feast of bird hearts and baby turtles–complete with cute little heads and shells–didn't exactly settle my stomach. But I also get grossed out on Survivor when the contestants win a food-related reward and stuff themselves sick, so I was happy to see a reward this week that was more sensible: hot tea, watermelon, sesame crackers ahhhhhh.