Reality TV is inarguably a producer’s medium. After all, they are the evil geniuses who manipulate, provoke, and exploit their willing subjects, the alchemists who transform fame-hungry narcissists into interesting characters. That said, competitive reality TV only gets really interesting when the players start making their own rules—in other words, when they get even more cunning than their producers.
What made “The Merger” such a watershed moment wasn’t the coming-together of the two tribes—a development scripted by producers—but the jaw-dropping tribal council—a twist that was, as far as we know, solely the brainchild of the Richard and his alliance. That’s what made last week such a thrill. In “Thy Name Is Duplicity,” we’ve got an episode where you can almost feel the producers trying to regain control of the narrative. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, but there were several moments that had the muddy fingerprints of Mark Burnett all over them.
We open on Day 22, the morning after Gretchen’s surprise elimination. The non-alliance tribe members are shell-shocked. “There’s no good reason, other than strategy, to vote Gretchen off,” says Sean. The statement is indicative of how ill-suited Sean is for this game. The members of the alliance explain their decision in dispassionate terms. It was Rudy’s idea to eliminate Gretchen, which I’m sure she was perversely happy to discover. “She had to go because she is bright and she is strong,” Richard says.
Now that the game has turned nasty, there’s a palpable sense of desperation in the air. There’s a corresponding change in the visuals of the show, with more oblique angles and a Malick-esque number of cutaway shots of slithering snakes and teeming insects. Jenna tries to ingratiate herself to Susan, hoping to form a counter-alliance among the women. Susan warms to the chatty young single mom, but she says she’s sticking to her original plan. Then there’s Greg, who transmogrifies before our very eyes from zany nice guy to psychopathic kitten-killer. His scheme of flirting with Richard/pretending to be bi-curious would have been deviously clever if it hasn’t also been so obvious. But worst of all is his (apparent) willingness to turn on Colleen, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the South China Sea.
Now, it’s wise for us to be skeptical of the editing in this sequence. In a context-free interview, Greg shares his thoughts on the survival instinct: “You bring this little kitty along, and the kitten sleeps with you every night, and then you’re hungry, man and you look the kitten right in the eye and you snap the kitten’s neck. It’s nothing personal.” Of course, we don’t actually know whether “the kitten” in question is Colleen, or whether the “you” he’s talking about is himself, but the interview is intercut with Colleen and Greg’s flirtatious conversation about… his kitten. Dun-dun-duuuuuuun! A few clever cuts, and the wacky sidekick has suddenly become Ted Bundy Lite.
Who knows where the truth lies—where is Errol Morris when you need him?—but in either case, the reward challenge does little to salvage Greg’s reputation. This time around, the reward is entirely emotional: a chance for the winning castaway to watch an entire video sent by their loved ones back home, and to record a video in response. For those of you keeping track, here we have yet another Survivor first. The “folks back home” reward serves two vital purposes: character development and, to quote Bridget Jones, emotional fuckwittery. Let’s start with the character development. It is enlightening (and in some cases confusing) to meet the contestants’ families. I had no idea that Richard had a son, but you can believe I spent about an hour Googling this little bit of trivia after watching this episode. Colleen’s parents are predictably adorable, and Gervase’s daughter is so damn cute she should be in a Welch’s commercial. I thought Rudy’s wife was his sister at first, she looks so much like him, and his squeamish response to her heartfelt message struck me as sad and sweet at the same time. And while I am not one for fat-shaming, I was shocked to discover that Susan’s husband is truly obese. She’s so rugged and outdoorsy, I figured her husband would be a strapping hunter type, but that’s not the case. Greg gets a video from his sister, who’s also a wackadoo/possible serial killer.
Now, for the mind games. Jenna, a single mother of twin daughters, is perhaps the contestant most desperate for news from home. When Probst tells her that her video never arrived, she bursts into anguished tears. It’s all timed—or at least edited—for maximum impact. She’s just spent the morning practicing her archery in order to win the challenge, bruising her arms in the process. Then Probst breaks the news right after Jenna’s watched the video of Gervase’s daughter, sweetly complimenting him on how beautiful she is. After years of watching reality TV, my heart has shriveled into a tiny black pellet of coal, but even I was moved by Jenna’s breakdown. Either Jenna’s family was too flaky and unreliable to record it, or the producers cruelly intercepted it, and it’s hard to know which scenario is worse. For Jenna’s sake, I hope it’s the latter; for humanity’s sake, I hope it’s the former. Probst’s pledge to “personally” ensure that her video makes it home, should she win the reward challenge, was a moment of uncharacteristic and seemingly genuine empathy from the host.
It somehow makes it worse that Greg, arguably the castaway with the fewest attachments back home, is the eventual victor. Not that he doesn’t love his sister, but there’s no emotional urgency to the video he records in response. It’s goofy, not particularly heartfelt, and, as Rudy points out, full of icky incest jokes. As Greg watches his sister’s video and films his magnum opus, we see Jenna practicing her archery skills. Once again, the editing here seemed very fishy to me. It’s meant to look like Jenna is brooding over her loss, but it’s pretty obvious that the editors used footage of Jenna from earlier in the day. It’s confusing, and it’s also nowhere near as effective as hearing Jenna say, “I miss my beauties.” There is such a thing as too much manipulation.
After the video debacle, everyone assumes Jenna just wants to go home, but she shows some real grit in the extremely confusing immunity challenge. Probst explains the challenge: each player is attached to a line of rope with a carabiner, which they have to remove and then spin around and OH MY GOD I AM GETTING DIZZY JUST LISTENING TO THIS. I have a lot of questions about this challenge—namely, how are they all supposed to race on the same line at the same time?—but it’s giving me a headache so I’ll just move on. The takeaway is that Gervase pulls of a conspicuously well-timed victory, ensuring that his lazy ass will stay on the island for at least another three days.
The thing I keep wondering, though, is whether the producers of Survivor ever had any intention of making this a game about actual survival, and not just a series of elaborately staged relay races. Running through the jungle attached to a rope? That hardly seems relevant to the task of subsisting in a harsh natural environment. Physical fitness has played a part in the game so far, but real survival skills? Not so much. Alas, I guess that’s what Man Vs. Wild is for.
The tribal council is easily the most memorable one so far in the season. First Probsts explains to the remaining nine contestants that they will get to vote for the ultimate winner of the game, meaning they will have to strike a balance between ruthlessness and likability. Then, he once again brings up the issue of the alliance. Susan and Kelly are both horrendously bad liars. Richard, not surprisingly, is a little more convincing. “I’m not even sure what my strategy is from week to week. I’m just getting fish and feeding people,” he says, the master of the humblebrag.
Going into the vote, it’s clear that either Jenna or Greg will get the boot. The ballot-casting is more colorful than usual. Richard sings a creepy lullaby to Greg, who explains his vote for Jenna with this non sequitur: “First time for paranoia, second time for irritation, third time because my ear infection is clearing up.” Sean, genius of strategery that he is, sticks to his alphabetical strategy, voting for Greg—a move that more or less spells doom for everyone on the island who isn’t a member of the alliance. In the end, fair-haired and possibly deranged Ivy League graduate Greg is banished from the island. When Probst announces the verdict, Greg provides one of the more colorful exits in Survivor history, fake-crying as Probst extinguishes his flame. I’m not so sure I’ll miss him.
- I just decided that Ben Stiller would play Sean in a movie version of Survivor: Borneo. Any suggestions for the rest of the cast?
- Was Susan already at the finish line when Gervase crossed it? Was she disqualified or something? I need to know!
- Speaking of that immunity challenge, I’d love to talk to the producer whose job it is to come up with these things week after week. I'm guessing it requires a very particular skill set.
- Where did that pink scar on Jenna’s forehead come from all of a sudden?
- Is Jenna wearing Colleen's bikini?
- Poor Pagong. They half-heartedly try to form some kind of counter-alliance, but they’re too hapless to realize that the only way to ensure their own survival is to form a solid voting block. Instead, they all vote based on personal dislike. It’s understandable, perhaps, but woefully ineffective.
- Watch this episode, or most of it anyway, here.