This episode of Survivor is like going out on a nice leisurely run, the wind at your back and smile on your face, and then right at the end accidentally tripping over a crack in the sidewalk and ending up flat on your ass. Any hope of a nice, satisfying ending is completely dashed and all that’s left is disappointment (and maybe a little embarrassment). It’s also another great example from this season of how real-life elements like medical emergencies sneaking into the game will likely always be inevitable—and definitely unwelcome.
The worst thing about Neal getting a skin infection near his knee joint that requires him being pulled from the game is that all of the strategy in the episode leading up to this point was extremely fun to watch, and now we’ll never get to see how any of that plays out. It’s a merge episode, and the drawing and redrawing of alliance lines is always one of the more interesting aspects of the merge. The past few episodes have demonstrated that this cast is full of surprisingly fun game players, and that affinity for playing the game continues here as everyone tries to figure out how to get the majority advantage now that all of the original alliance-mates are back together.
It quickly becomes clear that the Brains, Brawn, and Beauty designations are still very much alive when it comes to alliances, with Brawn and Brains taking opposite sides and Beauty sitting somewhere square in the middle. Surprisingly, the person who seems most in control about how everything plays out is Nick, who has emerged from his slightly higher profile in last week’s episode to essentially take over the narrative here. It’s such a big jump in screen time that it almost seems certain he will either be voted out in this very episode or be very important for the game going forward. Considering Neal went home instead, Nick’s sudden command of both the strategy and the episode confessionals is certainly a sign that his game is going to matter going forward, for better or worse.
The biggest takeaway from all of the strategy that we do get to see is that some of the things that appeared so clear in the past might not necessarily be the case now that everyone is together again. The Brains might have had an opportunity for the upper hand before, but Aubry’s impulsive crossed-out vote that sent Peter home started a weird negative pendulum swing, first affecting Aubry and Joe’s chances and then showing that while Debbie’s position at Chan Loh seemed fairly secure, in the merged group her style of alliance making is far less accepted. What’s interesting is how quickly Nick works to position himself as the go-between between the Brains and the Brawn, and how readily both sides leverage information about their plans in order to get Nick and his Beauty numbers on their side. Scot very willingly even offers up information that Tai has an idol, and would be willing to work with them. Neal plays it a little more evenly, but is still practically broadcasting how desperate they are to get Nick on his side.
Once everyone’s pitches are on the table, the last bit of strategy we see is that Nick and Michele are still working together, and Nick decides that they should side with Brawn and vote out Aubry instead of going with the brains. It’s a much less guarded and loaded interaction than their stilted and condescending one in the previous episode, and could hint at a more fruitful alliance than it seemed at first. We never get the chance to see if this would be their final decision, however, because Jeff Probst shows up to ruin everyone’s dreams (and what was previously a perfectly pleasant episode) instead.
Before the Immunity Challenge began, there was a weirdly edited aside where Jeff asked everyone about all of their many infections. This was obvious and clumsy foreshadowing that something was going to happen regarding infections, but it was still shocking to see Probst ride up in a boat at the very time in the hour everyone should have been preparing to go to Tribal. Instead, the doctor looks over everyone’s disgusting skin lesions (Tai, Scott, and Aubry getting the most attention) until he sees an oozing sore near Neal’s knee and determines that he needs to be pulled from the game before the infection gets into his knee joint and causes permanent damage. It’s a devastating end for Neal’s game and a disappointing end to what was, up to this point, a very enjoyable episode full of game talk and strategizing.
Although it’s a disappointing ending to this particular episode’s arc, it does continue the promising trend by showing just how into actually playing the game so much of this cast seems to be. What will be interesting is seeing if any of the strategic alliances shored up here will carry over into the next actual elimination, or if everything will just start all over again next week.
- It was interesting to see Debbie portrayed in such a different light here than she has been in previous episodes. Here, here alliance making was clumsy and off-putting, when previously it was presented as a far savvier affair.
- That chicken really, really wanted some of Tai’s coconut. This is not a euphemism.
- Neal and Jason have matching bulges. Also not a euphemism.
- Speaking of euphemisms, Probt’s balls talk during the challenge was by far the most graphic yet. We don’t need to hear about them banging into each other, dude.
- It seems crazy that Neal got pulled for an infection on his knee. Maybe they could give the players bandages and antiseptic to use at camp? Would it really ruin the game to allow those small things?