By Thorin N. Tatge
What an awesome episode! Highest credit goes to Mr. Burnett and his editing team for making what I expected to be a perfectly predictable episode in which Penny gets voted out into a episode filled with tectonic strategic rearrangements and heightened interpersonal interaction in which I was completely surprised that Penny was voted out. I have the feeling that much of this stuff happens in every episode, but they only occasionally decide to show it, possibly when nothing else interesting is happening. It is appreciated.
Last week, I commended Clay for his initiative in misleading Sook Jai in order to stain Ted's image and give him some votes. I expected that Clay would get any with it. Then I saw the TV Guide summary of this week's episode, which referred to one castaway's betrayl of another having repercussions, and I thought I must have been wrong. What a surprise to find that the castaway in question wasn't Clay at all, but Penny, shamelessly betraying Jake in hopes of lasting three more days. In short, I still think Clay is doing a fine job.
Last week, I also predicted that Sook Jai would probably continue to crumble, but that their best hope was in allying with Helen and Jan. It's more and more apparent that the Brian/Ted/Clay triumverate is unstable, which means that one of them might be roped into an alliance against the other two, but this would be a mistake for whomever allies with them, due to their very instability. If, as some have suggested, Helen had gotten Ted and Jan to join her (along with either Jake or Penny) in voting out Brian or Clay, she might find Ted switching sides again once the deed was done. If that is her strategy, she was wise not to pursue it this week when there's still so much time for a reversal. Rather, if she was going to turn against Brian or Clay this week, she would have been smartest to take up Jake's proposal (whatever that may have been) and flesh it out a bit if necessary. It also would have been the best option for Jake and Penny to pursue.
It's not clear whether Jake did pursue this particular alliance. We saw him speaking to Helen about voting for Brian and Clay, but when Helen asked how he proposed to get rid of them, he basically answered "We see which of them wins immunity, and then vote off the other one." In other words, he had no answer at all. He may have had Ted in mind as an ally, and that may even have made sense given Penny's attempt to separate herself from him. In any case, Jake should have gone to Jan, since they have a special bond going for them. Maybe he did and we didn't see it, but the fact that he voted for her suggests that they didn't succeed in making any sort of deal. The lack of any kind of strategy surrounding Jan continues to be mysterious.
Speaking of Jake voting for Jan--isn't it odd how often Survivor contestants vote against the swing voters they should be trying to woo? It happened to Sean in Season I, to Amber in season II, to Brandon in Season III, Gabriel in Season IV, to Shii Ann earlier this season. It makes sense only in that these people are swing voters because of their outcast status, and so the minority group who votes for them figures that they're the most likely targets to receive a stray vote from within their alliance. But ever since the first season, contestants haven't acted like that. They don't cast stray votes--they coordinate. Penny or Erin might have wanted to vote for Shii Ann in Episode 3, but they were smart enough to know they had to stick with their agreement and vote for Jed instead. Jed, Stephanie and Robb, if they understood what was going on (and at least Jed and Stephanie did) should have tried to convince Shii Ann she was on the outside of her voting bloc. Yet this never happens (the one exception may be Paschal and Neleh). The swing voters keep drawing spite votes, even though this takes down the people who vote for them. I suppose it's possible that in such cases the deals have already been tried and rejected, as it was with Gabriel, but it still seems worth voting for someone other than the potential swing in case they change their mind at the last minute. After all, Paschal and Neleh made a point of only switching to the underdog side right before Tribal Council, in order to keep from making the readjustment in alliegence obvious too soon. So why did Jake vote for Jan?
Jake was put in a tough position. Not only was he one of the very last Sook Jai, but his one remaining teammate no longer wishes to associate with him. Penny made her strategem very clear: she was disassociating herself from Jake in order to try and buy herself more time and make Chuay Gahn forget about how the tribes were originally split. She apparently didn't even tell him what she was up to ahead of time. Penny's strategem was reasonable, although in my opinion she should have tried to make the aforementioned alliance happen first. But perhaps Penny predicted that Jake would just make himself less popular in trying to compensate for losing her friendship. Sure enough, he campaigned even more aggessively than before. Jake is now known as the Snake and is very likely to be the next person voted out. The only twist is that it was Penny voted out at Tribal Council. What went wrong for Penny?
There are a lot of possibilities. My own opinion is that voting for Penny was Brian's idea. He originally wanted to vote for Jake, but then his little deviotronic gears started turning and he said to himself, "Jake and I are building a friendship, and that could be useful. Besides, Penny is more likely to get Jan and Helen on her side than Jake. Jake is unpopular now and will stay unpopular. Let's take out the slightly more popular person now while we have the chance!" And while Brian's way of thinking can be overblown at times, I think he got this one right, assuming it was him who made the decision. I imagine Ted was quick to back him up, and Helen and Jan went along with it because they didn't want to stir the pot too much yet. The only downside of Brian's voting for Penny is that he may have fractured his friendship with Clay, who refused to vote for anyone but Jake. Brian could probably repair everything, however, by making Jake the next to go. In truth, this is probably his best move. Brian is in control of the game and thus has no need to be tricky. Jan is the one who needs to be tricky, and she doesn't seem capable of it.
This week's challenges were good. The reward for the huge multi-stage reward challenge was suitably elephantine, and the trivia-based immunity was traditional and well-chosen.
Now, this was a very interesting reward challenge. It actually had politics in it, along with a number of physical skills. I only wish the initial stage of choosing partners wasn't over so instantly--it would have been entertaining and revealing to watch. However, as anyone who's ever been in high school knows, when there's an activity where you get to choose your partners, 80% of the partnerships are usually chosen before the teacher is done talking about the assignment. When there's a chance of being left out, you'd better act double-quick. Penny, queen of the high school personality, knows this better than anyone, so she was quick to grab the person standing next to her when the time came. Anyone was better than Jake, she figured, and being left out would be even worse. When Jake failed to find a partner, Penny must have been doubly glad. Moreover, in this challenge someone like Ted is the perfect partner. Think about it. Ideally, you would want someone who's a good cooperator to get through the Blown Bridge portion. You'd want a partner who's good at belly-crawling fast (like a former football player) to make it through the next leg. Why would you want your partner to make it through? So that he or she could help you get a leg up in the wall-climbing portion! It's only logical that the players who are partners during the first stage of the challenge should have built up enough gratitude to help each other over the wall in the third stage. And indeed, that's what happened. Clay, who worked with Brian, hauled Brian up after him. Knowing those two, they may even have struck the deal while they were working on the Blown Bridge! If so, it was a good move. Finally, you'd want your partner to be poor at sheer balance races, so that you could win the final leg, although that isn't so important since any decent partner will choose you to go along on the elephant ride if they win (and it should have been obvious to them that it would be a team reward). Indeed, Brian repaid Clay by selecting him, and in all honesty, it was ridiculous of Ted to even think that Brian ought to have chosen him instead. Think of the betrayl Clay would take it as. So we see that Ted was the perfect partner for this challenge, and it was only Penny's lack of upper-body strength that kept her from winning.
The Blown Bridge section involved a little ingenuity in addition to fast teamwork: some large gaps between columns required that one plank be laid between two towers and the other plank be laid from the middle of that plank to a third column. It appears that practical-minded Clay was the first to get this idea. There is a family of mathematical puzzles based on this concept; this puzzle represents a typical example.
When it came to the wall, it's intriguing to speculate that Clay may have benefitted from being the lightest. The three men didn't have time to plan about who would help whom over. Clay was simply the easiest to lift, so he got lifted first in the struggle. Ted would have been wiser to think ahead and use his mouth and brain instead of his arms, but he got excited by the moment. Clay was also smart enough to stand in the middle, a lesson he perhaps learned from the partner-picking exercise at the beginning.
This challenge, overall, was so interesting that it would be nifty to see it played more than once. The problem with Survivor challenges is that the rules come as such a surprise that it's rare for the subtleties to come out, the way they do among experienced players playing familiar games. This is why I don't join the fans crying for new challenges all the time. Seeing old ones done in new ways is sometimes more interesting.
Speaking of which, the immunity challenge combined not only the locale-thematic quiz which was central to one of the late immunity challenges in each previous season, it also incorporated the mechanism of the famous coconut challenge, in which contestants were given the right to chop down each other's coconut clusters upon correctly answering questions. (There were three other similar challenges--the ones held with six people left from each of Seasons II, III and IV--but those involved aiming at other people's tokens, rather than choosing them directly.) Last week I said that Brian, Clay and Ted would probably retain control of the game unless they had an ill-timed "coconut challenge moment." I had no idea that the chance would present itself, but I congratulate them for avoiding this pitfall. There was no flagrant self-congratulatory teamwork at the immunity challenge, just a surprising betryal on Penny's part which was perhaps a little too transparent. Helen, not one of the Chuay Guys, ended up victorious, which is nice since she finally got a chance to prove her smarts. She was perhaps the safest person left in the game, however, so as much as she enjoyed winning the necklace, it was more or less meaningless.
Sometimes I wonder how an immunity challenge would go if it were just pure selection by the players, with neither questions nor manual dexterity getting in the way. What if each player had five torches, one player were randomly selected to go first, and that player chose another player whose torch to snuff, followed by the snuffed player getting to make a selection, and so on? It would be fascinating. Some pairs would focus strictly on revenge for being picked and would snuff each other to death. Others would be forced to make very difficult choices. There would be no deliberate holding back, as Kathy from Season IV and perhaps Brian did in this episode by deliberately answering questions incorrectly. I imagine that in such a challenge, new grudges would form very quickly indeed. As it was, this challenge went rather quietly. Maybe next time.
Best Gamer: A tie between Brian and Clay, who get 2 points each. They have become the new bond at Survivor Thailand's core, a show which is now vaguely Clay-flavored. They excelled as partners in the reward challenge and had the character to bring home food for the others, negating some of the negative feelings that arose in their absence, a move even Jake called smart. They took the time to try and patch things up with Ted, and wisely left Helen as their spy to "keep an eye on the snake." Brian keeps his options open, and Clay succeeds in tearing Jake and Penny farther apart with some well-placed advice. Despite all the reasons other contestants may have to be suspicious of these two, they still seem to be about as popular as ever, and are pretty firmly in control of the game.
3rd Best Gamer: Helen, who gets 1 point. She did decently in the reward challenge, only losing because of Jan's clumsiness, and answered six out of nine questions correctly at the immunity challenge. Even without her intelligence, she might have won that challenge through popularity. No one hates Helen, and the fact that Jake has a high opinion of her must count for something. She listened to Jake on the water run so she could report to Brian and Clay, but at the same time kept his advice in mind as something to think deeply about. This is the mark of a winning player.
2nd Worst Gamer: Penny. Her plan wasn't all bad, but it's rarely a winning idea to think just three days at a time in this game, because even if you succeed you just have to do it all over again, and you make more enemies with each shift you survive. Penny should have stuck with Jake and tried to make a deal happen. Alternately, given that she chose to try and blend in with Chuay Gahn instead, she shouldn't have tried so hard. It was clear to everyone what she was up to, and that cost her dearly. Also, there's no excuse for not knowing any of the answers to a quiz on Thailand when you have so much time to prepare. But then again, maybe Penny's talents in the school setting don't include studying.
Worst Gamer: Jake. While I respect his attempts to stay in the race, he blew it with the execution. He didn't work hard enough to keep Penny on his side. He worked too hard to get everyone else. Some Survivor contestants may succeed by playing both sides of the proverbial fence, but Jake played all six sides of the fence and wasn't able to finish painting any of them. He should have come up with a single proposal, ideally the one mentioned above, and stuck with it. He should have been more specific in naming names throughout the episode, because garnering vague approval only goes so far. He was too slow to even get a partner in the reward challenge. And his speech and Tribal Council didn't further his cause at all. While I like Jake, I fully expected him to bite the big one in this week's vote. I hope he gets his act together for next week.
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