By Thorin N. Tatge
I'm pleased to say that this week's Survivor managed to utterly thrill me--and not in the subtle game of power plays and interrelationships way, but in the way only sports fans are supposed to be thrilled! The reward challenge this week was my favorite Survivor challenge Ever. And I'm not one of those people who utilizes such superlatives without thinking about the contenders. No, the pirate combat challenge tops them all.
But first, there was an issue in this episode which, while not directly game-related, definitely has the potential to play into someone's strategy later on. This is, of course, the question of Just What Happened Between Ted And Ghandia during night 6. I view the whole thing as a depressingly hilarious illustration of why gossip sucks. The whole issue seemed to be cleared up by the two having a morning-after conversation. Cool. But then Ghandia gossips to Helen and Jan, and leaves out nothing but Ted's apology. Helen goes to Brian and makes it sound more serious than it is--and who can blame Helen for sympathizing heavily? For one thing, Mom points out that she must get a lot of harrassment in her work, and for another, Helen knows she has to do all she can to cement her relationship with the tribe, especially Ghandia. But then Brian has a more typically male conversation with Ted in which Ted informs Brian that he rectified the mistake, but that "nothing happened." This term turns out to be too vague, as Brian feeds it back to Helen and Helen back to Ghandia, and by the time it reaches her it amounts to a bald-faced denial. Then there's a blow-out, a temper tantrum, an awkward tribal meeting, and boom, Ghandia's "sex scandal" is in the National Enquirer. (No jest.) I feel sorry for her, but she really is working out to be the anti-Vecepia: she never seems to have had enough drama. I guessing she doesn't make the merge.
Now then, why did I go crazy over the reward challenge this week? First, because we've never had a Survivor contest with actual physical combat, no matter how restricted. Tug-of-war, yes, but never a match of body against body. The possible exception would have been last season's stilt-fighting challenge, but unfortunately that turned out to be more of a stilt-standing challenge. (No one was able to stay on the darn things long enough to get to his or her opponent--except Tammy, that is, and she was smart enough to know she didn't have to. Kudos to Vee for at least trying to unbalance her, though.) We can assume the producers have abstained from direct combat because they didn't want contestants getting hurt, and because it would give the big strong people even more of an advantage than they should have. But I commend the challenge team for letting it happen this once, although from Jeff Probst's recent webchat comments it seems it may not happen again. Apparently they didn't foresee just how aggressive the contestants would get. I would think it would be pretty foreseeable, given that the contestants all have a lot of stress to let out and they can't let it out on their teammates or they risk disfavor--it's only natural they would seize the chance to let it out on the opponents.
Second, because it really forces the two teams to interact. It's not just a race to see who can do something the fastest. It involves strategy and quick, active thinking. Who do you send out? Do you all go in rotation so no one gets tired? Maybe you send out your quickest and most stable people to zip past the competition. Or do you focus on your two or three best fighters? Or, if you're more cunning, you combine all the appropriate strategies and do what Chuay Gahn actually did--send out your best blockers (Brian and Ted) to the attack zone, and send out your quicker people (Helen, Clay) to fetch baskets. When they reach the middle the blocker just shifts aside and escorts them through. They did rotate so as not to slow down waiting for people knocked off to return or tire anyone out, although I don't think Jan ever went in. And Jeff was right when he said "Way to get inventive, Ted!" His idea of taking the position of blocker seriously--on his hands and knees--really paid off! Chauy Gahn was a little slow to form their strategy, but when they did, it worked. You might say that they won only because Sook Jai was careless, but I think their strategy drew out Sook Jai and caused a great deal of their carelessness. Sook Jai's strategy was basically to send out the light, quick competitors for quick scores (Shii Ann, Penny, Jed) and send out their attackers to clear the way (Ken, Robb, Jed.) It goes to show that when your attack zone is so small and the rules are strictly enforced, it pays more to be a blocker than an attacker. :-)
Third, the challenge combined lots of elements. Combat, as mentioned above! Strategy, including choices of who goes out when! Balance on precarious bamboo walkways! There have been lots of balance challenges on Survivor, but they've rarely involved doing other things at the same time, which puts a new spin on it. Speed! Carrying things while doing it all and not dropping them. Too bad Brian wasn't allowed to keep the basket he caught as it hit the water--he should be rewarded for his quick hands. A well-designed challenge overall.
But it was also great because of the way it played out. The way things have been going, it's hard not to root for Chauy Gahn, to hope that they would recover from losing the first three challenges (a la Boran) and show those rambunctious Sook Jai what togetherness is all about. Yeah. Yet, going into this challenge, I said to my mother "I think Sook Jai will win, since they're more aggressive." I was right about them being aggressive, but not so right about them winning. How beautifully ironic that their aggression was so over the top that it cost them a huge lead. What a great way to illustrate how even a tribe of natural winners can self-destruct!
Summary time for those who didn't catch the episode or want some video-captured details. The score was Chauy Gahn 4, Sook Jai 7. It was hard to imagine how Sook Jai could possibly lose at that point. Brian was their last hope; he was being awesome all over but Ken went and outmuscled him, and it looked like it was all over. Penny came in to make the score 4 to 8. Then Helen came along and Ken, feeling a little too confident, wrestled her into the water. But he moved too soon--he was not standing in the attack zone when he contacted her, and Jeff called him on it! He'd given the tribes fair warning of the penalty--Ken was out of the game and one basket was transfered to Chauy Gahn. From there, a reasonable tribe would have regrouped and played conservatively, since they were still in the lead. Unfortunately, Sook Jai's diet lacks the recommended dosage of reason, so Robb quickly tried to compensate for losing Ken by strangling Clay and hurling him aside like a rag doll. Not cool--he was shy of the attack zone when it happened, and was promptly ejected. Clay is a whiny little baby according to Robb, but I'd say "baby" isn't the best insult for men nearly twice your age, especially when you're the one who tries to strangle them and then claims your foot was inside the zone all the time. Ugh. Anyway, Brian scores, Stephanie comes up, ready for a face off with Ted--and slips. Ted, ever the gentle giant, carefully lifts the firefighter up like she's a clinging octopus, awkwardly untangles her limbs from the walk, and thrusts her into the water while Sook Jai yells "Grab his legs!" Stephanie obliges just a little too late--she's in the water when she does it, and that's another basket for Chauy Gahn and another player out of the game. Jed ran by as Ted fell, but apparently Jeff sent him back, since when action resumes he's just leaving the boat. These people never learn; Jed charges the ever noble Brian and hurls him into the drink, and sure enough, he's out of the zone. Bye-bye Jed! At this point, Sook Jai is down to just Shii Ann and Penny; it would be a miracle for them to win. Poor Penny tries valiantly to grab Clay by the shorts, but Clay is slippery, and in he comes with basket number 10. Chauy Gahn finally wins something!
I don't blame Ken so much for his mistake--he was working in the heat of the moment and didn't know he had to watch his feet as well as his enemy. And Stephanie had only been in the water a split second before pulling off Ted--she could easily have been doing the right thing. The two real culprits in this challenge for Sook Jai were Robb and Jed. They had been warned and warned again. Coincidentally, these were the same two who were responsible for losing the fishing net later on. Says Jed, "whoever fell asleep last forgot to delegate his duties." Riiight. I can see it now: "Yo, Jed, keep an eye on the fish trap, I'm gonna take a quick nap." "Hey Robb...watch the net, will you? I'm tired." "Jed? <yawn> Your turn with the... the net, thingy." "Mmm, eh, Robb? You awake? ...umm.. watch the... watch the...zzzzz." (Actually, according to Jed's Early Show interview, he and Robb switched off to Jake and Stephanie, so it's not all their fault the net got lost... but putting it out in the water was their idea to begin with.) I'm kinda glad to see Jed go--he was called the new Gabriel, but he turned out to be Gabriel's evil twin. >:-]
Oh, the final thing I loved about the reward challenge was the reward itself. Far more creative than a plate of cheese and crackers, those Red Berets were just what Sook Jai needed to help them use their fishing net. Of course, Robb's case of sour grapes is far enough advanced that he didn't realize this--just as well. Those guys were so awesome at Chauy Gahn--they walk right in, grab some leaves, and stuff them into the Survivors' hands. "Eat this, eat that. Make this, make that." They didn't speak much English and they didn't need to. Their example was a great reward for a tribe that needed it. I just hope Chuay Gahn had time to learn anything what with all the...drama.
Then there was the immunity challenge. While the design of the reward challenge impressed me greatly, the immunity challenge was almost embarrassing. Even more famous than the sliding block puzzle from Epsiode 1, this one is known as the Tower of Hanoi. Typically the puzzle is made of wooden disks that fit around pegs and has a varying number of layers. It can be solved with a simple algorithm and is exponentially hard. With six levels, it takes 63 moves to complete. That must have taken the poor bands of tired Survivors quite some time!
Jed and Robb apparently didn't realize that the way to solve this puzzle is to use the same strategy throughout. In short, stack all the pieces except the bottom one on the platform which is not your destination, move the bottom one to your destination, and then move all the rest onto it. To move each subtower, repeat this process. Or better, here's a rule of thumb that makes it easy to do: never move a piece to another piece where there are an odd number of pieces missing in between. (The first piece should go on the non-destination tower when there are an even number of pieces.) Try your hand at this puzzle here. For a mesmerizing sight, set the number of disks to 11 or 12, put the speed on high, and click the Solution button.
Mom said she was glad the challenge took brains to win. "Or one person who happens to know the puzzle," I said. A big You Go to Shii Ann for being that person and still holding back: "I can do logic puzzles in my sleep, and this one is easy!" But those who have compared Jed to Silas from Season III were given more fuel today as the two met similar fates. Jed rushed to put the tower together in the same way that Silas singlehandedly labored to finish a face-shaped jigsaw puzzle in Africa after his tribe had decided to throw the challenge and vote him out. Sure enough--Jed is gone. I can't wait to see how aggressive Robb gets next week.
This week's players:
Best Player: Brian. The king of the pirate challenge--tossing off Shii Ann, running baskets through, escorting teammates by with grace, and being a martyr for Jed's elimination. At the same time, taking a more prominent and respected role in his tribe. Brian, now that your tribe is beginning to rally, you are my pick to win the million.
2nd Best Player: Ted. After a slippery start, Ted's kneel-in-the-middle-of-the-road strategy worked wonderfully. He was always careful to make sure he was in the attack zone during an attack, and at the end of the game he cleverly moved forward in order to keep Penny from getting into the zone and catching Clay. As for the unfortunate sexual situation with Ghandia, he may have been irresponsible during the night but handled himself very well in his talk with her the morning after, and it's really not his fault that the issue became so large.
2nd Worst Player: Ghandia. She had small roles in the challenges as far as the viewers could see, but more to the point, her failure to just let the issue between herself and Ted go was strategically very bad. Clay, for one, no longer respects her. She -may- succeed in getting rid of Ted before herself, but you can bet she'll follow shortly if Chauy Gahn loses again.
Worst Player: Robb. According to Jeff Probst some of the castaways gave him some lip in this episode, and I'm guessing it was Robb more than any. Charging Clay and choking him is bad enough, doing it outside the attack zone adds stupidity to violence, and calling him a whiny punk afterwards was just a trashy thing to do. Robb tried to help out in the immunity challenge but didn't seem to excel. And he thought he had his finger on the pulse of Sook Jai when he said "Shii Ann is our weakest member"--yeah, right. Robb, you are SO next.
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