By Thorin N. Tatge
This week's episode was put together in a different light than most. It was more sentimental and more personal. There was soft music under many scenes and an air of finality, as if the producers really decided to honor the idea of a Sook Jai Final Four. It felt kind of like a finale, but quieter. Many viewers probably found it boring, but I enjoyed it for the variety of its style. However, it didn't leave much for a gamer's perspective essayist to work with. Accordingly, this week's essay will be short and sweet.
Given last week's faux-merge, it made sense to keep the tribes separate this week. That way, there was a reasonable chance that the tribes would be even at 4-4 when they do merge, which I expect will happen next week. For the sake of drama it would have been better if the tribes were even so that we could have a thrilling tie-breker episode. Unfortunately, while the idea of two tribes on one beach was a good one, it seems Mr. Burnett chose the wrong season to implement it in. It sapped the best source of potential shake-em-up tribal-line-destroying drama, Shii Ann, right out of the series. Now, while we can still formulate theories about how Chuay Gahn can be parted, it seems rather unlikely to happen. Most likely, Sook Jai will be wiped out along with Jan, possibly not in that order. In the Final Four anything can happen, but Brian seems like the most likely winner. Ted, Helen and Clay all have a decent shot, but that still leaves us with four potentially boring episodes to wait through.
What are the alternatives? Well, the scheme we actually got to hear on television involved Ken and Jake somehow managing to get to a Final Four with Clay and Brian. Strange. With Brian and Ted as close as they are, why would Jake and Ken go for that particular combination? My guess is that they don't actually understand the "game plan" within Chuay Gahn and are simply tossing ideas into the air. After the extended leader's summit Jake seemed to have with Brian throughout the episode, however, it's possible that Jake has a better feel for what's going on there than he did before. Still, strategizing seems to be moving very slowly. Possiblities include:
Now then, on to that central question--why Erin? Erin was an utter non-entity throughout the series. According to her interviews we weren't denied much; lying low was simply her strategy. So why did it get her voted out when Penny and Ken were bigger apparent targets?
From what we could see of the episode, Sook Jai didn't do much (if any) plotting: they simply waited until Tribal Council to make their decision. Erin's final words and interview suggest that it wasn't quite that clean, as does the fact that her ousting was unanimous. Jake and Penny told Erin they were voting for Ken. They lied. But why would they change their minds? And why would they choose Erin the get rid of rather than Ken, who is more of a threat?
It's complicated to try and unravel this knot of people with so little information. But we do know that Jake and Ken are very close. We know that they as wellas Chuay Gahn both saw Penny as somewhat despicable at the beginning of the episode, although it's possible that her super-nice form of "damage control" was more effective on her own tribemates than on Chuay Gahn. We know that Erin did very little plotting--she admitted as much in interviews. So we're left with a few possibilities about why Erin was the one to go.
Why was there no reward challenge this week? Maybe the producers figured the two tribes would still be reeling from the shock of living together without a real merge. Maybe they gave them so much food at the faux-merge that they didn't need another reward. Maybe they really did have a reward challenge and had to edit it out because of some scandal. (Not likely.) For whatever reason, the immunity challenge was the only challenge this week. It was a simple contest that didn't detract from the quiet nature of the episode--a competition to see who could breathe through a bamboo pipe the longest underwater.
Like the lotus flower challenge, this one was a combination of individual effort, but unlike that challenge, everyone had to make their effort simultaneously and without knowing how well they were doing with comparison to the others. It's an interesting distinction--the first type favors those who are trying to fit in and are motivated by competition, while the second type favors those who thrive on personal challenges and simply doing the best they can. This particular challenge was also one of those which simply hits some people harder than others, and may yield unpredictable results for any one person. One time you may aim wrong and get a mouthful of saltwater, and another time you may suppress the gag reflex and find peace with your personal breathing tube. You might say the challenge was a representation of how the players felt about their position in the game, and this is why Brian and Jake, calm in their positions of leadership, outlasted the rest. Or more likely, it's just about handling water well. Note that Jake felt like he was responsible for losing the challenge even though he lasted the longest. Why? Clearly, because he's the designated water-challenge specialist of Sook Jai, as he said in Tribal Council. It occurs to me that this status may have hurt Sook Jai if the other members were counting on Jake to carry the challenge and thus gave up more easily than they would have otherwise. That may be something for Jake to feel guilty about, in a subtle way.
Note the timing of this challenge. Jeff seemed to feel that it was a will challenge, on par with those challenges where contestants stand somewhere, possibly holding something, for as long as they can. When most of them didn't even last half a minute he said "That was quick, guys." I think this challenge was put at this point in the game in order to even out the tribes, which the producers correctly expected to be 5-4 at this point. They reasoned that the tribe with only four members left would feel more of a need to win and would therefore do so. It was a nice try, but they underestimated how hard it is to get a good mouthhold on those things, and the challenge went to the better breathers. Oh, well.
Best Gamer: Jake. I was so relieved that he didn't get voted out. He retains a leadership role in his diminished tribe after all this time, and has begun taking fishing trips with Brian in order to hobnob with the enemy. He put in the best effort at the challenge and still felt guilty about losing it for his tribe. Jake is putting in "a hundred and million percent", as Ted would say, to give his tribe a chance of survival. And he apparently even managed to hold his own in a game of island-basketball with Ted.
2nd Best Gamer: Brian. Still in a position of power, Brian isn't content to let the game play out; he's doing his utmost to keep his finger on everyone's pulse and build bonds with the enemy he intends to get rid of, possibly in anticipation of the jury vote and possibly as a back-up plan. His confessionals are still hilarious to watch. In addition, he was the top performer in the immunity challenge this week.
2nd Worst Gamer: Erin. Her under-the-radar strategy fell right into the ocean this week--for one reason or another. It's not clear why Erin got voted out, but it probably owes to her doing the least strategizing of the Sook Jai Final Four. She herself said in her webchat that if she had made more of an effort to get close to Ken and Jake, she would still be in the game.
Worst Gamer: Helen. Usually an astute and motivated participant, Helen's role in this episode can be described by the single word "Food," a dishonor once reserved for Clarence Black. If she had a plan in mind at all, it was to build a bond between the four remaining female contestants. Well, as she might have predicted, one of those four is now gone. She was already close to Jan, and Penny is highly unreliable. It's hard to see what Helen is going to do with Penny even if they become fast friends. But worst of all, why in the world did Helen sit out of the underwater breathing challenge? If there's any challenge I'd think a swimming instructor would excel at, this would be it. I hope Helen isn't sick--or worse, about to throw in the towel.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.