Warning: This recap for Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers contains spoilers.
The best seasons of Survivor are the ones that strike a perfect balance between dynamic strategy and compelling character-driven story-telling. It’s why Pearl Islands and Heroes vs. Villains remain the benchmark of Survivor greatness — both seasons are constantly rewatchable due to their charismatic cast of characters, sense of humor, competitive gameplay, and shocking blindsides (plus Sandra Diaz-Twine). However, when a season leans too heavily in one direction, it makes the road to finale night a sluggish undertaking. Game Changers suffered because it relied too heavily on twists and #bigmoves at the expense of highlighting engaging personalities. On the flip side, seasons like Gabon, despite being a personal favorite, is generally regarded a weaker season because it was too character-focused and lacking in interesting gameplay.
What’s even worse, though, is when a season consists of neither exciting strategy nor captivating personalities — think One World or, for a super deep-cut, Thailand. Now, Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers isn’t quite at that level just yet, but with last night’s episode closing the chapter on a lifeless pre-merge, it’s beginning to skate dangerously close. Other than that one post-swap episode where Alan was idoled out by Joe, this season has been slowly drifting along in a sea of bland. Even that episode required an idol and a secret advantage to add some spice, so that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. There has been strategic maneuvering and blindsides and showmances, but it’s all very paint by numbers. The editors have been working overtime to make each tribal council as dramatic as possible, but in the words of Jeff Probst describing JP’s strategy, so far, this season has been “a quiet game.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been positives. Ben’s PTSD scare last week remains one of the most powerful moments in Survivor history. Also, the editing, for the most part, has been spread evenly amongst the cast, which means we’re heading into the merge with no obvious front-runner. That will hopefully lead to an unpredictable and fast-paced post-merge game. But even though the editing has given a fair shake to each castaway, unfortunately, the majority of these people just aren’t that enthralling as personalities or players. That’s summed up best by firefighter JP, who Probst tore into at last night’s tribal council via the art of the backhanded compliment. “JP gave a really interesting answer by basically saying nothing,” Probst said, as JP struggled with whether to be offended or not.
JP is an enigma. I can only really describe him as a stock image of a white man brought to life by a particularly uninspired wizard. He prides himself on doing and saying nothing. Even when his mouth is moving nothing intelligible comes out — it’s like listening to the world’s most boring Muppet. Other than his physical strength and chiseled abs, he brings nothing to the table… or the tribal. Right now, JP is the epitome of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers as a season, looks good but is oh so vanilla. Which is why it’s such a shame to see an engaging and intelligent player like Ali voted out ahead of such a humdrum block of muscle. But maybe JP has it right; perhaps the quiet game is the path to success this season.
Upon returning from last week’s tribal council, where Ryan sided with Chrissy over his old buddy Ali, the two former Hustlers quickly butt heads. Ali is rightly upset that Ryan left her out of the vote and questions why he decided to betray her trust. Ryan gets on the defensive and places the blame on Ali for becoming too close to Roark, despite Ali’s protestations that she’d “only known the girl for four days.” In his counter-argument, the bellhop states that four days is more than enough to form trust, after all, they themselves joined forces after only six. The two go back and forth like this for a while, with Ali breaking down in confessional, telling us that Ryan’s betrayal has completely shattered her trust with him going forward.
Ryan says Ali’s post-tribal protest “wasn’t a good look for her,” but honestly, the whole scene wasn’t a good look for either player. The smarter move for Ali would have been to bite her lip and take Ryan aside privately to bring up her grievances, rather than create a public display in front of Chrissy and JP. When you put someone on the spot like that in earshot of other players, it forces them to lash out in defense, making the situation ten times worse. For Ryan, he should have apologized immediately and made everyone realize his move was more about taking out Roark than betraying Ali, which he ended up doing later, but by that point, the wounds were already open.
Fighting at camp is not featured in the contents of the quiet game guidebook. It’s this public display of dissension which ultimately leads to Ali’s elimination and which could also taint Ryan’s future in this game too. When Ryan decided to boot Roark last week, and not inform Ali about it ahead of time, he knew he was taking a risk. He hoped his social game would be strong enough to patch things up back at camp, allowing him to move forward with two dependable allies in Ali and Chrissy. That idea undoubtedly backfired given Ali’s (justified) emotional reaction, and now Ryan finds himself in a position where he may have to vote out one of his Hustler numbers, all because he failed to tell her the plan last week.
I say “may” because for a short while it looks like JP is a viable boot contender. His tenacious performance in the Reward Challenge, which wins the Soko tribe a prize of pizza and soft drinks, has Ryan worried about JP’s physical capabilities. “Taking out a big physical threat before merge could be priority number one,” Ryan says, concerned about the “hard to read” JP going on an immunity streak come the merge. It’s this angle Ali tries to push after Soko loses the Immunity Challenge. After a quick make-up session with Ryan, where the two apologize for their previous confrontation, Ali approaches Chrissy with the idea of cutting JP. She argues that not only would they be removing a challenge threat but getting rid of an unknown quantity strategy-wise. Heading into the merge you want to surround yourself with people who are loyal and loyalty is what Ali offers Chrissy.
Ultimately, the decision comes down to what Ryan and Chrissy want. The pair are now firmly in each others’ pockets following their first successful tribal council together. Chrissy recognizes that JP is a threat, but she also remembers that Ali voted for her just three days ago. For Ryan, he’s simply stunned that everyone wants to work with him. “I’m a weasel,” he sniggers, practically salivating at the thought of backstabbing people. And backstab he does, as once again Ryan betrays Ali, voting with Chrissy and JP to send the former Hustler home. I’m not sure how well Ryan’s willingness to doublecross bodes for him heading into the merge, but in the end, JP’s strong but silent game was seen as less of a threat than Ali’s more vocal strategy.
Ali was a solid social player with an impressive ability to form allies. Her problem was in which of those allies she ultimately chose to move forward with in the game. Early on, back on the Hustlers tribe, she had strong relationships with Patrick and Simone, but she voted out both, instead choosing to put her loyalty into Ryan’s hands. Her likability and speed in forming bonds, seen post-swap with how quickly she and Roark developed a frienship, was always going to be a threat to someone like Ryan, who is also relying on his social game to get ahead. I suspect Ali is watching this back wishing she took a different path, and hopefully, the next time a returning players season rolls around, she’ll get a shot at rectifying those mistakes.
The talk of strength is also in the air on Yawa beach. Cole, much like JP, also boasts of his challenge abilities and how his tribe’s winning streak is all down to him. Nobody said modesty was his strong suit. But for Cole to continue carrying his tribe to victory, he needs to be fed, regardless of whether the rest of his tribemates are hungry or not. “He’s showing his true colors and they ain’t good,” Ben says after Cole catches himself a fish and refuses to share with the rest of the tribe. In contrast, Dr. Mike returns from a successful spearfishing excursion with a mere palm-sized catch, but is happy to portion it out amongst the tribe, even if the end product is essentially a spoonful of ash after being dropped into the fire.
It’s perhaps a case of karmic justice when Cole later faints outside the shelter. The moment is actually quite scary, as Cole falls flat on his face, shaking, and muttering unintelligibly like JP giving a confessional. He soon snaps back to reality but utterly unaware of what just happened. Luckily, he has both a doctor and a nurse on his tribe. Dr. Mike and Nurse Jessica replenish the fallen Wilderness Guide with liquids and rice until he’s back on his feet. Perhaps this was all just an elaborate ploy by Cole to get an extra meal? The scare makes Jessica realize she cares for Cole more than she thought and tells us that she doesn’t want to play this game without him.
The rest of the Yawa tribe, however, are more than ready to cut Cole loose. “Should have worried about his appetite more than his six-pack,” Ben half-jokingly says to Mike as the two sit atop a hill discussing Cole’s fate. Mike claims that Cole is a liability and that if he’s passing out on Day 16 then what he is going to be like as we get further into the season. Nobody wants to cater and pander to a needy 24-year-old, especially Lauren, whose no-nonsense approach to the game is becoming strangely endearing. “I can’t imagine Jess going to live in a van with [Cole],” she deadpans, referencing the potential romantic future between the island lovebirds. Cole has been fortunate not to attend tribal council yet this season because his head is firmly on the chopping block.
RINSE AND REPEAT
The Levu tribe is a prime example of this season’s monotony which is a shame given that it includes Joe, who, cut-price Tony comparisons aside, is one of the few personalities on this cast that pops. But it’s a tribe stuck on loop. Ashley and Devon on one side. Desi and Joe on the other side. The exciting prospect of a two-two tie and a rock-draw often uttered but never materialized. The editing team does their best with what they have, choosing to focus on Ashley’s attempts to sway Desi. But it’s all for naught because it’s quite clear the tribe is in no danger of losing another immunity challenge before the merge.
Instead, the only change of pace comes in the form of another idol discovery. But even that lacks excitement because it’s merely the same person finding an idol in the exact same spot he found one previously. I’m not entirely sure why Joe needed to look for another clue before going straight to the well. Surely logic would indicate that’s where the idol is likely to be buried? On a similar point, we see Joe telling Desi where he found his previous idol back at the old Healers beach. Why didn’t Desi take that info and start digging around the well in hopes of finding the idol herself? Maybe she did and was unable to find it, and the scene was left on the cutting room floor.
Regardless, Joe stumbles upon a clue while out crab hunting with Devon. He’s able to sneak a glance at the diagram painted on the tree while Devon walks ahead. It’s a bad look for Devon who previously mentioned how Joe needs to be kept under a watchful eye in case he finds another idol. Joe knows that his tribemates are on high alert and so waits until the dead of night to sneak off to the well and dig up his prize. I know the guy is probably sick of the Tony comparisons, but he’s not helping himself by getting on his hands and knees in the dark and digging bunker-like pits by the well. “This is work for me,” he says, “Everything I do is to provide a better life for my kids.” It was nice to see a more heartfelt side of Joe, but he is certainly not someone playing a quiet game, and therefore I worry how far he can truly go in this season.
THE MERGE COMETH
I don’t want to write Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers off just yet. We still have half the season left to go. There have been seasons in the past with lackluster pre-merge games which delivered killer episodes post-merge. San Juan Del Sur is a classic example of a dreary pre-merge but which almost instantly switched into high-gear once the merge hit. This season still has that potential. The dynamics and relationships set-up may be stagnating right now, but when brought together in the melting pot which is the Survivor merge, it could turn a quiet game into a raucous event.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Joe: Even though he should have known where to look without needing the clue, the dude still found another idol without the rest of his tribe knowing.
Chrissy: The question remains whether or not Ryan made the right move voting out Ali, but for Chrissy, it was obviously the wisest decision. She appears to have Ryan’s trust. She kept a Hero number in JP. And next week she is going to be back up with her other loyal ally, Ben. Not to mention she still has that decoy idol in her pocket.
Mike: His culinary skills may leave something to be desired, but Dr. Mike’s social game has skyrocketed since the swap. Ben and Lauren seem to really like him, and the bond he formed with Jessica last week is still holding strong. Heading into the merge with allies and idol, I expect Dr. Mike to do some serious damage.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.
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