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Survivor - Courtesy CBS

Really, all that needs to be said about this week’s episode is:

ABI IS GONE! THE WICKED WITCH IS DEAD!!!

Of course, there is a bit more to it than that, but not much. Skupin won the reward challenge and opted to take (obviously) Malcolm and Lisa with him on a boat-and-pizza afternoon. While Skupin got drunk on sugar, Denise was stuck at camp looking for things with which to gouge out her ears to avoid having to listen to Abi talk for one more second. While on the boat, Malcolm apparently solidified his final three, telling Skupin and Lisa that he wanted to go to the end with them. This is probably a good move by Malcolm, but it seems like adding insult to injury to do so when Denise is suffering so badly alone with Abi.

At the immunity challenge, Malcolm stages an amazing “come from behind” victory by being the first to complete the maze even though he fell off the ladder and had to restart. Malcolm’s win seemingly cleared the path for an easy vote, but nothing is ever easy on Survivor, especially with Lisa playing. Abi starts telling her that she’s definitely on the bottom of the final four (probably not all that far off), and Lisa, as she is wont to do, immediately seizes on Abi’s idea of getting rid of Denise while she has the chance. She and Skupin chat it over and apparently decide to take this course of action. The threat to Denise is compounded when she goes to Malcolm and asks him to give her his hidden immunity idol, since it’s the last chance to use it and he doesn’t need it. For some reason (perhaps because he recognizes that Denise is his biggest threat), Malcolm refuses, saying he’s going to bring it home and give it to his mom to put on her mantle. Perhaps Malcolm was hoping that Lisa and Skupin would do his dirty work for him and he could get rid of Lisa without having to actually betray her.

Ultimately, Lisa flipped (or flopped) before tribal council or during Abi’s insanely annoying rant in which she continually called Skupin an idiot and a moron, Abi was finally sent home, and the final four that was agreed on weeks ago came to fruition. Now the real fun begins.

So: Will Malcolm complete his improbable run from worst tribe to sole Survivor? How many more times will Lisa flip-flop? Will either Lisa-Skupin or Malcolm-Denise break up, or will it come down to a 2-2 tie and a fire challenge to decide the final 3? Was Denise bitten by a vampire and how will she use her vampire skills to ensure herself a spot in the final 3?

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Survivor - Courtesy CBS

Let me just go on record as saying that I hate family visit episodes. The hysterical crying, the waxing poetic about how much their family members mean to them, all the talk about how it puts it all into perspective . . . ugh. I want to yell at them all to shut up. Maybe I have a heart made of ice, but I can’t help thinking how ridiculous these people are. It’s been a month since you saw each other and you’re going to be home in a week (not to mention, with the exception of Denise and her husband, I highly doubt that any of these people live with their loved ones still and, if that’s the case, I’d imagine they regularly go a month or more without seeing each other.) So just everybody calm down. Blah blah blah the stress of the game but seriously, you all look crazy. The family visit this time was made exponentially more annoying by the presence of Lisa and her angel of a younger brother, Justice. He didn’t even seem creeped out by her sobbing snotty tears into his t-shirt, so I’m left with the horrible realization that Lisa’s over-dramatic behaviour in the game isn’t quite as far removed from reality as I was hoping.

Anyway, the reward challenge starts up right away, and Malcolm and his goofy younger brother win a day together at camp. As was to be expected, Malcolm gets to choose other people to get to share in this joy and he chooses Lisa and Skupin (whose behaviour towards his namesake son – the “best human being I’ve ever known” – was second only to Lisa for its over-the-topness). I thought he made a mistake by not choosing Denise, but she didn’t seem to upset about it. And Lisa is a wildcard, so Malcolm rightly assumed that having her brother there would help her to avoid a complete meltdown.

What Malcolm didn’t necessarily count on is that Lisa’s brother would try and convince her to revive her earlier idea about blindsiding Malcolm. They bring the two Michael Skupins over to further discuss this idea, and then they form a surreal prayer circle to ask God to bless their blindside. Even though Lisa later said in a talking head that she doesn’t really think that God has the time to care about the outcome of a reality TV show, it’s pretty clear from their prayers and subsequent discussions that they think there’s a pretty good chance that he’s at least tuning in. They then have a surreal discussion about what Jesus would be like if he played Survivor, concluding he’d look like Malcolm and play like Carter, which is pretty weird if you ask me. Jesus could be a pretty harsh dude when he wanted to be.

Anywho, all these machinations turn out to be for naught when Malcolm wins immunity (Lisa/Skupin decide that God obviously has bigger plans with them in the final four). It was made especially sweeter by the fact that Malcolm didn’t even know he was in danger, and with his subsequent glee at realizing that he still has the hidden idol (which he’ll play next week) and is therefore guaranteed a spot in the final four. With Malcolm’s win, Lisa and Skupin abandon all thought of breaking up the decided-upon final four and discussion turns to whether they should get rid of Abi (who is still playing her fake “hidden immunity idol” for all its worth) or Carter. Although Carter makes a semi-coherent argument that if they get rid of him, they’d be going against their stated belief in keeping people around who actually deserve to be there, the four ultimately decide that Carter’s too much of a threat and vote him out. It probably wasn’t a bad move, really, since Carter almost won this immunity challenge and, as I’ve said before, had the potential to sneak in the back door of the final four by winning out. Still (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before) I HATE ABI and I WANT HER GONE, so I can’t totally get behind this move. At this rate, I’m worried that something really weird is going to happen and Abi’s going to be sitting at that final tribal council. While I know that she would have no chance at winning, I don’t think I could stomach the sight of Abi trying to explain why she’s deserving of the million.

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After Skupin’s surprise flip last week, it was pretty much a certainty that this week would be decidedly less dramatic. Still, thanks to some skilful editing and some not-so-skilful players, even going into Tribal Council there was a 1% chance that someone other than Pete/Abi was going home. After a few seasons where there was clearly one dominant player who controlled everything from early on, it’s refreshing to have a season where there are so many people who see themselves as leaders and who, in fact, have acted as leaders at one point or another.

Post-Tribal, Abi decided to go passive-aggressive rather than apoplectic-aggressive. She shrugged off Lisa’s attempts at a cordial break-up conversation, and announced (seemingly at every opportunity) that she was no longer going to bother cooking. Her new strategy seems to be to just lay around, enjoy the next few days on the beach and piss everyone else off. In more recent seasons, this would have essentially punched her ticket to the final 3 (no jury votes!) but this season is different. This seasons’ players seem focused on only bringing people who deserve it to the final and that certainly doesn’t include Abi.

Since it’s obvious in the first act how the votes are going to go down at Tribal, the 6 non-Abi/Pete people take the opportunity to try and lock down a final 4. There are essentially 3 pairs – Malcolm/Denise, Lisa/Skupin, Penner/Carter. Malcolm and Denise approach Lisa and Skupin with a promise of a final 4, but Lisa says she trusts Penner more than Malcolm so they approach him. In a move that probably wasn’t very smart, Penner says he’d rather focus on getting Abi and Pete out before he makes any promises to anyone. In previous seasons (from what I understand), Penner was burned for making promises that he couldn’t keep, and he seems hellbent on avoiding that this time around by not making any premature promises. What Penner apparently didn’t anticipate is that his procrastinating sent Lisa and Skupin right into Malcolm and Denise’s arms, where they sealed their alliance with a supercool jungle handshake. Naturally, a lot can happen in the next few weeks to shake up that handshake, but things are looking pretty good for Malcolm and Denise in particular, thanks to Malcolm’s hidden immunity idol.

The Immunity Challenge was an impressively intricate rope maze that neither Abi nor Pete had any real shot of winning. Carter took home the Immunity necklace, and I’m starting to think that he’s going to sneak into the final 4 and maybe even a win. This was his second individual immunity, and as far as I can tell, he barely says anything (positive or negative) around camp. I wouldn’t put it past him to win out and force a breakup of that solid 4 alliance.

This time, though, Carter’s win just solidified the plan – 3 votes for Abi, 3 votes for Pete, whoever doesn’t play the idol goes home. Pete makes a last-ditch effort to convince someone – anyone – to flip and vote out Malcolm while they have a chance to blindside him, but he’s almost universally rebuffed in a hilarious montage. Penner in particular was hilarious, essentially telling Pete that he gets points for trying but that’s about it. It’s only once he gets to Skupin that there might be a sliver of hope. Instead of immediately rejecting him, Skupin listens, tells him he has some good points, and generally seems to be considering the move. Couple that with the fact that we’ve seen Skupin flip based on last minute decisions before, and the Tribal Council at least had some tension.

Jeff Probst took it upon himself to take what might be his last opportunity to go after Abi. Her cluelessness at both challenges (during the reward challenge: “Abi, are you clear on what’s happening here?” “No, not really”) and her cluelessness about general social interactions were at the forefront. She was apparently completely unaware that people hated her and thought of her as annoying. When Jeff tried to give her an out by suggesting maybe her problems with the other tribe members were because of cultural differences, Abi says she doesn’t think so because she has lots of American friends who like her fiestiness. It’s a ridiculous excuse in any case, because I feel like we’d hear about it a lot more if Brazil was filled with 200 million assholes. No, Abi’s bitchiness is just due to her inherent Abi-ness.

Despite the seemingly meaningful looks between Pete and Skupin during Tribal, the vote went down exactly how it was laid out in the first act. Abi played her immunity idol, and Pete was sent home. Next week, it’ll be Abi for sure, since there’s no way she’ll even come close to winning an immunity challenge. After that, the next real phase of the game begins.

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Well, things just got a little more interesting. Oh sure, Kalabaw has replaced Matsing as the pathetic tribe that can’t do anything right (lending credence to my prediction of Denise as bad luck charm), but this week they actually lost a tribe by negotiating a win for it. So that was something new and different.

The reward challenge involved the two teams being pitted against each other to push a giant wicker ball around a muddy field, with the winner being the first team to score 3 goals. For once, it seems like Survivor‘s cracked team of challenge testers – I assume these people exist and frankly, I’d watch a reality show about the creation and testing of Survivor games before I’d watch a lot of other shows out there right now – anyway, it seems like the challenge testers failed to realize that this challenge would devolve into a weird muddy stalemate with people in various compromising positions around the giant ball. After an hour of this (I loved the shot of the other team members slowly deciding to sit down on the sidelines as the boredom set in), Penner and Skupin start talking. Penner brought it up initially, but Skupin was more than happy to latch on – if the Kabalaw tribe is allowed to win and go to the Survivor picnic of sandwiches and brownies, they’ll give the yellow tribe (I’m not going to learn their name until they actually go to tribal council) the rest of their rice. Thanks to a very informative segment at the beginning of the show, the yellow tribe is running dangerously low on rice, partly because Skupin apparently decided that eating it raw would cook it in their stomachs. This guy has obviously had one too many hits on the head, but the other tribe members are just as stupid for going along with it. Probst eventually tells the tribes (I’m sure after some rushed conversations in the producer’s tent) that he’ll allow this strange turn of events as long as all the members of the tribe agree to it. Penner secures Kalabaw’s acquiescence by promising to fish for food (although it’s not clear why they haven’t been eating a ton of fish before now, if he’s so proficient at fishing), but Skupin has a bit more trouble. He finally gets passive aggressive “whatever, do what you want” type answers from Abi and Artis, who both seem to like complaining after the fact than doing something at the time. So, everybody wins! Yellow gets all the rice (which in the end amounts to about one day’s more rice than they already had) and red gets momentary satisfaction but is now completely foodless and screwed going forward. Oh, the reward also includes Letters from Home, which seems kind of early, doesn’t it? The survivors gamely put on their “this is better than any brownie or sustained rice supply could ever be!” faces, but unless they’re going to eat the letters, that’s mostly just empty propaganda.

Back at camp the next day, Penner talks a big game but manages to catch two of the tiniest fish I’ve ever seen. Everyone has a bite of it raw, and Penner annoys everyone by continuing to ramble on about how full he is from that tiny bite. Carter whines about how he’s going to be the first to die if it comes to a starve-off. I can’t totally blame him – having no rice is really stupid, even just because you don’t have that psychological safety net that the rice will always be there if everything else fails. I am personally really happy to see the question of starvation brought back into the game again. I like it better when tribes have to ration their rice and people definitely bring more drama when they’re half-starved. It’s Survivor 101.

The immunity challenge involves one tribe member using a sling shot to shoot the ball where all the other players have to try to catch it with a basket. It’s a Survivor-lacrosse-baseball hybrid, and unsuprisingly, Jeff Kent is really good at it. Unfortunately, they have Katie on their team, who Probst once again points out, is completely useless. Yellow tribe has to sit out a guy and a girl, and Abi again sits. When Probst asks incredulously why she’s only played 2 out of 8 challenges, she says it’s not her fault. I wish they’d show the strategy sessions where they decide she should sit. From my angle, she is just a whiny, annoying girl who prefers to sit out and criticize what other people do than participate and put herself in a position to be criticized. Anyway, none of it really matters because Malcolm is a god among men and runs circles around Carter and, in the deciding point, Jeff Kent. Kalabaw once again goes back to tribal council.

The strategizing around camp is really well-edited, to the point where it’s actually not clear whether Katie or Penner will be going home. Denise professes to feel vulnerable at tribal, but she was conspicuously absent from all conversations around camp, so I knew it wouldn’t be her. The decision really fell to Jeff Kent and Carter to choose whether to send the useless Katie or the big-talking but equally useless Penner home. They suspect that Penner has the hidden idol and think it might be a good idea to blindside him, or at least flush out the idol. All the talk about blindsides during tribal was really fun, and added to the drama of what was about to happen, since everyone knew someone was going to be blindsided, but no one knew who. I also particularly loved when Probst asked Kent whether he plays any game in the real world that is similar to Survivor in terms of strategy. Kent didn’t take the bait, but I hope he stays around for a long time so Probst can get more obvious with his references to Kent’s baseball past – “Jeff, would you say you hit a figurative home run at the challenge today? Have you ever hit a literal home run at the major league level?”

In the end, Penner only got Katie’s vote (and seemed actually delighted at the possibility of being blindsided), but Katie was the one who was (rightfully) sent home. Penner might have been the idiot who lost them the rice, but Katie is the idiot who has lost them 2 challenges, so you do what you gotta do. Of course, from the previews for next week’s episode, it looks like the merge is immanent, so Kent might have made a strategic error by not eliminating Penner when they had the chance. On the other hand, this season of Survivor has been filled with “twists” that I wouldn’t count anyone out just yet. Plus, yellow tribe has had these simmering issues for so long, that they might go crazy when they get to their first tribal and send home one of their own. After the negotiations in the reward challenge this week, I’m ready for anything.

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Well, it was inevitable I suppose. Despite how much I would have liked it if the Survivor gods could have figured out a way to let poor, pathetic Matsing continue on as a tribe of two (and I especially liked the comically tiny mat they had at the beginning of the reward challenge), it just wasn’t to be, and they were absorbed into the red and yellow tribes (whose names I suppose I will now have to learn). What’s disappointing is that this alliance that Malcolm and Denise have forged is now probably irrelevant, since it’s unlikely they’ll both make it back to the merge, and even if they do, they’ll probably have found new loyalties by then (although if Malcolm manages to hang on to the hidden immunity idol, a whole bunch of possibilities remain open). Anyway, now the game is basically starting fresh, the three-tribe experiment being an unfortunate failure.

Both Malcolm’s yellow tribe and Denise’s red tribe welcome them with open arms. Both are immediately approached to become the swing vote in an alliance, and both smartly (and eagerly) accept. Anything to keep them in the game another week. It’s surprising how no one was shown as planning on voting them out the first chance they got. There’s no such thing as tribal loyalty in this season, I guess. I loved how much Malcolm was revelling in being the popular kid. He seemed re-energized, and his performance in both of the challenges showed just how much of a threat he could be when surrounded by a competent tribe. At this point, he’s definitely my favourite.

With the merge of the tribes came the separation of the reward and immunity challenges. The reward challenge was cool, as players from opposite tribes had to knock the idols off of their opponent’s balancing thingy (that was the technical term I think). Skupin figured out the strategy (throwing your own idol high in the air and then knocking your distracted opponents off ensuring his hits the ground before yours) and it was then copied by everyone else until the yellow tribe won reward (cookies and muffins). Malcolm’s giddiness was contrasted with Denise’s continued dejection. Back at camp, things got even worse for Denise’s new red tribe, as Dana takes ill and decides to leave the game even though, as Jeff Probst noted time and again, she wasn’t sick enough to be forced out yet. Jeff also got a little handsy during the whole thing, taking off her coat and rubbing her back, shoulders, and legs. I know he was trying to be comforting but it was a little much.

Anyway, Dana’s departure was a problem for the red tribe’s female alliance, and someone named Katie and someone named Dawson seemed to be in the crosshairs to be eliminated, especially since, despite Katie’s happiness at having Denise there to help out their female numbers, she never seemed to actually approach Denise with this idea. Instead, Denise was squarely on Jeff Kent’s side.

The immunity challenge (of the obstacle course/puzzle variety) was close, but Katie’s pathetic inability to get across the first obstacle seemed to have been the deciding factor in cementing their loss (as Jeff Probst so helpfully pointed out again and again and again). Back at camp, discussion turned to whether to vote out Dawson or Katie. For the first time since the first episode, we actually got to see more of Dawson. She’s the only one who knows Jeff Kent’s true identity, and it seems her strategy for using this information is to make subtle remarks about how much baseball sucks. This doesn’t seem to accomplish much more than annoying Jeff and making everyone else wonder why the hell this girl talks about baseball so much if she hates it, but her inane rambling might have been one of the reasons the tribe ultimately decides to vote her out instead of the useless Katie. After Jeff Probst snuffed her torch, Dawson stopped and I thought for a glorious second she was going to reveal Jeff Kent’s true identity. Instead, in possibly one of the weirdest moments in tribal council history, she gave Jeff Probst a longing gaze, leaned in for a hug and an awkward kiss on the cheek.

So, that’s that. It’s hard to see how Malcolm’s stacked yellow tribe will ever lose a challenge, particularly if they keep getting to sit Abi (I love that Jeff Probst pointed out that she’s only played 2 challenges so far – hopefully that will make her the first to go if they ever arrive at tribal. There’s crazy and then there’s batshit crazy and I think she’s the latter). Wouldn’t it be funny if the red tribe also got down to 2 people? At what point would you have to identify Denise as a bad luck charm and not just an unfortunate bystander?

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After last week’s bore, Survivor was back with a vengeance this week. Sure, the ending was the same (Matsing lost, yet again), but the journey was so much more enjoyable.

First of all, things are finally getting interesting at the other tribes. Some guy named Pete (who I swear last week was called Peter) has decided to “create a little chaos” by taking the hidden idol clue that Abi showed him and putting it in RC’s things where everyone could find it. Now Abi thinks RC is a liar, RC thinks Abi is even crazier than usual, and Pete is sitting happy in the middle. Even if there’s no immediate consequences, it was at least fun to watch and bodes well for the imminent post-Matsing future.

Meanwhile, at the red tribe, Jeff Kent, Penner, and some guy named Carter (who must have been dropped off on the island yesterday because he sure as hell hasn’t been on screen at all before then) have decided to form an alliance. The girls sensed this, and the girl with short blond hair, the girl who knows who Jeff Kent is, and the other one (who may or may not be named Dawson) formed their own counter-alliance. Once again, there are no immediate consequences but the game play is definitely ramping up on the other beaches. I only question the likelihood that any of these early strategizing sessions will matter, as I anticipate a full-on reorganization of the tribes once Matsing is decimated beyond repair. Jeff Kent and Penner might be solid now, but there’s a good chance they’ll end up on opposite tribes, so I’m not going to put too much stock into their (five-fingered!) handshakes. Yet.

Still, though, most of the time was spent with Matsing. Their desperation was palpable as they entered the immunity challenge, and, with Malcolm heading out first, they actually enjoyed a lead. This challenge was all about brute force, so the other tribes were at a definite advantage in being allowed to sit their three girls. Denise held her own, but Russell once again slowed everyone down. The shots of him collapsed feebly with his hand on the mat while Malcolm struggled like hell to break those rice pots was telling. As Jeff put it, he acts as though he’s Superman, but really, he’s just a man, and a man who’s bad at challenges to boot. The immunity challenge itself was one of the most entertaining ones in a long time. I loved the way it was shot, I loved the way Jeff kept yelling more and more frantically, I loved that it came down to a final shot between Jeff Kent and Malcolm, and I loved that Jeff Kent’s ball missed it on the way by and broke it on the way back. They didn’t show it, but I can picture an aside on the cutting room floor where Jeff Kent attributed his ability to win the challenge to competing for so many years in the pressure of the MLB. The whole thing was just thrilling and, for a second or two there, I actually thought Matsing might avoid tribal council for the first time.

Alas, it was not to be. The subsequent discussions around camp took on a really interesting dynamic. After the first few seasons when there was a final two instead of a final three, I can’t think of another time when three people had to sit around and decide who was going to go home. As Malcolm noted, every discussion between two people involved a promise to vote the other one out. At tribal council, Jeff forced all of them to make their case for why they should stay, but the tone was more joking than defeated. At this point, I guess you pretty much have to laugh to keep from weeping. Malcolm and Denise finally made the right decision and sent a bewildered Russell home.

The producers this week surprised me by not instituting a merge/reshuffling of tribes, and I hope this continues next week. I’d love to see what Malcolm and Denise accomplish without the deadweight Russell. I don’t know how a tribe of 2 would work, or how they’d figure out challenges (I don’t think they could sit 4 people from the other tribes, so they just might have to do target practice challenges where everyone rotates but it’s ultimately one-on-one-on-one), but it’s nice to know that, after 25 seasons, Survivor still has the ability to surprise.

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After a promising season premiere, this week’s episode faltered a bit. All the benefits of having smaller tribes that I talked about last week (more face time for individual players, more intense interactions between alliance members) are rendered moot when the tribe that’s getting the most airplay is so boring. Compounded by the fact that episodes of torrential downpours are limited in their dramatic potential anyway because everyone just sits around in their shelter, and episode 2 didn’t have much of a chance.

The hapless blue tribe (aka Matsing) was once again front and centre, first in the post-tribal council discussions, then in the whining about the rain, and then, when they lost their second immunity challenge, in the discussions around camp, and finally, in tribal council. I’d say the episode had about an 80-20 split, with that 20% being divided between the red and yellow tribes and the immunity challenge. For all that time, I can’t say I know or care too much more about anyone on the blue tribe. Russell’s new strategy is to not be the leader, but that was his strategy last time and it blew up in his face. Angie’s fake boobs are threatening to Roxy, and so is her cuddling with Malcolm. Roxy might not be very good at expressing herself in a way that doesn’t come across as paranoid/crazy, but she is right that the tribe should be worried about that alliance. On the other hand, if they lose the next challenge and get down to 3, it’s hard to imagine that the Survivor Powers That Be would be able to avoid an early merge. 2 people might be a big deal in a group of 4, but it doesn’t amount to much in a new tribe of 10. Additionally, it’s more than likely that the “random” new tribe assignments would split up the budding couple (or, perhaps, the budding “brother-sister relationship”), so the whole thing probably will wind up being a big old nothing. In any case, even after Angie’s ridiculous “cookies” answer to Jeff’s question about what could be improved at camp, the tribe decides to kick loud-mouthed Roxy off the island. Not surprising, despite the number of minutes of screen time spent on trying to convince us that there was a chance of Angie going home.

Meanwhile, Penner finds the hidden immunity idol, which the Survivor producers cleverly hid as the decoration on top of the rice container. I applaud the shakeup of the standard immunity idol formula, but I question the plausibility of no one noticing that their rice lid is now suspiciously unadorned. Maybe someone did notice and Penner came up with a good explanation, but we were too busy watching the boring goings-on at Matsing to get to see this revelation. Also, at the yellow tribe, Lisa continues to alienate herself by sitting at the well alone and complaining that she doesn’t fit in.

Next week, Michael gets hurt again! Hopefully less blue tribe!

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