Last year, Survivor host and executive producer Jeff Probst sent out a tweet asking if fans would like to see more two-hour-long episodes. The response was almost a resounding “yes.” With the increasingly complex gameplay, the influx of advantages, and time-sucking twists such as the Edge of Extinction, it was becoming near impossible to craft a coherent narrative in a regular 60-minute episode (42 minutes without commercials). Unfortunately, as mighty and powerful as Jeff is in the world of Survivor, he has no jurisdiction over the CBS schedule, as he explained in a Winners At War preseason interview. A couple of double episodes per season were as much as CBS was willing to budge.
It’s episodes like this, though, that demonstrate the need for a longer weekly runtime. In an effort to cram so much in, including 19 (yes, NINETEEN) family visits, it means that we bounce all over the place with no real sense of direction. This is particularly damaging in a game where the dynamics are continually shifting and new strategies are always forming. The less time we spend at camp, the harder it is to figure out just what exactly is going on. Alliances change at a moment’s notice for no real rhyme or reason. Relationships we thought were meaningful are thrown aside like an old pair of underwear. And the final vote leaves us in a puddle of perplexion, our brains melting out of our ears. I understand the element of surprise, but there is a difference between a good surprise and a bad surprise. “Surprise! We’ve bought you a new car!” Unexpected and amazing! “Surprise! Mom and Dad are getting a divorce!” Wait, what? Why is this happening? What does it all mean?! This episode falls firmly in the latter category.
The reason the final 15 minutes is so slapdash is in large part due to the extended family visit that takes up almost 30 minutes of the episode. A staple of Survivor, the family visit continues to divide the fanbase. Some people love it, others hate it. Personally, while I think the family visit has provided some classic moments over the years (Jonny Fairplay’s infamous “dead grandma lie” being the number one), it’s not something I find especially entertaining. That doesn’t mean I’m an emotionless monster, I promise. There are times I get a little choked up, including this episode, which amped up the emotion by bringing the castaways’ children out to the island. My issue is more with how melodramatically these moments are handled by the show itself, down to Jeff’s incessant exposition, as if he’s an android trying to process human behavior. It all gets a little bit Lifetime movie special with its sentimental platitudes and histrionic soundtrack.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some sweet scenes. Sarah joking that her son is “playing with the enemy” as all the different kids run around the beach together is funny. Seeing the return of Nadiya, Val, Rachel, and John — all of whom have played this game themselves — is exciting. And there is some unifying power in seeing families reunite in these uncertain times when many people are separated from their closest loved ones. But boy, does this episode milk the melodrama. Just when you think this feature-length lovefest is drawing to a close, no, the eliminated players on the Edge also get a surprise visit from their families. Again, it’s cute seeing Parvati cuddle her baby daughter and Rob and Amber showing their four girls where their love story started. But half an hour of hugging and crying begins to grate. Obviously, the excessiveness of this family visit has some contractual bargaining behind it. I imagine the promise of a visit from their kids was what got many of these past winners to agree to return. In fact, in a pregame interview, Tyson admits as much, claiming he put his foot down about having his daughter be part of the family visit. So, I get that, and I don’t begrudge these players for making demands, especially after all they’ve given Survivor over the years. But I didn’t need to see so damn much of it.
An Immunity Challenge immediately follows, which leaves us with about ten minutes for the pre-Tribal strategizing. And there’s a lot going on! Tony is the only person 100 percent safe, having won his first-ever Individual Immunity necklace, ironically in a challenge that required patience, a quality diametrically opposed to Tony’s usual playstyle. “Slow and steady is not what I’m made of,” he laughs. “I’m more fast and sloppy.” Regardless of whatever the reading is on his speedometer, Tony is “bulletproof” tonight, and, therefore, powerful. Various players approach him with their plans. Jeremy wants to split up Sarah and Sophie, who he perceives as a growing threat to his game. Sarah, meanwhile, is interested in taking out Kim but gets into a comical quarrel with her Cops “R” Us partner over whether that’s the right move or not. You see, Tony would much prefer removing Tyson over Kim. “Talking to Tony is like talking to a rock,” says a flustered Sarah. “And this is going to end badly if we can’t work it out.”
Things only get wilder from here. Tony checks in with Ben and Nick and presents an alternative plan — blindsiding Jeremy. At this point, I’m wondering what happened to the “big threats” alliance between Tony, Jeremy, Ben, and Tyson? Clearly, there is no time to explain, as the Jeremy plan picks up momentum, particularly after Tony tells Sarah that Jeremy threw her name out. Then, Kim, realizing she’s on the outs, convinces Jeremy and Tyson that they need to stick together. Now, these three are remnants of the once-feared “Poker Alliance,” but there is no mention of that in the episode. They’re just suddenly together because … reasons. And Denise and Michele are with them too. Although Michele was previously aligned with Nick, who is now voting with the other alliance? You see what I mean? Some significant pieces are missing from this story. And just when you think you’ve got it all in place, a sack full of grenades is emptied onto the table in the form of advantages.
Kim tells her alliance about her idol and how she’s happy to play it for one of them. “I’m willing to go to the Edge making a move,” she states. Across the beach, Jeremy informs Tyson of his Safety Without Power advantage, which allows him to leave Tribal before the votes are cast. Tyson warns him not to use it because they need his vote for the numbers. Meanwhile, Sophie suggests Sarah use her Vote Steal in order to avoid a potential rock draw. “This is a war,” Sophie says. “And when the smoke clears, we’ll see who is dead in the trenches.” That’s a quote worthy of a Survivor epic, and I won’t lie, there is an electrifying energy before and during Tribal Council. The proceedings again rapidly descend into a hodgepodge of side conversations and not-so-covert whispering. “You can’t ever truly know what is going on,” remarks Kim as she takes a brief respite from the chaos to answer Jeff’s question. Hey, at least it’s not just me who is lost.
Tribal Council culminates in a cavalcade of advantages. Jeremy and Sarah face off in a hilarious game of chicken as they both go to play their secret powers at the same time. “You go first,” says Sarah. “No, ladies first,” Jeremy responds. It’s a tense stalemate as both players try to keep their cards hidden, not wanting to tip off the other. Sarah stands her ground, though, forcing Jeremy to make the first move, revealing his Safety Without Power advantage and saying peace out to tonight’s Tribal. “He left his squad,” comments Wendell from the jury bench. It’s hard to knock Jeremy’s decision, though, as he was clearly the intended target judging by the disorder that follows. Sophie firmly, and smartly, puts a stop to the scrambling by loudly suggesting the five in her alliance simply huddle together and decide who they’re voting for. This leaves the minority of Kim, Denise, Michele, and Tyson to work out where the vote is going to land so that Kim can correctly play her idol. In a brilliant bit of misdirection, Sarah uses her Steal A Vote on Denise, not only bagging herself an extra vote but making it appear that Denise is the target, causing Kim to misplay her idol. The real mark is Tyson, who is sent back to the Edge, hopefully where his jar of peanut butter is waiting for him.
Exciting? Sure. But satisfying? That’s debatable. The vote count wound up being five for Tyson, two for Denise, and two for Sophie, which, when you think about it for a second, doesn’t make any sense. Why were there only two Sophie votes when Kim, Michele, and Tyson were supposedly voting together? Did one of them flip? They must have, but the episode didn’t bother to show us the who or the why. Logic would dictate the flipper was Michele, but that requires us as viewers to fill in the gaps, which shouldn’t be how this works. You don’t get to the end of a book only to be told to write the final chapter yourself — although, I wouldn’t have minded that option for The Girl on the Train. Maybe if we hadn’t spent half the runtime watching Survivor Family Robinson, we could have had a more comprehensible and, ultimately, a more rewarding story. Either that or CBS gives Survivor what it deserves, longer weekly episodes!
• It’s fitting that Tyson leaves in the episode he gets to see his wife and daughter, given his story has focused on how fatherhood has changed him.
• Jeff randomly thanking Fiji Airways for flying all the family members out is a little jarring. But I get it, that must have been a noisy plane journey!
• As tired as I was with the family stuff by the end, the post-credits sequence of the Edge inhabitants group hugging Jeff to thank him for bringing their loved ones out was sweet.
• “I’m glad we didn’t have to compete for our children.” Don’t speak too soon Ben, that’s the next twist!