“The truth comes out when you’re emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted,” explains Ben at one point in this penultimate double-episode extravaganza. It’s a somewhat contradictory observation in a game built on the back of lies and deception. But for all the “It’s just a game/I’m not here to make friends” rhetoric, Survivor can become deeply personal, especially in an all-returning-player season such as this. Real bonds are forged in the trenches of war. But the longer you survive in the game, the more betrayals you experience, and the more friends you lose along the way. Mix in the sleep deprivation, the starvation, and Jeff Probst’s incessant commentary, and as Jeremy puts it at Tribal Council, “How can this game be anything but personal?”
This episode puts the personal toll of the game front and center. As mentioned last week, Ben can barely contain his contempt for Jeremy. And the crazy thing is, there was no inciting incident here, no despicable act to put them at odds. It’s not as if Jeremy peed in Ben’s Stetson. The two men simply ended up on opposite sides, and a foiled blindside or two later, they were on non-speaking terms. Is it petty for Ben to hold a grudge? Sure. But that’s what this game can do to the psyche. And it’s also the kind of personality clash other players have to strategize around. That’s the case here for Sarah and Tony, both of whom see Jeremy as a necessary component of their end-game. He’s the human Riot shield to protect the Cops R Us alliance from a potential uprising in the form of Denise, Nick, and Michele. Convincing Ben to bury his beef for the second vote in a row, though, is no easy task. Well, at least, it shouldn’t be.
“If Ben never gets a turn at driving, he won’t want to go to the end with [Tony and I],” explains Sarah, recognizing the necessity of making Ben believe the decision is in his hands. It’s an exquisite display of manipulation from the Iowa cop, who gently persuades Ben to remove emotion from the game momentarily and think about what best serves them as a group. Before you know it, Ben is touting the benefits of keeping Jeremy and pushing to blindside Nick, as if he came up with the idea himself. But when Nick wins Immunity, and a plan B is invoked, it brings the troubled Ben and Jeremy relationship back into focus. Not liking the sound of Sarah’s plan to vote Denise, Ben makes a push for Jeremy by rustling up some behind-the-scenes chaos. He attempts to create dissension between Jeremy and Michele, using Michele’s 50/50 Coin (which Jeremy returned to her) as a tool of anarchy. The only issue is, neither Jeremy nor Michele trusts Ben, and after comparing notes, quickly realize he’s trying to play them.
Michele has an emotional mini-arc of her own across this pair of episodes. Usually calm and level-headed, the Survivor: Kaoh Rong champ unburdens herself as the stress of the game sinks in its claws. “I came in wanting to play an aggressive game, but I feel like I took a butter knife to a gunfight,” she says after returning from yet another Tribal on the wrong side of the vote. Her feeble performance in the first Immunity Challenge of the evening only exacerbates the problem. The hugs and words of encouragement from her fellow tribemates might help dry the tears, but they don’t change her position in the game. Michele knows she is on the outs, especially after being duped again at the Jeremy vote. Her and Jeremy’s plan to target Ben is thwarted by Tony, who, when forced to choose between the two, prefers Ben to stay, knowing he has a better chance beating him at the end over the fierce firefighter with the adorable family. So, Tony gathers the numbers to split the vote between Michele and Jeremy, rendering the 50/50 Coin all but useless, sending Jeremy to the Edge, and leaving Michele safe for now, screwed for later.
When you’re deceived that often, it’s not such a leap to understand how this game can create real-life trust issues. It’s a topic touched upon at the first Tribal, as Michele, Ben, and Jeremy describe the difficulties they had adjusting to regular life after the first time they played. Michele recalls second-guessing her friends over simple things, like the right direction to the bar, while Ben remembers having trust issues with his wife. “I wasn’t right for three months after I came home,” adds Jeremy. I mean, it’s hard to feel too sorry for three millionaires, but it’s an example of Survivor’s personal effect, both inside and outside of the game.
But it’s not all a dreary family counseling session. Because with those intense lows also come exhilarating highs. Take, for example, Ben’s giddy joy in outdrawing Jeremy in what he describes as an old Western shootout. “I feel fantastic,” he says, having finally slain his mortal enemy.
As for Michele, she too gets her moment of jubilation in the second hour of the night, though it starts out rough. Having been blindsided again, she lets loose on Nick, someone she thought she could trust but who is consistently voting against her. “I was wondering if you’d have the balls to come talk to me,” she snipes, bringing out some of that promised Michele sass. She castigates Nick for being too naive to see that they are on the bottom. And she’s not wrong. The others are basically already settled on voting Michele out next; Tony, in particular. Sarah humors her that all is not as dire as it seems, but Michele can see through the charade. She is “blackballed,” but that doesn’t mean she is about to give up. “I do some of my best work when my back is against the wall,” she declares. She starts by trying to get into Sarah’s head about how Tony is “unbeatable” at the end and how big of a mistake it would be to sit next to him. “I’ll give her an A for effort,” comments Sarah, brushing off the dogged attempt.
It’s at the next Immunity Challenge, though, where Michele soars. Firstly, she shares two of her tokens with Nick, so that he can pay the extortionate eight token fee for an advantage sent from the Edge by Natalie. It’s a power that allows its holder to anonymously disadvantage another player in the challenge. At the Final Six, that’s a big deal, and so Michele and Nick decide to hinder Ben — a smart choice seeing as Ben comes close to winning even with 30 percent more dominoes to stack, meaning he likely had it in the bag otherwise. That blasts the door open for Michele to win her first Immunity necklace of the season, letting out an impassioned scream and a goofy celebratory dance as she does so. The lack of applause from her fellow tribemates is all the confirmation required to know she needed this. “I was on a funeral march to my own funeral,” says Michele. “Now, nah nah nah nah nah, you can’t get me!”
With the main target off the menu once again, that means it’s time to look for alternative options. Surprisingly, Denise offers herself up, requesting a last meal before her execution. She buys an extra bag of rice with her remaining tokens (the last day to spend them) and cooks up a bountiful batch for herself and the tribe. This, of course, is all a smokescreen. “I’m taking on the role of the dejected Survivor player,” she explains. Denise is another player feeling the personal strain of the game. Last week, she snapped at Jeremy out of frustration with the ceaseless whispering at Tribal. She’d simply had enough. But she didn’t mean she was done with the game. “I’m done with dealing with things the way I have been,” she explains. “I need to not get so upset about the process.” There’s a sweet moment where Denise takes a moment for herself at camp, painting a sign with a motto she intends to get tattooed, “Endure and Let Go.”
Endure is what Denise does best. She waits patiently among the chaos, luring people into a false sense of security, and then she strikes. That’s what happens here as she plays dead, fooling Nick and Michele into what they presume is an easy vote — so easy, in fact, that they abandon their plan to target Ben. “Whatever the game hands you, you go with,” says Nick, thinking he’s just been handed a free pass to the finale. Meanwhile, Denise secures the numbers for a Nick blindside with her allies. That’s not to say there isn’t any consideration to eliminate Denise. Tony overhears Denise plotting for a Final 3 that doesn’t include him while up in his “spy nest.” But after talking it through with his partner, Sarah, it’s decided that Nick is the more immediate threat given his underdog story. And so, despite feeling like a “genius” for disadvantaging Ben, it’s the conversation creeper Nick that winds up having his torch snuffed.
Michele’s Immunity win is a feelgood moment, and Denise’s down-and-out deception is well-played. Still, it can’t go unmentioned just how impressive it is that Sarah and Tony survived this double episode. Both are top tier winners who entered this season with huge bullseyes on their backs. Not only that, but they’ve played together before and have a named alliance — an alliance that hasn’t exactly been undercover. Everyone knows how dangerous they are, they’ve said as much. And yet, despite having no Immunity at both Tribals, neither of their names came up as a target. You could call into question the stupidity of the other players, but these are all previous winners. It’s more of a testament to how skilled Sarah and Tony are as Survivor players.
In a game full of personal stories and complex relationships, the Cops ‘R’ Us partnership stands above the rest. It’s an alliance that started in Survivor: Cagayan with a lie and ended in a betrayal, leading to real-world animosity and social media spats. In the time since, Sarah returned to Survivor, won the million, and healed the wounds of her and Tony’s relationship. Now they’re both back playing this crazy game again and heading into the finale together. This is a narrative arc that spans six years and three seasons, and if next week’s finale culminates in a Cops ‘R’ Us showdown, we could be in for an all-time classic finish. As Sarah said to Tony: “You won one, I won one… time for the tie-breaker.”
• Thankfully not too much time spent at the Edge of Extinction this week. Natalie continues to kick ass and collect tokens — I’d be shocked if she doesn’t win the Battle Back next week.
• Tony not understanding how days of the week work is totally the mood of a world in lockdown. I don’t think I’d know what day of the week it was if Survivor wasn’t still on every Wednesday.
• Did we really need that ten-minute season recap at the end of the episode? Ten minutes of Tony silently peeking out of his spy nest would have been time better spent.