Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains – “Episode Two”

“It’s Getting the Best of Me”

February 18th, 2010

I don’t know if Mark Burnett and his fellow producers are really excited about the direction that Survivor’s twentieth season is heading in, or if they’re actively concerned about it. What’s interesting about the Heroes vs. Villains premise is that, in Survivor, the tribes are only rarely within the same space, so the rivalry the title implies doesn’t really materialize in most of a single episode. Sure, over time the rivalry between the two sides will grow, but in the short term the show shifts away from that narrative to the systematic deconstruction of both tribes.

On that front, I think the show should be glad that early on the titles of hero and villain are slowly shifting away from their typical classifications, as it means that more of each episode will be particularly engaging. However, the clash of various ego has gone so far this time that I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to fully reclaim that broader feud, the internal divisions growing too larger for one side to group together and pretend that they are any sort of team under any sort of pre-determined classification.

And I don’t know if Mark Burnett wanted that part of this game to go off the rails quite so quickly.

Stephenie, certainly didn’t want it to happen. She knew from day one that she was considered a threat, and that she was part of a group of outcasts who played the game during a different era and who are more “chummy” to use a term I feel is particularly accurate. And the problem is that Stephenie, Tom and Colby are not particularly chummy, whether due to their age, their demeanor, or just their lack of affection for that type of social atmosphere. These are three people who are not content to coast, who are always going to be trying their hardest, and they all seemed to come into this game with the strategy of just sitting back and avoiding any sort of conflict. Perhaps, you could say, this is what heroes do: they play their game, they perform to the best of their ability, and they succeed as a result.

The problem is that they’re not on a tribe of people who are holding out for a hero, people who want someone to lead them. Heroes and Villains are both leaders in a sense, albeit to different locations (water vs. slaughter, perhaps), and this game is dependent on people who are just going to follow their lead for the sake of avoiding making any sudden movements which could make them a target. However, in this game, there are very few people who are willing to be led on the Heroes tribe: whether we consider it a simple issue of egos grown three sizes too large, or just the nature of the personalities, the Heroes are a tribe that is capable of working towards a common goal only when their tasks can be easily delegated and they can work as individuals within a structured system. Once things become tense, and once chaos begins to settle in, the tribe completely self-destructs, with no one willing to step up and lead the tribe and a whole lot of people who are going to throw the blame for this on anyone but themselves.

It’s funny that the Heroes would be so much worse off when it came to a lack of leadership, but Heroes don’t want to be led, whereas by comparison the Villains thrive on leadership. If you look at the Villains tribe, they are quite lazy all around, which means that they’re looking for someone who will run the show (either because they can’t stand things being unorganized like Rob, or because they are desperate for control like Russell) so that they can sit back and take advantage of the less intelligent players. But right now, the Villains have worked so well under Rob in the challenges that they haven’t had to play those strategy cards, and now Rob has made a big enough move early in the game that he’s likely cemented his place at the heart of the tribe’s future decisions. Russell doesn’t show it, but he’s frightened that his chance to retain his title as “King of Samoa” has all but vanished amidst Rob’s downright heroic leadership even when sick with the Flu.

Whereas the Heroes, faced with their second straight immunity defeat even after bursting out to an early lead, completely destroyed any notion that this is a tribe of pure players of this game. That’s always been a bit of a skewed notion anyways, as it’s really the “Most Popular” vs. the “Most Popular for Being Evil” edition of the game, but there was this sense that the Heroes were virtuous which has now been completely obliterated by James. If he appeared somewhat humbled in Micronesia thanks to his early exit in China, James has plenty of swagger this time around, and it turned into a vile and downright irrational attack on Stephenie. I think if it hadn’t been for James’ outburst at the challenge and the stunning moment when James tells Stephenie off as she’s unable to keep herself from commenting on how “not cool” the outburst was as she’s leaving tribal council, they would have edited James’ one-note, revisionist, and illogical attacks on Stephenie as a light-hearted bit of buffoonery from someone who has been told by his alliance who is going home next but is unable to communicate that information to others without blowing it up into extremes. But because of how much of a legitimate bully he developed into at Tribal Council, and how much of that event was built around both Tom and Colby being unable to contain themselves at lack of subtlety and tact in his comments, the show had to paint James as a complete villain.

I don’t know if they wanted to do that quite as soon as they had to. There will always be moments within this particular conceit where villains seem heroic (like when Jerri was so visibly shaken by Rob’s condition) and where heroes seem villainous, but the back-to-back tribal councils turned the Heroes into a fundamentally divided tribe that really has no shot at being a cohesive team at any point in the future. It was inevitably going to happen, but the show seems to have gotten even less mileage out of the battle between Heroes and Villains than they imagined: when the show pits the competitors against each other next week, is anyone really going to be rooting for James if they felt sympathetic towards Stephenie, Tom and Colby (and, frankly, while Stephenie is a bit grating, I don’t think anyone can legitimately side against both Tom and Colby when they’re at their most chivalric)? And considering that the most annoying members of the Villains tribe have been more or less sidelined, making them seem an odd set of misfits who keep overcoming the odds, the season is shaping up more as the “Entitled” vs. the “Underdogs,” a narrative that is not that different from what the show has done in the past.

Because of the presence of so many egos, the game is not going to be quite as predictable as those which came before, but if the first episode had novelty on its side I think it’s starting to wane here. The decision we saw was explosive, sure, but it was ultimately precisely what you normally see at this point in the game: two quasi-outcasts (Candace and Cirie, although I’m guessing the latter was playing with Candace about her alliance with Amanda/James) decide to stick with the dominant group rather than siding with the outcasts, leaving Tom and Colby to be picked off one by one so long as they continue to lose immunity. Of course, that can change in a heartbeat, and then we’re quite literally back to square one: the Heroes can go back to being heroic, while suddenly the villains will show their true colours.

However, I think two straight weeks of tribal councils has made it so the Heroes won’t go back to being heroic, that there’s no real way you can turn around James’ behaviour. Stephenie, Tom and Colby are this games proto-typical heroes, but they are outcasts amidst a group of people who believe being heroic is winning, and to do that you need to be a villain. Tom had a clear strategy about how they could get out of their situation, so it’s not as if these people weren’t playing the game. Instead, they just were playing it in a way that, hero and villain distinctions aside, just wasn’t going to work with the group of people they were playing with.

Since I would much rather see those people playing this game than watching Rupert sleepwalk his way through the competition while James yells at everyone, I’m disappointed at this outcome, and can only hope that similar upheaval doesn’t happen at the Villains tribe once they taste defeat. Basically, if Randy actually goes far in this game, somebody hit me in the head with a rolling crate.

Cultural Observations

  • I love Courtney a whole lot for the way she’s coming into this game. She knows that everyone is being lazy, but she’s a trustworthy source of perspective, as she points out how pissed Rob is at how lazy people are being. She isn’t stupid, perhaps smarter than anyone else there, and she’s really positioned herself quite nicely in my book right now.
  • Also, while I understand why she’s on the tribe she is considering how she went out in Australia, Jerri is so a hero it’s not funny: her on the beach with Coach, considering that they all need to get their act together, was a moment where you realize that she was just an intense player willing to mix it up, and being a good player should not designate you as a villain in the same way that Rob is unquestionably the closest thing this game has to a hero right now because he was actually willing to step up, get his tribe into gear, and keep things moving forward. That would be villainous behaviour if he had lost, but it’s heroic when they win, so that just shows you how slippery these terms are.
  • I don’t quite understand why previous knowledge of how this challenge worked was considered such an advantage by James or J.T.; frankly, J.T. is not the brightest of players, and outside of some logistical work of how to get the crates up onto the platform it’s all about observing what you have in front of you, not remembering what you did last time.
  • Rob’s collapse due to flu-like symptoms was turned into a highly dramatic moment, but in truth it seemed fairly innocent: in fact, while they tried to create a camera move to indicate he had collapsed, the fact that he had taken off his shoes and put his coat under his head indicated to me that he had laid down to have a rest before falling unconscious, which is still scary but is far less sudden and dramatic than the way the editors worked it into a crisis.
  • I won’t reveal everything that was in the preview for next week, but I’d argue is actually spoils a challenge based on what we saw this week, but perhaps that’s being misleading as well.
  • And speaking of editing, the recap of last week’s episode really turned Sugar into the reason they lost that challenge, which is so untrue that I don’t entirely know where to start. I get that individuals go home, so the recap would focus on why she was voted out, but she was voted out because she was annoying and weak, and while that isn’t easily worked into a quick (but actually quite long) video package I do think that they did her a bit of a disservice making that vote out to be more reactive and less strategic.
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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains – “Episode Two”

  1. Annie Petersen

    I seriously don’t know if I buy Rob as actually sick. I’ve seen him pull such incredible acts before that I would not for a second doubt his ability to play ill. I love some Boston Rob, but I also don’t ever think he plays straight.

    I also loved the moment when even Colby snapped during Tribal Council — that’s how you know a guy’s really out of line.

    • He certainly didn’t collapse in the same way that the editing made it seem like he did, so I’m guessing he was just feeling pretty sick and felt that he should get it checked out, both out of legitimate concern and the knowledge that it would allow him some medical attention, some sympathy, and some clean water to help him get stronger. I don’t think he invented the illness (I’m guessing they checked to see if he had a fever, and there was no lamp to put the thermometer in), but I do think he probably milked it a bit.

  2. I have vivid memories of Survivor: China so I was always a little dubious of James being on the Heroes team. I’m hoping they restore the heroes/villains dichotomy with a ranking-style tribe switch a little later on: get everyone to rank their tribe members from most heroic to most villainous (like they did with most valuable to least valuable in Gabon), put the top ranked survivors in a tribe and the remainder in the villains team. Balance(and gimmick) restored.

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