“I Trust You but I Trust Me More”
May 17th, 2009
In my time writing here at Cultural Learnings, I’ve blogged through five seasons of Survivor, although there’s a pattern: I might start out with a few posts on specific episodes, or really commit myself to getting to it on a weekly basis, but without fail it falls off my critical radar. I don’t stop watching the show: although episodes are often spoiled for me, I still quite consistently dig into the week’s episode to see what the show will serve up next. It isn’t that I expect there to be something different, but rather there’s a combination of nostalgia (for a show that is highly familiar for me) and curiosity (to see the ways the show is trying to stay fresh in an environment where most other reality shows of the same era have perished).
This season has, for the most part, lacked major drama: other than Coach, one of the most ridiculous players in quite some time, the characters have been fairly under the radar. Outside of the one exception, people have been pretty pleasant to watch, and early season discussion of an Exile Island alliance seemed like it was going to be a potential dealmaker later in the season. Things got more interesting when the Jalapao Three began to work their way into an unlikely position of power in the season’s back half, but it happened so effortlessly that I was more baffled by Timbira’s lack of intelligence than I was entertained by the turn of events.
Survivor, as a show, is all about big moments or little quirks: either there’s a big personality that makes every moment they’re around like a powder keg waiting to explode, which Coach provided to an extent, or it’s just challenges and tribal council, and posturing for those in between. This makes a finale like this one, which cuts down a lot of the meat in the middle and gets right to the point until the final tribal council. Luckily for Mark Burnett and company, in the vein of some previous finales, there’s plenty of drama to rush through to keep things interesting: while the Jalapao Three have managed to stay strong thus far, it wasn’t based on thier own strategic genius, and with the only remaining Timbira member less incompotent than her predecessors it becomes clear that Three’s Company.
And with that comes the unraveling, which always makes for an engaging finale if not, perhaps, the clean ending the Jalapao Three imagined for themselves.
From the beginning, Erinn knows that she is in the toughest position, but in many ways she is actually in a great position: with nothing to lose, and with a jury that isn’t likely to change their opinion of her, she has lowered expectations and the chance to surprise people. When she’s competing with J.T. at the immunity challenge (featuring the giant spider legs and puzzle pieces), the show makes it seem like she’s fighting for her life but she ends up being in a position of power: quickly, she plants the seed of Taj being highly likeable, and it’s clear that J.T. and Stephen are thinking about just what they’re going to do.
It comes down to that old discussion of alliance against opportunity, and I think that this is a complement for Taj in the end. That they get rid of her seems illogical on the surface: considering that she’s married to a former Heisman Trophy winner with a plum post-retirement gig, it’s not as if she is in desperate need of the money. However, she played a likeable enough game to manage to overcome that almost entirely, and it never seemed to enter into their discussions. Yes, by the end of the game everyone has so many personal grudges and opinions that financial need has never really entered into the final decision substantially, but it still takes some work to overcome that predisposition. She perhaps did it too well, and her likeability was enough justification for them to give her the boot.
Keeping Erinn is a smart decision in some ways, but in other ways it only makes things more dangerous: as soon as she returns to the camp, it becomes clear that she, more than Taj, was willing to play both sides as it relates to who should go to the final Two. Taj, sure, would have played some strategy, but Erinn is a more dangerous competitor, and is a tempting target. It is an early indication, that J.T. and Stephen are both willing to keep Erinn, that both of them are not just thinking about who they can beat in the next immunity challenge, but rather ahead to that final vote. J.T., perhaps, may have been thinking in the short term out of complete trust for Stephen, but Stephen has proven weasely enough that you know he’s willing to sell J.T. under the bus if he can. And J.T. has to have been aware of that: if he wasn’t, he moves onto a growing list of people who fail to play the game when they most need to step up to the plate.
Of course, it doesn’t end up being an issue for J.T., who wins what is perhaps my favourite final Three immunity challenge ever. It works because it is primarily a mental challenge, requiring focus and concentration more than any skill that is easily measured. They’ve gone with these challenges, whether it’s last season’s stacking or the cup-stacking that came a while ago, but I found this one was more exciting to watch. There’s more strategy involved when it’s about stacking, sure, but I will admit right now that it was more tense and more interesting to see the various ways in which people could lose the challenge. Perhaps I would have liked to have seen them make it a two-ball challenge (two and you’re out, as opposed to just one) to make the fun last a little longer, but I had a lot of fun with it.
With immunity in hand, J.T. has a tougher decision than I would have thought: there was a nice argument while watching about whether or not he is really completely safe to take Stephen with him. I, personally, felt like the decision echoes too much Survivor: Australia, where Colby took Tina out of loyalty and honour and then got his butt kicked despite being quite similar to J.T. in being a country boy and being ever so charming when it comes down to it. It’s because loyalty isn’t actually a big thing in this game for everyone but Coach – they respect more than just keeping your word, especially if they realize that J.T. wasn’t willing to vote for Coach, and perhaps Stephen will be seen as the true strategic mastermind and easily win the jury. However, it is quite true that these people really did like him, and maybe keeping his word will be one more sign of him being a truly decent person and allow him to go to the finals without the risk of shooting his alliance in the foot.
In the end, Erinn’s departure isn’t a huge surprise, as even the best work of Jeff Probst to prod J.T. and Stephen to death over the issue wasn’t enough to kill his dedication to loyalty. Erinn had an impressive run on the series, seemingly on the outs from almost day one (she noted she was Candace’s only friend, and never seemed to make a connection with any of the Timbira members) but smartly jumping ship just at the right time in the game. She moved from, likely, one of the first out once the Timbira group got rid of the Jalapao Three to a someone who actually had a chance (if only for a second) to get to the Final Two. She got to have the family visit (where her father marveled over her not being, like, dead already), and before her stay on Exile Island the show didn’t even need to point out her “girly girl” past because she wasn’t letting it affect her gameplay. Even then, it was a good story, and she deserves some definite respect for her performance.
It left, of course, the unlikely bromance in control of this game: the mimosas taste like victory, and their relationship really stands out. I remember back when basically Stephen attached himself to J.T. out of almost desperation so he doesn’t get labeled as the weak city boy with no physical experience; considering that J.T. was similarly skeptical of whether they would get along, it was kind of nice to see the two truly bond, and they were fun to watch. However, the bromance needed to end before tribal council: J.T. needs to be willing to emphasize how he played a better game than Stephen, whereas Stephen needs to be willing to emphasize how J.T. really didn’t play a strong strategic game, proving himself pretty hapless and ineffective without his guidance. Coach deemed them the Warrior and the Wizard, and it’s tougher to win when you’re the one magicking people to their end as opposed to the one who stood bravely behind their decisions.
Their opening arguments are, as always, kind of strange: Stephen chooses to play the emotional card, which is bizarre considering no one is going to prefer his story of learning from others over J.T.’s kindheartedness, while J.T. proceeds to emphasize how he sent those people home, and how it was all about his own survival. I wasn’t expected J.T. to enter into the strategic discussion, but I guess since his emotional story already had so much play it was a way to diversify. Stephen’s was a bit too cerebral without really connecting with his track record, and J.T. made the tough decision of using the pronoun “we” – it both deflects attention from himself and keeps him from getting the credit, which is a difficult position to put yourself in with your words. The various questions, as always, will test these mistakes to see how much people are picking up on these issues.
Brendan: Discusses how much he’s had fun watching them, but notes that Stephen is trying to use his personal growth as a variable for victory when it really isn’t relevant. J.T., smartly, agrees with this personal attack and throws Stephen under the bus. Smartly played, J.T., and the resulting back and forth totally ends up in J.T.’s favour.
Erinn: She throws Stephen under the bus for having had three different alliances in which he is the only person remaining, and he zigs and zags through the question without much interest. She also intelligently tries to get J.T. to attack Stephen further, asking him why he was the strongest to bring to the end, but J.T. is quite smart to make it work.
Debbie: She throws her vote on the table, always a great strategy for selfimportance, but then attacks J.T. for being dishonest. He proceeds to bring up his Mother, throws Debbie under the bus for not being honest with Coach, and she just “appareciates” that. Debbie asks the question Stephen was dreading about whether he would have taken Erinn to the end, and she asks for an honest answer: he hums, he haws, and finally admits that he thinks it would be Erinn.
Coach: It’s a little proud to see them both there, and first he asks J.T. about being the noble warrior and honesty late in the game. J.T., at times, couldn’t tell him everything that was going on, and is in a great position to throw out his decision not to vote for Coach last week and talk about 100%. Stephen said that he truly wanted to vote off everyone he voted off, and that he tried all the time…and then Coach sits down? No insanity? Darn.
Sierra: She has nothing for Stephen, and then attacks J.T. for ignoring the “stronger” idea and taking weaklings Erinn and Stephen was ridiculous. Sierra seems to indicate that he should have taken people like Tyson or Brendan to the finals instead. Which is a highly hypothetical question, and not really relevant, so it was a bit of a waste.
Tyson: Asks J.T. whether or not he really NEEDED Stephen to get to the end, and he says that he appreciated the rapport but says he wouldn’t need him in the end. Tyson lets Stephen attack J.T. for it a little, and be defensive.
Taj: She gets the sad, depressing music as she discusses being hurt and defeated, and then goes after J.T. for being willing to vote for her but not Coach. Stephen, meanwhile, proceeds to answer his question about his integrity by saying that it was always J.T.’s strategy all along, and he just went along with it. And such ends the bromance, as Stephen goes back to ancient history and suggests that it was J.T. who wanted to get rid of Taj back in Jalapao. They proceed to stat bickering, and Taj actually interrupts them because she’s tired of them fighting over it.
But they don’t stop talking: Stephen proceeds to become highly defensive and has clearly been emotionally affected by J.T.’s earlier “slanders” against his character, and to my surprise he really seems to have lost his marbles over it. J.T. just calmly sits there and says that his slanders were actually true, so he doesn’t have any problem with it. It’s a fascinating result: Stephen was supposed to be the talkative one who would need to rely on his strategy to overcome J.T.’s personality advantage, but Stephen was acting as if he had the personality advantage and could simply rely on that to win. J.T., meanwhile, comes in with a definite strategy and executed it more than I would have expected. Of note: they got no closing statements.
The votes we see tell the story: Taj appears to vote for Stephen (keeping her word for them to be together at the end) but that isn’t entirely clear. They show Coach write “The Warrior” at least as far as we can tell (unless he really doesn’t know how to spell Wizard), and that’s all we get as we cut to New York City. Stephen kept his beard and has different glasses, while J.T. is just really clean cut and adorable. The votes begin to emerge: the first goes for J.T., as does the second. as does the third…and then the fourth. Without even creating any suspense, and in a 7-0 decision that is perhaps one of the most earnest Survivor victories ever, the nice guy wins.
It isn’t quite, for me, as triumphant as Bob’s win last season where it really came out of nowhere and against the odds: J.T. was the nice guy from day one, and was able to ride that to the end without angering a single person to the point of angering them. That’s impressive, sure, but it was one of those seasons where the up and down didn’t really draw me in, and while the finale was enjoyable to watch it wasn’t a sign of a revolutionary season or anything.
Just another solid season with a particularly fitting winner, our second in a row even. I’m content with that.
- I’m skipping the reunion show blogging-wise, because there’s usually not much to get out of them: we see the J.T./Stephen bromance continue, we see Probst throw the weak blonde girl under the bus (Sierra) for no reason, and the show talks about Coach more than he really deserves. Cut, print, picture.
- I’m sure Probst will also throw up “who would you have voted for between Erinn and Stephen,” and that is something that would likely have gone Stephen’s way.
- Everyone seemed to have loved J.T., but I think Brendan’s “OMG I LOVE THIS DUDE” was my personal favourite moment of J.T. love.
- Sierra was definitely my favourite juror to watch: she could barely contain herself during each and every tribal council, grabbing onto people and jumping around.
- One note from the reunion: next season, the show’s nineteenth, brings Survivor: Samoa.