“Going Down in Flames”
April 22nd, 2010
When we watch reality television, we like to write our own narratives: we like to imagine scenarios where our least favourite team on The Amazing Race gets stranded at an airport, or where the most obnoxious chef on Top Chef Masters fails to make their way into the next round. But I don’t think there has ever been a reality show which simultaneously invites and confounds such narratives as Survivor, a show which crafts such clear heroes and villains that you can’t help but be sucked in even when you know that allegiances and alliances could shift in just a matter of seconds. In reality, we shouldn’t get that sucked into Survivor: we should know that the producers are manipulating the footage, and we should know that it’s a game which depends on the fallibility of social interactions steeped in irrationality, but there is something about the series which has us crafting scenarios to enact justice, punishment and redemption with each passing season.
However, I can honestly say that I do not believe that anyone could have written what went down in tonight’s episode of Survivor. While there were plenty of scenarios that we could write ahead of time to satisfy our perspective on the season, nothing could have been so poetic as what unfolded at the latest in a series of ridiculous tribal councils this season. There’s something in the water in Samoa, as for the second straight year the first episode back from the merge has completely changed the game in ways which confirm why we keep watching this show.
We could write all of the narratives we’d like, but Survivor is ultimately going to be unpredictable, and every now and then something happens which reminds us why we’ve been watching for twenty seasons – tonight was one of those nights.
In the past, “surprising” tribal councils have been made in the editing room rather than on the beaches of some remote location: the people who are doing the voting are entirely sure about what’s happening, so the editors just work around the truth in order to keep us in the dark long enough to get blind-sided. If someone gets voted out without expecting it, chances are that there were other people who were expecting that result to happen, and usually quite a few of them.
However, this season there have now been two tribal councils where a majority of the people involved were shocked by the result – first Tyson actually send himself home with a stupid flip-flop, and now Parvati Shallow hands off two hidden immunity idols (one of which only one other player, Danielle, knew about) to her compatriots to guarantee that J.T. is sent home. It was clear that Sandra and Jerri had no idea that this was going to happen, and it was also clear that Russell was feeling awfully uncomfortable knowing that his lieutenant had a secret immunity idol and would use it without consulting him. Combine with the flabbergasted Heroes, realizing that even their backup safety plan ended up backfiring, and you have enough confusion to feed a small country.
For me, it’s everything I could have dreamed for: it punishes J.T. for being so naive that he would so easily accept Russell’s trust without any real sense of his character, it punishes Russell for thinking that Parvati was going to be another Natalie, and it punishes the rest of the Heroes for letting J.T. convince them that this was all a good idea. It is an equal-opportunity blind-side: if you’re one of the people who loves Russell’s game play you’re happy to see J.T. go home, but if you’re not a fan (like me) you’re still happy because he is suddenly knocked off his throne and looking more and more like the court jester he really is.
As for how this move plays out for Parvati, I’m on the side that it’s absolutely brilliant, although we didn’t really get to see a clear narrative on how or why it happened (the one trickery the editors really pulled tonight). From what we saw, Parvati read right through Amanda’s pathetically transparent attempts to gain her trust in order to flush out the Idol, and then thought about what she would do if she were in their position; if that was all of the knowledge she was working with, I’m quite impressed, but it’s entirely possible that Amanda was honest with her about their plan, or Rupert slipped information to Sandra and her surprise at Tribal Council was an act. It’s still pretty fantastic television regardless, but it’s not clear how “risky” the move was when the editors felt that showing any more of the process would ruin the surprise.
I think that’s wise, in the end: it’s better that we share in everyone’s surprise (especially J.T. and Russell’s), and I’ll look past the subterfuge for the sake of the narrative satisfaction the episode achieves in the end. And already there’s plenty of new scenarios to follow next week: Russell becomes an absolute wild card, Amanda needs to decide where her allegiances lie, Parvati needs to worry about Russell bolting to the other side on her, while Sandra is apparently hunting for Russell’s head still. Thusly, we start writing some new narratives, and the cycle repeats – I don’t know if they’re going to live up to this one again this season, but it certainly continues to make the case that this is one of the most enjoyable seasons ever, which is unquestionably impressive in Season 20.
- Candice’s decision to bow out of the immunity challenge didn’t make any sense at first, but it’s possible that she wanted to see what would happen when Danielle and Parvati were there together – if she felt she was personally safe, it was perhaps worth it to gain the extra intel (which led them to believe that Parvati had an Idol, or should have led them to that conclusion).
- I’m glad that Courtney, who got far too little screentime this year, is getting some nice quips on the jury.
- I really don’t like Rupert when he’s no longer associated with pirates, so I wasn’t surprised that no one took him seriously when he took Sandra’s entirely accurate intel to his tribe.
- I think the happiest person in the entire world at the time this episode was filmed was the producer who was getting J.T. to say so many outlandishly over-confident things about his trust in Russell. Seriously, how those people keep a straight face is beyond me.