A challenge takes down three contestants in an unprecedented Survivor massacre

By Dalton Ross
March 10, 2016 at 03:13 PM EST
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Credit: Monty Brinton /CBS
S32 E4

So, wait, I’m confused. Scot Pollard does or does not like cheerleaders? On one hand, he’s complimenting Alecia for being a good cheerleader, so I suppose that is nice of him to notice. On the other hand, he’s being wildly dismissive about her ability to do anything beyond cheerleading and, by extension, wildly dismissive to the entire cheerleading community, it would seem.

How do you think the cheerleaders that used to celebrate Scot’s exploits in the NBA — which, to be fair, were minimum — feel about all of this? Are the Cleveland Cavalier Girls planning a boycott? Is the Detroit Pistons Cheer Team all up in arms, and not, it should be pointed out, as some sort of hyper-sexual dance move? Are the Indiana Pacers Pacemates considering a strongly worded statement? And while Scot Pollard never played for the Washington Bullets (and the Bullets have not even been called the Bullets for almost 20 years) one can’t help but wonder what the Washington Bullettes make of all this, mostly because that is the best cheerleading name of all time.

Isn’t Pollard’s treatment of Alecia akin to kicking the team waterboy in the nuts while he’s busy cleaning your sweaty towel? It’s as if Scot magically transformed into one of the Alpha Betas and was all of a sudden hanging out with Stan Gable and Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds with the sole purpose of torturing not only any Tri-Lambs, but any being deemed inferior on any level.

Oh, but you know what’s happening here, right? I’VE BURIED THE LEDE! Get it? Buried? Because it was indeed the burying of objects that needed to be dug up in a challenge that ultimately dropped not one, not two, but three different contestants in an unprecedented Survivor massacre of epic proportions. It was dramatic television that actually had me gasping “Oh my God!” intermittently at my television.

Of course, it would have been even more dramatic had CBS not prematurely ruined the fact that three people were going down with a super-spoilery promo that aired in advance of the episode. Think about it: The network easily could have run a promo teasing that there would be a medical situation, yet not show the people involved and not let it be known that multiple folks would require medical attention. Had we all assumed it was just one person that had collapsed, imagine how much more powerful and surprising it would have been than seeing a record amount of people drop after the challenge. We would not have believed our eyes! We would have not believed what we were seeing! Instead, most of us knew it was coming, which is a major bummer.

I get it that the job of a network’s promotions/marketing department is to get people to tune in to the episode, but if you want to truly deliver a watercooler moment that will have more people talking about that episode on the virtual watercooler that is social media that night and at the actual watercooler that is in the office the next day, then you can’t show us pretty much exactly what happens before it actually happens! Unfortunately, an overzealous CBS negatively impacted and seriously diminished the shock viewers would have felt had they not known exactly what was coming. And that’s a shame. Okay, so much to get to with this, so let’s break it down from a few angles. (And you will definitely want to make sure to read my weekly Q&A with Jeff Probst as he tells us what it was like on the scene of the most ass-kicking challenge in Survivor history.)

The Incident

First, a quick recap in case you missed it (since this is ostensibly, you know, a recap). All three teams showed up at the first reward challenge of the season to try and win some spices and other various kitchen-based items. The contest itself had the tribes racing through a series of obstacles, then digging under a log to pull themselves through to the other side, then digging up three bags of balls in a large circle of sand, and finally rolling six balls skee-ball style into six holes.

The Brains tribe won easily, followed by Beauty, with Brawn in last. But that was almost irrelevant. It is what happened after the challenge that matters. First Debbie collapsed due to heat stroke, causing the medical team to jump in. Just as she started to recover, Caleb and Cydney also dropped.

This was no momentary setback that was drawn out through clever editing and drummed up for dramatic effect into more than it actually was. This was some scary stuff. Cydney collapsed and appeared to be in uncontrollable tears while Caleb was alternating between hyperventilating and being unresponsive. Doctor Joe finally told CBS Jeff (as dubbed by FBI Joe), “We need a helicopter for evac.” Words you never want to hear. Caleb was indeed pulled from the game while Debbie and Cydney were fortunate enough to be able to continue.

RELATED: Commerical break Q & A

NEXT: The dangers of digging

The Cause

I’ve been fortunate/stupid enough to run 13 Survivor challenges in the testing stage over the years and can tell you from experience that digging can be the absolute worst. I had brief digs in Samoa and Micronesia that weren’t so terrible, but then there was Gabon. The first immunity challenge in Survivor: Gabon featured an epic dig very similar to the one here that sapped every ounce of energy I had. People were doubled over and panting. People simply stopping digging, completely spent. It was brutal, pushing you to the very edge of utter exhaustion. Don’t believe me? Go back and watch it in the premiere episode and see how the Fang tribe fared.

But here’s the thing: That digging pit took us maybe about 15-20 minutes or so to get through. This one in Cambodia was three times that. And here’s the other thing. We did that Gabon dig with temperatures in the overcast 70s; The Kaoh Rong cast did it in 118-degree conditions under a blazing sun.

The point is, while digging may not appear to be as difficult and strenuous as something like holding up weights or running and jumping through obstacles, the sustained punishment it puts on your body should not be underestimated. And that may be where the producers misjudged. Challenge producer John Kirhoffer and his team do an extraordinary job of creating challenges that take contestants right up to the edge of what they can physically handle, without going over. They run multiple tests on each challenge, tweaking them along the way — sometimes to make them harder, sometimes easier. And there have been entire challenges, like the Schmergen Brawl, that have basically been outlawed because they were too violent and contestants were too likely to be injured.

Had the Dream Teamers (the folks who test out the challenges) been collapsing along the way while testing this one, no way they would have left this challenge as is, which most likely means one of two things: The tribes took much longer than producers anticipated to find the buried bags, thereby putting themselves at risk, or the contestants went into this competition even more dehydrated than anyone realized. Perhaps both. Throw in a brutally hot day (even by Cambodian standards), and you have a recipe for disaster.

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The Mayhem

What a chaotic scene. Not one, not two, but three different people collapsing. And all of them after the challenge was completed. First it was Debbie, who said her body was “like fire from the inside out” due to the heat stroke that had her feeling “like being roasted alive.” Debbie never lost coherence or consciousness as Doctor Joe checked her vitals and poured water on her to cool her down.

But right as Debbie started to feel better, then things got really scary. Cydney collapsed and ended up in tears while Caleb stalked away from his tribe like a wounded animal working on instinct to separate itself from the pack. He went down, as well, and began panting. For Probst and medical, this must have felt like a nightmare scenario. Keep in mind, Debbie is still recovering from her heat stroke and now you have two more emergency situations happening simultaneously. Where do you go? What do you do? Who’s in worse shape?

Usually when an emergency happens, medical is rushing in to treat it and the cameras to capture it. Everyone else hangs back. But when you have three different crises, it becomes an all-hands-on-deck situation. “Everyone on the crew is essential!” yelled Jeff. “Umbrellas, coolers, water — find a spot to help!” And that’s what we saw. Whether you were an associate producer, a Dream Teamer, the prop lady responsible for handling the reward supplies, or a guy from catering who had the day off and decided to go check out the challenge — you were now expected to pitch in.

In case you were wondering, those umbrellas and coolers and bottles of water at a challenge are not normally for contestants. They are for the crew (who can be there for hours before the players even show up). Both before and after a challenge, crew members will drink to stay hydrated, but not right in front of the contestants because that would just be, you know, rude. But here all those items became lifesavers for the players.

Thankfully, Survivor always has multiple medical personnel at a challenge, which allowed Doc Joe to look after Caleb while another person worked on Cydney. (Where art thou, Ado & Ramona?) It was clear that Caleb was the most immediate concern as Joe administered intravenous fluids while placing ice from the cooler all around his body to bring the temperature down. “We need a helicopter for evac,” he finally told Probst. Damn. Go back and watch the way he says it. It’s actually scary as hell. He’s not playing it up for cameras. This is not manufactured drama like we see so many times on so many “reality” shows. You can hear the natural concern in his voice and see the concern on his face. This is no joke.

NEXT: The aftermath of the evacuation

It is totally fair and within reason to question whether the show miscalculated in putting the contestants in harm’s way. You can never protect against everything and this is a show built on pushing people to the limit, but having three out of 12 people that participated in the challenge collapse shows that this particular contest in these particular conditions was simply too much. Of the people that competed, 25 percent needed medical attention after. That is way too high a percentage. I have no doubt producers had lengthy discussions afterward in terms of whether they went too far, and I’m sure viewers are having those discussions now. As well they should. (And again, I encourage you to read Jeff Probst’s comments on the subject in our Q&A.)

But part of the conversation also needs to be how impressive this crew is when dealing with a crisis. We have seen it time and time again, but even past instances (like, say, Russell Swan in Samoa) could not have prepared them for what went down here. And yet the medical team was able to manage all three situations calmly and professionally, even with all the chaos erupting around them

Survivor medical is the bomb. I watched it first hand when a member of the press group on location one season flat-out collapsed in the middle of a dinner. Just went down. Medical was not even close at the time but rushed there and nursed her back to health. I watched them do it. It was impressive. Kinda made me want to be a doctor for a minute…before I realized how much school and studying and disgusting medical photos and dissection that probably involved. So the moment was fleeting is what I’m getting at. But a tip of the cap to the medical team and entire crew for jumping into action here and making sure a scary situation did not become a tragic one.

The Aftermath

Debbie and Cydney were able to continue. Caleb was not. “This is as far as you’re gonna go,” Jeff told him. “We’ve got to take care of you. You’re a warrior, dude. I’m glad you were out here.” That is very high praise from the host, especially considering — as he told me on EW Radio — he did not even want Caleb on the show at first. CBS overruled him and forced the Big Brother star into the cast. In the end, Probst was glad they did.

And why wouldn’t he be? The self-proclaimed Beast Mode Cowboy was indeed a beast in challenges. It seemed every time I looked up at the start of a challenge, Caleb was 20 yards in front of everybody else. He also bought into the adventure, diving off the boat at the start of the game to retrieve a chicken that had escaped overboard. And he was half of one of the most delightful Survivor bromances of all time as part of his opposites-attract friendship with Tai. (It remains unclear which one of them was Paula Abdul in this particular relationship and which was MC Skat Kat.)

The Beauty tribe was predictably devastated when they received the news that Caleb had been pulled from the game. They were no doubt very concerned about his well-being and all seemed to genuinely like the guy. And because I am a heartless robot I will also have no hesitation in pointing out the obvious strategic disadvantage in losing Caleb as an ally in the game. First off, he’s a number. You are going to need all the numbers you can get when a tribe contraction and/or merge happens. But beyond that, Caleb showed on Big Brother that not only is he a number, but he is a super loyal number. He’s a guy you could count on for as long as you wanted…before you backstabbed and voted him out before he got to the end, of course. Because no way you let Caleb get to the end.

NEXT: Why Caleb will be back

He didn’t make it, but the show left no doubt that we will see Caleb again. First off, the following words appeared on screen after his exit: “Caleb has fully recovered, is 100% healthy… And hopes to play again.” Then, at the end of the episode, we heard from Caleb himself, who told us how “it was one of those experiences I would honestly do again.” Producers may as well just hammer us over the head with a neon baseball bat flashing the words “WE WILL BRING CALEB BACK!” You know what? I say, do it! I’d love to see how Caleb does getting to play out a full game. I wrote before the season began that I didn’t think he was stealthy or cutthroat enough to win, but I’d love to see if he can prove me wrong.

Finally, the fact that Caleb and Cydney both collapsed once again supports my theory that it is the big, bulky contestants who almost always seem to have the most trouble adapting to the conditions of Survivor. They naturally need more calories and fuel to function, and when they do not get them due to a limited diet and water, this is what can happen. I even asked Probst specifically about Cydney before the season began and whether her protein needs to maintain that physicality would be a problem for her out on the island. It was. Fortunately for her, she was able to barely get past this. Caleb, on the other hand, was not so lucky.

Odds & Ends

A few other things to hit on before we wrap things up.

* I didn’t hate how Peter reacted when he came back to the Brains camp after being blindsided at Tribal Council, but I didn’t love it either. He did not talk trash or insult the others, who had clearly outmaneuvered him. That’s good. But he also walked off and isolated himself by lying down away from the shelter. NO! That’s the point where he should be right alongside everyone and saying something along the lines of, “Hey, guys. I heard what you all said tonight, and I’m going to take it to heart. I have been way too full of myself, and I apologize to all of you for acting like a jackass. I really appreciate you all keeping me around, and I promise to be better and really want this tribe to stick together all the way to the end. Also, how incredible is my smile right now? Awesome, right?”

You don’t have to believe one word of that, but you say it. That’s how you get back in your tribe’s good graces (well, that and killing it on the puzzle in an immunity competition). Peter didn’t hurt himself here, but he certainly didn’t help himself either.

* The whole thing with Scot and Jason being so rude to Alecia for “cheerleading” during the challenge is pretty disheartening. In their (mild) defense, I do get their frustration. When you are deathly tired and someone is trying to give you a pep talk, it can be pretty damn annoying, but clearly these dudes with short fuses could not let it go, and the fact that Scot continued it back at camp is even worse. It doesn’t even matter who is to blame: Just say, “Sorry, Alecia. I was just really tired and shouldn’t have said that,” and guess what? It’s over! That’s all you had to do. Instead Scot came back with, “You’re trying to tell an NBA champion how to be a teammate? What team have you ever been on?”

Okay, first off, that’s mean. Second, are you really going to make me point out that in that championship season you scored 39 points…for the entire year?! And that you logged exactly zero minutes in the entire playoff run for said championship team? ZERO. Look, I’m not trying to diss and dismiss; just making the NBA is an enormous achievement. But if you’re going to walk around calling yourself an “NBA champion,” then you may want to affix an asterisk to that designation, especially if you are in the process of disparaging someone else.

NEXT: Alecia’s last stand

* Did you all notice Jason’s super-sunburned shoulders with bandages/coverings on them? The sun in Cambodia is NO JOKE, and Jason is very fair-skinned, so he was always in danger as far as burning goes. However, it should be noted that contestants are provided with sunscreen, so all Jason had to do was be more vigilant in applying sunscreen (and, you know, wearing a shirt that covered his shoulders), and he would have been fine. So that’s on him. Although I guess you can’t blame a guy from Michigan too much for underestimating the dangers of Cambodian sun exposure. Two different worlds. Or, in Survivor parlance, Worlds Apart.

* With all the drama at the reward challenge, the immunity competition became something of an afterthought, but it did feature one contestant going from zero to hero. The contest had two people from each tribe racing into the jungle to climb up a ladder and retrieve puzzle pieces. Then the two other folks would go into the water and dive down to get more puzzles. All these pieces would be used to assemble a snake puzzle.

Peter got things started on the wrong foot by forgetting one of the jungle pieces but more than made up for it later by swapping in for Debbie and absolutely destroying the puzzle. On the flip side, Brawn was once again destroyed as Alecia and Cydney could not figure out the snake and then had a disagreement about the proper pronoun to use after they lost.

* Interesting moment after the challenge where Scot said there was 0-percent chance Alecia would be safe, and Jason asked to have an impromptu Tribal vote right then and there. Probst was amenable to it as long as Alecia agreed. She wisely did not, realizing every minute you stay in the game is another minute to try and change things up or let someone else (like Jenny two episodes ago) self-implode to keep you safe.

Of course, Alecia’s astute refusal meant that once we went to Tribal, the entire ceremony was perfunctory. Although it did provide us with this somewhat remarkable statement from the host: “Alecia, I think you’re going to be voted out tonight. I don’t think there’s any chance they’re voting anybody else out. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Tribal that was this clear cut. And yet I still root for you.”

Jeff Probst telling someone right to their face that they’re a goner? Rough stuff. But totally accurate. In a tribe this small, there is nowhere to hide, and Alecia simply ran out of hiding spaces. By the way, has the Brawn tribe been one of the biggest buzzkill bummer tribes of all time? Just a swirling sea of negativity every time we have gone there. It’s too bad because I find the other two groups pretty intriguing. I have to assume next week will feature some sort of tribe swap or contraction from three tribes down to two, and it’s just as well.

So here we are now, a month into the new season. We lost Caleb, which is a bummer because he was great for the show on multiple levels. But we have hopefully also lost the Brawn tribe beginning next week, so I guess in terms of plusses and minuses, it all adds up to a wash. But there is plenty more to get through right here, starting with an exclusive deleted scene from the episode below as Julia tells us from her perspective what happened at the reward challenge. Also check out my must-read Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst on the medical emergency, and we will have EW Radio/podcast interviews with both Caleb and Alecia up Thursday, as well. And for more Survivor scoop, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

But now it’s your turn. What did you think of the triple medical emergency and how the crew handled it? Where does Caleb’s collapse rank in terms of scary Survivor moments? And are you Team Alecia, Team Scot/Jason, or Team Neither? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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Jeff Probst leads adventures in the ultimate (and original) reality series.

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