It's Like the Worst Cocktail Party Ever
Credit: Robert Voets/CBS
S38 E5

There’s this funk band from the 1970s called Graham Central Station, and they’re awesome. First off, the name Graham Central Station — combining the name of bassist and bandleader Larry Graham and that of one of New York City’s major transportation hubs — is genius. Graham, who was also the bassist for Sly & the Family Stone, is considered by many to be the best bass player of all time, and his offshoot band I would argue is even better. If you don’t believe me, go find GCS’ song “Earthquake” on Spotify or whatever and prepare to have your face blown off. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Anyhoodle, I have a lot of Graham Central Station records, including one called Release Yourself. That one is a little problematic. The issue is that I had to buy all my GCS albums at thrift shops or used record stores and that means the quality of the vinyl is, in some cases, a bit lacking. Release Yourself is in the worst condition of the bunch. It skips. It pops. It repeats the same groove over and over. As I said, problematic.

I bring this up because I am about to sound a bit like Release Yourself. Not in the sense that I just mastered the art of the slap bass or can churn out some deep funk on command and on demand, but rather I am once again about to sound like a broken record.

You all have heard me ramble on and on before about why I don’t like it when Survivor stages seasons in which voted out players are not actually voted off. I say the same stuff basically every time and invariably there will be some mention of how keeping players in the game who have had their torch snuffed “neuters the show’s signature moment, the vote-off.” I must like that line a lot because I’ve used it ad nauseam. This is the fifth season Survivor has done some form of this, so you longtime readers (Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?) have endured this speech way too often, so I’ll attempt to keep it brief. (Stop laughing!)

But I think the problem I have with the concept can be perfectly summarized and illustrated in what just happened to Aubry Bracco. Did you hear? Aubry Bracco was blindsided! Yep, she totally thought she was good to go and that she and her tribe were going to vote out the obvious outsider in Big Wendy. But no! They voted Aubry out instead! Not only that, she had an idol AND an advantage in her pocket! Now all three are gone! What an incredible moment! It was so incredible that I keep using exclamation points to end every single sentence!

Only, guess what? Aubry’s not gone. (The idol and advantage are. I confirmed that with Probst. But not Aubry.) The Aubry vote-off should have been earth-shattering. The first returning player in the game to be voted out. A woman who had lasted 76 out of 78 days her first two times playing completely outwitted by a bunch of newbies. And she had an idol and an advantage and was so suckered that she didn’t use either even though she should have known she was in deep trouble. If you love Aubry, then you’re devastated. If you don’t like Aubry or the concept of returning players being mixed with newbies and commandeering their experience and airtime, then you are ecstatic. Either way, it should be a HUGE moment. But it wasn’t. Because it was not definitive and nor was it final.

So instead of having viewer jaws on the floor and fans jumping on social media to celebrate or mourn the loss of an all-star, instead they are more likely to post completely unrelated photos of Stephen Fishbach from seven seasons ago crying about #SevereGastrointestinalDistress… or maybe that’s just me. Because instead of the last thing we see at the end of an episode being a shocking blindside, now the last thing we see is the most obvious conclusion imaginable — someone grabbing a torch to continue playing. That’s what we end on, and it pales in terms of emotional impact.

Sure, there have been moments at Edge of Extinction. I really enjoyed seeing Chris’ vulnerability last week, and certainly, there was drama there in these two episodes that we’ll get into in a bit, but is it enough to make up for the loss in drama of a televised execution in which the proverbial head is actually chopped off? Not in my book. (It’s also ironic that I am using Aubry’s non-ouster as an example of why the concept does not work since Redemption Island and Edge of Extinction have only been employed in seasons involving returning players as a safety net to ensure they stay on the season a few extra episodes in case they get voted out early.)

I will say this, however (because I always say this): I fully support the producers continuing to tinker and try new things. For every new twist, angle, or format change that may not work, there are several that do. When you are closing in on FORTY SEASONS of a show, you have to evolve, change, and experiment. It would be so easy for Jeff Probst and the crew there to put the entire operation on cruise control, but they keep the pedal to the metal.

They also know there are a lot of fans, bloggers, and players (like Mike White who dissed Redemption Island to Probst) out there who don’t like the idea of voted-out people sticking around, but they went ahead and did it anyway because they had a concept they believed in and had the guts to try it. Yes, it’s important to listen to fans who have been along on the ride for 19 years now, but it’s even more important to listen to the professional instincts that have guided you to such success (not to mention incredible seasons like the one we saw just a few short months ago). So while I don’t like the twist, I do like — and respect — the confidence the production team has to continue to take big steps rather than playing it safe.

One last note about Edge of Extinction as a concept before we get to the nitty-gritty of this double-shot of episodes. Some people have complained that EOE takes away time from meeting the players still on the actual tribe beaches, as if the disappearance of Julia and Aurora is somehow connected to that, but I feel that’s a bit overblown. The disappearance of Julia and Aurora and others is more due to the heavy emphasis on returning player confessionals and activity.

I know there are people out there who track screen time and confessionals. I’d love to see what percentage of confessionals this season have been on the four returning players and what percentage have been the 14 newbies. If everyone was getting the exact same number of interviews, then the four returnees should be accounting for just 22 percent of all confessionals. I am confident their number is higher than that and that the newbies have been suffering because of it. But even more so than that, the confessionals that the newbies actually do get are almost always them talking about a returning player rather than something completely unrelated. There’s another statistical study someone with more time than I have should start: What is the percentage of newbie confessionals in which they do not mention or discuss a returning player? I bet that number is suuuuuuuuper low.

So circling back, I don’t necessarily mind cameras spending time at Edge of Extinction rather than the tribe camps. I just think what you get there has to be worth more than what you lose in dramatic impact by having every week now essentially turn into a non-elimination episode. In my book, it hasn’t yet. It has a half-season left to convince me. (And, despite what everything you have read above may lead you to believe, I am open to being convinced.)

Okay, let’s get through the rest of this week’s news and nonsense.

Falling to Earth
I’m not too proud to admit I think watching people fall is hilarious. I mean, it’s not like I want them to get hurt. But when one person is dropping another person into a face plant position on the dirt, leading the dropped party to yell out “Dammit, Wardog!”…well, I’m sorry, but I smiled. I’m just being honest here. (Just imagine if Lauren had actually addressed him properly and yelled: “Dammit, The Wardog!” I definitely would have done more than smiled in that case.)

I’m pretty sure a bunch of other stuff happened in the first reward challenge, but that’s all I remember. Oh, wait, that’s not true. I also remember Lauren yelling “Go, Wardog!” as he scrambled slowly underneath an obstacle. Basically, I remember anything that has anything to do with yelling at The Wardog.

Naturally, Lesu lost again, and to say Kelley Wentworth was frustrated would be an understatement. Here’s what she told us after yet another loss: “How bad can we be? And you’re putting David, basically acts like a female and weighs less than me. It’s basically like we have three girls and Wardog.” Ooooof. Well, those comments certainly aren’t going to sit well with many. I’ve been praising Kelley and Lauren as athletic threats all season long (although I’m not exactly sure why since they keep losing) so for Wentworth to equate women as being weak is a bit disappointing, as it is to say that David “basically acts like a female.” But I won’t turn this into a gender studies lecture. I’ll just say that comment was a bit…awkward. Not as awkward as Ron’s Kama celebratory dance, but awkward nonetheless.

Julia Speaks!
Stop the presses! In a seemingly brand-new twist, Survivor air-lifted a contestant into the game to start five episodes in. Weird. Meet Julia Carter, everyone! Julia enjoys shopping and eating, her pet peeves include loud chewing, and she considers herself a team player and excellent communicator. I met Julia the day before the game when we sat down and had a lovely chat. Big energy! Big smile! The camera will love her, I thought. But then Julia disappeared and we had not heard from her since. I mean that literally. I don’t think she has said a single word all season. I don’t know if she was hiding on the Edge of Extinction or what, but here she is on day 12. And she’s talking!

Unfortunately, as previously pointed out on several occasions, what she has to say is once again another example of a new player talking about a returning one, as she becomes yet the latest person to note that Joe is a threat and needs to go. Julie then says the same thing. In fact, every single second of footage we see at the Kama camp in two hours of Survivor this week will revolve around Joe. Look, I love Joey Amazing as much as the next guy, but that does seem a bit excessive.

Water World
The moment where Aubry was talking about the chickens and then a chicken walked into frame was classic. The moment where Wentworth described David as “worthless” was harsh. And the moment where David talked about the DVDs in his two-bedroom apartment made me wonder if he’s considered upgrading to Blu-ray or 4K. But I’m skipping over all of that because we have a bona fide water challenge, people. And it is an awesome one. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.

That’s because people have to swim. And climb. And leap off a ledge. And dive down. And then pull a pontoon (and how great is the word pontoon, by the way). It all finishes with a puzzle, that sadly, does not need to be done in the water. (I have actually pitched an underwater puzzle to challenge producer John Kirhoffer. Think about how cool that would be. Say you have a puzzle attached to some underwater structure so the solver has to dive down with a mask and do whatever he/she can before having to resurface for air and then going back down and up and down again until it is solved, at which point they raise it up for Jeff to check. It combines both mental and physical. C’mon! That’s actually a pretty decent idea, right?)

But even without the underwater puzzle solving, this is still pretty dope. What was fascinating to an aqua snob like myself was seeing how many people were unable to release the buoy pieces from underwater. Aurora couldn’t do it. Aubry couldn’t do it. And not a single person from Lesu could get it. Eventually, Wardog managed to get one free and Lauren had to return after her first failed attempt, but they were as far away from winning as you currently are from finishing this recap. (Sorry about that, by the way.) But it wasn’t over. Why? Because — say it with me — IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PUZZLE!

The problem is, the man I promised would be a puzzle-destroyer for the ages in David Wright had instead been destroyed himself all season. But not this time. After Kama won — and then attempted to aid Manu by giving them directions — David and Lesu stormed back and took second place, giving the four of them their very first immunity victory of the season in what Jeff Probst described as “one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Survivor.” Julia speaking? Lesu winning? What in the blazes is going on here! I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT SHOW I AM WATCHING ANYMORE!

Revenge of the Newbies
That Victoria is a crafty one. She had an idea earlier in the episode to pretend to be in a girls alliance with Wendy and Aubry to make Aubry feel safe and therefore not use her hidden immunity idol if she had one. But after Manu lost the challenge, Aubry should have snuffed this ruse out, and it was all in the eyes — or, more accurately, the lack of. Go back and watch the scene between Aubry and Victoria before Tribal Council where they talk about their new alliance. Like a poor poker player (I love how I am talking as if I actually know a single thing about poker) Victoria had a major tell. During this entire conversation she never once made eye contact with Aubry, and when someone does that, they’re lying. She kept looking away. Even when Wendy joined the conversation and Aubry was talking to get her on board, Victoria preoccupied herself by needlessly looking through her bag. As soon as I watched this scene, I knew Aubry was done. Unless she picked up on the same thing I did and used her idol.

She didn’t. Not even getting the extra vote from Rick Devens (which we’ll get more into in a minute) could help her. Aubry got got by the newbies. She thought she was good to go, didn’t play her idol, and seemed genuinely shocked by her ouster. I was too because I thought she would pick up on Victoria’s body language and lack of direct eye contact, but Aubry must have wanted to believe so badly it was true that she ignored her instincts. So off to the Edge of Extinction she went. Which brings us to…

What’s in the Box?
As more people started showing up to Edge of Extinction, so did the goodies. Chris started things off by finding a buried chest with scrolls for each of them, which turned out to be maps. This led us to our first big strategic blunder of EOE when Rick figured out the maps were actually reminiscent of old Mad magazine back covers that you would fold-up to turn into something completely new. Rick decoded the map. Smart! But then he went and told everyone else. Dumb!

The group made a pact to all go look together after eating, but Keith decided to give himself a little head start, sneaking out to go find the goodies. This was a highly debatable move on Keith’s part. On one hand, if there’s some sort of advantage out there, go get that sucker! On the other hand, you have no idea what is out there and no idea if you are also playing a social game and need to worry about votes at some point. (Remember, the Outcasts on Pearl Islands voted people back into the game.) I get why Keith took off, but I wouldn’t have done it. Too many unknown variables to risk pissing everyone else off.

And that’s what Keith did. However, when Chris maneuvered and positioned his body in front of Keith to get the first mystery item, it was Keith who complained, “Not cool!” Not cool? Dude, on the scale of coolness, Chris is freakin’ frigid at this point compared to you. I don’t particularly have any ethical problems with you lying to the others and trying to get the items for yourself, but you can’t do that and then whine “not cool” when someone else muscles you out of said items.

In any event, the items in question there were some bamboo sticks and the word practice — presumably for whatever challenge the players will need to partake in to get back in the game. The other item Rick found was the extra vote he was allowed to assign to someone still in the game going to the next Tribal Council. He gave it to Aubry. We know how that worked out. And it speaks volumes that he did not give it to the one original Manu member he actually lived and competed with in Wendy.

Then we got more EOE action on day 16, including, yes, more maps. These maps had holes in them, and nobody could really figure it out. Instead, Reem was strolling out in the water when she just happened to walk upon the prize. And not unlike Rick a few days before, she couldn’t keep her mouth shut. “What is that, dude?” she asked (because Reem ends every sentence with the word dude, and that is not a complaint in the least). So after hearing that, Keith walked over and claimed it for himself — easy peasy.

Inside was a note that read: “When the time comes, penalize your biggest threat by assigning these knots to them.” Translation: Chris will now have an extra step to deal with in the challenge to get back in the game, which means Chris is probably not getting back in the game. As if that was not bad enough, Chris then also found himself on the receiving end of a relentless Reem verbal assault for being frustrated that she pointed out to Keith where the advantage was. “Do I have complete idiot written across my forehead?” she yelled. “You’re getting on my f—ing nerves,” she yelled. And then she yelled some more. Sorry, Chris, but… YOU JUST GOT REEMED!

When I spoke to Reem before the game she went on at length about how she could not stand sensitive people. With that in mind I will not say Reem was being too sensitive, but let’s just say she didn’t exactly let Chris’ pretty innocuous comment simply roll off her back. As Aubry so succinctly noted after showing up at EOE: “It is a disaster here.”

The Wardog Gets Yelled At…Again
Man, Lauren sure does love to berate The Wardog in challenges. “Come on, Wardog!” she snapped again in the second reward challenge for coffee and pastries. In her defense, his attempts to throw sandbags at spinners was… less than good. Wardog’s throwing motion resembled my mute cat swatting at a fly. (The fact that my cat is mute has no real bearing on the preceding sentence, but I do find it interesting so figured I would share). Wardog threw low and Wardog threw lower. He wasn’t even remotely close with the majority of his attempts, and when he finally did hit the target, he spun it THE WRONG WAY! (I just hope Kelley doesn’t accuse him of throwing like a girl.)

Anyway, Joey Amazing won again and Lesu got last place. Shocking. And back at camp, Wentworth, David, and Lauren were all getting sick of The Wardogtatorship. (Ugh, I tried to combine Wardog and dictatorship into one word and it kinda didn’t work. My bad on that one. Sorry. But not unlike the Survivor producers, you need to keep trying new things. Sometimes they work, and sometimes you come up with The Wardogtatorship. The cost of doing business.)

“Also he kinda sucks at these physical challenges,” added David about The Wardog. Damn, that’s mean. Accurate, sure. But mean. The folks on Lesu ridicule their tribemates’ challenge performances more than I ever could. It’s like they’re doing my job for me. However, in David’s defense, this did happen right after a challenge.

Tribe Camp Odds & Ends
Just some quick hits on the tribe beaches before we get to the immunity challenge.

Kama was once again all about Joe. We actually saw Joe get really choked up — fighting back tears, and not just because he finally realized what his mustache looked like. No, Joe was feeling lonely out there like he had “no one to rely on,” which I’m sure made alliance-member Aurora feel positively swell watching that play back on TV. (You are forgiven if you have no idea who Aurora is. Hell, I spoke to Aurora for 20 minutes out in Fiji and after six episodes I barely even know who she is.)

Speaking of crying, Lauren has apparently been crying for four days straight over on Lesu, describing her Survivor experience as “24-hour days of hell” — which also happens to be the latest tourism ad campaign for Edge of Extinction, complete with a big picture of Reem on it. The Wardog now thinks Lauren needs to go, but the others are getting sick of The Wardog making all the decisions. I can only assume they are also getting sick of having to call one of their tribemates “The Wardog.”

And since there are no longer any returning players on Manu, the show doesn’t bother even checking in on that camp.

Two for the Price of One
The second immunity challenge involved the teams running around and tossing a ball before finally finishing with a slide puzzle. I actually tried this puzzle in the Survivor challenge office when I was out on location. Kirhoffer gave me 10 minutes to complete it and I was not even close. Now, I may have had a Fiji Gold or two before and while attempting to solve it, but the fact remains that I was terrible. Or the puzzle was hard. Most likely both.

In any event, Kama won it because of course Kama won it because Joe is on Kama and Joe literally wins EVERYTHING. I don’t blame Wentworth for being frustrated by that. The dude is a machine… if machines could grow hideous looking mustaches. And while David had some puzzle redemption in the last immunity contest, he faltered once again here. Ooof.

But the sad-sacks over on Lesu are not the only ones heading to Tribal Council, because like the infamous J.T. telling F.U. Culpepper which way to vote on Game Changers, we have another scenario where two tribes will have to vote one person out. First, we head over to the Manu beach where everyone says they are ready to go to rocks… only Victoria then tells us not really. Then we head over to the Lesu beach where everyone says they are ready to go to rocks… only The Wardog and Lauren then tell us not really.

However, Lesu does actually seem to have the upper hand here. For one thing, Kelley goes and finds an idol, giving Lesu two to play with. (Interestingly enough, Kelley and Lauren tell each other about their idols, because players on Survivor are simply incapable of keeping anything a secret, even when they — like Lauren — claim they will never tell a soul.) Another potential advantage for Lesu comes in the form of their old tribemate Wendy. The Wardog says the new Manu folks won’t go to rocks for Wendy, and he is 100% correct.

At Tribal, there is a lot of whispering, including David asking Big Wendy out on a one-on-one date to the side. No idols are played and the initial votes go 4 for Wendy and 4 for Lauren. And then the floodgates of information exchange are officially open. Lauren and Kelley walk right over and huddle with Gavin and Victoria from the other tribe, while Eric moseys over to The Wardog and David. And there in the middle, alone, is Big Wendy. A woman without a home, or a tribe. The sacrificial lamb being led to the Tribal Council slaughter. Indeed, she is unanimously voted out, and judging by the smiles, celebration, and hugging of Jeff Probst, she is clearly distraught about it.

I have been heavily critical of certain people before — cough, cough, Cochran — for not going to rocks, but I actually think the Manu people made the right call in caving and voting out Wendy. They are clearly guessing the merge is coming up next, Wendy is so unreliable anyway, and they already will still have a clear Kama majority. Going to rocks in this case was simply not worth the risk, and there was nobody to get pissed at them in retribution to stop them from doing so. Rocks, in this case, made all the sense in the world, especially since they did it as a group.

I actually thought Big Wendy might not take the torch to continue playing the game because, well, let’s be honest — Big Wendy never started playing the game in the first place. I also found it quite odd that she was salivating over having a “cheeseburger and shower” after being voted out considering… SHE REFUSED TO ALLOW OTHER STARVING PEOPLE TO EAT A CHICKEN!!!

Oh, Wendy.

But it looks like Wendy may not have to wait at the Edge of Extinction for long. Previews for next week show the ousted players showing up at what looks like a challenge. One would guess next week is the merge and that at least one contestant will make it back into the game. We’ll find out soon enough. But it’s also time you found out about our weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst, where he weighs in on this week’s episodes. We’ve also got an exclusive deleted scene for you above, so if you want to watch more Survivor, that is the place. For a chance to win the entire collection of original embarrassing moment confessions written by the entire cast, follow me on Instagram @thedaltonross, and for more Survivor scoop, check me out on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Do you feel the Edge of Extinction drama is worth the trade-off of vote-outs not being final? Has the over-emphasis on returning players bugged you? And did new Manu make the right call in not going to rocks? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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