I’m going to do us all a favor and make a sincere effort to limit any and all talk about pilots and passengers in this week’s Survivor recap. Every season it seems there is some sort of new terminology that players latch on to and beat into the ground, and this time around it has to do with who is flying the damn airplane. Honestly, I haven’t heard this much talk about passengers since Wesley Snipes was telling me to “always bet on black” while taking out hottie assassin flight attendant Elizabeth Hurley in Passenger 57.
I’m also going to make a sincere effort not to mess up the names Julie and Julia, but I’m probably guaranteed to screw that up at some point as well. If I do, rest assured that Julie is the one obsessed with something called “Kama Control” (which I can only assume is the name of some underground grammar collective or a 1980’s West German Kraftwerk cover band), and Julia is the one who said, “Shut up, Wardog.” Oh, and got voted out.
What happened at Tribal Council was crazy and insane and enough to make Aubry Bracco temporarily transform into Eliza Orlins without the aid of Polyjuice Potion, and we’ll get to that. I promise. But we’ve seen a lot of “live” Tribals lately. Maybe not quite to this degree. But we’ve seen them. What really struck me about this week’s episode of Survivor: Edge of Extinction is what came before it. No, not Eric staring off into the distance pensively at Extinction Island. I’m pretty sure that is contractually required to happen for every contestant who lands there. No, I’m talking about what happened directly before Tribal. No, not the commercial break. I mean before that. Ugh, why is this so difficult?!
What I’m talking about is the most awkward, silent family dinner I have ever seen. You know, that whole scene when everyone just sat in a circle passing food and staring at their feet and wishing they all had cellphones (or at least Shane Powers’ island Blackberry) to look at and distract them from the uncomfortableness in front of them. That was riveting. You probably think I’m being a Sarcastic Sally right now, but I’m not. I’m completely serious. To me, this scene in which absolutely nobody spoke and nothing happened was positively fascinating, and for a few reasons.
This scene said more about the game and what living on the island is like than a hundred strategy sessions. Because, for one thing, most of the time contestants in this game are not scheming or wheeling and dealing. Rather, they are just sitting around doing nothing. That is the one element of being out there that does not really translate onto the screen. All we see on screen is the action, but the standard default for this game is inaction. Quite simply, there is a lot of damn time to kill, so for all the strategy talk you see on screen, there is much more talk about absolutely nothing, or, often no talk at all. This scene perfectly captured that. But it also captured something else.
People try to base the decisions in this game on what people tell them, but visual cues are so much more important than vocal ones. Go back a few weeks to the Aubry ouster as a perfect example. I wrote then that in the scene where Victoria pretended that she was totally in on an alliance with Aubry and Big Wendy, it was blatantly obvious Victoria was lying because she never once made eye contact with Aubry. I am still shocked to this day that a savvy, veteran player like Aubry did not pick up on that. It was all in the body language, and Victoria’s body language was screaming “I AM A TERRIBLE LIAR WEARING A WINTER HAT ON A TROPICAL ISLAND!”
What we saw in this latest episode was the extreme version of that. Instead of just one person awkwardly avoiding any sort of contact with another, you had every single person avoiding someone else. Because there were so many potential plans in motion and so many people lying to each other, they all just sat there in complete silence trying to avoid one another. And because the foursome of Gavin, Victoria, Julia, and Arora was not good or natural enough at pulling off the con, both David and Kelley sensed that they were the targets. When Aurora shut herself off by sleeping, and Gavin would not look over, and Victoria would not look up, they told them everything they needed to know without a single word being said. Fascinating.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this scene is that the producers let it play out. Silence is considered a killer on television. With our short attention spans — thanks internet and smartphones! — it seems something big and loud has to be happening at all times lest we take a single second to recognize and confront the deep void and loneliness within our souls. Go to any sporting event and see if there is ever a single moment where they are not blaring something over the speakers and on the Jumbotron. People think we are incapable of entertaining ourselves so they have to make sure some form of entertainment is provided at all times — and, truth be told, those people are sadly probably right. After all, I looked at my phone while I was peeing the other day, and that is just plain sad. (Not to mention less than hygienic.)
Anyway, I went off on a bit of a tangent about how our brains have been completely rewired for the worse due to addictive technology that we can’t bring ourselves to put down. Sorry to be a huge bummer as I momentarily examined the lack of true and honest fulfillment in our lives. That’s my bad. But my point is, the fact that the Survivor producers allowed this scene to play out as long as it did is counterintuitive to everything they teach you in producing school, which is precisely why I loved it.
Also, think about how Jeff Probst is always talking about how they are trying to cram as much material as possible into an episode. Every second is precious. It’s why they got rid of the opening credits and other perceived filler like the Rites of Passage that used to help close out every season. And consider what limited time they actually have to show us what is happening on the beach.
Remember, a typical 42-minute episode is showing you the highlights from 72 hours of activity at the tribe camp. Take out Tribal Council, one or two challenges, the “previously on… Survivor” recap, the “next time on…Survivor” preview, and people looking depressed over on Edge of Extinction, and you are usually getting around, say, 10 to 15 minutes of tribe beach time. This episode only covered a 24-hour period, but the point still stands: In a show where every single second matters, devoting so much time to people sitting there and saying nothing was a bold call. And, like many other editing strategies Team Survivor has tried out over the past few seasons, it paid huge dividends — telling us the story in silence. I kind of felt like I was watching the “Hush” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which then got me remembering what a dud Buffy’s boyfriend Riley was and that snapped me back to reality super quick.
So talk all you want about that wild, crazy, bonkers Tribal Council, but for me, this silent awkward family dinner was what actually made the episode. All that said… now let’s talk about that wild, crazy, bonkers Tribal Council! Listen, I’m not going to do a play-by-play of everything that went down because then we’ll be here all day, even for me. Instead, we’ll just briefly set up the situation and then get into what I see as the major moments that enabled the Tribal Council anarchy and last-second switcheroo to occur.
When the gang showed up Tribal, the plan appeared to be to send Kelley or David to Extinction Island. But then these major moments happened.
Major Moment #1
David told us about taking a poop. Okay, this really had nothing to do with anything that followed, but there’s no way David Wright is gonna sit there and shoot the s—, as it were, about aqua dumps at Tribal Council and I’m not putting it in the recap. It’s just not going to happen.
Major Moment #2
There’s an art to Tribal Council. You don’t want to give up your plans, but you also don’t want to get yelled at by Jeff Probst (which does happen) for not answering his questions and giving him something to work with. So the key is to say something while saying nothing at all. Boston Rob was a master at this. He would always give Jeff an entertaining and witty reply that revealed nothing whatsoever… unless he intentionally wanted something revealed.
Suffice it to say, Julia and Aurora are not yet masters at this. Julia first opened the door by announcing to Rick and David that she had a plan with Kelley, putting them on edge. And then Aurora’s comments at Tribal did nothing to lull the Lesus into a false sense of security, which is only the entire point of the game. “You’re spilling the beans,” Julia whispered to Aurora, but by that point, it was too late. Which brings us to…
Major Moment #3
After hearing Aurora’s comments, Rick Devens had a proverbial lightbulb pop up above his head. “Just throwing this out there. It seems there is a really strong Kama group that doesn’t want us messing with them, and then we have 5 Lesu and 2 Kamas that have been left out — that’s 7 people and we can do whatever we want.”
This was the impetus for everything that came after. It’s simple math. There were four people (pilots Julia, Gavin, Victoria, and passenger Aurora) running the show, and a group of three (Kelley, Lauren, The Wardog), a group of two (the law-firm of David & Devens) and another group of two (Ron and Julie) all on the outs. But 3 + 2 + 2 = 7. And last time I checked, 7 > 4. But getting all those seven on the same page to trust each other is easier said than done. Which brings us to…
Major Moment #4
This isn’t a moment as much as an aggressive approach by The Wardog. After Rick floated the idea of the team-up, The Wardog went into attack mode. He relentlessly courted Ron and Julie. He kept telling the duo he was ready to vote for Aurora with them, knowing that Aurora was the most on the outs. But he showed flexibility as well. “You tell us the name and we’ll do it right now,” he said. The Wardog kept the pressure on. He could tell Julie was about to break away, and he wanted to give her that final push. Which brings us to…
Major Moment #5
Honestly, I don’t think any of this happens without Julie. We only got certain snippets of conversations and I can only go by what we heard, but I think Julie was the lynchpin of the entire vote. We had seen all episode that Julie was emotionally vulnerable. Getting blindsided at the previous vote put her in a bad place and she appeared close to breaking. Then, at Tribal Council, she broke. “I don’t have Kama control!” she yelled. “I’m on the bottom of Kama control! I’m ready to jump ship. I’m ready to jump ship” And then she ran over to the Lesus to confer.
My best guess is that had Julie not been so adamant to switch sides, Ron would have gone back to Kama, even though they betrayed him at the last vote. What this tells me is that Gavin, Victoria, and Julia did not do a strong enough job of reassuring Julie after the previous Eric blindside. That should have been priority number one. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Priority number one should have been asking production why they can’t have their swimsuits with all these water challenges. But priority number two should have been trying to make Ron and Julie feel as valued as possible after leaving them out of the last vote. I’m not saying that’s easy, but clearly, Julie did not feel there was any future with her former Kama mates, and that’s ultimately what did them in.
There were tons of other great little moments in this fracas. There was Kelly telling David she had planned to vote him out. There was David overhearing Victoria talking about getting him out. There was Rick and David coming back together and using their joint idol (unnecessarily) for David. And, I feel like I cannot emphasize this enough, there was David talking about taking a poop.
As previously mentioned, we’ve seen a lot of whispering and small groupings and people getting up and walking over to other people over the past few seasons, so that was not necessarily new, but what was so exhilarating was that when this Tribal Council started, there was probably not one single person who was planning to vote for Julia. All the votes were going to either Kelley or David. Yet Julia went home. And it wasn’t even close. And it wasn’t because of an idol or an advantage.
Has a tide ever turned in such a dramatic effect before? I realize I sound like Old Man Ross when I bring up the good ol’ days of Survivor, but in the first 25 seasons of this show I could probably count on one hand the number of times that people actually changed their vote during Tribal Council and sent someone home they weren’t planning to vote for when Tribal began. Sure, sometimes someone unexpected went home because of an idol or an advantage or a tie vote leading to a rock pull, but having someone completely 100 percent safe then getting voted out by pretty much everyone without any of those things happening is almost unheard of. That’s the brutality of Survivor now: You truly never are safe.
Okay, just a few real quick hits before we wrap things up.
• The episode began with The Wardog telling us that “The Wardog controlled the vote.” I tend to agree with him, and even if I didn’t, Dalton is always going to side with the dude who refers to himself in the third person.
• I don’t need to see any more shots of the person who just got voted out sitting at Extinction Island the next morning staring pensively off into the distance while cameras record him or her from multiple angles. I mean, at this point why not just go full cheese and have them depressingly skipping stones on the water and kicking empty soda cans across the beach while going full Arrested Development with the sad Charlie Brown Christmas music. Also, why were Joe and Aubry convincing Eric not to quit? That’s one less person to beat to get back into the game. LET HIM GO!
• Did Jeff Probst just give us our first ever Survivor gender jinx? At one point in the balance-the-ball-on-the-bow immunity challenge, the host noted that there were five women left and only two men. So what happened next? Five women dropped out in a row. That led to a Gavin vs. David battle, and I guess I’m supposed to make some sort of joke here about both of their balls moving a lot, but I’ll leave that to Probst and just note that Gavin won.
• Aubry’s Tribal Council reactions were spectacular, but Eliza Orlins (who returns to TV next week on Amazing Race) is still the queen of the jury facial expressions if you ask me.
Okay, that’s going to do it from here, but you are far from done, my friend. We’ve got an on-the-scene report from Hostmaster General Jeff Probst on what really went down at that crazy Tribal Council in our weekly Q&A. Plus, did you see what Reem said in our gallery of Survivor cast members talking about the biggest obstacles they’ve had to overcome in life? I recommend you do so. I’m also getting closer to giving away the original most embarrassing moment confessions, so follow me on Instagram @thedaltonross for a chance to win those. And for endless Survivor scoop, follow me on the Twitter @DaltonRoss.
Okay, now it’s your turn. Who gets the credit for the big Tribal Council move: Rick, The Wardog, or Julie? Did the silent scene feel as awkward watching on your couch as it did out there on the island? And who wins the Aubry vs. Eliza facial expression battle royale? Hit the message boards to weigh in, and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!