A classic challenge plus several fascinating peeks into human nature equals one riveting episode

By Dalton Ross
Updated February 28, 2015 at 12:29 AM EST
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Credit: Image credit: CBS
S23 E4

There were no epic arguments. There was no hilarious ineptitude. There was no brilliant twist, nor a jaw-dropping blindside to save us from an obvious vote. So what I’m about to write next may shock the buff right off of you. (By the way, if you’re actually wearing a buff right now, how nerdy are you? Don’t answer that, Cochran.) I LOVED last night’s episode of Survivor: South Pacific. I found it thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable. Yes, I know this may come as a shock to some, especially those who think I nitpick too much — speaking of which, how can that count as a new record for Brandon and Jim in the immunity challenge if they were unable to hold all 240 pounds? They dropped it! Just sayin’… — but this was one of those episodes that served to remind me why I fell in love with Survivor in the first place. While it was not an episode filled with big moments, it had several satisfying little ones. How much did I dig this hour? Let us count the ways…

1. Shifting tribal alliances

It started with a hilariously flirty query from a seemingly lovestruck girl. “Is everyone in your family as outdoorsy and athletic as you?” Elyse asked Ozzy. (“No,” came the ever-so-humble reply.) In the normal world, this would have been a cute and sweet scene between two hotties on a hammock, or, more likely, a pre-sex mood setter in a soft porn film. (Something Ozzy certainly has some experience with.) But this is Survivor, where everything has repercussions. And watching those repercussions play out was an absolute delight. First Jim started to worry about Ozzy having too much power already and figured a way to take away some of that power would be to take away his new island plaything. Jim is such a devious bastard. And I mean that as a compliment of the highest order. Love it. But the ripples were only beginning. Jim then went to John who, being clearly on the bottom of the tribe pecking order, was more than happy to take the target off himself and onto someone else. After some awkward shadow-boxing and Jim’s even more awkward cries of “Ooooooh, she’s so freakin’ hot!” John was in.

But this potential turning of the tide was not over. After Jim and John left to go see the Redemption Island duel, Ozzy made a comment about being happy to be rid of Jim and his constant strategy talk. For some odd reason which I still have yet to comprehend, this enraged normally mellow Dawn. It was Ozzy that Dawn went to with tears in her eyes on day two looking for comfort when she wasn’t fitting in. It was Ozzy that spoke glowingly about how great she did in the last immunity challenge while retrieving the puzzle pieces from out in the water. I assumed Dawn liked Ozzy and was ready to do whatever he said. Ozzy probably assumed the same. Looks like we may have both been wrong. Now, aided by this seemingly innocuous comment, John was able to bring Dawn on board for the plan to oust Elyse. Amazing. A hammock cuddle here. A harmless comment there, and now there is at least the possibility of a major tribal shift in the works. God, I love this game.

NEXT: Brandon goes on an apology spree

2. The truth hurts

I’ll admit it. I thought Brandon was kind of a dud when I interviewed him before the game started. I couldn’t figure him out. He would act like a tough guy, but also talk about doing the right thing and honoring God. I didn’t realize this schizophrenic back and forth would provide so much drama on the show. This week, Brandon was in a truly sorry state, which is to say he tried to atone for his sins by going and apologizing to anyone and everyone — most likely up to and including the camera crew. He started with Mikayla, and was amazingly able to get all the way through his entire apology without jumping her bones. (Progress!) But the most fascinating moment for me came when he went to make amends with Edna.

Poor Edna. So happy. So full of life…and questions about life…and questions about the questions of life. She thought she was part of a rock solid alliance. She thought everyone liked her and wanted her to be part of their group. And then here comes Brandon. “The people that you trusted, including me, lied to you,” he told her. “There’s definitely a core five.” Go back and look at Edna’s face as Brandon tells her this. It’s the look of a schoolgirl that has just been told that the mean popular kids were just pretending to be nice to her as some sort of sick joke. It’s sad. Tragic. And impossible to look away. I love the strategy of Survivor. I love watching people dig down deep to reservoirs of pride and perseverance they never knew they had (which we’ll get to later). But I also love the human element. What happens when the horrible realization hits that you aren’t the popular person at camp that you assumed you’d be? How do you process and react when you find out people don’t want you there?

Edna could have sat and sulked. She could have raised hell. Instead, she tried to turn on the charm. I say “tried” because I’m not sure her tribe appreciated her increased…well, let’s call it attention to detail. I sure did, because otherwise we wouldn’t have heard her ask Rick questions like, “Not getting too stiff? A little stiff.” (“A little stiff,” Rick admitted.) Even more fascinating than learning that Rick was a little stiff was confirming that Rick indeed knew how to talk at all. (Are we sure Rick is not really Brett from Samoa with a really bitchin’ mustache?) Watching Edna digest this information, try to improve her position as a result, and perhaps falter in doing so was a fascinating look into the social dynamics that make Survivor such an amazing piece of television. Before we move off this topic, I’d also like to point out that Edna is far from the first Survivor player to walk all over Coach. ZIIIIIIIIIIIING!

NEXT: A classic challenge once again delivers the goods

3. Making the best of a bad situation

My position on the Redemption Island twist has been pretty clear over the past two seasons. I get why producers tried it, but I don’t like the way it has neutered the power of the Survivor‘s ultimate moment — the vote-out. So, yeah, not a fan. But put that aside for a second. There is an undeniable thrill to watching two people battle it out for their reality show lives. One stays. One goes. This latest duel involved tossing sand bags on crates. First one to get 10 bags on 10 crates wins. It sounds simple and it was, but the advantage to these type of competitions — as opposed to most of the puzzles — is that you can track exactly how far ahead or behind each person is. Often with puzzles, you cannot. And that made it all the more dramatic when Papa Bear (geez, I feel stupid writing that) was down 7-4 and came back to tie it 9-9. Sure, he then lost, but at least he made in interesting, so kudos for that. And although Marc-Anthony is a nice guy, I felt very uncomfortable typing his self-anointed nickname so am glad to see him go if for no other reason than I will not be put in that position again.

4. From zero to hero

So, the duel was okay, but the immunity/reward challenge? Incredible. In what has become a Survivor staple, three contestants try and carry as much weight as they can on a pole that rests across their shoulders. I love this challenge because it is a test of physical and emotional endurance. How much do you want it? How much physical pain can you handle before your body — and will — gives out on you? This challenge yields major drama every single time, and this instance was no different. The biggest athletes in the competition ‚ Keith and Albert, went out at 180 pounds. (Wimps!) Brandon and Jim both went out at 240 pounds, which Probst noted as a record, although in my book they would have actually had to, you know, not drop it to claim it is a record. Maybe that’s just me. Brandon looked like a man possessed as he attempted to keep his pole up (an unfortunate choice of words on my part; hey, at least Edna didn’t ask him if he was stiff).

But the best was yet to come as it was left to a showdown between the two ladies, Stacey and Dawn. Dawn seemed to have the early advantage as Stacey’s pole was sliding down off her shoulders, but baby must have some serious back because she found a solid resting place on her butt. Then Dawn started to struggle with one end of the pole titling and almost touching the ground. It came down to an ultimate test of wills. Who would break first? I was riveted. And elated when Dawn held on to give her tribe the victory. Nothing against Stacey mind you — other than the fact that the only words I understood out of her mouth the entire episode were “scrambled eggs” — but here’s what you have to love about this. Dawn is a woman who first applied for this show over 10 years ago. Huge fan, But she never was cast. Last year, she thought she had finally made it for the Redemption Island season and then she was cut just two weeks before they shipped off. Now, she finally makes it on the show — a dream fulfilled! But then the dream turns into a nightmare as she realizes she’s not fitting in. On day two she’s in tears, telling Ozzy that she feels like an outcast from the rest of the tribe. Now, with her team desperately needing a win, and with everything up to her, she becomes the unquestioned hero. The elation she must have felt at the moment —it was intoxicating. Either it was that or the beers I put down before and during the show. One of the two.

NEXT: Let’s hug it out…or not.

5. Another Tribal Council meltdown

After Stacey tried to mess with Brandon’s mind — not difficult, by the way — by lying about there being a secret Mikayla, Sophie and Albert alliance, we were treated to a weird Tribal Council. Weird because Jeff Probt pulled an old Survivor trick out of his bag by making the tribe members complain about each other for no apparent reason whatsoever — except for the obvious reason, of course, which was to stir up some drama. Survivor and Big Brother have done challenges in the past that forced the contestants to rank each other on certain criteria just to get people pissed off at one other, but I’ve never seen Probst just up and command people to start dissing and dismissing. And with the exception of getting Rick to actually speak, it wasn’t necessary. There was plenty of drama set to unfold anyway courtesy of the perpetually crumbling Brandon, who began crying, talking about how much he loved his uncle, and how “I just want to be somebody that God is proud of.” I don’t know about God, but I know the producers are certainly proud of all the drama Brandon has given them with his inner turmoil-a-thon.

6. To hug or not to hug?

Would you hug people that just voted you off their tribe? Hell to the no! I don’t know what Coach was thinking with that move of trying to embrace Stacey after kicking her to the curb. Maybe the same thing he was thinking when he kept saluting to nobody in particular. (And am I’m wrong for saluting back to the television every time he does that? Please tell me I’m not. Try it yourself sometime. It feels good!) But it was another intriguing look at human dynamics. Here’s the guy that just engineered someone’s ouster trying to say “Hey, no hard feelings. It’s all good.” And here’s the person that was just shunned saying “No. Not good. In fact, very bad. Get the hell out of my way so I can go get my torch snuffed.” Is it a game or is it personal? That’s what makes Survivor so genius. It’s both.

Speaking of aborted hugs, I asked Jeff Probst in our weekly Q&A what he would do if someone tried to hug it out after voting him off. Check out his answer. And also make sure to check out our exclusive deleted scene (featuring Dawn getting an early jump on the day) from last night’s episode in the video player below, as well as my pre-game interview with the newly ousted Marc-Anthony. And for more Survivor scoop, follow me on Twitter @EWDaltonRoss. Go ahead and hit the message boards to share your thoughts on the episode and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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Survivor

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

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