The Thanksgiving eve episode proves you don’t need idols or advantages to make riveting TV.
SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols
S41 E10
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First off, happy Thanksgiving, everybody. I hope you all have a relaxing holiday surrounded by (vaccinated) friends and family. And I hope you consume positively obscene amounts of stuffing because stuffing is the best part of any Thanksgiving meal and I will not hear a single word otherwise. When you dis stuffing, you dis yourself. Honestly, just give me an entire plate of stuffing with gravy and I'm good. Sure, I'll miss the mashed potatoes, the turkey, the green beans, maybe even some mac and cheese if that's on the menu — but I would still take a plate of stuffing over all the other options combined.

I'm thankful for good food and I'm thankful for good friends and I'm thankful for my family members who tolerate me. You know what else I'm thankful for this week? A KICK-ASS EPISODE OF SURVIVOR! Seriously, how amazing was that? Best episode of the season. An all-time great episode actually, and without a single idol or advantage coming into play. Because what we got this week was not Twistapalooza or some other sort of manufactured make-history-by-changing-history flavor off the spice rack. Instead, we got something much more genuine: real human drama with players reacting to each other instead of to some imposed spin on the game. And it was moving and dramatic and complicated and thrilling and heart-wrenching — all at the same time. This was Survivor at its best.

What was also so remarkable about this episode is that it wasn't just one instance either. There was interpersonal drama all over the place. God, there were so many absolutely incredible scenes in this one episode, the first one being between Shan and Deshawn as they struggled to play individual games while also considering a common cause. Both players talked about the bigger picture, with Deshawn wondering out loud whether he should do it for the culture or do it to pay off his debt, and with Shan noting, "We really want to give the Black community back home something to celebrate," while also acknowledging that she had made other connections outside the color lines and was unsure how much she could really trust Deshawn.

By the way, to all those complaining, I'd like to point something out: THIS IS NOT WOKE SURVIVOR! THIS IS CLASSIC SURVIVOR! When Deshawn talks about the "duality" of wanting to play with Black players but also wanting to play for himself, that is a clear and vivid example of the push and pull of wanting to win but also wanting to win "the right way" that players have struggled with since the show began over 20 years ago. Can you win in a game built around lying and deceit and still stay true to yourself? That is the fascinating dilemma players face, and it is the fascinating television we all sign up to watch. The fact that players like Deshawn and Shan have to navigate it on an even more intense, personal level because of the cultural reckoning of recent history makes all of their game decisions that much more intriguing to observe. How can you not love watching that play out?

"I don't want to turn back on any of the three of them," noted Deshawn. "But what am I going to do for myself?" That's the ultimate Survivor question right there. This isn't some Hollywood screenwriter coming up with a fabricated story: THIS S--- IS REAL! We're watching people struggle to make the "right" call when there is no definitive answer for what even constitutes as "right." Amazingly, the episode was only getting started.

Survivor season 41
The cast of 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

After certified challenge beast Ricard won the reward contest, Danny and Deshawn decided not to turn on Shan, but to do the next closest thing and take out her day-one ally, Ricard. They brought Liana in on the plan, meaning Liana now had to do her own personal-meets-strategy calculations. Getting Ricard out would probably be good for her game as well, but Liana decided she could not stay silent, noting there was nothing more precious to her than connecting with Shan on a personal level about their moms and their Blackness and their womanhood during the summit journey. Liana decided she would rather sit at the end and lose than betray Shan with that vote. Wow. Again, that's an epic Survivor scene! Here's a player who takes the game so seriously that she bawled like a baby on day 5 over not being able to take out a huge threat now making the decision to give up her game for something she deemed greater.

I didn't know it was possible to simultaneously scream and applaud at the television until this scene. I screamed because Liana may have been torpedoing her own game with this move, but I also applauded because you have to love the connection and love her guts to potentially sacrifice a $1 million to stand for something greater. Geez Louise, this episode was so aces, and you know what is absolutely insane? I HAVEN'T EVEN GOTTEN TO THE BEST PART YET!!! For some background, here's what I wrote in my recap five weeks ago when Shan made the decision to keep Ricard and get rid of Genie instead…

"It's simple: If you are Ricard, at some point you have to get rid of Shan. You can't go to the end with her. My guess is that he knows that. And if he knows it, then Shan should know it too. Which is why you keep Genie. As bad as her tantrum was after Brad was voted out (and JD said in our exit interview that it was even worse than what was shown on TV), Genie seems like she is truly loyal to Shan at this point. Genie even told us that at the start of the episode, and Shan called her "the loyalist." So why wouldn't you keep her over Ricard? She is someone you can use and someone you can beat. Ricard is too good! Ricard is too smart! Ricard will cut you in a second and without hesitation if it means getting further in the game… as he should."

I re-present that paragraph not to rub Shan's face in it that she could have potentially avoided this fate if she had read my recap and then made history by changing history and broken an hourglass somewhere to go back six months in time and change her vote. Rather, I show it here again to confirm what we already knew about Ricard: GAMER. He didn't just slit Shan's throat in the game — he did it in epic, fascinating fashion.

It's rare after 41 seasons of Survivor to see something completely new, but that's what we got with Shan and Ricard. Here were two huge allies working super closely all season long, openly acknowledging that they planned to take each other out at some point. Not only did they never make a final-two deal, but during their time at the "Survivor Sanctuary" (in a normal non-holiday week my entire recap would be 5,000 words on the Survivor Sanctuary) they basically — while smiling — laid out the reasons to each other why they wouldn't bring the other to the end. Ricard told Shan that people liked her more. Shan told Ricard, "I always feel like a man will beat a woman at the end." Ricard said he felt this season would be different. (Note: In terms of recent Survivor history, Shan is on point: As I have chronicled over the past few years, 12 of the past 15 winners — including the last six in a row — have been men.)

They ended the conversation by both agreeing "it's not the time" and Shan humming her Mafia Pastor theme ("What are you singing over there?" asked star of the season Heather in the episode's funniest moment). What an incredible treat that scene was: two allies who had worked together since day one and described each other as their number one openly acknowledging that they would not take the other to the end and would actively try to take the other one out. Riveting. Seriously. If you did not love this scene, then you do not love Survivor. The only question was: Who would strike first?

Survivor season 41
Ricard Foye on 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Because they had both agreed it was not the time, Shan informed Ricard of the plot to vote him out, and Ricard's reaction told you everything you needed to know. Instead of profusely thanking Shan for the intel or freaking out about being the target, Ricard seemed… flummoxed. And suspicious, even explaining to us that he was confused as to why Shan would even tell him this since they both acknowledged they were going to have to fight each other at some point.

In those situations, if you wait, you're dead. This was Shan's chance (remember: this all took place before Ricard won immunity), and a chance to do it while even pretending to stay loyal since she did not need to vote him out to make it happen. But she made a fatal flaw in underestimating her partner in crime. And after Ricard used his dancing background to once again win an immunity challenge, that provided him with the cover to make a big move without any immediate repercussions, and that provided the opportunity to get Shan before Shan got him.

He was so matter-of-fact about it, too. "I have decided that today is the day for Shan to go," explained Ricard, kind of in the same way one might say "I have decided that today I shall do my laundry" or "I have decided to have a Caesar salad with my dinner." And then he put the plan in motion, telling Xander, Heather, and Deshawn of his scheme. There were some modifications, with a split vote put into motion to protect against Shan using her idol, and there was some doubt put into the vote, with Danny mentioning that he could get rid of Shan "or make a bigger move and vote out Erika" — which, by the way, makes absolutely no sense at all. The only planet on which Erika is a bigger move than Shan is one in which someone has made history by changing history and given Erika 14 immunity idols, eight advantages, a rad nickname (the Killer Canuck?) and her own theme song.

Of course getting rid of Shan was the bigger move, and that is exactly what they did — throwing three votes on Shan and Liana, and then ousting the Mafia Pastor on the revote. But boy did Shan get the hero's exit, complete with swelling music and slow-motion voting on the revote — befitting of someone who has dominated the edit going all the way back to episode 1 (sorry, Heather). But better than the juiced audio and video manipulation were the final interactions between the ousted and the ousterer, with Shan telling Ricard, "It's okay," and Ricard responding with, "I love you."

Game respects game. And this dynamic duo always established it would at some point come to this. Which is why Ricard could blindside his strongest ally — the person who had just protected him from being a target himself — and still be told, "You have my vote for a $1 million" after the fact. (Deshawn was not so lucky, being informed he was a "snake." Of course, the most infamously dubbed Survivor snake was Richard Hatch, who won $1 million, so maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.)

Survivor season 41
Shantel 'Shan' Smith on 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

It was an exhilarating hour of television, and whether you loved Shan's aggressive game play (getting JD to give her his extra vote twice was an incredible feat of social persuasion), screamed at the TV for some of her blunders (accidentally letting Tiffany know about Liana's Knowledge Is Power advantage), or sat riveted by her complex relationships with folks like Ricard and Deshawn), the Mafia Pastor was an absolute force.

And hopefully there is no more of this nonsense about how a religious leader was setting a poor example by playing a deceitful game. Shan played by the same rules as everyone else. There is a long history of religious people in this game being vilified for doing the exact same things that other people in this game do to no outrage whatsoever. That also extends to folks like teachers and even mothers, who have been branded throughout the years as being terrible examples for their children or students. It's all hogwash. Shan played a strong game. Not a perfect game, obviously, but a strong one. And she should hold her head high. As should Ricard for getting her out.

They were both great. And it was a great episode that made me feel slightly less horrible for ignoring my family over the holidays to write this recap. I am thankful for all these things. See! That's me bringing things full circle from the top of my recap! BAM! Professional journalism, everybody!

Okay, before you go stuff your faces and watch way too much football or way too many Hallmark Christmas movies, go ahead and take a gander at our exclusive deleted scene from this week's episode above. It's a pretty amazing one that continues the Xander–Liana rivalry in pretty dramatic (and hilarious) fashion.

Our exit interview with Shan will be delayed until Monday due to the holidays, so make sure to come back for that one. Oh, and as a public service announcement: In case you did not realize it, Survivor: Micronesia and Survivor: David vs. Goliath are now on Netflix. You can celebrate by reading my oral history of the best Survivor moment ever (from Micronesia) and also check out the David vs. Goliath cast reunion we put together last week on my Surviving Snyder podcast with Rick Devens and Brendan Shapiro. Amazing stuff on that one.

Okay, enough! Get the hell out of here! And after you have recovered from that huge feast, I will have another scoop of the crispy piping hot and ready for you next week. Oh, and one last thing… Xander still has not played his idol. HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYBODY!

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"

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