JD calls his shot at the challenge — and ends up doomed by the result.
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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols
S41 E4
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God, I love watching people mess up in Survivor challenges. Sorry, I just do! I love when folks fall repeatedly off a balance beam. I love when contestants appear absolutely clueless on a puzzle. I love when every single shot someone takes at a target misses. And if they can manage to yell "Money!" while doing so… well, that's just a bonus.

The only thing I love more than the look on someone's face when they know they're costing their team a victory is the look on their tribemates' faces when they know that person is costing their team a victory. It's all incredible, and I have relished every second of it over 40-plus seasons. Hell, my job for an entire season was simply to make fun of the challenge foibles of Stephen Fishbach.

And don't think it's just me. The Survivor producers know that stuff is gold too. They even put goofy circus music sound effects in during one of Fishbach's epic challenge blunders. They probably would have used The Benny Hill Show's "Yakety Sax" if they could have gotten the rights. (Perhaps if they pooled all their Fire Tokens it would have been enough.) Occasionally, I feel bad about taking such delight in the misfortune of others, but only occasionally, and that's more like rarely, if I'm going to be completely honest.

But in my old age, I've gotten a bit soft. I was clued into this fact when I — horror of all horrors! — caught myself sniffling during a Loved Ones visit. Also, as much as I love public embarrassment and humiliation played for cheap entertainment, buried somewhere deep down, I do actually want good things for good people, so a line has formed into just how much personal failure any one contestant should have to endure.

Which brings us to Heather. Now, I know your first question: WHO THE HELL IS HEATHER?! You may not have noticed Heather on this season before this week because… well, I'm actually not sure if Heather has been on this season before this week. Seriously, where did she come from? Was there some Prisoner's Dilemma I missed where Erika chose to risk her vote and was rewarded with a 52-year-old stay-at-home mom from Charleston, South Carolina? Is Heather even her real name, or is this what Purple Kelly looks like 20 seasons after Survivor: Nicaragua? Anyway, whoever she is and wherever she came from, there is indeed someone named Heather on this season of the show. No, seriously, I swear! Look, I don't have time to argue about this, you're just going to have to trust me.

We're talking about Heather because she stumbled — both literally and figuratively — in the first portion of this week's reward challenge. Well, stumbled is putting it mildly. Tasked with tossing a ball onto a track, sprinting through some ropes, and then catching the ball as it dropped down the other side, Heather was not even remotely close on any of her multiple attempts. It finally became clear after attempt number 316 that there was no way Heather was ever going to finish (kind of the way it must feel for readers of these recaps from time to time).

It was kind of awesome. But then, somehow, some way… something even more awesome happened. While Yase and Ua moved on to (and eventually completed) other portions of the challenge, Heather just kept tossing that ball up, and watching that ball fall down to the ground, often next to her own splayed-out body. Toss, miss, fall, repeat. Toss, miss, fall, repeat. Like a freakin' metronome. Yet she kept going. And she kept apologizing to her tribe. And the tribe kept responding that they loved her. They started encouraging her. They chanted her name. They cheered her on. None of it helped, of course. But not unlike the mythical Grinch, my heart grew three sizes watching this display. Here was a Survivor superfan-turned-player failing in front of her tribe and a national television audience, knowing that older women fight an uphill battle to begin with in terms of the (often flat-out wrong) perception that they are a liability in challenges, and here she was perhaps sealing her fate in the game.

But instead of her tribe doing their best Spencer Bledsoe impersonation and getting super annoyed at her ineptness, they rallied to support Heather, with former professional athlete Danny consoling her after she collapsed into a pool of tears once the challenge was finally over. "We all fail sometimes," explained Danny. "You can't win it all." I mean, okay, not the most original motivational speech, but it still hit the emotional bull's-eye. Because it felt so genuine! You really did feel the game was put completely aside in this moment. Now, had it been an actual immunity challenge, and one Luvu was not attempting to throw, then maybe it would have been a bit different, but we can leave that aside for the moment.

"One of the reasons I'm still here, 21 years later, is because of moments like that," said Jeff Probst when it was all done. "I love the gameplay of Survivor, but I really like when somebody is vulnerable and lets us watch and is rewarded with love from their competitors." He's right. It was a fantastic moment, and if a jaded, too-cool-for-school know-it-all like me can recognize that, then it shows how powerful the whole thing really was.

I should point out that I have talked to a few people in past seasons that had similar challenge struggles to Heather that were magnified for emotional impact, and not all of those folks were thrilled with the way it was portrayed on TV, believing their ineptitude was milked into some sort of pseudo-teachable moment at their expense. And I think some of them have a point, but that did not appear to be the case here. You could feel the anguish from Heather when she cried, "I let myself down, and I don't quit, and I feel like I let them down," and I totally buy the support her teammates showed her during her struggles.

It's another great reminder that for all the twists, idols, and advantages, it's human-to-human interactions like these that make Survivor must-see TV. Okay, let's hit up a few other must-see moments from this week.

Survivor
The Yase tribe on 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Blast From the Past

It was super fun the way producers/editors essentially made a "Previously on Survivor" segment as Evvie and the folks on Yase narrated their own "previously on…" story. It was also the show's first "previously on…" in years. I'm so glad those are gone, by the way. Not only did they eat up precious episode time, but they often telegraphed a bit what was going to happen in the episode by what they showed you from the past. Anyway, that was a cool little nod.

Also cool? Finding a bunch of baby turtles heading out to start life at sea. Another moment that had absolutely nothing to do with the game but was so amazing and added so much. It also made me want to go rewatch Planet Earth all over again. (Did I even watch Planet Earth the first time?) By the way, turns out the last turtle that had all that trouble making it to water after being stuck in the ditch was actually named Heather. (See, I had to go and ruin the nice moment above with a completely uncalled-for joke. Old habits die hard, I suppose.)

Repeat After Me

So the way Survivor confessional interviews work is that producers sit contestants down and ask them questions about what's been happening at camp or at a challenge or whatever, the player answers, and then 99 percent of it ends up on the cutting-room floor while a comment or two actually make it into an episode. (More if you are Shan, less if you are Heather.) But sometimes producers have a certain other point or theme they need contestants to help drive home. Maybe it's to satisfy an Applebee's product placement. (Hiya, Karishma!) Perhaps it is to help sell an ill-fated Adam Sandler cross-dressing comedy. (Howdy, Coach!)

This time around, there seems to be a burning desire to emphasize over and over how insanely difficult this season is, no doubt to compensate for the worry that a 26-day season would be seen as the kiddie-table version of a regular Survivor. As a result, we keep hearing endlessly from players how this has to be the hardest season ever, and I have to feel these quotes are not coming unprompted. First off, how the hell would these contestants know? They have nothing to compare it to. They've never played before.

"I don't know that Survivor has ever been so Survivor until season 41," exclaimed Shan. Based on what? Also, isn't that kind of an insult to the folks who played the 40 seasons prior? Look, I'm not trying to compare old-school Survivor (where they did not even give you treated water) to this latest version (where you have plenty of water, but food and supplies are super limited). I will say, I've seen barely a drop of rain so far this season, which often plays a big part in how miserable one's living conditions truly are.

The point is, I don't care if this is the easiest or hardest season of Survivor ever. And nobody (except maybe some former players who had to suffer for 13 days longer) is bashing the show for running a truncated season during a pandemic. We're just happy it's back. No need to shove that storyline down our throats. Survivor is hard no matter how many days you play.

Survivor
The Luvu tribe on 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Throwing Error

It was nice to get our first big look at Luvu this week, as Erika made a play to target Sydney but made the mistake of telling Sydney's ally Deshawn. "It makes sense that Erika said my name," responded Sydney. "I am the threat of threats. I am savvy as hell, good-looking, I'm a physical threat." Modesty will get you nowhere, Sydney. Which is precisely why Sydney was cast on a reality television program. (Whether you love her or hate her, she is so much fun to watch.)

But then, just as I was feeling so good about diving into the Luvu tribal dynamics, they had to go and mess the whole thing up by attempting to throw a challenge. I won't bore you with the same diatribe I have blasted out seemingly once a season, but throwing challenges is a terrible idea 99 percent of the time. I get that the players are antsy to start playing, and in many ways you don't feel like you are actually playing Survivor until you dip that torch into the fire at Tribal Council, but there are so many ways that so many things can go so wrong by attending Tribal. And with all the twists, idols, and advantages at play, why would you ever want to put yourself in a position to even risk getting blindsided?

It's such an impulsive, short-sighted strategy, even if players try to convince themselves it is for a long-term greater gain. It's not. They're just bored. Trust me. Because Survivor is boring. When you have a full tribe and no real strategizing to do because you keep winning, and you are out there for 24 hours a day, it gets boring. And so people look for anything to break up that monotony. Seriously, more often than not, that is what it boils down to.

Thankfully, it turns out that Luvu is terrible at throwing challenges. Even with Deshawn (who along with Danny attempted to secretly sabotage their team) retying ropes and blatantly missing ring tosses, Luvu still managed to come in second (no) thanks to Naseer beating out JD at the end.

Speaking of which, props to the Survivor editors. Viewers who have never noticed this before are going to kill me for pointing it out since it will spoil 90 percent of all future challenges they ever watch, but you can pretty much always tell the winner (or in the case of a three-team contest, the non-loser) by the music. If you listen to the flow of the music, there is always a big pause or beat or crescendo right before the winning shot or whatever, so in those last few seconds, you can tell the winner before Probst calls it. Not this week. Really nice job, punctuated by a pitch-perfect pump fake thanks to JD's attempted winner call of "Money!" Well played.

I also liked the way we heard player narration from Danny and Deshawn during the challenge of how they were trying to throw it. Unlike Big Brother, we usually never hear mid-challenge narration during Survivor, which I think is a good thing. I would never want this to become the norm, but it was a unique situation, and the unique treatment it received elevated the segment. APPROVED!

Survivor
Jairus "JD" Robinson on 'Survivor 41'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Death of a Dream

Oh, JD, JD, JD. Okay, let's start with the bad. JD did not play this game well. He came in too hot, which immediately raised red flags with his tribemates pretty much as soon as they hit the beach. He did not perform well in challenges, which was exacerbated by the fact that he attempted to showboat during his failures (auditioning for the NBA's G League with some horrible sandbag layup attempts last week, and calling out "Money!" this week… on a missed shot). Judging by what Brad told us in his exit interview last week, JD also had difficulties in the water.

And then there were his strategic miscues. Not only did JD come back to camp with an advantage sticking out of his pants (not a euphemism), but he then went and gave that advantage away not once but TWICE! Nor did JD have the game sense to pick up on the fact that Shan and Ricard were acting as an unbreakable power unit, so his best bet was to join up with Genie to flip the script and take control of the tribe. There's no getting around it: From a game perspective, it was a bad showing by JD.

That has to be a difficult blow for anyone. It has to be even harder for a 20-year-old. And it has to be even harder for a 20-year-old who lives and breathes the game and talks about how Survivor saved him and made him who he is today and how he had dreamt time and time again about playing. I have talked to many former contestants in my Quarantine Questionnaires and elsewhere who came into the game like JD and came out really struggling mentally and emotionally after the real-life experience in the game did not match their sky-high expectations.

"To be out of the game I dreamt of playing my entire life, it sucks," said JD. "It sucks so bad. At least my hair looks cool." The hair line was funny, as he's trying not to be a Debbie Downer here, but it's clear the dude was bummed. And I totally get it. I really, really hope JD will not let this early exit get to him. I hope he is not embarrassed by his performance. I hope he is not crushed that his dreams came crashing down all around him — and on national television, no less.

Because here's the thing JD should keep in mind. Did he play well? No. But there is a long, long list of players both before him — and soon to be after him — that could say the same. And on that list are true Survivor icons. Icons like Tyson, who voted himself out of the game. Icons like JT, who handed the instrument of his own destruction over to the enemy, gift-wrapped in a love letter. Icons like James, who sat on two immunity idols as he was shipped over to the jury.

And here's another thing JD has in common with those other players: He made for great TV. This may not have been the experience JD anticipated, but he made a standout appearance nonetheless, as he was one of the clear breakouts of the season so far. If JD wanted to make an impact on his favorite television show, then mission accomplished. Again, it may not have been the impact he envisioned, but it was an impact nonetheless, and far better to be memorable in a short stint than forgettable in a long one. I have no doubt that if given the choice, JD (as a fan of the show) would take the former over the latter 10 out of 10 times.

Sure, that wink at Tribal Council may have given JD nightmares over the past six months after he was played the fool, but that wink — and other moments like it — could be the reason he is brought back onto the show for a second chance. And then, who knows what happens? Hopefully JD is able to focus on those positives instead of the negatives.

As for Shan and Ricard's decision to keep Genie over JD, I do think it was the right move. Knowing how JD wanted to play a big showy game, it was probably best to cut him now before he took his revenge later. Plus, you secure his extra vote.

I also want to give props to the producers and editors for doing a nice job keeping the target a mystery. It appeared way too obvious the past two weeks that David and Brad were goners based on what line of questioning made the final cut, but I legitimately had no clue this time around as the players walked up to vote. Across the board, this was a much stronger episode than last week's installment. The personalities popped, the creative touches flourished, the editing was on point. It all served to illustrate what makes the show so special when it is firing on all cylinders.

And we have a few cylinders to fire ourselves. We've got a deleted scene from this week's episode starring the one and only Tiffany that you can find that at the top of the recap. And my exit interview with JD will be ready Thursday morning, so keep your eyes peeled for that. If you miss anything, you can always catch more Survivor musings over on my Twitter @DaltonRoss and Instagram @thedaltonross. And with that, I'll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols
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