Yesterday afternoon, John Cochran tweeted that “as a Survivor expert, I feel comfortable saying that tonight’s episode is going to be one of the most insane in the history of the show.” Cochran won the Harvard Dean’s Scholar prize for comparing the judicial system to Survivor’s tribal jury, so it’s not surprising that he was right; over the course of years of watching this show, I can’t really remember a more chaotic moment during the pre-vote Probst-on-group interview. I assumed nobody was allowed to speak unless directly addressed. Apparently this rule gets waived when everybody jumps on board, like during times of extreme stress. And this was a stressful episode! In a good way. But not for Dawn. I’ll get to that in a second.
First, everyone needs to be reminded where we stand on Night 25: Stealth R Us coagulates into a cheering mass of nightbodies while Eddie, Reynold, and Malcolm are excluded and left to try to find an upside in being the cast-off rogue jocks. Eddie offers up that they don’t have to be afraid of people talking behind their backs, which of course he knows all about from rating everyone on the attractive scale back when he had more cronies on his side. Stealth, in contrast, is cheering “S-R-US!” and being way too smug. Cochran acknowledges this with a crazy loopy-ear hand gesture when everybody else turns their backs.
The next morning, Cochran and Sheppard are whispering to each other that Dawn might be more of a threat than they initially assumed. As if on cue (thanks, editors?), a very alarmed series of hollers rings out from Meehan herself, hollers that everyone can hear. Brenda’s the first responder, and she finds Dawn out in the woods — or maybe I should say what’s left of Dawn, because she’s been reduced to a sobbing puddle of humanity, one weep shy of disappearing completely. Just one tiny weep away. Basically, Dawn lost her two bottom teeth when she got “hit in the mouth” at some point in her pre-Caramoan existence, and she wears false teeth on a retainer. She lost them in the water and hasn’t been able to retrieve them. She “really needs them” and is “so nervous” that she’ll only talk to the camera in profile. She threatens to pull herself from the game rather than continue without her teeth, but luckily Brenda dives down and grabs the elusive chompers. Not only is this the most notable social move Brenda’s made all season, but it cements a bond between them, like the bond that should have cemented Dawn’s teeth to her gums in the first place (let her win, she needs dental implants).
I don’t blame Dawn for reacting this way: she hasn’t been sleeping, she can’t see herself because as far as I can tell there are only dark or tiny mirrors (water, rice pot, camera lens) and she’s being filmed 24 hours a day. The more I thought about it, the more it started to screw with me — it must have felt like a hallucination, combined with the weeks of not showering, sort of like becoming an animal. Brenda won some points with me for saving the day, but she’s still played too small a role in the game up until this point to make it on my winner’s list. Sorry, B. With Dawn’s meltdown out of the way so early, it seems like last week’s teaser for this episode dropped a big old red island herring on us, and these tears were just a B-plot. Sneaky!
For the reward challenge, the tribe splits into two teams of five. Each player slides down a waterslide into a mud pit to find a bag of balls, dragging it with them through a sandbox of rice and then dropping it on a table so the next teammate can go through until they have all five bags. When they’ve got their ball bags set, each team shoots the balls into a basket, with the first team to 12 winning a trip to a resort with a pool, shower, and boozy lunch.
Playing for purple are Reynold, Erik, Dawn, Cochran, and Sheppard; for orange, we’ve got Eddie, Malcolm, Sherri, Andrea and Brenda. Malcolm squares off against Erik first, gathering all of the bags while Erik focuses on digging a big hole in the rice so everybody can squeeze through. Erik’s approach is better, and Sherri’s pokiness only adds to purple’s lead — Reynold has time to pull out all of his team’s bags, making it a cinch for the rest of them to fly through the course. Purple’s tossing balls while Eddie’s still chugging away in the rice bath, and orange can’t make up the lead. Sheppard sinks the final ball and it’s off to a beautiful spa up a few intimidating flights of outdoor stairs for the winners, who set to eating skewers of the protein they crave (Cochran hopes the calamari and company will help him continue his “challenge monster” streak). Dawn is overpowered by the scent of soap, having previously felt “kind of schizophrenic.” There is a pool, a very pristine infinity pool set against a stunning tropical backdrop, and whereas everyone else showers before entering it, Sheppard opts not to. He strips naked and climbs into that virgin, azure aquacanvas and goes full Pig-Pen on it. Everyone is disgusted, the cloud of his filth bleeding out around him visibly like an aura of shame. Erik confesses to the camera that he’s “really sick of Phillip being around,” while Sheppard lounges at the very edge of the pool and says, to no one, “I’m loving life.”
The winners rejoin the rest of the tribe and assume their nightly fetal positions on the sand and fall asleep — except for Dawn, who’s wide-eyed and looking very Paranormal Activity in the night vision. She’s not sleeping much recently and the shower was only a temporary return to her happy place. Her “brain has not rested” and she’s oozing paranoia about where she falls in her alliance. By morning, she’s convinced that Andrea is plotting against her and babbles to Cochran and Sheppard about wanting to reconfigure their alliance. This doesn’t sit well with either one of them: Sheppard calls Code Name True Grit “totally a lunatic” and Cochran is suspicious of Dawn’s “baffling” conclusion that Andrea is against her. After a shot of a weird bird followed by one of a weird ant, Dawn is shuffling around, looming over people and saying she needs a break, then splitting off to stand by herself on the beach. She tells Cochran she realizes she cries “more than a baby, literally,” which leads Cochran to lament that another bird is flying over the cuckoo’s nest of the tribe (she’s a hummingbird, so I guess Hantz was like a giant loco pterodactyl).
It seems like there’s no way Dawn’s going to avoid getting the vote or hauling herself back to the mainland, but the next morning her psyche has been repaired by a good night’s sleep. Her eyes are puffy but the storm has passed. Dawn was voted off on the 28th day of her last season, and though she’s obviously gunning for the prize, it means something to her to have beaten her personal best. Stealth R Us turns its attention to the vote, and everyone agrees to split, giving four to Reynold — or “Reynolds,” if you’re Andrea — and three to Malcolm.
The immunity challenge takes place in two heats. The first five players in each round race across a platform, jump into the ocean, and swim underneath it using a rope to help themselves along, before pulling up to the other side of the platform and hanging two rings on a post. The first two to finish in each group face off with five rings in the second heat, which Probst promises will be both “quick and exhausting.” Reynold, Dawn, Cochran, Andrea, and Sherri are up first, and Reynold slams everyone for the first spot before Andrea joins him.
Before the second group takes their turn, Sheppard decides it’s time for him to do something real dumb: He sits out of the challenge because “he had an incident in the water as a boy.” I do remember Phillip having issues with being trapped underwater — he didn’t perform well last week when he was doing the “struggle to breathe through a grate” game — but come on, dude! That’s just hubris. Malcolm, Eddie, Erik, and Brenda have way less baggage and get down to business, with Malcolm and Brenda moving on against Andrea and Reynold. Probst warns them that “five rings is going to completely exhaust you,” and Andrea and Brenda quickly call in sleepy and fall behind. Malcolm powers through, keeping pace with Reynold until he is obviously pooped. Reynold wins immunity, sending Stealth back to the drawing board for another person to split the votes with besides Malcolm.
Reynold congratulates everyone, minus Phillip, on being the beneficiaries of his “mad respect,” then disses Sheppard to camera for sitting out despite the “lions and gorillas tattooed on his body.” The Special Agent isn’t too ruffled because, safely within his alliance of seven, they can all just split the votes between Malcolm — whose idol Sheppard is still clueless about — and Eddie. He thinks he can get to the final three, and if the jury isn’t too “bitter” he might even win. Cha right, says a black fuzzy monkey-cat hanging out in a tree.
Malcolm knows he’s in trouble but doesn’t feel like parting with his idol if he doesn’t have to, so he recruits Eddie and Reynold on a mission to find the hidden immunity idol that re-entered the game after Reynold played it last week. Sheppard, Brenda, and Cochran are loafing around at camp, talking about Phillip’s deepest fears pertaining to ponds and childhood, while all of the more sensible folk decide to join the hunt. Poke poke poke, sticks in trees and gullies, and then — holy moly — Malcolm discovers the idol in the crevice of a rock just as Dawn asks “Would it be too much for a clue?” Dawn issues him a “way to go” with serious saddy eyes. Stealth decides to keep their plan to split the votes, flushing Malcolm’s idol and getting rid of Eddie, who knows the score. Usually about 10 minutes remain at this point in the episode, but last night there was a lot of DVR tape yet to burn through. Clearly something was about to go down, and it was about to go down dirty.
Jury member Michael enters, all smiles, and Probst loosens everyone up with questions about the 7-3 alliance split. Eddie’s giving answers like a dead man walking (“I’ll try to remember this forever”), which prompts Andrea to add that Malcolm found the idol. Cochran mentions they were plotting to oust “huge threat” Reynold, but now that he’s got his protective island jewelry they have no choice but to go for Eddie. Probst ribs Sheppard for excusing himself from the challenge, so Sheppard tells the fable of getting trapped and disoriented under a deck during a swim as a child. No excuses when you’re on a competitive reality show set on a land mass surrounded by water, but Probst doesn’t want to dwell and dismisses the topic with a semi-curt “fair enough.”
Andrea tells Jeff she isn’t sure she’s safe either, what with the paranoia stemming from never deigning to talk to “Reynolds,” Eddie, or Malcolm. Jeff asks Malcolm if he feels the tension, and Malcolm responds that though they’re on the outs, “this is supposed to be a game, so [the three of them] figured [they’d] do something about it.” Then he pulls out his immunity idol and hands it to Eddie, explaining that he’s had it for a while and just discovered the other one that day. Bats cascade out of everybody’s mouths. The earth jiggles, sending rhinos flying off into space. The moon lights itself on fire and makes out with the sun while “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” plays, replacing Brenda and Eddie with Reynold and Eddie in a transcendent bro embrace. Probst remarks about the “looks on [everyone’s] faces,” and sure enough there’s Andrea with a mug that belonged to a very sad PSA.
Sheppard is whispering to Brenda, Cochran to Erik, and Dawn back to Brenda again. Andrea’s name gets hissed a couple of times as Probst proclaims, “What a shift!” Malcolm tries to give some kind of speech he probably thinks is pretty important, but the murmuring is really distracting. “It’s like I want an individual pause button and I want to hit pause on the other nine,” says Probst. Dawn calls herself the “fainting sheep” because “every day the game changes for me” and she falls over as if dead with every whiplash-inducing curve. Malcolm tells Probst he knows the vote that night won’t change his status in the game for good, but that — if anybody was curious — the three necklace bros intend to vote for Sheppard, and he doesn’t need to list the reasons why because “everyone knows in their heads” (he befouls pools, both actual and metaphorical), then changes his mind and lays into Phillip for being a fun-suck who’s sullying the game with his “militaristic” practices. Nobody’s really listening (Michael’s using his pinkie to count heads and try to predict what the fuck’s about to happen) except Phillip, who takes momentary offense at being attacked.
It’s rare to see Probst be this surprised at tribal: He issues a sincere “wow” and asks Andrea if she’s going to make the obvious choice of voting for Phillip (“two Ls and one P”). She’s still reeling too much to answer, so he pushes her by suggesting that Malcolm is executing a double play, which does not snap her out of deer-in-headlights mode. Erik, Captain Obvious, jumps in to say that it might be smart for the three amigos to hang on to one of their idols, but Probst points out the idols haven’t been played yet. Sheppard insists that everyone should vote as they’d initially planned, and if he’s the one to go home, at least he wants to leave without having his character further “maligned.” Cochran has zapped himself into fan mode and is enjoying being present for “the most exciting tribal council ever,” a reason he “freaking love[s] Survivor.” Cochran is proof that seeing fans play on this show can be deeply gratifying: He’s become such a great audience stand-in, and I really hope he makes it to the final three. I think he deserves it despite being about as helpful in a physical challenge as an indoor cat.
The votes are cast — Erik joins the three amigos with a “Fillup!” — and then there’s a heavy moment while we wait to see if either Malcolm or Eddie plays an idol. Giddily, both do: first Eddie, then Malcolm, who mutters “bastards” under his breath just to be dramatic. The votes are read — two for Malcolm, four for Eddie (“you’re popular,” says Malcolm), and four for Sheppard. The Special Agent’s time has come, and it’s sad despite the fact that he’s the kind of doofus who forgets his torch and has to turn around and go back. I’m going to miss that guy. To quote Penn Jillette quoting Thelonious Monk on Celebrity Apprentice, “The genius is the one who is most like himself.” Sheppard isn’t a genius, but he was certainly more like himself than the rest of the pack. He’s a rare bird, a bejeweled stink bug, and I’m glad we get to see him sitting jury-side for the rest of the game. He exits with a nod to Boston Rob (of course), content to leave with his dignity intact, unlike his exit in Season 22.
Next week: Reynold, Eddie, and Malcolm try to recruit Sherri and Erik, and it’s auction time — auction time! Auction time! The very best time! — which also means it’s time for Sherri to let Cochran lick peanut butter (or similar) off her finger. “How often does that happen?” asks Probst, to which Cochran quips, “More often than you’d think.”