Survivor has always been fascinating for its character studies: The social nature of the game, which doesn’t necessarily encourage but definitely allows for lying and manipulation, is one of the most gripping parts of the show. There are always two sides to each contestant: the person presented to the tribe, and the one revealed in the private confessionals; being skilled at the interpersonal aspects of Survivor is a requirement, and being able to bluff is the only way to execute a blindside or outlast the rest of your alliance. Obfuscating their motives and plans while still being able to defend themselves as relatively honest and loyal in front of the jury are as key to the players’ success as choosing the people who will sit next to them during the final episode.
It may be a good game for sociopaths, but it’s not the right arena for insecure, confused citizens who just want to find themselves on the sandy beaches of deserted tropical islands. You can win Survivor if you’re crazy, but you have to be crazy like a fox, or you’ll get crushed. This week, Brandon Hantz got crushed like a bug in the tiny, many-needle-toothed jaws of a bush baby.
Lil’ Hantz didn’t have what one might call a smooth ride during his first appearance on Survivor: South Pacific, and after he was voted off he claimed that if he were invited on a subsequent season, he’d behave differently. “I would be me, you know? I would be more exciting and fun […] I can be strategic if I want, man. I would definitely — we’re just going to have to wait and see, man. I can’t tell you that. My mind changes day to day. So, we’ll see what happens … They’re not ready for that though, man. I don’t think they’re ready for the real Brandon!”
This is purely speculative armchair analysis, but Brandon seems to be the type of person whose sense of self has no object permanence: Back on earth, outside of the game, he can recognize the faults in his own logic and extrapolate what he might have done differently in order to not appear to be a manic mess. But on the island, he can’t discern fact from fiction, paranoid fantasy from good, old-fashioned, sporting game play. Some essential social ingredient is missing, and most unnerving of all, Brandon seems to believe that the audience is on his side. During this episode, which (as promised) was pretty dramatic, Brandon keeps hollering that he’s the “author of [his] fate.” What does that even mean? Perhaps, after his torch got snuffed when he gave Albert Destrade his immunity idol during his previous season, he’d just rather do anything than be the victim of a second betrayal. Brandon seems to struggle with his locus of control — everything that happens to him is the result of an external force (Mikayla, Phillip Sheppard) that has been thrust upon him by fate to corrupt his inner goodness. He probably sees his wackadoodle tantrums as logical responses to unfair situations, and his attempts to rewrite the narrative (dumping out his tribe’s rice because the fans didn’t win the steak or comfortable-chair challenges — everyone should starve together) and justify his bad behavior are hard to watch. I pitied Brandon last night, and because I like to project all of these grand ideas onto him for some reason, I thought he reminded me a little bit of Caleb Trask: well-meaning, plagued by family legacy problems, and generally doomed by his own temper. Is this a Survivor recap? Yes. Then get to the damn coconut toss. FINE.
The fans of Gota are mostly invigorated after weak link Laura’s exit during the last tribal council, although Sherri feels guilty because Laura reminded her of her daughter (plus Sherri’s always been the glue that held her alliance together, and she didn’t want to break ranks with her vote). Reynold, having aired his grievances about his fellow tribe members before his idol was flushed, tells everyone that he wants to move forward even though he’s still rightfully paranoid — Michael, and everyone else, recognizes that Reynold’s physical strength and ability to build fires is a threat, and they’re keeping their eyes on him.
At Bikal, some foreshadowy lightning serves as a lead-in to Brandon telling his cohorts that he “felt like [he] was being COMPLETELY selfish” by agreeing to leave his wife and “two precious babies” to come back on the show and mentions that if they lose the immunity challenge, he’d like to volunteer himself to go home. He’s “about to light the whole thing on fire” by peeing in the food and burning the shelter down, which pushes everybody’s crazy-alert buttons pretty hard. Corinne says that “he’s loco for sure,” so he didn’t get that tattoo for nothing. Bikal has had enough of Brandon and even though they’d hate to lose a player, Hantz makes them all anxious. In the morning, however, Brandon’s had a change of heart and has decided to play as “the most intense Brandon you’ve seen so far” (to camera: “I’m freaking myself out!”), which is probably not what anyone wanted to hear. At all.
The reward challenge, for a barbecue basket to bring back to camp — featuring sausages! Steaks! Veggies! Condiments! Bread! Wine! Food, glorious food! — consists of assigning two team members the job of holding ropes attached to nets, while the other tribe members toss coconuts into the nets of their opponents until the rope-holders can’t hang on any longer. The last person holding the rope wins for their team. The favorites sit out Andrea, Dawn, and Erik, while Hantz and Sheppard hold ropes; the fans give rope-holding duty to Michael and Longbeard Matt. Sherri sucks at this challenge and Probst calls her out on it, but I think she was just cursed by Sheppard’s mystically powerful war cries.
Brandon puts up a good fight but is the first to drop his rope, followed by Longbeard. It’s a showdown between Michael and Sheppard, and though Michael turns blue from the effort, the Special Agent prevails. Probst congratulates him on becoming “once again the hero” of a challenge, and I have to admit that Sheppard is schooling his competition this season. He may be plagued by Yogi Berraisms, but he’s definitely been working out. The fans are understandably shattered by their trillionth loss in a row, pinching the bridges of their noses and doing the shameful loser’s shuffle back to camp. Eddie laments that he thought “today was going to be the turnaround for us,” and Michael suggests that “we need to try something new around this camp,” but Sherri is getting bitter by this point. She didn’t want to vote off Laura, and despite the fact that her tribe was touting the benefits of having more muscle per player, they’ve lost again. She sets out to hunt for the idol, followed by Longbeard Matt, machete-wielding Michael, Reynold, and (it would appear) a bush baby with big old eyes.
Unbelievably, Reynold finds the idol for the second time, and gloats about it ad nauseam (he unravels the scroll but doesn’t need to read it because “I know all this by heart, it’s the second one I’ve found” — OH? I DIDN’T KNOW!). He quietly reveals the fact that he’s got the golden ticket to his bro, Eddie, while they lounge on the comfy bamboo sticks of the shelter floor. They fist bump and agree to go “all the way” together, then laugh at foolish Sherri as she continues her search in vain on the beach. The island gods don’t look fondly on this behavior, and they send a torrential downpour to Gota that turns everyone’s feet into big, white, bloated wrinkleflippers of pain. Michael attempts to tidy camp because though they’re “failing on every level of Survivor,” they can’t just “wallow under the palm fronds.” Longbeard Matt laments that he feels like dying, and wants something good to happen to save them all from the crushing misery.
Despite their win, Brandon is troubled over at Bikal. While the steaks roast on the fire, his tribe praises Sheppard for his performance in the challenge, which “really, really piss[es]” Brandon off. Not one to be pissed off in secret like a regular person, he tells Phillip to “shut the fuck up.” Corinne uses her confessional to diagnose Brandon as “unstable,” which is further illustrated by the fact that Hantz immediately and aggressively insists on finding Sheppard and delivering an apology after Sheppard storms off. He persists, and the two become locked in a heated idiom-trading session during which Sheppard tells him not to slap a gift horse in the mouth while Brandon retorts that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Sheppard tells Brandon that he can still trust him, but then tells the camera that his outburst has rendered him “persona non grata.”
As a slow-motion drizzle falls on the favorites, Brandon’s rage absorbs the ambient water and expands like one of those sponge eggs they sell at novelty stores. Sheppard “doesn’t feed me,” he says. “I’m a Hantz; I feed me.” As Hantz pokes at bugs on a leaf and looks like he’s about to explode from assorted negative vibes brewing inside of him, Sheppard takes time out of his busy schedule of thinking up nicknames to privately express how “not sane” he has discovered Brandon to be, and that he’s considering throwing the immunity challenge to get rid of the squeaky wheel. He approaches Andrea about this plan, and just as she agrees, Hantz sidles up and interrupts them, inferring the gist of the conversation with a little help from Andrea. This really makes Brandon start “to boil a little bit,” so he corners Phillip and they get into another tiff, which inevitably leads back to the exclusive club of Stealth R Us. Maybe because Brandon was a latecomer to Stealth, or maybe just because it’s silly and silly things really irk him, Brandon commands Sheppard to “drop the Stealth R Us thing […] It’s demeaning, man. I’m not a Conqueror, nobody in there is Exterminator and Exterior. It’s really bullshit. Nobody likes their name; everybody doesn’t actually like you.”
Phillip is visibly hurt by this. Nobody likes their names? Not even the Dominatrix? Next thing you know, Brandon becomes a Tasmanian devil, hurling the rice into the sand and throwing the bag of beans at Sheppard, who is so far down the beach that it’s just sort of a lame gesture. Dawn and Erik start picking grains of rice out of the beach substrate (so … sad) as Brandon paces maniacally, yelling “I am the author of my fate! Now vote me out, bitch!” in Sheppard’s general direction. Dawn is aghast. Everyone is aghast. I am aghast. You were aghast. The consensus seems to be that this is getting way too Big Brother and they need to forfeit the challenge and get rid of this liability, and quick.
When everyone’s lined up in front of Probst for the immunity challenge, a Criminal Minds banner floats underneath Hantz’s body as if to suggest that we perform a behavioral analysis on the shitshow that’s about to be performed. Probst asks Reynold how they fared during their rainy evening, and Reynold evenly answers that from the fans’ perspective, it’s easy to imagine that life on the favorites’ beach is a grand ol’ time, but that “this game is extremely hard even if you win the challenges.” Maybe you can see the unrest spelled out on their Hantz-torn faces. Probst asks Brandon how he’s doing, and Brandon responds with a cryptic speech during which he addresses the fans from the lecture podium defined by its boundary one step from the magical tribal mat. He tells the fans that he’s their “second chance” to get back in the game, and warns them not to let Sheppard get too far.
Corinne steps in to translate this speech from nonsense into English and explains that they’re going to forfeit the challenge and go right to tribal. Reynold’s face lights up, because he gets to hang onto his idol until next time, and his parade remains un-rained on, even as Brandon interrupts Corinne to tell her that everything she’s just said is “bullshit,” though her speech read like a press release and was completely unoffensive to anyone. Brandon works himself up and launches into a motivational lecture on the fans’ behalf, calling them the underdog (they are) and generally behaving as though he’s in a locker room before the big game and he’s just chugged 45 Red Bulls and showered in steroids.
Probst senses the danger and summons Brandon to a “neutral spot” next to him, where Brandon can continue his tirade from far enough away that he can’t hit or bite any of the other contestants. Brandon rails from Probst’s side, serving Phillip a smackdown for giving everyone “a cartoon name […] degrading us and making us feel like plastic dolls.” He’s “fired up, bro!” and though he promised himself that he’d play the game differently this time and “wouldn’t cry a fucking tear,” he’s once again disheartened by the selfishness of the people playing alongside him. Phillip tries to offer his two cents, during which he mispronounces “Andrea,” who then starts to cry as soon as the attention turns to her. Her spirits are broken by the loss of tribal unity and the “cruel things” Sheppard and Hantz are saying to each other, and just to make sure every cruel thing on the books gets aired out, Brandon calls Phillip “a hundred years old.”
Probst has to beg Brandon to look at him, shushing him with “come here, come here, come here”s and trying to talk him off the ledge before he gets physical. Brandon agrees (“I’m doing this for you, Jeff”), but Dawn has had enough and is practicing her breathing exercises. This poor tribe. Brandon says that he dumped out the rice because the fans weren’t eating, and now the rest of his team “can starve with them.” Phillip, in a sort of passive-aggressive tone, says that he never had anything against Brandon and that their feud is “a figment of his imagination”; of course, this backfires, and now the argument is continuing with “grow up”/”shut up” jabs that culminate in Phillip making the mistake of bringing up Brandon’s kids. As Brandon prepares to attack Sheppard, Probst decides to disguise the fact that he has his hands on Hantz’s shoulders in order to prevent him from killing every last person in front of him as a good-natured deep-tissue massage. The host’s shoulders keep inching up toward his ears during this rant because he, like everyone else, is straight-up nervous. He’s clearly trying to hit a pressure point that will put Hantz to sleep so everyone can sneak out of there, get into boats, and paddle out to a nearby bar with stiff drinks.
The situation is urgent, and there’s no time for formalities. The fans are handed the idol in the “easiest immunity ever won,” and oblivious Reynold asks Probst to do the hand gesture of victory. Forgotten Julia, who I think might be a hologram, pleads “just once!” so you really get a sense of how desperate the fans are for any kind of morale boost they can get. Probst promises to fling up his hands on the way out after the danger has passed. After Hantz casts a vocal vote for Sheppard, his entire tribe votes him off as the shoulder massage reaches a kind of obscene intensity level. I’m surprised that lactic acid didn’t start leaking from his neck. Obviously, Hantz isn’t going back to camp or anywhere other than away, so he’s sent on a direct exit route behind the back, calling Phillip a bitch as he departs. His former tribe is relieved, and a tearful Dawn says that Brandon is better off. With the fans now numbering six to the favorites’ eight, there’s been a “big momentum shift” that will make things a lot more interesting when the merge happens (which may be soon — next week’s preview implied that buffs are fixing to get shuffled). There’s also a new feud brewing between Corinne and Sheppard, but not the kind of feud where everyone sleeps with one hand on the machete. I think we can all exhale now. The storm has passed.
In his exit interview, Hantz seems proud of his victory in authoring his own exit: “In my army, I’m going to go out Braveheart style.” Thankfully, nobody was assassinated, but this whole Hantz situation was a pretty close call. You don’t often see an intervention like this from Probst, and though it was a mildly thrilling spectacle, I don’t think we need to see another Survivor player as unstable as Hantz again soon, if ever. Survivor truly is a difficult game, but it’s still a game. Distractions from the challenges and chess-like, somewhat detached social moves should be anomalies. Make fake idols, not war.