After last week’s crazy tribal council, there was a Grantland e-mail chain during which all of the office Survivor fans discussed Malcolm’s strategy of letting Stealth know that the Three Amigos (if I’m embarrassed to type that, why are they not embarrassed to refer to themselves as that?) were voting for Phillip. A good question was raised: If Malcolm hadn’t named the Specialist, would the favorites’ alliance have started voting for each other out of fear? Mr. Fierman pointed out that if Malcolm had simply announced the three bros were voting together and let the favorites try to sway them, there could have been an interesting and hierarchy-shifting scramble. The problem, though, is that the numbers in the favorites’ alliance is still strong. Unless Eddie, Reynold, and Malcolm are able to pull off some really impressive mind-fuck maneuvers on the remaining six in Stealth, one of them is going home this week. This season lacks a mastermind like Boston Rob or Russell Hantz, and it would take that kind of evil genius to shake up the can enough to explode the unity that Sheppard created with his goofus nicknames and constant check-ins. I’m hoping that in the upcoming episodes, someone (Cochran? Sherri? Andrea?) gets it together and decides to play a little dirty. This season could now use more “Russell seeds,” lies deliberately and carefully planted in little one-on-one shelter gabfests. Sherri, Andrea, and Erik are all prime targets — Erik voted with the meatheads to get rid of the Specialist, Sherri’s one of the last remaining fans, and Andrea has the Eddie connection (their romantic B-plot has been sidelined momentarily, hopefully leading to a Very Special Date episode to follow sometime soon).
But let’s start from the top: It’s Night 28, and Enil Edam is still feeling jazzy from getting rid of Phillip. Everyone in Stealth is happy to abandon their group name and start acting like grown-ups; Eddie notes that Sheppard’s ego was too big to fit underneath the shelter, which is pretty rich coming from a dude who likes to comment on his own attractiveness at every opportunity. Erik is relieved he can talk to people outside of Stealth without getting lectured about loyalty, choosing to side with whomever he wants. You can tell Erik is dying to join the Three Amigos. I think he wants to trade protein powder secrets.
The night was hard on the tribe, and in the morning they’re all wearing glasses and looking starving, like people in an organic chemistry class outside the library at 3 in the morning before a final. Brenda, in particular, is a mess. She’s sobbing and her shoulder blades are crying out for fries and aioli. As Dawn hugs her, she drinks a murky glass of water that looks like urine. Dawn laments all that they’ve lived through together — “the Phillip days, the Brandon days, the swaps, the merge” — and goes into mom mode by immediately prescribing everyone more glasses of water to keep them alive. Brenda is still bumming over the loss of Sheppard, and says to camera that his departure “threw a big thing in my plan.” She’s so hungry, she doesn’t remember what a wrench is. Everything is coconuts and puzzles at this point. “How can I live off water?” she asks Dawn, but that water looked like a milk shake. The amoebas provide protein, and the viruses and mosquitoes have probiotic properties.
Tree-mail arrives, with a little island yodel from Dawn, and the stacks of envelopes each stuffed with five hundred bucks clue us all in to the fact that it’s auction time. “Who doesn’t love the Survivor auction?” asks Jeff. Everyone loves the Survivor auction, I answer, because it splits the contestants’ brains in half and pits the greedy food side against the smart strategic side. You know that GIF of Stains the dog having war flashbacks as he gazes into a hypnotic plate of cupcakes? The auction is always thus, weighing immediate gratification against bigger rewards like hidden idol clues, immunity challenge advantages, and shared prizes that can help form new dynamics between splintered players. The rules are no money sharing, no food sharing unless otherwise specified, and bids have to come in $20 increments.
The first item is beer and peanuts (if you were watching, can we share a moment to acknowledge the fact that it was really “beer and penis,” even if played back again and again?) to the first bidder, and Malcolm snags it with $20. As a surprise bonus, he gets a bucket of beer all to himself as well as some pretzels, but he still questions himself for not holding onto his $500 to use for something better down the road. His chugging skills are solid (Probst: “That’s how you do it right there”). Item numero dos remains covered, but Erik, Brenda, Dawn, Andrea, and Reynold jump in anyway. Reynold lays down $180 and wins, but then has to decide whether to trade his still-unknown winnings for one of two other covered rewards. Cochran mumbles about the Monty Hall problem, a Let’s Make a Deal puzzle that dictates you should always switch when given the choice. Reynold ignores him (Malcolm, now drunk, hisses “Atta boy, Reynoldsssss”) and sticks with the first option, which turns out to be a slice of pizza. The good news is that behind door no. 3 was a rotten coconut. The bad news is that behind door no. 2 was the rest of the pizza, which once uncovered strikes Sherri with swirly eyes, forcing her to offer her entire purse for it. Probst agrees, though he asks her if she didn’t want to hang out and wait for something else. Sherri just stares into her pizza and says, “I don’t care.” Her hands are shaking, so let her enjoy her supreme. The third round gets Dawn an entire roast chicken, which Reynold initially mistakes for a bat, covered in sprigs of rosemary. She goes to town on it, herbal twigs and all.
The fourth cloche holds some all-important “information.” Malcolm bids the rest of his allowance, $480, and though there are plenty of people with $500 left to best him, nobody speaks up. I have no idea why, so don’t ask. Isn’t this what they’re all supposed to be waiting for? Malcolm has 60 seconds to look at the message in private, and it turns out to be a set of very specific instructions as to the location of the hidden immunity idol: It’s buried six inches below the roots of a tree growing out of a rock face on the way to the water. Malcolm’s already found two idols without hints, so he’s feeling pretty good about his purchase. The fifth mystery prize gets bids from Brenda, Andrea, and Erik; and Andrea wins a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, and a glass of wine for $280. Brenda looks depressed — she’s having major shopper’s dilemma with this challenge and is becoming neurotic about getting the wrong thing. Andrea is asked to choose between the Olive Garden special and a sack each of rice and beans for the whole tribe. She takes one for the team and gets a round of applause. The sixth item is an advantage in the immunity challenge, and because all is right in the world Cochran snags the sealed scroll for $340, and is told to unwrap it at the challenge. Brenda’s dismayed again, which is weird because if she wants it, she can have it. She seems to be hanging onto the pocket change like she’s really hard up for the $500, which makes me sad. The next item arrives and it’s finally Brenda’s moment: Everything up until this point, minus the funky coconut wild card, has been great. She’s ready for the plunge. $300 later, she has bought herself … a pig brain. “I just remembered that I don’t eat pork,” says Brenda. “You’re eating the brain of a pig,” responds Jeff. “It’s good for you, right?” “I have no idea.” Shell-shocked, Brenda brings the plate of nightmares back to her seat to, I don’t know, eat it or not. Finally, a non-food reward arrives: letters from home for anyone with $20 remaining, which is everyone except for Malcolm, Sherri, and Dawn, all of whom are emotional wrecks. To close the auction on a high note, Eddie bids $200 on what is revealed to be a giant mixing bowl of peanut butter. Eddie gets first dip, then everyone else is allowed to slather themselves with PB (no allergies, no sweat) to bring back to camp on their faces and bodies. Cochran licks some off of Sherri’s fingers, and while slo-mo shots of tribal peanut butter makeup play, Dawn gives herself a pep talk in a confessional about how Stealth will crush the arrogance of the Three Amigos. The power of protein is fierce.
After scraping the nut goo off their bodies, the tribe members wash themselves clean with tears over their mainland missives. Cochran, who pretends to be a “cool, collected game-bot,” has now become a real Survivor contestant: He’s weepily giving “life outside this game” speeches that just remind me of Lisa Whelchel’s “this game is bigger than anything” lectures last season. Reynold and Malcolm use the sentimental distraction to corner Sherri and try to get her to flip, promising her fifth place, which is basically chopped liver. They’re still so cocky, even without the numbers to back it up. The Three Amigos want to secure Erik and Sherri, but they know as well as we do that Erik’s pretty much a sure bet, especially if they have Sherri on their side to strengthen their alliance; they want to take out Cochran, a “strategic power player” according to Reynold. The satisfaction Cochran must be getting from watching this season is thrilling to think about.
Night falls and Malcolm’s hunt for the immunity idol is shot in baby-monitor mode, which makes everything seem ultra-spooky. Andrea creeps up on him while he’s digging (“I love the smell of fresh dirt”) and refuses to quit lurking. Cochran joins her for a bit, but excuses himself to use the john while she remains stuck to Malcolm like “a little sister [he] can’t get rid of.” It’s a long standoff, and eventually they both return to camp with no idol.
The immunity challenge involves everyone holding a knotted rope suspending a pole that weighs one-third of what each player did when they joined the competition. In five-minute intervals, everyone must move their grip down a knot, making it harder to hold — especially at the end, when they have no knots left to help keep the pole up. Cochran’s advantage (Eddie, to camera, negs that it doesn’t matter because Cochran isn’t a physical threat) is getting to move up two knots at any point. This is a huge deal, and one that requires some thought. With many challenges it probably would be a good idea to hang onto your advantage as long as possible, but in this particular game I think that when the muscle fatigue hits, it’s pretty much a done deal. If Cochran were to wait to move his hand up until he was already struggling, it would likely be too late to make much of a difference; one of those strange lessons you learn after a few seasons of watching Survivor challenges is that it’s never too long after a person starts trembling and making Fire Marshall Bill strain-face before they crack. The longer you can stay chill, the better your chances of psyching out your opponents and winning the reward. Before anyone drops their ropes, Cochran cashes in his prize at the 10-minute mark — he knows his stuff.
Andrea is the first to crumble, followed by Erik. Dawn has a close call but manages to power through, and at 30 minutes everyone’s in trouble. Sherri, Malcolm, and Andrea poop out next and then, after a struggle, down goes Dawn. Reynold drops his rope, leaving Eddie and Cochran to duke it out. Eddie’s muscles are on full display, but brains outplay brawn and Cochran secures immunity. He jogs up to receive his necklace (“I know the drill now”), enjoying his second immunity win and the fact that “there is no debate — if you look at the scorecard, [he’s] demolishing everybody.” If you look at the Enil Edam flag, however, you see a bespectacled ginger man, but let’s look at the scorecard instead: Yes, he has become a challenge monster. This is, I think, why people who want Cochran to win feel the way that we do. Cochran isn’t just an underdog because he wears the same size pants as a seventh-grade girl, he’s an underdog because of how he was treated in his first season. He wasn’t hated or maligned so much as he was dismissed for being irrelevant or somehow unworthy of a place in South Pacific, and I wanted this to be his redemption island. I really like him! Like, as a person! It’s recapper wish fulfillment that he should dominate this season because of the combination of scholarly reality-show interest and what probably amounts to a crappy run on his first season. He really would have earned the money in a way that no Survivor has, and I want to see him make his case before the jury.
Malcolm is the second most deserving tribe member still left, but he’s nervous after the immunity challenge because the idol is still at large somewhere by the smiley-face rock. He confides in Reynold and Eddie that their only option is to fake that they’ve found the idol in a last-ditch attempt to divert votes. Malcolm tells Sherri he’s found the idol and that he wants to take her with him to the end, sealing it with a meaningless pinky-smooch promise. Erik and Sherri are up in the air despite how hard the Amigos are striving to secure them, maybe because when you’ve got Dawn putting her sweaty, gotta-care-for-my-16-babies hand on your leg and telling you she’s “putting [her] whole game on you,” you find yourself in a bit of a moral pickle. Also, Dawn has intestinal distress, and even if she didn’t bring it up you could tell just by looking at her big orphan eyes and gaunt rib cage. Feed me, says Dawn’s face. Feed me your loyalty or I will die.
Michael and the Specialist saunter into tribal council looking deodorant-fresh and resigned. After 30 days, you can really see the contrast between the grubby island folk and the people with rainfall showerheads. Probst inquires whether the last eventful tribal had shaken things up, and Reynold answers optimistically that Sheppard’s exit marked a new chapter of the game. ORLY, Andrea? She responds that anyone who flips from Stealth at this point would be dooming his or her game, considering the fact that the Amigos are the obvious physical threats. Andrea is “80 percent” sure Malcolm has the idol, while Dawn expresses general abject idol fear because of lingering distress over the last tribal council. Cochran knows that if one of the three vote-splitters jumps ship, the Amigos have enough numbers to sway the game in their favor. When it’s time to vote, Cochran writes down Malcolm’s name and smacks his fingers like a gross cheesemonger, saying that voting him off would be “indescribably delicious.” No idols are played, and the votes end up in a three-way tie between Reynold(s), Malcolm, and Andrea. Malcolm gets snuffed in the revote (with a reprised finger-smack), leading Dawn to mouth “huge” to Andrea even though, you know, it’s not so huge nor is it very surprising. There really was no other choice. Malcolm wishes them luck before crossing over the bridge (“I need a drink”) to the exile resort, later verbally kicking himself for spending $480 on a clue that yielded nothing and bracing himself for inevitable “mocking.”
Probst tells Eddie and Reynold that they’re “still alive, and that’s all that matters to anybody tonight.” In a way he’s right because they still have a chance to pull out all the stops and transcend what has so far amounted to kind of bland and transparent gameplay, but in a way he’s wrong because I don’t see any inkling of that kind of calculation coming from either one of them. They’re two players that could really use a two-way tin-can telephone from the viewer’s sofa directly into their ears: Reynold, man. Go find Sherri and tell her she’s coming with you to the final three with Eddie. Tell her that Cochran is gunning for her and spin a convincing yarn that gets her so paranoid she has no choice but to join you. Eddie: Make sweet love to Andrea and then, as you’re smoking a post-coital cigarette rolled out of sea grass and palm fronds, work her over with paranoia-inducing lies that Dawn is planning to extinguish her torch for good. Hit up Erik, compliment his pectorals. Give Brenda your scoop of rice and bond with her over … I have very little to go on with Brenda, actually. Bond with her over snorkeling for retainers and cheering on platforms. Anything. Something. It doesn’t matter. The game isn’t going to change unless you take it in your bug-bitten hands and manipulate the living crap out of it.
Next time! Reynold doing the watusi on the tip of a pyramid in the water and the “beginning of the end for the alliance of six.” Looks like Brenda and Dawn are in trouble, and I wouldn’t shed any tears over Brenda’s departure because I just think there’s no way she can win the game after such thin coverage this whole season. Ideally Cochran finds that immunity idol and sails through another few votes before his alliance dissolves like peanut butter in the sun. I’m afraid his days are numbered as he settles into the ironclad superhero shell of the challenge monster, but I’ll just keep yelling at my television and hope that’s enough to carry him through.