If you watch Survivor, and I’m assuming you do, you undoubtedly find yourself discussing it with other fans over the course of the season. Survivor people have little homing devices; we find one another, and then we stand around in offices or on telephones or huddled over other people’s side tables of BBQ chicken and we talk about our picks to win. Then we talk about our mother’s picks to win. Then we talk about who knows a person who knows a contestant and who their pick is to win. And this season, one name that keeps popping up in these conversations, despite her anorexic story line, is Brenda.
She was a strong player during her first season in Nicaragua, and even though she totally blended in with the lithe, waving palms, her performance in Caramoan has been studded with generous acts of kindness (snorkeling for Dawn’s retainer) and physical prowess. She seems like a good dude, but being a good dude can backfire when it makes you into a threat. While this seems to have occurred to most of the remaining tribe members, who have strangled their innocence with the monster fists of their ambitious greed — smart! — the more we’ve seen of Brenda, the clearer it is that she’s just not built for that kind of duplicity this season. Maybe that’s why she’s been so invisible while still remaining Mom’s choice 2013 (even Cochran’s mom was all aboard the SS Brenda): After 35 days getting comfortable in the trusty old sedan of her alliance and her own honorable gameplay, her experience of this season could really be summed up in the one episode in which the tide turned against her. There was no need to establish what came before it with anything other than a scene of her diving for false teeth, braving all manner of microscopic disease fish and digging around in grody sediment. Brenda never adapted; she never realized the in-game benefits of being moderately sadistic or flip-floppy or flawed. She was too chill, as good dudes sometimes are.
Let’s start at the top: After more than a month without nookie, Eddie laments that “all the chicks that I go after and try to hook up with get voted out.” Andrea’s absence, which also meant the departure of her pocketed hidden immunity idol, leaves him in an even more precarious position than he already was. Cochran, the people’s voice, reassures Eddie that if he wins immunity, he won’t be next (duh), and Eddie winning immunity is a pretty solid possibility unless the challenge is geared toward people with low body weight or small feet. Eddie responds that if he does win immunity, Cochran will be the next to go, leading Cochran to worry about his “expiration date that’s rapidly approaching.” Brenda’s all over that tip, approaching the subject of Cochran’s exit during a dip with Dawn in the shallow end of the sea and telling Weepy Meehan that she thinks she can get Erik onboard to ax Cochran if Eddie has immunity. Dawn interprets this to be a promise of a final-three spot, but worries over the emotional cost of breaking with Cochran, her closest ally.
This concern is preferable to Erik’s, because all he cares about at this point is staying alive. He now looks like a heroin-addled ’70s folk singer, and when he says “I have to have food” and lies down on the sand, it looks like the cover for a posthumous album release. “There’s nothing to be talked about, there’s nothing to be said, there’s nothing to be done,” he says. “It’s so annoying to see, like, coconuts in a tree.” Erik then attempts to scale a 500-foot palm, considers flinging himself off of it to break a leg or die, and ultimately gives up halfway through his climb to scoot back down. As he cries through his confessional, I realize that Caramoan has featured very little fishing, and flipping back through my memories of past seasons, it really does seem that having the ability to eat some protein with fat in it really does wonders for talking tribe members down from the proverbial ledge. How come nobody’s eating those giant centipedes or ghost crabs? Does every tribe need a James to be the pioneer and just be like, “Hey, you know what? Bats are food.”
Treemail arrives as a SPRINTPHONE, sending everyone into hysterics because they know they’ll soon get to argue with their family members over assembling trapeze puzzles and get to hear how smelly and skinny they are from the people they love most in the world. Videos from moms and dads and husbands and brothers & Co. are played; snot, tears, joyful grimaces, etc., etc. The rewards challenge kicks off with the ceremonial parade of family members, with a very Jurassic Park soundtrack. Brenda thanks her dad for giving her “the best advice” — to be humble — but her dad doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about. “I did?” he asks, but Probst is living this experience in a different way and breaks down crying for the first time in 26 seasons over their reunion. Huh? There’s a close-up shot to prove it, but I thought Sherri’s hug with her husband was way more moving, and clearly Dawn was feeling the Cochran-Mom connection because her face basically split in half at the mouth like a South Park Canadian person just before Cochran apologized to his mother, Arlene, for being stinky.
The winners of this challenge get to party on a “floating backyard barbecue” with the traditional BBQ thangs plus beer and apple pie. To win, the contestants team up with their family members and unscrew a series of rails by spinning around, then assembling the rails to toss bolos at, with the first team to snag three bolos getting a one-way ticket to burger heaven. Cochran and Arlene are off to a bad start, inspiring Probst to say “Arlene’s already slowing down” before Cochran advises him to can it (“Don’t say anything about my mom, Jeff”). Jeff tries to make nice by telling Arlene she looks good for 64, but then turns his attention back to the people who are actually in it to win it (Cochran and his mom are jawing about her flight while lazily circling their pole). Brenda and her dad are killing this challenge, and even when Raymond takes a spill, it’s clear that he could probably do fairly well on his own season of Survivor. What do you think it is? Pilates? I’m signing up for whatever Raymond’s up to because he’s a beast. Dawn, Sherri, and Brenda face off during the bolo toss, but Brenda’s dad scores the final bolo, and they cheerfully high-five after winning what will prove to be the worst challenge to win, ever.
Brenda is forced to choose another tribe member who will share the reward with her, bringing a loved one along; everyone begs, which is always sort of a sad sight, but Dawn gets to be the chosen one “for so many reasons.” These reasons are, presumably: that Brenda has seen Dawn lose her shit for the duration of their time in the Philippines, that they bonded over false teeth, and finally fear regarding Dawn’s emotional fragility and the potential for high-octane wrath if she were to be passed over. It’s also Dawn and her husband’s anniversary. Don’t mess with that. Nobody’s going to begrudge Dawn time with her husband, because she’s proved herself to be the most delicate island flower of the bunch. The argument for Dawn needing this more than anyone else is implicit in the fact that she’s been the straight-up messiest, and this benefits Brenda because it doesn’t appear to be strategic. It’s a human move.
Unfortunately, Probst is called on to “complicate things a bit” by showing Brenda some phone video of everybody’s second loved ones sitting behind a sign that says “MORE LOVE!” (Sprint, so hip) — the “first time in Survivor history” that two loved ones were dangled in front of its cast. As you can imagine, this leads Dawn to bellow like a psychotic animal (NOOOO WAAAAAY!) and brings Sherri to her knees at the prospect of seeing her oldest son. The “dilemma” is this: Brenda can choose one other person and their loved one to join them at the ’BQ, or “give up [her] love, and the love [she’s] just teased Dawn with” by giving the reward to the remaining four contestants. “Of course” she gives her prize away, but not really “of course” because this is a terrible move. If Brenda had been given this choice right after the merge, it would be one thing, but now that everyone’s conniving and crazy, it’s another. If I were Brenda, I would've chosen Sherri to come on the reward floatie, no question. Sherri and Dawn were the two people whose reactions warranted concern (so tearful, so dehydrated), and it would've been easy to justify this decision by saying that she would've been happy to give up the time with her bionic father for the good of the others, but she couldn’t deny Dawn the chance to hang with her husband and best friend, Sally Finecoat or Kelly Feelgood or whatever her name was. Giving Dawn the reward and then pulling it out from under her was bound to lead to some ill will between them, and because the rest of the tribe had less concrete hopes of family time, their disappointment would've been far less than Dawn’s. Dawn and Brenda are sent back to camp while the others go on to enjoy their “afternoon of love.”
I guess when Probst said that the party raft was “just offshore,” he really meant it. The revelers are within sight of the sad duo, and while Cochran is reliving 13 years of watching Survivor while copping teenage feels, and criticizing his dad for posing as a shades-wearing grill champion and Sherri develops an emotionally triggered alien accent while hugging her son (“eet was like when I gave birth to eem”), Dawn is breaking sticks and mentally shooting off fudges and cheese and crackers. She’s so mad she wants to “spit,” but judging from her inflection she’d be happy to spit on Brenda’s dismembered corpse. “Four days from now, we’re going to have big smiles on our faces,” Brenda cheerleads, but again, I think she’s approaching this the wrong way. What she really needs is a motivational reduction served ice-cold in a goblet with an umbrella. “Look, Dawn,” says the Brenda of my imagination, “I did this so that you and I could go to the final three. Cochran is gunning for you. He told Erik, who told me. What I just did was buy us two tickets to the finals, where you will surely beat me. I did this for you because I’m saintlike, and I've become obsessed with your plight, Dawn. Here, cry on this leaf. Sit in my lap while I stroke your hair.” Instead, she “guarantee[s]” the vaguest product in the world, a smile. And spaghetti, the idea of which she busts out as the rest of the tribe wades back to shore. That’s like trying to fight a fire with bubbles. Brenda recognizes that by giving the others her prize, she’s whipping around a double-edged sword, but she’s by no means worried enough. As Cochran says, “we’re at that point in the game where likability is a liability.” Luckily for Brenda, she’s proved herself the kind of person who can win an immunity challenge, especially those that require balance and determination, which this week’s does.
Erik, who I swear looks visibly different after eating a cheeseburger, gives up his immunity necklace from last week and the rules are laid out: Everyone stands on a ledge over the water, holding onto a handle that Probst will crank lower at intervals to edge the contestants closer to the water. Last person standing wins. Erik is still hungry and immediately asks if Jeff has any food hanging out to offer him for jumping in. That’s a negative. After 15 minutes, Cochran and Eddie are squirming. Cochran’s the first to cascade down Splash Mountain, followed by Eddie at the 25-minute mark. Erik’s next, leaving only Sherri, Brenda, and Dawn, who is opting to go overhand while everybody else holds their handle underhand. Is that significant? I don’t know, perhaps! Sherri falls off and Dawn asks Brenda to give her the win because she’s never won immunity in Survivor, plus now that Eddie’s out, the vote is straightforward anyway. It’s a pretty good pitch, but Brenda has principles and she sticks it out for another turn of the wheel before succumbing to gravity.
Now, Brenda will go on to claim that she cashed in on purpose, Specialist-style, but I’m not sure if I believe her. The thing is, I really think that Dawn might have stumbled on an accidental advantage by supporting her body weight with a different technique than her competitors. Using my vast, encyclopedic knowledge of tendons and muscles and all that stuff, it seems that the underhand grip may have been a much more painful approach than overhand. Either way, this is terrible for Brenda, and she doesn’t even have a clue. She justifies her move by saying that she’s catering to Dawn’s paranoia without realizing that the only way to have done that would've been to strike a deal with Dawn when it was offered. Now Dawn just thinks she beat Brenda fair and square, and that’s not going to heal the gaping wound of being deprived a spousal visit. Brenda feels secure that Eddie’s going home, followed by Cochran. Cochran is subconsciously wise to this and tells the camera that if he had his druthers, Brenda would get voted off before Eddie, and he sneakily brings this information to Sherri, telepathically broadcasting his message so that she actually thinks she came up with it herself, or something. You know Cochran was shaken up by his mom whispering that Brenda was going to take the whole game. Next, Cochran huddles with Dawn, who insists that she’s in a tough spot because she needs to “play [her] own game” while still being locked to Cochran — who is the best Dawn-manager of all time despite having screwed her last time — leaving her “swayed by [his] emotion.” (That emotion, by the way, was just some impassioned shrugging.)
The five jury members are brought in for tribal (minus my favorite jury member, Reynold’s mustache). The camera acknowledges how pretty Andrea is, and so must we. Dawn reveals that she “trained for this game” and can now check immunity necklaces off her bucket list, while Eddie confesses that his “one Amigo fuse” is fresh out of wick and he knows he’s on the chopping block. Brenda calls her decision to give away her reward “a no-brainer,” and then everyone reassures her that it was the right decision. Dawn thinks that being generous will “benefit her in the game,” and Sherri calls her a saint and says that no one could bear to vote her off after the precious gift of LOVEBQ, but when pressed, Cochran acknowledges that “it’s about weighing short-term gratification against long-term benefits.” Eddie bids a preemptive farewell to his tribe mates, and then it’s vote time. After two votes for Eddie and one for Erik, Brenda’s name is read three times in a row. She says “I knew it,” but she clearly didn’t, and before bringing her torch for snuffing she tells Enil Edam, “I was honest with you guys. I was genuine with you guys.” Flies meander in and out of Malcolm’s mouth; so shocked is he at not being the solo Amigo still kicking around in the game.
Brenda clutches her chest and says “It hurts” before taking her long, tearful walk to the Ponderosa. She’s sobbing so hard in her exit speech that I felt genuinely sorry for her; for being “hesitant to lie to people” and “so true to Dawn,” she was punished mightily. She keeps gesturing to her heart and saying “It hurts,” and while I hate watching it, the evil part of me is psyched because it’s shaping up to be a siiiiiick final tribal council. Dawn and Brenda, each Pollyannaish in her own way, illustrate the difference between a good player and a doomed one. The good player is nice until they feel they have no choice but to be self-serving — everyone is a friend, but ultimately dispensable. It’s like having a flesh-eating disease: You love your arm, but you have to know when to cut it off to save the rest of your trunk. Unfortunately for Dawn, she’s appearing to be pretty weary, and it’s going to take a lot of damage control for her to win if she makes it to the final three. She and Cochran are going to have to break their tie at some point soon, and while they both seem to be aware of this, it’ll be interesting to see who breaks first — that is, if they’re lucky enough to stick around that long.
Next time: Are you fucking kidding me? It’s the finale! And there's the implication that a snake bites someone, though the snake could be wearing the costume of a red herring. Either way, it’s Jeff Probst in night vision, and I’m fixing to spend my first Mother’s Day being fed grapes and fanned by palm fronds while I yell at the television. Can somebody hook Mama up with a coconut? They’re just up that tree.