Once upon a time there was a guy who wrote a weekly column about his favorite television show. He reached marginal levels of notoriety, being published in FHM once and receiving over 100,000 views for his writeup on the series’ densest episode. Like all good things though, the show reached The End and the guy was left without anything to write about.
Except what if instead of that series ending and him never being allowed to write again, there was a magical thing called the interweb where anyone was allowed to say anything they wanted at any time (note: possible government approval pending)? What if one of his favorite shows of all times was still airing even though it began over a decade ago? Could he start to write about his first love?
The only problem is there’s no way to know if he’d be taken seriously once he returned to the column-writing game. He never seriously wrote about this show before. Sure, he was a decently known member of the online community. He was relatively notable on the biggest message board before it actually started to resemble its name sake. He played in (and did well in) the biggest online game ever, which was hosted and designed by then-future Guatemala mastermind Rafe and played in by still-famous Survivor writer Mario Lanza. He afterward became friends with and respected by Lanza. These facts, however, are in the past and none guarantee that if he were to return to the game that he would find redemption.
Ok, ok, I’ll stop writing in the third person. I only did it for dramatic effect. What kind of an impression of me did it leave you with? What’s your perception of my writing ability, Survivor knowledge, and personality? That’s the funny thing about life. It doesn’t always matter how nice, good, strong, or smart you are if other people perceive you as being otherwise—and the thing about other people’s perceptions is—right or wrong—you can’t control them and people rarely take the time to question the ones they hold. That idea and its consequences are the specific theme to Survivor Redemption Island Episode 1 “You're Looking at the New Leader of Your Tribe.”
The title of the episode points to perception in two ways. First it emphasizes the act of visual perception. By highlighting the word “looking”—as well as coupling it with the double-use of the second person pronoun “you”—attention is drawn to the truth that if a person is going to be a leader they must first be seen as a leader. This leads perfectly into the second interpretation of the title. It is a quote said by Phillip, the character who most played with the notion of perception in the episode and is this season’s oracle.
Phillip’s claim of being a former federal agent is brought into question not only by the other players in the game, but the editing of the show. By including a question mark in Phillip’s profession graphic the editors are coyly playing with the viewers in the same way they did with Kelly Purple’s edit in Nicaragua. We always believe the information the producers give us about the contestants, but what if they were lying to us as much as the contestants do? What if Phillip is lying about his profession? What if he’s not? These are questions you can only answer by the judgment of your own mind. That’s what all the players did. It’s why Phillip was lied to. It’s why he lied to himself when he said the title quote. It’s what caused the giant clusterfuck of awesomeness that was Tribal Council.
Like all good Survivor oracles though, Phillip wasn’t just talking about himself. He was narrating the fates of Boston Rob and Russell, the two returning players who face vastly divergent perceptions from the fans and new players. The fans have been arguing over their perceptions of the two so much during the offseason that I can’t even think of a fair sterile adjective to use to describe them. Nowhere is this more apparent than the receptions they received as they left their helicopter and picked buffs. Rob was greeted with cheers and warmth and Russell…well, let’s just say he wasn’t.
Camp life logically followed from that moment. We didn’t get to see what individual relationships Rob built and moves he tried to make. Instead, the editing made it seem like he simply was automatically the leader. Why? Because the perception is that he’s a good guy and a hero. It puts a finer point on Phillip’s quote. His perception was so flawed that he thought he somehow was going to get rid of Rob and make himself the leader. Sure, he was aligned with two other players who perceived that they were making the right moves, but they were completely off base. Sure, the episode’s (strategy) editing revolved around Kristina and the Hidden Immunity Idol, but her error was that the idol isn’t as powerful as she perceived it to be. Her and Fransequa’s overplaying even caused Rob—someone playing for the record fourth time—perception problems. He didn’t know which of the two to target. And us viewers, we still don’t really have a clue what’s going on in Ometepe at all.
Russell, in contrast to Rob, had to gather everyone and state his case as to why he should stay. He had to try to convince them he was going to help them to win. His speech didn’t work—or so the editing led us to believe. As he tried to “get his hooks” into Stephanie, members of his tribe watched on and noted that he was still as much trouble as he had been in his previous seasons. Does the whole tribe think that way about him? We don’t know, as the editing made it seem that way by only showing us the two players talking about Russell. Then there was Russell’s new ally herself whose first confessional was all about perception. Russell, she said, would look at her as cute and innocent but she could be as evil as him. That line of thought continued into her alliance formation with Russell, as the two of them discussed that Russell took Natalie and Parvati to the end—two Survivors who were once perceived as poor players by fellow participants and fans alike.
The easy reading of the editing would say that Stephanie is the winner. This is the same old Survivor we’ve seen 21 times before and, more specifically, twice over the last three season. The HII is found without clues. It is used in an abrasive power grab. Russell allies with a cute young girl and, ahem, takes advantage of her until, ultimately, the player gets played. Except this isn’t the same old Survivor. Rob’s lesson of how to beat the HII finally stuck and the majority used their most powerful weapon against it as they explicitly mocked Tyson’s mistake in Heroes vs Villains—loyalty to the plan. Russell’s tribe explicitly noted his lack of change in behavior. Most importantly, Tribal Council was an explosion of explicit strategy. Kristina, Francesqua, and Phillip aired the dirty laundry of their doomed alliance. Rob demanded the HII from Kristina and promised her safety (unintentionally echoing a deal Sash and Marty made privately). No, this isn’t your father’s Survivor. It belongs to a new generation now.
The scariest thing about my prediction for this season’s winner is it signals possible holistic editing of Survivor over two seasons. Let’s just say that an easy affectionate name for it is “The Puppy that Didn’t Bark.” Who was perceived as a target in this episode, yet we saw nothing of her? Who randomly was shown voting despite that invisibility? Who is the youngest player in the game ever and won’t be seen as a threat to win at all? The answer to these questions is Natalie.
Factor in Russell’s discussion with Stephanie about Natalie in Parvati and the fact that they showed a black spider before Ometepe voted and it all looks a bit more suspicious. Maybe this all looks Russell’s going to do his thing again, but Rob manages to do his thing again with Natalie as his new Amber (minus the wedding). Maybe Natalie reinvents strategy as we know it. I don’t know how it happens, I just believe it does. And if it does happen consider that Fabio basically had the “write me the check” quote a la Rich last season and Natalie would basically have the Tina episode one edit this season. Maybe, just maybe, the editors are really messing with us fans.
It should be an interesting season as Survivor, Rob, and Russell try to redeem and reinvent themselves by challenging the perceptions of them that people hold. Maybe you all will even let me redeem myself and allow my talent and knowledge to catapult me to notoriety as a Survivor writer. Regardless of what does happen, I’ll be here having a good time. I hope you join me—and if you do venture my way, I only ask that you do one thing about all the ideas I present to you:
Think about it.
(And I promise I’ll discuss strategy more in the future. Episode one is always a unique discussion in a season of Survivor. Actually, episode/chapter/scene/stanza one is always a unique discussion in anything.)