Sunday, October 9, 2011

Survivor South Pacific E4: Circling the Drain

Truth be told, I’ve had a hard time motivating myself to write this week’s column. Last week I turned in a subpar effort due to lack of time to invest. This week, though the episode was well crafted, the overall storyline became less intriguing to me. In many ways it was hampered by one of the most difficult challenges faced by any storytelling: treading water. In any story there are necessarily chapters that don’t have any “major” events or actions. If not handled properly, it can become obvious to the viewer/reader that the author is just “stalling” until that next plot point is reached.

I actually think this episode handled this issue very well by focusing on what makes these episodes necessary: character development. If the episodes were unnecessary, they could just be cut out—although in the case of Survivor every episode is necessary to the overall story (but I don’t want to go too deep into theory here). Ignoring my sure misuse of punctuation in that sentence, this episode took a breather from setting up the themes and the larger plot machinations to develop the players in the scheme. Most notably we got to learn more about Dawn and Edna. And truthfully, the episode was enjoyable. Due to its content it’s just difficult to write about. Thus, I struggled with motivation until I looked up the definition of suvivalism.
‘sur•viv•al•ist [ser-vahy-vuh-list]
a person who makes preparations to survive a widespread catastrophe, as an atomic war or anarchy, especially by storing food and weapons in a safe place.”

“Survivalism is a movement of individuals or groups (called survivalists or sometimes preppers) who are actively preparing for future possible disruptions in local, regional, national, or international social or political order."
The concretes in these definitions, especially the Wikipedia one, inspired me to look at the episode from another angle. As we were reminded in the Previously On segment, currently we are being told the story of two five person alliances being led by former players Coach and Ozzy. However, on each tribe there is a player that stands as a threat to that alliance. On Savaii, Cochrane’s nerdy game obsession threatens Ozzy’s alliance externally. On Upolu, Brandon’s inner struggle threatens Coach’s alliance internally. It is from this point, and Coach’s statement of “You’re either loyal or you’re disloyal,” that this episode builds.

As he swings in a hammock with Elyse, Ozzy is the one who tells us the episode title. Apparently he has been into survivalism his own life, which is pretty ironic (one of the editors’ favorite techniques) as his demise is the one currently being plotted in the jungle. You see, Jim fears Ozzy gaining too much power the way Rob did last season (a parallel we’ve seen drawn many times)—by having a pair of votes and dominating challenges. Except, as we know from previous episodes, Jim’s at the bottom of the alliance so any thoughts he has are just the complaints of the least popular kid. Enter Cochrane who makes Jim’s rebellion plans real with his love for blindside that make Survivor exciting (as any “true” Survivor fan does, otherwise the show is boring, right…right?!). Now Jim has ties outside the 5. This is in motion.

Except it still doesn’t make sense story wise. Ozzy is likable favorite. Jim is a villainous poker player. Cochrane is an empathetic nerd. Plus, as Cochrane points out, two is less than four. Luckily there was another player on the tribe that dominated the edit this episode—Dawn. You see, Dawn’s insecurities being calmed by her success in the immunity challenge weren’t just a one episode story to make her sympathetic. Inside of this story we saw her not only get on board with the plan to vote out Elyse, but critique Ozzy for his cockiness in not wanting other people to strategize. As she said that Ozzy’s mocking of Jim bothered her, we were shown Ozzy lounging in the shelter with Elyse—after the episode opened with him laying in the hammock with Elyse. Making Dawn likable and Ozzy unlikable all sets up Ozzy’s eventual ouster with an added level of irony. Rather than ally with savvy Dawn in the first episode as he easily could have after talking her down, Ozzy chose to chase the pretty Semhar and now the even prettier Elyse. No, this Survivor god is no Rob.

Likewise, as Stacey explicitly called him the god of Upolu, Coach is no Rob either, and the way to understand how this episode is the developmental of a woman’s character and story on his tribe—Edna, his Rob-like pairing. Edna was all aboard the plan and may have been with Coach until the end. The only problem was that Coach, because he is loyal and not disloyal, has kept Brandon around. And Brandon’s looking for redemption so he tells Edna there’s an alliance of five, not a six. This causes Edna to veer of the course and start strategizing on her own rather than following Coach’s plan. For her that means “upping” her social game by asking people questions all about themselves (this sequence had some interesting content which I’ll return to later). Yes her character took a major hit here, but the question is why? Edna seems to be unimportant in tribal politics, so why develop her at all?

Just like how Ashley Underwood was set up early in Redemption Island to be Rob’s final hurdle in the finale with a negative edit, just like how Clay was destroyed in the Thailand recrap to explain how he lost in the final two to Brian, Edna is being set up for the end game. Now when she doesn’t win and is supposed to be looked at in a negative light, we can all remember how annoying everyone else thought she was. Personally I see her as being in the final three because she joins in on the mutiny on Coach and receiving no votes. To understand we have to look at a few more prophetic comments by Stacey and Brandon’s latest shenanigans.

Bitter that she was on the outside of the alliance, Stacey used her way with words to skewer Coach and company. First she declared in a confessional, “That loyalty game plan stuff, I don't buy it at all." Later, as Coach tries to encourage the tribe to hug her when she is voted out, she tells Probst, "Everything was a lie that we seen today." What’s interesting here is not that someone who was voted out would make these comments, but how they were presented. There was no attempt to create a decoy boot. There was no attempt to make Stacey look bad. Instead, she was shown as the unfortunate outsider who told it like it was—which has to make us wonder what she meant by “everything.”

Coupled with loyalty being a lie, everything can clearly only mean the tribal dynamics and more specifically the alliance. Keeping in mind Edna’s new perspective, the key scene of the episode was when Coach attempted to calm Brandon’s paranoia regarding a possible Sophie, Mikayla, and Albert sub-alliance. Coach told him the game was going to get much crazier and he couldn’t believe everything he was told. Except, it was the beginning and end of this scene that made it interesting. As they started talking, Coach told Brandon to “let me know if anyone sneaks up on me.” In the background we see a small figure of Sophie approaching. At the end of the conversation, she is standing there, having snuck up on Coach, without Brandon saying a word. It’s dripping in ironic foreshadowing.

The editors didn’t let us interpret it any other way either. As they went into Tribal Council, Coach gave a confessional about needing to take care of his game first even at the expense of loyalty (see: Stacey’s quote about loyalty). It was the second episode this season where the editors left a nine month pregnant pause that said, “Brandon should be voted out this time.” The problem is that, despite his awareness, Coach still has his head in the sand and wants to see Brandon as a good kid because, as Edna said, “It’s easier to believe a lie sometimes than accept the truth.” It’s one of two perspectives to take on Brandon.

The other perspective to take is that he’s a Hantz and should be treated accordingly. Interestingly though Sophie seems like the smart strategist and is being given lots of foreshadowing as the person who brings down Coach, she is not being used to personify this perspective. Rather, Mikayla is the one voicing the opposite perspective. At Tribal Council she says that even though Brandon is a good kid, it’s always in the back of her mind that he’s Russell Hantz’s nephew and that blood is blood. There you have it, the other perspective. Brandon can’t overcome his past and can’t be trusted because of it.

Of course, Brandon has something to say about the comments and this is where the foreshadowing gets really interesting: "The proof's in the pudding. you can't help somebody who's done that to himself, but what do you do?” Yes, Brandon’s comments were about Russell, but weren’t they also about himself. The proof’s in the pudding. He has acted ruthlessly and erratically. So what do you do? Do you respond to him like Coach is or respond to him like Mikayla is? The proof being in the pudding makes me think it’s not like Coach, especially considering all the other foreshadowing and the interesting way they’re treating Mikayla’s character.

What’s intriguing about Mikayla’s edit is that though she’s supposedly not in the alliance of five, we haven’t been given any indication of her being on the outside of the tribe. After this episode the tribal politics seem to be the group of five and Edna on the outside…oh and Mikayla is on the tribe too. It’s a weird dynamic, especially considering the way Edna and Mikayla were edited this episode. As Edna was interviewing people, the only person she was shown talking to was Mikayla. It was a sneaky way of injecting some backstory for Mikayla. Then Mikayla was shown giving her perspective on Edna’s behavior. This wasn’t narration, as Sophie always gives, but opinion and analysis. This “showing the game from a character’s perspective” is a technique the editors use to make us identify with and understand key players. Most notably it was done constantly with Fabio in Nicaragua, especially at Tribal Councils with his catchphrase “What is going on?” Oh yeah, and Brandon’s “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish”? Mikayla definitely isn’t starting in any power position on the outside of the power alliance and being harassed by one of its members.

Thus, my winner pick remains the same, with Sophie as my number two choice and Coach as my number three choice. I don’t see anyone else having a shot at winning. I’m even willing to predict a final three of Mikayla, Sophie, and Edna with a 5-4-0 vote. As for more proof, I leave you with the picture I started this column with, a screenshot from when Stacey was talking about how she proved she was stronger than the other girls on Upolu by holding the weight on her shoulders. First there was a shot of Sophie looking like she was holding the shelter on her shoulders. Then there was the above shot, your moment of zen.

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