I admit it. I was wrong about Mikayla. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, we can move on…except we actually can’t. I wasn’t completely wrong about Mikayla and why is a demonstration of the intricacies of Survivor editing and analyzing it. Her edit was extremely crafted for an important purpose. Namely, it tells us a lot about Coach’s story and his chances of winning (hint: they plummeted drastically). This episode could have been the Dragonslayer’s key mistake that costs him the game. I’m just unsure if the same can be said for Upolu. Thus, I’m left to ponder if Upolu is Zapatera to Savaii’s Ometepe or instead Coach's downfall is this season’s endgame.
Actually, the better question is which leader's strategy (Coach or Ozzy) is the heavier weight on the seesaw that will tip the advantage to his tribe for good? As Probst has continually reminded us and reality has demonstrated, the challenges this season have gone back and forth. Starting in episode one where Savaii won reward and Upolu won immunity, the tribes have exchanged the immunity idol every other challenge. This episode saw Savaii reclaim it from Upolu, will the trend continue next episode? Attempting to induce the next challenge winner from past results is bad reasoning, but doing it based on the content of the episode is not—and it’s hard to deny that this episode didn’t look too great for Coach or Upolu.
After Tribal Council, Probst said: "Loyalty, as honorable as it may be, is not always the answer” which was followed in Mikayla’s final words by: "I'm just going to laugh if the next challenge is something physical." The former quote refers back to an early Coach comment from—well, almost every confessional he’s ever given really. Even early on in this episode, he gave a confessional about his relationship to Brandon, "I want to play this game completely honorably." Coach’s honor was even put on the line this vote when he had to choose between staying loyal to Edna or keeping the stronger Mikayla around. The former quote refers back to Mikayla’s constant edit as the difference maker in the challenges, which was once again emphasized in the “Previously On” segment through showing her “getting dirty” for the piece of ham Rick drop, the couple ounces that won the challenge. What does all of this mean? The editors are falling back on their favorite device, ironic mockery—and the words of some of our key characters, Albert, Brandon, and Coach, fill in the blank as to exactly how.
Albert took on the role of the dissenting voice this episode, which is especially interesting because he has previously been established as Coach’s #2 and the voice of reason on Upolu. The majority of his story this episode was attempting to keep Mikayla in the game, a plot that ultimately failed. His words are what really stood out though. As he argued for voting based on strength rather than loyalty, almost every line he said seemed to be foreshadowing. Multiple times he told people that the next challenge is make or break and if they don’t win it they’re in a terrible spot. He also informed them that Coach wants to keep Edna because he thinks she’ll listen to him, but she’s smart and that a smart person who realizes she’s the sixth in the merge will act desperately. These assertions bring attention to the affects of the vote on the next immunity challenge and Coach’s future in the game. When at tribal council Albert says that loyalty can be faked, he’s right. Even Brandon knows it.
Brandon may have been acting like a Hantz, but he had the same analysis as Albert. Though he still voted for Mikayla, he acknowledged that Edna was acting too sweet not to be playing them. It makes it especially ironic that he didn’t keep Mikayla around as he went on his Bible Belt Christian rant at tribal council about how even a half lie is a lie. Are we supposed to like Brandon? Are we supposed to hate him? It doesn’t matter anymore. What we’re supposed to see him as his an unstable element, kind of like Uranium in the hands of an Iranian. He’s going to blow up eventually, something that became apparent as his anti-half-lies comment directly clashed with Coach’s comment earlier in the episode that a half lie isn’t really isn’t a lie.
This divergence, and the first step towards the fruition of the continued foreshadowing of their split, makes it even more chilling that Brandon and Coach exchanged I Love Yous after Mikayla walked away. This episode began with Coach echoing Mikayla’s observation that you can’t get past seeing the Russell Hantz in Brandon and ended with Coach taking Brandon’s nonsensical side in voting out Mikayla. The symbolism here is clear, especially when considered in conjunction with all of Albert’s comments. By siding with Brandon and choosing loyalty and honor over strength in challenges, has Coach doomed his game? It’s interesting to consider that his character has actually reached a place that it can inspire such a discussion. Coach is finally being treated like a serious Survivor player, but there are dangers that come with that. When you’re a comic relief character or prophet, you’re one note. Everyone knows what to expect from you and appreciates you for it. However, when you’re an actual character, your complexity makes you controversial, and that more often than not means you’re being used as a fable.
The similarities between Zaptera last season and Upolu this season are numerous and disturbing. As Russell became the icon of a fable, so has Coach. As Zapatera made a key mistake that cost them the game (story wise), it seems as though Upolu may have as well. Over the first few episodes, Coach talked about how important winning challenges is and then voted out the girl who, in the story, was shown to have won them three challenges, that he himself called strong one episode. Why? Because this isn’t about Coach Things anymore, it’s about Other Coach Things: his arbitrary definition of honor that completely drops context (and alters his perception of reality, as he denied Mikayla was valuable beyond the first challenge). Coach’s application of his philosophy of honor and strength has been put directly in the crosshairs. If he truly cared about honor and strength, he would think about what those mean in each situation he’s in. Instead, he makes a promise and sticks with it, regardless if the other party doesn’t deserve his consideration anymore. In Heroes vs Villains, it caused him to not vote out Russell even though it made much more sense to honor Boston Rob, one of the strongest players in history, than Russell, one of the most duplicitous players in history. Rob, as it is recorded, was voted out that episode. Coach followed him out the next. This season, Coach once again stuck to his arbitrary promise to a Hantz and voted out the stronger player that even the Hantz acknowledged was stronger. Will it cost him as it did in his previous game? That is the interesting question.
Coach mentioned not wanting to repeat Heroes vs Villains as he saw the Russell in Brandon. The storyline may lead to him doing so. He has voted out Mikayla after he said how important immunity challenges are. His alliance is divided. Savaii looks as if they are bonded. It is completely conceivable that Upolu loses the next challenge. Who do they then vote out, Edna as the sixth? Hold on there. Sophie and Albert know Coach has the idol. What if the little dragon finally hatches like in the first season finale of Game of Thrones? If Sophie leads a blindside of Coach to flush the HII out, a major plot line and its foreshadowing would be satisfied. Factor in that Edna would want to try and save herself and that Coach said "[Edna]'s the one person out here who I think would lay her Survivor life down for me” and the irony that the editors love is invoked once again. And to round out the hypothetical, there is one last fact to consider. Christine is waiting for Coach on Redemption Island. If she were to beat him, return, and join Savaii at the merge, Upolu would be, in Zaboo terms, Zapatara’d—and Coach would once again be the player no should listen to. It’s almost too perfect not to happen.
Hold on a second though. Coach’s Survivor strategy isn’t the only one being put on trial this season. Ozzy’s calmness is the ironic center of Savaii’s firestorm and we can’t ignore that his leadership style was made to look so much worse than Coach’s in episode one. However, we also can’t ignore that Savaii’s side of the seesaw rose once again this episode, and it was due to the sudden flipping of Ozzy’s position in and treatment of his tribe.
In another moment of possible major foreshadowing, in their makeup scene, Keith told Ozzy, "We can either tear each other apart or unite as a tribe and win two in a row." It was the beginning of the return to the cool, calm Ozzy from the whiny, hissy-fit Ozzy that merged after the last tribal council. After his conversation with Keith where they also said they could run all the immunity challenges until the end (interesting possible foreshadowing considering how important challenges have been made out to be this season), Ozzy apologized to the rest of the tribe, uniting them and leading to half of Keith’s comment coming true. Savaii won the first of the next two challenges. Interestingly, in the “Previously On” segment, Ozzy was again highlighted saying, "It's all about keeping us as strong as possible." Clearly he is on Albert’s side of the debate (understandably, of course), which makes all this challenge foreshadowing so strong and the parallel stories between the tribes so obvious.
By now it should be an accepted fact that Cochran is to Ozzy as Brandon is to Coach. The success of the former is dependent on and at odds with the latter. In other words, if Ozzy fails, Cochran succeeds and if Coach fails, Brandon succeeds. Every time Coach seems to be doing well, there is a flash of Hantz in Brandon that causes rifts in the alliance, yet Coach keeps him around. Every time Ozzy seems to be doing well he focuses on strength and makes Cochran a target. Cochran even acknowledged this dynamic himself stating, "The less pleasant [Ozzy] is, the better it is for me." And he was right, especially as he was at his most likable yet calling Ozzy out on being a “little bitch.” Of course, by cognate, Ozzy’s reconciling with the tribe in the episode can only be a bad omen for Cochran. Still, the redhead’s story continues to trend upward as he overcame his sweater vest yet again by sliding down the rocks. It was an interesting detail that convolutes the story. Cochran’s success seems to be a major arc this season, but it is also at odds with Savaii’s success, as that is linked to uniting around Ozzy. It makes me wonder if we’re going to see a cross-tribal alliance post-merge, especially as the final parallel to Upolu convolutes matters further.
Whereas Albert is the other leader/mastermind of Upolu that Coach doesn’t listen to, Jim is the other leader/mastermind of Savaii that Ozzy was shown “listening” to. I put listening in quotes because he didn’t do so directly but rather was shown to in the editing. Albert talked strategy with Coach but was unable to convince the returning player to change his strategy. In a confessional, Jim stated the strategy Ozzy should change to (apologizing and uniting rather than being a free agent) and Ozzy went about doing so, much to the returning player’s success. Will the inverse hold true for Coach, Albert, and Upolu? We have now come full circle as that is the question I began this column with, and it’s also what makes this season so interesting
The strength of this season is how difficult it is to prognosticate a winner. It's the opposite of Redemption Island as this story isn't about a dominating performance, so anyone who says he knows who wins is either trying to fool himself or fool you. (More on this thought in a "making of" column released soon.) This episode was a perfect demonstration of why. Over much of the season, and very strongly in the first episode (which is always important), Coach and Upolu looked strong and Ozzy and Savaii looked weak. Suddenly the story has shifted and recent foreshadowing seems to point to Savaii succeeding because Upolu fails. Are we really supposed to believe Savaii’s sudden unity is genuine and not another high on the seesaw? And what does that mean for wunderkind Cochran, besides the fact that he gets to stick around? So many of the answers will be revealed by the result of the next challenge—and the audience thinking and feeling that anticipation is the mark of an enthralling narrative. The next chapter should always be the most important one. I’ll be more sure of who wins then, but for the sake of tracking now, here are my top three Jacob-esque candidates:
Sophie – If anyone wins on Upolu now, it’s her. Coach is on borrowed time, Albert’s story isn’t a full season arc, and Brandon has been made out to be too much like Russell to win. The only question is if she was prepared in episode one (which she arguably was). She is a non-mastermind and I’ve leaned towards one winning since the beginning of the season. Plus, if Coach really is screwed and Edna switches sides, Sophie could benefit greatly.
Dawn – The problem with Dawn is how unprepared she was in episode one. However, she is a non-mastermind with a strong story. Has she already had her redemption though with that challenge win?
Jim - The anti-Jean Robert, Jim had a strong episode one edit that fit the being prepared theme. Episode two seemed to be a chink in his armor as Keith seemed to be the one controlling things and not him, but Jim has since been shown as correct in both his analysis and strategic response to it. If a mastermind wins this season, it will be him, as his comment about Ozzy being the perfect post-merge teammate for him sticks out in light of Keith’s comment to Ozzy about their running the immunities post-merge. If a mastermind wins this season, it will be Jim. I’m just convinced one (or a Savaii) does yet.