Sunday, September 25, 2011

Survivor South Pacific E2: I don't miss Rob. I miss cheering for Rob.

I toyed around with the idea that the title of the first episode of the season, “I Need Redemption,” was ironic. What I mean is, anyone who claimed s/he needed redemption wouldn’t win the game because the episode demonstrated how important being prepared was in Survivor. As you can remember, I went with only the second half of that interpretation—a much weaker claim. However, after the second episode of the season, I have to wonder if I wussed out and was actually spot on, as this episode’s story fits perfectly with the ironic interpretation.

On first pass, “He Has Demons” is about Brandon Hantz and his identity as a member of the Hantz clan, as Coach uttered the line in a confessional after he found out Brandon’s secret. However, dig a little deeper and we see that Brandon’s was only the most prominent version of the episode’s theme, mainly because his tribe went to Tribal Council. “Demons” are a metaphor commonly used to explain how the events of a person’s past negatively affect his psychology to the point that he acts in ways that are harmful to himself. This episode featured a number of characters talking about their pasts in a negative way as we were shown major actions they were taking in the game—actions that we were led to believe wouldn’t turn out very well.

Whereas last season Redemption Island was shown to be a powerful and trying place through Matt’s journey of struggle and growth that paralleled his Survivor savior Rob Mariano’s path to victory, this episode portrayed it in a much harsher manner. Semhar reflected upon her past in the game with anguish, lamenting how people in the game could be so cruel (in contrast Matt always talked about how much stronger he was getting and how he was improving himself). Her poem she recited in defiance of her past told us how to view the episode. It asked over and over again if she actually missed the person who broke her heart or if she just missed being in love, concluding with the line, "I don't miss you. I miss feeling loved." If you let them be, demons are a distraction. They make you focus on other people and past events rather than your own feelings and actions. Soon, it’s almost as if you don’t know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

The most prominent example of a person not realizing what he’s doing is, of course, Russell Hantz’ nephew Brandon. Russell is the concretization of his (and in many ways Survivor’s) demons. He is what Brandon doesn’t want to be, so rather than try to be himself, Brandon tries not to be Russell. It’s what causes Brandon to reveal his “secret” to Coach, an even that, in the edited story of the episode, started a chain of events that culminated in a tense Tribal Council.

You see, much was made of what Brandon did (I’ll return to this thought later) when it really didn’t mean all that much at all. The five person alliance still split their votes with Edna as their sixth. Mikayla voted with them and ousted Christine. Christine and Stacey were the outsider but weren’t aligned as was shown. All of these events make sense in game logic. However, if you went by the story of the episode, you would’ve thought something completely different happened.

In an edit that consciously mirrored Russell’s (on the part of the editors), Brandon declared in a confessional, "I swear to you I will get her voted out of this game." He is then shown “bullying” Christine and Stacey, telling them to vote for MIkayla, as Russell always was shown doing. This is especially ironic as Brandon doesn’t even realize how much of a Hantz he is acting like. Unlike his uncle though, Brandon’s plans didn’t work. Mikayla received no votes and Tribal Council seemed to revolve around the distrust he was sowing in his tribe. It’s like Albert’s foreshadowing comment said, "A person's character will creep in." So even though the alliance stuck together and even grew in strength by bringing Edna (and kind of Mikayla) into the fold, what we saw was a story about its fragile state because of the demons of one of its core members. That delicate position in the game was faced by several other players as well.

At Savaii the most notable person struggling with demons was Brandon’s parallel (a comparison drawn in the “Previously On” section and by both of them being shown opening and sharing a coconut), Cochrane. As his tribe returned from Tribal Council, Cochrane reinforced in a confessional that he would be the new version of himself. What was he shown doing on screen though? He was being the old Cochrane. He seemed to be aware that he went into antsy analytical mode, yet that is what he was doing. Even worse, later in the episode as he was shown opening a coconut and sharing it, his confessional was all about his mother and essentially rebelling against his mother on national television. Come on, dude, who do you think would say that stuff, the cool kid or the antsy nerdy paranoid kid? Here’s a hint: Mr. Cool Brian Heidik never talked about his mother. Where’s your Survivor expertise now, Cochrane?

The redheaded step child of Savaii (yes, that’s a Phillip reference) wasn’t the only member of the tribe confronting his past in a negative fashion, however. World Poker Tour champion Jim went from a potential power player to a tragic joke in a matter of minutes. Keith and Ozzy built a five person alliance and let Jim think he was in control. Meanwhile, Jim gives a confessional where he says, "I've always been the kid that doesn't always fit in...and I'm probably the least of the cool kids. I mean, I'm at the cool kid's table, but I'm barely at the cool kid's table." Why is he talking about cool and uncool kids? Why isn’t he focused on Keith and Ozzy’s relationship? Sure, maybe he talked about it in real life. Story wise though, he’s shown focused on the wrong things.

And Jim isn’t the only player on that tribe that Keith’s confessionals point to danger towards. Yes, Ozzy found the Hidden Immunity Idol, but what did he talk about when he did? He still remembers Micronesia and not playing the HII he had then and doesn’t want to let it happen again. That’s a scary statement for Ozzy when Keith says he is wary of the challenge dominator because of his experience in the game. That HII may be as much of a concretization of demons for Ozzy as Russell is for Brandon, which is especially interesting as it seemed Ozzy’s scene of finding the HII was edited to mirror Rob’s from last season. It’s another reminder that this isn’t last season and that Ozzy isn’t Rob.

Likewise Coach isn’t Rob. He has his demons too. In a Mariano move, Coach pulled aside his “first friend” Edna and made her into his Sarah-Amber-Natalie. In their conversation he tells her, "I'm stupid in this game. I'm the biggest fool in this game because I'm always hopeful that I'll find someone out here who will play honorably." These are his demons. He looks back upon his past and considers himself the “biggest fool.” He isn’t concerned with who he is playing with, he is concerned with being honorable (see: Semhar’s poem). It’s a psychology that rears its ugly head when Brandon reveals his secret. What is Coach’s response to Brandon being his nemesis’ nephew? He ties his fate, in the story, to Brandon’s: "It's gonna go one of two ways. It's either going to be Coach Wade duped once again in Survivor or it's going to be redemption for the Hantz family. I hope it's the latter." The worst part for Coach is that Brandon is duping him without even meaning to. As Brandon runs around and unintentionally acts like Russell, Coach is shown talking to the rest of the alliance, disappointed in how Brandon is acting. It is a pregnant moment in which we’re meant to ask if Coach will make another Mariano Move and use his sway to vote out the player most wouldn’t think of voting out so early but is the most harmful to his future in the game. (Remember, episode two of RI is when Rob voted out Matt, who one could argue was the Brandon of that alliance.) As we learned later in the episode, Coach didn’t make that move and sealed his fate in the story. He was duped again by sticking to promises made in the past rather than acknowledging issues in the present and there will be cracks in Upolu because of it.

All Is not lost for Coach and Upolu though, as I still see one of them winning the game, and Coach is the prophet that tells them how. His statement in this episode was technically correct, though he obviously doesn’t know how to properly apply it: Coach: "This game is simple. You find people that are loyal to you and that's it. I mean that's just simple. You're loyal or you're disloyal." This one statement accurately describes how every person who has ever gone deep into this game has gone deep into this game (except for a few outlier immunity hogs) from the Tagi alliance to the Ometepe alliance. I don’t believe this season will be any different. Right now I see Upolu sticking together just without Brandon and Coach. Sophie will lead the ousting of Brandon (whom Coach will refuse to turn on and thus follow out). I’m then thinking Sophie will lead the alliance and go to the F3 with Edna and Mikayla. As for Coach prophetic win all the immunity challenges comment that I mistakenly misinterpreted to be a Palau 2.0 foreshadowing? Maybe Coach is the RI returnee. Maybe the winner of the game wins a lot of individual immunities. Or hell, Upolu STILL might win everything from here on out and the alliance crumbling happens post-merge/in the end game.

Winner’s List:

5. Coach – Coach could conceivably still win if my read turns out to be the opposite of this story’s theme and Brandon does get redemption. He has been getting a positive/intelligent edit so far.

4. Rick – He’s in the power alliance but has nothing going on. His episode one comments still linger with me, though he is probably just a prophet with Coach.

3. Papa Bear – I’d like to drop him down further but he had such a strong first episode and we were reminded of him multiple times, once in the “Previously On” and once in Jim’s “who goes next’ spiel.

2. Sophie – She’s the biggest mover on this last due to a combination of game logic and story reading on my part. Game wise, she is positioned well as a smart person and the only chick in the numbers. Story wise, she has been shown as distrusting of Brandon in each episode and the “Previously On” pointed out that she is the only girl in her alliance, these are also good places to be in.

1. Mikayla – In the “Previously On” Probst’s “Mikayla is a scoring machine” comment from the first immunity challenge was repeated AND she was given credit for the win when she wasn’t in the original episode. Plus, one thing stands out to me about her story. Arguably it is just about her being Brandon’s target. However, if the point was just to make her a victim, all that would need to be shown is her performing well in challenges and Coach’s (and others) comments about her being strong and valuable. We would get that point. Instead, the editors are going out of their way to humanize her, deepening her character. Once again in the middle of Brandon’s craziness, she was given a confessional. And once again, it fit the theme of her first confessional, talking about handling the dirty work and not being a princess:

"At home I bartend and I also play in a professional woman's football league. It's full tackle. We hit as hard as the guys, so I think I'm a pretty tough chick. I am kind of a tom boy, so if you see me at camp, I'm right in there with the guys doing all the diry work. The hardest part of the game is the social aspect. You gotta have thick skin. You can't be a little princess. I don't see myself as a girly girl. I see myself as a strong solid person and I think that's gonna help me in this game.”

Yes, it is going to help her, as we haven’t forgotten Coach’s confessional about how simple this game is. It’s also not a coincidence that she was compared to Parvati by Brandon. I’m sure some of you will call this a reach, but I’m just trying to perform inception on you here. If Brandon is the accidental anti-Russell, acting like him by accident and failing, isn’t it interesting that he is calling my winner pick Parvati when Russell called a girl Parvati last season and she didn’t win?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Survivor South Pacific E1: Be Prepared (Yes, that's a Lion King reference.)

Welcome back to the number one Survivor story analysis on the internet. It’s been a celebratory off season here in The Midside. Not only did I properly predict the story of Redemption Island (though it took me a little longer to get behind the correct winner), it was a story that I enjoyed immensely. Thus I took the time to relax and reflect on my accomplishments…and my mistakes. I reviewed the film instead of tweeted (ok, I tweeted too) and came to understand why it took me so long to call Rob Mariano as the sole Survivor of S22. I won’t go into the details (it’ll annoy you like a Cochran self-effacing diatribe). I will tell you the results. I’m going to set some ground rules this season. Sticking to them will improve my story analysis and increase your enjoyment.

I will not read fan boards.

I will not read other theories.

I will not listen to podcasts, Rob C’s or otherwise.

I will not listen to Jeff Probst’s commentary, written or otherwise.

Let’s get something straight. I’m not saying there isn’t other value out there. There is, and if I was simply consuming the show, I would consume every drop of it. I have a lot of respect for Rob C, Stephen Fishbach, Jeff Probst, and the like . Probst specifically has a lot of values and ideas I really like. He respects ability. That’s rare. It’s like what Probst said about Cochran—and I need to come clean here I do know this ONE thing he said about this season—he wants to see Cochrane do well because Cochrane’s smarter than him, and would best him in most areas in life (except number of Emmy wins), and thinks if he can get past the first Tribal Council, Cochrane will do well. See, that’s a great philosophy. Probst wants to see good—good defined as able and benevolent—people be successful. Like I said, I have a lot of respect for Rob C, Stephen Fishbach, Jeff Probst, and the like and if I was a pure fan I’d enjoy every minute of their thoughts—except I’m not really a traditional fan this season. In a way, I’m studying the show for its storytelling. And that topic leads me to another intelligent idea of Probst’s that I need to listen to so I can properly understand this season.

Jeff Probst said (I think in his open letter to Sucks) that the difficulty with Survivor is that they essentially have to tell the same story over and over again but differently. With this knowledge it’s easier to understand why the mechanics of Redemption Island and bringing back two former players were brought into the game. Past twists, such as the tribal swap and hidden immunity, were introduced to change the flow of game and thus the story. However, that got stale, so there was only one other element to change—the characters. By introducing the element of multi-time returning players with easily recalled backstories, the very nature of the storytelling has changed.

No longer is this the story of Survivor. This is a story about Survivor. The producers aren’t trying to seduce new viewers into joining their audience anymore. They’re assuming they have their core audience and playing to them. Historical references, both explicit by the players and implicit by the editing, are common place. This is now a show about how to play the game—and that’s exactly what we saw last season. Rob versus Russell was all about what the best way to be the “mastermind” a tribe and alliance. The whole season was littered with open questions about good and bad gameplay that were answered by Rob’s win and the key episode, “This Game Respects Big Moves.”

Like the two Rs, Coach and Ozzy were our entrance into this season and its discussion. Both took advantage of their position to try and lead their tribe but went about it in different ways directing us to the theme of the episode and the season: the importance of being prepared for Survivor. This tone was set in the pre-credit sequence and continued through the remainder of the episode.

To start we were first re-introduced to Coach and Ozzy, who told us their motivations for playing the game. Coach is back for one more shot to win and to prove you can win the game with honor and integrity (btw, Coach, Ethan already did that in Africa). Ozzy needs redemption (he says the episode title) because he just hasn’t been able to grasp the million before. The divergence between the two is interesting. Coach seems to have a solid approach to the game in mind whereas Ozzy just sort of seems to be there. These are our two story threads: being prepared versus going with the flow.

The rest of the pre-sequence introduces some new players and their approaches going into the game. Buried before Brandon and Stacey’s confessionals were two confessionals by players that mirrored their tribe’s future leaders without us even realizing it. Rick of Upolu said our first key quote of the episode “if you didn't train before you got here. If you didn't run and learn how to start a fire, you might as well spit in the wind." In contrast, Elyse of Savaii said she didn’t really know how to survive but hoped her Native American ancestors would help her out. What’s most interesting here is how strong of a quote they showed from Rick. Not being prepared is equivalent to spitting in the wind. That’s a strong statement to include, especially when contrasting it with an appeal to ancestors, and one that will be supported by this episode and likely the season. If you want to win Survivor, you better be prepared to do so.

The post-credit introduction of the returning players to their tribes goes exactly the way it was expected to. Upolu was only shown saying bad things about Coach. Savaii was only shown saying good things about Ozzy. Ozzy won the challenge and was embraced by his tribe. Coach lost and his tribe walked away without him (besides Edna). That was the last time expectations were met in this episode, however, as Coach was very un-Coach like, Ozzy seemed stoned, and some interesting threads were seeded into the narrative.

Upon their returns to camp, the tribes launched into introductions. In a confessional, Ozzy says he wants to play strategically. In contrast, Coach tells his tribe he isn’t a strategic player. Which returnee would you think would do better? I know, except Ozzy doesn’t. Instead, his latest love interest gives us our second key quote of the episode. Semhar is asked to perform some of her spoken word “poetry” and complies. In a confessional she tells us that if you’re put on the spot, you better step up. It’s an especially ironic statement considering the reason she is voted out is that she puts herself on the spot in the immunity challenge and doesn’t step up. This is the downfall of Semhar. This is the downfall of Ozzy and Savaii as he leads his tribe into the water to hang out and sunbath, not prepare to live. This is the story of story of Survivor South Pacific.

In contrast to Ozzy’s approach, Coach and Upolu get to work and fortunes start to change. Coach is no longer the bumbling Dragon Slayer that no one wants around. He is the humble leader that everyone turns to for advice. They actually like him and embrace him as they build their shelter first (a fact that Dawn at Savaii tells Ozzy and us is important as she says that the tribe that doesn’t have their shelter after the first day always loses—see, it’s Survivor history). Coach even gets strategic by pointing out that Christine is target #1 because she is looking for the idol. Ozzy, on the other hand, is failing at strategy. He says Semhar is the kind of person he wants beside him at the end, but his tribe forces him to vote her out unanimously. As she leaves he is forced to admit, “I should have taught her how to make fire.” Roughly translated from editor speak that means, “I acknowledge that I am not a good leader and did not prepare her to play this game. Remember Jim’s pre-credit quote about the importance of learning how to make fire.” This downward spiral was present in the entire episode.

Ozzy’s stock plummets as Jim outmaneuvers him and Papa Bear out gurus him. Jim’s strategy is on point as he is ready with a fake story about his profession. Ozzy tries to talk Dawn down from emotional shock, but doesn’t really say much. Papa Bear though is able to get through to Dawn and Cochran, even being shown to us as the reason that Cochran turns things around at Tribal Council. When Semhar is fighting with Jim, the editors are sure to include a show of Ozzy looking complacent and uninterested. He is truly unprepared to lead this tribe. Before the immunity challenge, his tribe is shown organizing itself, a mistake that leads to their painfully close loss.

Coach’s stock soars as he leads his tribe to immunity. Before the challenge, he decides who will have what role. During the challenge, the editors constantly cut back to him giving some little bit of advice. Earlier at camp he even got strategic, forming an alliance of five and pointing out that first day alliances are always the strongest in Survivor. Will he be right? I don’t know, but he’s clearly prepared, and the fact that Upolu won immunity after the extreme contrast in portrayal in the two camps is important, especially considered with a couple of Coach quotes.

At different points Coach said: "I would like to go and win every immunity...winning immunity, man, that's the best thing to do." and “There's two things people do in the wild. They either die or they thrive." These two statements force the editing down the Upolu is thriving and Savaii is dying path. They also conjure memories of a season of extremely divergent camps: Palau, when Koror thrived and Ulong died. This comparison is extremely interesting in light of Coach’s first comment about winning all the immunities. When Upolu won this initial immunity challenge, it became a comment that had to be taken seriously. Upolu does have that strong five and Savaii was portrayed as divided even though the vote was unanimous.

It is clear to me that the winner comes from the blue tribe. Besides what I have already noted, Upolu has all the storylines. There’s the alliance of 5 with Coach, Brandon, Sophie, Jim, and Albert. Christine is target #1. Brandon’s identity will be discovered and Sophie won’t like it. Mikayla was set up as Delilah (in the Biblical story, Delilah betrayed Samson for money). On Savaii, Cochrane is insecure and loves the game, Jim lied about his profession, and Papa Bear is good at talking to people. Everyone else is invisible. And now that I picked the winning tribe, here are my top five potential winners (complete with two Savaii players to be safe).

5. Jim – He was certainly prepared to play with his story about his profession. However, his edit was up and down. He would have been shown more positively if he had won.

4. Papa Bear – He was the most prepared to play on Savaii. He was self aware, aware of the game situations, and approached people about it confidently and calmly. His edit was extremely positive.

3. Coach – It’s tough to tell if his edit was a winner’s edit or just for the sake of the story. However, his possible winner’s quote is hard to ignore. "This is Coach 3.0 and I'm here to win." We’re clearly not supposed to see him the same way we have in the past, though he may just be an oracle this season.

2. Rick – He is the one who told us how important being prepared was, so he may just be another oracle. Still, his “I spend a lot of time by myself” line is reminiscent of Ethan’s “even though I’m surrounded by people all the time, I still feel so alone” which foreshadowed his win in Africa.

1. Mikayla – Randomly in the middle of Brandon being tempted by her we were given an extraneous scene. It reminded me of Fabio’s winner scene in the first episode of Nicaragua. It could only be in there to set up his victory. Likewise they had already gotten the point across of her being tempting, so the editors didn’t need to include more unless there was a reason. That reason came across in her confessional, "I got right up there and was just getting to it...I don't have patience, I just want to get stuff done. I'm ready to get dirty." She is prepared to play this game. Unlike Ozzy, she started building the shelter right away. And that’s the final piece of symbolism that puts the scene over the top. Reminiscent of Earl standing atop the island in Fiji declaring himself the king, Mikayla was atop the Upolu shelter saying she didn’t come here to be a princess. Sure she’s a lingerie football player, but that doesn’t make her Natalie T. or Ashley or any of the nameless “bevy of bikini babes” on Savaii. No, she came here to win. And she will.