Everything from the viewing audience at home to society at large becomes part of one of the longest and most emotional Tribal Council experiences ever aired.
There are so many layers to peel back in this latest episode of “Survivor,” it can be hard to know where to begin — because starting at the beginning definitely isn’t where it’s at.
Things took a hard turn during the second Tribal Council of a surprise double-elimination episode for the castaways, and it became something so much bigger than just the game. It also showed why some conversations are still so hard to have, how easy it is to have misconceptions, and a surprising awareness and likely accurate assessment of the viewers at home.
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Like we said, this became so much bigger than this moment in this game in a way that was unprecedented. So it’s no wonder it led to a moment unlike anything seen before on “Survivor.”
We had a feeling we were heading into something pretty significant when it felt like we were barely halfway through the episode and yet we were barreling toward the second of two eliminations on the night. And yet, we had no idea.
With a caveat that we may not be as graceful in our own discussion of this discussion, it is nevertheless important to attempt to delve into it, because of all of those different layers and strong feelings that went into it. But first, we do need to lay some background.
As part of the double-elimination twist, the remaining 10 players were split into two teams of 5 for the Immunity Challenge. They were then separated from one another until they would go as teams into Tribal Council, with each group of five eliminating one player.
The added bonus for the ultimate winner of the challenge, aside from some kabobs, was that they could go to Tribal Council second, affording them an opportunity to see who was eliminated in the first group of five.
Once again, competition beast Jonathan proved a dominating force, winning not only his first individual immunity, but also outlasting everyone to give his team that meal and the advantage of going second to Tribal Council. Apparently he performs better when it’s for the team!
The first group of five included Omar, Romeo, Rocksroy, Mike, and Hai. Going into their sequester, it was expected by both groups that Romeo — clearly on the outs socially — would be the one to go. But that all changed.
Rocksroy started trying to talk about an all-guys alliance, and Omar decided that he maybe wasn’t as malleable and moldable as the other Castaways, making him a liability. And so, it was Rocksroy who was the latest confident player blindsided.
When the second group came in, they saw the first two members of the Jury, Chanelle and now Rocksroy. That visual informed everything that came after.
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Is It Racist?
While everyone in the second Group of five; which included Jonathan, Drea, Tori, Lindsay, and Maryanne; was stunned to see Rocksroy sitting next to Chanelle on the Jury, it hit Drea differently, and in a way she couldn’t even articulate for a while.
That’s because she didn’t know the whole story of why Rocksroy was the one voted out. At the same time, she couldn’t deny the fact that as soon as “Survivor 42” hit the merge, the first two players voted out were Black, and she knew for a fact her group of five was targeting her.
That would make her three for three, and leave Maryanne as the sole Black player left in the game, when there had been four of them just a few days ago. Is that racist? It’s certainly not as simple as that, but it’s also not as simple as saying there’s not some element of that at play.
But that’s where the conversation gets so hard to even have. “It always happens at some point, the Black contestants get booted out boom, boom, boom, and then it’s exactly what this is right now,” Drea told Jeff Probst, acknowledging, “So yeah, I’m pissed.”
When he asked her if she thought racism was at play, she responded, “I think it’s just subconsciously a little bit of that, unfortunately.” And so, she publicly declared her intention to play her Immunity Idol so that she wouldn’t be the third Black person voted out in a row.
“I’m not gonna let that happen to another one of us — point-blank,” she said. “It’s a reset for me. This is a game-changer.”
Maryanne had been among those ready to target Drea, who is advantage heavy in the game, but in this moment, realized she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
She told Tori, the other likeliest target (who won the previous two Immunity Challenges), as much, saying, “I walked into Tribal and I saw two Black people. I cannot write her name down.”
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Microcosm of Society at Large
One of the most fascinating aspects of “Survivor” is that it’s always been bigger than the game. It’s always exposed our weaknesses, our prejudices, and our narrow-minded thinking as a whole in a microcosm.
Older women have notoriously been targeted early in the game more than older men. Women in general have been targeted more than men. And in the early days, when casting was far more predominantly white, there always seemed to be a reason to target people of color.
Is it overt racism, or overt sexism? Almost never (we have to say almost because there have been some awful individuals who’ve made it to the island), but that doesn’t mean implicit bias isn’t a factor — I don’t relate to that person as much as this person who looks more like me.
And so, Maryanne said she couldn’t send the third Black person out in a row. “Survivor’s not just about strategy; it’s not,” she said. “Survivor is also about bringing the social world, big, into a small thing. If I write Drea’s name right now, that means that I’m part of a perpetuating problem.”
And that’s where it can get hard for some viewers, who believe that all of those things should be checked at the door and the game should be played without any of the baggage of the outside world. But how is that possible when we all carry our baggage with us wherever we go — including onto a remote island to play a game on a reality show.
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I'm Not Racist
The most common response from even-minded people when confronted with talk of racism is to feel an urge to defend themselves and emphasize that they’re not racist. It’s a human response, but not necessarily a valid one in all situations.
That’s why what played out with Jonathan, the only man in his tribe of five who earlier was acting a little chauvinistic in the same kind of implicit bias unintentional way, was just as important to see as the stand Drea and Maryanne found themselves compelled to take.
Jonathan felt a little affronted and offended, suggesting that Drea and Maryanne were saying that the tribe, and by extension he was racist. “It has nothing to do with race,” he said of their strategic decision to target Drea.
And then, because of the passion Drea had in expressing her feelings, he had another poor take, which is rich with implicit bias. “Don’t make it out like I’m being aggressive,” Drea told him, after insisting that no one was calling him or anyone else in the game racist.
“You are being aggressive,” he replied, feeding into the stereotype that any Black woman who speaks out is in danger of becoming the “angry Black woman” trope.
Maryanne then explained to Jonathan about subconscious biases, but he further took that to mean she was calling him subconsciously racist, “and that’s not true.” It so much more nuanced and complicated than that.
And by making it about defending himself from accusations that didn’t exist, Jonathan was also taking away from their experience in the moment and making it about himself, even if untintentionally.
“Just because I’m saying how I feel at this moment does not mean that you can make that your problem,” Drea told him gently. “This is my situation, my issue. I’m addressing it the way I wanted to address it.”
She also emphasized that she loves and adores Jonathan, but this isn’t about him. It’s about the larger game experience. “This happens all the time, where we speak and then we get shut down as if we’re calling everyone racist, and I’m not,” she said.
The bottom line for the ladies, though, is that they weren’t calling Jonathan or Jeff or anyone else on their tribes racist. They were expressing how they felt seeing two Black people making up the entirety of the Jury, knowing that a third had been intended to join them.
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The Minority Experience
Showing a heightened level of awareness about the scope of the conversation they were having at a Tribal Council on a show watched by millions of people, both Drea and Maryanne immediately perceived how this conversation would be seen by many viewers.
We already saw the frustration by a certain segment of “Big Brother” viewers when The Cookout alliance of six Black players formed and vowed never to vote one another in an effort to assure the first-ever winner of that CBS sister show.
They hated that race was a factor in their decision to align, ignoring that the same problems Drea and Maryanne talked about here regarding minority players plagued that show as well. Race is always a factor.
It’s another layer of day-to-day existence for Black people, and Muslim people and Asian people and really anyone who isn’t white. It’s a part of their lived experience and right now, they’re living on “Survivor.”
Maryanne talked about this when noting that she couldn’t send Drea to the Jury. Is that a smart strategic move for her game long-term? Who knows. But in this moment, she was beyond the game. She was a Black woman looking at two Black people on the Jury. She had to step outside of the game and into that experience.
It’s the same way, she noted, that Omar has had that extra layer on his “Survivor” experience of being the first-ever Muslim player to make the merge. These are disappointing milestones to be reaching 42 seasons in, but it speaks to that extra pressure, or at least awareness that Omar has had to carry into the game and throughout his journey.
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The Race Card
As to that larger awareness of the viewing audience, and those who are probably already lashing out against the “woke” show and complaining again that Jeff dropped the “guys” from his “come on in,” Maryanne took it another step forward, again reaching outside the show.
Even though she was fully safe on the night and had no worries that anyone was targeting her, which was true, she decided in that moment that she had to follow suit with Drea and also play her Idol. Not for any strategic reason, but to assure viewers that the conversation that just played out wasn’t them playing the “race card” to assure they wouldn’t be targeted.
“I don’t think there are any votes that are going to me tonight, but I need to play this so that people who are watching will know that I didn’t make it another day because of race,” she explained to Jeff, pulling out her Idol.
The fact that she immediately realized that this is how some people will perceive the moment is both extremely perceptive, and extremely sad. But it’s also extremely accurate. We were already imagining the backlash when she suddenly addressed it on the screen — it was kind of an amazing moment.
“I, a thousand percent, Jeff, with a thousand percent certainty can tell you that if both of us don’t play our Idols tonight, there will be someone watching and saying they used race,” she told Jeff. “Nothing is off limits in Survivor.”
Within the game, she didn’t need to do it. Outside of the game, she felt she did, even though it could negatively impact her entire game moving forward. Of course, there’s also the fact that you can’t win with some people. If she and Drea survive another Tribal Council, some will call back to this conversation and say that’s why.
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The Public Vote
As a result of the heaviness of the conversation, and the emotions that Drea and Maryanne had displayed in their vulnerability, Lindsay said that it felt weird to even think about going back into normal game mode — so they didn’t.
Yes, the game had to go on, but even Jeff said they could skip the pomp and ceremony of going up and writing a name down. If everyone was fine with it, they could do it live and in public.
There have been public votes before, including not even at Tribal Council, but this one wasn’t because it was unanimously understood who was going home. It was because of an experience they were still living in.
Nevertheless, it was still a little jarring to shift suddenly to Tori trying to plead her case, knowing that her number was up. With Jonathan safe and Drea and Maryanne having both played their Idols, only Lindsay and Tori were even options, and the group had Lindsay’s back.
Tori’s only play was to play her Shot in the Dark, and so she was the only one to go up to the voting booth, putting her entire game in the hands of the “Survivor Gods.” Unfortunately, they did not favor her, and her journey ended.
The bottom line for this episode is that we know it’s going to be polarizing and infuriate a lot of people who don’t want “politics,” as they call it, in their entertainment. They’ll blame this or that, but the reality is that it was already there. These are real people living their real lives — so sometimes, it’s going to get a little real.
“Survivor” airs every Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.
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