Coming off an episode last week that was entirely centered on relationships, strategy, and all the elements we love about classic Survivor, tonight’s episode was an unpleasant reminder of this season’s biggest flaw. It had been a decent run since the controversial merge twist, but Episode 11 of Survivor 41 featured yet another instance of Jeff Probst and company shaking the game board for no apparent reason, with a twist that I’m desperately hoping never comes back again.
But before we get there, let’s check in with where everyone stands in the aftermath of Shan’s elimination. As the episode begins, Liana is naturally feeling betrayed by Danny and Deshawn, who failed to disclose to her the plan to blindside Shan. Deshawn is also displeased with Shan’s parting words for the group, in which she said he was a snake and that Ricard had her vote for the $1 million. Deshawn complains to the group about being singled out, when in reality, Ricard came up with the plan, and he was supposed to be her most trusted ally. Deshawn is probably right to feel upset, but his persistent complaining to others is not the right approach in voicing those complaints.
Meanwhile, Xander is on cloud nine after finally being included in a plan and helping to execute a blindside. He’s astonished to even be in a successful alliance at this point, which is fair considering all his allies had been eliminated previously and he also STILL HAS AN IDOL, which is brought up a few times this episode but never leads to any plans against him, somehow. Alas, our vers king now feels that he has gone from the bottom to the top, thanks to his new alliance with Erika, Heather, and Ricard.
After a good night’s sleep, Ricard has a conversation with Deshawn about the latter’s behavior, essentially telling him he needs to chill out. Deshawn recognizes that he did not conduct himself the way he had intended, which is to say he was hoping to plant more of a target on Ricard but now it’s got people looking at him, Deshawn. Deshawn continues his apology tour with Liana, telling her he has no intention of ever writing her name down. Liana still feels betrayed by him and is hoping to avenge Shan by getting him out, regardless of his promises.
Before the Immunity Challenge, we get a segment devoted entirely to Danny, who reveals that today is the 25th anniversary of his father’s death. He died in a car accident, an incident that left Danny angry at his father when he was younger. He explains that this Survivor experience, in which he has been able to sit still and be with his thoughts, has helped get rid of the shame he’s held onto for so many years. Much like other personal segments this season, there is an undeniable power in watching Danny process his emotions and contextualize how he became the man he is today. If there’s one positive of this new era, it is this focus on personal stories as late into the game as this, when they would typically be reserved for the first few episodes only.
But now it’s time for an abrupt change in tone, which will not be the last such instance in this episode. We’ve come to learn that whenever Jeff is breaking the fourth wall and explaining a new twist, it’s probably not going to be good. After teasing us about the new “do or die” twist, he brings in the contestants and drops the news on them. At this challenge, the first person eliminated will be forced to play a game of chance at Tribal Council where if they win, they become immune, but if they lose, they are automatically sent to the jury, without a proper vote out. Luckily, the players are given the choice of either participating in the Immunity Challenge or opting out, but also… what are we doing? Why is this being introduced at the final seven? Why would a random game of chance be satisfying to the audience at this stage of the game?
Alas, this is the return of “the monster,” as teased in the preseason, in which players are forced to adapt to the whims of Jeff Probst and the producers, who are collectively the monster. The players are naturally shocked by this twist, but at this point, they seem pretty used to having to deal with this nonsense so there isn’t much complaining about it. Heather and Liana opt for safety and elect not to play in the challenge, which means either Danny, Deshawn, Erika, Ricard, or Xander will be forced to play this twisted game at Tribal Council.
The challenge involves balancing a ball on wooden cylinders pressed together, with the last person standing winning Immunity. A mere three seconds in, Deshawn drops his ball and his fate is decided. This is probably not what the producers wanted, considering how big of a character Deshawn has been all season, but I do get some slight satisfaction at the possibility of this twist blowing up in the producers’ faces. Eventually, Deshawn’s biggest ally, Danny, wins Immunity, his first of the season. While he’s happy, there’s also a very likely scenario in which his biggest ally is sent home out of sheer randomness, so it’s bittersweet.
Back at camp, Deshawn is at peace with his situation, or at least that’s what he’s telling other people. As he argues, at least if he goes out in this twist, they won’t be able to say they got him out. He talks with Danny and they agree that Ricard must be the next target, especially now that he doesn’t have Immunity. But with seven people left, they need more than just the two of them to take out Ricard, so Danny approaches Xander with the plan. Xander is receptive but secretly wishes to continue onward with Ricard as a shield so the target stays on him and not Xander. He throws out Liana as a possible backup target, but Danny dismisses her as a non-threat.
Xander has a chat with Erika, who is okay with the plan to take out Liana instead but is a little more worried about Ricard at the moment. Much like Danny, Erika fears that if Ricard gets far enough, he might just win it all, so it might be better to take the shot now. Xander warns Ricard about Danny and Deshawn’s plan to take him out, but also adds in an interesting comment about his slight mistrust in Erika. There is still this lingering feeling about Erika being untrustworthy, without a whole lot of evidence to back it up. Something worth keeping in mind as we head into the endgame. We get one last confessional where Erika talks about being the swing vote. She will be casting the deciding vote between Liana and Ricard, which will have consequences for these final stages. Not gonna lie, I’m starting to become an Erika truther; much like her fellow tribemates, I’ve got my eye on her as a potential underdog winner we didn’t see coming. Or maybe I just want a female winner and I’m grasping at straws. Anyway!
It’s time for Tribal Council, where there is much discussion of this new twisty era of Survivor. It seems that this group has reached the acceptance stage, with Xander telling Jeff that he likes how much this season is high risk-high reward. Jeff is naturally pleased with this, saying you have to experience the anger to feel the joy, which I’m pretty sure was already the case for the first 40 seasons, it’s just that the anger is now fully a result of the producers, not each other. There’s also a passing mention that this will be the last Tribal Council where players can use their shot in the dark, but, spoiler alert, no one uses it. Kind of a flop twist this season but I could see it coming into play in the future.
The discussion moves to a much more interesting place from here, with Deshawn still struggling with his decision to take out Shan, and thereby turn on the Black alliance. He explains how he wanted to represent the Black community as well as possible by sticking together, which is why it hurt so much to write Shan’s name down. He breaks down in tears while admitting this was the toughest thing he’s ever had to do. The rawness continues as Liana delivers a powerful message about the circumstances of this season having 50% POC, coming off a year of reckoning with Black Lives Matter. She astutely states that some viewers might not be happy with discussions of race, especially on a show like Survivor, but it is simply a reflection of the world we live in. She notes how important it is to show that Blackness is not a monolith, that she, Danny, Deshawn, and Shan have their differences, but they also have this shared experience and the weight of responsibility on their shoulders. We also get some comments from Xander and Heather, who both acknowledge their privilege as white people to not be burdened with that responsibility. Danny calls on the cast to be allies and a united front for the cause.
It’s true that some viewers will be turned off by this discussion, but I find it exceedingly refreshing considering Survivor’s own problems with their depiction of Black contestants in the past. Jeff doesn’t openly acknowledge those past issues here, but to see this cast having an open forum about Blackness, privilege, and how it intersects with the game is a step in the right direction for this new era of the show.
But now it’s time for an abrupt shift as Deshawn’s fate in the game is about to be decided by a game of chance. The depth of the previous discussion somehow makes this twist feel worse, but here we go. Jeff presents Deshawn with three boxes — if he opens the box with a fire symbol inside, he is safe. If there is a skull inside the box, he “dies” and is eliminated from the game. The trick is, only one of the boxes has a fire symbol, so he has a 66% chance of being eliminated on the spot. Something compels him to choose one of the boxes, and Jeff proceeds to reveal the inside of one of the other boxes, which has a skull in it. Then, Jeff asks Deshawn if he wishes to switch his chosen box to the other one, as if this were an episode of Deal or No Deal. He sticks with his original box, and everyone is on pins and needles.
Jeff opens up Deshawn’s box and… it’s fire! Deshawn is safe! If I were in Deshawn’s shoes I would have passed out right then and there. A very lucky moment for Deshawn and even more so for the producers, who would probably be dealing with even more complaints right now if he chose wrong. Thankfully, this is all over with and we can proceed as planned with the vote. As expected, it comes down to Liana and Ricard, and by a vote of 5-3, Liana is voted out of the game, becoming the fifth member of the jury. Curiously, Xander used his extra vote here, perhaps as a safeguard in case Erika decided to flip, but as revealed here, she did not.
After an up and down night, we now have our final six. Thankfully, we didn’t have the catastrophe of Deshawn going out by random chance and we can pray for no more twists of this nature for the final three episodes. The merits of the do or die twist will likely be a hot topic of discourse from this episode, but hopefully, it won’t be overshadowed by the frank dialogue at Tribal Council, which was 20 years in the making.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment