Survivor: Philippines has been pretty damn good so far, but it hasn’t really felt like the season has properly begun, due to the overwhelming focus on the turmoil of the the Matsing tribe. “Got My Swag Back” inaugurates the beginning of the game proper, as Matsing is no more, and three tribes become two, with the focus shifting to how well Malcolm and Denise can integrate into their new tribes. What we get is an episode that’s as much about fitting in as it is about pulling your weight, to say nothing of the limits of human endurance, via the unfortunate addition to the list of medically evacuated contestants over the course of 25 seasons. We lose not one, but two castaways this week, both members of the burgeoning all-female alliance of last week.
Before Denise and Malcolm can be separated into separate tribes, they spend their last day at the old Matsing camp searching for the hidden immunity idol. The camera work borders on the comical, with the cameraman zooming in on the idol, the symbol on top of the lid of the rice bucket, while Malcolm and Denise pass right over it numerous times. It’s the kind of sarcastic little wink-and-nod sequences that Survivor doesn’t do nearly enough anymore, and it’s made less embarrassing for Denise and Malcolm when all their searching pays off. Malcolm finds the idol and strategizes with Denise on the possibilities now open to them, as they have no other safety net but each other…and the power the idol gives them.
At the reward challenge, Malcolm pulls a Tandang buff while Denise is assigned to Kalabaw in the draw. The challenge immediately jumps to the front of the line as one of my favorite new challenges (assuming they haven’t actually done this before. It’s hard to keep track of every challenge over 25 seasons, beyond your basic plate-breaking, puzzle, trivia, or obstacle course challenges). The challenge is a bit like combat, as the tribes square off in one-on-one heats, dueling to knock an idol off their opponent’s plate, which they’re holding aloft in one hand, leaving one free hand for defense. First person to knock their opponent’s idol to the ground scores a point for their tribe. Abi-Maria scores a point, but gets her hair pulled by Dawson in the process, leading Abi to tell her not to “play like a bitch.” Abi has a point, but she’s insufferable in every point she makes, and I can’t shake the suspicion that she’s crazier than a sack of rabid weasels. The deeper she gets into this game, the higher the likelihood she’s going to get burned, and when that happens, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the meltdown. Of course, that’s hardly the highlight of the challenge. That honor belongs to Mike Skupin, who pulls a madman’s gambit and tosses his idol into the air, rushes at Penner, and knocks his to the ground before his own idol can touch the ground. It’s the kind of badass ingenuity that could get Skupin deep into the game in the individual portion, but could mark him as a threat if he doesn’t go on a massive challenge run.
Ultimately, it’s Malcolm who brings home the win for Tandang, scoring the tribe a batch of muffins and other sweets. Back at camp, Malcolm is the belle of the ball, with everyone trying to win him over. Unfortunately for RC, she never really gets a moment alone to try and flirt with him, which only illustrates further the extent of her reversal with Lisa, as now Lisa is in with the cool kids, and RC has to go off swimming alone, wondering why nobody likes her. She reveals in a confessional that she was bullied in school (because apparently that’s everybody’s back story now), but she shows admirable resolve in not throwing herself a pity party. RC basically admits that in a game of Survivor, there’s no one you can really run to for safety. You have to create your own safety. Her resolve is one of several reasons I like her (the others mostly revolving around her aptitude for the game, even if factors aren’t really working to her favor right now). Meanwhile, Pete, the man holding all the cards at Tandang, wants Malcolm with his group. To secure Malcolm’s trust, Pete immediately reveals that he and Abi have the hidden immunity idol, leading to Malcolm implying he’s in with Pete.
Of course, Malcolm’s allegiance is more tentative than he’s leading on, as he confesses to the camera that he’s weighing his options, especially since nobody knows he has a hidden immunity idol himself. Pete doesn’t seem to be as leery of Malcolm as he probably should be, particularly for someone as keen on all other aspects of the game as Pete has shown himself to be. At this point, Pete is simply glad he can finally get rid of Skupin without having to worry about what blindsiding him would do to their overall tribe strength. It’s one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make in the game: letting personal animosity affect your game decisions. If Pete wants Skupin gone for strategic reasons, he hasn’t let on. Instead, he simply wants Skupin gone because he doesn’t like him, and has found him “annoying” since day one. If you want to get rid of a guy because he’s a threat, then get rid of the guy because he’s a threat. But if you’re doing it because you just don’t like him, at least weigh your options to see if that’s really the best course of action to take. Short-sightedness sinks ships every bit as much as the ol’ loose lips.
And sickness too, I guess, since sickness sank the ship of our first (and hopefully, last) medical evacuee of the season, in Dana. Once Dana started to become sick, overwhelmed by the cold and a knife-like pain in her abdomen, the writing was on the wall for her. The only surprise is that the medical team finds that her illness isn’t life-threatening (I can’t think of many times in Survivor history where the med team is brought in, and it doesn’t result in their recommending the evacuation of the contestant). Since her life isn’t at stake, the decision is up to Dana as to whether she wants to gut it out or call it a game. She opts for the latter, telling her tribe that it’s too much for her. The scene is actually very moving, in that Penner knows better than anyone how heartbreaking it is to have to give up the game due to medical emergency. The entire tribe is very comforting and understanding, even though her evacuation screws their numbers equity with Tandang. If anyone in Kalabaw is outwardly frustrated at losing Dana, it’s Katie, who frets over having just lost her best ally in the game. It’s easy to forget about Katie, given the minuscule amount of screentime she’s had over these five episodes (Carter is similarly a ghost), but if nothing else, you’ll remember Katie for her blindingly white teeth. I have absolutely no idea how those teeth are even possible in this environment, and their incandescence borders on the extra-terrestrial.
All this leads to the big immunity challenge where Kalabaw enters at a one man disadvantage, leading Abi to sit out the challenge. Probst remarks on how infrequently Abi competes. It turns out that in the two weeks they’ve been out there, Abi has only competed in two challenges, which is argument enough for why they needed to get back to doing two challenges per episode instead of having the combination immunity/reward challenges, since now Abi can’t sit out on back-to-back challenges like she’d been doing. The challenge, a group obstacle course with a puzzle component at the end, continues the streak of exhilarating challenges, as this proves to be one of the more exciting back-and-forths this season. Katie costs Kalabaw serious ground on the obstacle course portion, having way too hard a time climbing out of a muddy pit, even with assistance. While Kalabaw eventually regains that ground, those precious seconds lost prove to be the difference, as Tandang finishes the puzzle mere microseconds before Kalabaw. Penner takes the loss like someone just kicked him in the daddy bags, and I can’t say that I blame him, although Dawson takes a share of the blame for the loss, since Penner thought she wasn’t as helpful in the puzzle as she could have been, and occasionally got in the way.
And so it comes down to Katie or Dawson: the girl who cost them the challenge vs. the girl who’s perpetually useless around camp. Jeff debates getting rid of Dawson because she’s the only one on Kalabaw who knows he’s a National League MVP, and while this deliberation seems like a red herring so as not to make it so obvious that Kaite is going home, it turns out to be foreshadowing. Dawson gets four votes to Denise’s one (Katie doesn’t even factor into the equation, surprisingly), and Dawson gets her torch snuffed – but not before embracing Probst and giving him a kiss on the cheek. I found it admirable that Dawson didn’t snap and blow up Jeff Kent’s spot, revealing his true profession on her way out. She reveals in her amusing exit interview that, should Jeff win, he’ll owe her a ton of money. She then proceeds to list off all the things she wants from Jeff if he should win the million. Oh, Dawson, I sort of wish we could have seen more of you.
The game is in full swing now, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know some of the people on the fringe of the narrative thus far in the season, as I imagine people like Carter, Katie, and Artis will factor more into the proceedings of the game than the edit leads on. “Got My Swag Back” is boilerplate Survivor, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The game is only just getting started.