“Down and Dirty” is one of the meatiest episode of Survivor: Philippines this season, even if there’s not a whole lot of scheming going on. The episode is a study in contrasting styles of play, with the muscle of a Malcolm-led Tandang charge clashing with the cerebral plotting of Penner, who leverages a deal that proves to be a Survivor first. It’s this deal that informs the narrative of the episode, because although both tribes benefit in several respects, neither tribe is particularly happy with the deal. The negotiation of the deal is one of the more interesting moments in recent Survivor history, as people in both tribes recognize the questionable nature of the deal, but no one has the stones to speak up about it, and so a deal that’s mutually detrimental in the long-term is solidified on the silence of uneasy tribe members, and the thrill of the short-term benefit. This culminates in an unexpectedly explosive, tense tribal council that makes “Down and Dirty” one of the season’s best.
Let’s get to the deal in question. The reward challenge is a toilsome bit of business, in which the tribes fight in a muddy field, struggling to push a giant wooden sphere through their opponents’ goal. It’s a war of attrition, with neither team giving an inch, even with Penner getting an arm between Skupin’s legs in what Probst deems an “intimate” strategy. An hour passes, with neither team having scored even once, much less the three times required to win. And so Penner and Skupin negotiate a deal. Penner will give Tandang all of Kalabaw’s rice in exchange for Tandang forfeiting the challenge, which features a picnic reward. It’s Artis’ birthday, and so tribemates on both sides ask for his opinion. Later in the episode, when talking with RC, Skupin describes Artis as a teenage girl, prone to running his mouth and talking behind others’ backs, but refusing to ever confront the object of his ire. That turns out to be the case here, as Artis dances around the issue of speaking out against the deal, yet ultimately gives his endorsement anyway. Artis is a study in hypocrisy, starting off the episode complaining about Skupin eating their tribe out of house and home, and then complaining relentlessly when Skupin makes a deal to secure the tribe a new source of food. He’s nearly as infuriating this week as Abi-Maria is every other week, which makes me think those two might actually be the perfect pair to take to the end, since I can’t imagine anyone in their sober minds voting to give them a million dollars.
Yet there are people in the Kalabaw tribe who seem to recognize the Penner-serving nature of the deal. By giving away their only sure source of food, Penner has made a pretty intelligent play that will ensure his tribe keeps him around, since he’s Kalabaw’s main provider. Carter and Kent don’t seem too keen on the idea of their sustenance depending entirely upon Jonathan’s skills as a fisher, which nets only small fish (though Penner touts that they’re packed with protein). Thankfully, Penner is relying upon his tribe’s short-term motivations, namely the sandwiches, soup, brownies, and other goodies on the picnic provided by their reward-by-forfeit. But food isn’t the only reward on the table, as Kalabaw receives letters from home, a development that’s equal parts random and troubling. I say “random” because it’s only day 13, and it doesn’t really resonate at this early stage of the game (on that note, have they ever given family letters pre-merge before?). I say “troubling” because I wonder if Tandang would have been as quick to forfeit if they’d known family letters were at stake, in addition to food. I can’t imagine it would have changed much, since no one was budging in that challenge, but it’s rare for Probst to leave out an important element of the reward like that. Either way, the effect of the letters was dismissed pretty quickly within the narrative of the episode, so ultimately, it wasn’t that big a deal one way or the other.
The immunity challenge was considerably more manageable after the reward challenge debacle. Here, one tribe member launches a ball from a sling, while members of their tribe try to catch the ball in a handheld net, with the opposing tribe trying to prevent the other tribe from scoring, while also trying to score themselves. Kalabaw takes an early lead, but Tandang comes out on top after Malcolm goes on an unstoppable tear, which bodes well for his individual challenge prospects if he makes it to the merge.
Either way, it’s looking like Tandang is going to head into the merge with a considerable numbers advantage, given how poorly things have been going for Kalabaw. Katie is cutthroat in her desire to get rid of Penner, particularly after she happens in on a conversation between Penner, Carter, and Kent, in which Penner immediately transitions out of their discussion (about voting out Katie) into a contrived assurance that Denise is going home. Katie, she of the supernaturally white teeth, rouged cheeks, and puzzlingly luscious eyelashes, is now caught in the middle of Kent and Carter’s deliberations between getting rid of a woman who doesn’t contribute much to the tribe, versus dumping a returning castaway who will stop at nothing to advance his own interests.
This leads to a surprisingly tense tribal council, in which Penner essentially argues why getting rid of him might be a good idea for the tribe, adding that while he’d respect the thought process behind the decision and not take it personally, he’ll do anything to “make this work” if he survives the vote. This leads to a well-edited vote, in which it appears that Kent and Carter are hoping Penner doesn’t play the idol, a hope that bears out when Penner doesn’t. When the first vote comes back as “Penner,” and he realizes with mock surprise that he could be going home, it seems like that’s all she wrote for the blue-eyed schemer. But it was an artful bit of editing misdirection, as, with the exception of Katie’s vote for Penner, the vote is unanimous to send Katie packing. Penner retains his idol and lives to fight another day.
“Down and Dirty” is compelling television that does a better job in fleshing out some of the personalities that have been ignored in the early stages of the season, such as Carter and Artis, while adding layers to the players we already know (who knew Katie was so serious? Or Kent so game-savvy?). Episodes like these bode well for the merge portion of the game, which shouldn’t be much longer in coming.
For Katie’s thoughts on her time on Survivor the day after her elimination, check out the video below: