Recap and review of Survivor: Philippines – Episode 9 – Little Miss Perfect
Survivor: Philippines has been a series defined, in some respects, by the changeable nature of the tribal alliances that started the game. Penner is pretty much relying on the schism within Tandang to save himself, attempting to convince two separate tribe members that they are “fulcrum” votes around which the entirety of the game hinges. But for all of Penner’s incisive observations about the personalities at camp, and the resourcefulness of his strategic play, “Little Miss Perfect” is Lisa Welchel’s episode. The former teen star of TV’s The Facts of Life has had a harder time than most adapting to this game, given her motherly disposition, and her own subtle inhibitions from a youth spent in the spotlight, trying to please everyone. Penner tells Lisa, during his attempts to swing her vote, speculates about what shape the narrative of the season will take. He theorizes that the audience will want to root for Lisa, and wonder why she’s playing the game with a tribe, in Tandang, that doesn’t respect her. Penner is right, to a certain extent. Tandang doesn’t seem to respect her very much, or even really value her. He’s also right in observing that she’s likely to be the sympathetic protagonist for the audience. With this narrative in place, you’d think Lisa would follow through on choosing her own game life over an increasingly irrational notion of loyalty. Which is why it’s so confounding that she ultimately drops the ball. As sweet a person as Lisa Welchel is, she’s absolutely right: she’s just not cut out for this game. Worse, I’d argue that, after tonight, she probably doesn’t deserve to be there much longer.
So we open with everyone reeling from the explosive tribal council. Abi is mad about getting a vote, and accuses Skupin of flipping (in an ironic bit of foreshadowing). However, Penner cops to it, saying it was pissed off reaction to not being let in on the tribe’s backup plan. Carter runs goes over the vote count with Penner, who realizes that he essentially messed up by giving Tandang the majority they needed to oust Jeff. That said, he recognizes that, at best, his vote for Pete would only have tied things up. Penner feels he’ll go home if he doesn’t win the next immunity, given the Tandang numbers remaining: he also plans on playing on the division between Lisa and Skupin’s “Christian Game”, and the rest of the tribe’s “Bully Game”. In doing this, he plays on Lisa’s insecurity from her childhood in front of the camera, preying on her need to please, and to be accepted, and reminding her of the viciousness of entertainment executives, the harshness of public perception, and the pressure of being relied upon to pull through as breadwinner at such a young age. Even though there was a clearly benefit to his approaching Lisa in this fashion, I don’t doubt that Penner was being sincere with her. He can identify, having starred in three TV series of his own, and having guest-starred as an actor on everything from Seinfeld to CSI:NY. Hell, the man was nominated for an Oscar (for Best Animated Short, but still), for crying out loud! As he explains to Lisa, regarding how he knows so much about what it’s like in front of the camera, “This is my business.”
Yet Survivor isn’t really Lisa’s business, as it turns out. Though she’s immensely likable, she doesn’t really have very much guile in how she strategizes. She’s the kind of person who is very up front about whatever plans she’s making, as evidenced by her outburst at last week’s tribal council. Here, she’s sticking to the central thesis of last week’s rant, which is that Tandang needs to remain loyal. This becomes a bit of a problem after the immunity challenge, a ball-balancing challenge which Skupin wins easily, when Abi-Maria calls Lisa’s loyalty into question. With this, Lisa begins wondering why she’s sticking with a tribe that doesn’t trust her. Lisa recognizes that she’s giving her loyalty to a group of people who have no loyalty to her, and it would perhaps behoove her to take a different route to that final tribal council.
Which is why the end result of tribal council is so singularly galling. While Penner is slick, in his own right, in how he presented his argument to stay, attempting to rope both Lisa and Skupin, the presumptive outsiders of the Tandang alliance, into his newly-formed coalition, much of the credit for this episode belongs with Malcolm and Denise. While on a team-based reward, delivering toys and school supplies to village children and partaking in a large feast, Denise and Malcolm consolidate their influence against the Tandang alliance, with Carter and Penner in on the plot. Back at camp after the challenge, it’s Denise and Malcolm who get the ball rolling against Artis, suggesting they dump a member from the Tandang alliance whom they can’t turn to their advantage, but who Abi won’t use her idol to save. Denise is a stealth MVP for this episode, and possibly for the series so far, and it’s a strange contrast in how Kalabaw imploded, Tandang seems headed that way, and yet Malcolm and Denise, the two remaining stragglers of the Matsing tribe, are as strong in their bond as ever. At tribal council, we get another explosive session, with Lisa calling out Tandang, and Abi, in particular, for their aforementioned lack of “grace”. Lisa states that she’s received more grace and respect from her prospective opponents than from the tribemates in her own alliance (Skupin excluded, it would seem, as the editing for much of the episode attempts to depict he and Lisa as a strategic pair, with Lisa calling the shots. Again, ironic foreshadowing). She feels her loyalty isn’t being rewarded, and when Probst asks Abi what she thinks about what Lisa has said, she (unsurprisingly, because Abi is a petty moron) doubts Lisa’s loyalty, pretty much making Lisa’s mind up for her.
Artis ends up going home, five votes to four, but it isn’t until the exit interview (featuring the parting words of a very mature, gracious Artis, which is a far cry from how he’s been edited) that we see how everyone voted. As it turns out, Lisa didn’t flip at all! It was SKUPIN who cast the deciding vote against Artis. I’m really interested to see how this plays out next week, because I’m continuing to fail to see Lisa’s rationale in sticking with Pete and Abi. I can only surmise that she feels she has a better shot of beating those two in front of the jury. But Abi’s volatility and Pete’s occasional tendency to overplay his hand could mean that the alliance implodes before Lisa has the chance to ever get that far. Skupin must have realized this, since it marks the first significant shift in the game’s tribal dynamics. Tandang, presumably, no longer has the numbers now, if Skupin has flipped. This means the game is up for grabs, and that’s a truly exciting prospect. Yet as exciting a prospect as that could prove to be, it’s kind of disappointing to have to declare that Lisa’s blind loyalty to an alliance that is openly suspicious of her despite any evidence of wrongdoing on her part, makes me feel she just doesn’t deserve to win this game. If she does, it will only be because a better player was dumb enough to take her to the end (and hey, some would argue that Lisa would still deserve it for presenting an innocuous front that made her seem like she wasn’t a threat to win when, really, she’s likely the biggest threat of all if she got in front of a jury).
But no matter what I might say about Lisa, she deserves to win far more than Abi-Maria, so count me among Lisa’s fans as a person, at least. “Little Miss Perfect” is an exceptional episode, even if it doesn’t rise to the bombast of last week’s stellar hour. This really is the best season of Survivor in years, and the variety in personalities and play styles is one of the chief reasons why the game, right now, is so compelling.