Pre-credit sequence. Matt is a broken man. As we begin the episode on Redemption Island, Matt’s praying to various facets of the Trinity making it clear that he’d just as soon go home, but that he’s willing to stick around and fight if it’s God’s will. Matt isn’t sleeping and while he says he’s trying to hold onto his sanity, there’s ample evidence that that particular ship has already sailed. He’s ready to go head-to-head with Marine Mike, when David walks into their little camp. Suddenly, Matt is going through a list of people who wouldn’t quit. That list includes his dad, his brother and, of course, Jesus. “My mind’s completely blown at this point,” Matt admits. Nobody has a clue what to expect from future Duels or from possible positions on the jury. Why won’t God or Jeff Probst explain things to them?!?
Full recap of Wednesday’s (April 20) “Survivor: Redemption Island” after the break…
Phillip vs. Steve, The Set-Up. They’re more sane over at Murlonio, relatively speaking. The remaining Zapateras may be at a disadvantage in numbers, but their spirits are high, as they continue to eat the rotted fish from last week. Steve, ready to quit last week, is now glad he’s still around and perplexed by Phillip. “I can’t imagine somebody always being that strange,” he says. “I’m not sure if Phillip is even a good guy at heart,” Steve says, as Phillip reclines in his chair making refinements to his feathered headband. We’ve got our central conflict in place for this episode.
The Rice Gap, The Set-Up. Phillip is deep in meditation. He’s a practicing Buddhist, apparently. He’s channeling his connection to divine and ancient powers, specifically his ancestors. Phillip’s grandfather has somehow let him know that his relationship with Rob has achieved a full circle of trust, or something that means that Phillip is no longer contemplating making any moves against his leader. It’s all very deep. Phillip is at peace. Oddly, the Zapateras are also at peace. They ended up with excess rice and with the divided tribal provisions, they’re living fairly well in this diminished group. Things aren’t nearly as good for Team Rob, which is down to two seashells of rice apiece at meals. Phillip appoints himself the deputy of the rice and liberates scoops from the Zapatera stocks.
A Host of Cads make a House of Cards. Tree-Mail instructs the full Murlonio clan to pack for Redemption Island to watch the season’s first three-person duel. “I never knew that strangers could hurt me so deeply,” Matt tells his blindsiding buddies. It’s the familiar task in which players have to build a house of cards using stone tiles. In this case, they have 150 tiles to build a tower eight-feet high. The loser will become the first member of the jury. As Probst notes, you don’t have to be first. You just have to not be last. It’s usually been a good task in the past, but in this iteration, it’s somewhat lacking in the tension that comes from a big avalanche of tiles or some similar disaster. Mike gets out to a big lead and reaches the target height first, with Matt close behind. Matt has now survived seven consecutive Duels. David is eliminated, but at least he gets to head off to Ponderosa. Boston Rob is incredulous at the difficulties of toppling Matt. “If it’s His will, I’ll continue to win and try to take Rob out,” Matt says.
From Rice Wars to Race Wars. Uh-oh. Team Rob is getting loopy. First, they sing a lovely “Rice Wars” theme song announcing their intention to devour large quantities of rice. But then, when they go to check on their rice, they discover that nastiness has set in. Their tin is now more maggot than rice. After separating kernels from grubs — they’re just protein, darnit — they determine this is finally the time to nationalize the tribal food supplies. Adorable Andrea is tasked with approaching the Zapateras about pooling resources. Steve’s all “I don’t think so. And I don’t think Ralph would go for it either.” Phillip is disgusted, seeing the worst of human nature. Phillip goes to negotiate with Steve, but The Former Federal Agent’s approach to negotiation is to threaten to hide their tin. Steve announces that Phillip is “a lunatic” and “a dangerous man.” Phillip decides to turn the debate on its ear. “That’s your perception of it. Any time someone of my color gets up in one of your faces, you feel like I’m a lunatic, I’m crazy.” Incredulity spreads around the camp like maggots through rice. “Now you’re making this a black thing?” Steven inquires. Nobody gets into the discussion from either side. “It’s like watching ‘Divorce Court,'” Grant says from a distance. In a more restrained confessional, Phillip tempers his accusations and just says that there were “slight racial undertones.” Phillip then goes into some deep sociology. “I’m like a lot of black men. We’re prepared to self-destruct at any moment. That’s what happens to a lot of black men, they do self-destruct,” Phillip says, noting that he has nothing to lose, since these people wouldn’t vote for him anyway. But back at the fire, Phillip’s returns to the offensive. “That’s what happens with some white folks, they like to take a black man and make him crazy when he makes an argument that you don’t want to hear,” Phillip continues. We continue with swearing, obscene gestures and even the N-word. “It’s not a chip, it’s a log on his shoulder,” Steve says. “What started off as a friendly little song between Grant and me turned into an explosion,” Rob says. He knows that Phillip has made himself into Public Enemy No. 1.
This segment has nothing to do with rice or race. Immunity is back up for grabs. In the challenge, they have to build a multi-stage puzzle wheel. Advantage Rob, right? The first puzzle has to be completed after a lot of spinning and dizziness. Rob finishes first on the initial puzzle, followed by Julie, Ralph, Andrea, Steve and Grant. The second puzzle is more complicated, with Steve and Andrea getting out to an early lead. But in the end, if it’s Puzzle Time, it’s Rob Time. Steve knows that his alliance is about to lose yet another member if he can’t sway two more people to write Phillip’s name down.
Pyrrhic victory. The Zapateras may suck at everything, but they’ve sure got a lot of rice. Julie’s actually complaining about the amount of rice she’s eaten. Team Rob is scraping up miniscule bits of The Crispy. For Julie, this is the time for psychological warfare, as she buries Phillip’s swim trunks away from camp, leaving him with nothing but his not-so-tighty fuchsia undies. Best case scenario, this is the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory. Yes, Phillip is unhappy that his suit is gone, but everybody else still has to check out Phillip’s undergarments and his man-business, which can occasionally be blurred on TV, but certainly isn’t blurred in real life. “I can play that game,” Phillip declares. Ashley is being positioned as the person most likely to bolt the Rob Alliance and vote Phillip out. Phillip crafts himself a “Survivor” buff loincloth and although he looks settled, but his major ally is wavering. “One man should not have this much power on an island. But I’m grateful that I do,” Rob says. The editors haven’t given us any indication of the voting thought process within Rob’s alliance.
Tribal Council. Phillip arrives at Tribal Council in his loincloth, sans shirt, headdress prominent, accusing Steve of stealing his clothes. Ricegate immediately becomes the central topic of conversation, followed by Steve playing the race card by referencing Phillip playing the race card. “Whoa,” is Jeff Probst’s response. Phillip has refined his argument to suggest that whenever Steve calls him “crazy,” he’s calling him The N-Word, somehow even using Richard Pryor to corroborate. Jeff Probst decides that this is his opportunity to win yet another Emmy and tries lecturing Phillip on the difficulties of race relations and the history of The N-Word. “Do you know what it’s like to be a woman?” Phillip responds. “You’re right. You don’t. You don’t know what it’s like to be an African-American.” Phillip says that he knows racism when he sees it, equating calling somebody “crazy” with calling somebody “boy.” Pushed into a corner, Steve decides to play the “I was a scrub on the Los Angeles Raiders” card, saying there’s no line between black and white in his heart. Probst tries fairly hard to lay out both sides as reasonably as possible. I’m sending Jeff Probst to the Middle East next, given the speed with which he has everybody nodding with new understanding. He even gets Julie to confess to stealing the shorts. “If this were therapy, I’d say ‘Very good session,'” Probst says. “This has definitely been a fascinating Tribal Council, because it illustrates how you live together in a society and get along…” Probst adds.
The Vote. Steve writes Phillip’s name down, but urges him to find piece in his heart. Julie votes for Phillip and Ralph votes for “Phile.” [Is there any chance that Ralph’s total illiteracy and inability to spell any name correctly is a joke?] Phillip writes Julie’s name down, which is a bad choice if he ever wants to find his trunks. Probst tallies the votes: Phillip. Phillip. Phillip. Julie. Julie. Julie. Julie. Julie. Rob’s Alliance holds strong. And Phillip’s shorts are gone forever.
Bottom Line, Part I. Boy oh boy. Context is really important, eh? Because if you took the transcript of this episode and just looked at the words that were exchanged, you’d be very hard-pressed to find any fault with anything Phillip said or did. In that case, you wouldn’t know all of the previous examples of Phillip’s craziness. You wouldn’t know the preponderance of evidence Steve was responding to. You wouldn’t know the tensions between these two tribes and the strangeness of their already having separate rice supplies. You wouldn’t know the tone of voice used by either man. I’m inclined to believe that even though Phillip has displayed ample reasons to be categorized as “crazy” and even though I personally wouldn’t have interpreted what Steve said as being racist, it’s not untrue that basic traits of being “opinionated” or “passionate” are treated in different ways when racial difference is involved. So Phillip was right, but he was wrong, but that doesn’t mean he was actually wrong. And, interestingly, there are few visible public situations in which this phenomenon is reenforced more prominently than reality TV which can be, as we so often hear, a social experiment. “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett has been responsible for more than a few casting decisions that reenforced and reaffirmed certain stereotypes about opinionated African-Americans. Mark Burnett likes drama and one of the ways he’s most reliably found to yield good drama is by exploiting and perpetuating racial assumptions. If Burnett had his way, every one of his shows would feature a Phillip or an Omarosa or a NaOnka every season, since he’s discovered that African-Americans with opinions make for tremendous villains. You can almost sense his disappointment when an opinionated minority contestant like Francesca either comes across as rational or is eliminated early. Because the diversity on these shows is spotty — sometimes “Survivor” does a great job with rainbow casting, other times dreadful — those become the most repeated representations of race on one of the post popular shows on television. But “Big Brother” perpetuates the same stereotype. “America’s Next Top Model” thrives on it. And even “American Idol” does it, substituting “diva” for “crazy,” where “diva” becomes a pejorative almost always applied to African-American contestants with opinions. So Mark Burnett perpetuates a phenomenon of media representation and then, in the case of tonight’s episode, gets a provocative episode of television out of the climate he’s stoked. And then, best of all, because Phillip *is* crazy, we can mostly discuss his commentary as the crazy commentary of a crazy man, rather than as a reasonable critique delivered, sadly, by an unreasonable person. That leaves Jeff Probst — as white as they come — to be the Paternalistically Sage, Dimpled, White Wise Man, suddenly making all of the season’s cute little white girls understand Phillip, as if he required a translator. “Survivor: Perpetuating and Solving Racism for 22 Seasons.”
Bottom Line, Part II. Otherwise? yet another business-as-usual episode. Rob’s grasp over his alliance is so strong that they’re willing to sustain ties to Phillip to keep with the game plan. If you think about it, that’s remarkable. And farewell to David, who probably got as good a puzzle-based Duel as he could have hoped for, but couldn’t do anything with it.
What did you think of Wednesday’s episode?
By Daniel Fienberg