And then there were four on “Survivor Palau.”
Already? How did that happen?
Even though we’ve been watching the final four — Tom, Katie, Ian, and Jenn — since February, in many ways, we just met them.
Each week, their alliances have shifted so dramatically that the game has followed no clear path. Although NYC firefighter Tom has dominated in both challenges and game play, he’s far from guaranteed a win on Sunday’s finale.
For the first eight episodes, we watched one tribe decimate the other. Four Ulong members went home before Koror visited tribal council, and then it was just to dispose of Willard, who checked out and turned in his key weeks earlier. After that, three more Ulong members took the walk of shame as the lamest tribe in the history of “Survivor” continued to fall on its face.
This unprecedented slaughter had consequences for viewers. Every time Ulong lost, the episode focused primarily on its members’ politicking. By episode eight, viewers were quite familiar with the Ulong tribe’s inner workings, but by then just Stephenie remained. As a result, we’ve only had the past five episodes to introduce us to the politics inside Koror. That hasn’t been enough time to get a sense of what’s going to happen.
Typically, when tribes merge, we’re only about halfway through the season. This time, when the tribes merged — Stephenie rowed her boat over to Koror — the season was two-thirds over. Thus the past few weeks have been a whirlwind; suddenly, just four people remain, and the season finale is just days away.
Alliances shifting with the wind
During some “Survivor” seasons, the editors have kept key strategizing out of the episodes, which makes for more dramatic — if less informed — tribal council viewing. While it’s frustrating to watch concealed strategies play out without any hint of what’s to come, it’s tough to keep track of the endless strategizing and socializing without a flow chart.
These past few episodes, transparency has been the name of the game for the editors, who’ve shown us a lot of the tribe’s inner machinations. And alliances have moved around like pairs of shoes banging around inside a dryer. Last week, Tom, Ian, and Caryn banded together to boot off Gregg, a former ally of Tom and Ian, betraying a friend to advance in the game. That must have been a difficult move, but it was smart play: Gregg was strong and a tough competitor.
This week, Katie’s friendship with Ian seemed to be at the center of yet another shift. When Ian won the reward challenge — a red convertible Corvette and a night away from camp at a hote l— he decided to take Tom with him. This was baffling, since Ian and Katie had previously promised to share any rewards. And Tom and Ian had earlier agreed to not take one another, thereby preventing the women from being alone.
The only explanation for Ian’s behavior — other than that the dolphin trainer flipped out after spending so much time with humans on land — was that Ian wanted the women to get together, form an alliance, and vote out Tom. He’d indirectly be disposing of his toughest competition before the game reached its final three days.
Thus the women gathered together and appeared to be ready to send one of the men on their way to the jury. But with yet another power play afoot, everyone started fighting for their lives. And then, at tribal council, Caryn hurled a metaphoric tank of propane into the fire, and the resulting explosion threatened to change the game.
She revealed everything she knew about other players’ strategies (and maybe even some things that she’d completely made up). She said she was putting everything on the table so the jury could be informed, but her strategy also seemed designed to sway the women into sticking with an alliance, showing them that the Tom and Ian weren’t trusted allies.
Caryn’s strategy didn’t work, and she became the fifth member of the jury. What happened, though, shows what a complicated game “Survivor” can be, and how particularly complicated “Survivor Palau” is, even going into its final days.
There are two basic components that affect the way people play “Survivor”: strategy and humanity. Their humanity — their connection to one another — is what makes the game interesting.
Few people are able to strategize and play “Survivor” as if it were a chess board with cold, plastic pawns.
Their relationships affect their ability to play intelligently, and to make decisions that are in their best interest. How many times have castaways followed at the heels of a power-wielding player (Boston Rob, Richard Hatch, even Tom this season), even though they could have banded together and taken that person out?
Katie’s attachment to Ian may have led her to vote against Caryn, but she seems to be keeping the upper hand in their relationship. She may have been acting when she cried about Ian’s betrayal, but that doesn’t really matter; what matters is that she and Ian are tight. She’s come from almost nowhere to prove that she’s a stronger player than we imagined.
Ian, too, is full of surprises, strategizing and then sliding his skinny frame out of the fray as soon as things get messy. Tom’s willingness to strong-arm Caryn when it was necessary shows that, when pushed up against a wall, even he will come out swinging, and that could hurt his nearly flawless reputation. And just by being involved but staying on the periphery, Jenn could let the others self-destruct, walking in at the last minute to claim the $1 million.
As Tribal Council concluded, Jeff Probst, frequent master of the obvious, said, “I can’t wait to see how this plays out.” With one episode and three tribal councils to go, it really is anyone’s game.
is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.