Survivor: San Juan Del Sur Episode 1 Narrative Analysis- “Suck It Up And Survive”
PREVIOUSLY ON SURVIVOR!
Eighteen Americans were abandoned in the Philippines, where they were split based on three very defining characteristics–
tits, ass, or both brains, beauty, and brawn, and the result was a season that was so explosive you couldn’t even extinguish it by dumping rice on it. We got a slew of unique, fresh characters in the process, and they really helped rocket Survivor: Cagayan into the stratosphere of beloved Survivor seasons–a feat that is rare for the show’s more recent outings. Now the show has returned to Nicaragua for Survivor: San Juan Del Sur- Blood vs Water, with 18 castaways who have an awful lot to live up to.
Last season was my first season ever attempting to blog/recap a show, and I came to realize that the major blow-by-blow; while enjoyable to write; wasn’t really the best kind of recap to read. If you’re reading this recap, you probably watched the episode (and if you didn’t, you can watch it here) and want to go beyond just “what happened” and get into the meat of what matters–our story, our characters, and our game. I’m going to be getting a little experimental with how I go about this recap, so hopefully it works out for the best!
The Hunahpu Tribe won both of their challenges in this episode; the tribal immunity challenge and the individual reward duel, which ended up being between Boston Firefighter Jeremy and his wife, police officer Val. Because they were the very first pair of loved ones to be subjected to the Big Twist Of The Season ™, they both got a lot of face time. But because Hunahpu did not have to vote, that means their tribe got less development overall–the dynamics for what is happening in terms of alliances on the tribe are less relevant because they are yet to be impactful in regards to the outcome of the game.
I think the duel between Jeremy and Val proved to both of the married parents that the reality of Blood vs Water was going to be much more emotionally difficult to handle than either had expected. In the pre-show materials and on Day 0, we saw a lot of good-natured bickering between the two. Their relationship didn’t seem unhealthy because of the bickering; just a natural consequence of two strong personalities being in a relationship. They both talked a lot about how they don’t need the other in order to survive in the game and how if anything, they’re looking forward to beating out one another to prove who is better.
But the second Jeremy beats Val in the duel and she has to be exiled before even meeting her tribe, he’s brought to tears. When you’re watching Blood vs Water at home as a viewer; it’s probably very easy to look at someone you care about and think “It’s just a game, I could vote them out.” For a lot of people, our earliest formative experiences in playing games are with our loved ones. I’ve gone balls to the wall in many a game of Clue with family and friends, and never once considered that the consequences of how I played the game could have any sort of impact on my relationship with them. It’s all in good fun.
But a game of Clue will last a few hours at the most. A game of Survivor lasts for 39 days and involves an unbelievable level of deprivation as a major component of it. Though Hunahpu escaped tribal council, Jeremy was still blindsided–by his own emotions. Jeremy’s tribe is very supportive of him–most of them express a sense of realization that it could have been any of them in that situation, and that come the next duel; one of them will be in that situation. And ultimately, the emotional distress aside, the opening of the game played to his advantage for the time being.
We’ve seen numerous instances in the past of female castaways conspiring, in some shape or form, to use flirtation and their “feminine wiles” (whatever the heck *those* are) to manipulate their male tribemates–a strategy that has shown a wide birth of successes and failures. I think that because of our society’s patriarchal structure and the way we conceptualize gender broad scale, women, especially conventionally attractive ones, may have unconsciously been taught that working their way into a man’s good graces is the only way for them to succeed. By comparison, we seldom see men making a point of effectively seducing their way through the women of the tribe to get what they want out of the game.
Jeremy breaks this stereotype almost instantly, quickly rebounding from his emotional distress to align with Kelley, Natalie, and Missy. He states explicitly that he thinks he can charm the women; but the jury is out as to how successful his plan will be long term. He’s shown speaking with each woman separately; creating the impression that he is wheeling and dealing Russell Hantz ™ style, making a deal with anyone who will listen. And sure enough, everyone seems to be on board. Natalie says that given the absence of her twin sister, Nadiya, she’s going to need a replacement “twinnie” on the Hunahpu Tribe, and she has a good feeling about Jeremy–primarily because he was unafraid to show his emotions and be vulnerable. Missy opines about how her multiple divorces have taught her she needs to be better at trusting her gut instinct, and her gut is saying good things about Jeremy.
Despite this, I don’t think Jeremy is in a duplicitous spot, because we don’t see him making promises that conflict. He speaks with Kelley first and the deal goes down almost like a business transaction–quick and to the point, much as I expected from Kelley based on what we know about her. She got little-to-no screentime beyond this, but it’s only episode one. When Jeremy approaches Natalie, he tells her that he’s already spoken to Kelley, and asks for Natalie’s feelings on working with Kelly as well as with him. Jeremy doesn’t appear to be trying to snow everyone within minutes of arrival–he appears to be building a solid, united alliance. If everyone involved in the alliance is told upfront what is going on and who is involved, then the trust gluing the group together will be stronger.
Natalie, for her part, doesn’t get a whole lot of screentime either; but I think it’s likely we’ll see a lot of Natalie next week. Her “Twinnie” Nadiya became the first boot of the game (which we’ll get to more in Coyopa’s segment); and it is all but confirmed that Natalie is going to be on a Kill Bill-style revenge mission. The Anderson girls have both stated that they think their relationship as identical twins givens them “thicker blood” than any of the other pairs. They are a constant in one another’s life and have an exceptionally close bond. They were the one pair who in the pre-show material never once even considered the notion of *not* working together if given the opportunity, and there is no question in my mind that Natalie will take Nadiya’s ouster well.
Ironically, for as much as the twins rely on each other, I think that one of them getting voted out early was the best thing that could happen for the other. The one person in the game Natalie would have unquestionable, visible, undying loyalty to is no longer in the game. She has become the first contestant to be made a free agent by virtue of losing their loved one; and that makes her a hot property that Jeremy should be glad to have scooped up.
But Jeremy’s alliance is not him and all the women–Julie was notably excluded from his Day 1 alliance building. Rather, the fifth number he pursues is fellow firefighter Keith.
As part of winning the first duel, Jeremy did not only send his wife to Exile by default; but was also given the responsibility of choosing one member of his own tribe, Hunahpu, to join her. Despite admitting that he and his son Wes failed to make fire on Day 0 after losing their striker and breaking their flint; Keith still ended up as Jeremy’s choice to serve as Val’s “protector” on Exile Island.
Thematically, this season is already making itself about gender roles and dynamics; particularly with the iteration of the idea that men are responsible for the protection of women. It’s a rather archaic notion and it’s frequency in the episode definitely struck me as problematic. I don’t think that Jeremy feels a sense of duty to protect his wife just because he’s a man and she’s a woman. Rather, he feels a sense of responsibility as a person to protect another person who he cares about. Val never once comes off as a woman who absolutely *needs* a man to protect her, but regardless, the theme is definitely being set, and I’m already looking for hints as to how it will impact the larger story (and thusly, the game) further down the road.
Keith, for his part, takes it as well as he can, and proves to be an absolute riot. Outside of Jeremy, he was Hunahpu’s most visible castaway this episode, and he served up a lot of laughter and positive energy in the time he spent on screen. When Val informs Keith that her husband is a firefighter, Keith is elated to learn that there is already a common connection he shares with this couple who, on the surface, seem to have nothing in common. Sure enough, when he finally returns to Hunahpu Beach and joins the tribe properly, Jeremy is quick to approach him to join the alliance. Jeremy knows that by putting Keith on Exile, he took him out of the tribe in the most critical, formative parts of the game when people are getting to create their first impressions and relationships, and feels that he owes Keith something for placing that burden on him.
Because we see less of Hunahpu in this episode, we can only base our predictions going forward based on what we’ve been given. If it is indeed the truth that Jeremy, Kelley, Natalie, Missy and Keith have formed an alliance, that puts the other four members of the tribe–Julie, Reed, Jon M. and Drew on the outs.
Drew in particular seems to have been destined for a position on the outside no matter what. The impression we, as viewers, are supposed to leave with is clear–Drew is a prick. He quickly designates himself the shelter builder (in all fairness to him, we don’t see anyone else stepping up to the task save for Jon) and proceeds to rustle feathers by doing so. The rest of the tribe seems unconvinced by the fruits of his labors; and Julie likens him to her abrasive, Alpha-male boyfriend, John R. Despite all of this, Drew proved a major physical asset during the immunity challenge, so it seems likely he’ll stick around out of sheer usefulness, but it seems highly doubtful he’s going to be able to charm his tribe with his fratty antics. The group already, for the most part, appears to be over him.
Jon, on the other hand, is the person outside of the core alliance who comes off looking the best. He’s a self-admitted “goofball” who is tickled by just about everything. He jokes that the rusty nails they’ve been given to aid them in their shelter building are like “Christmas morning” and seems raptured by the real break-out character this season–the howler monkeys. He tries his best to communicate with them. “I wish I had a tail,” he laments.
Survivor’s editors are no strangers to using animal imagery thematically–think back to every secretive discussion of a blindside that is prefaced with a shot of circling sharks or a spider devouring it’s prey. The howlers are used numerous times in the episode, and the way they are used and discussed by the castaways seems to correlate with the theme of gender hierarchies and the role of the dominant male protector. Despite the tribe interpreting Jon and the monkey’s hooting back and forth as flirting; howler monkeys use their deep, booming howls for much broader forms of communication than simply finding a mate. Predominately, male howlers will howl at certain points in the day to let nearby troops know that his troop is present; and that trespassers had better beware. I worked at a local zoo for eight years between 2004 and 2012, and the male howler monkey there would reliably begin his eerie hooting in response to the lawnmower or weedwhacker going off, likely perceiving it as the warning call of a potential invader.
Anyway, now that I’ve gone all Cindy Hall with that tangent, the point I’m making is that we should watch the monkeys for clues this season. And we should be watching Jon as well.
Jon’s girlfriend Jaclyn barely registers as existing during the episode; and Jon wouldn’t either if it weren’t for a few key moments. As Jeff introduces the nine pairs at the episode’s start; they allude to the perception that they’re a “perfect” couple being made untrue by yet-to-be-revealed depths. One of those layers is exposed after Jon talks with the monkeys, in a confessional where he reveals that coming to play Survivor meant leaving his father, who is suffering from terminal brain cancer. Jon knows that the amount of time he has left with his father is limited, and he seems to be conflicted as to whether or not coming to the game was the right thing to do. The scene stands out starkly–Jon relates to none of the other storylines set in motion this episode, so this information is included specifically for the purpose of informing the viewers about Jon and imploring us to form a positive opinion on him. The question, of course, is why. Are we being set up to like Jon because he goes deep in the game? Or are we being given the backstory to explain what could ultimately be his rationale for pulling himself from the game at a later date? The jury’s still out; but I had Jon pegged to do well and the way he was portrayed did nothing to diminish that assumption.
As for the rest of the tribe, I don’t feel I’ve gotten to see enough out of them to make any real guesses as to what their larger stories are in this season. Julie seems to be observant, and she doesn’t seem to have been picked on by the others for being out of her element, so only time will tell as to how she does. We know very little about Reed beyond the fact that he’s a major fan and is excited to be in the game. He himself says in a secret scene that he thinks his biggest weakness will be not coming out too strong because he is such a big fan and is so excited to prove himself. If the numbers stay as they appear, Reed indeed could find himself with a target on his back. For his boyfriend, however, the story seems entirely different.
On Day 0, Missy tries to ignite a fire, when her daughter Baylor is distracted by a loud noise–the cries of (what else) but howler monkeys. The troop has circled around the Gilmore Girls, who seem terrified (though the likelihood of being attacked by a howler monkey is pretty slim). As the first of the two-woman pairs to be introduced to us, the scene immediately sets them up as being out of their element, huddled together as the monkeys circle ominously around them. The monkey invasion is definitely out of Baylor’s comfort zone–immediately, the editing takes another point to illustrate the theme of women needing a man to protect them.
For Baylor, that protector comes in the form of Reed’s boyfriend, Josh, who, if pressed to give a name, I would call the breakout character of this episode. Baylor isn’t the only one who is gravitating towards Josh–everyone is. And Josh is more than happy to take that role. Despite an allergic reaction to the material Coyopa has used to construct their shelter almost blinding the guy; it doesn’t seem to ever be held against him. Not even notorious bigot John R. has any unkind words for the guy (that we see on air, at least). Josh knows he is the nexus of the tribe, and that after losing immunity, the burden of who leaves rests squarely on his shoulders. Josh knows this firmly and is happy with it–being the person that everyone is coming to was exactly what he wanted to happen, and it’s a great spot to be in. When you are the one doing all of the approaching, you risk having your tribemates see you talking to everyone, and it can immediately make you look squirrely and hard to trust. But if everyone is coming to you, then your hands are clean. And Josh knows the proper way to handle the propositions being made to him–agree to absolutely everything and decide what to do when the time comes.
If Josh is at the top, then Val is terrified she is at the bottom. She’s returning from Exile facing a tribe that has had two days to bond without her, and she’s worried she could be in danger, prompting her to immediately rally the other women–Jaclyn, Nadiya, and Baylor–in an attempt to align and save herself. The target is Dale, the tribe’s eldest member who seems to have outlived his usefulness, and Nadiya is confident that they can rope Josh as their necessary fifth–because she considers him to be one of the girls. (Surprisingly, John Rocker does not make the most offensive statement of the premiere).
Dale, meanwhile, has his scope set on Nadiya. “She’s a known factor,” he says, referring to her two-time stint on The Amazing Race. Dale proposes to the other men in the tribe–Wes, John R., and Alec— that they backstab Nadiya before she can backstab them. Dale’s grasp on the meaning of “backstab” seems to be a little flimsy, and his perception of Nadiya as a backstabber is derived from the Twinnies infamous use of the Double U-Turn in Amazing Race 21.
For those unfamiliar with The Amazing Race and it’s mechanisms, the U-Turn is a mechanic that will pop up approximately two to three times a season on pre-determined legs of the race. The U-Turn always follows a race task called the Detour; where the teams are given two options of tasks to complete in order to receive their next clue and move forward in the race. When a U-Turn appears on a leg, all teams are required to check in at the U-Turn mat, regardless of whether or not they’ll choose to use it, before continuing the race. When a team arrives, if they choose to do so, they may U-Turn another team, meaning if their chosen team is behind them, they will be U-Turned upon arrival at the mat and must backtrack to complete both detour options before they can continue per usual. Once a team has decided to use the U-Turn, no other team can. It’s a huge penalty to be sacked with an extra task and a lot of risk is involved with choosing to use the U-Turn–you have no way of knowing for certain who is ahead or behind of you, and each team can only use the U-Turn once, meaning it is possible to waste it by playing it on a team that’s ahead. In addition, being quick to use the U-Turn is a sure-fire way to make enemies of the other teams, which can be dangerous in a race where good relationships can sometimes grant you access to useful information. To keep the U-Turn from being an instant death-blow to the team hit by it, it was amended as time progressed, eventually becoming the Double U-Turn–meaning that two teams could each U-Turn another team, allowing for the first team to be hit with the U-Turn to potentially save themselves by slapping another team with the same penalty.
Due to a bizarre set of circumstances that aren’t worth getting into, ultra-competitive frontrunner team, dating couple Abbie and Ryan, had been knocked to the back of the pack with permanently trailing husbands Brent and Josh. The two couples were verifiably hours behind Natalie and Nadiya, who were joined in the front-half by Chippendales performers Jaymes and James and dating couple Trey and Lexi; with the three teams having formed a very tight threesome who sought to the ones who would compete in the final leg. The twins devised a plan for their alliance to take advantage of the huge time delay to ensure that the bigger threats/their mortal enemies, Abbie and Ryan, would be ousted at the end of the leg, as opposed to the consistently poor-performing Brent and Josh. The idea was that whichever of the three teams was in the lead would use the U-Turn on Abbie and Ryan, and that the second team in the alliance to arrive would burn the second slot by U-Turning the team ahead of them. This meant that when Abbie and Ryan arrived, they would be unable to save themselves by using the second U-Turn on Brent and Josh. The plan worked without a hitch, and the twins didn’t even have to do it themselves–they took the Fast Forward and skipped straight to the pit stop, leaving their allies to do the U-Turning.
You might be asking yourself why I went through that (perhaps needlessly) long and thorough explanation of the Twinnies Double U-Turn gabmit; and it’s mostly just so that we can all be on the same page and that non-Race watchers can have context for the move that had Dale so freaked out. The way Dale articulated what happened wasn’t exactly accurate–to me, the word “backstabbed” implies that the Twins reneged on an agreement that they had with another team, which wasn’t the case at all. If anything, Nadiya and Natalie proved their loyalty to the teams they said they’d be loyal to.
But Farmer Dale has a point nevertheless–Nadiya had been seen as willing to conjure strategies and play cutthroat, and with only three days in the game and impressions still forming, it was a good of a reason as any to target someone.
If anyone needed to be coming up with a good reason to get rid of someone, it was Dale. He is quick to realize that he’s a good 25 years older than most of his tribemates, and, as I predicted, feels that he’ll be unable to integrate well. Though Dale managed to make a good impression by breaking his glasses to start fire for Coyopa, the whole fire-making scene served as a meta-illustration of how I think Dale will fare in the game. He is shown as being a successful survivalist, but he’s off on his own trying to make fire with his glasses while the rest of the tribe bonds together over the mutual effort of rubbing two sticks together. Once the women have agreed to unite, they have to determine which of the men is expendable, and Dale is the easy choice. Beyond his age putting a target on his back (as often happens to castaways in the early game), Dale’s lack of social game doesn’t really make him a lynchpin in anybody’s plans to the point that he’s worth keeping around. “What’s the old guy’s name again?” Nadiya asks Baylor at one point. “Dale,” Baylor replies. “I’m just going to call him Dad,” laughs Nadiya. It illustrates just how Dale hasn’t been making much of an impression on the tribe–but it also illustrates a lack of awareness on Nadiya’s part.
Nadiya doesn’t only have trouble remembering Dale’s name, but she has trouble perceiving Josh’s gender. After the men make their pitch to Josh for ousting Nadiya, Nadiya makes her pitch to Josh for ousting Dale. She tells Josh that she’s pretty sure Natalie is trying to work with Josh’s “boo” Reed on Hunahpu, and that therefore it only makes sense for them to stick together on Coyopa. She then tells Josh that she considers him to be “one of the girls,” and it’s a comment that strikes a huge nerve with Josh; and probably with the majority of the gay men in the audience.
To be fair to Nadiya, I think her ignorant comments about gay men being “girls” (which she makes numerous times after the initial statement) are used as a sort of obvious, tangible reason that the viewers can see for Josh ultimately allowing her to leave. I’m positive that in reality, there was a lot more to how the decision was made. As a gay man myself, I have definitely had encounters with straight women who are quick to assume you are besties 4 lyfe immediately upon realizing that you’re gay, but I’d be straight lying if I said I called them out on it every time. Sometimes, it’s just not worth the effort. Sometimes, I’ll like the person enough otherwise to just put up with it. And sometimes, you let it slide because it’s not worth calling out and putting yourself at odds with the other person. I can’t see ignorant comments alone, at least not this early on, as being the primary factor for decision making.
To clarify, Josh is not a girl, but Nadiya brings up a point that I made in my own pre-show analysis during tribal council. Regardless of how Josh perceives his own gender, other people very frequently see gay men as “two-spirited,” to appropriate a term from broader Native American culture. That is to say, gay men are often seen as being men and women simultaneously; bigendered individuals who have the superpower to infiltrate gender specific spaces for both men and women. It’s impossible to say if Josh’s queerness is a primary element in why he seems to be best friends with literally everyone on Coyopa, but the reality is that no matter the reason, everybody likes the guy and wants him on their side. As of right now, it’s good to be Josh.
As the swing vote, Josh was handed control of the game on a silver platter, but if you’ll notice, I said he “allowed” Nadiya to leave, not that he voted Nadiya out. The vote ends up being 5-3-1: Five for Nadiya, three for Dale, and one for Baylor–from Josh.
Josh’s vote is interesting, because much as with everyone else on Coyopa, Baylor considers Josh to be her BFF and number 1 ally. When Josh asks Baylor how she’s planning to vote, and she tells him that it doesn’t matter, she just wants to be voting alongside him. I can only assume next week’s episode will fill in the blanks; but it appears that despite throwing away his vote on who appears to be his closest ally, Josh definitely decided to go against Nadiya, and much as Nadiya had her Amazing Race allies do her dirty work, Josh got Baylor to do his, with Baylor casting the needed fifth Nadiya vote . By throwing his vote away, he remains uncommitted to anyone; that is, if anyone even figures out that he cast the rogue vote. While we can only speculate without knowing Josh’s exact reasoning, I would guess that he and Baylor are still planning to work together moving forward.
And for her part, Baylor didn’t come off like a puppet–she was consistently present throughout the episode and definitely seemed aware of the bigger picture. She’s not making the loudest entrance, but she’s definitely on the board, and I’m going to be watching closely to see what she does further on.
I also wouldn’t say that just because Nadiya left that the Coyopa Men are now an unbreakable alliance. Dale, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t seem to know how to bond with his tribe, but finds himself in the men’s alliance by default by virtue of being a man. Beyond that, there is also trouble brewing in bro-paradise, namely between Wes and John R. Wes and his father are both big sports fans who immediately recognize John. Keith thinks that Rocker was an ass then and is probably an ass now. Wes seems a little starstruck and wants to buddy up to fellow Southerner John. He tries to earn John’s trust (?) when he makes a bold move, being the first to question John’s identity and let John know that someone has John Rocker figured out. John doesn’t like that Wes is privy to this information and immediately begins considering how he can get rid of Wes before the info leaks. Fortunately for John, I don’t think that his being a former pro-baseball player is going to be what does him in this game. I think it’s the fact that as much as he claims he’s not a bigot, he probably is one, and that as the deprivation further takes its toll on him, he’ll be less and less able to keep his true colors under wraps. Once his temper comes out, it’s going to be a lot more difficult for him to find security on the tribe. A John Rocker meltdown is exactly what some of the more precariously perched members of Coyopa–such as Val and Dale–could use, so hopefully it comes soon.
The other thing that could help either Dale or Val would be finding the hidden immunity idol at Coyopa’s camp. Val received the first clue to it on Exile Island, but hasn’t had much of an opportunity to find it. It’s very possible that she never will–perhaps a vital component to getting the idol is the decorative knick-knack tethered to the handle of the well cover, which Dale noticed and procured for himself. The item isn’t an idol–per the rules of Survivor, an idol will always have some sort of accompanying note denoting it as such–but Dale thinks it could be useful, so he’ll hold onto it. Chekov’s gun is cocked and ready to fire, everyone–could we be seeing a Bob Crowley-esque idol fakeout in the works?
There was a lot to cover in the 60-minute-plus-30-minutes-of-commercials premiere, and I am probably going to go back and re-edit this over, but whatever, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want. As the opening of the season, the premiere episode always has a big job to do in setting the stage and introducing the elements to our story that are going to play out further down the road. We’ve had some big characters introduced, but there is still plenty of time for other people to be in the mix. Rather than a teaser for next week’s episode, we were granted a super-trailer for the rest of the season, and like many a super trailer, it promises a lot of excitement and absolutely no context. For now, all we can do is wait and watch the monkeys. I have a strong feeling about those monkeys.