THE STORY SO FAR
Survivor: San Juan del Sur was a game of Blood vs Water, and the loved ones were sitting pretty. 32 days in, a strongly unified alliance had formed on the Huyopa Tribe, consisting of dating couple Jon and Jaclyn, along with mother and daughter Missy and Baylor. The foursome were the only remaining pairs in the game, but they had key support in their fifth member, Natalie, whose journey had been very different. Her “Twinnie” Nadiya was the first castaway out, and her closest in-game ally, Jeremy, had been betrayed by the rest of the alliance. Alone, Natalie had been seeking revenge on Jon, and on Night 32, she made her boldest move yet to accomplish that goal by switching her vote to Alec, sending him to the jury. By doing so, she spared unlikely immunity threat Keith, who became the last member of his alliance standing, and an apparent sitting duck. To deflect Jon’s attention, Natalie lied, pretending that her vote against Alec had been an accidental result of miscommunication rather than a calculated move. While Jon trusted that it was an honest mistake, Jaclyn was suspicious that it may have been intentional.
Jon, Missy and Keith were the winning team in the Reward Challenge, but it came at a cost when Missy injured her ankle during the competition. Jon gave up his spot to Baylor to secure their alliance, allowing her to join Missy for a mother-daughter spa day. Fire captain Keith provided them both with laughs galore as a fish-out-of-water during the spa treatment, and got in touch with his feminine side as the massage rejuvenated him for the end of the game. Meanwhile, Natalie was sent to Exile Island, where the isolation beat her down. For strength, she refocused on her departed twin, vowing to use the angst of their separation as motivation to win it all. It paid off–Natalie beat out Jon to win the necklace at the next Immunity Challenge.
For Missy, however, the challenge was less exciting. Her ankle was only getting worse, and an examination from the medical team showed it may have been broken. A tear-struck Missy refused to quit, and the staff doctor had good news when he decided that because it was so close to the end of the game, they could simply immobilize her foot and allow her to wait it out. With her mother good to keep playing, Baylor now had to convince her to make a move and turn on her ersatz son, Jon, which Missy was reluctant to do; even though Natalie had already recruited Keith to help them split the votes in case of Jon’s Idol. At Tribal Council, a confident Jon erroneously held on to his idol, and paid the price when Missy flipped. The votes split between Jaclyn, Jon, and Keith, and in the revote, Jon became the fourteenth castaway to be ousted.
Now only five remain, with just four days remaining in the game. Who will outwit, outplay, and outlast all the others and become the Sole Survivor?
THE FINAL FIVE
It’s Day 34 as Natalie sits on Exile Island, tears streaming down her usually focused face. Everything in the last few episodes has been leading up to her finally accomplishing the goal she’s been talking about for episodes–avenging Jeremy by ousting Jon. But when she tells the camera where her emotion is coming from, it’s not from her fallen ally, Jeremy. Her emotion comes from Nadiya, her sister, her twinnie. We’re reminded that for the first time in her life, Natalie is alone–and that she refuses to let that experience break her.
As Natalie rounds the final corner, it’s almost astonishing to think of her as an Amazing Racer, let alone as one who was so thoroughly defined by the dynamic of her team. Establishing herself as an individual has been her story ever since Nadiya’s ouster, and she’s been doing a bang-up job at it. Natalie has taken to Survivor like a duck to water. She makes big moves and challenges the system of the game; angling for prizes; giving up rewards, volunteering for Exile; even setting the ball in motion to get a player from the other tribe voted out. What truly makes all of this a mark of exceptional play is that Natalie is completely undetected. She’s never had her name written down, or even brought up as a target.
Every episode, I can’t help but ask myself “if this player won, how would I expect the narrative to portray them?” It’s a question that is always answered perfectly for Natalie. She’s always being given exactly the content she needs from the story to explain her possible victory, beginning in the second episode with her impassioned vow to go as far as possible for both herself and Nadiya. Her scene on Exile Island in “Let’s Make a Move” was critical in bringing Nadiya back to the story. Since Jeremy’s ouster, revenge on his behalf has been Natalie’s major stated motivator, setting up the dominoes for Jon’s downfall. Because of the focus on Jon, it left a lot of room for blind spots in Natalie’s game–there was a real possibility that once she achieved her vengeance, her story would hit a dead end and have nowhere left to go. We’ve now been reminded that eliminating Jon for Jeremy’s sake was just just a Pit Stop on Natalie’s larger journey. Her broader motivation is still there, and that’s a story that can carry her to the finish line.
Right now, this is Natalie’s game to lose. What could undo it for her?
It’s been a long, wild ride for the Fire Captain, but despite having one of the worst senses of how to play Survivor maybe ever, he’s standing at the final five–and shockingly enough, he’s not in the worst spot! As much as Natalie’s narrative was given a major before-the-end positivity push, Keith’s was also given an eleventh-hour spit shine. Keith was kept in the game because Natalie thinks he “deserves” to be there. Baylor has an epiphany that the bumbling Dad she’s been plagued by all game is actually “kind of cool.” And in a season that has been all about subverting the initial perceptions people have surrounding gender and the roles of men and women, Keith learns that “girl stuff” can be for guys too and can actually be kind of fun! Plus, there are the numerous mentions to his status as a challenge threat (repeatedly brought up in spite of the fact he’s only won two challenges). There is a lot of care and attention to both how Natalie and Keith have been portrayed in this story. As they come into the endgame, they are the last obstacles in each others way. One of them is being built up by the narrative to throw the scent off of the other.
All season long, I’ve been reading Keith’s journey as one on a roller coaster–he has huge ups and terrible downs, and his end-fate is going to be largely contingent on which direction the roller coaster is moving when the end of the game hits. After “Let’s Make a Move,” I think it’s clear Keith is back on the upswing. What we’ve been learning about Keith is that you don’t have to be good at the “numbers and math” of the game to be successful at it. What you need first and foremost is for people to like you, and people like Keith, and it’s not only Natalie and Baylor. Josh loved getting to bond with someone from a totally different world on Exile Island. Missy didn’t want to let Keith go when it seemed like Dale might have an idol. And there’s that Wesley guy, I guess.
Keith is in a good spot socially, and for the first time, in a decent spot game-wise. Natalie learned from Reed’s mistakes, successfully coaching Keith into bluffing his way through Tribal Council. It’s a long way from the guy who stuck to the plan and got his own son booted–a move that Keith has been suspiciously distanced from, despite its badness. (This distance has also, however, kept him from commenting on his son’s ouster, which stands out in a bad way. I guess there is still time for that in the finale.) As she has groomed the “deserving” Keith to be her trained assassin, a connection has been formed between Natalie and Keith. Keith goes so far as to say that after nearly a whole game of having “nobody,” he suddenly has Natalie in his corner. I’ve felt very certain that most of the narrative threads this season are pointing towards Missy and Baylor together in finals, with either Natalie or Keith winning almost by default in the third seat. But with all of the sudden connection between Keith and Natalie, it would be in poor form for me to not acknowledge the possibility that Keith returns the favor to Natalie by helping to save her–or at least trying to do so–in the event that he wins the final immunity challenge and she becomes the target by default. Of course, if they end up in the finals together, Keith has thrown his own game away. His popularity can only help him sweep a vote if he’s up against a duo of players that the jury is chomping at the bit to tear down to size.
The original Blood vs Water found it’s unlikely breakout character in Ciera Eastin, the daughter who had to become the mother as she outmaneuvered mom Laura Morett to grow as a player and a person. The success of her character makes it pretty clear that when production was assembling the cast for San Juan del Sur, they were likely hoping to replicate Ciera with Baylor–a young woman who would be willing to play the game with bold statement moves and take over the leadership role with her mom if need be. From early on, it became clear that Baylor would be important to watch, but it’s also become very clear that for all of their similarities, she and Ciera are very different animals.
When the pairs were being introduced by Jeff Probst on Day 0, Baylor and Missy had the most distinct introduction segment, so jam packed with imagery and important information about their dynamic that it couldn’t be ignored or brushed off as irrelevant or coincidental. The twosome were overwhelmed by howler monkeys, animals that throughout the season were explicitly linked to Jon. This is paired with Jeff’s voiceover telling us that due to Missy’s mismanagement of her marriages, Baylor often has to play the mother. In “Let’s Make a Move,” Baylor fulfills everything this scene set for her, becoming the parent to Missy and empowering her to push back against the howler monkey in the game, a representation of the men who have wronged them both. She’s betrayed Josh, she’s betrayed Jaclyn, she’s taken care of her mom–everything the narrative has hinted at Baylor doing has come to fruition. There has been a consistent and suspicious focus on Baylor all across the season, which has clued us in as viewers that we should follow her story and witness it’s profound impact on the course of the game.
But the problem for Baylor is that with all of the reason to focus on her, she has never really had to spread her wings and fly. She hasn’t taken off as an individual; and her personal narrative is much the same. We’ve been told to pay attention to her, but there hasn’t exactly been a lot worth seeing. There is no more question at this point. Baylor will likely lose this game on Day 39, lambasted by a jury who doesn’t trust her–as she’s screwed many of them out of the game–and who furthermore, doesn’t respect her–as she’ll be seen as having been carried to the end by her mother and allies. Much as Reed said, Baylor is a brat; spoiled and ungrateful to those who she’s stepped on to sit at the end.
The intro segment for Missy and Baylor also was the first time we were introduced to the two of them as players who were completely interconnected–where one goes, the other follows. The success–or failure–of this duo was always going to be a matter of symbiosis. Much as Baylor carried Missy over a hurdle when it came to her “weakness” in Jon, Missy was present for much of the game as Baylor’s mother, ready and willing to carry her over obstacles by using the numerous bonds she’d created with the surrounding castaways. “Let’s Make a Move” was Missy’s time to struggle in the front and center. Her physical injury came about at the same time as her biggest moral dilemma yet, transforming from just a circumstance of the game to a metaphor for her darkest hour.
It’s interesting to me how early in the game, Missy struck me as a potential winner–always present, always thinking, always using her maternal instincts to sink her hooks into the players around her. Her maternalism, however, has been turned on its head numerous times since that glowing start, highlighted as Missy’s greatest weapon and her greatest downfall. As a weapon, it’s allowed her to create meaningful bonds with players like Jeremy and Jon, leaving nasty scars when she’s turned and ripped them out of the game. As a downfall, it’s overtaken her whenever Baylor is threatened, challenged, or even criticized, pulling Missy’s focus from her game to her daughter. Before they oust Josh, Missy tells Baylor that you have to be a little phony in a game like Survivor, but she doesn’t seem to heed her own advice. In “Let’s Make a Move,” she effectively refuses to turn on Jon, feeling that would ruin her reputation as a trustworthy player who has stuck with her word. It’s an almost astonishing way for her to describe herself that seems woefully out of line with the reality we’ve seen. She tried to tell Keith that she was still working with him after writing his name down in case Dale pulled out an idol. She joined with Jon on what seemed to be a whim to oust her Day 1 ally, Jeremy. She told Reed to his face that she had his back in the game, rounds after voting out his boyfriend. Turning on Jon was an outcome that was well forecast, but it was far from being the first time in the game Missy has broken her word. Again, her maternal instinct is her downfall. What she tries to teach to her daughter is advice she can’t follow herself.
The symbiotic portrayal of this flawed mother-daughter duo has been steadily pointing to an ever-clearer outcome: someone is going to sit with both of them in the end and beat them. But as that outcome is only days from fruition, it begs the question: is it too obvious? Could something shake up in the endgame to split these players apart?
If something splits up Missy and Baylor, I’m doubtful it will be Jaclyn. But stranger things have happened on Survivor. For all I know, Keith could win the Final 5 Immunity Challenge and Natalie could decide to keep Jaclyn instead of Missy to have as many able-bodied competitors on hand to try and keep him out of the finals. I don’t think a lot of people expected Jaclyn to even make the last episode of the season; so it’s certainly possible for her to continue to defy expectations.
Jaclyn is a character who I would have never expected to exhibit the complexity and depth of story that she’s had. With the exception of the blooming romance between Amber and Rob on All-Stars, there has never really been a couple to play Survivor together–all of the couples on the original Blood vs Water never got the chance to reunite, save for John and Candice’s few short days together on Redemption Island. This has meant that in crafting Jaclyn’s narrative, they’ve really been in uncharted waters, and have had quite a balancing act to perform. Jaclyn had to at once be the spoiled Queen and an extension of her “big threat” boyfriend while simultaneously being the “voice of reason” within their duo. They’ve had to make her character both respectable and expendable at the same time. It’s all come to a head to create a surprisingly unique castaway that I’m really glad we’ve gotten to see.
Of course, this also means that of all the castaways going into the final episode, Jaclyn’s story is the one that has the most resolution, and the fewest places to go from here. She was Jon’s feminine armor, protecting him only so long as he payed her respect. She was ever the Cassandra, warning Jon when her intuition for the game detected a threat to their power position. The one threat that he never listened to her on was Baylor, who Jaclyn called out as untrustworthy as early as Episode two. By extension, this meant Missy couldn’t be trusted. Jon never listened, and he payed the price. Now, again, by extension, Jaclyn is probably doomed. If she does manage to squeak into the top 4, I just don’t see her making it into the Final 3. For what it’s worth, there is definitely a chance she can make it through at least one more round–without Jon, Jaclyn’s final piece of narrative will be a last ditch effort to prove herself without him. This is a woman who we know doesn’t give up without a fight and who is more than capable of making herself heard. The last thing she’s going to do is go down easily. She’s been a pleasant surprise all season long, and with her back up against the wall, I expect no differently. The claws are coming out, and this fight to the finish is going to be delightfully brutal.
It’s the finale, bitches! One final reward challenge, two more immunities, three finalists… and a huuuuuge fight between Jaclyn and Natalie. Stay classy, ladies. Also, Keith will probably spit, Missy’s divorces will probably be mentioned, and Jeremy will probably look grumpy from the jury. Here’s to bitter speeches!