Survivor: San Juan del Sur Episodes 11 & 12 Narrative Analysis- “Kind of Like Cream Cheese” and “Still Holdin’ On”
THE STORY SO FAR
After 26 days in San Juan del Sur, a powerful alliance of five had emerged on the Huyopa Tribe, with Jon sitting pretty on top. Natalie had come through for him at Tribal Council, when she implored Jon to play his Hidden Immunity Idol after Keith accidentally exposed Reed as playing both sides. The result was that Keith’s son, Wes, was voted out instead, leaving Reed on the bottom, again forced to scramble for his life.
The next reward challenge gave the castaways the opportunity to expose what they really thought of each other, but the dominant alliance didn’t take the bait. They agreed to forefit the challenge to Missy, so that she could get the opportunity to enjoy a reward trip with her daughter, Baylor. As well, it gave Missy the opportunity to send Jon to Exile Island, where he found the re-hidden Immunity Idol. With Jon on Exile, it meant his girlfriend, Jaclyn, would be without him, and she felt burned when Missy picked Natalie over her to go on reward. Reed was quick to point out to Jaclyn that she could be looking at the final three, ready to cut her and Jon once they’ve outlived their usefulness–something that was not lost on Jaclyn. With nothing to lose, Reed also called out Baylor for her brattiness; stinging not only Baylor, but her mother as well. The reward gave them the opportunity to retreat from the negativity, and gave Natalie an opportunity to tell Missy about the Idol she found with Baylor. By securing the mother and daughter’s trust, Natalie believed she could make it to the finals with them, where she would win handily.
Meanwhile, Jaclyn was alone at camp with the players on the bottom, who did everything in their power to sway her favor. Alec pulled out all the stops, channeling his brother to flirt with Jaclyn. Despite her boyfriend being in the game, Jaclyn didn’t seem to mind the extra attention, given that she had felt invalidated by Jon when accused her of not playing with his best interest in mind, seemingly brushing aside the possibility of her success in the game. Jon rejoined the tribe at the next Immunity Challenge, where Keith became the first castaway to win the necklace twice.
With Jon back at camp, Jaclyn was eager to tell him her concerns regarding their current alliance; but Jon, drained from his stay in Exile, blew up at her. For Jaclyn, this was the last straw, and she gave Jon the #SilentTreatment after they had a huge fight in front of the entire Huyopa Tribe. Their lover’s spat clouded the entire camp, casting a shadow of doubt over the next vote–with the Power Couple not talking, Reed had no way of knowing if they would finally turn on Missy. Unfortunately for him, Tribal Council became Couple’s Therapy, and in a unanimous vote, Reed became the eleventh castaway out and the fourth member of the jury, leaving only seven castaways in contention for the million dollar prize.
With another ally ousted, Alec felt more alone and desperate for survival than ever before… but unbeknownst to him, his game was on the verge of being saved. Natalie was still focused on avenging her ousted ally Jeremy by knocking out Jon, and she was pulling all the stops to keep him and Jaclyn comfortable so they wouldn’t see it coming. She even went so far as to share her dinner-in-bed reward with the couple, where she found herself driven to her wits’ end by Jon’s growing arrogance. She turned to Baylor for support, and Baylor agreed to not tell her mom Missy that Jon was the next to go; knowing that Missy had become attached to Jon. The two #SurvivorSisters would pull in outsiders Alec and Keith to make it happen, allowing Baylor to prevent her mother from making another bad choice regarding a man.
The hit was in as Alec returned from Exile Island for the Immunity Challenge, where he performed abysmally. Keith seemed like he was well on his way to a third Immunity win, but a steadier hand and pace saw Jon win his first challenge instead, dashing Natalie’s hopes of blindsiding him. Keith’s excellent performance in yet another challenge put the target squarely on his back–a target that only became bigger when Alec opened up to Baylor about his loneliness in the game, impressing her with his sensitive side. Missy proposed that her alliance split the votes, just to be safe, and Jaclyn instructed Natalie to vote with her and Jon to take out Keith. But Natalie still had her end goal of eliminating Jon in sight, and told Keith she wanted to work with him to make it happen–Keith’s prowess in challenges meant he had a much better shot of keeping immunity off of Jon’s neck. At Tribal Council, she switched her vote, and Alec was snuffed by the torch collector, became the twelfth person ousted as he joined the jury. Now only six remain… who will be the next to go, and who will be left standing in the finale?
A CLOSER LOOK
THE MONKEY KING AND THE BEAUTY QUEEN
Jon has had quite the journey to his position as the nominal top of the food chain in San Juan del Sur. Athletic, young, male, (white)… he ticks a lot of the boxes that seemingly make a castaway a shoe-in for the moniker of “biggest threat in the game,” yet when Jon was introduced to us at the start of the season, he was far from it. Jon was little more than Drew’s goofy friend on Hunahpu; left very obviously on the outs when Drew orchestrated his own ouster. But we always knew that Jon was more than meets the eye, because Jon himself always got the opportunity to tell us. Even when he was screwing up, he got to justify it. Jon’s lack of power made the attention paid to him suspicious. Now the story is nearing it’s completion, and with only six castaways remaining, Jon is amongst them. The power players established early on (Josh and Jeremy) have fallen. We’ve seen many a Beta-Male ride that status to a million dollar check (Africa’s Ethan and Exile Island’s Aras spring to mind). Being the Beta (for lack of a better term) meant that Jon was able to skate by unharmed while the big guns were targeted. By the end of Day 32, Jon is the King–but much as with real-life Kings in the modern world, Jon’s title is little more than symbolic. His rise to the top has been accompanied by a narrative that exposes his lack of real power, a narrative that Jon himself is unable to see.
Part of Jon’s powerlessness is owed to the fact that he’s sharing the throne. This king has a queen in Jaclyn, whom all of Jon’s moves have been filtered through ever since the story managed to bring their characters together. The edit is not subtle about portraying Jaclyn as the “queen” of San Juan del Sur. She is all but explicitly stated to be secondary in importance to Jon, despite having enough influence over him to often dictate his game moves. “Kind of Like Cream Cheese” ups the queen imagery tenfold, with the entire episode focused around Jaclyn and the attempts of the game’s peasants to woo her favor. Even the king is powerless when her wrath is unleashed.
The characterization of Jon and Jaclyn as the King and Queen only further serve to blend them into the larger story and it’s themes–namely gender and partnership. By giving them the responsibility of carrying these themes, the narrative is able to build Jon as the man who was does things “right,” explaining why he is the one to ultimately assume the throne over Josh (the leader of an all-male alliance) and Jeremy (the guy who couldn’t trust his wife to protect herself). Now, the narrative tells us that the power is going to Jon’s head, and that his swelling ego is starting to push Jaclyn out of the picture. This is a problem, because without his queen, the king is nothing.
The blow-up between Jon and Jaclyn is, on its own, fascinating to watch. The storytellers don’t explicitly paint either one as being right or wrong–we’re given the tools to see the situation from both perspectives and the agency to come to our own conclusions. But the point in the larger narrative isn’t who is right or wrong. The point is that when Jon stops treating Jaclyn with the respect and deference he’s been using thusfar, the thematic armor that’s been protecting him begins to crumble. Baylor–ever the consistently present narrator–gets to explain this firsthand, agreeing to target Jon because she sees him not as the “good guy” we’ve been shown; but rather as the personification of men and her mother’s repeated mistakes with them. She delivers this summation the episode after Jon has nearly driven Jaclyn away; after Natalie grows so tired with his illustrated snobbery that she says she’ll “literally kill herself” if he wins. Even Keith–who the editors have not shied away from telling us is far from the brightest–is able to call Jon out as transparently working the jury when he breaks down about his dying father. The sharp turn in Jon’s portrayal tells me Natalie is probably not going to be held to her one-woman suicide pact. He’s ascended to Josh and Jeremy’s position in more ways than just one. Like them, his story has now become one of a king blindly awaiting assassination. He’s become a distraction to the other players and a distraction to the viewers by virtue of his position in the story. If the hit isn’t in for him next, it’s coming.
The biggest obstacle preventing the other players from ousting Jon isn’t his obvious ally Jaclyn, however–it’s an ally who is closer to him than she has any reason to be in Missy. Jaclyn may be the queen in this role play, but Missy is the maternal advisor; the true power behind the throne. It’s been her role from the first moments of this season: a shallowly-sweet older woman who plays the ersatz mother to the others, earning their trust while revealing her ruthless stage-mom side when safely able to remove her mask in the company of her daughter. Even in the confessionals, we see Missy in character, almost as if she’s unable to turn it off, or even admit to herself that there is something disingenuous, a subtle quality that strikes on as being a little off.
It’s in “Kind of Like Cream Cheese” that Jaclyn first observes this distressing duality firsthand. Missy exposes the chink in her exoskeleton when she picks Baylor and Natalie to accompany on reward–a pretty clear show-of-hand, and a questionable move when an incredibly game-fluent ally like Natalie wouldn’t have needed the pampering reserved for the queen. Jaclyn doesn’t need Reed the Trickster whispering in her ear to see the writing on the wall. Once only five remain, Missy and Baylor could easily team up with Natalie for a 3 to 2 majority. After Jaclyn and Jon get in their fight, Jaclyn’s worst fears are confirmed when Jon chooses his “mother” Missy to console him and act as his guidance, rather than coming to Jaclyn herself to reconcile their dispute face-to-face.
To Missy’s credit(?), as of current, she doesn’t seem to have any plans of turning on Jon. Baylor and Natalie knew that to oust Jon at the Final 7, they would have to recruit Alec and Keith behind Missy’s back because Missy is still showing Jon as much devotion as he’s showing to her. But at the start of the season, we were told very explicitly that in the crazy world of the Gilmore Goats, Baylor has often had to play the parent instead of the child. Missy reiterated this herself at the merge, acknowledging that while sometimes Baylor acts like a child, she also is capable of seeming beyond her years. So far, Missy has been using her game connections to guide Baylor along, but as mentioned earlier, Baylor now sees Missy developing a blind spot in Jon. As the game nears it’s conclusion, Baylor will have to become the mother once again in her and Missy’s relationship, and use her #SurvivorSister connection with Natalie to forge ahead for them both while leaving Jon in the dust.
“Still Holdin’ On” was a fairly-par-course episode as a part of a pagoning (systematic elimination by one alliance of the other), as all the lead-up was for a predictable outcome of Alec’s boot. But the process of the vote getting switched from Keith to Alec did a lot for the final stretch of the story, creating a brand-new connection between two very important characters who until now had none in Keith and Natalie.
Natalie is in an excellent position. The story exposes to us that she is the most calculated and cognizant gamer in the bunch, expertly earning the trust of all her allies despite her allegiance to none of them. Her desire to play hard and make moves manifests when she seizes control by sparing Keith. On top of this, it is in the story only that we see Natalie’s skill. The other castaways all seem completely oblivious to it, and as a result, she never seems to have her name pop up. Missy and Baylor even seem content to go to the end with her. Natalie very clearly laid out this road to victory in “Kind of Like Cream Cheese”, going so far as to finally confirm that Missy and Baylor could be trounced easily for the million. The only Roadblock in her Amazing Race to the finish line has, like her statement of power, manifested in her decision to spare Keith, who had his road to victory laid out in “Still Holdin’ On.” Jeff tells us that winning challenges is a great way to build a case in front of the jury, and Keith has won two of them. One of Natalie’s reasons for keeping Keith is precisely this ability. Idols expire at the Final 5, which means keeping immunity out of Jon’s hands is crucial going into the Final 6. Keith, for as cartoonish and inept as he initially appears, can help accomplish this, and Natalie is fully aware of it and willing to draft Keith for his talents.
We know that while Natalie fins Jon annoying and disingenuous, she also has a grander motivation for seeing him out of the game in avenging Jeremy. While a powerful energizer for her in the final stages of the game, this revenge-narrative is also becoming myopic, diverting all of Natalie’s attention on to Jon and blinding her to the threat of the last man standing in Keith. Much as Natalie’s prowess is exposed only through the story, so is much of what makes Keith important to watch. Like Natalie, he has an oft-returned-to connection to Missy (the only woman he talks with and the Mom to his Dad), and the focus on his lack-of-game has only been made possible because of the honesty that surrounds us. The edit tells us that Keith doesn’t really know what’s happening, but Keith also tells us that about himself (putting trust in Reed because he doesn’t understand math). Keith hasn’t really needed to know how to play–he seems to be great at falling off the radar exactly when he needs to. As the lone single player on the swapped Coyopa, he could have been an easy first boot, giving Jonclyn time to further mull over their options, but he was bypassed completely. As his alliance vanishes, it happens again. Even the narrative itself seems to forget him just when he needs it the most; barely touching on his catastrophic blunder that cost Wes the game. In “Kind of Like Cream Cheese,” Keith spends most of the episode in hibernation, only to pop up and win immunity near the end.
Of course, the narrative’s larger purpose surrounding Keith could simply be that he is, as mentioned, the last member standing from his fallen alliance, the so-close-yet-so-far-away final jury member who comes within inches of a victory but can’t clinch that final win, ala Cagayan’s Spencer or Philippines’ Malcolm. (A big and noteworthy strike against Keith as a winner, and thusly in support of him as the last juror is that he wasn’t given the opportunity to mourn his partner, Wesley, in the Blood vs Water story). But Natalie has been distracted from winning, and could have signed her own death warrant. Keith will do what he was hired to and take out Jon, but by failing to take Keith into account, Natalie could find him making an immunity run to the end and taking her out as well.
MEAT YOUR MAKER
Alec’s boot meant that the women’s newly-earned numerical lead over the men only increased, pulling the broader overarching theme of women outmaneuvering the men into clearer focus. This is made all the more glaring when you realize that Alec was the last man from the original Coyopa Tribe in the game. Now the Orange Tribe’s only representatives are Jaclyn and Baylor–the two surviving women who were once slated for execution, members of a tribe that couldn’t win; a tribe where women weren’t valued. If it is, in fact, Keith who will outstumble and outspit the rest to win, this could mark a conceivable (albeit personally unsatisfying) end to this long running thread–though it is absolutely possible, maybe even probable, that Natalie is still running it to the end.
Fortunately for Alec–a unquestionably secondary character of San Juan del Sur–his final episode also allowed for him to wrap up all of his own storylines and go out looking a little better than he’s looked for most of the season thusfar. When it seemed that he was poised to “beat out” Drew by taking over his spot in the story and becoming him, it made me suspect that Alec would possibly out-douche his brother by going out in an even bigger and more ridiculous blaze of glory (which didn’t seem possible!). But instead, Alec capped off his story because he beat out his brother by actually growing and being humbled as a person. The poor kid seemed positively broken in his final episode. He went from spreading his cream cheese all over Jaclyn to whimpering that he felt alone and admitting that he wished he could have a loved one like everyone else. The bizarre connection between him and Baylor was used to create the final cloud of question as to who would leave–him or Keith–by showing him finally admitting vulnerability to his sister-girlfriend in a last-ditch effort to save his own skin. Before this game started, I predicted that Alec had a sensitive side to him that would eventually be dragged out in Drew’s absence. In hindsight, I wish Drew had stayed around longer, because I think having him around would have actually been more effective in allowing Alec to express that side of himself, as he’d be more forced to individuate. Seeing that side of Alec earlier could ultimately allowed him to become a more complex and enjoyable character to watch, but I guess we’ll never know.
Oh, who am I kidding. I wouldn’t give back the Fall of Drew for anything.
EXIT STAGE LEFT
It should be off with Jon’s head, if Natalie and Baylor are going to have their way–but after injuring herself in a challenge, it could be off with Missy’s foot as an injury threatens to derail her game via medevac. Something smells like a red herring. It might just be cream cheese.