Pre-credit sequence. We begin at Nagarote, as I try to remember where we left off and what the names of the tribes were. Shirin is sad to have been blindsided and to have lost Max. “I don't know that I can trust you,” Carolyn tells Shirin, further shunting her aside. Shirin protests that Max made her isolate herself, but Carolyn is being rough, making it clear that she wants no part of the newly solitary Shirin. “Is anybody left in this game willing to play with me?” Shirin ponders, wondering if this is a reflection on her. Hali levels with Shirin and tells her that Max had been annoying and that people felt like she was annoying as well. Ouch. This hits home for Shirin, who grew up rich, but not popular. So sad. I guess. Kinda. “I'm trying to do now what I was incapable of doing back then, which is deal with it, adapt, fix it,” she promises.
A Fine Bromance. They have monkeys at Escameca. Dan is back to telling the story of his washed-away underwear. Rodney's tired of the same stories and the same Blue Collar people. At least he has Joaquin, who can connect with him on an East Coast level. “I was looking for maybe a little bromance, maybe a homey to chill with,” Rodney says. Rodney makes it clear to Joaquin that nobody else on this tribe is going to be able to talk about sex and partying with him, so they have to team up. “We work hahd, we pahty hahder,” Rodney tells Joaquin, as they agree that the million should stay on the East Coast. This is flimsy as a basis for a bromance, but they each agree they have each other's vote. “I'm gonna be Batman, he can be Robin,” Rodney says, vowing that he's got big things planned for the game.
Sandbagging. Time for some Reward action. Joaquin is psyched to see that Nagarote voted Max out. The tribes have to race up a tower through obstacles and then launch sandbags at six targets. Wanna know what they're playing for? The winners will be taken to a turtle sanctuary to watch mating. They'll also get a feast of beef stew and mac-and-cheese and hot chocolate. Mmmm… Hot chocolate and hot soup in the tropics. The first stage of this challenge is heavily physical, which means that Escameca is going to be hard to beat. But the key is going to be the slingshotting of sandbags. Jenn gives Nagarote a surprising early lead, but Escameca pulls ahead at 3-2 and then 4-2. We're tied at 4-4 and then 5-5. Who will hit the last target first? It's Nagarote in an upset! They dance and celebrate the chance to enjoy turtle sex and hot food. Shirin looks forward to bonding. Or just the turtle sex.
Hungry like the Tortoise. Hali compares their win to David and Goliath, what with the slingshot and all. Hali compares the beef stew and mac-n-cheese to childbirth. “Even Shirin, we're tolerating her at this point,” Carolyn says. Shirin discovers that mocking Rodney is a good pathway to unity. They sit on the beach and gorge until a local comes and takes them down to the beach to point flashlights at the egg-laying turtles. Jenn is impressed with the reproductive process and the “Survivor” night-vision photographers are having fun with slimy eggs. This experience has helped Jenn realize that she has a better chance of winning “Survivor” than the turtle eggs have of living. She's mathematically correct here. In addition, Jenn has a better chance of winning “Survivor” than any of the turtles do, because turtles don't have collars and therefore couldn't have been on “Survivor” this year.
Rodney Balboa. Back at Escameca, Joaquin is trying to woo Sierra away from her Blue Collar buds. Joaquin suggests an alliance of Sierra, Tyler and Rodney. Sierra compares Joaquin to her “bros from home,” but she isn't sure she can put up with Rodney, even if it keeps her in the game. Rodney has to be slightly apologetic to Sierra, vowing to go to the Promised Land with her. “I'm feeling so confident that I can see my hand being raised like Rocky Balboa winning this damn thing at the end,” says Rodney, who almost certainly is literally unaware of the word “hubris.”
Failing upward. We're lingering at Escameca. Rodney figures he has the game on lock-down and tells Mike as much. Rodney tells Mike that Joaquin will do whatever he says and he makes a proposal: They throw the next challenge and vote Joe out. Mike is not amused. “Very rarely in the game of 'Survivor' does it work out in your favor to throw challenges,” Mike points out accurately. But Mike has other considerations. He doesn't want to throw challenges to help Rodney, but he does want to throw challenges so that Kelly won't have to face votes at a Nagarote Tribal Council. I hate the strategy of throwing challenges under any circumstances, but I appreciate that Mike has an extra layer to his plotting.
I'M THROWING THE CHALLENGE FOR YOU. Immunity time! It's a memory challenge, the sort of challenge that we normally save for Individual Immunity. I genuinely wonder if they bumped this task up to pre-Merge so that Escameca didn't run away with the game. It's all about head-to-head memory tasks organizing an assortment of “Survivor”-y items, a skull, candlesticks and whatnot. It's just about as easily throwable a challenge as I've ever seen. The first showdown is Rodney vs Carolyn and wouldn't you know it, Rodney has memory problems and Carolyn wins. Up next? Sierra and Hali. Sierra isn't, at least as far as we saw, in on the fix, but she loses anyway. It's Joe vs Will next. Joe doesn't know this is pointless, but he wins anyway. Shirin and Dan are next and Dan evens things up at two apiece. The tie-breaker is Mike and Kelly, giving Mike a chance to double-throw the task. Unfortunately, even with Mike embarrassing himself by staring at a blank screen and knocking his props over, Kelly still can't get the memory sequence and they have to go again. “Listen to me, I'm giving it to you,” Mike whispers to Kelly. It's still too complicated for Kelly and they have to go a third time. Mike has to make the fix even simpler for Kelly. He's standing there helping her get things in order and coaching her as he finishes. This is so pathetic. Mike screws up intentionally, telling Kelly to do the same thing and reverse two props. She does. Nagarote wins one of the saddest “Survivor” challenges I've ever seen. Kelly looks forward to getting back together with Mike. Lord.
Sierra Trading Post. Escameca returns to camp in defeat. Monkey! Mike is apologetic. “I just choked. I'm sorry, y'all,” Mike tells everybody, admitting to us that something in him died by throwing the challenge. Watching from the outside, Mike thinks that Joaquin may be luring Rodney in. “Power couples need to be voted out before they can make power moves,” Mike says, but he agrees with Rodney that Joe is out next. “Mike looked like an absolute idiot, which was hilarious,” Rodney says. Rodney and Joaquin hug and repeat over and over that this is going to work out perfectly. “It should be a walk in the park from now on,” Joaquin says. “I'm down to do anything and everything,” Joe tells Dan and Mike. Joe is feeling left out, especially when Mike tells him that Rodney wants him out. Sierra is still the swing vote and Dan knows that he screwed up with her. Dan is taking another stab at showing regret to Sierra, telling her Joaquin should go. Sierra likes being in this position, but she isn't warming to Dan. “Just close your mouth, open your ears,” Dan condescendingly tells Sierra, communicating with women as only Dan can. “Either way, it could change the whole game,” Sierra says, just swearing she hasn't decided which path to take. Well, either the editors are tricking us, or Joe is about to whimper out of the game.
Tribal Council. “Every family is imperfect,” Joe says of the Blue Collar Happy Family. Dan admits that there was some disfunction and he's concerned. Tyler says there was bad blood and animosity, most involving Sierra. While she admits Mike stood up for her, Sierra says she felt more support from the newbies than from her own Blue Collars. Mike admits they aren't “a foursome of impenetrableness.” Joaquin says this couldn't have been any easier for him, finding the cracks. Sierra is still unhappy about the post-Tribal attacks on her, even when Probst tells her she shouldn't give up numbers. Stop babbling. Vote already. Probst spins a long hypothetical comparing this to romance in some way. This is all about trust or whatever.
The vote. Joaquin votes for Joe. Joe votes for Joaquin. And Sierra votes for “JO…” I see what they did there! Probst tallies: Joe. Joaquin. Joe. Joaquin. Joe. Joaquin. JOAQUIN. Rodney keeps swiveling his head back and forth like a lizard, unsure what happened. “I didn't see this coming. Totally got blindsided by the four, I don't know who,” Joaquin says. “This was my fate and I'm gonna take it with a smile on my face,” he adds.
Bottom Line, Part I. I guess I might have liked a better understanding of Sierra's mindset and what made her decide to go with the guys she mostly hated. Once they were abandoning Rodney, that meant she was with Mike, who she was OK with, and Joe, so she just had to put up with Dan, who was better than Rodney? At least there was strategy and there were choices in this episode. Since leaving The Barbie Block has left Joe bland and dispirited, it wouldn't have been an interesting episode if it had just culminated in his elimination. Instead, the hour was more clearly structured around the lame Rodney/Joaquin bromance and the surrounding cockiness so that we could build to Rodney's obliviousness in the end. I liked that, even if I didn't like the rest of the episode. We didn't get any hint that Mike might have considered throwing the Immunity to help Kelly left to his own devices, so as it stands, the arc of the episode was Rodney makes a new friend, announces he has the game under his control, proposes throwing a challenge to consolidate his power and looks like a dope. That's better than “Mike throws a challenge to help his not-so-bright friend and it pays off,” arc-wise.
Bottom Line, Part II. Where do y'all stand, readers, on how the challenge-throwing reflected on Mike? Does it make you like him more that he was willing to do that for his friend and that he was able to go to the lengths he had to go to because she couldn't do anything on her own? Or is this another sign of how paternalistic Mike is, which was exactly the problem before? Does Mike's association with the consistently unlikable and clumsy Dan make him look work? Does his willingness to stab Rodney in the back make you like him more? Or is he just another player this season who you feel ambivalently toward?
Bottom Line, Part III. I know I bring this up, but it keeps being true: Who am I supposed to be rooting for? Shirin, because she's a rich, unloved, nerdy underdog? Sierra, who has no personality, but was definitely treated poorly and therefore has become both sympathetic and powerful if not interesting? Joe, because he seems to be good at things, even if he hasn't shown an iota of personality since that episode he marginalized the deaf woman and voted her out? Has enough time passed since Jenn told the deaf woman to stop whining about being deaf that you can find her energy appealing in a low-energy season? Do you assume that Tyler is lurking on the outside like a stealth genius and you can't wait to see what he'll do next? Are you a big fan of working hahd and pahtying hahder, so you're Team Rodney? Yeah, I've got nothing. My answer to each of these questions, through nearly half-a-season, remains “No.” And if you're not rooting for anybody, I guess you're just rooting for pretty vistas, monkeys in the trees, well-made challenges and a little bit of strategy. This episode had a little bit of strategy, so I guess it was fine.