Throughout the early part of “Survivor: South Pacific,” I had been thinking – with tremendous surprise – that Coach Benjamin Wade was outplaying and out-thinking Ozzy Lusth in the showdown of returning stars.
It’s not that Coach has been brilliant (as Boston Rob Mariano was in winning last season), but he has worked to develop strategies and he has kept his self-indulgent eccentricities in check. Meanwhile Ozzy has played the game on cruise control. He has seemed disengaged and content to let the game come to him (unless the producers are specifically editing the daily footage to create that image as a counterpoint to Coach).
But if Ozzy was taking it easy, he got a metaphorical bucket of cold water thrown on him when his Savaii tribemates schemed behind his back to oust his closest ally, Elyse. Shaken from his malaise and reinvigorated in the game, Ozzy on Wednesday night undertook what might be the boldest gamble in the show’s 22-season history.
After Savaii lost the immunity challenge, Ozzy instructed his tribemates to vote him out so that he could go to Redemption Island and try to end Christine’s season-long winning streak in redemption duals. The high-risk strategy is predicated on two assumptions: (1.) That a merge is imminent and that Christine’s return would benefit her former Upolu tribe, and (2.) that Ozzy has the best odds of beating her in a head-to-head challenge.
Taking (1.) first … it’s hard to say if either tribe would specifically benefit from Christine’s return. She was the first person voted out of the game (because she had mocked and threatened Coach from the time he hopped out of the helicopter), and she remains tremendously bitter at the Upolu tribe. When one of her former teammates tried to encourage her during a recent redemption challenge, she flipped him the bird. If she re-enters the game, it would seem that she is a free agent and an unpredictable wild card, but not an immediate addition to the Upolu voting bloc.
As for (2.), yes, it seems logical that Ozzy is the most likely person to beat Christine. His calling card in the game has always been his performance in challenges, not his use of strategy. But still, it remains a huge risk. He doesn’t know what type of challenge he’ll be facing; in a do-or-die situation, the slightest error or bad break would be fatal to his chances; and there is no guarantee that the merge comes in next week’s episode, which means that Ozzy might have to win two or more redemption challenges with his butt on the line. (The sneak preview of next week’s episode suggests that Ozzy and Christine will participate in a challenge that involves attaching smaller twigs to make a longer stick and then using it to retrieve a set of keys. It’s not a hugely physical challenge, but Ozzy’s experience in the game might give him an advantage here. We’ll see.)
Either way, it’s good to see the fire in Ozzy’s eyes again. His gamble here has energeized this season. If it works and he re-enters the game, he will have pulled off an incredible coup – but he will still have to parlay it into something larger. He will have to deal with the possibility that in his absence, Jim and Cochran have developed a plan to take control of the tribe. The next two episodes will be critical to shaping the rest of this season.
Quick hits …
Last night’s immunity challenge reminds me of how much I always enjoy contests that involve blindfolded contestants being directed by shouting teammates. It is inevitable that at least one blindfolded participant will walk into something – last night, it was Edna conking her head on a hunk of wood and Sophie toppling into a ditch. (For what it’s worth, I once attempted a variation of this challenge as part of a Cub Scout team-building exercise, and sure enough, one of the blindfolded kids walked into a fence and ended up with a bloody lip. I still feel bad about that one.) When Upolu won the challenge last night, there was a brief shot of Sophie – still blindfolded, flailing her arms wildly in an attempt to hug an unseen teammate.
It gets stranger every week to watch the interaction between Coach and Brandon. Coach is wary of the nephew of his old nemesis Russell and tries to hold Brandon at arm’s length. Brandon, every bit as megalomaniacal as his uncle but not nearly as smart, seems to put on a bizarre display every week. He has campaigned from the start for Mikayla’s ouster, admitting that she intimidated him because he was sexually attracted to her. He is prone to break out weeping whenever he talks about his Christian faith or about his uncle’s duplicitous legacy. And he hijacks every tribal council, all the while trying (unsuccessfully) to convince everyone that he is an honorable man in a dishonest game. The last time Upolu went to tribal council, Brandon announced to everyone that he truly wanted to keep Mikayla around but he was voting her out because he didn’t want to be seen as flip-flopping. The tribal ended with Coach and Brandon whispering “I love you” to each other, even though it seems that they can’t stand each other. In this week’s episode, in the middle of the immunity challenge, Coach suddenly begions serenely (but loudly) praying aloud for victory, prompting the blindfolded Brandon to lower his head raise a hand to the sky like a testifying congregant.
So who are the favorites at this point? I’m proud of my early prediction that Cochran would overcome his rough start and become a big factor. If he and Jim make a successful power grab, and if they can stick together, it wouldn’t be hard to see a jury choosing the bookish Harvard law student over the conniving medicinal pot dealer. On the Upolu side, Albert and Sophie are both smart, capable players; I suspect they will be more than ready to eliminate Coach whenever it becomes expedient, and I suspect he will never see it coming. As interesting dark horse is Cowboy Rick, who is finally getting a little bit of face time and could emerge as a serious player during this middle third of the season.
Mike Holtzclaw, a reporter for the Daily Press, is trying to figure out which former stars they will bring back for next season. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.