Survivor Autopsy #7: The Highest Journey

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“It’s been a huge amount of work to come out here… watching the show in the Summer of 2000, I was working in a cubicle and I was thoroughly uninteresting. I didn’t love my life. So I’ve had quite the journey just like you have over the last fifteen years, and all of a sudden I can come out here onto Survivor and showed I can really compete. But… it’s been a great nineteen days.” -Neal Gottlieb

My Final First Thoughts

I think it’s already been established that I am a very off-kilter Survivor viewer. I care about different things than most audiences do, especially today, and my recaps probably reflect that. I already had to deal with one episode-dominating medevac, but even as I expected more, it’s obvious that this is different. Neal had a good episode overall but he’s pretty clearly one of the less emphasized medevacs. More Joe Dowdle (almost to a T) than Russell Swan. So, one would normally think that his medevac would only be so much of a common Survivor article. See, here’s the thing, though. I know there’s a lot of strategy to work through and a lot of numbers games and tables turning but I can summarize all of that in three words.

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Is that a little derivative? I mean, table setting episodes still count as episodes even if they’re generally boring. And, yeah, I get that they exist. I’ll certainly do my best to dig through it when it comes time for Hindsight Bias. But Autopsy is supposed to capture where my mind is when the episode is fresh, and… for God’s sake, I just got an episode where Nick gets eleven confessionals talking about basic strategy in that absolutely soulless charisma-free Nick way, while Scot and Jason spend most of the rest of the episodes posturing like douchebags quoting word for word high school bullying tropes while they plan to take out Aubry. This is my Survivor hell. I have nothing to say about it outside of what I can say about their characters in Pity The Living.

The medevac, to me, is basically the only worthwhile thing to talk about this episode. Honestly, I feel like I should anyways. The Caleb medevac was presented as a big deal- Caleb was like the embodiment of Survivor audience perfection. Manly, challenge beast, and seeming like he had a big soft spot in his tough guy side (that we all call Tai). His medevac was also genuinely scary. I don’t know if anyone else was ever medevac’d as close to death as he was, and his tribe was genuinely devastated. It is legitimately one of the biggest moments in Survivor History. The Neal medevac was sad, and it was surprising, but it was not played up nearly as much and only seemed to happen at the end of the episode because of timing. I feel like this moment will get lost in time, and that’s a shame, because to me I found it emotionally affecting as well, and I feel Neal is a good character, though certainly more like hidden pirate treasure, one that I think will likely get lost in time. Caleb’s had his time on BB and his Survivor stint, short as it was, was very memorable. If I gotta be the one to eulogize Neal, then I’ll take it. Moments like these, to me, are what matters in Survivor, not the strategic exploits of a useless character.

The Autopsy

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Again, the Autopsy of Neal himself is a quite literal one in regards to health- like Penner and Joe Dowdle before him, he had an infection right by his knee. This gives Knee Infections more successful eliminations than Eddie Fox, for the record. His infection- which he dubbed Mt. St. Neal, because of course he did- was far worse than others. It was open, pus-filled, and in a particularly dangerous spot, and even worse was far from his only one as he had worse ones on his back. This makes him the third Chan Loh out of six to leave the site due to infection, and Aubry isn’t doing so hot either, so it really makes me wonder what on Earth happened there to make everyone so dangerously sick… and it also makes me wonder why the hell in Cambodia they plopped ten All-Stars there anyways. Production just cannot get a damn clue can they.

Regardless, it was Neal that was claimed this episode, in a week where he and his best mate Aubry were already at the bottom of the totem pole. While this episode promised us the potential of a Tribal Council where Neal and Aubry potentially take out one of the Brawns with the idol, his injuries were too severe to let him pass by with a final hurrah. Neal was removed from the game and in all of the hullabaloo he chose to take his idol with him, leaving Aubry to fend for herself on the Kaohregon Trail.

As it stands, Neal wasn’t the biggest character, and he probably just cracks the top four of those remaining under Debbie, Aubry, and Tai. Still, there was a lot to love about Neal. I dubbed Aubry my random favorite before but as she gains a far more serious role in the season it’s Neal who feels more like a random choice to dedicate an article to. To me, he fills a sort of rare archetype in this show that I’ve mentioned before- the adventurous alternative businessman living up this time like a kid in a snow fort. He seemed to always be enjoying what was going on in Survivor, and the fact that he was playing it. He wanted to win and play well, but it was all about being there, being active, and being someone who mattered. Not in a Nick way where Nick pretends he’s Tyson for seven episodes while sucking at it, but in his own way, by being himself and by doing his best.

Neal’s not perfect, obviously. If you were to call him cocky or condescending, there’s not too much I can argue on that. He definitely puts off a surface level vibe of cockiness and sarcasm that seems to project a guy who thinks he knows the right answer all the time. Still, I think a lot of that is just a layer of character. Again, it’s not like Nick trying to be controversial, it’s like a guy who has a hard layer he uses to keep himself looking like the professional. It also seems like an attitude he’s had to earn from himself. As he learns he’s leaving the game, Neal tells Jeff a story about how Survivor both mirrored and motivated his rise from someone who didn’t matter to someone who owned a business to be proud of. As a fellow fan, I appreciate that not only is someone a fan, but they have such a personal, legitimate, relatable reason for wanting to be there. This is the heart beneath Neal’s shell that I loved so much- not just the witticisms that I always laughed at more than most of my friends, not just the adventurous spirit, but someone who can’t imagine being any other way- because he was, and he hated it, and he wants to pursue life to the fullest.

Again, I could sign off with Neal’s intro shot, as I technically am supposed to do, but there’s another one I’d rather show you. This photo below is of Neal hiking to the highest peak in Uganda, one that’s a good 15,000 feet, to plant a rainbow flag at the peak. Uganda is a nation in Africa with horrible anti-LGBT laws that seems rooted in the days where the Bible was still current news, and there’s a lot of ways you can protest that, but this one is distinctly one where I can only see Neal Gottlieb thinking to pull it. I’m a little too cynical to be impressed by every flashy act an ally of ours does to lionize it too much, but I think this is legitimately cool. It’s a bold statement, both to the adventure of life and to the equality of all, and I think once I knew he made it, I could never think too badly of him. Here’s hoping Survivor was a journey just as worthwhile to him. We’ll miss you, Neal. And your eyebrows.

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Pity the Living

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I’ll get a better quality picture next week whenever they give me one. As it stands everyone else has made the Darrah Johnson jokes better than I could, so I won’t even bother.

Debbie- Okay, there’s a way to kill the hype. I mean, I still love Debbie as a character obviously, it’d take a lot to change that. She was fun here, but this is the kind of trainwreck that doesn’t win Survivor. The weirdness and quirkiness, I could justify. The fact that her desperation and scrambling was painted as nearly destroying the Chan Loh tribe is less justifiable. We likely will not be entering a post-Wanner world anytime soon. Still, I love her and I’m glad she’s a presence on Survivor. I think she gets way too much hate- I saw people compare her admitting to crushing on Nick to sexual assault, which where the hell did you come from, and did you start the season after the episode where Tai tried to steal a kiss from a straight guy? I mean, I adore Tai, but if you’re gonna make wildly embarrassing accusations let’s get your double standards straightened out.

Joe- Joe is obviously not a big or important character but for my money he delivers whenever he’s on-screen and I’m glad Survivor cast him. His comments about Tai and the chicken (“He probably likes that chicken more than any of us!”) were plenty of fun and he manages to make FBI references without sounding tired and desperate. Cough Phillip Cough.

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Aubry is destined for great things, guys. Maybe she’s not going to win- her edit was great tonight in contrast to what all the edgicers say in their pursuit to be the most right about Michele at all costs, but certainly not perfect with a rocky start- but she’s going to be a memorable character. She manages to be a brutal, cutthroat gamer, and an unlikely underdog with a lot of passion and heart. We got to see her fight for her life, doing her best to right the ship that Debbie knocked about, and she got credit for that. More importantly, with Neal gone, there’s very real potential for a badass underdog arc that would rival many others. I hope Aubry succeeds, and even if it’s just for Aubry to get fourth, I’m glad the editors are making Aubry a legend in the making. Her Oregon Trail reference at the end basically trumps all “Survivor is chess/poker/straaadegy” references ever.

Julia- Eleven Nick confessionals. Zero Julia confessionals. Really?

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Deal with it, every moment he has on TV is awesome. I love how he’s gotten the edit of being someone who is just great at survival, and I’m happy he got second in the immunity challenge. I hope he manages to avoid being saddled with the Brawn bastards, but I guess that’ll have to be something to accept.

Nick- So exactly whose idea was it to treat Nick seriously and make it seem like he was good at the game? I mean, he spent six episodes being a total laughingstock who was too fake and too douchy to get traction. Don’t believe the hype, guys. This is what they did with Reed and Ciera 2.0. He hasn’t been to TC yet, he could still get screwed, so it’s annoying that the short term memory of the audience dictates he’s the most smartest player literally ever gaiz. I think we’ll be laughing at him next week and wondering why we ever took him seriously.

Michele- As a character I still don’t get the hype, and as a winner contender I still think she’s not as literally perfect as everyone thinks she is to the level of blistering condescension, but she probably is the best again by default of everyone else being so absolutely flawed. More than anything, she is being painted as the flaw in Nick’s plans. I could see her easily going against Nick and taking out Brawn, so at the very least unless they rehired the editors of Worlds Apart I’m assuming they fired (in a just world) there’s setup for her to be important.

Scot- Can we stop justifying every douchy thing this guy says and does?

Cydney- Better at detecting idols in pockets than Russell Hantz. I hope she destroys Jason next week. Quite fitting that Scot and Kyle did all their strategy disregarding her, I had a feeling she’d turn out to be just another bottom woman on their rungs.

Kyle- The guy literally gleefully compared himself to someone who shoves geeks in lockers. If I ever see him on another winner contender list I’ll flip. Another person whose actions are far more justified than his more innocent (and more female) peers.

My First Final Thoughts

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And you know what, so does this episode. Yes, I know they couldn’t have done too much with this episode having a case of Tribal Council blue balls, but I could deal with a setup episode when it was in SJDS. That had engaging characters, too intensely rooted sides with two intensely invested leaders who were naturally good characters. This was Nick overstrategizing for a situation that never happens, and it was almost half filled with the confessionals of useless characters while focus on Neal was all a giant cocktease and not nearly as a personal as it could have been. Yes, I loved the Neal moments and the Aubry storyline, and the medevac was pretty touching and in my opinion memorable- it follows the principle of how a room will crumble if you shoot the class clown- but as an episode, it was setup for something that never comes close to happening, not even a feud that can still happen. There’s not much else to say. I’m still tempted next week to write about, like, the history of merge flags or something.

-Signing off,

Cameron

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