'Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers' recap: This time it's personal

Photo: CBS

Warning: This recap for Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers contains spoilers.

For the most part, the gameplay this season has been predictable, and it’s made armchair analysis of the show rather redundant at times. There isn’t much nuance to unravel when a guy is booted for eating too much food or because he happened to wear a yellow buff once upon a time. There have been more intricacies in Jeff Probst’s speech patterns when he’s describing rewards than there has been dynamic gameplay. But last night’s disorienting descent into back-and-forth strategy and personally fueled payback changed all that.

I still have a headache trying to work out what exactly happened. Or more importantly —why things happened. The pieces kept moving around the board, then off the board, and I think some even ended up under the board. It was like playing computer chess against a machine that suddenly developed consciousness and decided it wanted to arm-wrestle instead. It was hard to keep up with all the action. So let’s try and untangle this mess together…

THE MOTHER OF ALL BETRAYALS

The episode begins with Ben retiring from his side gig as undercover agent and basking in the glory of a successful mission. The reveal of Ben’s secret life comes as a stinging betrayal to Chrissy, who not only considered him one of her closest allies but also a personal friend. “I had your back!” Chrissy declares, as the volume of bickering steadily increases. “Everyone that goes against you, you make them out to be the bad guy,” Ben retorts. It’s a bleak separation of what once seemed an unbreakable couple back on the Heroes beach. Chrissy continues, calling Ben a jerk, and he says he doesn’t need her “to mother him,” which is somewhat of an odd response. “How am I mothering, you? I don’t call my son a jerk,” Chrissy replies, which is kind of a hilarious thing to say during what is quite a tense argument.

Post-tribal management is hugely important. There should be classes taught on the subject to all future Survivor applicants. How you act after returning to camp following a blindside is crucial — for both the blindsider and the blindsidee. (Add those words to the Survivor dictionary.) For the victim, the appropriate course of action is to accept and move on. By all means, go and lick your wounds in private, but don’t cause a scene back at camp. We already witnessed the negative effect of a post-tribal blowup earlier in the season when Ryan kept Ali out of the Roark vote. The two Hustlers had a public spat and ruined any chance of repairing their alliance. Ryan has learned since then, as his actions this week and last prove. Ryan — and Dr. Mike for that matter — admit defeat and quickly blend into the background.

Photo: CBS

Chrissy is unable to let it go and goes on the offensive. But it’s not as if Ben plays his part particularly well either. For the blindsider, the smart move is to say “nothing personal” and… yep, move on. You shouldn’t gloat or become defensive or get caught up in a confrontation with people who are clearly going to be emotionally charged following the betrayal. I understand that these are real people with real feelings and that emotions run high, but that’s all the more reason to take a breath and remove yourself from a volatile situation. Chrissy and Ben both make mistakes here and turn the game from something fun into a personal vendetta, which ends with Chrissy promising to get her revenge on Ben.

WORST CHALLENGE EVER

The game becomes even more personal at the Reward Challenge when the castaways are reunited with their loved ones. Tears flow, hugs are shared, and Probst narrates the action like he’s never witnessed public displays of affection before. Now there is a lot I could talk about here. I could talk about Ryan getting to fulfill his promise of bringing his superfan dad out to the island. I could talk about Devon completely breaking down upon seeing his mom. I could talk about Lauren’s sister hugging Probst before her own flesh and blood. I could talk about Ben opening up about how his wife saved his life following his return from overseas combat. But no… all of that heartfelt tenderness is overshadowed by the worst challenge in Survivor history.

To even call this a “challenge” is pushing it. All it involves is pulling colored marbles out of a bag. If a player picks the same color marble as their loved one, they stay in the game. If not, they’re out. That’s not a Survivor challenge; that’s how your great-grandparents spent Christmas Day in the 1920s. It doesn’t even involve a balance beam! What’s worse is that Probst tells the players they will be “running in pairs, but not with each other — with your loved ones.” That made it sound like players were going to be tethered to their family members while dragging them through an elaborate obstacle course. I wanted moms and dads tangled in ropes, dammit! I wanted sibling squabbles the likes of which we haven’t seen since Colby disowned his brother for being unable to operate a bucket. We didn’t even get running! All we got was random rock-picking, which, trust me, was even more boring to watch than it sounds written down.

Photo: CBS

Anyway, Chrissy and her husband win the NOT-CHALLENGE, and she gets to choose three other players and their loved ones to join her on a barbecue reward. She naturally picks the two people who didn’t deceive her, Ryan and Mike, and then for her third choice, she opts for Ashley, seeing her as the most likely to break from the majority alliance. But if there is any doubt that these picks aren’t personal, Chrissy makes it pretty clear in her confessional: “Poor Ben picked the wrong time to pick a fight with me because he did not get to see his sweet [wife]. And now I’m going to make sure that he regrets that he ever crossed me.” Damn! Put some salt on that barbecue.

REAL OR FAKE?

While Chrissy is at the reward — cooking up her revenge plot against Ben by trying to persuade Ashley to flip — the ex-Marine is back at camp loading his own ammunition against her. He suspects Ryan’s idol, which was played at the previous tribal council, will be reentered into the game. With that in mind, Ben fashions an impressive looking fake idol, which he wants to plant somewhere around camp in the hopes the others find it. He claims to his alliance members that it will act as a decoy and give them time to go and search for the real one. But there is definitely some pettiness involved here. You can sense the giddiness in his voice when he says, “I hope Chrissy finds it and plays it.” As Lauren rightly points out, it doesn’t benefit anybody and only serves to personally hurt Chrissy.

Speaking of Lauren, the no-nonsense fisherwoman actually stumbles upon the real idol. Well, half of it, the rope portion. To claim the full idol, she must grab a shell during the next Immunity Challenge in plain sight. Lauren’s first mistake here is telling the rest of her alliance about the idol. There was nobody in her immediate vicinity when she found the clue. She could have quite easily taken it for herself and kept schtum. Also, I must say, that shell was extremely easy to retrieve. When they first started hiding idols in the middle of challenges in Survivor: Cambodia, it was both innovative and exciting. There was genuine heart-in-your-throat tension when Kelley Wentworth had to discreetly snatch the idol from beneath a table, under the watchful eyes of her tribemates mere feet away. If that shell got any closer to Lauren’s podium during this challenge it would have been in her pocket.

Photo: CBS

WHISPER SWEET NOTHINGS

The action properly kicks in after the Immunity Challenge — which was an actual challenge involving holding discs against a platform. A challenge that requires pain and suffering. That’s all I ask for, Survivor gods. Ashley wins her second Immunity Necklace of the season after Devon agrees to step down in exchange for a shoulder massage. It’s a bold display of confidence for the “25-year-old surfers,” to so openly air their allegiance to one another. It’s perhaps a mistake, as their tight relationship becomes a topic of conversation in the pre-tribal council scrambling. However, there is so much chatter and strategizing that their names soon become lost in the conversation.

Things start to get all topsy-turvy when Ashley talks to Devon and Lauren about potentially voting out  Ben. Ashley has been thinking about what Chrissy said and recognizes that she needs a big move on her Survivor résumé. It’s funny how certain words and phrases become part of the show’s lexicon. You wouldn’t have heard the term “Survivor résumé” five or six seasons ago, not unless it was from a particularly desperate castaway trying to break into the TV industry postseason. Now it’s something every Survivor player thinks about to some extent. Do they have a list of worthy accomplishments to present to the jury come final tribal council?

For Ashley, she’s probably right that she needs a big move to impress potential voters. She’s played a decent, under-the-radar kind of game but it lacks flashiness, and there isn’t a move for which she can claim sole responsibility. The problem is, if she made this move against Ben now, would she even get the credit? Or would that go to Chrissy for convincing her to do so? Even if Ashley decided to vote out Ben for her own reasons, the perception would likely be that Chrissy pulled the strings. Why? Because Chrissy has a more formidable Survivor résumé. At this point, Ashley might be playing for second place, regardless of what she does.

Photo: CBS

Ben, proving that he doesn’t need a Spy Shack to gather intel, overhears his allies discussing the vote by the well. Despite Devon pushing for Chrissy to leave before Ben, the former Marine hears his name come up among the whispers. He grows even more suspicious when the group stops talking after he joins them. The paranoia quickly takes over, and Ben scrambles to come up with alternative options. He approaches Mike and Ryan and tells them all about Lauren’s advantages, her Extra Vote and the shell idol. He says that she has too much power and that by taking her out they will remove the advantages and also put a dent in Ashley’s and Devon’s control over the game. Of course, Mike and Ryan, at the bottom and powerless, are more than happy to go along with Ben’s scheme.

The problem arises when Ben tries to bring Chrissy in on the plan. The personal animosity between the pair is still ripe, and it’s hard for Chrissy to trust Ben after he “lied to her for 31 days.” Mike says Chrissy is playing emotionally, and he worries that everything is going to fall apart and so he needs to come up with a plan B. Here is where things get even crazier. In order to cover his ass, Mike tells Ashley and Devon about Ben’s plan to blindside Lauren. He reveals that Ben spilled all of Lauren’s secrets. Seriously, people just can’t keep their mouths shut this season. Devon reports back to Lauren, who is obviously perturbed by the developments. Lauren tries to build a bridge with Mike, and in a perplexing decision, she gives him the shell half of her idol as a sign of trust. Mike calls it possibly one of the stupidest moves in the history of Survivor.

UP IN FLAMES

The action doesn’t show any signs of slowing down at tribal council. Ben and Lauren argue back-and-forth about the day’s events. Lauren accuses Ben of being overly paranoid and causing an unnecessary breakdown of the alliance. Ben justifies his concerns and continues to out Lauren’s various advantages to the tribe and onlooking jury members. In an effort to play down her power, Lauren confesses that the Extra Vote is back at camp and that half of her idol is with Mike, so she can’t play either right now. Then, as if to scorch that statement into the earth, Mike throws Lauren’s shell idol into the fire, making sure she can’t play it now or at any future tribal. A bold move from the crazy doctor.

Mike’s idol sacrifice ignites an even bigger explosion of tension and paranoia. Tribal is very much alive and kicking as various players pair off and begin whispering and sharing last-minute strategy tips. Lauren is feeling the heat and so tries to deflect onto Ben, who she says tried to embarrass Chrissy by making a fake idol. Ben says he’s put aside his personal beef with Chrissy and is no longer planning to use the fake idol, which he pulls out of his pocket and wears around his neck. It’s unclear which way the pendulum is swinging. Devon gets out of his seat and whispers to Mike to vote Ben. Chrissy and Ryan tell Mike to stay brave and vote for Lauren, which is a sudden turnaround for the woman who wanted Ben’s head on a spike an hour earlier. But in the end, they all vote for Ben, except he reveals his very real idol and cancels all the votes against him, meaning his single vote for Lauren is enough to kick her out of the game.

Photo: CBS

Wow. What on earth happened? Firstly, I can only assume Mike refused to vote for Lauren and so Chrissy and Ryan had no choice but to suck it up and go along with the majority. Mike has repeatedly referred to Ben as the biggest threat in the game, and he probably saw this as the perfect opportunity to get rid of him. He also knew that Lauren was now idol-less, having sent the shell to the fiery depths of hell, and that made her much less of an immediate threat. Not only that but she had promised to give up her Extra Vote advantage too. That is how I’m making sense of all the votes coming down on Ben. Obviously, nobody knew Ben had an idol, the one secret that wasn’t revealed in public.

As for Lauren? Yeesh. I understand the thought process of giving Mike part of the idol. It was a peace offering and a stepping stone to building trust. But that doesn’t make it any less stupid. Lauren knew for a fact that her name was on the chopping block. She had an idol in her possession, which if played would guarantee her safety for at least three more days. Why willingly give that up? And why to Mike? She just duped the man at the past two tribal councils and made him look a fool. He is obviously going to find it hard to trust again. It’s like handing your car keys to Shia LaBeouf. Yeah, he might get it back to you in one piece, or he might crash it into the side of an Applebee’s and get slapped with a DUI. Lauren overthought her predicament and took an unnecessary risk. It was a historic yet painful way to go for a player whose steady gameplay and straight-talking attitude have made her a surprising fan-favorite.

It might have taken awhile, but this season is certainly heating up in the homestretch. Despite that God-awful marble atrocity at the loved-ones visit, this episode brought a much-needed dose of chaos and drama to the proceedings. Now, with all the idols and advantages out of the game, it’s going to take some swift social and strategic maneuvering for the remaining six players to get to the end. As Ben promised back at the merge, there are going to be lies and blindsides, and someone is probably going to cry. Just remember — don’t take it personally.

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Ben: Honestly, I think every player made mistakes in this episode, including Ben. But he did correctly play his idol, and that’s got to count for something, right?

Devon: Again, I don’t think Devon played perfectly at all. Making his alliance with Ashley so obvious could seriously come back to bite him in the ass. But at tribal we saw him pushing for the Ben vote, and ultimately, everybody did vote that way, despite Ben saving himself with the idol.

Ashley: The same as above. She pushed for Ben to leave, and the tribe did vote for him. She also won immunity. It was slim pickings this week!

Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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