Although reality tv contestants are generally reduced to caricatures by the shows they appear on, I always hope that at some point the genre grows up a little bit and depicts its contestants as something closer to complicated human beings. Almost all the time, though, my hope is at best quixotic and maybe naive, because shallow characterizations are so conventional that they've become an unwritten rule, and their producers seem convinced that such characterization is what audiences want. (They're half-right, of course.) Shows also have very little incentive to buck against conventional inertia because tv's structural limitations (namely, its episodic nature and its time constraints) bias the programs towards simplistic, over-determined psychologies. As a result, I'll admit that complex contestants are a pipe dream of mine, but then! For one eye-opening episode, Survivor (of all shows) demonstrated the possibilities that have yet to be explored in reality tv. As the series that brought the genre into its present form, Survivor has definitely distilled its contestants into broad types, and this season has hardly been any different. In the latest episode, though, all the flattening that they'd done this season was briefly -- tantalizingly briefly -- deepened.
The most egregious caricature has been NaOnka, whose volatility has made it extraordinarily easy for the show's editors to caricature her. NaOnka behaved brutally to Kelly B., an amputee; to be sure, she hadn't cut Kelly any slack for her disability (which, outside of context, is competitively honest and fair; I mean, in competition, you don't want to patronize someone by taking it easy on her just because she's missing part of a leg), but NaOnka veered into the over-the-top bullying when she went out of her way to pick on Kelly because she's an amputee. But then! This episode, she exhibited strategic savvy that her depiction would never have suggested before: she told Alina that Alina was on the outs with the tribe. What's more, NaOnka confided in Alina to gain Alina's trust and jury vote, a strategic move that would've been brilliant if NaOnka hadn't also, in the same episode, decided to hide a bunch of food and cooking implements out of a fit of pique. Still, we got to see her as something more than a mercurial loudmouth, someone who actually thinks beyond the immediate, which was nice.
The real revelation, though, was Alina herself. Although she'd been practically invisible before this episode, and although she was played expertly by NaOnka in the run-up to the Tribal Council, Alina during Tribal Council displayed some impressive Survivor acumen and awareness that you don't get the benefit of seeing on this kind of show. (And, believe me, I'm mad that we hadn't gotten more of her insights until this episode -- what a missed opportunity.) With the votes seemingly split between her and Marty, she argued to be kept around because at this point, she's a swing vote, and swing votes in Survivor can define the texture of the season. It's already an achievement that we got to see a reality tv contestant explicitly make this argument, but then! She summed up her view of the competition thusly: "It's pretty obvious if you want to be smart strategically in this game, you pick [to keep] somebody who's a pawn. And I'm a pawn."
Her argument drives at the heart of the Survivor Worthiness Debate that was most recently extended in Heroes vs. Villains, wherein Sandra beat Russell and Parvati despite being on the wrong alliance for three-quarters of the season. The debate boils down to: Do the so-called coattail-riders deserve to win? Though the intuitive response is to say they don't, I'd argue that when you have a player bulldozing through the season (e.g. Russell) or negotiating with their supposed enemies with a Godfather-like touch (Yul, Parvati), the best response is not direct confrontation, but compliance. If Russell inexorably poisons the whole jury against him on his way to the Final Tribal Council,, and if Parvati's notoriety is enough to make the more sanctimonious players reluctant to award her with the win, then why, if you're Sandra, do anything to give either of them reason to vote her out? Keep quiet, don't get into needless arguments, and collect your million. All apologies to Coach: in Survivor, iron may sharpen iron, but iron is useless against water's formlessness.
That's what Alina was talking about, as I see it. She was too smart to really be a pawn -- though circumstance had reduced her to such a role -- but to her credit, she recognized the situation she was in and gave the other contestants a double-edged lesson in Survivor philosophy: you need pawns to get to the Final Tribal Council, but the pawns, if played right, can become unexpectedly dangerous rivals. (I'll avoid extending the chess metaphor by saying pawns can be promoted.) I've never seen a reality contestant pierce through so many layers of competition to uncover and explain (brilliantly!) the impulses of a show's strategy, so of course, she was voted out.
(I could also point out the endemic double-standard of Survivor, where a strategically involved young woman who was nonetheless compliant with the main alliance was seen as a more urgent threat than a strategically involved older man, a guy who, by the way, has been ruled by his petty passions the last couple of episodes.)