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Is it possible that last night’s episode of Survivor: Philippines featured the greatest tribal council of all time? Probably not, but it was at least near the top and definitely one of the best in ages. It’s also possible that yesterday’s episode featured the greatest comeback/underdog performance from a player ever – that player being Jonathan Penner. Penner is a love-him-or-loathe-him character, with me falling strictly on the “love” end. He is a returning player (he participated in two other seasons, in 2006 and 2008) and is also one of the smartest, most entertaining people to ever play the game (which is surely why this is his third go-round). His casting on this season has worked out so incredibly well. In fact, the producers must receive credit for the entire amazing cast this season. Lisa, Jeff, Malcolm, Denise, and Pete have all played the game very hard and have made for interesting characters. The other two returning players this season (Mike Skupin and Russell Swan) haven’t worked out entirely well, but at least Skupin’s follies and Russell’s constant losing made for good television.
One of the many flaws in Survivor over the past four or so seasons (Redemption Island, the tired men vs. women aspect of One World) is that no one, outside of a select few people (Boston Rob, Russell Hantz, Marty Piombo, Kim Spradlin), has chosen to play the game hard. Those who have played hard have mostly benefited (all of those mentioned except for Marty either won outright or reached second place, with Marty at least making the jury). Those who haven’t played hard (Boston Rob’s tribe on Redemption Island, Brenda from Nicaragua, and everyone who wasn’t Kim or Troy from One World) has either seen the game blow up in their faces (Kat from Survivor : One World, Jane from Nicaragua), or have slipped through the game with nary a whisper (Dawson from Survivor: Philippines, along with many others). What’s been so great is that a good majority of players this season have played hard. Everyone currently left in the game has at least an argument for winning. This could not have been said about the past four seasons.
Even if you dislike Jonathan Penner (as apparently some people do for whatever reason), you have to admit that he deserved his good fortune last night. Not only did he win immunity, he also managed to get targets off his back for future tribal councils by sewing complete and utter discord in the many fractured alliances of the merged tribe. True he had some help from a hard-playing Lisa (and from Mike Skupin, who is playing a bad game but is kinda underrated at this point honestly), but Penner did something so unique (I’ve never seen anyone manage a situation this way except maybe Boston Rob) that he should have won more people over with his move, and perhaps solidified himself as the “Player of the Game” award winner (though it might be hard to unseat Lisa at this point). What exactly did Penner do? Very simply, he helped eliminate Jeff Kent (his biggest rival) by throwing out a garbage vote for Abi, which will also assuredly result in an Abi melt-down in future weeks, cementing further discord within the tribe.
This is why Survivor: Philippines has been so good. When so many people are actually playing to win the game rather than just make the jury or the final three, we get results that we never saw coming. Everyone expected Penner to go home tonight. Everyone expected him to lose that immunity challenge. The script was written, signed, and sealed. Penner would become the second member of the jury, and would get to sit next to RC (who has cleaned up very nicely) for the next few weeks and just listen at tribal council. But Penner flipped the script, voted out his biggest enemy (contrary to popular belief, Pete’s alliance is not Penner’s enemy – Kent is the one who wanted him gone from day one), and now he has a pretty good shot to make it much further than I ever anticipated, and potentially even reach the final three. The target has shifted from Penner to Skupin to Pete to Malcolm – even Abi and Lisa are targets now as well – all due to Penner’s moves and manipulation. His voting strategy in last night’s episode, which baffled me on first viewing, was downright brilliant.
Yes, tonight’s episode of Survivor: Philippines offered up some of the most delicious tribal council scenes we’ve gotten in quite some time – possibly since the Heroes Vs. Villains season (the last truly great Survivor season). I was ultimately sad to see Jeff voted out, but his constant whining about getting rid of returning players was his downfall. He was obsessed with out-lasting Penner and Skupin, when he should have been forming a final alliance of 5 solid players. He made the choice last week to target RC and Penner (who played an idol, saving himself but dooming RC) instead of solidifying his trust and alliance with the rest of the Kalabaw tribe plus RC, Skupin, and Malcolm, and has now paid dearly. Forget about the awful Redemption Island executions. Forget about Coach’s Pagonging of a season. Forget about the absolute mess of horrible low-lives that populated One World – Survivor: Philippines is the real deal.