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It is very rare in Survivor when you can point to a player and say that they really only had one fatal mistake in their game. It occasionally pops up in players who are far too much of a physical threat (Marcus – Gabon) or way too annoying (Wendy – Nicaragua) or just plain socially awkward (Peter –Marquesas), but I’d argue the traits in each of these examples are totally different from the flaw exhibited in Survivor: Philippines by Jonathan Penner this season. Penner, one of the most purely entertaining Survivor players in the history of the game, was offered a final four alliance with Lisa, Skupin, and Carter – and he turned it down. His rationale was that he didn’t want to commit to a group yet (especially one with Lisa, who had voted against him twice). Lisa and Skupin then decided to pair with Malcolm and Denise, and with that Penner sealed his (and perhaps Carter’s) fate.
Tonight’s episode pretty much makes no bones about who is going home at the end; Penner is a marked man from the editing to the confessionals and it is pretty clear that the audience is being set up for a wild immunity win by Abi-Maria. After last week’s debacle of a tribal council for the Pete/Abi-Maria alliance (which saw Pete get eliminated from the game), Abi resolves to win this immunity at any cost, and her scrambling and desperation pay off in the form of an unlikely immunity challenge victory (after winning a clue giving her a significant advantage in the classic Survivor auction). This is perhaps the third time we’ve seen this happen. In Survivor: Guatemala, Danni pulled off the same feat (eventually winning the entire game as well). Just one season ago, Troy won the clue and then the immunity necklace in just as unlikely a victory as Abi’s. History often repeats itself on Survivor, and I have no clue how the other players so easily allowed Abi to win the auction when we’ve seen a few times now that desperation in Survivor often breeds success in challenges (heck, a desperate Penner won himself an immunity challenge just a few short weeks ago when he needed it most).
The episode then proceeds to set up a Penner/Abi/Carter vs. Malcolm/Denise/Lisa ultimate battle with Skupin in the middle as the swing vote once again. Skupin, who has quietly become a solid player this season after not doing much for like seven episodes except hurting himself, is given a choice – should he save Malcolm and Denise, and solidify his alliance with them but possibly lose to them in a potential final three scenario, or should he save Penner, whom he feels he can beat in front of a jury at the end of the game. As noted earlier, it’s never really that compelling of an argument for Skupin, who decides to vote out the wild-card Penner, and stick with the people he knows and trusts best. They also happen to be the people who he can probably have a better shot competing against or scrambling with – Penner is obviously a resourceful player after all. The wildcard now shifts to Carter, who has been an immunity challenge hog and who threatens to break the alliance in the coming weeks if he can keep up his physicality.
Penner’s one big non-move, decided upon just a short week ago, ended up his ultimate downfall. This season has been super good (the best since Heroes Vs.Villains) mostly because of Penner really. The idea to split the castaways into three separate tribes was smart, as was bringing back the injury-evacuated players (sans Russell Swan, who flamed out spectacularly), but Penner really brought something special to the season, as he did in Cook Islands as well as his brief experience in Micronesia before being evacuated. His antics, long the bane of more serious-minded viewers as well as host Jeff Probst, delighted me to no end, and I am sad to see him gone. In a way though, his elimination from the game was probably a foregone conclusion, and I had mentally prepared myself for it weeks ago. This season will continue to be compelling, and I honestly have no clue who will win the game at this point. I’ll just have to soldier on without Jonathan Penner and root for a Malcolm/Denise/Skupin final three I guess.