The show opens at dawn on Day 22. The show always opens at dawn. There's always a new day in the outback, even if there's not a new story.
Kentucky Joe is singing a song for his fallen comrade. It's been two episodes since Mike, the scary religious hunter, was burned and evacuated. He's still the Kucha mascot martyr.
"Mike woulda been up three hours ago," says elderly Rodger (who's called Kentucky Joe by his tribe mates) to buff physical trainer Alica as he tends the fire. "From now on, every time we're around the fire we will think of it."
That's a lot of thinking about Mike.
What Rodger probably means to say with his indirect Midwestern-speak is that the four members of the Kucha tribe are spending a lot of time thinking about how they're all going to go down at the hands of five Ogakors because, in part, Mike went home in a MedVac.
"I felt like at the last tribal council we were outwitted by Ogakor," says Rodger.
And he's more or less right: When there were five members of each tribe, directly following the merger, Ogakor picked out the weakest member of the Kucha -- whiny Internet Jeff. Kucha foolishly chose the big, hunky and relatively charming Colby, apparently because he was a threat in the endgame.
With five votes against each, Jeff lost the tiebreaker. (He'd had one previous vote against him.) If Kucha had taken advantage of the obvious rebarbative qualities of evil queen Jerri, it could have voted for her and sent her back to the Los Angeles bar from where she stumbled.
Alas, on soap operas and reality television, the evil characters often win.
Now, Kucha has only four remaining members, Ogakor five. Rodger points out that Kucha could be "an extinct tribe -- no longer on the face of the earth."
It's a mildly offensive statement, considering that it's spoken by a glorified game-show contestant standing on the land where 300,000 people with roots going back 40,000 years were 80 percent wiped out in one century.
But Rodger's an old guy, and sometimes we give old guys little "get out of ignorance free" cards -- especially when they're carrying homemade fishing poles and dinged-up tackle boxes.
Rodger's plan is that he will keep catching fish for everyone and no one will vote him out. He's clearly alluding to the first season of "Survivor," where fat, naked Richard Hatch took the edge off his Machiavellian scheming with his ability to spear fish.
The problem in the outback is that pretty much anyone can toss a line in the river and pull out a decent-sized fillet, as we see here in one continuous-take cast-and-catch that takes all of 15 seconds.
Ol' Kentucky Joe doesn't have much of a chance.
To put an exclamation on the point, the show dishes up one of those cheap "Survivor" metaphors: A fish flops around in the dirt, gasping for air.
"This game has definitely changed," says Alicia, dragging out the exposition into the 10th minute of the show. She knows that the former Kuchas are in trouble.
The rest of this episode is going to be a thicket of editing to make us believe that the remaining Kucha members have a chance against evil Jerri, her minion Amber and the shaky alliance of chef Keith, nurse Tina and cowboy Colby.
Alicia is a little more realistic about her expectations: Those Ogakors better be nice to the Kuchas, she points out, because right now every single person will be back as part of the Jury of the Damned to vote for the final winner.
(We remind readers that the new combined, nine-member Barramundi tribe will vote itself down to two, and then the last seven ejectees, deemed the jury, have the opportunity to cast a vote to award the $1 million grand prize to one of those finalists. The "Survivor" endgame strategy is to screw over everyone and get to the end, but in a marginally nicer way than the person you end up there with.)
As if on cue -- wait, we are on cue; this program is all about editing -- the camera cuts to Keith sucking up to Ol' Kentucky Joe at the fishing hole, saying that casting lines reminds him of fishing with his "older brother."
Maybe he would have said "grandfather" if everyone weren't playing nice.
But Rodger's no half-witted octogenarian. He knows it's all phony.
"The million dollars, being the final survivor, is on everybody's mind," he says.
On cue -- again -- the camera cuts to Colby and Amber playing backgammon on the beach.
"We're exactly where we want to be," says Amber.
"We outplayed 'em," says Colby.
They say they're both sleeping better.
Keith, alone with the camera, is reinforcing the theme of this episode. Ogakor is playing like a team, even though Keith and Tina fairly hate Jerri. And Jerri, for her part, fairly hates Keith. She considers Tina disloyal and ineffectual.
Still, Keith says, rather lamely over a shot of him and Rodger fishing, that he and Tina would rather be left with "people we like at the very end."
Keith and Rodger might as well be hunting for red herrings.
Meanwhile, Elisabeth, the lithe shoe designer, is starting to buddy up with Tina. They've become "outback close."
Tina talks to the camera in second person.
"You go into a merger thinking that you're very much aligned with a team, but then as time goes by you might find out that there are people who are more deserving," she says incredulously.
Apparently Tina has just now realized that there's really nothing remotely deserving about a 30-year-old struggling actress who is going to be shilling for Reebok faster than she can say "endorsement check."
"I want the good guys to win," she says.
Speaking of bad guys, Jerri is worried. The camera shows her whacking tent stakes into the ground. She realizes that she's presiding over a fractured alliance. Keith and Tina could bail.
"Cannot be complacent," she says. "Your back will be stabbed faster than you can spit."
Like Jerri isn't sharpening more stakes than Buffy goes through in a month of vampire slaying.
In the next scene, the remaining Kucha members find out how annoying Jerri can be.
Tina starts off talking about cooking rice. Basically, she tells us Jerri lords over the process; she wants rice made to her specifications.
Elisabeth and Alicia are cooking while Jerri and Amber sit on a log on the other side of the fire, screwing up their faces. Jerri mumbles something about "crappy rice."
It's a classic Heather moment. Jerri and Amber make up just 20 percent of the new combined tribe, yet they somehow keep a larger group of others in a meek and mute thrall.
At least within earshot. In a post-cooking wrap-up, Elisabeth is pissed.
"Don't tell me what I'm supposed to be doing when I'm making you dinner," she says.
Tina makes one of her passive-aggressive digs in front of Jerri: "I try to stay away from the cooking so that I do not have to be judged."
This is boring.
Can't Jerri fall into the fire or something?
Where's that sneaky-looking crocodile?
What's the only thing less interesting than cooking dramas?
On cue, Rodger prays.
Elisabeth, finally, has realized the scission between Tina and Jerri. Now that she sees an opening, she tells herself that she needs to "get a little more ruthless."
The first step of her new ruthlessness is to tell Kentucky Joe and Alicia that she thinks that Tina has been weakened by her hatred of Jerri. This isn't news to either of them.
Alicia has also figured out that Jerri and Keith don't like each other much either.
While Rodger and Alicia fish off the band of the river, we see Elisabeth approaching Keith and Tina.
Alicia points out that while Elisabeth "seems meek and mild, she's a serious competitor."
We have now arrived in the Land of Denial.
Remember, no matter what happens, it's still five against four.
Back up for a second. Just consider that every single one of the Ogakor group knows that they are guaranteed to be one of the last five standing if they just vote together. That's it. All they have to do is play along with bitch goddess Jerri and it's a clean, easy game for the next four rounds. No one but Amber likes Jerri, but as everyone has pointed out, these people are out here for $1 million -- not to make nice-nice.
But that, of course, doesn't make for much drama in the world of reality television, so we're prepped for a half-dozen potential scenarios that could make the game more interesting.
Fortunately, we're given an award challenge to break up the political machinations.
Unfortunately, it involves boomerangs.
"The most popular weapon in Australia," says Jeff Probst, King of All the Dingoes.
We were going to make fun of him, but we poked around a little. It turns out that New South Wales saw 696 robberies with firearms in 1999. That same year, there were 3,515 robberies without firearms. We suppose that boomerangs might make up for that discrepancy.
Then again, we went a little further and found out that boomerangs really aren't weapons. Apparently, indigenous cultures in Australia did use something like boomerangs for hunting, but they were more like big clubs with crooks in the middle. They were used to knock out prey and they didn't come back if they missed.
Hey, that sounds like Jerri!
Australian Aborigines did have smaller, aerodynamic boomerangs as well, but they used them for fun, not hunting, as some people in Egypt did as well.
Anyway, there's a big target painted on the ground. Each person has to stand in the middle of it and throw a boomerang. The person whose boomerang comes back closest to the center of the target wins the reward.
The reward is a fancy meal. Jerri reads it out loud to everyone.
There's not much to say about the challenge. Jeff tells Alicia to "choose your weapon" from a table full of boomerangs. He insists on calling them weapons.
Then, each person steps up, acts like he or she knows what he or she is doing and throws.
There's a whipping and very phony-sounding phaser effect laid on top of the soaring boomerangs.
Only the weapons of Jerri and Amber land in the red circle.
Jerri wins, by inches.
"How ironic that you were the one who read the menu," says Jeff, pointing out a meaningless coincidence that has nothing to do with irony.
"Yeah," says Jerri.
And it turns out that she can bring one guest to share her meal.
She picks -- surprise! -- Amber, the puppy dog that follows her around, sniffing at Jerri's puddle of evil.
Amber makes a little disingenuous squeal and clasps her hands to her chest.
"I feel like I just won Miss America," she says.
Their reward is a classy meal. They ooh and aah over shrimp, rolls and iced tea.
Koala Jeff sits down and asks what's going on back at camp. "Things are going fine as far as getting along and everything," Amber lies.
Meanwhile, we see a big, happy family at Barramundi beach, relaxing around the dinner fire.
"It was the one time where I felt like we won the reward," says Elisabeth, thankful for the brief respite from diablerie.
They all stand around and talk about how they don't like Jerri and Amber. Keith says that he has cooked for two presidents and countless others, and he has never been stressed except while preparing food in front of Jerri.
They open a can of spaghetti and rejoice.
Meanwhile, Jerri has turned her reward dinner into a midlevel-management power lunch. Amber and Jerri talk about making sure Tina doesn't "stab them in the back." They devise a plan.
When the two return, no one at the fire even turns around to greet them.
Colby walks down to the beach and Jerri transmogrifies out of a piece of knotty old wood. She tells him that she's worried about Tina.
"Have you considered leading Tina and Keith to believe that you want the three of them to be the final three?" she asks.
"Oh, they're fully convinced that's what is going to happen," he says. "They thought that before the merge."
Off camera, Colby says that he had to lie to Jerri. But in his underdeveloped logic, he points out that it is "the truth, but just a ploy."
We're not really sure what the big guy has in mind. Then he comes around.
"Jerri doesn't deserve to win this thing simply for the way she's treated the people around her."
Go Big Red!
"I didn't like the fact that I had to lie, but because it was to Jerri, I didn't lose any sleep over it."
Is sleep a rare commodity out there? Are people staying up late playing spin the stick and toasting earwax on the fire?
Finally, in the last quarter of the show, we get a clue to where the rest of the show is inevitably headed.
Jerri says that Alicia is a threat because she's so strong.
"The men are sweating it right now over Alicia," says Jerri, who knows another alpha female when she sees one.
The immunity challenge is a large, three-dimensional version of a simple paper logic game, the kind that kids used to play in the back seat of a car sometime after tick-tack-toe and before GameBoy.
There are dozens of upright logs in a grid pattern. Each turn, a player gets to put a rope between two logs. When a player boxes off a square, he or she claims that square and also gets to place another rope. The person who claims the most squares wins.
It's a nice, fair challenge that doesn't give stronger players a physical advantage. But while it does involve some thinking, there's a lot of chance involved; with so many people playing it's difficult to strategize. Sooner or later someone gets to clean up.
Jerri takes an early lead with six squares.
God help us.
Keith comes in and mops up with 17 squares.
Amber gets 10.
Tina completes 16 squares.
Keith wins the immunity necklace again.
Jeff Probst reminds the players to come to tribal council that night, and then says, "Someone's going home tonight."
But no one is going home; all of the players kicked off from here on out have to stay around in the Jury of the Damned until the last day, which he'll point out later.
Someone's been in the pituri.
Back at camp, it starts to rain. We're reminded that it often rains before tribal council. This is held up, by Keith of all people, as some sort of evidence of "stronger powers."
If we wanted empty religious sloganeering we'd watch professional sports.
Alicia, not consumed by the rain from our dear Lord's glorious heavens, says that Elisabeth has convinced the remaining Kuchas to vote for Jerri with the hope that at least one of the former Ogakors will take a shot at evil Heather matriarch Jerri. At the same time, Alicia says that she thinks Elisabeth is being "naive."
"Colby, Keith and Tina would be foolish to vote Jerri off," she says.
At the tribal council set -- which looks like Stonehenge, which we think doesn't have much to do with Australia -- Dingo Jeff Probst is dripping from the rain. We notice, though, that his shirt is still half-dry, so he's clearly doing costume changes for the session. Still, he looks good and rugged.
He asks several questions that are all -- again -- just more smoke clouding the inevitable.
Alicia gets four votes.
Jerri gets four votes.
And Alicia gets the final vote.
The voting lines don't change. The Ogakors are on their way to a sweep to the final five.
Jerri smiles. The red herrings sleep well tonight.
-- Jeff Stark