Just because you're paranoid ...

... Doesn't mean that someone isn't out to get you.


Salon Staff
December 7, 2001 6:49PM (UTC)

"We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we chang'd
Was innocence for innocence: we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd
That any did." -- William Shakespeare, "The Winter's Tale"

In the late 1500s, the rougher classes stood in the pit and watched Shakespeare plays transport them to magical lands. There were plotting kings and beautiful princesses and once in a while a character was eaten by a bear.

And now, after 400 years of magnificent technological leaps -- and 400 years of oafish regression back to pre-Neanderthal entertainment values -- we watch reality television take us to Africa. Now, granted, "Survivor's" sorority girl Kelly is no stately queen, and tattooed marketing manager Lex isn't much of a beleaguered monarch -- he's probably not even the king of his local coffee shop.

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But tonight's episode of "Survivor: Africa," which centers on a ragingly distrustful Lex, is a little like Shakespeare's play "The Winter's Tale." There is, for example, unfounded rage, bizarre paranoia, a remembrance of lost innocence and -- yes -- even two lambs.

Unfortunately, no one is eaten by a bear.

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In "The Winter's Tale" the king of Sicilia, Leontes, incorrectly thinks his queen is sleeping with his best friend. He orders the best friend poisoned, throws the wife in jail and has his baby daughter abandoned in the wilderness.

Everyone around Leontes knows that he's being absolutely ridiculous. His trusted aide won't even follow orders and poison the friend.

But the thing is, Leontes' madness has real effects. His queen dies from grief. (This is a comedy, fortunately, and from a time before the days of reality TV. The queen miraculously comes back from the dead 16 years later. And there are weddings planned.)

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Although the subject of the play is, in a sense, sexual jealousy, its theme is paranoia: "The Winter's Tale" tells of a man ruined by his own delusions; scholar Harold Bloom called it "the story of Leontes, an Othello who is his own Iago."

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"Survivor's" Lex is like a stock character familiar to several other of Shakespeare's plays: the fool. But not strictly speaking: At the start of tonight's show he's raving mad and full of suspicion. Two people voted him at the last tribal council meeting, and now he's being eaten by suspicion.

"The person who threw that vote at me, and that now chooses to hide, torched me," he says. "And it pisses me off that I can't figure it out and smoke 'em out right away."

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In an early morning fireside chat with Kelly -- the buddy from the Boran tribe who helped him through the horrors of the Samburu camp -- he delivers a violent soliloquy: "Whoever it is who did this, that poisoned this with scheming, lying, is going to go down next. That's just the way it is. And I'm going to take him out. I'm going to slit his throat."

Freud claimed that all paranoids are fixed at a stage of narcissism. He claimed it could be tied, like most things in his theories, to sublimated homosexuality.

Kelly has a baser understanding. She listens intently, but lets us know what she really thinks later. "I'm sorry, Mr. Ego," she tells the camera. "Deal with it."

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Kelly knows that all paranoids, like Leontes, feel persecuted, but even more characteristically they're completely self-obsessed. Plus she thinks Lex is a poltroon.

Gay bartender Brandon, who knows something about self-obsession and presumably -- as a formerly married man -- sublimated homosexuality, finds the whole freak-out amusing.

"This one little vote is so inconsequential to the game, and it has so much to do with Lex's ego, that I could care less," he says. "Somebody was just screwing with his head -- and it worked! I actually wish I had done it."

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Of course it wasn't Brandon who voted for Lex. It was coach Clarence, who was dumped last episode, and "Coffee, Tea or Me?" flight attendant Teresa, who made a deal with Clarence that she would vote for someone else if he bailed out and let her win a grueling immunity challenge.

Lex, unlike Leontes, can't just order a bunch of killing and banishments. Instead, he's determined to finger the guilty party no matter how many metaphors he has to slay: "At this point in the game I'm worried that there's a snake amongst us and I don't know who it is. This person could act like cancer and start rotting our plans from the inside out. And that's why we need to smoke 'em out."

By "our plans" he means "my plans," and by "we" he means "I."

His strategy is a bit haphazard. There's certainly a lot of smoke, but most of it seems to be coming from his ears. First he gets Kelly to swear on her parents that she didn't scribble his name. Then he delivers woes to Teresa and tells her that he doesn't suspect her. Teresa just grins at him and thanks him for his confidence.

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Leontes had an oracle who told him that his wife was innocent. Lex has a sweet-voiced, blue-eyed snake-cancer who is going to poison his plans and rot his smoke -- but she's not going to admit a thing.

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The reward challenge this week is a springboard contest. Each survivor stands in front of a long plank and nine items. The goal is to get all of the objects into an elevated basket by launching them one by one off the light end of their springboard.

Tangent: We don't know what to make of this, but we have slow-mo on our VCR, and we wanted to point out that Brandon, for some reason, has arrived at this contest with "Single" written on his left arm in what appears to be Clarence's war paint.

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Everyone else on "Survivor" is using the show to earn quick celebrity they can parlay into a career in Hollywood. A couple are here to win the $1 million.

Brandon, on the other hand, is hoping that with 20 million viewers he might get a date.

Anyway, the springboard game is another one of those challenges that makes everyone look like a fool.

Suddenly there are sandbags and rocks and corn cobs flying through the air. Somehow, soccer star Ethan has a knack for it, while Kelly can't seem to make the board work at all.

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Lex comes close to catching up, but Ethan hustles back and forth, jumping up and down over and over to get the trajectory just right.

Ethan wins. His prize?

Two lambs! Er, goats.

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We figured those goats were lion food at best, ribs for Big Tom at worst.

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But it turns out that "Survivor" has other plans. The next day Ethan is going to take those two goats to a little town and barter them for whatever supplies he can get.

It's a setup for a segment that "Survivor" has only flirted with in three seasons, back when Kelly went to a "bar" during the first season. (The island bar was actually a fake set stocked with crew members and extras, but it was reality magic to credulous viewers like us.)

The next day, the survivors load up Ethan with all of their hats. They figure that if he's going to trade some goats for goods that he might be able to get something for their headgear. They want sweets and bracelets -- or, as it is most desperately put by retired teacher Kim J, "anything."

We know it's going to be a big day because Jeff Probst shows up in his cowboy hat, which is what he wears when he's excited, which is generally when livestock will be involved with the show.

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Big Tom excepted.

Cowboy Jeff leads all of the survivors out to a big truck to send Ethan off. At the last minute, Jeff tells Ethan that he has to pick someone to go with him. Ethan obviously hates picking a favorite, but in a snap decision he chooses Lex, because, as he nervously says twice, Lex came in second in the contest.

Frank, the humorless gun nut, actually gets off a good one: "Hey, if you've got to trade Lex ..."

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A three and a half hour drive later, the truck dumps Ethan and Lex in the middle of a one-block town called Wamba. The town is populated by African women dressed in brightly colored traditional clothing and men wearing blue jeans. There are dirty children everywhere.

The scene looks not unlike a National Geographic pictorial. Except, of course, there are two filthy white guys stumbling around the frame with a pair of goats and a camera crew in tow.

We love reality television.

Ethan and Lex know they're out of place: "This is supposed to be a reward? Not some sort of hazing?"

Part of the perverse fun of watching "Survivor" is assuming the role of an armchair survivor. (That and the mocking.) It's easy to feel superior to the players. We assume that we can springboard corn cobs better than them, or that we could deal with a steady diet of gruel without complaint.

Or that we'd be able to dump Brandon in the first week.

We admit, however, that all feelings of superiority vanish in this segment: We have no idea what we would do with a pair of goats in the middle of Kenya.

Lex and Ethan start shopping the goats around. They look ridiculous, but admittedly no more ridiculous than we would look. First, they balk when, in English, a man offers them "1,000" for their goats.

Eventually, they sell the goats to two men for "1,600."

The goats are promptly led to the butcher.

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A local guide -- the "guy in the know," Lex marvels -- leads the two of them to a restaurant. They ask for menus. There aren't any.

There's a vague scent of cultural imperialism laced with racism in this segment, and we can't really put our fingers on it.

Lex: "Meat we weren't feeling super safe about because there were a lot of cats kind of milling around."

Ah, there it is.

The two of them spend 1,000 on big plates of French fries, soda and beer.

Ethan makes a beeline for the outhouse.

After the meal, Ethan and Lex head to the market. They trade the hats, some sunglasses and Ethan's shirt for beads and bracelets.

And then we cut to a scene of Ethan playing Hacky Sack with the local children. It's quite an experience for Ethan, being here in Africa, surrounded by little black children and able to share an indigenous American tradition, at least among fans of Phish.

Ethan is caught up in the cross-cultural sweep of it all. "I'm sure they don't see many white people who can play Hacky Sack, or soccer," he says.

With the cool condescension of a professional sports stars tossing his jersey to an adoring kid, Ethan lobs his Hacky Sack to one of his new African friends.

When the kid goes home his mother will ask him what he's been doing. "I played Hacky Sack with a Deadhead who paid 1,000 for a plate of french fries," he'll say.

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Back at camp, the survivors are plotting. Everyone wanted to get rid of Clarence. Now, the plotting is more complex. First, Teresa puts the original, fractured Samburu tribe back together. That's her, Frank, Brandon and dumb Kim. With nine people left, the four of them represent a considerable voting bloc.

Lex and Ethan pass out gifts to the tribe. They hand out candy and cookies, much to the delight of everyone.

Then, it's back to plotting. Dumb Kim gently tries to get Kelly to join their budding bloc. The motley Samburu are going to pick Lex because he's been acting like a crazed paranoid. Kelly is sick of it; she's bending toward the Samburu, without making a deal.

The immunity challenge is a memory game combined with a scavenger hunt. They get 30 seconds to memorize the contents and placement of nine items in a grid. Then, they're given their own grid.

Buckaroo Jeff announces a particular square and the survivors have to go out and find the particular item that was in that place on the original grid.

The first item is a leaf and a seed pod. Dumb Kim, Frank, teacher Kim are out on the first round.

The second item is elephant dung. Kelly and Teresa fall.

The next round includes an all-new grid. The four remaining survivors get 15 seconds to memorize the contents and the placement and one minute to find all the items. Brandon collects six items, Lex gets five and Big Tom gets six. Ethan picks up eight of nine, and immunity.

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Lex announces with absolute certainty that he has uncovered his Judas. He's made observations. He's talked to lots of people.

Oh -- and Brandon, it seems, has overheard a conversation involving Kelly. He told Lex that he heard her use the word "free agent."

Here we see Lex's dementia plain. For the entire duration of the game, 20-something days, Lex has been a teammate and, ostensibly, in a loose alliance with Kelly. In the past three days, however, he's completely changed his mind, even though Kelly has sworn up and down that she didn't vote for him, and is now taking as gospel the words of Brandon, a competitor for the entire game, not to mention a guy with questionable motivations, not to mention myriad other unattractive personality traits.

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Kelly's turning," Lex tells Big Tom.

Big Tom buys it.

And Lex seizes the opportunity to suborn Brandon, telling him that he can join what's shaping up to be a Boran alliance in place of Kelly.

"I can trust him," Lex tells Big Tom of Brandon. "You know my gut is good."

That, folks, is rich irony.

Brandon on board would give the mostly Boran side five votes, and the mostly Samburu side four votes.

But of course mostly Samburu still thinks they're all Samburu, plus maybe Kelly.

Lex has a crazed look in his eye.

Near the big water cooler in the center of camp, the undecided Kelly -- now wearing braids and a new doctored T-shirt that says "[heart] my mom + dad" -- approaches Lex to see why she hasn't heard the way the vote will swing at tribal council.

Lex all but accuses her of being the rat.

His arms are crossed in smug satisfaction. "It seems alliances aren't what they used to be."

Kelly tells dumb Kim that she's in with the old Samburu.

Dumb Kim is a terrible conspirator. Talking with Teresa she makes the most obvious "we're plotting" face we've seen. We'd love to get her in a poker game.

The intrigue segment ends with Brandon explaining that he promised to vote with Lex against Kelly.

The plan seems like a betrayal, but it's actually kind of ingenious, both for Samburu and Brandon.

If he turns now, he could join the group that has the numbers to skate into the final five. Or, he could help Boran vote off Kelly -- one of their own -- and switch back to Samburu when both teams have an even four and Lex has the most prior votes against him. He also sets himself up as a wild card -- a guy without blind allegiances -- which could work to his benefit in the endgame without pissing anyone off.

It's kind of brilliant, and we admire his shrewd play.

And then Brandon says this: "Now I'm feeling like I'm in a power-play position, and that isn't what I planned on. It's very awkward, and I don't know what I'm going to do now."

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At tribal council, Jeff Probst, King of All the Hyenas, asks Lex if he was surprised to get votes last week.

He was. Jeff actually calls him out. Everyone always says that they feel vulnerable, but then they're surprised when they actually get votes, he says.

That's because they're lying.

Lex answers with some nonsense.

Jeff sends them off to vote.

Lex is particularly nasty in front of the ballot camera. We won't repeat it because it's just another string of jumbled colloquialisms.

Then, Kelly unleashes. "I couldn't be more excited to be casting this vote," she says, writing down Lex's name. "If this is the last vote I cast, at least I got to vote for you, who I've always found no fun to be around."

Brandon writes down Kelly and explains that he made a promise. We smell a trick.

There is no trick. Lex sweats for four votes. But Kelly picks up five. She's out.

Lex breaks a slight grin. Teresa looks confused. Brandon rolls his eyes.

Lex's madness has been rewarded. His paranoia earns real consequences.

"The Winter's Tale" ends strangely. A sculpture of Leontes' dead wife is brought to life 16 years later. Marriages are planned. Men are forgiven.

You can bet when the statue of Kelly is dusted off at the final tribal council, when she will return as a member of the Jury of the Damned that picks the winning survivor, she won't be so charitable.

(Jeff Stark)

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Salon Staff

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