Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“This is like a constant battle for me – good/evil, good/evil – and I really want to do good.”
– Brandon Hantz, Survivor: South Pacific
Wednesday’s episode of Survivor may have been my least favorite in the show’s 13-year history. Brandon Hantz, of the Louisiana Hantzes, had a complete mental breakdown. He threatened people’s safety and poured out the tribe’s rice. It was gripping viewing, no doubt. But it was also very sad.
Survivor is psychologically trying for even the most stoic competitors. You’re starving, freezing and paranoid. How many lawyers, middle-aged moms, Ivy grads and Boston poker players have succumbed to cry-babyitis? It’s no surprise that the game could overwhelm a 21-year-old kid who may already be a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
That’s what made last night so difficult to watch. Brandon should never have been cast on this season. We already knew he was unstable. In South Pacific, we watched as a tortured 19-year-old boy slowly unraveled on TV. He had a series of spastic morality crises that started with his agonizing over Mikayla’s boobs and ended with him giving up immunity to Albert and being voted out of the game.
Did we really need to see it all again? This season, Brandon’s been careering down the same erratic path. Since day three, he’s oscillated between sweetness and fury. On Wednesday, Brandon threatened to pee in the rice, decided to quit to be with his family, then resolved not to quit after all. That was all before his big breakdown.
When Phillip takes credit for winning the reward challenge, Brandon bristles. He was an anchor in the challenge, after all, and bore the brunt of the Fans’ early efforts. He wakes up enraged, confronts Phillip, apologizes, confronts him again, apologizes again.
Anybody but Phillip could have prevented Brandon’s blowup. The whole tribe sees that the guy’s psychologically fragile. But Phillip’s ego is as delicate as Brandon’s – he’s genuinely hurt when Brandon insults Stealth R Us. Rather than placate the troubled kid, Phillip tries to put him in his place. “You don’t slap the gift horse,” he commands.
The move highlights the distinction between Phillip and Coach, who corralled Brandon in South Pacific. Coach counseled Brandon and connected with him. That tactic may have been cynical and duplicitous, but it was also effective. (To be fair, Phillip 2.0 is highly reminiscent of Coach 2.0 – the Coach who came into Heroes vs. Villains with hand-picked nicknames for everybody but zero strategic chops.)
When Brandon finally does explode, the rest of the Favorites freak out. They decide, for Brandon’s health and their own, to sacrifice immunity and vote Brandon out of the game.
Jeff Probst wins the Fishy this week for the delicate way he handles the fallout. He immediately separates Brandon from the rest of the tribe to make sure he doesn’t attack anybody. He massages Brandon to cool the kid down. The visual may have been comical, but human touch can have a calming effect. And by keeping his grip on Brandon’s shoulders, Jeff literally keeps the situation firmly in hand.
But Jeff also lets Brandon have the confrontation he’s craving. He gets his chance to rage against his former team. Maybe CBS shouldn’t have cast Brandon in the first place. But since he was there, it was important for the full altercation to play out – both for the narrative of the season and for Brandon himself to get closure.
Jeff is at his best in high intensity situations, like Phillip’s racial altercation with Steve in Redemption Island (Why do these things always involve Phillip?). I just wish this season had fewer crises in need of Jeff’s mediation, and more strategy from the contestants.