Survivor”’s decision to air a new episode on the night before Thanksgiving is an interesting one. While the show has historically chosen to feature a special “recap” episode at this point in the season, the shift to Wednesday has made it possible for them to more safely air a new hour of television during the holidays.

On the one hand, the decision could reflect a desire to maintain the momentum of what has been a really terrific season, one that has me far more invested in the show than at any point in recent years (where I rarely got through an entire season). However, more cynically, one wonders if this episode is airing tonight in part because the result is inevitable. With the numbers shifting last week as a result of Skupin’s change of heart regarding the original Tandang, the surprise factor seems low, and Pete and Abi seem like they’re on their way out.

Could they be airing “Whiners and Wieners” because it reaches an inevitable conclusion, and those who choose to skip the episode won’t miss much when they return from their holiday next week and discover that all has gone according to expectation? Or are they hoping it’s so enthralling that “Survivor” will be all people can talk about at Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow?

Click through for the full recap to find out…

Pre-credit sequence. When the tribe returns to their camp, Abi feels bad for Artis, and thinks they need another game plan. They fell asleep at the wheel, Pete says, and Abi doesn’t understand how it went down. She seems incredulous to the fact that someone might think “Keeping Tandang Strong” isn’t actually a useful strategy.

For the other side, it’s about finding a way to ensure that Pete and Abi go home before they do. Indeed, Skupin and Denise lay out a very basic plan: Abi and Pete are eliminated, and then the final six duke it out from there. It’s an ideal strategy for Malcolm and Denise (who are more closely aligned than some of the players seem to realize), and would probably work out well for a player like Carter (who, despite being incapable of completing a sentence, is very willing to follow a leader like Penner deep into the game). The credits roll with Skupin promising he has big plans for playing this game.

Breaking up is hard to do (even when she disrespects you at every turn). When they return from commercial, though, Lisa isn’t exactly sure she wants to be part of this six. Indeed, she’s sitting on the beach explaining to Abi that she has never wavered from their alliance. Effectively, Lisa sees this as a breakup, and she’s terrible at getting out of relationships. She’s lost her trust in them, and she finds them to be horrible people, and yet she just can’t quit them. Abi is trying to sell her on being at the top of an alliance—that’s a clear minority—but Lisa would rather be able to sleep at night. For her, aligning with the other five will better her time on “Survivor” and the rest of the life. It’s a bold statement, but Lisa’s gameplay has been so rewarding in part because of how much she’s worn her heart on her sleeve. It’s an honest moment, and one that quickly disperses with any notion that Lisa might be willing to stick around with Pete and Abi. The game is now 6 on 2.

Flipping a coin is harder than it looks. The Reward Challenge, however, is 4 on 4. With a spa day on the line—which yields excitement from Malcolm upon learning he could win a chance to wash his hair—the teams compete in a game of chaos and strategy: the teams each have three large medallions in the sand (with one of each in three circles), and their task is to—as individuals in a multi-round setup—flip your team’s medallions onto their proper side while also flipping back those from the other team. It’s the Red Team (Abi, Carter, Malcolm and Pete) against the Yellow Team (Skupin, Lisa, Penner, and Denise), which is very much divided along age lines. Unfortunately for the older team, this really is a game of speed: although Penner is great at strategizing in these kinds of challenges—think back to last week’s reward—Carter is simply faster, winning the first point based purely on foot speed between medallions.

However, as the next two rounds reveals, this is also a game that requires you to understand how it works. Despite Carter’s dead-eyed existence, it’s Malcolm and Abi who makes the mistakes: Malcolm forgets to flip the Yellow team’s medallion back over (giving Skupin an easy chance to get a point), while Abi proves why she’s sat out the majority of challenges when she flips over Lisa’s third medallion for her (“No, not really,” she says when Jeff asks her if she gets what is happening). Malcolm’s mental lapse and Abi’s fundamental misunderstanding of the game at hand give the Yellow team a lead until Pete outraces Denise to set up a rematch between Malcolm and Skupin in which Skupin “Pulls an Abi” and flips over the Red tile. With that, the young win a spa getaway, and the narrative shifts from naiveté to senility (if one can honestly make such a narrative as a group of incredibly tired people in extenuating circumstances race around flipping stuff in the sand).

The challenge doesn’t get a really long, demanding race, but it provided some excitement and the result is ideal: it puts Carter and Malcolm—the two people Pete and Abi probably see as their most likely alliance partners to turn the game around—in their company in a positive light. It also gives Carter a chance to reveal he doesn’t understand what a pedicure is, which Jeff is all too quick to take advantage of (so maybe he still thinks he’s a girl?).

Feeding grapes is not as hard as Carter makes it look. They arrive at the spa getaway to discover massage tables and bathtubs, and immediately agree they’re not going to talk about strategy (thus putting the kybosh on my thoughts regarding why it could be interesting). Abi loves that there’s no old people, and is all too willing to not talk about strategy, a suggestion Malcolm makes in part because he’s going to have to eliminate these people to get to the final three. Pete is smart and fit, so now believes he has the fuel to kick some butt, while Carter decides to feed Malcolm some grapes, because why not. The show wastes no time getting them back to camp, which implies they really didn’t talk about strategy, which really is pretty silly.

Foot in the mouth, but no foot in the door. But then again, Abi never has been great at the whole “talking” thing. Abi comes back from the reward and flaunts it, using words like “breathtaking” and describing her food baby in vivid detail. Carter’s favorite part was a spicy sauce—I know when I think of Carter, I think “Spicy!”—but Abi is now Cinderella of “Survivor,” plucked from poverty to become royalty (a cultural reference that proves valuable foreshadowing for Tribal). Malcolm suggests she has the social grace of a Mack truck, and she proves it when she hears her name in a conversation, gives a speech in which she quits kitchen duty, and just completely checks out of the game. A pouting Abi takes us to commercial, which raises the question: is there any way we leave this episode without Abi or Pete being voted off?

Together until the final four (or until, like, something else comes up). To keep things interesting, the focus shifts to the other side of the equation. Skupin and Malcolm make their plans known: Skupin knows Malcolm and Denise are going to vote together, and Malcolm thinks Lisa is the logical fourth. Of course, Lisa actually thinks Penner is more trustworthy is based on their transcendent conversation last week. Penner is uncomfortable with commitment at this stage in the game—relationship metaphors abound!—even if it means he could be blindsided, as getting ahead of the game seems dangerous. Lisa thinks it’s a missed opportunity for Penner, and then it’s settled: Malcolm, Lisa, Skupin and Denise disappear into the woods and make an alliance. Skupin thinks Malcolm is a gamer, and he’s a bit nervous, but he’s in it nonetheless.

Screaming can’t make an anti-climax more exciting, Jeff. It seems like a big moment in terms of the larger game plan, but it also adds a new dimension to the Immunity Challenge given that Penner and Carter are now officially on the outside and could potentially be voted out early. Mind you, the odds are against Pete winning Immunity—the only situation which would keep them from successfully voting out Pete and flushing out Abi’s Immunity Idol, so that suspense could be misplaced. But it at least adds some dimension to the typical “Thread an Object Through Ropes” task, this year featuring a buoy. The first round drops them to five, the second round (a balance beam) drops them to three, and then a water version decides who gets immunity.

Pete’s plight is finally mentioned outright, but it’s a quick end to the narrative when Carter grabs the final spot in the second round. Pete and Abi are left to sit out with Lisa, which is why the editors were trying to give Skupin and Penner more prominence in the pre-challenge editing. The balance beam has Malcolm and Penner struggling, with Carter and Denise joining Skupin in the final three. Carter continues to fight back against his edit by showing some prowess, figuring out a way to avoid leaving a boat the ropes are wrapped around. However, Carter’s strategy works less effectively on the next obstacle, leading to a close showdown for the final knot; in the end, though, it’s Carter’s second individual immunity win. Probst’s commentary makes this sound like an exciting showdown, but it’s between two members of a majority alliance, so his hysterics could only do so much.

We call the big one flighty. Abi thought today’s challenge was really swell, but bad news: she didn’t win, and neither did Peter. Sadface, y’all. So her alliance—which now includes the hidden immunity idol, which unfortunately for Abi can’t vote—is pretty much doomed, at which point Penner seems like the master planner: three vote for Pete, three vote for Abi, and if she plays the Idol Pete goes home. It’s the exact strategy every person who watches the show presumed would be in play this week, so it’s hard to believe it’s “Penner’s idea” so much as a group consensus. But the editors want to present Penner as vulnerable after his conversation with Lisa and Skupin, so he’s put front and center.

Meanwhile, Abi and Pete are scheming. They think they can convince Skupin and Lisa—the two people who just made a secret alliance with Malcolm—to get rid of Malcolm, who is too dangerous. Pete thinks Skupin is flighty, and Abi thinks Lisa is their better bet, but they’re going to pitch it to everyone. Lisa thinks it’s a wonderful plan, and pats Abi on the head for coming up to it, but now that she’s in another alliance she’s given them their word and that’s that. Carter mumbles that he’s in a pretty good spot, and Penner explains to Abi that he’s won his partners’ trust and has no reason to blindside someone and fit into that dangerous narrative.

But then Pete tests out his theory on flighty Skupin, who the editors reminded us earlier thinks Malcolm is a “gamer” despite aligning with him. Skupin proves a man of his reputation, wavering on his chances of winning against Malcolm and thinking about the potential to take Malcolm’s idol out of the game. It’s the snake in the grass for the otherwise completely predictable tribal council, as they make the walk with a clear game plan that could be totally upended at any moment if the editors are to be trusted.

Tribal Council.
At Tribal Council, Jeff seriously suggests that Abi’s smile at Artis is jury management, as though Abi is capable of thinking about her interaction with other humans on any strategic level. The conversation quickly turns to navigation: jury management, the idols floating around the game, and the general craziness of it all. Pete is blatantly scrambling, outright throwing the Malcolm card into play, but Abi—who is sticking around another week regardless—does seem to be playing a game. She apologizes to Lisa, and Jeff even helps her along by giving her an out: it turns out that this is a question about cultural confusion, as English is her second language. RC’s eyebrow raise properly sells the ridiculousness of this claim, which is effectively arguing that she’s only perceived as mean because she’s from another culture. Denise, measured as always, lays out the ridiculousness of this remark—as anyone who has ever interacted with ESL students, or people from other countries, would—but Abi isn’t backing down. She’s fighting back her “tears of being alone,” but no one’s having any of it, and no one truly believes that she is beloved among her friends and coworkers for her “feistiness.”

It’s an interesting conversation, because it reveals full stop that Abi’s “edit” is not just an edit. They’re not searching for eyebrow raises or eyerolls here: they are real, honest responses to someone the castaways genuinely dislike, a fact that seems to shock Abi, who never pictured herself as the unlikeable one. Jeff then interjects, suggesting it has to be cultural: Abi’s inability to read other people’s laughter and derision as negative couldn’t possibly be her delusional, self-centered personality, but must rather be that she doesn’t understand basic cultural codes. Right, Jeff. Absolutely. That makes perfect sense.

It only flames what is a completely ridiculous “argument”: Denise is plainly stating that taking Abi to the end would be seen as weak, leeching off the hatred of another play to win by default, and Abi decides that this is Denise spewing “hatred” of her own. Denise goes into full therapist mode explaining the gloating after the reward challenge and her “quitting” the kitchen duty, and Abi doesn’t want anything to do with her words and arguments and reason. She just chalks it up to “cultural codes” like someone who learned a new word for the first time (which, okay, is maybe not the nicest simile here—sorry, Abi), and Jeff sends us to the vote with a stock claim that with people on the bottom of the totem pole anything can happen.

The Vote. Nothing happens. Abi might hope Malcolm is going home, and she might play her idol as we anticipated, but the rest of the votes go exactly as we’d expect: three votes for Abi are tossed out, four votes are split between Pete and Malcolm, and then Pete is unceremoniously sent home in the exact result everyone presumed would happen when the episode began.

Bottom Line. This doesn’t mean that the episode was without drama, of course, but it was zero sum drama. It’s not exactly news that Abi is actively ostracizing herself at every turn, and the strategizing between the other castaways isn’t anything that can’t be undone next week. “Survivor” could have just aired a clip show of Abi being insensitive to the human beings around her and the other castaways making various strategy decisions with potential implications that never entirely materialized, and then included a title card at the end informing us that Pete was voted out at this week’s tribal council. It would have roughly had the same effect.

And yet this season has been strong enough that even a filler episode works better than it has in past seasons. We might have already had our fill of Abi’s battle with everyone else on the island, but it remains a sign of good casting: not only do they have the crazy person who creates conflict, but they have people like Denise who are able to engage with them intelligently and become exasperated, or people like Lisa who respond in measured yet emotional ways that diversify the conversation. “Whiners are Wieners” is an episode you could easily skip—which may be why you’re reading this recap over your Thanksgiving break—but it’s nonetheless part of a season that remains the best in recent memory.

Other thoughts on this week’s episode:

*** It’s easy to forget that Carter is even part of this game until we get to the challenges. Even as the episode goes out of its way to try to suggest some kind of drama among the dominant alliance, Carter is completely shut out from the narrative. I look forward to Dan’s exit interview, if only to hear what Carter spent his days doing. I bet he skips a lot of rocks.

*** One could say that Abi is a piece of great casting, but in truth it’s the people around her who made it work: Pete’s willingness to support her madness, and Lisa’s honesty about her frustration with it, were far more important to her longevity and engagement in the game.  It’s a really well-cast season on the whole, and in a weaker season I could see Abi completely derailing the game instead of proving a valuable piece of the puzzle.

*** I remain most invested in Malcolm and Denise, so their choice to make an alliance at this point is concerning to me. I understand why they made the choice they did: Penner and Carter are both greater threats (See: Immunity Challenge) and Lisa is the very model of a fourth-place finisher based on her struggles with more physical challenges. I do just worry that being the person to make that decision and push it does place you in a risky position, and I would hate to see either of them leave any time soon.

*** Dan will be back next week, but thanks to him for letting me fill in. I really can’t emphasize enough how transformative this season has been for my appreciation for the series, as I’m finally excited about it again. Hopefully the rest of the season lives up to the expectation.

Did you feel any degree of sympathy for Abi's cultural confusion? And does Pete's uneventful exit match his quality of gameplay?