Back to Alaska
ALL-STAR ALASKA: Behind the Scenes (episodes 4-5)
by Mario Lanza
(Note: These articles give away the whole plot, so don't read this if you don't want to know the winner of Alaska. Read the story first!)
EPISODE 4 (Respect Your Enemy)
This was a big episode, as we broke a few rules this time. First off, we booted possibly the most popular male Survivor of all time, in Jeff Varner. And let me say that was not a popular decision. We got more flak from the fans over this than anything else that happened in either season.
Secondly, I actually let Murtz (S-C webmaster) have some input as to what would happen in this episode (something I never, ever do in general). And I like Murtz, we get along great, but the general rule is that we are both too stubborn to ever work together, so until this point I had always politely asked him to stay away. It just worked better that way.
And of course, the third rule we broke is that I missed the posting deadline for this episode by about five hours. Normally, I am very, very prompt about getting the episodes posted when I promise them, and this one turned out to be five hours late. It wasn't my fault, I swear, but holy crap, people went crazy over this. Murtz was deluged with email about the delay, and the people on the message boards were tearing their hair out. It was kind of comical afterwards, but at the time, I think people were literally calling for my death. Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad, but there was definitely some pressure there to get it posted.
To defend my own honor here, the reason it was late is that I was stuck in a car in Death Valley. I thought we would be coming back from a Las Vegas trip earlier than we did, and since I wasn't driving, I had no say over the matter. But what that also meant is that I had four extra hours to proofread and edit this episode. It got much more fine tuning and nitpicking than I normally do, because I was stuck in a car with nothing else to do.
And this goes to rule #4 that we broke: Don't do too many rewrites! I normally don't like rewrites. I prefer to get the episode done in one try, and then fine tune little bits and pieces to make it as good as possible, and then post. I don't like to dwell over episodes much, because I will dwell over them forever. Once you post, you're done with it, and that's how I like to work. But this one got a bunch of rewrites, and tweaks, and attention to detail. And (probably not a coincidence) it turned into one of the best episodes of either series, simply because of all the extra attention it got.
The writing of this episode was assigned to Kixxy, who was one of our more prolific writers from Hawaii. This was to be her first Alaska episode, but it didn't end up that way. At the time, she was swamped with schoolwork, and going through final exams. This is something I kind of forget to factor in sometimes, that two of our writers (Ryan and CJ) are still in high school, and don't always have time to write. They have schoolwork and issues that I don't have to deal with on a daily basis. And since Kixxy was swamped with work, I had no choice but to write this one myself. Like I said earlier, I'm kind of a control freak who, in a perfect world, wants to write them ALL, so I didn't mind that much.
After all, it was going to be Jeff Varner's exit, so I wanted to make sure it came out just perfect. I knew we would get savaged by the critics if we made him come off bad.
Also at this point, the time deadline was starting to become an important issue. With the Hawaii story, we alotted a maximum of six days for each episode (start to finish). That was very stressful, and I wanted to avoid it with Alaska if it all possible. So we started Alaska about a month early, just so we would have some breathing room and would never get to the point where we were writing as we were posting. I also alotted just five days for each Alaskan episode, if possible, just so we wouldn't get lazy and slack off on the pace. But, of course, that didn't last long. This episode (ep.4) was the one where the deadlines got completely screwed up, because we DID get lazy. Kixxy took 7 days on this one, before she realized she couldn't do it. Then I took 7 days of my own, and our 4 day deadline suddely became 14 days. Way to go, us. And the next two episodes got progressively worse, so by the time we got to episode seven, we were writing them AS they were posted. And trust me, that is a terrible way to write. Alaska eventually became MORE stressful to write than Hawaii, and it all started with this one. Damnit.
On to the actual episode...
Elisabeth has a nice moment right at the start where she bemoans all the drama in camp, and wishes they could just all get along. Keep in mind later that a few people complained that we were unfair to Elisabeth, and made her too bitchy. But at this point in the story, she got a lot of nice moments, like this one. In fact, this one is really her episode. She really gets a chance to shine (and win a challenge as well!)
Elisabeth explains the situation in camp (another of my favorite exposition tactics) and then Greg points out an interesting observation about Kelly:
"She's not as pouty as she'd have you believe," noted Greg, "I mean, that's the image she wants to give off, and maybe there's some genuine hurt there somewhere, but she's playing her own game, in her own way. It's just another strategy, and one that I think very few people have noticed."
I liked that moment, because it made you view Kelly in a little different light. She's not JUST a sad sack, she is being a loner on purpose. She just wants to avoid the fireworks and drift from moment to moment. It's a pretty good strategy, and it helped give her a little chracter as well.
But the main plot in this episode is the Brian-vs.-Jeff showdown, which had been building for a while now. It was clear from day one that the two of them couldn't both exist on the same team, and eventually one would have to go. And in my mind, it was pretty clear that Jeff would lose that showdown, in fact it was pretty easy to see that back at the start. Brian just had more allies, so Jeff was never going to have a chance.
A subplot that sprang up from this showdown was the "Everybody wants to vote Brian out" plot, which was unintentional. I didn't even mean for that to happen, but it just developed, so we went with it. Everyone in Amarok wants to take Brian down, for their own personal reasons. Tom, Clay, Silas, Tammy, all of them mention it at some point in the story, that they want him around for now because they know they can get rid of him later. And it was really frustrating to me that a lot of people complained that Brian was "coasting to a win" again. People just didn't seem to catch the subtext that Brian was doomed. There was no way he was going to win. Just because he wasn't voted out right away didn't mean he had any power. So yeah, I was a little upset that so many people didn't catch this, and weren't looking at the big picture. Brian was only coasting because the other players let him coast.
One of my trademarks is to go on the message boards and respond to all the comments about Alaska, both good and bad. And of course, I have to defend our choices. Trust me, with a fan base as proprietary as the Survivor one, you are bound to get critics at any point for any reason. So it's my job to defend our story. I will stand my ground and defend it to death, even if I think we were wrong. I try to never admit we screwed up (even if, deep down, I think we did.) It just makes it easier if we look confident, because then people think we know what we are doing. And I quote the great Jonathan Lipnicki (from Jerry Maguire) here, as he said, "Bees and dogs can smell fear." I think that speaks for itself. You don't want to show weakness, because the critics will tear you apart. There's my advice to all writers of such stories, be confident in your choices and don't back down for an instance, otherwise they won't respect you!
But all the anti-Brian criticism legitimately bothered me. I responded to a lot of comments about it, but I tried really hard not to beat people over the head with the foreshadowing. I just tried to repeat over and over that "You realize that the other players don't like Brian, right? Just because they haven't booted him yet doesn't mean they won't do it later." So yeah, I was a little upset that we didn't get more credit for this plotline. Everyone seemed to want the immediate gratification of a Brian boot, and I thought we should draw it out for a while. I thought it would be a better story if he got his comeuppance later down the road (and he did, via Helen). In my mind, the only real suspense would be who would be the one to cut his throat. I honestly thought it would have been his protege, Silas, because the story was set up perfectly for that. But for whatever reason, that plotline never worked out, so Helen ended up winning the Brian sweepstakes. But it was okay, since she owed him one.
This episode is also significant in that it sets up Greg's mindgames, where he just messes with Jerri's head, for no apparent reason. It's a fun game now, but gets significantly more evil as we go on...
It was almost boring to him, to just talk to females in a normal manner. So what he did instead was play mind games. He would tailor his conversations and persona to each individual person he talked to, almost like having multiple personalities.
"He's insane," Jerri griped, "You can't do anything with a guy who isn't all there, it's like talking to a brick wall."
The reward challenge in this ep is the "treasure hunt", which I made up, and was one of my favorites. I wanted to give them all a task, and keep it from being too complicated, so this is what I came up with. I also wanted to use mud (Alaska is famous for mud in the summer, when the ice melts) so Gina and Helen got to dig in mud at the end.
The girls won (I had to think up a way for them to win, so I came up with Tom accidentally turning the map backwards) and they stole Paschal in the Red Rover swap. This was one of our most controversial Red Roverings (and no one predicted it!), but it seemed right to us. None of the other guys really seemed like the right choice. Silas was cute and strong, but we had set it up where they couldn't stand him, and Helen's vendetta against Brian was important, but could wait for a while. But the main reason here was that Gina and Elisabeth pretty much ran the camp, they called the shots, and they could pick whomever they wanted. By picking Paschal, they chose "the nice guy" and also helped tell Jerri that she was not making the decisions here. They overrode her, and it was a nice power struggle. It also set up the "Jerri is isolated" subplot.
And a lot of people commented on this line, saying they could totally picture Gina saying it:
"Hey Amarok," called the tall Floridian, "Red Rover, Red Rover, send Pappy right over!"
Right after the challenge, camp Amarok is destroyed by a bear. Now, this meant nothing to the outcome of the game, I just added it as a fun Alaskan detail. I wanted to remind people that the story was set in the woods, and that the players did have to be careful out here. Plus if you go back to episode two, we foreshadowed it with Rudy's warning to Silas. Congratulations to Henry Jenkins, one of our readers, who totally caught the foreshadowing and predicted that would happen. Oh yes, there was one other small reason for this scene, and that was we needed a new leader in Amarok, with Paschal gone. Silas took the lead in rebuilding the camp, so we helped establish the fact that this may be his tribe now. Someone needed to step up, and he tried his best. Unfortunately, though, we never really explored this plot as much as we could have. Sometimes subplots just fall through the cracks and disappear.
There was also one of the aforementioned snow scenes in this one, where Tammy and Jeff walk in the snow and talk about strategy. It was a very nice scene, great character development for both of them. One of my favorite scenes of the series.
And onto the immunity challenge... ahh yes. The Devil's Club. No one will forget the Devil's Club challenge, where they have to hold pieces of thorny vine in their hands until they give up. It was pretty sadistic. Devil's Club is a real plant, and I have a funny little story about it, which shows why I used it in a challenge. In 1987, I was at summer camp in Washington's Cascade Mountains. We were on an overnight in the woods, and while going for a hike, I saw a bunch of signs that said "Devil's Club Nearby! Beware!" They were all over the place, and had things like skulls and crossbones on them, and I was terrified. You see, I was a big fan of horror movies, so I had an active imagination. In my youthful ignorance, I knew we were stranded in the woods, and there was a "club" of devil worshippers around here, and they were going to kill us. They were going to murder us and use us for sacrifices, and our bodies would never be found. Needless to say, I was TERRIFIED the whole trip.
I found out a few years later that Devil's Club is just a plant. I wish I had known that at the time. But it is a nasty spiky scary plant, and you don't want to touch it, or you will be in severe pain. It supposedly feels like "nettles, if they were made out of glass." And when I found out that Denali has a lot of Devil's Club growing inside it... hell yeah, I'm gonna use that in a challenge! So I came up with this one, where they hold a piece of it for as long as they can. It sounds very nasty, very painful, and probably not realistic in the slightest. But it was fun to write!
If you are curious, here is a description of Devil's Club, along with a closeup.
There were a lot of good moments in the Devil's Club challenge but the best was Elisabeth beating Tammy at the end. Was that realistic? I don't know. A lot of people questioned that Tammy would lose to anybody, but it was great drama. I really wanted people to cheer for Elisabeth, I wanted her to have as many ups and downs as anyone in the series. And this was the highest of her highs. Remember that if you felt we screwed her later down the road, she did have a lot of high moments early on. Besides, she is a pretty spunky girl, she's got willpower. I think she could hold her own against Tammy if she had to.
"Elisabeth kicks butt in the challenges," grinned Kelly Wiglesworth.
This was an inside joke for fans that watched the Australia season. For those of you who weren't around back then, this quote was "supposedly" said by Jeff Probst in an interview, and was supposed to give away the fact that Elisabeth won Australia. It turns out Jeff never said it, and it was all just a red herring, but a lot of people fell for it at the time. So there's my inside joke to the spoiler community. Hope you enjoyed.
The end of this ep came with Tammy and Jeff trying to get Silas's vote. I really liked this angle, because it made Silas much more of a player and less of a doofus. He really thrived here, in a power position, and it helped his character a lot. The way he spoke down to Tammy was pretty cold-hearted, I bet she isn't used to having people turn their back on her.
"Fine then," he said, walking away, "It's your funeral. Save your own ass if you want, but Varner is a sinking ship, baby. Come play for the winning team."
The only other important thing at the end was Tom revealing to Clay that he is much, much smarter than he lets on. I liked this scene, although Murtz thought I should cut it. He said it was too over the top. But as always, I usually win the editing showdowns.
"And then," said Tom, "We take care of Brian. The ol' coup d'etat."
Clay looked at him strangely.
"D'the hell you hear that word, Fatty," he teased, "What'd you, see it on an episode of Hee Haw somewheres?"
Tom grinned. He winked.
"Gov'ment studies, East Tennessee State. Almost majored in it."
Clay just stared at him. He whistled in awe.
"Well, hell, you sly dog..."
And yes, Tom really did go to East Tennessee State, although I have no idea if he took a government class or not. I'm guessing not.
The end, with Jeff's boot, I thought came off perfectly. Silas tells Tammy to piss off, she realizes she has let Jeff down, and then has to vote against him to save herself. As one reader told us, Tammy and Jeff's relationship was "almost romantic." I loved how Tammy came off here, she was turning into one of my favorite characters by now.
Jeff turned around and gave a slight nod to Brian, one schemer saluting another. Brian caught it and nodded back, saluting with two fingers, a symbol of respect. Just too similar, that had been the problem all along. Brian then retrieved Jeff's torch for him, handing it to his defeated rival.
This scene was Murtz's idea, to have Brian hand Jeff his torch, as a sign of respect. Murtz loves shows of respect, and it seemed to work pretty well here. I'm not sure if it was entirely in Brian's character, but it was a nice moment. As I said, normally I won't let Murtz have any input, because the two of us are so stubborn and opinionated and simply cannot work together. But for a while here, he was helping out and this was a great touch.
I loved the ending to the episode. True, we lost Jeff, but he went out as well as anyone ever did in either
series. If that's not a show of respect, I don't know what is.
The fallout over Jeff's boot was, of course, predictable. People hated it. We heard a lot of "Bring Jeff baaaaaaack!" But there was really no way around a Jeff boot, it was going to happen either this episode or next. So I ignored most of the criticism, most of it was silly anyway. Some people legitimately wanted us to change the rules so Jeff could come back later. And this was more than one person, too, people actually wanted that to happen. But if people had a logical way we could have spared Jeff at this vote, I would listen, but for the most part I just ignored the fallout. I knew we had the logic behind us on this one.
Besides, we brought Jeff back for a challenge anyway, so everyone was happy...
EPISODE 5: A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS
I have a soft spot for this episode because I loved the damsel subplot. But at the same time, this ep was one of the bigger pains in the butt to write. We started this episode on Dec.16, which was four days before we started posting Alaska. I had really hoped that we would finish six episodes by the time we started posting, but we really got bogged down by now. For one thing, everyone was busy. Kixxy was going through finals, Ryan had some out of state conferences to attend, and CJ had things to do as well. I had just done the last two episodes, so a third consecutive one was a little much, and if I remember right, Kixxy was going to try to do this one. Unfortunately, she got so bogged down with school and finals work (understandable) she never got to finish it. Like I said, I often forget that other people have stuff to do too, so after three days, I asked if she wanted me to write it instead and she was grateful. I think she was having a hard time with all this stuff piled on her at once.
So I decided to do day 13, and suggested Ryan do day 14. This was the first real co-written episode. I don't like doing those normally, but for time reasons we had to. We were falling drastically behind and with the posting date coming up, I wanted to make sure we had time. We had already done the coin flips, so we knew this was Jerri's swan song, and we knew it would be a memorable episode.
I started with Kelly and Jerri sitting up on a hill, observing the camp below. This was one of my famous "summary exposition" scenes, where I use a scene as an excuse to just summarize how everything stands at the moment. Those are always a valuable tool, especially as a writer, because they get me back into the mood of the episode. I like to put them at the start, because they remind me what the plot of the episode should be.
"It's a game," Greg was fond of saying, "A big game. Social interaction is the disguise, but the raw brutality of it all is that you turn against one another in the end. No one can get through it without stabbing someone in the back at some point, and if you ever forget that, it can mess you up." He liked to talk big, but the truth was that most of Greg's theories were just that, talk. He had yet to put any of his plans into action, and many on the camera crew considered him to be all theory, no practice. There was a running bet if Greg would ever morph into the cold-heated manipulator he claimed to be. But one thing was growing pretty clear, and that was that Greg honestly liked Paschal, and it was causing him some inner turmoil.
One odd thing you will note above is that Greg is conflicted about voting for Paschal. We still hadn't decided if Greg would be a villain yet. We knew he had the potential for evil, but at this point we still saw him as a tragic good guy. We thought he was all talk, and that the Paschal-Greg story would turn out much, much differently. I honestly thought Greg would take a fall for the judge at this point.
Brian Heidik had a lot of things going for him. He was smart, he was good looking, he was likeable, and he was shrewd. But most of all, he was cocky. Brian was so cocky, in fact, that he was planning on pulling Helen over to Amarok. He knew that she was his greatest danger in the game. Her wounds were fresh, her anger was very real, and he wanted her gone, gone, gone. Now that Jeff had been eliminated, Helen was perhaps the only thing between him and victory.
"Vote Helen off, take Clay to final two," he had explained in a confessional. "Just like before. Brian wins."
Brian fully expected to win this game again. You see, cocky was almost too subtle a word to describe Brian Heidik. It wasn't enough to win once. He had to win twice. They won't be expecting the exact same strategy again, he thought. They won't see it until it's too late.
This was also the peak of the Brian-is-cocky subplot. Lots of people wanted us to have Brian pull Jerri to Amarok, but that never crossed our mind for a second. He's such a control freak that I never even gave a second thought to him wanting a wild card around. Some readers thought differently though! And he wanted Helen, but in the end, no one else did (ie, Clay), so they swiped Gina instead. The damsel in distress. But I do wonder if the story would have been different had Amarok swiped Jerri instead of Gina...
I came up with the zipline challenge, which was fun to read but if you think about it, isn't all that much of a challenge. They are just gliding down a rope, there's not a whole lot of skill involved. It's just gravity and hanging on. It was fun though, particularly Tom's comic relief and Greg's taunting of Probst. This is the episode where Jeff finally snaps and he and Burnett tell Greg to shut up.
Oh yeah, and here's a funny scene that was cut. Right after Burnett tells Greg to show some respect, I had Greg agreeing, and then when Burnett was walking away, Greg yelled loudly, "No I won't sleep with you for a million dollars!" It was deemed to be too over the top and cut. Oh well.
The Gina Red Rovering comes out of nowhere, but I liked it a lot as a plot twist. It would have been either Elisabeth or Gina, but we felt Elisabeth was, truly, more of a mascot. Gina is a workhorse, and although she isn't really a leader by personality, she leads by example, so that was the basis for her choice. And it was great that turncoat Tammy got to choose. You know she just loved that moment.
"Gina," she said, a small smile on her lips, "Elisabeth is just a mascot. Take Gina." Tammy's eyes were dark under her shades, but it was obvious to all that she loved making this choice.
With Gina on Amarok, we had a strange dynamic over there now. Gina-Tammy-Silas were kind of a weird little sub-friendship. And it was my goal originally to have Gina help take down Brian, and help get him eliminated. I originally wanted her to tip off Tuktu that Brian needed to go. But this sideplot never quite worked out, it never really seemed right (and Murtz had STRONG reservations about making Gina do anything strategic whatsoever - I honestly think he would have preferred if she had just sat there and twiddled her thumbs). But I did like the Tammy-Gina friendship, even if it was a bit forced. Another idea I had (that was never used) was to have Gina be forced to choose between Elisabeth and Tammy down the line, but she wasn't with Tammy long enough to make that choice realistic. It never panned out, but it would have been fun.
The end of episode five was the downfall of Jerri. This was something that I was a little nervous about, too. I knew she would go out with a bang, there was no way we could have her be so mellow and laid back up to now, without giving her a chance to revert at the end. Jerri had been playing it nice up until now, and unless you were paying attention to the signs in the story, her tantrum was going to come out of nowhere. Her setup of Kelly was planned early on, and you could see it coming if you read closely. And now, it was time.
This was one of the few subplot setups that actually reached fruition. As you can see, a lot of our ideas never pan out, due to changes in the story. But Jerri's meltdown actually reached payoff. And as for Jerri's actual downfall, I wrote it up three different ways, and sent "advance" copies to different people, asking if it was too over the top. I really didn't want it to come off as needless Jerri-bashing, I wanted you to believe it might happen. And luckily, all the test readers said it was fine, and fit the story. So I kept it in as it was written. Jerri walks off to Tribal Council by herself, waits, rips up the banner, and then tries to bring down Kelly. Good times had by all.
The one thing I DID cut out from her tantrum was a scene where she attacks the Tuktu shelter out of rage. I originally had Jerri throwing rocks at the shelter, trying to destroy it, but I felt that went too far. It was a tough line to straddle, and I felt that crossed the line, so it got cut.
Oh yeah, and if you had read Alaska before you read about my trip to the finale, it would have made more sense. I wrote in the finale about how I was nervous about meeting two people, Neleh and Jerri. I didn't explain WHY, but now that you know Alaska, it will make more sense. I had just written Jerri's tantrum two days before I met her, and I really didn't want her to read Alaska, so I didn't go out of my way to say hi. I didn't particularly want her to read this scene in the story, and maybe I was a little scared of her, too. And Neleh I was nervous to meet because I knew she was the first boot. I didn't want to say "Oh hi, I wrote this story, you should read it," and then she sees she is out first. So if you are wondering why I was nervous about meeting those two, it is all because of this story.
Jerri's final showdown with Elisabeth was a nice touch, I thought. Both sides completely misunderstood each other (Jerri though Elisabeth was acting superior, Elisabeth thought Jerri wanted to yell at her, so they avoided one another). This turned out to be a nifty way (or a wimpy way) to have a big huge feud without either side being wrong. I thought both of them came off pretty well in that scene. It is always my goal to have the players come off well, and it can get tricky when you have feuds and nastines. You have to be creative and see both of their sides as being justified. And in this case, I think they both had a good point. Jerri and Elisabeth just weren't meant to get along.
As the time neared to go to Tribal Council, Jerri needed to do one last thing. She needed to go have it out with Elisabeth. The perky young shoe designer had been the focal point for Jerri's anger for a long time how, whether it was justified or not. But Jerri wanted to go at least explain her side, so the two of them could make peace. Jerri was a big believer in closure, and didn't want to let bad feelings linger between the two. So she stood and waited near the shelter, waited for her former enemy to appear. All it would take was a minute, and it would be helpful in the end.
Elisabeth walked back from the forest, carrying some wood. Whistling a tune, she was blissfully in her own world when she looked up and saw Jerri waiting for her. Jerri, all alone. Elisabeth's eyes quickly scanned the rest of the camp. Greg and Paschal were nowhere to be seen. Kelly and Helen were far off, picking some berries. Jerri was alone. Alone, and looking for Elisabeth. Wanting no part of a last minute blowout, Elisabeth made a split-second decision to suddenly find something else to do. She made a quick U-turn and headed back to the forest. Jerri was always a drama queen, she loved the spotlight, and Elisabeth knew she would want to go out with a big prime time moment. But Elisabeth wasn't interested in getting a tongue lashing on national TV.
"Spare me the drama," she complained to a cameraman with a smile, silently laughing at the situation.
Jerri watched, incensed, as Elisabeth had blatantly decided to ignore her. You could love Jerri, you could hate her, but one thing she wouldn't let you do was ignore her.
All in all, the Jerri story was a nice soap opera, and it served the dual purpose of making Kelly Wiglesworth more sympathetic. At this point, I thought the winner of Alaska would be one of three people: Tammy, Kelly Wiglesworth or Silas.
Helen or Paschal hadn't even crossed my mind yet.
Back to Alaska index