To win Survivor, you have to do three things: Outplay, Outwit and Outlast. As Neal Gottlieb discovered on Wednesday’s episode of “Survivor: Kaoh Rong,” sometimes it’s that third one that is often overlooked…and it’s just as elusive to conquer as those first two.
Don’t read this if you haven’t yet seen the most recent episode, as spoilers are to follow. Get caught up on Episode 7 here.
Neal was well-placed on the Brain tribe, the kind of character that we know is super-intelligent just from the way he carries himself, or maybe it’s in the eyes. He had positioned himself somewhat as the comic relief, always quick with a joke or an off-beat observation, but it was his sharp wit that put him smack-dab in the middle of many players’ radar early in the game. Despite that – and despite lasting 19 days in the game – Neal only had to attend one Tribal Council, where his tribe voted out Liz.
Having found an Idol at the Brain camp, Neal was a threat in this game, so naturally it might have been hard for him to get very far. Even entering the merge, it appeared that he was in the minority alliance along with fellow Brains Aubry, Deb and Joe. But even though he may have had an uphill battle, it’s impossible to say what might have been, because Neal’s game came to an abrupt halt when he was pulled from the game for medical reasons (knee infection) just as the tribe was about to head to the first post-merge Tribal Council.
He did not leave willingly. But Neal’s “Mt. Saint Neal” infectious-mountain was just too dangerously close to his joints, where a deeper infection could have resulted in death. The risk was too high, and the doctor gave Neal no choice in the matter.
Once choice Neal may have had though, was what to do with his Idol once he was no longer in the game. He opted not to give it to his ally Aubry, but to keep it as a souvenir from his journey. Neal leaves a very likable character, but one that we hardly got to know as a Survivor player, due to only appearing at one Tribal Council and because of how his untimely exit went down.
I had the chance to speak with Neal today about his time in the game, his decision to hang on to his Idol and of course, that incredibly unfortunate medical evacuation.
Tom Santilli, Survivor Examiner: So…man.
Neal Gottlieb: (Laughs)
Tom Santilli: We’ve got to get through the normal set of questions following a medical-evacuation. How are you currently feeling, how long did it take to recover and how serious was the infection in your knee?
Neal: The thing about this injury, the thing that is going to make me wonder for the rest of my life – Could I have won that game? Could I have stayed in? – is that there was no pain associated with it. So it was definitely deep, but they got me to the hospital that night, and I found myself staring at a ceiling in a Cambodian hospital, as this man dug into my knee with this little melon-baller, for all intents and purposes. And I was just wondering, how could this happen? I was in the hospital for two nights, the next day they dropped me off at a hotel and that next morning, I ran like four miles on the treadmill. I had no knee pain. And I ran five miles the day after that. So that’s the weird thing about this all, is that it never hurt. I kind of wish that I did, to tell you the truth, it’d be easier to deal with.
Tom Santilli: Did you have any inclination that you were in danger of going home when that boat pulled up with the doctor and Probst?
Neal: I had every inkling that that was my executioner. There was no doubt in my mind. I packed up all my stuff to go to the Immunity Challenge, I was actually shocked that they didn’t pull me from the game right then. You play this game, you have to always have hope, so I was like OK, they don’t think this injury is as serious as I thought they would think it was. So I was psyched. I had a second life. Then came the executioner (laughs).
Tom Santilli: So what was going on behind-the-scenes? Had they been monitoring your knee prior to that and giving you bad vibes about the possibility of needing to leave the game?
Neal: The infection started on Day 15. It came up very quickly like a pimple that hurt a lot. So it did hurt a lot at first. But they lanced it, they put me on antibiotics, and it just kept getting worse. It cleaved open and got wider, deeper. They were monitoring it because before every challenge, you see the doctor. Being a fan of the game, I think of giant James (Clement) going down. And if this game can topple him, it can topple me. They take these things very seriously, they don’t want somebody having to go up at the reunion show with a peg-leg.
Tom Santilli: We see a lot of players dealing with some major issues once they leave the game, and it’s a lot like the TV show “Lost,” where everybody just wants to get back on the island. It’s hard enough to get voted out or blindsided, but your exit was brutal in that you weren’t in any pain, and then you were in the game one minute and gone the next. What does that instant detachment from the game feel like and how did you or are you dealing with that feeling of incompletion?
Neal: It was a dream from the beginning to play Survivor. Not only did I play, I had this glorious experience. We were winning challenges, I had an Idol. Without a clue, I had found the Beauty Idol box. I really felt like I could win it. But I’m in a different position than pretty much anybody else, because I left at the top of my game and not having been over-confident or getting blindsided. I left for something completely out of my control. And I can go through life being absolutely certain I was going to win, and nobody will be able to defend against that or tell me otherwise. And although it’s an envious position, there is that “what would have happened?” question.
Tom Santilli: The big question everyone had after last night’s episode was why did you hang on to your Idol instead of handing it off to Aubry?
Neal: (Sigh) That was such a difficult decision. It was something I started thinking about on Day 18. If I get pulled, because at that point, I was fairly certain that I was. What do I do? So if I was going to give it to anybody, I mean, Aubry and I were tight. But then just as I was thinking about giving it to her, that conversation that Aubry and I had on the beach when I told her about the Idol, she made it clear to me that the others were targeting us and that if need be, she would slit my throat. Which is completely fair and valid. We are playing Survivor and it is completely an individual game, but in that moment, I didn’t want to hear that. I also thought, well, my death gives her life. Because she was also going home that night. So I felt that I had already done her a favor by dying. And I mean, it’s just a trinket. I actually have it, I actually brought it in to work with me today, I have it in my hand right now. But it’s just one physical thing and the last thing that I could grasp on to from this beautiful game. And I was undecided as to what I was going to do. And I didn’t give it to her. Then on the boat ride out, I had already regretted it. And I’ve regretted it ever since.
Tom Santilli: So if you had it to do over again, you would have handed her the Idol?
Neal: I think I would, yeah.
Tom Santilli: In the short-term of the game, had you stayed in the game, what did you feel was about to happen at Tribal Council?
Neal: I knew that they were targeting me, trying to put me in that geek locker, but they feared that I had an Idol. I don’t think they would have wanted to force a tie vote with someone who had an Idol, or possibly flush two of them. But I think that I would have rolled the dice [not played the Idol] and just wait and see what would happened that night. I was in it to win it, and sometimes to win you have to take some big chances.
Tom Santilli: There was a scene last night that showed that you and Aubry were really starting to have issues with Deb. What was the long-term plan there?
Neal: Deb and Joe were ideal to keep in the game, because I could beat them at physical challenges and then I could argue at Final Tribal why I was more deserving to be the Sole Survivor. I had every intention to stay with them. Of course, when it comes to a difficult situation you make difficult decisions. But that would have been an ideal situation, to somehow have reversed that gong and all gone to the final four. But there was no reason at all in my mind to get rid of them. Although I like Debbie and I’m so appreciative that I got to know her, she’s also insane (laughs). She just never stops. You know what, it does stop at night when she’s sleeping, and then she just snores. She’s an assault on the senses (laughs).
Tom Santilli: So did you ever think that on national TV, that there would ever be a scene where someone would notice and comment on the bulge in your shorts?
Neal: Well they weren’t just noticing it, they were complimenting it (laughs). That was great, and it was strangely not uncomfortable even though I was watching it with my mother right next to me. That was great. The funny thing about that glorious bulge, is that my Idol never lived in that pocket even for a second. It was never in that pocket. That was just a bunch of string and cloth, maybe some shells, that I had picked up along the way. That was not an Idol. It wasn’t shown, but in the scene where me, Aubry and Nick were walking back from the well, he also was noticing my bulge, and he asked me about it. He was saying it was scary to team up with a guy who has an Idol and I said yeah, but those guys probably have two. I opened up the pocket and I showed him what my bulge was made of. And it wasn’t an Idol. It was just a ball of crap.
Tom Santilli: Well I have sort of a silly question for you…
Neal: Ooh, I love silly questions.
Tom Santilli: I know you are an ice cream entrepreneur. If Deb was an ice cream flavor, what flavor would she be?
Neal: (With no hesitation)…Tutti Frutti, with maybe some horseshit on top?
Tom Santilli: (Laughs) That is awesome, thanks for playing along man. OK back to some serious stuff. You mentioned you watched the episode alongside your mother. I know you didn’t want to leave the game, but if you were watching your loved one on Survivor and saw that infection, you’d want the doctor to pull you out of the game, right? I’m assuming your family would be most concerned with your safety above all else. If the tables had been turned, you would have pulled you from the game too, right?
Neal: Family’s love is unconditional, so I feel like I’d love my mother just as much if she was missing a leg (Laughs). She would have loved me either way.
Tom Santilli: (Laughs) Well I’m running out of time. My last question to you is about your perception of the other players in the game. Who did you perceive as the biggest threats when you left the game? Not “biggest threats” in terms of who needed to go first, but threats as in you thought they had actual shots at winning this thing.
Neal: I think Jason was probably the one that I identified as the biggest threat, and I think Nick was right up there as well. They’re super-physical and they both have some charm about them, and they were both playing. They were like the masters of their own universe.
Very Important Note For Next Week! In 13 seasons of professionally covering Survivor, I have not missed a live episode…until now. Next week (the 4/6 episode, Episode 8), I will be gone celebrating my wedding anniversary with my beautiful wife, and because of this, there will be a few changes. First, there will STILL be an Episode Preview article that will appear on Wednesday morning, but next week there will NOT be an Episode Recap Wednesday night. When I return (by Monday, April 11th), I will post an Analysis article on Episode 8. Also, due to this leave, my Exit Interview with the voted-out cast-away will NOT take place on Thursday like usual…CBS however, has been kind enough to reschedule an interview with me for the following week, so I will post it by the following Monday or Tuesday.
So to recap: Next week there will be a Preview article as normal on Wednesday morning, but no Episode Recap article Wednesday night. And then there will still be an Episode Analysis article and an exclusive Exit Interview, but instead of these posting on Thursday per norm, you will have to wait until the following Monday or Tuesday. Everything will return to normal for the 4/13 episode, Episode 9. Got it? Good!
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