The Baker's Dozen
By Andy Baker | Published April 3, 2016
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DWSC 2015, Part II

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As I wrote at the beginning of Part I, Survivor is a game that loves its numbers. The DWSC is no different; if anything, the numbers are even more important when the story unfolds over four days instead of 39. Indeed, when you’ve got one night to put the post-merge pieces into place, numbers are almost everything.

 

We merged at 11. But 11 is never 11 in Survivor, right? What we really had was this:

4 + 2 + 5 = 11

 

Four Survivor alums… five castaways from Waya and Tawadi… and in the middle, two contestants who were members of Moz with the alums.

 

At the end of Saturday, one thing was clear to everyone: What Wendy and Bob – those swing players – chose to do would determine the outcome of the game.

 

Would it be…

(4 + 2) > 5 = An inevitable Pagonging

 

or

4 < 5 + 2 = The Survivor alums would be in trouble

 

All it would take is one player to flip and chaos would erupt… which meant that the Survivor alums had a lot of work to do.

 

The entire game hinged on how the numbers would add up.

 

*****

 

Merge night was, as you might expect, eventful. All of the players knew the dynamics as they walked back to camp: The four remaining Survivors were outnumbered, but, with Wendy and Bob aligned with them after a day full of challenges and a couple of Tribals, they were also totally in charge. And running point for the Survivors? Dr. Jill. From the outset, she had been dictating the pace and the process; if the newbies were going to flip the game, they were going to have to go through her.

 

The most critical developments of the night, from my point of view at least, were:

 ** The idol hunt: In true Survivor fashion, there was a merge feast… and within that merge feast, a hidden immunity idol clue. Dr. Jill made sure that Wendy carried the merge feast to the camp, and then the two of them – offering up the pretense of creating equal portions for all – found the clue and kept it to themselves. Only one outnumbered newbie claimed, later, that he had seen this happen and felt powerless to stop it. But how the heck do he, Chris, Heather, Lisa, and Tina let this happen? You NEED that idol. And yet they either didn’t consider the possibility of a merge feast idol clue (ARGH), did consider it and didn’t tell one another about it (AAAAARGH), or considered it and then watched Dr. Jill and Wendy seize even more power than they already had (AAAAAAAAAAAAARGH).

 

** Back to the hunt: Wendy followed a series of clues, the first in the merge feast, the second found right on the edge of camp (where everyone could see her dig if they were paying attention), and the third a short distance away from camp at the base of a broken tree. Unfortunately for Wendy, she could not find the idol; she ended up needing to recruit Dr. Jill and Joel (after making a critical mistake: she left the clue box at the base of the broken tree where Dr. Jill and Joel could find it). The end result: Dr. Jill had a second immunity idol to pair with the one she found on Friday night.

 

** Side note: Wasn’t ANYONE keeping an eye on Wendy and Dr. Jill? From where I sat, watching all of this unfold, the minority alliance members were too entertained by Survivor stories while not seeing through WHY Joel, Troyzan and Brooke decided to be so gregarious while Dr. Jill was off “getting wood.” Perhaps it was because I shouldn’t be calling Chris, Heather, Jeff, Lisa, and Tina an alliance; they shared circumstances, but had not yet come together in an effort to unite against the majority.

 

** Another side note: I don’t want to take anything away from the Survivors, who were playing a masterful game. From the moment they hit the merge, they skillfully employed a well-coordinated campaign of misdirection and obfuscation, one which allowed them to bag another idol, keep the newbies from coming together, and lock down their numbers heading into the final day. There’s a reason Dr. Jill, Joel, Troyzan, and Brooke were cast on Survivor: They know what they’re doing out there. It was a pleasure to watch them work.

 

challenge

 

** Speaking of the Survivors: It was interesting to see just how excited they were to be setting up camp on Saturday night. And then it hit me: Only Troyzan made the merge in his season. This was a novel experience for the other three, and, unless I’m mistaken, a cathartic one. One of the more remarkable realities of the DWSC is that it doesn’t just give fans a chance to play the game. It also allows the Survivors to exorcise some demons of their own.

 

** It’s never easy to be an island: After finding the hidden immunity idol clue but before beginning her search, Wendy came over to me and took a seat on a fallen tree. At the time, I was kicked back in a discarded plastic lawn chair that the players had found near their camp, watching as the early merge mayhem unfolded. Despite being surrounded by allies both old (Bob, Chris, and Heather had been on her initial tribe) and new (she had spent Saturday on the Moz juggernaut with Bob and the four Survivors), Wendy knew that she was, in a social and strategic sense, alone. She knew that she was at the heart of the storm, the fulcrum player whose decisions would dictate the final day; the Survivors would attempt to secure her, while the newbies needed her to flip. It was going to be a long night, and she was prepared for it, but before the madness began, she needed a quiet moment of contemplation, and so she joined me, eager for an ear, seeking conversation more than a confessional. I was happy to indulge her, both because I wanted to get inside the mind of a pivotal player, but also because that’s what you do in production, you listen, you make space for emotion, you allow the experience to unfurl without impediment. So there we were at the edge of camp, player and producer, Dozen reader and Dozen writer, the castaway amidst the maelstrom and the casting contributor who helped put her there; we talked for a few minutes about the game but not the game, and that conversation – impromptu, pure, and powerful – will remain with me long after the game has faded, for the most part, from memory.

 

** Production and Confessionals: We had three distinct groups to speak with on Saturday night… and what they had to tell us was, well, telling.

 

The Minority “Alliance” (Chris, Heather, Jeff, Lisa, Tina)

What I expected was urgency, but what I saw – at least at first – was resignation, with some players saying they had no idea what to do at this point while others planned to just – I wish I was making this up – go to sleep. The entire group felt like they couldn’t flip Wendy and Bob, and – again, no exaggeration here – were ready to head into Sunday as passive participants in a Pagonging. At that point, as members of production, the confessional team had a choice: let things run their course, or do what we could (without crossing the lines of confidentiality and impartiality) to light a fire under their collective asses.

 

In the end, we opted to build a bonfire under their butts. We didn’t tell them what to do, nor did we offer any guidance. All we said or, more accurately, asked – which I imagine Survivor field producers bellow at cowed castaways – was, “Is this how you want to go out? You have about eight hours to figure this out. Don’t you want to DO SOMETHING?”

Thankfully, they listened.

 

The Swing Players (Bob, Wendy)

One thing the minority alliance had right: Bob wasn’t going to flip. Indeed, he wanted to actively avoid any and all strategy discussions on Saturday night. His plan: go back to camp and go back to bed.

 

So that left Wendy. She knew that the other contestants needed her, and that her path to the end with the Survivors was filled with uncertainty. Ever adaptable, she was willing to listen to the players’ pitches; that said, it would take a lot to convince her to flip. She felt her alliance would get her to the Final 6, thought Bob would go before her, and at that point, she was banking on an all-female Final 3 deal with Dr. Jill and Brooke. She knew she was going to be pulled in both directions until Sunday morning, but she was ready.

 

The Survivor Alums

Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Survivor alums oozed confidence in their confessionals. Dr. Jill had spent countless hours courting Wendy, Joel had the full measure of all of the other players, and Brooke and Troyzan had, at least temporarily, charmed the minority alliance into complacency. It helped, of course, that they had three immunity idols – two real and one fake – in their possession.

 

What I really wanted to hear was how each of alums viewed themselves and their spot in the pecking order. So I gave them a hypothetical: “Let’s say you’re the final four – who gets voted out?” Dr. Jill had an immediate answer; so did Joel. Brooke thought she was solid with Dr. Jill, but there was reservation in her voice. Troyzan, on the other hand, wasn’t sure, and thought it would be a game-time decision, partly based on who won immunity. My takeaway from all that? Dr. Jill and Joel were planning to take each other to the end… and Troyzan was in a world of trouble.

 

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to commend the alums for their sterling responses to an impertinent question I threw at them. “These contestants traveled from all over the country, donating significant sums to charity just to get a taste of the real game, and you’re throwing challenges so that you can blindside them?” I asked, adopting a tone of incredulity for good measure (truth be told, I admired their gameplay). Their responses were best summed up by Dr. Jill: “These people came here to play Survivor. We’re giving them an authentic experience. They’d expect nothing less.” Damn right, Dr. Jill.

 

*****

 

One major difference between the DWSC and Survivor: After the completion of confessionals, we don’t keep cameras back at camp. So the rest of merge night is, to some degree, a mystery. The players shared some of what they experienced, of course, and as far as I can tell, here’s what happened:

** Bob, as good as his word, disappeared into the woods, where he avoided strategy and caught some shuteye.

** The minority alliance made pitch after pitch to Wendy… needless to say, it was a long night for our fulcrum player.

** The Survivor alums did their best to control the camp throughout the night; they could have easily become over-confident, and let things slide a bit, but returning players don’t make rookie mistakes.

 

*****


When the sun rose on Sunday and the players trudged up to the main challenge field, the production team eagerly awaited the outcome of the first Tribal Council. The identity of the initial post-merge boot would tell us the story. It all came down to this: Had the minority alliance done what it needed to do to flip Wendy and turn the game on its head?
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Nope.

 

Tina

11th Place: Tina

If there was any lingering doubt that the Survivor alums were playing to win, this vote removed it. There was only one reason to take out Tina: To protect against the possibility of a hidden immunity idol. The alums knew that it wasn’t likely Tina had found one, nor was it probable that the other members of the minority alliance would share one with her (had they possessed one). They had let Lisa – an increasingly dangerous player – think that she was going to be the first post-merge boot. But like so many of the moves made by the alums, this misdirection was all about getting the other players to think what they wanted them to think.

 

Targeting Tina – and having Joel play an immunity idol just in case Wendy had flipped – was, upon reflection, the perfect play. Even if Wendy had turned against them, Tina would still have gone home (the minority alliance split their votes). At that point, assuming they still had Bob, the alums would have had a real idol, a fake one, and – worst case scenario – the ability to force a 5-5 tie at the next Tribal Council.

 

I found it interesting, too, that Dr. Jill gave the idol to Joel rather than letting him have it before Tribal began. This was clearly a display of power meant to make an impression on prospective jurors. Dr. Jill was building her endgame resume, that much was clear enough, and doing so at Joel’s expense.

 

Lisa

10th Place: Lisa

The DWSC experience has a lot of overlap – experiential and emotional – with Survivor, but, while comprehensive, the parallels aren’t complete. There are realities about an accelerated game that make some aspects easier (there’s less time and opportunity for plans to fall apart) and others harder (once you’re on the outside, it’s extremely hard to get back in). As a result, there are certain player types better served by a longer game – like survival-savvy camp contributors – who discover they’re at a disadvantage out of the gate in the DWSC.

 

Lisa, who has an assertive personality, was one such player: on the barge at the outset, she took the map (but, like Katy, lost it); at stump corral that first night, she started, and then controlled, the fire. Her early aggression – which was counterbalanced with a positive, ebullient personality – had a number of players talking about her as an early target. Where on the real show, Lisa would likely be valued for her work ethic and effort to improve camp life, in the DWSC, she was seen by some as a threat who needed to go.

 

Her narrative arc, then, was an impressive one: instead of being voted out early, Lisa made it to the merge and, had Wendy flipped, might very well have maneuvered her way to the Final 3. Along the way, she made some strong connections, most notably with Carl, but she was willing to turn on her alliances if it would further her position in her game (Carl thought she was his One True Person, but she was too pragmatic for that sort of long-term castaway commitment). She also proved to be quite a formidable challenge beast, even breaking one of our harder events by building a fire so intense that her tribemates didn’t need to fill the water bucket that would raise the flames up to a string.

 

Heather

9th Place: Heather

While it is incredibly unfair to lay the blame for the failure to flip Wendy on a single doorstep – it was a group effort, after all – Heather is the player whom I suspect plays the woulda coulda shoulda game with more intensity and regret than the other members of the minority alliance. She possessed the empathetic skill set and the commonality of life experience with Wendy that the others did not. If anyone was going to change the game on merge night, it was Heather.

 

There were two primary approaches Heather could – and you ask me, should – have taken with Wendy, one honey, one vinegar:

The Sweet: “How about we make this a game about the newbies? Let’s turn this into OUR season. Right now, all anyone is talking about is the Survivor alums – I think we all want to change that, don’t you? Now, if you join us, there will be four women in the Final 6. Who would you want to work with in our six? Me, I hope. How about you, me, and Tina? We can take out the guys and Lisa – whatever order you want – and you and I will be in the Final 2 or Final 3, whichever one we have. You’ll get to the end, and have a great chance of winning; I just want to get there rather than being Pagonged. And you know, right now, you’re counting on the Survivor alums to turn on each other and hand you a seat at Final Tribal Council, but remember, they backstabbed Matt, so you can’t REALLY trust them, can you?”

 

If that doesn’t work – and even if it seems like it might – you follow up with:

The Sour: “If you opt to work with the Survivors – because you think the path to the endgame is easier with them – please know that it will be impossible for you to win. Whether it’s a Final 3 or a Final 2, whether the jury has 8 or 9 members, it doesn’t matter; we have five votes, so we will decide who wins the game. And we’re telling you right now, if you go with the Survivors, we’re going to vote for one of them. Not out of spite, not because you don’t want to work with us, but because they will have carried you to the Final 3. They will have done the work. They will have earned it.”

 

If I’m Wendy and I hear that I don’t have the jury votes to win – AND I have a viable path to the Final 3 with my fellow newbies – I probably flip. Sure, I run the risk of alienating the Survivor alums, but I have to believe that they’ll respect the move when I explain why I did it. Some hope of winning is better than none.

 

If Heather had been willing and able to bridge the gap, provide some hope, then apply the screws, we might have had a totally different endgame. Certainly, she had the skills to do it. Whatever the reasons, though – Opportunity? Awareness? Unwillingness? – these things were left unsaid, and the Pagonging became a foregone conclusion.

 

Jeff

8th Place: Jeff

One thing’s for sure: Jeff had quite the comprehensive Survivor experience during the DWSC. He found a fake hidden immunity idol… suffered a significant injury (hyper-extended elbow) during a challenge… watched as six of his tribe-mates went home on Saturday and became the last player from his swapped tribe standing on Sunday… and did his best on merge night to convince Wendy to join the newbies. A busy few days for this bright and enthusiastic Stanford-attending Survivor SuperFan, wouldn’t you say?

 

File this under "Missed Opportunities": Interestingly, Jeff felt that he had a strong connection with Wendy after sharing a barge, and then a campfire, Thursday night. He was unable to nurture that relationship on Saturday, however – no easy task when Wendy was on another tribe, but not impossible, and you have to take significant risks for long-term rewards – and that ended up undermining his efforts on merge night. Might Wendy have been more inclined to flip if she felt like she had a strong ally in Jeff? I can’t help but think so.

 

Why not try and reconnect at the watering hole on Friday, Jeff? Or talk to Wendy between challenges when your tribe was imploding on Saturday? Why not establish, as early as possible, that the remaining newbies needed to band together – with the two of you at the heart of the coup – or the season would be forever remembered for the dominance of the Survivor alums?

 

Ah, but these are empty inquiries, ones that I imagine Jeff has asked himself many, many times. As I’ve written about before, Survivor is, in many ways, a game of missed opportunities. And our post-merge game was full of them.

 

Chris L

7th Place: Chris L

You know it’s all over when you’re negotiating for your spot in the boot order.

 

At some point – I have to think Sunday, after it was clear that Wendy wasn’t flipping – Chris asked to be the last member of the minority alliance to be voted out, and the Survivor alums indulged him. And you know what? Just writing that annoys the heck out of me.

 

Which reminds me: There were SO MANY TIMES that I wanted to yell at Chris during the game. Not because I didn’t like the guy – I did, and I do – but because I wanted him to go out guns blazing rather than accept his fate.

 

I wanted to yell at him on merge night, when he was ready to throw in the towel (to his credit, after his confessional, he put in a renewed effort to flip Wendy)… I wanted to yell at him to grab the microphone at Final 9 and issue an ultimatum to Wendy: Vote with us or lose the game… I wanted to yell at him during the Final 7 Tribal Council to stand up and tell Troyzan and Brooke that Dr. Jill and Joel were gunning for them.

 

Something. Anything. Just not nothing.

 

Instead of salting the earth, though, Chris quietly joined the jury. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there, too, I wanted to yell at him. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

 

*****

 

I realize, looking over what I’ve just written, that my frustration is palpable, that my take on the minority alliance is overly and unfairly negative. Here’s the thing: I now have a much better understanding why Probst and production hate Pagongings. They’re AWFUL.

 

But please don’t get me wrong, these five have some serious Survivor skills. When you’re getting crushed in challenges and your tribe is falling apart around you, the only way you’re one of the last two or three standing is because you’ve made strong connections and possess some strategic savvy. The post-merge game might not have turned out as Tina, Lisa, Heather, Jeff and Chris had hoped, but they should be justifiably proud of how they played from Thursday through Saturday; if you ask me, they’d be fun to watch play again someday.

 

Of course, just saying that makes me wonder if the DWSC will ever have a returnee season. I can think of a lot of players, including at least four of these five, who’d like to get another shot. And, should they ever get another bite at the apple, I wouldn’t bet against this group: they know what they’re doing.

 

*****

 

Bob

6th Place: Bob

Bob told his alliance that he would be happy coming in 6th . They voted him out in 6th.  End of story – right?

 

Wrong.

 

From the outset, Bob was our Cowboy Rick (Survivor: South Pacific). Loyal. Hard-working. And so very, very quiet.

 

It would be easy to dismiss Bob as a pawn in the Survivor alum chess game, and his steadfast refusal to engage in strategic discussions throughout the weekend certainly reinforced that perception. But that would be an unfair assessment of his overall impact on the game: Bob was a challenge beast, helping two tribes win challenges and distinguishing himself in the post-merge individual competitions (culminating in a head-to-head win over Troyzan as they shattered tiles with slingshots). And, had Matt not so thoroughly won over the crowd on Saturday, Bob – as a Maine local with a lot of fans in the stands – would have taken home the title of “Fan Favorite.” He may not have been instrumental in strategy, but he had in impact on the game all the same.

 

It is Bob’s exit interview, though, that has left the most indelible impression on me: Bob is a man of few words, but it was clear as I talked with him that the DWSC experience had tested him in ways he never expected. There were tears. A long hug. And a quiet man whose emotional reaction spoke louder than any words ever could.

 

Troyzan

5th Place: Troyzan

In Survivor, when you have a plan, but it is a reasonable assumption that everyone else can figure out your plan, what you need is a better plan.

 

On Saturday night, it was clear that Troyzan had a plan in mind for Sunday: Get to the Final 4 with the other Survivor alums and then win the last challenge (or two, if it was a Final 2). At that point, he’d have a good chance of winning, having put together an endgame resume of challenge dominance (tribal and individual) and a jury full of players who might prefer his Survivor-loving exuberance over Dr. Jill’s focused intensity, Joel’s genial pragmatism, and Brooke’s endearing sincerity.

 

A reasonable plan, if you’re Troyzan. Except that the other Survivor alums knew that this was his path to the Final Tribal Council. So they took steps to make sure that it didn’t happen. They planned to take him out as soon as they could, starting with Final 6. He won that immunity challenge, but Brooke kept him from duplicating that feat at F5.

 

Fate can be cruel sometimes: One of my favorite One World memories (there aren’t many to choose from) is seeing Troyzan explaining to Christina, Kat, Alicia, and Tarzan that they needed to make a move against Kim before it was too late. He was able to make that speech because he was on the outside looking in; being the target gave him the perspective he needed to see things clearly. In the DWSC, Troyzan needed to be One World Troyzan, the guy who could see that Dr. Jill and Joel – the alums calling the shots – weren’t going to let him disrupt their plans (just like Kim). The problem was, he was on the inside this time, working with the power players, a place strategically unfamiliar to him. He didn’t anticipate that the Survivor alums would turn on him before the Final 4, and as a result, he was taken out with the Final Tribal Council only one challenge away.

 

Even crueler: After we wrapped up his exit interview, I took Troyzan over to the challenge field where Dr. Jill, Joel, Brooke, and Wendy vied for final individual immunity. When he saw the ladder puzzle and all of the running the players were doing, Troyzan stopped in his tracks, put his hands on his hips, and let out a long, heavy sigh. In that moment, he knew that he would likely have run away with the challenge – and had a good shot of winning the whole thing.

 

Brooke

4th Place: Brooke

Another difference between the DWSC and Survivor: In our game, you can short-term structure long-range plans.

 

To explain what I mean by that, let me back up a bit: Early Sunday morning, before the individual immunity challenges had begun, the production team and a group of volunteers were walking the final 11 players to where they would make their entrance for the audience. I matched pace with the Survivor alums and shared a message from none other than Bob Crowley, who wanted Dr. Jill, Joel, Troyzan and Brooke to know that he hoped that they would do everything they could to win; no pulling punches just because this was a charity event. The response from Joel was rather telling: “Just wait to see what we got in store for ya.”

 

Clearly, the Survivor alums had a plan for how the day would unfold. And the structure of our game makes that possible: On merge night, one can – and should, and probably must – put into place a prospective boot order all the way through the Final 3. There just isn’t a lot of time on Sunday to amend and revise; the pace of the game makes it incredibly difficult to find an opportunity to change things up.

 

From the Survivor alum’s point of view, with some leveraging of their hidden immunity idols, they could Pagong the first five boots. Then, if they lived up to their promise, they would take out Bob in 6th. At that point, they could follow one of two paths: Eliminate Wendy, then battle it out amongst themselves (which is the plan the other three presented to Troyzan) or use Wendy to further their own endgames. Clearly, given how things unfolded, the alums had chosen the second path.

 

Another factor in play: On merge night, a number of confessionals focused on a prospective all-women alliance. One of them was pure fiction, and included Heather and possibly Lisa in the mix. The other one was far more plausible, however: Once Bob was taken out at Final 6, Dr. Jill, Brooke, and Wendy would boot the two guys and then make their arguments to the jury.

 

So, when the votes were cast at Final 4, was Brooke expecting to see three votes for Joel? Was she blindsided by Dr. Jill? Or – given Joel’s “Just wait to see what we got in store for ya” foreshadowing – was this all pre-planned to give the audience a dramatic fire-making challenge right before Final Tribal Council? Only the Survivor alums themselves know for sure.

 

One thing’s certain: Wendy forced their hands by winning the Final 4 immunity challenge. It was a remarkable thing, watching the housewife from Virginia maintain her focus while the wheels flew off the Survivor alum juggernaut. While a frazzled Dr. Jill was removing correctly-positioned puzzle pieces, while an exhausted Joel slowed to a crawl after dominating challenges for two straight days, while a confused Brooke struggled to find a workable puzzle-solving strategy (at one point lining up her pieces on the grass before testing them on the ladder), Wendy carefully, methodically, and relentlessly built an insurmountable lead and, despite late surges from both Joel and Brooke, completed the challenge with a chop of the machete.

 

At that point, with Dr. Jill and Joel voting for Brooke and Wendy and Brooke voting for Joel, we had a fire-making challenge on our hands. At stake: A seat at Final Tribal Council. However this moment came to pass, the end result was a remarkably tense sequence of events: As the crowd swarmed down to the edge of the seating area, first Joel, and then Brooke, got a fire going, only to see it sputter out. Finally, after both players heeded shouted advice from the stands to block the wind, Joel managed to burn the string… and we had our Final 3.

 

*****

 

So often in Survivor, the Final 3 has two legitimate contenders and one player who is virtually guaranteed to get no votes. In our first year with a Final 3, though, the DWSC avoided this fate; Dr. Jill, Joel, and Wendy all had a legitimate shot at the title. What made it a great Final 3 – at least for me – was that the arguments each one would make would be substantively different: Dr. Jill had been in control since the game began… Joel had been a personable and charismatic leader throughout… and Wendy was the quietly strategic SuperFan who had done what 17 other newbies could not: made herself indispensible in the plans of the power players.

 

Remember about 1500 words ago, when I mentioned that there was one last time when I wanted to yell at Chris L? That happened when I had a chance to speak with him – as a representative of the jury – shortly before Final Tribal Council. When I asked him how the players were thinking of voting, Chris told me that while he was leaning one way – because that person had, he felt, played the best game – the rest of the jury was supporting one of the two others for reasons he didn’t entirely agree with. “THEN CHANGE THAT,” I wanted to shout. “CONTROL THE JURY.”

 

(In the end, though, I didn’t think we could go wrong with any of the three winning.)

 

Joel

3rd Place: Joel

There’s an interesting phenomenon when you start meeting Survivor players: You understand, sometimes instantly, why they were cast on the show. They burn a little brighter, they draw you in a little closer, they’re more fully themselves in some ineffable way. Survivor casting – for all of the grief I’ve given them over the years – knows how to find some really interesting people.

 

Joel was, at least for me, this year’s poster boy for that phenomenon. Having not watched the first season of Survivor when it aired, and having had my memory of Borneo undermined by the awful “season summary” DVD, I didn’t know what to expect from Joel. During my first conversation with him – which wasn’t until Friday morning, because he had arrived late to the event – I immediately understood why casting had loved him: he’s funny, articulate, perceptive.

 

So when Joel was challenged – by Chris L – to prove that he had taken the time to get to know the newbies on the jury, I was shocked when he stumbled out of the blocks. This question was right in his wheelhouse! How could he not immediately charm the jury?!

 

And then Joel hit his stride: He went right down the line, sharing personal details and amusing anecdotes that made it clear that Joel not only knew them, but understood them, saw them as they wished to be seen. For a moment there, I was so caught up in this virtuoso display of genuine connection that I thought, “You know what? I’d vote for him.”

 

Unfortunately for Joel – who did indeed secure Lisa’s vote with his speech – there were two stronger contenders sitting next to him.

 

Jill

2nd Place: Dr. Jill

Before the game began, I had the pleasure and privilege of rowing Dr. Jill out to the spot on Runaround Pond where she would begin her adventure. For the better part of an hour, we talked as we paddled, discussing family, work, and life; we delved into her experience in Nicaragua; and we explored how she was planning to approach the DWSC. By the end of our journey, three things about Dr. Jill were abundantly clear: She was kind, she was smart, and she was there to win the game.

 

Over the next three and a half days, Dr. Jill revealed just how intent she was on proving – to the alums, to the newbies, and most importantly to herself – how good she is at this game. She was, without a doubt, in control of the game from beginning to end. Truth be told, I don’t know that the DWSC has ever seen quite so dominating a performance.

 

Here’s a list of some highlights from her impressive endgame resume:

** Pre-swap, she forged a tight alliance with Joel, while making sure that Troyzan and Brooke never knew just how close the two of them had become.
** On Friday night, after the swap, even though all of the Survivors knew the location of the hidden immunity idols, Dr. Jill ended up with one of them.
** She then did the legwork to pull Matt into an alliance with the Survivor alums, giving them a 5-3 numbers advantage heading into Saturday.
** After Matt had gone off script and taken an idol in a match-making challenge, Dr. Jill convinced him to give her the idol to prove his loyalty.
** She and Joel then hatched a plan to throw a challenge so that Moz could vote out Matt before the merge.
** On merge night, she worked with Wendy to find another hidden immunity idol (which, like Matt’s, ended up in Dr. Jill’s possession).
** Dr. Jill was, along with Joel, the primary architect of Sunday’s boot order, yet, despite having been instrumental in the demise of so many players, she was never seriously targeted the entire weekend.

 

In Survivor, some players lose the jury vote because they didn’t do enough, while others fall short because they did too much. Dr. Jill clearly fell into the latter category: While she had earned the respect of, and votes from, Chris and Bob, her endgame decisions had cost her the support of her fellow Survivor alums Troyzan and Brooke. The rest of the newbies, meanwhile, couldn’t resist voting for one of their own, leaving Dr. Jill on the short end of a 5-2-1 vote.

 

From Thursday to Sunday, Dr. Jill had done everything she could to win the game. Unfortunately, everything can, ironically and counter-intuitively, sometimes be too much. Proving once again that Survivor has endless ways to break your heart.

 

Wendy

Sole Survivor: Wendy

A number of competing thoughts leap to mind when I look back at Wendy’s victory:

** It is REALLY hard to play with patience.
** No one becomes the Sole Survivor without some luck.
** A win is a win is a win.

 

Let’s take those in order, shall we?

 

It is REALLY hard to play with patience.

On merge night, Wendy had a key decision to make: Would she work with the Survivors or flip to the newbies? Following the latter path would be a Probst-approved Big Move which would put Wendy in a position to claim that her choices determined the outcome of the game. But what guarantee did she have that she wouldn’t be the first one gone after the alums were eliminated?

 

That said, sticking with the Survivors meant Wendy would endure a night of pleas and appeals knowing that she was going to shatter the hopes and dreams of five fellow SuperFans. It also required Wendy to trust her read on the alums, to have faith in the fractures she felt were there. Most profoundly, though, this meant that her biggest move was no move at all – a lot like Sophie in Survivor: South Pacific now that I think about it – and strategic passivity, as effective as it can be in situations like the one Wendy faced, can make convincing a jury that you’re a worthy winner a long, uphill climb.

In the end, though, Wendy opted to lie in wait. To allow the game to come to her. To be patient.

 

And it worked.

 

No one becomes the Sole Survivor without some luck.

Before Matt’s blindside, Wendy appeared headed for a Pagonging along with all of the other newbies. Indeed, on Friday night – while Wendy, David, and Bob slept outside by the fire, Matt – who had been groomed as the Survivor alum swing vote – slept in a tent with his heroes. Although it probably kills him to know this – the truth of it probably keeps him up at night – had Matt been an obedient foot-soldier, at least until Sunday, he might have taken down the title. Instead, he voted his conscience, took an idol when he wasn’t supposed to, and started doing really well in puzzle challenges – in other words, transformed from pawn to player – and ended up being blindsided. That vacated a spot with the Survivor alums, one that Wendy was all too happy to take.

 

After Matt’s blindside at the final Tribal Council before the merge, I quickly jotted down my boot order prediction for Sunday:

 

BootOrder

If Matt doesn’t put a target on his own back, Wendy likely finishes somewhere around 8th place. Because he did, though, Wendy wins. That’s luck for you.

 

A win is a win is a win.

Whatever her path, she walked it. Whatever the walls, she scaled them. Whatever her story, she shaped it.

 

It would do us all well to remember that all winners are worthy winners.

 

Congrats, Wendy – you earned it.

 

*****

 

As so often happens in Survivor and in life, the story of this season comes full circle, and we end back at the beginning. At the start of this column, I wrote about Survivor’s love of numbers.  And here’s what I wrote at the outset of Part I:

 

There are many promises inherent in the design of the game, however, promises that feel a lot like rules, and none of them is more intrinsic than the truth that, despite a number of facets of the game emphasizing group dynamics, only one person can win.

 

I wonder, though – after playing in the DWSC last year and being a member of the production team this time around – if Probst, Burnett, SEG, CBS, and Survivor have misunderstood the game from the very beginning.

 

Could it be that even the most fundamental assumptions about the game are wrong?

 

*****

 

The way Survivor sells itself, we’re led to believe that almost everyone loses. Why, then, does nearly every castaway – even if they suffered blindsides and bad edits –want to go back and play again? Sure, some of them simply want revenge, want to write better conclusions to their Survivor stories, but as you can tell from their Day After videos, for many of them it’s because of the transformative experience they had while playing the game.

 

While this may be a bold claim for a four-day version of Survivor held in the woods of Maine, the same is true for DWSC contestants: almost all of them want a second chance because the first one was so meaningful to them. Indeed, some folks have been frustrated, even hurt, by what I’ve written about last summer’s experience because they care so deeply about what the game gave them. In the end, what I’ve written about last year’s event is utterly irrelevant; at the end of the summer, we put 24 people into the woods, got them tired, hungry, and paranoid, and ended up with something beautiful. And that’s all that really matters.

 

Which brings me back to my point: If life is a quest for experience through which we learn about ourselves so that we might grow as people – and I do – then there are few better teachers than an immersive experience which brings out the best, and sometimes the worst, in ourselves. You cannot play this game – you cannot spend time cooperating and competing as a group and as an individual – without being changed by it. And once it’s over, what you want more than anything is to do it again.

 

Survivor asks us to accept that every season has only one winner. But I’ve been inside it and on the other side of it. And along the way, I’ve seen the tears, I’ve heard the stories, I’ve felt the truth.

 

Almost everybody loses?

 

No.

 

Everybody wins.

 

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