Who knew Debbie was going to be such a solid game player, and offer more than court jesterdom? Certainly not Liz and Peter. It's interesting that pre-game, Neal talked about hoping to come off as a non-threatening, goofy guy who would subtly control the game, but as of days 7-8, Liz and Peter had clearly seen past Neal's ice-cream pants charade and identified him as a strategic threat. Meanwhile, Debbie was quietly (okay, perhaps the opposite of quietly) doing exactly what Neal was trying to do, and was successful in seizing control after appearing harmless. Perhaps Debbie needs to add "magician" to her list of jobs, because the misdirection she provided over the first two episodes was perfectly executed, drawing attention directly away from her scheming.
Still, we don't know how long Debbie can remain in control: She and Joe are still outnumbered by the younger people, Peter is still useful in challenges (and is less of a threat now that he's alone), and the obvious next move for the rest of the tribe is to break up either her pair with Joe or the Neal-Aubry duo. But no matter what happens, it's great that Survivor cast someone like Debbie: someone who's both entertaining as a TV character and a formidable Survivor strategist. And maybe Debbie's position isn't that mad: If she can last until a swap, and manage to not get swapped onto a tribe with Peter, it's possible that she and her Brains allies could pull off a second juggling/cheerleading ruse with their new tribemates.
Viewed another way, it's also fantastic that the editors aided and abetted Debbie's obfuscation, showing her almost exclusively from Liz and Peter's perspective in the first two episodes, then slowly letting the audience in on Debbie's gameplay during this third episode. Survivor doesn't usually do this; we rarely gets this kind of character depth from the contestants. But as twists go, this one was delightful to watch. More, please.
Quarter qualifications: Updated projections.
With roughly one-fourth of the season already aired, we're taking a second look at the players and re-evaluating who has a chance to win, who just thinks they do, and who is now little more than an innocent bystander. Note that with no medevacs yet (and one coming next week - we know who it is, so please don't spoil everyone in the coment section), there's a reasonably good chance that several people who look good right now could leave their games unfinished. But that's not really the point, anyway. What we're trying to get at here is who is currently playing the best game, in roughly descending order, at this juncture.
- Aubry - Aubry has had a subdued edit since the first episode, but she had that great intra-premiere redemption arc, and now is in the apparent majority on the Brains tribe. She's close to Neal, Debbie seems to like her, and even Peter seemed to talk (down) to her before Tribal. If the Brains can avoid Tribal from here on out, and she can swap well when the tribes go down from three to two, Aubry has a really good shot to go all the way. Like Sophie Clarke in South Pacific, she's been calm and level-headed on a tribe full of big personalities and bigger egos, and (also like Sophie) she has a solid chance to dominate in the kinds of challenges that take place post-merge. Or she should, unless they're non-stop balance/endurance borefests as in San Juan del Sur and Cambodia.
- Jason - True to his promises, Jason has played a Hantzian game thus far in the pre-merge, pruning his tribe down to those most loyal, racing to grab idols, and congratulating himself in confessionals. We worry that he'll complete the analogy if he reaches the finals: his first confessional in the premiere talked about playing like he works, "kicking down doors." That kind of aggressiveness rarely wins jury votes, as Russell ought to know well, and Jason should also know from having seen it happen twice. On the other hand, Jason does have his devotion to his daughters as a Jeremy-esque jury speech ace in the hole, and this cast has just watched Tony and Natalie convert aggressive gameplay into million-dollar victories. There's a non-zero chance that Jason really could be the Hantz that doesn't suck.
- Tai - Tai's strategic chops are as yet untested, but he's clearly been a major early character, and he's at least ingratiated himself with a tribe full of people half his age (less than half, in Julia's case) so as to move himself up one slot from the bottom of the pecking order. It's unclear how far Tai can get with his newfound idol, although his receiving the #superidol hashtag is a hopeful sign. He's not in immediate danger, and the Beauties don't seem particularly likely to attend Tribal any time soon. In a swap situation, Tai shouldn't come across as super-threatening, and he should also be fine post-merge. Even so, because he's so well-liked and has such a compelling backstory, he'll still have a tough time finding someone willing to sit next to him at the finals.
- Debbie - As mentioned at the top, Debbie confounded almost everyone's expectations, and catapulted herself into this tier this episode. It's possible she made her big move too early, but if Debbie can reach the merge, she should be in great shape to go very deep into the game. How she swaps in the reduction to two tribes could play a factor, though. Hard to imagine her meshing well with the likes of Jason.
- Alecia - Things currently look bleak for Alecia at the old Brawn camp. She's definitely the next person out at Tribal. Unless it's Cydney, because... hey, we've already booted two other decent players, why boot Alecia? And then, if the Brawns are still the least-populous tribe when a swap hits... why boot Alecia? And after the merge... why boot Alecia? It still seems unlikely she'd win, but it's now far from implausible that she could make the finals. At the very least, she's on a pace to break Phillip Sheppard's record for most votes against without being voted out.
- Neal - It's been a confusing three weeks for Neal's edit. He's still nominally playing a good game, but of the four Brains who voted in the majority this episode, he's only close to Aubry, and Joe doesn't seem to like him much at all. Going forward, Peter seems pretty strongly anti-Neal, too, so maybe (like Alecia), Neal's best path forward is to hope for a swap. He's fairly non-threatening post-swap, and probably post-merge, so if he can just fit in, he should have an opportunity to improve his position.
- Anna - We're not convinced that Anna can win. She seemed fairly condescending in offering the #4 slot in her alliance to Caleb last episode, and if the Beauties hit the swap/merge without having attended Tribal Council, they should be targets, especially if everyone else sees the three women as inseparable as the audience does. (Whether that actually happens remains to be seen. Maybe someone like Jason will foolishly refuse to accept them as threats.) But Anna has received a lot of screen time thus far, and has been presented as the nominal leader of her alliance. If a woman from Beauty wins, it could be Anna.
- Julia, Michele - we're sorry to group them together like this, but the edit has treated the three Beauty women as largely interchangeable to this point. All three switch off providing play-by-play of the various camp shenanigans, or talking about how much they dislike Nick. This makes it tough to see any of them as a potential winner, and our listing of Anna in the top tier is really only based on a marginal difference in editing. We have really been given any reason to root for any of them. In contrast: Aubry struggled in the first episode, Jason loves his daughters, Tai has had a tough life, It would be pretty funny if they're the final three. How would the jury pick one?
- Caleb - We've never watched Big Brother, but Caleb has played far better than we were led to believe he would. Still, for all the audience goodwill his good-natured bromance with Tai has earned him, his strategic options thus far have been quite limited (to the extent we can tell without Beauty attending Tribal). Anna offered him the #4 slot in the women's alliance, which is apparently great news. He didn't seem overjoyed by Anna's generosity, but his best-case alternative scenario appears to be a 3-3 tie, split along gender lines. And Tai has the tribe's only idol. Caleb would also be a visible post-swap and post-merge target, unless he can turn the post-merge numbers in his favor better than he did pre-merge.
- Scot - He's played a fairly standard, straight-up Strength, Loyalty, Integrity game, exactly what you would expect from a celebrity. There's very little chance he can win, after making millions in the NBA. And he's clearly Jason's meat shield for the time being, since Jason is currently holding the idol. Still, he's shown a decent sense of humor, and is probably the least objectionable former professional athlete to play Survivor, so there's that.
- Peter - of this last group, Peter probably still has the best win equity. There's not really any good reason for his tribe to boot him in the near term, although as a physically strong guy who's also smart, he'll become a target again as soon as there's a swap or a merge. If his fellow Brains found him off-puttingly arrogant in the first week, he has work cut out for him trying to charm his way into a different post-merge or post-swap alliance. Then again, he's a smart guy, and a course correction after the wake-up call of Liz's boot is certainly possible.
- Cydney - Cydney is smart, but in ratting Alecia out to Jason and Scot, she gained absolutely no advantage. She may have slightly repaired any damage she incurred by being caught idol-hunting with Alecia, but she's still clearly #3 at best on her tribe. And now Alecia doesn't trust her (or at least shouldn't). After the merge, she'll be seen as a physical threat. If she can stick with Jason and Scot, she could do well for a while, but she doesn't appear to have any input into the decision-making process. Maybe a swap gives her a better chance at a new alliance, but as it stands, her win chances seem remote.
- Joe - In the first episode, Joe looked like he had what it takes to go deep in the game, calmly allowing Debbie to try to start a fire the wrong way, or almost destroy the shelter by refusing to swap her hatchet out for a saw. Then in Ep2, he suddenly morphed into a cantankerous elderly Mr. Hyde, openly snarling at Liz over minor infractions obvious only to him. He's theoretically in power with Debbie now, but he's still probably the consensus next boot from the Brains, should they be forced to make one. If he can make it to the merge, he could still have a Rudy-esque run, but if he's the sole Brain on a post-swap tribe (or gets swapped with Neal or Peter), he could be an obvious target.
- Nick - Sadly, Nick is on the outs in his tribe, he just doesn't know it yet. If the Beauties have superior numbers at the swap, their biggest guy will go from being his tribemates' #1 target to... being everyone else's #1 target. He'll remain the #1 target after the merge, because voting out big, strong guys is what people do after the merge. Barring everyone else getting medevacced, we really can't see a path to the end for the former RHAP blogger.
Land of the takes that are at best lukewarm:
- The case of the missing skin: It turns out that Tai just needed to unroll his key clue all the way to figure out that he didn't need to remove 50% of his epidermis to retrieve the idol key. Whoops.
- Brawn ho! Alecia missed finding the idol box when she went to retrieve Brawn's hoe. Which begs the question: why does Brawn have a hoe? To weed and maintain their beautiful rock plantation?