Well, that was a complicated episode. It's at moments like these that I really wish Survivor was bought by CBS as either 14 or 15 hours, depending on whether the content is there. While having two sets of two episodes this season was already too many thanks to Hunted (especially as it cost us a 90 minute, single boot premiere), there is no doubt that the two boots this week would have been better seen over two separate hours. Even if we had to put them on the same night.
Boots at 7 and 8 are incredibly critical when the show ends with a final three. With final 6 also now frequently a part of the finale (despite it also being critical), it feels like most of the game is being rushed into the end of the season, and this is frustrating.
If they have to have one fewer hour without a medevac to account for two eliminations in a single week, then I'd much prefer that they put two pre-merge boots together. Sure, that means putting potentially 6 days of production schedule into an episode instead of 2, and in those spots are currently Reward Challenges (and you could never fit four challenges into an episode). But, I don't think it's too hard for them to plan out a season where the double boot episode could fit in a couple of places.
Would we really have lost out if the Tony/Caleb boots formed a single hour (other than losing an hour of Sandra), or if the Hali/Ozzy ones did? Instead, the choices are driven by the production schedule instead of the action, and that's a real shame. This episode is a great example of why.
Anyway, here's what's on the ticket this week:
Final pre-finale evictees (finally on point... for one!)
Here's what I had to say about Andrea pre-game:
Yes! I really did completely nail that one!
I was really pleased to see Andrea again on this season. I think she is often maligned and underrated, and she got to prove this season exactly why she is such a big threat. Her calculated removal of Zeke one vote before he was going to come after her was ice cold genius. She had a blind spot with Cirie, although I think it was a fair one to have – Cirie was probably Andrea's best path for survival, she didn't have many other options. In the end, I just think Andrea was too good, and to obvious a threat, for her to ever win the game. I'm glad she got as far as she did.
As far as Michaela goes, I did say that "I think Michaela and Sandra are going to get on like a house on fire, and that's going to protect Michaela in the early game." There's no doubt this panned out and Sandra protected her early, but that's about as close as I got to getting Michaela right. I also said that:
This was off base. I have to say, I don't really understand why the reaction to Michaela amongst her cast mates was so different from season to season. Perhaps it was simply a function of Michaela being tired and hungry and needing more emotional space between seasons, and she was genuinely more grumpy out there. But the Michaela I see doesn't seem that difficult to get along with. Sure, she externalises her emotion, but she's also pretty easy to understand. She's an introvert who cares about people deeply and finds it difficult to both make deep bonds and then scheme and plot against those same people. I still see Michaela as a sort of immature Sandra – I believe she has the goods to win and I think she just needs the right cast to see her for who she is.
In any event, I really don't understand why Michaela went out when she did. Perhaps it was for being a physical threat, but this wasn't explored. I think more likely, Brad simply got sick of her and said it's who he wanted to go, and the rest went along with it.
Judging Cirie's moves (that one was actually pretty good. The other one though...)
The early verdict on Cirie's attempt to use Sarah's advantage is that it wasn't a great move. In this case, I have to disagree.
Oh, it was certainly a risky move. It came with a great degree of difficulty. But here's the thing – if Cirie had simply been able to use the vote, I believe wholeheartedly that she would have pulled it off, and that she, Aubry and Michaela would have been left in a power position on the next vote (which Sarah would have stuck with until 5).
Cirie gave us a masterclass in being Cirie Fields. She thought out a strategy half way through a confessional (beautiful confessional to include, by the way – amongst my favourites ever), and then went and executed with Tai.
She also had every reason to believe that the votes would come down like so – three for Sarah, three for Tai, one for Aubry – without her stealing the vote. In this case, the votes for Tai would be her, Aubry and Michaela. Brad, Troy and Tai would vote for Sarah, with Sarah voting for Aubry. That would lead to a tie which would lead to a rock draw. That would create a rock draw situation. By changing Sarah's Aubry vote to a Tai vote, she would have kept around all of her allies, bought Sarah's loyalty, removed Sarah's advantage, and (unknowingly) removed two idols from the game.
There's nothing wrong with a high risk, high reward move in Survivor. It seems clear that Aubry believed Tai was voting for Sarah, and Cirie's belief that this is what was happening was not unfounded (in fact, for all we know, it might have been accurate if not for the whispered deliberations – we may never know). If this move worked for Cirie, I could see a world in which she marched to the end unchecked as the person with the most connections. In the mean time, Cirie knows full well that however under the radar she is, she was probably just as big a threat before the move as after it. Cirie's path to make final tribal probably needed a big powerplay at some point to shift the numbers in her favour. This would have been it.
That's not to say what she did was perfect. A better way to execute the same plan might have been to refuse to take Sarah's vote steal, saying 'Sarah, you need to trust me, I can't take this tonight, you need to use it to save your own skin'. If Cirie refused to take it as a symbol of trust, it would have showed a level of conviction in the play. She got a little greedy in that she probably wanted the jury credit for herself and not for Sarah. Instead, she could have used it as an opportunity to paint Sarah as a bigger jury threat than she was and gotten Sarah voted out. She also could have, you know, read the fine print! All in all, though, I think Cirie's swing for the fences had the potential to do her a huge amount of good, and I don't think truly great players like Cirie can ever make it to final tribal council without controlling the numbers.
Controlling the numbers, though, is where I feel Cirie really did go wrong this episode. I said last week that "It would also be helpful if she could keep Andrea around as long as possible, since she is possibly the only person who would get voted out before Cirie at final 4." I really meant it. I believed Cirie's path to the end was with Andrea, cutting her at 4 or 5. 7 seemed too early but might have been feasible. 8 was definitely too early. Cirie needed to keep Sarah and Andrea collectively on the same path for at least one more vote – get rid of Brad, and then think about each other.
I think the decision to get rid of Andrea was Cirie's first misstep of the game, but unfortunately I think it played directly in to her need to have an extra vote on side at final 7. If she still had Andrea instead of Brad in that spot, she would have had a block of four without Sarah. Troy almost certainly would have played his idol at that point, and perhaps Tai would have too under those circumstances, but 7 could have been the time to let Tai feel in danger, draw any idol he might have, and take out Andrea. With Aubry and Michaela still on side at final 6 in this scenario as well, I feel like she'd be in a better position to make it to the end.
Fine print, what is it good for? (absolutely nothing)
Having said all of that about why, on balance, I liked Cirie's attempt to steal Sarah's steal a vote... I cannot imagine why it is that she wasn't able to.
Of course, things should never be stealable. But Cirie didn't steal it. The idea of it being "non-transferable" is bizarre. Stephen Fishbach suggested it was to prevent arguments about whether it was stolen, but the same could be said of idols, which are transferable. I can't think of any good reason to have this fine print as part of any advantage.
Just last season, we saw Adam Klein use an advantage to get favour with Jay. Why wasn't that advantage non-transferable? Doesn't it just add to confusion when we don't know what is and isn't transferable?
We had never heard a word about this before Cirie went to use it. The whole episode built up through Cirie's plots to Cirie doing exactly this. Yet, somewhere along the way, production thought it would be a good idea to leave Cirie in the dark (or, they didn't even know the rules of their own advantages), and it led directly to one of the most jarring experiences Survivor could ever have – a rules malfunction. Cirie's move should have been allowed to stand on its own merits – succeed or fail, it would have been one of the great Survivor heists. Instead, it was like a Laurel and Hardy movie. Survivor fell flat on its face.
It continued a trend this season of Survivor producers reducing the design space in which players can play the game. The tie vote rules have lead to more conservative voting. The combined tribal council devolved into a simple 'take out the other side's biggest threat' metric instead of a genuine strategic decision, and now we have advantages people can't play good games with (other than, it could be argued, Sarah's ability to test Cirie's loyalty – although there is no real evidence that is what she was actually doing).
Seriously, Survivor - no more non-transferable anythings. Ever.
Three stories broken (and two unsalvageable?)
The stories of Aubry, Tai and Troyzan remained stories of secondary characters this week, and I'm in little doubt that none of them will win. It was nice seeing Aubry and Tai reconnect momentarily, even if Aubry was voting for him by the end of the episode. It's a pairing we've seen far too little of this season. Nevertheless, we aren't seeing their story.
Last week I talked about the three winner stories. This week, I felt all of them took a significant hit.
The hit to Cirie is obvious. She let go of one ally voluntarily and then had another pulled out from under her. She tried to use an advantage she wasn't entitled to use in front of the jury, and in so doing may have lost the trust of her third ally. Those were the three people whose trust Cirie had managed carefully all through the post-merge – suddenly, she lost it all.
The hard thing for Cirie this season was always going to be finding the path to the end. She really needed both Andrea and Michaela to do that. At this point it feels like Cirie will be out the door next as Sarah turns on her for her betrayal. A single failed move at this point in the game shifts the game significantly.
I don't think Cirie has done any damage to her standing with the jury – if anything, she has proven she is there to play and may have allayed any perceptions that she was being a coattail rider. However, it's hard to see her path to the end at this point. Her door may have closed.
Brad the mediator was gone in this episode. In his place was a guy who wouldn't give in to Michaela's 'diva demands' when she was giving him a suggestion that she believed (however misguided she may have been) might help him stay around a bit longer.
Then, upon winning immunity, Brad did his best Troyzan impression, stopping mere inches short of blurting out "This Is My Island."
About the only good thing that could be said about Brad's game this week was that somehow he got Tai back on side, but we didn't even see how he did this. The last thing we saw in the Brad/Tai relationship was it breaking, even as we saw Tai vote with Brad again.
Then we saw people at tribal council talk about what they expected out of the jury. Everyone was saying they expected good gameplay to be rewarded, and the jury was nodding along. Now, your mileage may vary, but to me 'good gameplay' in Survivor terms is code for minimising the impact of the social game and looking more at the moves made. This hasn't been the place where Brad's game has shined.
All in all, I felt like this was all very bad stuff for Brad. He might make it to the end, but in such a critical episode it felt like the edit didn't support his social game at all. Given his social game is his only hope for winning, I'm much less bullish on Brad.
A couple of things didn't look very good on Sarah this week. The first was that people have cottoned on to how hard she is playing the game after she playacted to get the legacy advantage. There's now a target on her back and while removing Andrea may have stemmed the tide a little, people are now very aware that she can't be trusted.
In addition to that, Sarah gave her advantage to Cirie, and I don't know that this will ever appear to be a good move. Cirie could have voted Sarah out cold and Sarah wouldn't have had her advantage to fall back on. After that tribal council, my sense was that people came out respecting Cirie more and Sarah less, and Sarah would probably now lose to Cirie if that wasn't in doubt before.
Sarah said that she would 'be the first person to use the vote steal correctly'. I think we're still waiting for that person to arrive. Tai could not have changed the outcome of that vote (he wasn't voting for himself, which is the only vote that could have changed the outcome), and the decision to let Cirie hold it reminds me somewhat of Kyle Jason letting Scot Pollard hold his idol only to watch it get voted out of the game. Please, future Survivor players – never let someone else hold your advantages!
Some finale predictions (it's not going to be as close as I thought last week)
Having said all that I've said above, I think it's clear that two of the three had serious damage done to their chances, and the third had pretty minimal damage...
I think Dan Otsuki's been right all along. At this point, I think Sarah Lacina is going to be the winner of the season. And I don't think it's going to be close. It might even be unanimous.
Cirie's probably gone next. The worst case scenario has already been outlined by Rob Cesternino on the Know It Alls – Tai, Troyzan and Brad are all protected by hidden immunity idols, Sarah has the legacy advantage, and Aubry wins the immunity challenge. That would eliminate Cirie at 6 by default. But even if that isn't how it goes down, my guess is that Sarah will be out for blood and Cirie will go no matter what.
We saw in the preview that it looks like Tai is giving up idols and Brad said he had no problem ending Tai with his own idol. I feel so sorry for Tai crying in the preview. All Tai has to do to make final four is play one idol on himself at each of the next two tribals, but I'm guessing that he won't and that he'll be taken out at 5. If I'm wrong about this, then perhaps Sarah sticks with Brad's side and Aubry goes at 5 instead.
Four might depend on immunity. Perhaps Brad is taken out at this point after losing, and Sarah sits at the end with Troyzan and Tai/Aubry, leaving her as the only player left who people feel has really played a decent game. I note a lot of others are predicting Brad to make the end with Sarah and it be some sort of showdown. I'm not so sure, but at this point even if it is I'm expecting Brad to lose badly, not closely – I think he may be alienating people as much as Sarah has, but without the gameplay case to offset it.
So, I'm going to give it to Sarah – lets say 9-1-0. And, while I certainly didn't come into the season thinking Sarah could play well enough to win (and I think she is demonstrating some of the reasons why I thought that, and they are reasons that should get her voted out), the edit is pointing at her getting to the end, and after the last tribal council I think it's pointing to it being a winning case and not a losing one.
I've heard some noise that people feel like Sarah is an average to poor player. I think that's rough. I think Sarah has shown this season that she is a really strong player, and if she does win in the end I can't deny that she will have won because she earned it through her own play. Since the merge, she has been in the position of power (to swing the vote either way), I think every single vote. She's decided the action, and she's done a decent job of it. I think she truly has changed her game, and I think she should now rightfully be considered a really good player of the game – win or lose.
This and that
* I really enjoyed seeing Aubry win immunity. It was also perversely enjoyable to see Kaoh Rong Aubry have a re-emergence after the Andrea boot. Even though we were seeing Aubry's misfortune, this is better than not seeing her at all. I've really missed Aubry this season – in a season where careful fan service has been given to every other popular player on the season, I think that it's been overlooked how popular Aubry is. I hope she gets a third shot to play (and on the bright side, her relative anonymity here might leave her in a very good spot for round three).
* "Spin and Grin" is really a thing now, eh?
* Looking in hindsight, I feel like the post-merge has been told almost exclusively from the perspective of Cirie and Sarah. I feel as though this might be because they are the only two players who have consistently known what was going on.
* I might be in the minority, but I absolutely loved the whispering at tribal council. Do we need to hear what they are saying? No! It's like a good piece of literature. Some of the beauty is in leaving ambiguity in a way that allows you to live in the story. I felt like I was there, a player who didn't know what the whispering was about and couldn't be let in to be party to it. In addition, I think this is exactly the time this should happen. The twist with Cirie being unable to make her powerplay almost demanded that the tribal go live and people be able to react. I've heard some people suggest that allowing this affects the integrity of the game. I think the opposite is true. We have to let the game be played. That we don't get to be party to every word is no different to how it always is – we are usually deprived of knowing the precise details of the vote to preserve dramatic tension anyway.
And on that note – thanks for reading the Golden Ticket all season! I've really appreciated the opportunity to blog away, it's been a lot of fun (so cheers Jeff!)
I will post a blog after the finale with some parting thoughts on the winner, the season, and the way the finale played out. I don't know exactly how quickly it will be out, but I will write it. But if you aren't the type to want to read blogs post-finale, then I've still really appreciated you coming along on the journey this season and I hope to see you back for season 35.
In the mean time, I really encourage you to find and check out NZ Survivor if you can – it's not all that bad! And please comment and tweet away at me. I will always respond.
Till next time
By day, Ben Martell is a public commercial lawyer from New Zealand.
By night, he moonlights as a self-described Survivor 'expert'.
By day or night, find him on twitter at: @golden8284