That was quite some tribal council!
So much was going on, in fact, that it took me a while just to figure out how to process it all. Who was making good moves? Who was making bad moves? Do we even know what half of these people were up to at all?
In making sense of it, I’m more or less ignoring the Tavua tribe entirely this week. They did a great job winning that last challenge coming from behind, and I find it completely gutting that Nuku couldn’t pull through and take it out (truth be told, a Mana/Tavua tribal where original Nuku had 9 out of 11 participants and Troyzan had an idol would have made things far more interesting to me).
But when the biggest story on the tribe is ‘Ozzy catches fish’, I think we can skip ‘em for a week.
So, what’s on the ticket this week?
Malcomb undone (oops, I meant Malcom)
My feelings went in order – shock, relief, despair.
Firstly, I really thought Sandra was the one gone. Then, I was relieved when she survived. And then, I despaired as I realised that but for the idol play, Nuku would be able sit out both Sandra and Varner from immunity, but now they would need to play them both without Malcolm to give them a physical edge.
Oh, and there was that other thing too – bafflement at how not one vote that Malcolm got to see spelled his name right.
Interlude from my mother – “Perhaps they should have a spelling challenge.”
Malcolm still fits into the category of a Survivor game no-changer. He remained a social and physical threat, although it’s hard to say what he could do about it when his elimination came down to a tribe of four people who hadn’t played with him and one person who was in Sandra’s alliance. It’s rough to criticise Malcolm for his elimination.
Having said that, I agree with what Rob Cesternino’s had to say about this twist – it functioned as the earliest merge in Survivor history (but with the added twist that the tribes merged at tribal council and couldn’t talk about things before that). Given that, it’s no real surprise that Malcolm functioned as somewhat of a traditional merge boot.
In preseason, I said “Malcolm will be an early merge boot, around 11/12. He’ll be seen as an immunity threat, but will never actually win a challenge to keep himself safe.”
While I was wrong, I feel like in a sense the bones of his elimination is right there. Malcolm is the kind of guy that stands out come a merge-like situation, and it’s exactly this reputation that got him booted.
What were the plans? (A guess that exit interviews will probably prove wrong)
I’ve done my best to trawl through tribal council to find evidence of what the original plans were for each moving part at this tribal council. I could well be wrong, but here’s my best take.
The Nuku five were going in planning a vote for Sierra, which is exactly what they ended up doing.
JT went in planning to vote for Sandra, but only if he felt certain the five Mana players were doing the same. I think JT’s first priority in that tribal council was to protect two people he saw as key allies, those being Malcolm and Brad.
The Mana four were planning on voting Malcolm (as they did) and on using their idol to save Brad. This is shows in a conversation before JT told Brad who they were voting for, where Sierra said “I think it’s me” and Brad said “No, it’s not”. The plan shifted when JT revealed the target.
Hali – well, there’s a few possibilities here, which I discuss more below.
The Mana tribe, including Hali, pretty much adapted to the situation and changed their plans to suit circumstances. But the players on Nuku didn’t, and that was the difference.
JT’s conscience (the perils of trying to have your cake and eat it too)
It would have been fascinating to see how the Mana tribe would have played out had Sierra gone – certainly, it feels like this tribal could be a significant turning point in the way the entire season played out. And I think this turned on a single decision – going to Brad and telling him they were voting Sierra.
JT was put in a position no-one has ever had to face before. He was confronted with someone who was clearly a close ally, sitting at the same tribal council, but knowing that he had to return to the opposite tribe afterwards. He felt he needed to leave tribal with both Nuku’s trust, and Brad’s trust, and that put him in a quandary.
The best thing JT could have done was probably by letting Sierra go and, when he was on the same tribe as Brad again, saying that he refused to vote Brad and forced them to go for Sierra. That should have been enough. Instead, JT made a decision that he thought could preserve his relationships on both side.
I believe JT felt his best approach to be on the ins on the Nuku tribe was if Sandra went. With Aubry and Sandra not getting along (see Malcolm’s exit interviews), and Varner and Michaela clearly more closely aligned with Sandra than Malcolm, JT may have felt that all he needed to do was get the vote to go Sandra’s way and he would stay longer in the game.
At face value, it was a terrible risk to take. He had no idea if Brad would be receptive to vote Sandra (Brad wasn’t), and he had no idea about whether the other side could pull off an idol play and send someone else home. He was essentially counting on the idea that five people would vote a particular way, despite their pre-tribal discussions, just because he said he’d go that way himself. It was an all-or-nothing play of even greater magnitude than the one he pulled in Heroes vs Villains.
If it had paid off, it could have been a masterstroke that propelled JT deep into the game, and in this sense I can at least understand the move. JT’s mistake was spending too much of his headspace in drastically changing the dynamic within his tribe, when his focus would probably have been better spent on how to establish relationships and simply survive until the next swap.
In the end, it proved to be a massive miscalculation, and that could best be represented by the image of JT, head in hands, sobbing as he realised that his mistake had cost Malcolm the game. In that moment, I don’t think JT was even focussed on his own game. It felt like a moment where his conscience kicked in and he felt deep regret for the damage he had done, entirely by accident, to a close friend. It was remarkably compelling, and I found myself feeling sorry for him even though it was by his own hand. If we ever see JT play for a fourth time (and that might depend on how he does here) my guess is that the era of ‘big moves’ JT is over. To take the fall for your own move (as in HvV) is one thing. To have someone else take the fall gives you a different perspective entirely.
The paradox of Hali (whose side is she on?)
It was challenging for me to make sense of Hali’s tribal council. What exactly was going on here?
Hali clearly came in wanting Brad gone. Since it seems clear to me Mana came in intending to play an idol on Brad, one possibility is that Hali didn’t know about the idol (she wasn’t there when Tai revealed it) and so her plan was genuine and, in isolation, it would have failed.
Another possibility is that Hali’s role was to draw votes to Brad for the idol play (since I’m sure they went in expecting and wanting Brad to be the vote). This option would mean she had turned on her own tribe for her alliance with Sierra.
Both of these options are confused by her wanting to wait to vote until she had convinced the others to vote Brad, and her statement that ‘they might regret it’ not talking further, after Brad knew that the idol was going to go to Sierra. The irony of JT’s move is that Hali ended up wanting to make the correct move when she went in wanting to make the incorrect one.
But why did Hali seem so confident that the other team would regret voting Sierra not Brad? Did she at some point realise that Sierra was the idol play? If she wasn’t in on the plan to begin with, did the Mana tribe tell her? And if the Mana tribe told her even when she was going after Brad... why??? And if she was in on the plan all along and intended to be loyal to Mana, why would she still be going for Brad after she realised Sierra was the plan?
Hali’s tribal council just doesn’t add up. I don’t understand her motives for doing the things she did. She was great TV (was she flirting with Probst a little?), and I’m glad she made it through. But she’s going back to Mana with Brad, and Brad is under no illusion that he was her target. That’s not going to be comfortable for her.
Sandra’s guns fire blanks (Where did the Nuku tribe go wrong)
For all that I don’t think this outcome was specifically Malcolm’s fault, I do think the Nuku tribe got a few things wrong in this episode.
First, they picked the wrong target. Second, they trusted JT. Third, they didn’t listen to Hali when they needed to.
So, what do I think they should have done? They should have agreed as a five from former Mana, to target Hali, and they should not have brought JT in on the plan until the voting was underway.
Hopefully JT would have followed them at that late stage. Hali was no former ally of his. If he was flipping sides, they were down in the numbers anyway. And if JT didn’t change his vote at that point, where would this have ended? Five votes on Malcolm, five votes on Hali, one vote on Sierra. A tie.
Then it’s time to do psychology on Mana. Say you aren’t voting Malcolm out. Tell Hali you are protecting her from having to draw a rock. Let Brad’s group come to their own conclusion about their best move. Best case scenario, they say they’ll vote Hali, it’s a unanimous vote, and Hali is gone (worse than having Sierra gone, but far better than having Malcolm gone). This seems most likely, since Brad’s group already had no loyalty to Hali anyway. It’s probably that between giving JT a chance to vote Hali and giving Brad’s core a chance to flip, Hali is gone.
Worst case scenario is you go to rocks – something you want to avoid, but you have to know the other side would want to as well.
It’s easy for me to say in hindsight – there’s probably no reason they would risk rocks if they believed they had JT 100%, and the ‘no revote’ twist really hurt this vote in my view. But Hali is the one person you can probably guarantee no idol was being played on and also the one her own tribe would flip on.
Even without that plan, they would have been fine if they just listened to one person who ought to be their ally – Hali – and switched the plan to Brad. Why didn’t they? Well, it appears that JT talked them out of it because ‘he told him he wasn’t going home’. So, they trusted JT too much again. Part of me wonders if Malcolm vouched for him...
The impact of this tribal on Nuku is severe. They’ve lost their biggest challenge beast, but the swing has also cost them a 2-person sit out advantage. If Sierra had gone, the next immunity would have seen JT/Malcolm/Aubry/Michaela face off against Debbie/Tai/Brad/Hali. That’s just not a fair fight. Instead Mana keep Sierra, and Nuku have to play Sandra and Varner. Tavua have a fairly big advantage at this point. I expect one of Mana and Nuku will return to tribal this week.
Who gets the credit? (No, it’s not Brad Culpepper)
The temptation here, which is what I’ve seen on the internet so far, is to give Brad credit for Mana’s successful tribal council. I feel like this perception has come about primarily because he played very well last week, but realistically all Brad had to do was listen to what JT said and get Tai to play the idol on Sierra. It also appears that Brad was convinced the votes were coming his way going in, so to me this was nothing to write home about from Brad.
Rather, I was more impressed with Sierra and Tai. Sierra sensed she was the vote before Brad was willing to believe it. That takes some smart perception of what was going on (perhaps she was picking up on Malcolm not feeling quite right, given they do know each other well). Brad may have been somewhat swayed to believe JT by the fact Sierra got to the same conclusion first. This is the first time I’ve been impressed with Sierra in her run on Survivor, so I’m hoping to see more of perceptive Sierra before this game is up.
Tai is the only one we saw on that tribe looking for an idol, and you’d expect that there would at least be some sign of others looking with him if they had been trying anywhere near as hard as he was. For all his flaws, Tai works hard, and often that hard work pays off in game terms.
Interlude from my mother: “Tai is funny. Where would he hide an idol in those underpants?”
Tai may have learned from his time in Kaoh Rong. He failed to play an idol pre-merge on his ally Anna Khait, and ultimately this reduced his options come merge time and forced him into the hands of Kyle Jason and Scot Pollard. This time around, his selfless idol play probably helped him solidify bonds.
One thing Tai really needed to be better at this season was coming across as trustworthy. He didn’t look great at first, but in the last couple of weeks I think he is proving to be a very loyal ally to his original tribemates. He even opened the episode with a confessional about how he was playing with his head not his heart this time around. This might set him up well for a long run.
The Mana tribe did everything right at this tribal. They didn’t have to work very hard for that outcome, given JT handed it to them on a silver platter. But there was every possibility they lost every immunity in this post-swap phase (they certainly were going to lose that one if not for the twist), and so you can’t criticise them for taking the chance when it presented itself.
Two Tribes, One Council – an analysis (and a verdict)
In fact, I’ll start with the verdict – this twist was a fail.
Look, the tribal was great TV! Much better than I ever expected it to be, I have to admit. An idol play helped with that a lot. So did everyone getting up and walking around (I’ve been thinking for seasons now that someone should do this if they want to – why do people always feel the need to stay in their seats?) Mic people properly, sure, so we can hear what they say – but they should be allowed to have private conversations at tribal council, and I hope to see much more of this in the future. This is what I consider a rule with strategic payoff – a person who gets up to talk to someone else at tribal is trying to execute a move now at the expense of becoming a potential target for a bold play. That’s what makes it good.
Interlude from my mother: “Imagine if Syndrome [Zeke] had been at tribal! His head would have been rotating!”
It was like the sugar rush of twists, though. Good on the surface, but bad for us longer term. As I noted earlier, it was a little like a merge, but with two differences.
The first is that tribes couldn’t talk to each other beforehand. Imagine if the merge happened at tribal council and then you asked everyone to vote a player out – wouldn’t you expect the vote to go down tribal lines? And that’s exactly what happened here.
The second is that immediately after tribal, the two tribes would demerge again, going back to the beach with the people they arrived with.
I can see only two likely outcomes for this twist, no matter how many times it plays out. One is that everyone manages to agree on a single big threat to vote out (I suspected that Sandra might get a unanimous boot for a minute here). The other is that people stick to tribal lines, and both vote for who they see as the biggest threat on the other side. Neither of these outcomes is good for us, especially in an All Star season.
There’s no accountability for booting a big threat on the other tribe. You don’t have go back to the beach and deal with their upset allies. In fact, there’s only upside – you can compete better at the next challenge.
There’s no reason for, or upside in, complicated strategic thinking. It reduces tribal to basic math. Put on top of the ‘no revote’ twist (imagine if JT could have voted Hali first up, just to see which way the winds were blowing before committing to a side... another strategic option that was out of play here), and you are left with a considerably reduced number of strategic options.
The lifeblood of Survivor is in believing that anything can happen and that you are just a couple of good social moves away from turning the game around. But this twist ended with as simple an outcome as you’d expect, and I can only imagine there will be diminishing returns from there. It’s another twist that, if thought through to its logical conclusion, should have died on the whiteboard.
Courtesy of a commenter over at RHAP, damnbueno, here is an idea for a better twist. After switching everyone up at 18 (with hopefully a more balanced switch than happened here) switch them back to their original tribes without warning at 15 or 16, and see if the dynamics have shifted. Now there’s a twist that opens up the field instead of closing it down.
I don’t want to be too down on the producers about this – they are giving things a go, and that’s exactly what they should be doing. But in this season, their decisions have, one after the other, created a very linear and ‘on the rails’ approach to who goes home each week, and for all the excitement and fireworks we’ve seen, so far all the moves have been made by production, and they are handing the players free passes to just do the obvious thing. They’re firing blanks. That means the season is relying on the characters and stories to be compelling (which, thankfully, they have been so far.)
Odds and ends
* Malcolm’s post-blindfold fall was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a challenge for a long time. It’s pretty rare that I have to watch something twice on the first viewing, but this was an exception.
* My mother is in usual form – “I like Ozzy’s plaits”
* Debbie still seems to be playing pretty well, telling people like Hali what they need to hear, although one wonders if her meltdown next week will throw all the good work she’s done so far out the window.
*Not such a good week for Troy, though, whose role in losing the challenge was emphasised (despite the fact all he did was lose a throwing competition to a former NFL player).
Right, that does it for this week. Let me know your thoughts on that tribal. Have I got things wrong? Is it the greatest twist of all time? Talk to me in the comments and on twitter, and I’ll reply!
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