Sorry for being late this week. See, what happened was, Dan Otsuki was all like “see how I got my blog up first, Ben? Did you see how quick I was?” And I was all like “Dan, I had your back, and then you CRUSHED MY HEART.”
But, I’m finally over it now. And, it’s better that this comes late than never. So, here’s what’s on the ticket for this week.
JT’s regression (a story of naiveté and trying too hard)
I haven’t watched Tocantins in a long time, but one thing sticks with me about JT in that season – he was laid back, he was social, and it felt like everything he did he did with others, creating strong connections and using them to get himself further. He always seemed to have a strong read of how he fit with others.
This is what makes his play in Heroes vs Villains and here in Mamanuca Islands (yes, I’m still trying to make that stick) so confusing.
In HvV, JT made a solo move to get Cirie out, which weakened his position, and then he destroyed his position completely when he put his faith in a man he’d never met. In this season, he trusted a 6-day ally in Brad to his detriment, striking out on his own (he even admitted that he struck out on his own after Malcolm told him not to). Then, within three short days, he went from wanting Sandra out to feeling so safe with her that he didn’t bring his idol to tribal council.
In some ways I wonder if Tocantins set him up poorly for future seasons. JT played with a fairly trusting and up-front lot. Stephen did what he told JT he would do, as did Coach, and each brought their own alliances with them. And while JT couldn’t have played the game that was in front of him much better, it feels like it set him up for trusting that his likeability would be enough to coast by in any future season.
In HvV, when JT chose to give Russell an idol, that wasn’t the only commodity JT was trying to trade. While writing Russell a letter might go down as one of the most embarrassing moments on Survivor, from the perspective of JT he was once again trading on his likeability, but this time he was trying to do it to make a big move. Russell wasn’t moved by JT’s sincerity. He saw it for what it was – a free gift to be used to his own ends.
The lesson JT should have learned is that you cannot put your faith in someone when you can’t have a proper dialogue with them and gauge their intentions. It was naive to trust Russell, not just because he was Russell, but because he was on the other tribe and he had his own set of interests which JT knew nothing about. Instead, it seems like the lesson JT took away was that although he swung and missed, the swing was worth it, and he may have only missed out because it was Russell.
Going and talking to Brad last week was the first half of history repeating. Trading once again on his likeability and a bond he felt he’d already built, he was effectively asking Brad to stand by and lose an ally now for no purpose at all, other than because JT asked. Instead, Brad saw it for what it was – a free gift to be used to his own ends, and those ends were crippling the Nuku tribe so that he could send them back to tribal council, which he duly did.
In doing that, JT also alienated another potential ally in Sandra. Then, this week, he found an idol. He didn’t give it away, but he did the next worst thing – he didn’t even take it to tribal council when he should have believed himself to be on the bottom of the tribe. The episode put a lot of effort into showing just how much Sandra set JT at ease. But, nevertheless, JT’s expectation is that he can get by on likeability, and that the tribe would want to keep him around for the tribe dynamics because Michaela is, by comparison, a negative influence.
I don’t really expect to see JT play for a fourth time, but if we do, there’s a lesson he needs to take from this season. You cannot give up a strategic advantage now, and charge only the price of social goodwill. The goodwill you get is not outweighed by the advantage you give up. JT’s regression will continue unless he figures out how to get back to basics and realises that his biggest advantage in the game is making sure people believe he’s never going to make a move on them at all.
JT’s the closest I’ve come in pregame predictions so far, where I said “I think JT’s issue is going to come in the swap. JT is likeable, he’s strong enough in challenges without feeling essential, and he’s a former winner. Not only that, but he’s stuffed the game up for allies before, something I’m sure Cirie will remind people of if the chance presents itself. That combo feels like it could be enough to see him being shipped off early.” Truth be told, this reputation for being a chaotic ally is one that will only have increased from this game, and so even if he does play a fourth time he may find himself to be a pariah early on.
Nevertheless, JT swapped into a tribe down 5-1, and he was probably always going to go if they went to tribal. In the end, he didn’t have a heap of room to move. While I think his game has continued to regress, I also think JT is ultimately a victim of circumstance to some extent as well. He really needed that tribe to keep winning challenges.
Sugarnapping (A study in “anybody but me”)
While JT was falling to pieces, Sandra was busy building an episode that was a microcosm of her first two seasons. If you were a professor of Survivor, this is the episode you’d use to show that ‘anybody but me’ does not, in fact, mean that you simply say you are willing to vote anyone else out. It means a whole lot more than that.
Jeff Pitman has been noting that, up until this point, Sandra has gone to 28 tribal councils and has only 1 vote against. It’s not impossible for someone to get a statistic like that as a fluke. But for Sandra, it is no fluke.
JT was gunning for Sandra last week. This week, Sandra saw a chance to point JT in a different direction, and she took the chance, and it worked. It doesn’t matter that the direction is her ally (see also: Christa Hastie, Courtney Yates). It’s not that she wants her ally to go, either. It’s just that she understands that at every tribal, things ultimately are likely to come down to two sides, and the game is not only about making sure you have enough allies voting the same way as you – it’s also about making sure your enemies are voting for someone else.
Sandra’s hits on Tony and JT this season have been masterstrokes in their own right. But the true piece of genius has been that she has created alternatives that have kept her safe even in the event of an idol play (or her play not working out). Aubry and Michaela have taken the other votes when Sandra should have been the target both times.
For those who have listened to The Evolution of Strategy, you’d be familiar with Rob Cesternino’s winner rankings and his concept of ‘control of the game’ as the most important factor in ranking who played the best. I don’t think that’s a bad criterion, but I think where it falls down somewhat is in defining what ‘control’ looks like. Sandra may not always choose to control the vote and who goes home (although she has tried and succeeded plenty of times in the past as well as this season), but her most important level of control is that she influences how people perceive each other, and paints targets for her enemies that are not her.
For anyone who still doubts that Sandra was a very strong player before this season, you should rewatch Pearl Islands with this in mind. Just look at the Trish boot, the Burton boot, The Christa boot, the Tijuana boot... in some cases, the person Sandra wanted to go went home. In other cases, Sandra didn’t get her way – but she certainly got her way in terms of who the other side targeted, and it wasn’t her. This is the true essence of “anybody but me”, and it’s why Sandra has been so successful.
Sandra even coined the ‘sugarnapping’ term, to JT’s face, in a moment that seemed so believable that it’s no wonder JT didn’t see through Sandra and realise she was responsible. Anyone who saw her with the bucket of fish in Pearl Islands might have recognised her fingerprints, but it’s a testament to how well she played the moment that he didn’t.
I still don’t know that Sandra’s got what it takes to win this season – she’s gone far further than I expected in terms of the number of tribals she’s survived, and my original predictions for her were based on the idea that Mana could keep numbers which it’s failed to do. She’s coming into an apparent swap where her only allies are Jeff, Michaela, Hali and Troyzan, and since there are 15 people left and an exile visit, I’m assuming its two tribes of 7. That means she needs to swap with three out of four of those allies to have the numbers. Her best bet to survive for now is to swap to Troyan’s tribe – or to not lose again until the merge.
But at this point, Sandra is playing so well that I’m beginning to wonder if even a tribe swap is an obstacle for her.
Famous Firsts (Debbie is in the Zohn)
Yes, Debbie, I did see that you were the first one over the initial obstacles in the immunity challenge. I also saw that you were first at something else – I can’t remember anyone else bringing their intra-tribe conflict so openly into the performance of a challenge before, short of those people who were specifically trying to throw it. Debbie appeared to be entirely uninterested in doing well at the challenge for the purpose of winning – she just wanted to perform well for the purpose of showing Brad up.
The meltdown continued the Debbie dichotomy – a player who seems to play the game so well half the time, and so terribly the other half. Debbie manages to be level headed much of the time, but here she lost her head so badly that it has inevitably altered her role in this game. For better or for worse, I feel sure that this conflict with Brad is going to end one of their games, sooner rather than later.
For this reason, I began to wonder whether Brad should have thrown this challenge. They were never going to lose it without trying to, even if Sierra had gone last week – Brad’s strengths is firing missiles at objects, and he’s going to succeed at that every time. But just this once perhaps Brad should have phoned it in and allowed the Mana tribe to go to tribal council.
I’m one of those people who believes that you should never throw an immunity challenge, if for no other reason than I believe production will make sure it doesn’t work out for you long term if they want to. If you throw a challenge to get rid of a big name, that seems like something production will particularly want to discourage. Overall, I think production is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that throwing challenges does not become recognised as a viable and common strategy come swap time.
Having said that, there are certainly exceptions where I believe production welcome challenge throwing. Ethan Zohn, in Africa, is remembered as the hero who managed to win. Many people forget that, in the first ever Survivor swap, Ethan became the first player to throw a team challenge to get rid of the closest thing the season had to a villain at that time – Silas Gaither. The move worked to ensure Ethan had secure numbers going in to the merge, and it also did nothing to damage Ethan’s star.
Tony is another player who threw a challenge and went on to win. Tony wanted to get rid of Cliff Robinson, a move that seems as though it would be generally unpopular with production. However, Tony was bringing so much energy to the season with his constant need to make moves that his decision to throw a challenge could easily be told as part of the story of Tony and his inability to play an orthodox game.
I’m wondering if this would have been one of those rare exceptions where throwing a challenge would actually have worked out. I feel as though Brad would certainly have been well served – as it stands, Debbie is a wild card going into a swap and she could spend the entire swap on a different tribe rallying the tribe to get Brad out at the merge. If Brad ends up losing the game at the hand of Debbie, he might look back on this immunity challenge and wonder if he should have done things another way.
Criminal Behaviour (an edit watch)
Sarah had done nothing of note in the last two weeks and if I’d spent any time on Tavua last week, I would have said she’s invisible and doesn’t really look to be having any impact on the game long term.
But then, she got to repeat her intent to play ‘like a criminal’, which she said in the premiere.
From the context, I can only assume this means she intends to play a sneaky game, and one of the sneaky things she is doing is making a side alliance with Troyzan. It’s possible she is building herself into a nice spot long term.
I’m not sure that it’s relevant that the relationship is with Troyzan – maybe they end up working together and maybe they don’t. But I feel much more confident now in saying that Sarah has a story this season, and this story is going to see her make moves and betray some people in a sneaky way at some point. If so, I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out.
We’re now deep enough in the season that people are starting to make moves that can be analysed, as I intended before the season began.
Sarah is making the right move in connecting with everyone available to her instead of just those from her original tribe or original alliance. I think her timing is also good – she didn’t go out and immediately bond with Troyzan when they first arrived, she allowed time to see if they were going to lose an immunity quickly and vote for him early. Now that she can see the next phase of the game coming, it’s the right time to build bonds with Troyzan. Sarah is exactly where she wants to be.
We still aren’t seeing any social game from Ozzy, or any moves he is making. Given how badly many of his premerge moves have gone in the past, I might call this an improvement and good timing. Right now, catching fish and winning challenges is exactly what he should be focussing on.
But if Ozzy is going into another swap and he hasn’t been focused on his social bonds, there’s every possibility he could be out as soon as this week.
We are seeing that Andrea is a huge asset in challenges, but otherwise we’re seeing very little of her. Adding to Troyzan seeing through her at swap time, JT has been saying in his exist interviews that Andrea was on the outs in original Nuku. I’m still not convinced Andrea has any part to play in the story of the season, which would be very sad as I’m a big Andrea fan. I’m hoping we get to see a bit more of her soon.
Cirie’s air time has been another casualty of Tavua winning a lot. It’s great that she’s hanging around for now, and it should be noted that legends like Tony, Malcolm and JT have been given significant service in air time before going out. Cirie is a big name player – no way is she going out of the game without a couple of episodes of decent air time. So, I think she’s safe for this week, at least.
Zeke is good at slide puzzles, but otherwise he’s getting no air time. Unlike Cirie, he isn’t a true legend of the game so there’s no guarantee he’ll ever get it. Given players like Sarah and Troy are getting air time at his tribe, I don’t think this is a great look for Zeke.
Troyzan continues to get consistent air time each week. I hesitate to say it, but I’ve been thinking it ever since he found that idol and saw through Andrea... is Troyzan getting the “Winners Edit™”? He certainly seems well positioned at the moment.
Debbie was well placed before this week, but four players saw and had to deal with that meltdown. At this point she’s either going to be seen as someone who needs to be removed at the earliest possible juncture, or as a goat to take to the end. For all that Debbie shows game awareness, she seemed to have no awareness that she was crushing her own game. There is no good timing for that kind of meltdown. It’s by far Debbie’s worst moment on the show. This season she is no longer the loveable kook – she is instead being portrayed in an almost Abi-Maria-like fashion.
Tai continues to play the game very well. While the premiere wasn’t good to Tai, he’s been looking pretty good ever since (despite voting out Caleb). This week, he handled Debbie best of everyone, saying “I know Brad doesn’t respect you very much.” While it’s hard to know the extent to which Tai really believed that about Brad, he understood that this was exactly what Debbie needed to hear. It was the right move made at the right time, and I believe Tai has created for himself the flexibility to go many ways come the merge. He’s also working hard for idols again, but there’s no sign he is taking any suspicion for doing so. If Tai continues to work with Brad and Brad ends up being taken down by others in a power play, Tai might be in a decent position to win right now.
Hali continues to get great confessionals and be shown as competent and rational. The edit she is getting is a positive one (particularly this week where she is effectively credited as doing well in challenges). We still aren’t seeing anything of Hali’s strategy, however, which suggests she’ll have no long term strategic links with this tribe. This could mean she ends up on the outs with Sandra’s group come merge time. She may need to find some real strategic content at the next swap or there’ll be no reason to see her as playing a good game.
After looking good last week, there’s nothing new to report on Sierra this week. She stayed most in the shadows in a chaotic week on the Mana tribe.
As noted above, I think Brad’s best option might have been to throw the challenge this week. Instead, Brad has (through no apparent fault of his own) ended up being a target in a way that I think could genuinely sink his game. Brad’s best move is to find a way to end Debbie’s game as soon as possible, because there’s no guarantees that players like Aubry and Tai won’t help Debbie vote out Brad and trust they can work with her longer term come merge time.
Brad handled Debbie as well as he could in the circumstances, but he must be having flashbacks to Redemption Island on Blood vs Water. It seems he can’t avoid being public enemy number one. There’s no reason to think that won’t continue to follow him. Although he’s played fairly well so far, he might need the right connections to get through the next few weeks.
I’ve extolled Sandra’s virtues enough. She’s making seriously good moves and doing them with flair. She is, and will always be, the queen of Survivor.
Having said that, I always felt that Sandra’s path to the end was with other legends. Watching players like Ciera, Tony, Malcolm and JT go out one after the other leaves me with the sense that Sandra is using up her powder too soon – not that she’s had much of a choice given how the game happens to have shaken out, but there’s no doubt I feel like the moves are too soon. Sandra was seen as a big threat heading in to the game, and her gameplay being so good is going to get around. In particular, she needs to look out for Aubry.
Having said that, I’m not feeling great about Aubry either. Darn it, Aubry is my winner pick and all, but I can’t help but feel like she’s jaded. It feels like there’s something missing from her this game that wasn’t last time – perhaps a sense of optimism or slight innocence – and in its place has come cynicism. I’m not sensing that she is getting joy out of playing this time, and I think it’s showing in her relationships. I think that, perhaps, Aubry needed a bigger break before returning to Survivor this time.
I’m not sure where Aubry’s expecting to go, and I don’t think Aubry knows either, but she seems defeated and she has to beat that soon or she will be. I really hope my winner pick picks it up!
Jeff still looks odds on to make the merge, thank goodness. The only reason I could see for his being booted at this stage is if someone is truly concerned about his challenge ability, and that seems unlikely. He is getting on with everyone and he’s only likely to be the target if he’s alone against only a group original Nuku who have no cracks to exploit. Jeff is another person who, right now, could conceivably have a winners edit. I think he’s making the right moves (like, keeping quiet about Sandra eating the sugar), and has his timing straight as well. This is probably the best game he’s played of the three.
In exit interviews, Malcolm said Michaela was like Abi. JT said she needed babysitting. Varner said she had an attitude problem. Aubry said she liked her on a personal level but felt she was causing issues at a tribal level. Despite this, we aren’t really seeing all that about Michaela. We’re not seeing massively abrasive behaviour (unless you include having too much sugar with your coffee). So, I’m left pondering what we’re missing.
One thing I’m not missing – if this is how she is being perceived out there, she isn’t winning the game. It’s just odd that there’s such a gap between what we’re seeing (which isn’t very much, but certainly doesn’t seem all that bad) and what people are reporting.
That’s it for this week. Please let me know what you think, comment here or tweet at me. I look forward to talking to you all.
In personal news, I’ve recently bought a house (this is largely responsible for the late blog this week) and that might mean that this blog is short or delayed next week and possibly even absent the week after. All things going well, though, I should be back to full service after that.
See you next week!
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