Just like that, another pre-merge goes by in a blink. But I feel like I don’t remember one quite this divisive in the past. A number of people seem to consider it wholly boring. Others (me included) feel as though we’ve got one of the most fleshed out casts we’ve had in a while, and that makes it interesting.
For me, this is the first season in a long time where we are heading into a merge with so many compelling characters. I’m legitimately excited about where we are headed next with Chrissy, Ryan, Ashley, Mike, Ben, Lauren and Joe – that’s more than half of the remaining cast that I’m actively looking forward to seeing their story. On top of that, I like the dichotomy they’ve set up for Jessica where she needs to choose between strategy and romance, and I think Desi and Devon both have the potential to be interesting characters in the post merge. Even JP, I find myself rooting for to hang around for a while, because I can’t wait to see what Josh Wigler makes of him in The Evolution of Strategy. There’s only one person who I’m not in any way invested in, and that’s Cole – and I kind of feel like Cole could be going home this week.
11 out of 12 is a very high strike rate of people who I want to continue to see playing, and for me it also speaks very highly of my opinion of the pre-merge. I believe the pre-merge should be the time when character is built – I’m less interested in big strategic moves going down, which inevitably just put the target on people’s backs far too soon. (If ever there was proof of that, Australian Survivor should be it – that’s a show in which the best strategy would be to do literally nothing for the first 36 days of the game until the merge comes along.) I’m totally ok with the strategy being saved for the merge, when your moves matter as they play out in front of every person who will make the jury.
Going into the merge in Millennials vs Gen X, the only players I found particularly compelling were David and Hannah, with Ken and Jay vaguely interesting at that point. In Game Changers, I was hoping to see more out of Cirie, Aubry and Andrea, none of whom had had any development up until that point, and so the only people I found particularly compelling at that point were Tai and Brad. Admittedly the latter was an uneven season that needed to give fair edits to its many superstars who went pre-merge – but in my view both also left the merge characters severely underdeveloped and this was the reason why I felt less connected. Neither of those seasons would make an appearance in my top 10, as I was left feeling a little empty in both seasons despite a lot of interesting strategic play. This season? If it has a great post-merge run with a satisfying conclusion, it could threaten to be in my top 5.
Given there are many people who clearly don’t find this seasons characters nearly as compelling (or as well-developed) as I do, this week I plan to examine exactly what it is that makes a character compelling – for me.
So, on that note, what’s on the ticket?
A re-examination (did Ryan get it right?)
Last week, I argued that Ryan made the right move in keeping Chrissy around rather than Roark, but with one big caveat – it wasn’t clear why he kept Ali in the dark, and that would have a bearing on how well he played that move.
After this week, I don’t think Ryan played it overly well, but not terribly either. It seems he had every chance to keep Ali on his side with the Roark vote. The impression I had from Ali all episode was that she was genuinely shocked that Ryan wasn’t on her side and that she fully intended to stick with Ryan – she came across as quite loyal.
Ryan, on the other hand, had no real justification for his decision to keep her in the dark. He was worried she was too close to Roark, but was he worried about an idol play? Was he worried that Roark would get JP on her side? If it was either of those things, Ryan didn’t say it. Instead he focused only on the bond between Roark and Ali, and it revealed his motive for keeping Ali in the dark as being insecurity– a belief that if he allowed Ali to build bonds with others they would be naturally stronger than his bond with Ali could be. David Bloomberg might say that he allowed his emotions to control him.
Having said that, it seemed like he put real effort into repairing his bond with Ali and I think that it would have been successful for the time being. Ali might never have fully trusted him again, but I think the bond could have lasted through a few votes if need be, and if he had voted out JP to keep her alive she likely would have begun to believe Ryan’s line that it was only about Roark and not about her.
Ryan still made the right move – and his execution wasn’t terrible, but it did expose a clear hole in Ryan’s game when it comes to cleaning up his work beforehand, and that’s not a healthy hole to have going in to the endgame – you never know when someone might turn on you just because you turned on them first.
What makes a character compelling? (a single-use twist)
When I think about the most memorable characters in Survivor history – Rupert, Cirie, Cochran, Coach, Russell, Tony – one thing that stands out is that we had never seen anything like them before. There have been attempts afterwards to find the next version of them, and sometimes with real success. But when someone is ‘the next Tony’ or ‘the next Cochran’, they tend to become merely good characters at best – people we enjoy and might even consider some of the best to play the game but they lack something in the way of originality. The closer they are to a carbon copy of something we’ve seen before, the less compelling they become.
It must be exceptionally hard for Survivor casting to deliver us something we’ve never seen before 35 seasons in. But yet, looking at the most recent season that I found compelling – Kaoh Rong – there were no less than three characters that felt entirely new to me – Aubry, Debbie and Tai – while Cydney, Neal and Julia also felt like they were relatively fresh takes on existing archetypes. So although I was actively rooting against Jason, Scot and Nick and found Joe and Michele both a bit bland, I found six of 11 of the players quite compelling because they were people I felt like I hadn’t quite seen before, and that was a decent strike rate. While this season has no true original characters, I think a lot of them are different enough that they feel like something I haven’t seen, and that’s what’s seeing me lean in to the stories that are playing out.
There’s no better illustration in my own mind than the way I’ve felt about Ryan through the course of this pre-merge. After four episodes, I wasn’t much a fan of Ryan. It’s not that I disliked him – far from it, I tend to always like people in that archetype. It’s just that I felt I was seeing a poor shadow of Zeke and Cochran before him – someone who was trying too hard with his analogies, who was trying to be the soundbite machine that those two were and was being transparent about it. If it wasn’t for the fact I was rooting so hard for Chrissy, and for Ryan having his story intertwining with hers, I might not have been rooting for Ryan to get past the first Hustler tribals at all.
But something interesting happened with Ryan’s story arc this week – he proclaimed himself to be a weasel, and said he was surprised others wanted to work with him. In fact, as I mulled over the last two episodes, I realised that Ryan is slowly being set up – either by himself or the editors – as a potential villain going into the back half of the season, but quite a loveable, roguish villain; the kind you root for instead of against.
This immediately set him apart from what came before, for me. While Cochran and Zeke were both comfortable making the moves they needed to make in the game and being ruthless, neither were actively presented as a sneak, a weasel, somebody that people are trusting far more than they should. Both were simply presented relatively neutrally as strategists trying to play hard. It’s added a new wrinkle that for me has made Ryan far more compelling, and I can only hope that he continues to take on this ‘weasel’ character for the remainder of his time on the season. If he uses it in a way that is never personal but purely strategic, I think it could make him one of those rarities in Survivor – the likeable villain. For me, at least, it’s elevated Ryan to someone who feels original and so who I’m now actively excited to be on my screen, instead of merely someone I’m just rooting for by default.
While I’m not sure there are any truly unique characters on this season, a lot of them are similar to things we’ve seen in the past but with a twist, and so the combination is creating a number of characters where I feel like we haven’t quite seen them before.
What makes this season’s characters compelling? (checking in on the main contenders)
I’ve noted why I feel Ryan is compelling above. But let’s apply the same reasoning to the rest.
Most of the mother figures we’ve had on Survivor have the same pattern. Even if they’re willing to play the game, they aren’t shown to be a driving force behind their own destiny – instead, they’re shown to be a mother to the pack, and ultimately they aren’t perceived (by the public, at least), to have played a strong game.
There are only four players that come to mind that don’t fit this mould – Tina, Kathy V, Holly and Dawn. Holly and Dawn were both portrayed as quite emotional (something we aren’t seeing from Chrissy at all), while Tina and Kathy were both portrayed as essentially loyal to the ‘good guys’.
Chrissy feels so far like a new twist on this character type – she is motherly and kind and seems to have a good social game in that regard, as everyone (except Roark) likes her. But she also has a Boston Rob edge, describing herself as the smartest in the game and making her decisions with a cool actuarial mind. We saw her decision to ally with Ben treated as a question of math and risk, she saw Ryan’s decision to stick with her as “Ryan’s best option” (no talk of her own). At the moment I see Chrissy as half BR, half Yul – that’s a lethal combination, but also very intriguing coming as it is from a very different package.
There hasn’t been much cause to discuss Ashley this season, but I’m beginning to wonder why we’ve seen her that way. She’s had consistent strategic content every episode, and I’m starting to see Ashley as a genuine under-the-radar winner candidate. She has now built bonds with people from every tribe, and is not a top threat on anyone’s list. Is it that unrealistic to see her as the winner at this point?
Coming in, Ashley’s archetype appeared to be the tough woman who is great in challenges but is too intense and lacks a social game. I expected Ashley to cause conflict through her personality and before the season many of her competitors were identifying her as serious (or even sour), and didn’t think they’d be able to bond with her. I saw her as a Sierra Reed type – somebody who would never get any purchase because people didn’t really like her.
Given that, her ability to become Ben and Chrissy’s third, to bond immediately with Devon in the swap, and then to be the one who looked to be able to bring Desi across into flipping, shows she has a surprisingly good social game. I don’t think anyone is going to see Ashley coming. And to think that I could have had her on my draft team instead of Patrick Bolton...
Arguably, David Wright pioneered the ‘older male super fan’ archetype on Survivor, and two seasons later Mike is having a second go at it. But in Mike’s case, the narrative feels a lot different to the David one.
Firstly, Mike has been winning a lot of challenges, and to some extent this has been his own doing in the puzzle phase of the challenge. It would be a stretch to call Mike an individual immunity threat, but at the same point David Wright had been shown to be hapless in the challenges. Much like Cochran’s “challenge monster” run in Caramoan, it gives Mike an unexpected layer to his bow. In addition, Mike seems to be more secure than David was. We see no hint that he has struggled to fit in with anyone except perhaps Joe, or that he’s worried about fitting in. We see him catch a fish and share it. We also get to see him take control when Cole faints. The overall impression is that Mike is comfortable with his own skin and with his place in the game, despite presenting a little like David on the surface.
Given this, I’m intrigued to see how Mike handles the strategic game once we see him have to actually play it. It’s possible that he is simply David 2.0, but I get the sense that he isn’t going to be outed as a big threat by final 10 in the way David was, and that his outward confidence is going to allow him to hide his motives a little better.
Coming in to the game I compared Ben to Mike Holloway, and I still think this is the most apt comparison. But Ben has layers that we’ve never really seen in a character before.
First, Ben is ex-military but isn’t being portrayed in the “tough as nails” military archetype. Instead, he’s being shown as being able to be vulnerable. He also isn’t being portrayed as an “aw shucks” good ol’ country boy the way JT was. Instead, he’s being shows as having a fierce intelligence that most of the ‘country boy’ archetype characters don’t get to have. The combination is lethal and he should stick out as much as Jeremy did in San Juan del Sur right now if people have their heads screwed on straight. But Ben has made good connections and has a good social game, so he could go deep anyway.
Lauren has an archetype we haven’t seen in a long time – the blue collar older woman who works hard. This archetype was probably damaged for a long time by Denise Martin from China. Lauren is very different from what has come before, though, in that she is showing strategic depth and a remarkable ability to get people to see their best move is to keep her without coming across as strategically threatening. Lauren is too much of a social outsider to win, but given her willingness to work hard to keep herself in the game and decent strategic analysis, there’s every chance she goes deep, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she gradually becomes a bit of a fan favourite if she manages to avoid a target on her back a couple more times through her own hard work.
Joe is perhaps the closest to a 2.0 on this list, as he still does feel very Tony-like. But this week, for the first time, I saw something else to Joe. I think he is more loyal than Tony is, and I get the sense that his goal might be to protect his group (not just himself). This is probably Joe’s best move at this point – to inspire loyalty – and so it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.
It’s hard to be sure Jessica is going to be going in a new direction, but there is a side to her edit which implies she could be what I think would be the first person to break a genuine showmance and vote out (or at least abandon) her own showmance partner. Just the promise that Jessica is going to have to ultimately choose between strategy and ‘love’ is compelling to me, and it will be most interesting if she ends up actively choosing strategy.
Looking backwards and forwards
I said in the comments last week that I’d give the editors appropriate credit if Ali went home this week. Every piece of game logic said she should – the odd person out on the weakest challenge tribe, and with Ryan needing to clean up the mess he made. And yet, just because of Ali’s edit, I believed she would hang around.
It’s perhaps a shame on me, because it’s not like we haven’t seen this with Michaela, Anna Khait etc… but in this case, the edit just felt different to me – as though they were setting up Ali for a deep run. This is despite the fact I wasn’t high on Ali coming into the season and had also come to the view that she wasn’t playing a great game. Maybe I’m just easy to fool, but whatever the reason… I’m glad I was blindsided!
If only in the name of diversity, I’d be glad to see Ali back. But I hope that she learns the right lesson from this. She could leave with the lesson that people are good liars and that she needs to be less trusting and less loyal (because Ali was, ultimately, a very loyal player). That’s not a terrible lesson to learn, but I don’t think it’s why she lost. Instead, I think she needs to realise that it’s more important to recognise the people she needs to keep and work hard to keep them. Of course I have a vested interest, but I maintain that this season that person was Simone. Simone seemed besotted with Ali and I think her difficulties fitting in otherwise would have seen her attach to Ali for a decently long time. Ali was beguiled by the easy path, but the easy path was Ryan laying down his own red carpet to enable him to go deep.
Looking forward at who the merge boot might be, I get the feeling it’s going to be the one person I don’t find compelling – Cole. Notorious RHAP commenter and amateur Survivor historian damnbueno has pointed out that merge boots in recent seasons have trended away from the strong physical men, and towards a person who is suspected to be least likely to have an idol or have one played on them – that has tended to be females who are perceived as being weaker.
If the logical happens, and we see a Hustlers/Heroes vs Healers situation, this means that a Healer is going to go home unless they play an idol successfully. The majority are going to be looking for the Healer who is unlikely to have an idol played for them, and also who they are going to struggle with longer term.
Joe is out. Everyone knows he had and played one idol, and they’ll be worried he has another. Mike is out, because I believe that the majority alliance will see him as someone they want to work with. Desi fits the recent mould for merge boots, but I get the sense that at this point it might be seen as too obvious, not to mention the fact that she’s spent the whole time with Joe and is the most likely person to benefit from Joe playing his idol on someone else.
This leaves Cole and Jessica. There’s a real risk that Jessica is going to be the one, but I favour Cole for three reasons. One, everyone knows he doesn’t have an idol (because they would all know about it – but also because Mike can account for all of the ones he could have gotten). Two, no-one other than Jessica actually wants to work with Cole long term. And three, because I think they will all believe that no-one is going to play an idol on Cole either.
Oh, and four. Because he has been getting such a negative edit recently, and this is exactly what it feels like it’s been leading to.
Of course, I’ve been wrong about everything else this season, and so I’m likely to be wrong about this as well. The first thing I think is wrong is that the common wisdom of clean alliances at the merge almost never plays out that way, and it only takes a couple of people to decide to go a different way to our expectations for us to see an entirely different result.
But even if it goes a different way, I can’t help but feel like we’re in for a more traditional merge boot this time. Could Devon or JP be the Healers target? I think so. If Mike and Joe communicate, they’d be able to realise that the other side probably doesn’t have any idols (unless one was rehidden at yellow camp after Joe used it), and so trying to get out a bigger challenge threat might seem like a fair risk.
The fashionable thing this week has been to power rank the players going in to the merge. So, before I go, I’m going to do a ranking of my own – not who I think is in the best shot, but rather who I’m rooting for from most to least. To me, the fact I’m able to do this is a clear illustration of just how much I’ve invested in the characters.
As always, please comment and tweet at me, I always enjoy the discussion. And for any of you who are partaking in Live Know-it-alls in New York this week – have a drink for me.
Cheers, and 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