One of the inherent conflicts in Survivor is the battle between what makes for good, rational strategic gameplay, and which moves make for entertaining TV. Seeing the same stale strategy (the larger tribe Pagonging the smaller tribe, for example) season after season, even if it's logical, does not engender enthusiasm. Production tries to balance both needs by introducing new twists (idols! advantages!) and game elements (three tribes! [twist name] island!) to keep both the contestants and the audience off balance, changing up the game just enough to make rote following of the same strategic blueprint near-impossible. Sometimes that works.
Another consistent Survivor element is fan complaints. This season, the most frequent post-merge one has been "the gameplay is so bad! They're doing everything wrong!" At the same time, though, that "bad" gameplay has led to some pretty surprising and memorable events, such as Mike tossing Lauren's half-idol into the Tribal Council fire. They may not be examples of optimal game theory, but they're at least amusing and generating never-before-seen TV events.
In the best of cases, a good tactical play can also create entertaining TV, as we saw with Ben's idol play. Even though that same move did cut short a surprisingly successful underdog storyline, and removed someone (Lauren) whose various moves had surprised and delighted the audience. In Survivor, the big move, while creating short-term entertainment, carries the risk of depriving the season of long-term watchability. These things can work at cross purposes. This episode, in a lot of ways, had mixed results. But as Devon said, "This game is crazy." Sometimes it just works out that way. Below, the many ways that worked out.
Good play vs. good TV: Ben's secrets and exposés
Last week's (Episodes 10 & 11) story was Secret Spy Ben, and it was one of those rare situations where the gameplay was creative and productive, while also highly entertaining to watch. But it was also clearly dangerous long-term, with not-unforeseeable blowback that Ben indeed encountered at the start of this week's episode. As it turned out, Ryan and Chrissy weren't particularly pleased with being made to look like gullible marks multiple times, especially Chrissy, who had been Ben's ally since the premiere. Chrissy was mad, and Ben's response wasn't the best (accusing Chrissy of "mothering" him). That was... not great gameplay, really on anyone's parts. Eventually, though, after hearing Lauren plotting against him, Ben realizes that in order for his game to continue, he needs to both make amends and have a logical argument in order to convince Chrissy to listen. Ben then makes exactly the moves he needs to: he apologizes to Chrissy, and they have a rational talk about how Lauren is a significant threat to both of them. Lauren can win challenges, she has an advantage and an idol, *and* she's a jury threat.
This marks a near-complete 180 for Ben. Instead of his two-episode undercover arc, now he becomes Open Source Ben, happily telling everyone about everything (except, importantly, his own idol). But just as with Secret Spy Ben, this also came back to hurt him. As Devon told him at Tribal, now nobody trusts him, because he can't keep a secret. (Again... except the one that ends up being important this episode.) Ben's reversal in this episode offers a fascinating look at just how difficult Survivor really is in the endgame. Ben played at full throttle this entire episode (not even consideing his fantastic but tragically unused fake idol), but just about every step he made came fraught with peril and consequences.
Can he dig himself out of this hole as well? In theory it will be hard, but in practice, Jeff Probst himself (at the IC and at Tribal) spent a good chunk of this episode pointing out that Devon and Ashley are an unbreakable duo. A power couple, as Alan might say. And obviously, the editors chose to include that pot-stirring by Probst, suggesting it's important. Or that they are under contract to include as much of Probst's non-cursing commentary as humanly possible. One of the two.
Good play vs. good TV: The tragedy of Lauren's idol
Thinking back to one of Lauren's first Tribal appearances, it's ironic that she was the person who publicly stated she hadn't even looked for an idol, while Patrick had sowed unease with his Hustlers tribemates with his constant searching. In the end, it was finding an idol that ultimately ended Lauren's game. So many things went wrong for Lauren with that idol:
Clearly, that didn't work out, because Mike burned her idol half. But in another sense it did, because Mike, along with Ryan and Chrissy, did end up voting against Ben. It just happened that there was one secret Ben hadn't told anyone. All in all, Ben's in-Tribal take that keeping an idol to yourself is the best move seems completely accurate. In almost all of these steps, Lauren made solid strategic plays, and it made for solidly entertaining TV. It just didn't work out for her.
Better luck next time, Lauren. (It seems inconceivable that there won't be a next time.)
Good play vs. good TV: Dr. Mike's pyromania
Mike fulfilling a 15-year-long (?) desire to toss a hidden immunity idol into the Tribal Council fire was surprising, shocking even, despite his previously characterizing Lauren's decision to hand it to him in the first place as one of the dumbest moves of all time. But were Mike's shell shenanigans a good move? Not really, but it was a huge TV moment.
Perhaps this specific move best encapsulates the dichotomy - clearly, it prevented Lauren from saving herself with that hard-won idol. Which moves Mike one step closer to the finals. But with Lauren openly entertaining the possibility of giving someone else her extra vote advantage, maybe Mike could have bargained his way into receiving the other half of the idol, in exchange for his vote?
In the end, it didn't really matter, because Mike ended up voting against Ben, not against Lauren. Although Lauren was, in fact, idoled out. But critically for Dr. Mike's long-term chances, Jeff Probst did imply that Mike's incineration of a critical piece of art department handiwork before it could be sold on eBay risked invoking the wrath of those elusive "Survivor gods." That doesn't sound good for Mike. Especially given that next week's episode is called "The Survivor Devil."
Good play vs. good TV: How many idols is too many?
Lauren's short-lived, unplayed idol was the seventh found this season (counting Ryan's/Chrissy's Episode 1 super idol), which tops the all-time record of six set just last season, in Game Changers (counting the Legacy Advantage as an idol, mainly because it acted as one at Advantagegeddon). Since idols are still functional for two more Tribals and there are none currently in circulation, there's a decent chance at least one more will appear, if not two. Is seven too many? Is eight? Nine?
Seven idols does seem like a lot, but the last one Ben played did pay off in spectacular fashion, no? Ben's idoling of Lauren was the first time ever that someone has been idoled out with just a single vote left counted. So as far as we're concerned, there have been just enough idols for a few memorable plays.
Fans have complained/mocked that there have been too many suboptimal idol plays this season, with Ben's play being only the second that changed the outcome of a vote. But historically, those maximally effective idol plays are extremely rare. And several plays have merely "worked" because there was an opposing vote split, and the opposition didn't really care which of their two targets left at that point (Abi/Pete in Philippines, for example). So, for the record, Ben's idoling of Lauren is just the sixteenth time the person with the majority of votes has not been booted, thanks to an idol play. (Plus six ties broken by idols.)
|No.||Season||Idol player (voided votes)||Actual person booted, vote count||Reversed a boot?||Avoided a tie?|
|1||S14: Fiji||Yau-Man Chan (4)||Stacy Kimball, -2||Yes||-|
|2||S16: Micronesia||Amanda Kimmel (4)||Alexis Jones, -2||Yes||-|
|3||S19: Samoa||Russell Hantz (7)||Kelly Sharbaugh, -4||Yes||-|
|4||S20: Heroes vs. Villains||Tom Westman (3)||Cirie Fields, -3-2||-||Yes|
|5||S20: Heroes vs. Villains||Russell Hantz (4*)||Tyson Apostol, -3-2||Yes||-|
|6||S20: Heroes vs. Villains||Parvati Shallow (5)||J.T. Thomas, -5||-||Yes|
|7||S25: Philippines||Jonathan Penner (5)||R.C. Saint-Amour, -4-2||Yes||-|
|8||S25: Philippines||Abi-Maria Gomes (3)||Pete Yurkowski, 3--2||-||Yes|
|9||S26: Caramoan||Malcolm Freberg (4*, 2)||Phillip Sheppard, 4--||-||Yes|
|10||S29: San Juan del Sur||Jon Misch (4), Keith Nale (3)||Wes Nale, --2||Yes||-|
|11||S29: San Juan del Sur||Natalie Anderson (3*)||Baylor Wilson, -2||Yes||-|
|12||S30: Worlds Apart||Jenn Brown (7)||Kelly Remington, -4-1||Yes||-|
|13||S30: Worlds Apart||Mike Holloway (4)||Tyler Fredrickson, -3||Yes||-|
|14||S30: Worlds Apart||Carolyn Rivera (5)||Dan Foley, -2||Yes||-|
|15||S31: Cambodia||Kelley Wentworth (9)||Andrew Savage, -3||Yes||-|
|16||S31: Cambodia||Jeremy Collins (5)||Ciera Eastin, -3-2||Yes||-|
|17||S31: Cambodia||Kelley Wentworth (3), Jeremy Collins (3)||Kimmi Kappenberg, - (3-3)||-||Yes|
|18||S33: Millennials vs. Gen X||David Wright (4*)||Lucy Hwang, -2-1||Yes||-|
|19||S34: Game Changers||Tai Trang (6*)||Malcolm Freberg, -5||Yes||-|
|20||S34: Game Changers||Sarah Lacina (L.A., 3), Tai Trang (2, 1*), Troyzan Robertson (0)||Cirie Fields, --||Yes||-|
|21||S35: HvHvH||Joe Mena (2)||Alan Ball, 2-||-||Yes|
|22||S35: HvHvH||Ben Driebergen (6)||Lauren Rimmer, -1||Yes||-|
*Idol was played for someone else
By our count, there have been 58 total idol plays, so fewer than half have been played "correctly," if the only objective is flipping a boot. Which, obviously, isn't really the only objective. What's wrong with just ensuring you're safe when you know people are voting against you? We're of the opinion that any time an idol voids a vote, it's been played at least partially effectively.
Regardless, Ben's play means this season is now tied (with two all-star seasons, Cambodia and HvsV) for the record for most idol plays in a single season that voided votes, with four separate plays. Furthermore, Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers is now tied for fourth with Game Changers for most total votes voided by idols. With, again, potentially two more Tribals left in which to keep adding to those totals.
|Rank||Season||Total votes voided||Idol players (voided votes)|
|1||S31: Cambodia||20||Kelley Wentworth (9, 3); Jeremy Collins (5, 3)|
|2||S30: Worlds Apart||16||Jenn Brown (7); Carolyn Rivera (5); Mike Holloway (4)|
|3||S20: Heroes vs Villains||14||Tom Westman (3); Russell Hantz (4); Parvati Shallow (5); Sandra Diaz-Twine (2)|
|4-t||S34: Game Changers||12||Tai Trang (6, 2, 1); Sarah Lacina (Leg. Adv., 3)|
|4-t||S35: Heroes v Healers v Hustlers||12||Joe Mena (2, 2); Mike Zahalsky (2); Ben Driebergen (6)|
|6-t||S29: San Juan del Sur||10||Jon Misch (4); Keith Nale (3); Natalie Anderson (3)|
|6-t||S33: Millennials vs. Gen X||10||David Wright (5); Adam Klein (4); Jay Starrett (1)|
|8-t||S19: Samoa||7||Russell Hantz (7)|
|8-t||S25: Philippines||7||Jonathan Penner (4); Abi-Maria Gomes (3)|
|8-t||S26: Caramoan||7||Reynold Toepfer (1); Malcolm Freberg (2, 4)|
One more important point about idol plays: When idols are played, they are usually re-hidden. So even in cases where the idol play has no effect on the vote (a "bad" play), they're still positive with respect to entertainment value, because idol turnover means that idol might now end up somewhere where it can make a difference. If you're playing Survivor, and you have an idol you're positive you don't need to waste, it's clearly better to sit on it, and remove that variable from future votes. But as a viewer, it's far more enjoyable to have several suboptimal plays (or failed plays) and one or two spectacular ones, instead of a handful of idols just sitting forever in various bags, unplayed. Good play vs. good TV.
Good play vs. good TV: Managing threats
During this episode, Devon voiced the contrarian view that Chrissy, not Ben, was the more immediate threat, because she's good in challenges (which as we pointed out last week, is completely accurate), and because she could receive a lot of jury votes in the end (also probably accurate, despite apparently anti-Chrissy jurors like Desi and Joe).
Devon's point is valid, but as Lauren said, at this point, they're all threats. Ryan and Chrissy can point to various strategic plays, and both have the tools to articulate their game and persuade jurors, especially with the new jury format. Ashley has a few immunity wins under her belt, and seems to get along with everyone. Devon came up with the Secret Spy Ben thing, and is well-liked. Mike has made memorable performances at Tribal, has friends on the jury, has a strong underdog story, and can defend his case for winning. And then there's Ben, who if he reaches the finals, will have overcome significant obstacles while also having a great overall story.
For the contestants, there are no goats, no easy paths to the end. They're merely dealing in gradations of risk. That's not great for play. But for TV entertainment, this is the kind of finish we as an audience should hope for every season. Jeff Probst promised an exciting Final Tribal, and it's starting to become clear why that might be. Bring it on.
Other HvHvH Episode 12 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Lauren Rimmer