If the previews for next week's Survivor episodes are to be believed, this week marked the end of the Pagonging of the original Healers tribe, and the beginning of the power struggle within the thus-far-intact majority seven. That would be a welcome development for fans, who are clamoring for any deviation from predictable, week after week, eliminations of the previously dominant Healers, toward a more complicated reconfiguring of the many existing sub-alliances within the majority. With the formerly leading Healers out of the way, let's start removing some other leaders.
That we're reaching this point nearly halfway through the post-merge is interesting, because it's a sign that maybe the three-tribe format is starting to show its age. Ten seasons ago, Philippines breathed new life into rapidly ossifying Survivor strategy, which, under the original two-tribe starting format, had lumbered frustratingly and unexcitingly through three straight seasons (Redemption Island, South Pacific, One World) in which Day One alliances marched intact to the end. Suddenly in S25, instead of a wearying slog through weekly departures from whatever hapless tribe had the misfortune of finding themselves down in the numbers at the merge, there were three tribes, and they could mix and match in different ways, and... look! The biggest tribe at the merge was getting picked off by the two smaller ones! Ha ha!
Fast-forward five years, and we're starting to see that three tribes may not actually be the magic cure-all it had originally seemed: Instead of Day One alliances doing the post-merge Pagonging, now it's first day of the post-merge super-alliances doing it. But the temptation for that has been there from the start.
Back in Philippines, Tandang hit the merge with all six original players still there. Their numbers made them targets, and while two did hang on until the final three, they mostly did so as goats, and neither won. Three seasons later in Cagayan, after some unforeseen Chaos gave original Beauty the most votes after the merge vote, they were all four eliminated in succession. One year hence in Worlds Apart, a hodgepodge of various people coalesced around the larger Blue Collar group, and picked off challenge beast Joey Amazing and hisstraggler friends for several stultifying weeks, until Mike Holloway's immunity streak eventually forced them to target each other. A year later in Kaoh Rong, the numbers were dead even (4-4-4) at the merge, but the Beauty and Brawn people simply got together and decided to take out the Brains. Thankfully, that didn't happen in a straightforward manner, but still, one of the more enthusiastic supporters of that plan made the final three and won the season.
The common thread in all of this? If a tribe in a three-tribe season seems like a threat at the merge, either due to superior numbers or general threat level (such as being good in challenges, or being called "Brains"), the other two simply need to join up and eliminate them after the merge. It's the new hitting the merge with better numbers. You don't have to intentionally Matsing, but you should probably try to avoid the unintentional Tandang. (Notably, from Roark's exit interviews, she actually warned the Healers about this, but they were never able to bring themselves to throw a challenge.)
The unintentional Tandang is exactly what has afflicted the Healers, and it's not just the yellow buffs. They were physically dominant pre-merge, hit that merge with superior numbers (five strong), then continued to seem physically dominant in the first few post-merge individual challenges. As such, they've been obvious targets for the other two tribes in the early jury phase. Now that they're shrunk down to Matsing size, with just Joe and Dr. Mike remaining, the Healers' threat level has diminished. Does this mean we could be getting to the dynamic shuffling of suballiances that fans have been hoping for? Can we finally start talking about voting blocs and trust clusters again?
Maybe. The show has been dropping hints that trouble may be brewing within the seven. Ben's hold on power has been questioned by Ashley and Chrissy. Devon's tightest-bros-ever alliance with Ryan has found its foundations shaken by Ryan sharing secret info with Ben. Lauren has an advantage she could use to shake things up. Ryan has an idol. Chrissy has a fake idol (that Ryan and Devon know is fake). Mike has expressed a newfound appreciation for Joe's gameplay, and they worked in tandem at Tribal. The ingredients are all there.
So naturally, we're about to fast-forward through two full episodes next week. Hurrah.
Mike did play his idol correctly
The near-universal six-letter reaction to Mike's idol play online was: "OMG! WTF?" On the surface, yes. Mike played his idol on a vote where he wasn't actually in danger of being voted out. Even though it did void a couple of votes against him, some could view that as "wasting" his idol. Ben's stated goal in splitting the vote between Cole and Mike was to "flush" Mike's idol, if he had one, and indeed, Mike's idol is now gone. Mission accomplished. But beyond that narrow interpretation, Mike's idol wasn't wasted. It did what he intended, and it's about the best that can be hoped for in a situation where a supermajority has the numbers to split votes without risk of failure.
There were two key parts to Mike's idol play: Enticing the majority seven to throw more votes his way, then hedging his bets by voting for Cole, in case the split was actually Cole/Joe. The seven had split both previous post-merge votes to avoid idols, and the most recent talk (last Tribal) was that Cole had one. So Mike knew it was most likely going to be a split vote, and he'd been told (by Ben) to vote for Cole. Mike didn't completely trust Cole, but he (like Desi) seems to trust Joe to at least be loyal, and seems to have made the decision to work with his former Healers Beach nemesis. That growing partnership between Mike and Joe was a key feature of this episode. Mike several times praised Joe's gameplay ("You gotta give Joe props, he never stops" being the most rhyme-friendly iteration). By making an attempt to draw votes upon himself, Mike was potentially saving Joe, while also definitely protecting himself. It's basically the same play Joe made at post-swap Levu to protect Desi (and himself), when he idoled out Alan.
The alternatives to Mike's idol play were both too risky. He could have held onto his idol and kept his mouth shut (as Lauren suggested). Had he done so, he was probably safe, but in the back of his mind, he had to be worried that Desi and Jessica had thought they were safe, too. So playing the idol for himself prevents that. His other option was to play his idol for Cole. But on a likely split vote, there's a significant possibility that Mike could end up heading to the jury himself on that play, if the other half of the vote split was on him. Also, the numbers didn't work: Even if the three Healers voted together for Ben, and Mike played his idol for Cole in a 4-3 Cole-(Mike or Joe) vote split, that creates a 3-3 tie, and the majority seven could then just vote en masse for whichever one of Joe or Mike had the three votes. That would truly be a wasted idol play.
So yes, Mike trying to attract votes then playing his idol was a logical play. Sure, he voided only two votes. But he at least made sure that he was neither the top nor the second-most vote receiver.
The numbers - Going to extremes
With the season now around two-thirds complete, we're starting to see which contestants could challenge, or already have established a place for themselves in, the record books. Here are some of those feats, starting with this week's boot, Cole.
Cole the team challenge beast
Cole has established the all-time record for most tribal and/or team challenges without a loss (or a sit-out, for that matter). Through 12 tribal or team challenges, Cole had 9 wins and 3 second-places (in three-team challenges where second-place wins something) If second counts as half a win, that's 10.5 wins/12. Throughout 34 prior seasons, the closest anyone else came to this mark are Boo and Stacy from Fiji, who had 9 straight (twist-aided) wins before their first loss, and who each went on to end up at 14 wins in 16 challenges. Like Cole, neither Boo nor Stacy ever sat out. Jeremy Collins exited San Juan del Sur with an intact 7-win streak. Extending that into Cambodia, he ran that up to 10 wins and one second-place before finally losing (giving him the same 10.5/12 mark as Cole, but he only had 11 challenges without a loss). Jeremy then went on to lose all but one of his subsequent team/tribal challenges, including every post-merge team challenge that season, to end up at 11.5 wins/17.
Cole the individual challenge beast
Cole exited the game with a whopping 88.3% mean % finish (MPF) in individual challenges, but as he competed in just three total challenges, he falls one challenge short of our arbitrary cutoff of four for placement among the single-season leaders. But what if we lowered that bar to three challenges? If so, then Cole comes in at #4 all-time, behind actual leader Joe Anglim (92.5%) from his three wins and a fourth-place in Worlds Apart, first-edition Tyson Apostol (91.7%) from his two wins and a third-place in Tocantins, and first-season-er Greg Buis (88.9%) who had two wins and a fourth-place in Borneo. That's pretty elite territory, and argues strongly that luck wasn't that much of a factor in Cole's 12 team non-losses.
Side note: Guess who's the top individual challenge performer left now? Yes, it's Chrissy (at 72.3%), the same person who gave a heartfelt confessional (ultimately cut from the show) about how surprising herself, by successfully competing against seasoned swimmers in the RC, convinced her to shed her self-doubts and finally believe in herself.
Tribal Council stats a-brewing
Beyond challenges, there are also some interesting Tribal Council streaks going. Between them, Ryan and Devon have now attended 12 Tribals (7 for Ryan, 5 for Devon—not counting the one where Devon couldn't vote), and have cast 12 votes for the person booted (VFB), while receiving zero votes against them (VAP). While Ryan's strategic acumen and cogent commentary have been on full display all season, Devon has quietly emerged as one of the best and most subtle players, deftly playing up his surfer dude persona to put people at ease and gain information, as Stephen Fishbach highlighted in his People column this week. There should be six vote-outs left. If Ryan can keep up his pace of always voting the right way, he could end up right behind the top two of all time, Natalie White and Russell Hantz, who were 14-for-14 in Samoa. Thanks to Jessica's ("not an") advantage play back in Episode 4, Devon will have to settle for a lower total if he maintains his streak to the end.
The yang to Devon and Ryan's yin? Jessica and Cole. The (very public) showmance has fared far worse than the (very private?) bromance. Cole and Jessica attended a combined total of just 4 Tribals (Jessica 1, Cole 3), all post-merge, where they voted out a grand total of zero people (although Cole may have joined in voting out Desi on the revote last week, his initial vote was for Joe), while receiving 14 votes against them (seven VAP apiece). You'll be shocked to learn that the lesson is: Don't take part in a public showmance. With the important corollary of "don't be in a dominating pre-swap tribe in a three-tribe season."
Joes and cons - Both sides of Joe's game
Even people down on this season as "boring" have to admit that Joe's efforts as an instigator of chaos have made things occasionally interesting. There's no doubt that Joe has worked his butt off playing the game thus far. While others sat and digested their reward yacht feast, there was Joe, running around, looking under every beanbag chair, every slice of chocolate cake, in full view of everyone else, in the hope of uncovering a (non-existent) idol clue. Back at camp, while others were laying in the shelter, there was Joe again, digging a small cavern under the tribe flag, in the hope of finding a (long-gone) idol. Even Joe's most antisocial-game moments, such as getting under Ashley and Chrissy's skin with his constant button-pushing, have been planned and tactical. He's definitely no Healer, but he's for damn sure an all-out Hustler.
That hustle, however, comes with blowback: As we saw this episode and last, Joe has been trying to get other people, such as Ryan and Devon, to make a move with him, and seize power from Ben. He has had no luck, partly because his intentional antagonism makes him less appealing to work with, and partly because his having few close allies doesn't give him the numbers that make a strategic alliance-jump seem feasible. That led to his forlorn scene this episode, alone in a hole under the tribe flag, complaining that "not one person wants to make a move." There are strong echoes back to Cambodia-era Ciera here, who made constant requests/demands that everyone else "play the game." That didn't work then, either. As Pat Ferrucci reminded us in his column this week, people don't like being told what to do. You can't badger someone into becoming your ally, and shaking up the game with you. In both cases, the other people are/were playing the game, they're just choosing not to do so with Joe (or Ciera).
Paradoxically, however, Joe's pariah status might actually improve his overall chances of winning. In order to get that million, he not only needs to reach the finals, but also to convince jurors to respect his game enough to give him the money. Some jurors will probably be unable to set aside their personal disagreements with Joe's active attempts at being disagreeable. But others may, and there's still time for him to change that equation. After all, Mike came around eventually, and Joe has been picking up support slowly. Were he in the finals today against, say, Chrissy and JP, Joe would probably get at least Desi's and Mike's votes, and maybe several others. He still has 15 days and 7 Tribal Councils to win the rest of them over. If just a few people want to make a move in that time, or he finds a self-replenishing wellspring of idols, he may still have a chance to get there.
Joe topples Ben? Fun with foreshadowing
In last week's episode, as Lauren and Ben were discussing Lauren's advantage, Ben told Lauren that her not voting "could create a huge problem for us." As he did so, the camera cut to a shot of Joe (above), with Ben's words subtitled below, implying Joe, not the advantage, could be the problem for them. This fit neatly with the initial framing in the opening scenes of the episode, as Joe reacted to Ben leading the blindside of Desi, giving the title threat that Ben was now "playing with the devil."
This week, that prophecy started to come true. Joe infuriated Ashley and Chrissy with his constant needling, Ashley swore up and down in confessional that she was voting out Joe as soon as possible, then a furor erupted when Ben insisted on voting for Cole and Mike instead of Joe in the split vote. Taken together, this could well signal the start of the end of Ben's game. And it comes as a result of Ben's continuing to be distracted by Cole. Ben has been almost singularly focused on taking out Cole since their days on Yawa, like a modern-day Fishbach vs. Joey Amazing, and often on Survivor, when a conflict is shown lingering like that, that duo departs the game back-to-back. Joe doing something that then leads to Ben's being voted out would complete that story. Furthermore, if Mike's newfound appreciation of Joe translates into them teaming up to do this, it would also bring full-circle Mike's initial reaction to Ben, post-swap at Yawa, as "the biggest threat in the game."
That's not to say Ben was wrong in wanting Cole as this week's target. Ben has been a savvy player this whole season, and he was partly right here. Cole clearly was the biggest threat to win immunity, with a first, a second, a fourth-place finish on his résumé (88.3% Mean % Finish, near the all-time best). As mentioned above, everyone in Survivor history with a higher performance rate through three challenges was either voted out at this vote (Tyson, Greg Buis) or at the next one (Joe Anglim, since he was still immune after three challenges). So there's clearly a precedent.
But Chrissy's point that Cole was unlikely to win *every* immunity challenge is also correct. Ben allowed his emotion (eagerness to vote out Cole) to supercede his social awareness (everyone else is really annoyed by Joe, and worried he'll find another idol). Surely part of Ben's calculation was that Joe could be voted out at any time, but they might not get another shot at voting out Cole. (Narrator: "They probably would.") Ironically, by flushing Mike's idol successfully this episode, that same idol will now almost certainly be back in circulation for Joe to find next week, most likely as soon as everyone is away at the reward challenge. Once again making Joe exactly the threat Chrissy and Ashley and Ryan were worried about.
Beyond the threat of Joe, there was another piece of potential foreshadowing this week. As the Solewa tribe headed to Tribal, and Chrissy lamented Ben's insistence on voting Cole instead of Joe, she stated (accurately) that "there are a lot of threats left in this game," over which the editors flashed a series of headshots on the screen: Lauren, Ryan, Devon, Ashley, and Chrissy herself.
What does that mean? We're (cautiously) excited to find out.
No vidcap gallery this week, just a single, final vidcap to commemorate the time Mike reached around Joe to slug Cole in the arm, to confer the illustrious title of being the next boot. Good times.
Other HvHvH Episode 9 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Cole Medders