Trying to figure out what’s going on in a game of Survivor is such a curious challenge. When producers piece together a season, they’re engaging in a Hollywood-flavored version of deductive reasoning; they start with a premise (“Chris is casting gold, but really, all he does is get embroiled in an ill-advised alpha war with Dom and then get voted out with an idol in his pocket”) and then, breaking the narrative down to ever smaller pieces, they ultimately shape the way the story is told, obfuscating and revealing in equal measures (no doubt iterating and failing until they have something that works).
While production begins with the macro, viewers start with the micro, the moments, the scenes, the confessionals and the quips that are then spliced together into thirteen episodes. From there, we employ inductive reasoning, assembling the puzzle pieces to figure out who will have a seat at the Final Tribal Council, and what might happen on the way there. It’s an inexact science, to say the least, especially when the producers are heavily invested in misleading the audience (while at the same time beholden to having the story hold up in retrospect).
What is especially challenging is that often, we have to make massive logic leaps to fill in the gaps as we try to answer the question, “Why is THAT in the episode?” And sometimes it’s even harder, because we have to work with the negative: “Why the heck didn’t we see [EXPECTED SCENE, I.E. KELLYN REACTING TO THE BRADLEY BOOT]?!” There’s always a reason for every shot in every episode—there are too many stories to tell over the course of a season for there not to be a point and a purpose to everything we see from week to week—so we just have to use inductive reasoning to figure out why it’s all there.
So let’s do just that, shall we?
1) The key clue: Wendell unleashes epic voting booth shade
That, to me, screams confidence. Wendell knew with absolute certainty which way the vote was going. And so he took the opportunity to unleash his pent up frustration with Chris.
Add in the fact that he didn’t play his idol, and we can be pretty sure that Wendell wasn’t in any danger—and likely won’t be any time soon.
The edit is going to offer some uncertainty in the weeks ahead, but he’s in a far better spot that the story would have us believe right now.
(Related note: I have to admit that I found Wendell’s rant about Chris incredibly entertaining -- it was pure castaway catharsis.)
2) The key clue: The Vote was 10-2
Everyone was on board with ending the Chris vs. Dom battle last week... the question is, what does that mean about the remaining 12 players?
It makes sense for the original Malolos to vote out Chris, because a Naviti goes home.
What’s more interesting, though, is why the original Navitis are willing to lose a number. Setting aside personal reasons (Dom) and the collective desire for the alpha war to end, it seems likely there are two major factions within the majority alliance, both of which feel that they’ve got the upper hand.
And that means that there are swing votes who are effectively playing both sides.
3) The key clue: In 'Previously On...' we were told about the Dom/ Wendell/ Laurel/ Donathan Alliance
We were first introduced to this potential alliance in Week 2, when Laurel sat down with Dom and talked about wanting to work with him.
We were then reminded about the Navolo Four during the “Previously On Survivor” recap in Week 4, despite Naviti 2.0 not being the focus of that episode.
And this past Wednesday, at long last, we saw these four finally working together.
There’s a great quote from one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”
At this point—after three editorial signal flares—if you don’t think that production is screaming at us that the Navolo Four are the dominant alliance of the season, I don’t know what to tell you.
There is another alliance forming that will challenge them, though…
4) The key clue: Kellyn formed a potential voting bloc with the original Naviti women
We now have our two big voting blocks:
Navolo Four: Dom, Wendell, Laurel, Donathan
The Naviti Women: Kellyn, Desiree, Chelsea, Angela
Which makes the other four—Libby, Michael, Jenna, and Sebastian—the potential swing votes.
Given that we keep seeing Kellyn beating the “We need to take out a Malolo” drum (she’s been saying this since the first swap; there’s a reason we keep being reminded of it), Kellyn probably wants to get a dangerous Malolo or two out to make the numbers more manageable, and then wrest control of the game away from Dom and Wendell. We know her alliance of four wants Libby gone, but after that, what happens?
Dom and Wendell will want to protect Laurel and Donathan… Sebastian won’t want Jenna to leave… everyone will want to target Michael, but Kellyn has had three shots at him already, which suggests that she prefers to keep him around.
So, with every Malolo other than Libby having at least one Naviti invested in his or her safety, it looks like there might be a key confrontation at the Final 11 vote.
And Kellyn is likely to lose that power struggle, because...
5) The key clue: Kellyn didn’t talk about Bradley boot
Instead of getting a Kellyn confessional in which she expressed her frustration with Bradley’s ouster and then explained how she was going to avenge her puzzle partner, what we got was a generic, “Let’s see what trouble I can get up to” declaration, complete with playfully evil hand gestures.
If Kellyn was going to seize control and lead the Naviti women to the endgame, we’d get something far more explicitly strategic.
The more likely path, then, is that her first attempt fails… she tries to put together another group… but by then the Navolo Four will have the numbers, and Kellyn will be sent home as the huge threat who never quite got the traction she needed (and who might have dominated the game had she played her extra vote when she needed to).
6) The key clue: We’re not seeing Laurel and Donathan playing both sides
If Laurel and Donathan were being built up as credible threats, we would have gotten a lot more from them this episode. Yes, we saw them tell Dom and Wendell that Chris was targeting them, but the edit has given us no reason to believe that Laurel and Donathan have effectively established themselves as double-agent go-betweens. If either of these two were going to win the game, we would have seen more of them bouncing back and forth between rival factions.
7) The key clues: Sebastian and that conch shell… and Sebastian/Jenna
If Libby and Michael go home the next couple of weeks—which seems likely, given that both Kellyn and Dom’s factions would agree they have to go—then that leaves Sebastian and Jenna as Kingmakers (I’m as shocked as anyone that this could be a thing). This, in turn, helps explain why Sebastian has gotten a few confessionals and other editorial attention over the past seven weeks. We’ve also been told—rather bluntly—that Sebastian is going to side with Wendell. Why else include that whole conch shell scene?
8) The key clue: Des and Angela vote for Libby
Count me with those who believe that both Des and Angela knew of the plan to blindside Chris, and that they agreed to vote for Libby in case Chris had an idol. Each had her reason: As we saw in the episode, Des really wants Libby gone, and Angela might not have wanted to write Chris’ name down, given that they supported each other in the early days of the game. But none of that is really important in the overall scheme of things.
What IS important, is that they’re both being used. They’re agreeing to be the focal point of Libby’s wrath. They’re willing to take the heat for what was quite obviously a group decision.
In other words, they’re pawns.
Pawns don’t win.
9) The key clue: Libby talks to Jenna about voting out Dom
They know what they should do… but they ultimately can’t bring themselves to do it.
This moment, in retrospect, will stand out as a missed opportunity, which is precisely why it’s there.
You can already see this moment in the reunion show, can’t you? Probst points out that everyone knew Dom and Wendell were threats, and the rest of the castaways had their chances to take them out… and then he tells production to roll the tape on this moment. It’s perfect.
10) The key clue: Michael and Libby were cuddling…
… but we weren’t told about it.
Look closely during the night sequence when Chris sneaks away from camp. In the shelter, a man and a woman are cuddling. The man is big, and he’s wearing a jacket… and the woman seemingly has blonde hair (hard to be sure with a night vision camera).
The conclusion: Michael and Libby are a lot closer than we’re being shown. And yet, if this tandem was a power couple, players to watch, a duo that wends their way to the endgame, we’d know all about these sleeping arrangements.
Which is to say that they’re both going home sooner rather than later.
11) The key clue: Dom in the hammock
We saw Jeremy spend a lot of time in the hammock, too. Just sayin’.
12) The Little Things
** Kellyn’s comment about the merge feast—that everyone had a random seat—can be read one of two ways: First, that everyone just sat wherever they wanted… or, second, that they all had been given assigned seats (or were directed where to sit by the field producer) that to Kellyn appeared random (jumbling up the various alliances/tribes). The first would lead to the idol clue buff being bestowed on any of the thirteen remaining castaways… the second would end with an imperiled big character in possession of an immunity idol. Hmmmmm. I’m curious what everyone else thinks, because I’m too cynical for my own good, but when the drama of a reality TV show is enhanced by a specific event, I can’t be the only one who immediately assumes production played a role. There was literally NO ONE else out there who needed that idol more, and he just so happens to get it? I swear I’m going to detach a retina one of these days rolling my eyes so damn much.
** That quote from Wendell suggesting that a Democracy (or, better said, a Dom-ocracy) is better than a dictatorship is going to show up in his winner’s montage if he gets one—and Probst will point out that Wendell and Dom were ultimately dictators, too.
** Proof that I’m not completely jaded: I absolutely LOVED the nighttime visit to Ghost Island.
** Two thoughts about the immunity challenge: The more hair you have, the better you’ll do… and the fact that almost everyone was cheering on Kellyn should be a massive red flag to power players like Dom and Wendell. The potential jury members LOVE Kellyn. That’s dangerous.
** I finally succumbed to peer pressure and watched Chris Noble’s rap video… look, I understand why everyone thinks Chris is casting gold, but here’s my take on it: Chris never stood a chance in this game. He was fundamentally incapable of winning Survivor. It’s pretty clear that he—like so many before him—was there to be a source of conflict, and to be mocked in the edit. Call me a purist, call me a killjoy, call me a jackass, but I don’t think the producers should cast people who have no chance to win the game. What’s particularly sad is that Chris will likely play again, with the same odds and the same arc; he will be fodder in search of a cannon. His ceiling, really, is to evolve into a less self-aware Coach (who had the advantage of at least a little age-related wisdom), and do we really need to see that story again?
It’s gotta be Libby, right? The reasons:
** You don’t use someone as a backup vote without fully intending to take them out in the immediate aftermath.
** The Naviti Women have already identified Libby as a threat, and the Navolo Four—who probably signed off on Libby as the back-up vote—are more than happy to see Libby taken off the board (especially since Dom has identified her as Parvati 2.0).
** If Michael is the target (and his name is on everyone’s lips in “Next Week On”), Libby would once again be the backup (why anger someone else, right?)... and if he plays his idol (and he will—he’s too savvy not to), then Libby goes home.
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius