Michele has been wrong a lot — she’s been on the wrong side of four out of the last seven votes — but she’s right about one thing: Perception is everything.
Of course, perception is complex in a game like Survivor. There’s how players perceive themselves ... how they perceive everyone else in the game ... how the other players perceive them ... and, perhaps most importantly, how the jury perceives them. And then we can’t ignore how we, the viewing audience, perceive the players given the story that’s been told.
So let’s peer through all of these prisms and see what we see, shall we?
How he perceives himself: Two types of players say things like (and I’m paraphrasing), “This person who has no chance of winning needs to go because this season should be about the best beating the best?” One, delusional players like Coach. And two, players who know they’re going to win if they have a seat at Final Tribal Council. Guess which one Tony is?
How he perceives the other players: Tony is an interesting player in that he seems to be a binary thinker. You’re with him — either actively or as a potential partner — or against him. But just because a player has proven, in word and/or deed, to be with Tony, that doesn’t mean he’ll stay loyal if he feels like an ally might become a hindrance or liability. This is especially true post-merge; in Cagayan and now Winners at War, Tony makes what appear to be counter-intuitive moves because he feels danger looming and refuses to play it safe.
Right now, when Tony looks around camp, he sees two players who aren’t likely to get in his way: Sarah and Michele. Sarah is with him (and he feels he can beat her), and Michele is isolated (and, despite her domino challenge victory, she isn’t likely to be a threat to wear the necklace). Denise and Ben, however, are problems. Thanks to his Spy Shack, Tony knows that Denise doesn’t want to take him to the end, so she has to go. But he may want to wait on that one, since she’s likely to work with him until F4. Ben, despite having been a loyal voting partner since the merge (other than the Sophie vote), has to be seen as an existential threat, though: Ben has an idol, performs well in challenges, and can make fire just by annoying a stack of sticks. For Tony, who wants to win as many immunity challenges as possible and who likely assumes that there’s a decent chance he’d have to make fire at F4, Ben is a huuuuuuuuge problem.
How’s this for a likely scenario: At F6, everyone is focused on flushing out the Edge Returnee’s idol (they’ll assume s/he has one); if Michele is the split vote target, then Ben makes F5. At that point, he plays his idol. Suddenly, Ben is in a spot where he can win the F4 challenge or crush some poor soul in fire-making. And should Ben wear the final necklace, Tony has to assume that Ben would take Denise or Sarah to the end with him.
Here are two things I know for certain: 1) Tony knows all of this. 2) He’s going to do something about it.
Here’s one thing I don’t know for certain but suspect: 1) Tony is going to target Ben at F6.
Of course, the Edge Returnee is a massive wild card in all of this. Tony will see Natalie or Tyson (it’s going to be one of them) as a jury threat. But if he believes that he can beat her/him — and I think that’s how he’ll perceive it — it’s not the worst thing in the world to have one last meat shield in the game. Still, Tony will be conflicted; both Tyson and Natalie are challenge beasts who can prevent Tony from wearing the necklace as well as put a wrench in his plans at F5 and F4.
In the end, I think Tony will see the Edge returnee as a problem that he’s going to have to live with, someone with an idol, someone who can win challenges, and someone who can steal some votes from the jury. But Ben is two out of three on that list, and is a known fire threat. There is one last factor here that may just keep the Edge returnee safe at F6: Tony and Sarah can gaslight Ben, while the Edger will see right through it. They can convince Ben not to play his idol, while the Edger will play theirs if they’re not wearing the necklace.
How the other players perceive him: Players in the endgame majority really do need to listen to the players on the outside. Yes, the players in the minority may be shading the truth to serve their own ends and create chaos, but very often, what they say contains a lot of truth. Michele has told Sarah that she can’t beat Tony. Sarah may disbelieve this (and her reaction said that she’s not buying it), but she should still hear what’s being said. Denise, too, has talked about keeping Tony out of the Final 4. And when the Edger rejoins the game, that player is undoubtedly going to tell everyone that the jury will vote for Tony. The two interesting cases here, then, are Sarah and Ben. Clearly, Sarah thinks she can beat Tony based on her social game and reputation when the season started. Ben is harder to figure out; it is unclear what his argument would be against Tony. He doesn’t seem inclined to take Tony out, though, so he must have some sort of rationalization about what would work at Final Tribal Council. There’s a good chance that whatever it is, Tony and Sarah are the ones that came up with it. “We all have an equal chance in this Final 3! You changed up your game completely, Ben. You controlled the Nick boot. You’ve been on the right side of almost every vote. You had to do this alone while we had each other. The jury may reward that!” Ben shouldn’t want to go to the end with Tony, but for some reason, he seems to think that this wouldn’t be a bad idea.
How the jury perceives him: Boston Rob told us: Tony is the boss. He wins against everyone… except, maybe, the Edge returnee. (More on that in a bit.)
How we, the viewers, perceive him: The edit tells us that Tony will win. I spilled almost 3000 words last week explaining why I think that will happen. No need to repeat it all here.
How she perceives herself: Given how Sarah reacted to Michele’s declaration that Tony would beat her, I think it’s pretty clear that Sarah thinks she’s the presumptive favorite to win the game. And you can see why she might think so: she came into the game with a huge target on her back (many of the players identified her as Public Enemy #1 in pre-season voting), she won a returnee season, and she’s been in a power position throughout the game (only one vote cast for her, and that’s when she helped take out Boston Rob). She also feels that her connections to members of the jury give her an edge over Tony; she thinks that her social game will triumph over his strategic moves, especially since she was involved with much of his maneuvering. She’s wrong about that, but it’s not unreasonable for her to think so.
How she perceives the other players: She’s aware that Tony has a strong argument (better voting record, he left her out of the Sophie vote), but assumes that he’ll have some enemies on the jury given how they were once Tony’s allies (Jeremy, Nick). Ben and Denise are pawns for Sarah; she believes she can beat them both, and also trusts that each of them would take her to the end over Tony. Given that reality, she’d like to see Michele leave at F6 and the Edger at F5 (assuming the idol is flushed at F6). And even if the Edger wins the F5 immunity challenge, she’s got options: take out Tony (would she do that? I have my doubts, and it won’t be possible if Tony isn’t forced to play his idol at F6), take out Denise (because she’s got an argument to make at Final Tribal and will make it well), or take out Ben (to keep him away from fire). Bottom line: She’s only worried about Tony and the Edger, and even then, she thinks she’ll win if she’s there at the end.
How the other players perceive her: We’ve seen players openly refer to her as an endgame threat. But I think we’ve seen enough from everyone to know that Sarah is perceived as Tony’s sidekick rather than the other way around. Ben sees her as a long-term ally (he’s been with her a lot longer than he’s been with Tony), and Denise is willing to work with her (but that’s more out of necessity than anything). I’m not sure if Ben thinks he can beat Sarah; if he does, it’s because (as mentioned above) Tony and Sarah have done a good job deluding him. Denise, though, is interesting; she may feel that if things break right, her arguments (taking out Sandra, misleading Nick, altering her game from “loyal ally” to “serial monogamist”) will sway a jury that thinks Tony did all the work for Cops R Us. Michele, too, is an interesting case; I think she sees Sarah as a threat, but significantly less dangerous than Tony. The Edger -- as an outsider like Michele -- likely sees Sarah the same way: you’d prefer not to sit next to her at Final Tribal, but it’s not the end of the world, either.
How the jury perceives her: They’ll see Sarah as a contender, certainly, someone who has played hard and probably shouldn’t have gotten as far as she did, given her threat level coming in. Still, I think she’s a distant third in their power rankings, far behind Tony and the Edge Returnee.
How we, the viewers, perceive her: I think we’ve been given the full measure of Sarah: she’s been involved in majority alliances, her voice has been an instrumental one, she survived being down 3-2 at the swap, and she was in a post-merge power position until Tony undercut her and made her dependent on his choices. We’ve been told, overtly, to compare her social game to his strategic one; casual viewers will side with one or the other, based on what style of gameplay they prefer. And I think most people watching would support a Sarah win over anyone not named Tony.
How she perceives herself: As much as I praise Tony’s intuitive sense of the game, I doubt there is anyone out there who sees themselves as clearly as Denise. She knows that she is depending on other players to take her to the end, to underestimate her, to take out bigger threats. That said, she definitely has faith that she can make a strong argument to the jury; she believes she’s done enough to take down the title if she’s sitting next to the right people. And some of those people are still in the game, so she firmly believes that she’s not drawing dead. In fact, she probably puts herself right where I just put her: Tony and Sarah will be tough to beat, but she’d give herself better odds than Michele or Ben.
How she perceives the other players: It is with good reason that Denise wants Tony to leave at F4 — she knows she can’t beat him. He’s done too much. If Tony’s gone, Sarah still presents a difficult hurdle to overcome, since Sarah will inherit all of the Tony/Sarah moves. But Denise has a reasonable counterargument: she had to forge her own path, while Sarah had Tony helping her. The jury might well reward that, especially when you add in the Queenkiller title. As for Ben and Michele ... Denise is an incredibly kind person and would never say this, but she’s also got a killer instinct and knows in her heart that Michele and Ben don’t stand a chance against her. Denise can talk rings around them both. She has more respect from the other players. She wants to sit next to them at FTC. As for the Edger, I’m not sure about this, but I’m guessing that Denise’s empathy superpower is going to come into play here; I trust Denise to have the best read on how the jury feels about an Edger winning. She’s undoubtedly talked to everyone before they were voted out about their inclination to give the $2 million to an Edger; she can read the jury at Tribal as well or better than the rest of the Final 5; and she’s going to be able to pick up on any and all non-verbals from the Edger who joins them. While I don’t know what those reads will be — we haven’t heard nearly enough from Denise this season — I suspect that she’ll put the Edger right below Tony in her Threat Assessment Rankings.
How the other players perceive her: While they know that Denise has a resume, they likely see her as a relative non-threat, given her voting history (she’s 2 for 6, and would have been wrong when her vote was stolen). Michele likely understands that Denise is more of a potential problem than the others seem to think and will try to convince everyone to take her out, but it’s an open question if anyone will listen (Tony will, just because he knows that Denise wants to take him out at F4).
How the jury perceives her: She’s got several former allies on the jury who may be impressed with Denise’s ability to find a sequence of players to help her advance through the game (Adam, Ben, Kim, Jeremy). And they’ll all be impressed with the move to take out Sandra (although not having Sandra stick around could hurt her). Still, Denise will have a hard time convincing the jury that she should win unless she’s sitting next to two players from the Ben, Michele, Edger group (and only if it’s an underwhelming returnee like Danni or Amber). Would be interesting to see her try, though, given how warmly persuasive Denise can be.
How we, the viewers, perceive her: Much of Denise’s journey has, sadly, ended up on the cutting room floor. As a result, we don’t have a lot of guidance about what to think and feel about her. The most persistent vibe I get, though, is a cycle of “partnered up” and “adrift.” And it’s never a good look when you’re part of multiple tandems, but it’s always the other guy that goes home. Eventually, we just assume that no one sees you as the threat who needs to leave.
How she perceives herself: Players on the outside have the advantage of clarity; they’ve had their illusions and delusions ripped away from them. Michele knows the lay of the land. She just needs to get to the end, pray that she’s there with people that the jury don’t want to reward, and trust that her story of perseverance is persuasive.
How she perceives the other players: Again, 20/20 vision here. She knows that Tony and Sarah beat her. Denise, too, probably, since they share a similar underdog “shouldn’t have made it to the end, given how things went” story and Denise has a better overall résumé. She’ll also be worried about an Edger having strong connections to members of the jury, although she’ll be ready to argue the “they didn’t play real Survivor” argument (and if that doesn’t work, then she was drawing dead, with no winnable F3). Ben is the only player that Michele will firmly believe she can beat, and that’ll be based on relationships; Michele connects with people while Ben ends up arguing with just about everyone.
How the other players perceive her: Michele is the lone outsider still left in the game (soon to be joined by the Edger). Tony’s dismissive comment about Michele last week was an articulation of the general perception of Michele: they don’t think she can win. In many, if not most, seasons, that would mean that everyone wants to sit with her at the end. And I’m sure in their heart of hearts some of them do. But with Tony driving the bus, they’re targeting Michele, and the other players are going along with it because they have other possible F3 combinations which favor them. They really should keep Michele around -- and that may still happen (I’ve said for a long time she’s getting a F3 edit) -- but the fact that they want her gone says something about Tony’s powers of persuasion.
How the jury perceives her: If Michele gets to the end, they’ll appreciate how difficult it was for her to get there, and give her bonus points for surviving even when she had inexplicably vaulted to the top of everyone’s most wanted list, but in the end, there’s only one F3 iteration that the jury would look over at and agree that Michele should win: Michele vs. Ben vs. Uninspiring Edger. Even then, does the jury reward Michele over one of their own? I think most of them beat her. (That’s not to say that I would agree with that outcome; I wouldn’t.)
How we, the viewers, perceive her: I’ve been pointing out all season that Michele is playing a strong social game — she’s a part of a LOT of conversations — but that may be due to how low her threat level has been for much of the game. She’s also had a recent focus spike, thanks to Tony putting her on everyone’s radar, and Michele’s “back against the wall” challenge win. Overall, though, I think we’ve been prepped for her journey to the finale, and could be hearing her make her arguments at Final Tribal (but understanding that she won’t win). Perhaps not a ZVG — her social game might get her a vote or two — but still, she’ll be sitting in the “happy to be there” chair, if she gets there at all.
How he perceives himself: Thanks to the gaslighting power duo of Tony and Sarah, Ben probably thinks he has a shot against everyone in the Final 5. In his mind, he beats Michele easily and feels that his overall game was stronger than Denise’s (admittedly without a Queenkiller moment). He has also probably been convinced that he can beat Sarah and Tony, since he firmly believes that he completely changed his game (relying on social connections instead of idols) and was equally responsible for who got booted (since he was almost always on the right side of the vote and was allowed to feel like he was in control, particularly on the Nick blindside). Ben can be stubborn, and that intransigence manifests not just in external relationships, but in our relationships with ourselves; once he believes that he can beat Tony and Sarah at the end, it will be nearly impossible for anyone to move him off of that idea.
How he perceives the other players: Ben likely sees Tony and Sarah as harder to beat than the other players, but they’re also his path to the end (plus, he’s probably buying into the whole “to be the best you gotta beat the best” rhetoric being spouted by Tony). He’d likely prefer to be at the end with Sarah and Denise — Tony is a fellow Big Threat who has made Big Moves — but I doubt he’d think a F3 with Tony is unwinnable for him. That’s actually a helpful mindset to have in Survivor, but only if you see the other players clearly at the same time, and I don’t think that Ben does. Michele, meanwhile, is a non-factor for Ben; he, more than anyone, should want to work with her and take her to the end, but he’s simultaneously dismissing her as a threat and agreeing to target her so that his alliance doesn’t need to turn on itself. As for the Edger, Ben certainly sees that player as someone to get gone ASAP; he has his four (Ben, Tony, Sarah, Denise) and thinks that he gets to the F3 in every possible permutation at that point.
How the other players perceive him: There’s a reason everyone is willing to have Ben in their F3 plans; they believe they can beat him. Tony is the one player worried about Ben, and that’s only because Ben can make getting to the Final 3 harder for him (with an idol, challenge prowess, and fire-making ability). Given this reality — that Ben is drawing dead — if Tony manages to convince everyone to vote Ben out at Final 6, he truly is a unicorn, and he should get every vote from every jury member that was ever on a jury.
How the jury perceives him: Jeremy and Adam find him frustrating and annoying. The old schoolers on Sele were unimpressed. And the endgamers all see him as Tony and Sarah’s pawn. I don’t see him getting any votes from this jury, even if he’s sitting next to Michele and a lesser Edger.
How we, the viewers, perceive him: The edit hasn’t been terribly kind, dadgummit. Yes, he’s been the journey character this season, but that spotlight has been shared with Michele, since both of them have talked about the vindication that comes with success this season. And then there’s the problem with his confessionals: yes, he’s gotten a fair number of them, but it’s all plot, no thought. Do we have any idea how he thinks he’s going to get to the end? Do we know why he trusts Tony and Sarah? Do we know what his argument will be when he gets to Final Tribal? Truth is, we don’t know him at all. Not really.
For ease of use, I’m going to merge them into one SuperPlayer, Tysolie. We have to assume that one of them is going to come back. That scene, where Natalie gives Tyson an idol, was there for a lot of different reasons (to explain why Tyson has an idol, for entertainment value, for Tyson’s touching confessional about generosity in Survivor), but the overarching one was this: To establish that one of these two will get back into the game and the other one will be stumping for the Edger at Final Tribal.
How they perceive themselves: The jury will have talked extensively about what an Edger must do to win (just as Chris U got his marching orders), and it likely consists of getting to the end with some active gameplay; they can’t be dragged. Win challenges. Wear the necklace. Make a move with an idol. Get players to turn on each other or make an unwise choice. And above all, keep Tony away from Final Tribal. Which is a long-winded way of saying that Tysalie knows that victory is theirs if they just get Tony gone.
How they perceive the other players: Tony is the threat. Everyone else is beatable. Sure, Sarah has an argument, but it won’t be enough to overcome the bonds of the Edge.
How the other players perceive them: Everyone will see Tysolie as a jury threat; yes, it’s horribly unfair that there’s another game being played in parallel with real Survivor, but it’s part of the season, and there’s nothing to be done about it other than to factor it into late game strategy. Everyone will assume that Tysolie will make it to F5 — and quite possibly F4 – thanks to an idol and two shots at a challenge win. As a result, the first time that Tysolie isn’t immune, Tysolie is getting the boot.
How the jury perceives them: One of their own. Give them an opportunity to vote for an Edger and they will. The only exception to that rule: Tony.
How we, the viewers, perceive them: The show has worked overtime to showcase the difficulty of enduring on the Edge. They want us to believe that the F6 returnee would be a worthy winner. And they’ve given us reasons to support both Tyson and Natalie. He’s the snarky yet sweet family man. She’s the superhero with 80 bajillion Fire Tokens. Production wants us to feel that the Edger has a shot going into Final Tribal, even if Tony is there. They want us to forget that what’s happened on Edge isn’t really Survivor. All they’ve really accomplished, though, is to create a referendum on Survivor not unlike the Hatch vs. Kelly vote. Back in Borneo, the players were deciding whether Survivor would be a show about strategy or sociology. And here in Winners at War, if Tony and the Edger are in the F3, the jury will decide, once and for all, if Survivor is about the foundational game or distortions like Redemption and Edge. That may seem like an overstatement, but I don’t think it is. If Tyson or Natalie beat Tony, the game is dead.
On a side note, if you’re a Survivor producer, and you want to make sure that the existence of Edge is validated by having that player in the Final 3, here’s what you do:
** Make sure that the strongest players on Edge will get their hands on enough Fire Tokens to have every advantage in the return challenge.
** Make sure that players who are on Edge for a long time (who will likely be production favorites, who came into the game with big targets on them) will have enough Fire Tokens to also bring an idol back into the game at F6.
** Have the reentry be physically difficult so that the player coming back into the game is a challenge beast.
** Have the F6 through F4 challenges also be ass-kickers so that the Edge player, as a confirmed challenge beast, will have a good chance of winning one or more of them.
Add that to the Edger’s ability to tell the truth — and lie — about what the jury is going to use as voting criteria and who leads their power rankings, and the Edger has a GREAT shot to get to the end.
Time for the TL; DR version… let’s call this speed round “How Do They Win?”
Danni or Amber wins the Edge challenge. Ben sits on his idol at F6, we get a 2-2-2 split vote, and either Danni/Amber or Michele goes home. At Final 5, he plays his idol, and — shocking everyone — he, Denise, and the Edger (or Michele) team up to take out Sarah. At F4, Ben wins immunity, then pulls a Chris and gives it to Michele, who takes Danni/Amber to F3, while Ben crushes Tony in the fire-making challenge. And then, at FTC, Ben somehow convinces the jury that he played a better game than Michele.
The odds of this happening are -28%
Michele and the Edger go at F6 and F5. Tony leaves at F4. And Denise talks circles around Sarah and Ben at FTC.
** If she’s in the F3 with Tony, she loses.
** If she’s in the F3 with a strong Edger, she probably loses.
** If she’s in the F3 with anyone else, she wins.
The target shifts from her to someone like Ben. At F5, she teams up with Denise and the Edger to take out Sarah. Then Ben takes out Tony in fire-making, and Michele finds herself sitting next to Ben and the Edger. The jury decides the game has to go to someone who didn’t get voted out, and they pick Michele over Ben.
They win the F6 challenge. Play their idol at F5. And then either win the F4 challenge or beat Tony in fire-making. The jury then destroys Survivor by handing the title and $2 million to someone who either got taken out first or was voted out twice.
He gets to the end. Which can happen a ton of ways. But if he gets there, the title is his.
13) So what are we going to see on Wednesday night?
Good question. There are two unresolved storylines that I think hint heavily at the end game: 1) That a member of Cops R Us is going to throw one final punch, and 2) The emphasis on family.
With those ideas in mind — and all of the other stuff that I’ve blathered about in this overlong column — here’s my final boot order:
This is a move that only serves Tony, but he’s in control. Ben has an idol ... Ben is good at challenges ... and Ben will be the odds-on favorite in a fire-making challenge. It’s the latter that has to worry Tony the most: Unless Tony wins the F4 challenge, he will be forced to make fire. And he does NOT want to go head-to-head with Ben. So Ben’s gotta go. (And Sarah will eventually go along with this, since she doesn’t want to make fire against Ben, either.)
Tony will be able to play an idol, which should keep both Sarah and him safe (his unpredictability pays off in many, many ways). The Edger will either have the necklace at F6 and be able to play an idol here or vice versa; I don’t see Tyson or Natalie losing two challenges in a row against this crew. And when you’re choosing between Denise and Michele, you vote out the Queenkiller every time.
Unless Sarah or Michele win the F4 challenge, Sarah is going to end up making fire. She’ll be up against Tysalie or Tony. And this is where the Cops R Us final punch happens; Tony, who has been practicing fire like a madman, beats Sarah.
Got some votes! Vindication and validation! Haters can suck it!
The Edger has a clear — but not easy! — path to the end. And if Tony falters, Tysolie is our winner. (NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!) But I’m convinced that the strong jury voices at Final Tribal will argue that Survivor should be won by someone who played the game for 39 days, so long as that player controlled the game. And if that’s the criterion that prevails, they won’t be able to look past what a player like Tony managed to do.
And it is here that we finally get a payoff to the theme of family. If Natalie is the returning Edger, then Tony would be up against two players without kids. And the jury, torn between a kick-ass Edger like Natalie and a power player like Tony, might very well reward the one that will use the $2 million to give his little ones the world.
All hail the king.
Andy Baker swore he’d never play again, but the allure of an All Winners season brought him back..
Andy is no longer on twitter, but he's a regular guest at the Survivor Talk with D&D podcast.