Jeff Pitman's Survivor: China recaps

The James blindside

 

This episode contained a monumental event in the history of Survivor: James left the game with two hidden immunity idols in his bag, unplayed. Even in the age of 200+ idols per season, that's a feat that's still never been repeated. It's routinely listed as one of the "Dumbest Survivor moves ever." But that's not the entire story. This episode was basically a master class in how not to play Survivor. Almost everyone *not* named James made a mistake that either could or did cripple their chances of winning. Let's review those, shall we?

 

  • Todd took a spectacular risk in allowing the James blindside, and he really didn't need to
  • Peih-Gee and Erik had an unprecedented opportunity to seize some control of the game here, and absolutely blew it
  • Amanda very nearly blew up Todd's game (and would have, if Peih-Gee had made the obvious move here), but didn't
  • Denise was offered a chance at Final Three with Peih-Gee and Erik, and... passed it up

 

Let's explore these points in greater detail:

 

Todd's all-in dice-roll

Todd's massive dice-roll

 

By attempting to blindside a double-idol-wielding James, Todd gambled massively. That's because (as he told Denise, Courtney, and Amanda) he knew the Zhan Hu votes would be going his way, and if James felt even the slightest hint of danger, he could play one of his idols, and... Todd would be done. Despite all that, Todd pushed forward with the plan, anyway! Not only that, but he left his fate in the game entirely in the hands of the other five non-James players, any of whom could have tipped James off to the plan. That massive sigh of relief after the vote was not acting; Todd's game nearly ended right there.

 

Luckily, it didn't.

 

Even though everything worked out the way Todd intended, it really didn't have to be that risky. There was a simple failsafe that Todd failed to deploy: padding the vote total for Peih-Gee. Todd and his alliance had convinced James the vote was for Peih-Gee, so that was one vote that Todd could be 99% sure he knew where it was going. Todd had assumed both Peih-Gee and Erik were voting for him (even though Erik actually voted for James), which was a clear threat to Todd's chances if James played an idol. All Todd had to do was cast his own vote for Peih-Gee, and he would have guaranteed himself safety. If Peih-Gee and Erik had voted for anyone else, Todd's best play is still the same, since voting out one of his alliancemates would also have hurt Todd's game. By adding his vote to James's, Todd would create, at worst, a 3-2-2 vote, with James getting 3, Peih-Gee 2, and whoever the Zhan Hus voted for also two. If James plays an idol, it's a simple 2-2 tie, and Todd's alliance simply votes out Peih-Gee to break the tie.

 

Why didn't Todd do this? Probably because splitting votes to dodge idol plays had never* been done before at this point in Survivor history. This was, after all, just the second season ever with idols that had to be played before the votes were read. So while this Tribal in particular was a clear opportunity for the game to evolve, we really can't fault Todd for not making that intuitive leap. Even if it was a huge risk to take, and a glaring misplay from a modern Survivor perspective.

 

In that light, it's a credit to Todd's social game that he emerged from this crucible successfully. Things could have gone wrong in so many ways if anyone felt inclined to screw him over. But nobody did. And that's just another reason why Todd Herzog ended up winning China.

 

(*Note: @Lorenzo_Quiogue points out correctly that there was a vote split in Fiji, between Mookie and Alex. But with China filming shortly after Fiji aired, and being just the second season ever with modern idols, it probably wasn't as obvious then as it is now that vote splits were the best way to dodge idols.)

 

Peih-Gee and Erik drop the ball

Peih-Gee and Erik drop the ball

 

Perhaps the poorest play this episode came from Camp Zhan Hu: After trying and failing to flip Denise (and James) multiple times over the past few episodes, Peih-G ee and Erik were presented with a golden opportunity to wreak havoc here, and... did nothing. Not only that, but Erik cast a pointless vote for James, instead of voting for Todd. Peih-Gee explicitly told Erik (above) about what would happen if James played one of his idols, and Erik... decided not to take go in for such backdoor shenanigans. They had two votes! It would have worked!

 

But that's not the end of the inanity. Peih-Gee found one of James's idols in the roof of the shelter. Which, obviously, sigh... bad on James for "hiding" it there... but WHAT ON EARTH were Peih-Gee and Erik doing by NOT trying to get James to play one? Especially since Amanda (all but) TOLD Peih-Gee the Fei Longs were all voting for James! The process should have been simple:

 

1. Peih-Gee finds James's idol, confirming Erik's previous find. James 100% has an idol. Good to know.

2. Amanda winks at Peih-Gee, telling her it's in her best interest to keep quiet, she's not the vote target.

 

Those two steps actually happened. Now all that had to follow it was:

 

3. Peih-Gee and/or Erik try to get James to flip again, telling him they have his back. And that no matter what, he should play an idol here. (It's unclear if idols expired at Final 5 back in China; there was no note attached to it when Todd found it. If they did, James would have had to start playing them at the next Tribal Council, anyway.)

4. Reminding James to actually play his idol at Tribal. (This will look good to the jury, as well.)

 

Had Peih-Gee and Erik done that, Todd gets idoled out, James owes them his life in the game, and they have, at worst, a 3-3 tie. At that point, they probably pull in Denise (whose closest ally was James), then proceed to take out Amanda and Courtney, then battle for supremacy at Final Four. Or even blindside James after he plays his second idol! So many choices! All of which seems like a much better shot at winning than just limping along, hoping to win immunity, then leaving in fifth and sixth place.

 

The key stumbling block here appears to have been Erik. He muttered noncommittally when Peih-Gee suggested the plan, then ultimately didn't even vote for Todd. Why didn't Erik want to have James play an idol? Was he thinking that James leaving with two idols was better than Todd leaving, while James burned one idol? It's a curious reluctance to make a big move, especially considering Erik had immunity at that Tribal, and was completely safe himself. At worst, James plays an idol, gives one to Todd, and Peih-Gee gets idoled out, instead. There was no real risk for Erik in any of this. A frustrating non-move.

 

Amanda's almost-coup

Amanda's almost-coup

 

Amanda explicitly stated in this episode that she wasn't really all that comfortable with bringing any of James, Todd, or Courtney to the finals with her. So she set out to fix that by making a Big Move™.

 

Blindsiding James with two idols in his pocket was perhaps the defining Big Move of Survivor: China (apart from Todd helping James get both in the first place). This move was 100% Amanda's, not Todd's, despite Todd's promoting the idea two episodes earlier (before targeting Jean-Robert instead). In fact, Todd seemed fairly reluctant to go along with it here, mostly because he sensed the Zhan Hus would be targeting him.

 

Amanda's primary loyalty was obviously to Todd, since they had worked together the entire game. So it's understandable that blindsiding James alone seemed sufficient as a big move. But in showing Amanda tipping off Peih-Gee that she was safe, the episode hinted at a possible, more elaborate move: Amanda herself could have taken out Todd here, by telling James that he needed to play his idol.

 

It almost happened by accident, because, as discussed above, Peih-Gee and Erik had all the ingredients to carry this out themselves. That probably wasn't what Amanda intended, because again, her primary alliance was with Todd. Would it have made sense for Amanda to do this herself, though? Eh, probably not. She probably loses against Erik/Peih-Gee if she betrays Todd. She probably loses to James if he slips into the finals. She might have had a chance versus Courtney and Denise, but that's tougher to pull off if she takes out Todd here.

 

So blindsiding James was probably thus Amanda's best play here, and she pulled it off. And for that impressive feat, she received just one jury vote at the end. Amanda probably deserved more credit for this play. Her crumbling Final Tribal performance didn't help her cause, nor did Todd's own masterful one. But it's interesting to ponder how much power Amanda had at this point in the game, and how close she came to (accidentally, even) torpedoing the eventual winner.

 

Denise and James - no movement, no math

James and Denise

 

Over the past three episodes, Erik and Peih-Gee repeatedly lobbied Denise and James to join them. With Frosti still in the game, it made little sense to jump from the bottom two slots in one alliance of five to the bottom two slots in a different one. But here? Here, they would have been jumping from an alliance of five to an alliance of four, which made all the sense in the world, no matter how many times James presented it as 5 vs. 2. What were they thinking?

 

There may have been some sort of sub-deal we weren't shown, such as Todd separately assuring either James or Denise, or both, a spot in the final two/three. Even though in camp Todd seemed to spend a lot of time talking privately to Amanda (then again, maybe they were more discreet about this than the show suggests). But maybe it was just loyalty? James probably felt grateful to Todd for giving him the Fei Long idol and telling him where to find the Zhan Hu one. That's understandable.

 

Also, maybe there was an underlying, entirely selfish motive for James to just get past this Tribal Council with Fei Long intact: if idols expire after the final five Tribal (as they have in modern Survivor, although it's unclear what the rule was back in China), he would be guaranteed a spot in the final four by playing one at F6 and one at F5, the next two Tribals after this one. So his non-stop "Don't eat the apple"-ing made some sense.

 

Denise's loyalty is harder to fathom, except that she had been with Fei Long the entire game. So while the past three episodes highlighted just how poorly her alliance treated her—last person picked (or unpicked) at challenges, left out of the Jean-Robert boot—and how much effort Erik and Peih-Gee put into recruiting her, Denise's (not inaccurate) view that the attention from Erik and Peih-Gee was only because they were desperate sort of makes some sense.

 

Would Denise have received jury votes from Fei Long if she'd let Erik and Peih-Gee talk her into flipping, to help them reach the finals? That seems highly unlikely, since Fei Long didn't seem to like Denise much in the first place, and they'd like her even less if she had passively betrayed them.

 

Maybe if Denise herself had engineered a play to take out Todd and/or Amanda, that could have been a game-winning play. Here at final seven, with her #1 ally James alongside her, and two Zhan Hus begging her to join them? This was probably the last best chance for Denise to make such a play.

 

But she didn't, and instead, she voted out her best ally. So... that's the end of that.

 

Shorter takes

Reward questions

 

  • The most notorious botched Q&A challenge is the Final Four IC, "Fallen Comrades" in Africa, where Lex answered a question correctly, but it was mis-scored as wrong, giving Kim an immunity win, resulting in Tom's F4 boot (and the alleged payment of second-place prize money to both Tom and Lex because of that). But the first question in the reward challenge here ("True or false: China is generally credited with the invention of the abacus") was probably wrong. The show said "True," as did every contestant but Denise. But the historical record is far less clear-cut, and in fact many ancient civilizations, particularly the Sumerians, had abacuses at about the same time as or even before China. So if that question was scored correctly, Denise had 4 right and Peih-Gee had 4 right, and the challenge ended prematurely. And James and Todd were one point back with 3 right. Who knows what might have been? Maybe James or Todd could actually have won an individual challenge? Maybe Denise wins her own way to the Shaolin temple?

 

  • Best Reward Ever seems fairly accurate. Private jet with food and champagne. Clean robe. Private martial arts demonstration. More feasting. Sleeping on a comfy bed at an ancient temple. Not bad. Denise's earnest, heartfelt appreciation of this experience makes it hard to hold her strategic reluctance against her.

 

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That's it for Episode 10 discussion, but feel free to (rewatch and) comment below. See also:

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