If you’ve been reading my column for any length of time, you know that when I’m not obsessing about Survivor, I’m teaching middle school English. About a week ago, I submitted my interim comments, which attempt to evaluate the first half of the term while also anticipating the potential triumphs and tribulations ahead. It’s a useful process, this looking back while peering forward, and, unsurprisingly, given that we’re seven episodes into a fourteen episode season, it’s one I now find myself doing with Survivor.
Never fear, I’m not going to offer up “Midterm Grades” for the remaining castaways; to do so would be both reductive and unenlightening. I will, however, take a look at what we’ve learned about the cast of Blood vs. Water, as well as what they may have learned about themselves, their fellow castaways, and Survivor. It’s been an action-packed pre-merge game (he said, offering begrudging respect to the Survivor producers), and along the way, we have gleaned much about the game and how to play it.
So here’s what we’ve learned…
1) … about Kat
(I start here not because she’s the most compelling castaway thus far – what an odd alternate universe THAT would be – but because I am shackled by hidebound habit to begin with the most recent player voted out.)
** From one of Tyson’s secret scenes this week, we learn that Kat’s histrionics before the Redemption Island truel were far more extensive than we saw in the episode; yes, Tyson has been known to indulge in hyperbole, but his claims that Kat was “begging” for Hayden to swap with her have been bolstered (if not outright proven) by the insinuations made in various post-elimination interviews by Kat, herself. While I understand the desire for a pre-merge mulligan, I find that sort of drama-drenched selfishness utterly off-putting – although not entirely unsurprising, given Kat’s age and personality. What Kat was forgetting is that Survivor, at its compelling yet cold, dark heart, is a game of self-interest; Hayden was wise to turn Kat down, and Kat, as a returning player, should have known better than to ask. (And yet, I understand why she did; desperation brings with it denial and delusion.)
** Kat’s myopic fixation on her own dire straits – and the egocentrism that self-preservation triggers in every Survivor player – prompted her to engage in a dialogue that may well have damaged Hayden’s chances. In the span of a few short minutes, Kat forced Hayden to talk about the strength of his alliance, his position within it, and his long-term prospects in the game. Sure, every player thinks about this sort of stuff – and again, I understand why Kat brought it up, given that she hasn’t had a chance to talk to Hayden since the game began – but you simply don’t do it in the public purgatory of the outcast coliseum.
2) … and a few more things about Kat.
** Have a seat in my comfy leather therapy chairs – I’m about to indulge in some armchair psychology. Not that anyone asked, but personally, I think Kat’s insecurity regarding Hayden goes much deeper than their relative social game performance. I'd guess she doesn't fully understand why he's with her; in the realms of appearance, intelligence, and “success” (which is in quotation marks because it’s a highly loaded word which has a vast spectrum of meanings), Kat probably thinks Hayden’s out of her league.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, at this early stage of their relationship, Kat’s worried that what they have together is built upon that most ephemeral of foundations: reality show celebrity. Taking it one step further, I wonder if she’s worried that they’re both using one another to be on Survivor; such pragmatic mutual exploitation can, I think, co-exist with genuine attraction. And then, taking all this to its logical extreme, I have a feeling Kat is concerned that the relationship will end once the show does; when she says “no one wants to date someone who doesn’t make the merge,” what Kat is really saying is, “I think he’s going to dump me because he’s going to realize that I’m not good enough for him.” In the end, it’s a question of self-esteem; hopefully, at some point, Kat will understand that we are who we believe ourselves to be. She seems like a nice person who, as much as she loves Survivor, just isn’t terribly good at it – and really, there’s nothing wrong with that. (And I bet you that Hayden doesn’t base any of his affection on how someone plays a game.)
** Who knew that Kat was so self-aware? I certainly wasn’t expecting her to admit so openly that she can’t do puzzles (or spell). Begs the question, though: what, within the realm of Survivor, DOES she do well? Can you think of anything she’s accomplished in her two seasons which you could point to and say, “THIS is why casting selected her”? In the end, the harsh truth is that she’ll be remembered as the player who provided the perfect sound-bite to her own elimination; “Blindsides are always fun and exciting!” is a cruel epitaph, but that’s what happens when casting picks players who don’t stand a chance in Survivor.
** In her “Day After” interview, Kat was asked why she was voted out of her tribe, and Kat identified Tina as the one who engineered her exit. That’s a pretty telling comment; one would expect Kat to point the finger at Monica, who did a lot of the talking at tribal and whom Kat had been targeting. Instead, Kat branded Tina as the architect of her elimination. On the one hand, that confirms what I’ve been saying for a few weeks – that Tina is a well-positioned power player – but it also means that unless Tina can find someone else to bear the brunt of the backstabbing and betrayal, she’ll be in trouble with the jury (should she make it to the Final 3).
3) … and, dear Lord help us all, even more about Kat (and Kim Spradlin!).
** Kat’s fashion sense is eye-burningly bad: Did you notice the Daisy Duke short shorts, with the checkered pockets showing below the cut-off line? Good God. (Although were I playing Survivor with Kat and saw her wearing shorts like these, I’d instantly think, “If she’s a slave to hideous fashion trends, she’ll follow anything – or anyone – blindly.” Quite useful in a game like Survivor – I see her shorts, and I think endgame goat. Sometimes small details have massive symbolic meaning, something Kim Spradlin certainly knew as she exploited players like Kat.)
** Side note on Kim Spradlin: Only Boston Rob, who managed to win All-Stars after the game was over by marrying the winner, has played a better post-Survivor game than Kim, who is loved by just about everyone she blindsided. When her photo made an appearance in last Wednesday’s episode, I can’t be the only one who immediately thought, “THAT’S who should have come back!” Obviously, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of returning players, but I’d gladly welcome Kim back into the game.
** Apparently, Kat was under almost constant verbal assault from Colton. He was personal, vicious, and relentless. And this is the guy that Probst is resigned to bringing back for “an anniversary show” because “other people vote”?! Have a spine, Jeff! If Colton is really this awful, you have to protect the other players; whatever ratings spike you would get from contrived controversy isn’t worth it.
4) … about Hayden
As if we needed any more proof that this guy knows how to play competitive/cooperative social games, he manages to utter just the right truth at just the right moment to get Kat to willingly sacrifice herself. Makes one wonder if he anticipated this precise possibility – that Kat would beg him to swap out – and thought through what he would need to say. Regardless, pulling it off – with a lot of interested parties watching every nuance of the exchange – was incredibly impressive.
Interesting that all of this was followed up with a Hayden confessional which captured the duality of his personality: clearly, he genuinely cares about Kat, but he also knows that he can play his game, a better game, a more ruthless game, without having to worry about anyone other than himself. Just like clues to hidden immunity idols, partners at this point in the game are a liability; better to just publicly burn them so that the others will trust you.
5) … about the vote out of Laura B.
My initial reaction to Laura B’s ouster was that it simply confirmed the existence of pre-game alliances: Aras and Tina, bonded by being former winners, are clearly working together – along with Vytas and Katie – and that the decision to do so was made before Day Zero.
My secondary reaction was that, conspiracy theories aside, Tina made the right call.
Gunning down Laura B was a way to take out an unpredictable element… it evened the number of returnees and loved ones still in the game… and, perhaps most importantly, it was a way to remove an endgame goat (Tina doesn't want someone like Laura B to be kept around at her own, or at Katie's, expense).
Tina also has to be preparing for the possibility (or inevitability?) that her whole plan will go sideways, doesn’t she? As far as she knows, she’s got an alliance that’s seven strong; she has to worry that players like Tyson, Gervase, and Monica will look at the Aras/Tina/Vytas/Katie foursome, do the math, and realize that they have to flip at F11 or F9, right? If we were talking about newbies, Tina might be able to rest easy, but given that she’s surrounded with savvy returning players, Tina has to know that there is zero chance she and Aras can carry their loved ones all the way to the Final 4.
Which means that when the merge hits, Tina wants Aras and Vytas to be identified as the imminent threat, not Tina/Katie (even though the latter tandem is far more likely to remain tight and strong). And given the merge's habit of triggering a "go after individual immunity threats" attack, Aras and Vytas together shoot to the top of the list (along with Hayden).
The end result of keeping Vytas around, then, is that even if the others gang up on the Winners Alliance, Tina and Katie are insulated for three votes, maybe more. That means that by the time Tina becomes a target, there will be 7 or 8 people left in the game. She'll have Katie locked up, obviously, and it's not too hard to get your hands on two more votes (Gervase? Monica? Caleb? So many options) to create a majority alliance.
On the flipside, if Tina had booted Vytas over Laura B, she would have lost Aras as an ally, eliminated one of the post-merge targets, lost the trust of the others in her pre-game alliance, and left an untrustworthy floater/endgame goat in the mix.
Once all the variables were factored into the equation, there really was only one right answer: Laura B had to go.
6) … about where things stand at the merge
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I talk about Survivor with fellow fans throughout the week (how they put up with me and my incessant obsessive pedantry, I’ll never know). One of these kind and indulgent people – hey there, Kathy! – asked me a straight-forward question: With the merge on the horizon, who am I rooting for to win? My response went a little something like this:
"Rooting for" and "likely to win" are so vastly different; in many ways, I'm simply hoping for an honorable demise for a lot of players.
Given his edit, Aras can't win, but I would love to see how he handles a blindside (which might come as soon as this week... he's the obvious target, being in a power couple and an alpha... he'll stick around for a bit, though, assuming that Redemption Island is restarted post-merge).
Tina, I think, is likely to be gunned down late in the game...
Hayden won’t be able to survive the post-merge alpha attack, but hopefully he puts his stamp on things before he goes...
The other players who I think CAN'T win, given their edit and gameplay:
That means that the list of potential winners ends up as:
Laura M (Editor’s Note: I'm assuming she'll return from RI, given the challenge; for more, see #13: Prediction Time.)
Vytas is likely to be targeted soon, which brings us down to four... Laura M will be taken out because her loved one is still in the game and she already "lost," so we’re down to three...
Tyson is being edited as a possible winner... Monica is a millionaire and thus a useful goat, so I can see her trying, in vain, to make her case at the Final Tribal Council... and Gervase, too, feels like a worthy candidate based on his edit and his gameplay.
The F3 will, if history holds, involve two players with a shot – along with a goat who is brutally dismissed by just about everyone on the jury.
Potential goats: Katie and Ciera
Real candidates: Tyson, Gervase
So, maybe a F3 of Katie, Gervase, and Monica?
Man, would THAT be weird.
At this point, Kathy gently reminded me that I hadn’t answered the question. Stop peering into the blurry crystal ball, she nudged, and tell me who you WANT to win. And so I did.
My response? Tyson or Gervase. I enjoy the latter more, but the former is playing the better game, the leader to Gervase's follower. My not-so-secret hope is that Gervase will turn the tables on Tyson around F7 or F5, and should he stage an endgame coup at that point, everyone else still in the game should be willing to go along with it. If Tyson dethrones Aras, controls the post-merge game, and makes it to the Final Tribal Council, though, the well-earned title of Sole Survivor will be his.
Interestingly, I was ever-so-gently called out at this point for focusing almost exclusively on returning players, especially in light of how vocal I’ve been about my anti-returnee sentiment. She was right, of course, that I was being hypocritical and contradictory. And yet, I did have a defense: my bias for the returning players in Blood vs. Water is caused, I think, by a couple of things:
** I’m reluctantly resigned to the undeniable truth that newbies have almost no shot in a season when half the cast is returnees.
** The edit is vastly favoring the returnees. Until Laura B was voted out, the loved ones outnumbered the returnees 6-5, a fact which, when pointed out to me, sort of blew my mind. Clearly, the edit is totally distorted, which can be blamed partly on the fact that returning players ALWAYS get more than their fair share of screen time, but I have to believe that some of the editorial bias emerges from the fact that returnees dominate the endgame.
7) … about me and my loose relationship with the truth
Okay, so I lied. I can’t resist the temptation to give the ten remaining players a midterm grade. Here they are, from worst to first, with a quick explanation of each:
Ciera: C … all of her contributions to the show have taken place during her infrequent confessionals.
Katie: C … when Kat identifies you as a “tag-along,” you haven’t made a good impression on the other players in the game.
Monica: B- … positioned to be around for the long haul, but as much as she claims to be playing the game for herself now, she’s currently a pawn in the chess game being played by other, stronger strategists.
Hayden: B … playing well, but he’s an obvious target at one of the even-numbered post-merge Tribal Councils (F10 or F8).
Aras: B+ … did a good job leading the original Galang, but he hasn’t done enough to lock down the loyalty of Tyson, someone whose independent streak is well-documented.
Caleb: B+ … extra credit for making the biggest pre-merge move, but the danger is that he’ll grow complacent in his new alliance.
Vytas: A- … a study in contradiction: ruthlessly sociopathic yet compassionately empathetic… managed to make the best of a difficult tribe swap, but will continue to be under fire immediately post-merge.
Gervase: A- … Marissa and Rachel leaving early brought the coconut bandits together, and they may ride their fortuitous pairing all the way to the endgame; he’ll need to take control of the partnership if he’s going to get an A for the term, though.
Tina: A … incredibly well-positioned, and not by chance – she worked hard to make it happen… her alliance will soon be under attack, but she’ll have plenty of time to create a Plan B.
Tyson: A … he’s learned from his previous mistakes, and is poised to win it all in his third time out… he may have difficulty winning over a jury if he can’t rein in his sarcasm, however.
And, finally, a grade on the player I think will be returning from Redemption:
Laura M: D … she got voted out, which is a huge hit to her grade… plus, she’ll be an instant target since Ciera is still in the game.
8) … about Aras
Let’s forget for a moment how horribly unwise it is to give your tribe extensive time alone while you go off to meditate (contrast this approach to Boston Rob’s infamous “Buddy System”), particularly when you know that you’re coming into the game with a massive target on your back and the people you’re leaving alone are strategically savvy returning players. As Stephen Fishbach noted in last week’s Know-it-Alls, this was “amateur hour”; I’m sure that meditation is extremely helpful in a stressful situation like Survivor (as a yoga teacher, I, too, meditate), but you have to pick your spots. Aras has a deep understanding of the game, of that I have no doubt, but even the best have their blind spots, I suppose.
Anyway, what really caught my eye during this sequence was the helicopter shot of Aras meditating on a rocky promontory overlooking the ocean; the producers had to choose to capture this image (it requires a lot more coordination than the endless hours of in-camp camera coverage), so they either really wanted or felt they needed the footage. Was it to give them fodder for a potential “winner’s edit” – since Aras was so instrumental in the pre-merge game – or was the decision informed by the growing inevitability of Aras’s elimination?
And then there’s the question of what Aras was thinking as the helicopter was circling overhead (despite his exterior meditative calm, Aras had to have been aware of the chopper blades slicing the air less than a hundred yards away). Did he say to himself, “Yep, get that winner’s shot, camera dude”? Or was he wondering if this shot might be used as ironic counterpoint to his imminent blindside? Perhaps both. (Yep, these are the things I obsess about.)
I’m sure I’m not the only one who, when this image of Aras was onscreen, was reminded of Earl Cole in Survivor: Fiji. Earl, one of the more likable Sole Survivors the show has ever seen, was the focus of a similar helicopter shot as he stood high atop a tall hill/mini-mountain peering down at his personal kingdom. The difference, at least to me, is that (unless my memory is playing tricks on me again) Earl’s moment took place long after the merge, whereas Aras’s is happening with the merge, and with his own metaphorical murder, on the horizon. Earl’s shot was about imminent victory; Aras’s is about imminent treachery.
(Note to all future Survivor players: When you see a helicopter in the air filming one of the other players when they’re off by themselves, you HAVE TO VOTE THAT PERSON OUT. The producers think that this camera-friendly castaway is going to win the game. It is your sworn duty to make that shot ironic rather than predictive.)
Time to accelerate the pace… I’m already over 3000 words… so we’re moving on to the speed round:
9) … about Tyson
On the one hand, Tyson’s sardonic take on all things Survivor would seem to preclude him from the small circle of winner candidates. So much of what he says is antagonistic and dismissive; if he was going to be the prohibitive favorite going into the Final Tribal Council, why include so much negative footage? But then I remembered the Coconut Bandit sequences, and it hit me: I don’t think Tyson gives the producers any “positive” footage to use; whenever he talks, his voice simply drips with sarcasm, irony, and venom. Which means I can’t rule him out, especially in light of how well he’s playing the game thus far.
… about Vytas
I wonder what the women of Galang 2.0 think of Vytas now that they’ve seen his confessionals and better understand how he views women and how everything he said and did was so meticulously calculated.
What stood out most to me was his comment that he’s putting forth only those parts of himself that he wants people to see – it’s brilliant social psychology, and yet there’s something so very, very cold about it.
If this was all we saw of Vytas, I’d readily compare him to another Ice Man, Brian Heidek, who is widely regarded as the most sociopathic winner to ever play the game. But it isn’t: we also get smugly chauvinistic confessionals in which Vytas talks about the women wanting and needing an alpha male around because without someone like him, there’s no future for the pride. When footage like that is included within the episode, we – and Vytas – are being set up for a fall; if the justice is at all poetic, he will be taken out by a voting block that is largely, if not exclusively, female.
… about Monica
** A fair number of pundits and prognosticators are suggesting that Monica is playing a great game and predicting that she might very well win – but I just can't see it. She's made critical social game errors, and she's allowed Tina to put herself in a major power position. At this point in the game, she now has to follow Tina's lead... which makes her a goat, not a winner.
** Her teeth are an otherworldly shade of white. Seriously, it’s alarming. The human eye knows when visual elements are unnatural (I won’t get into the other aspects of Monica’s appearance which are clearly augmented and enhanced), and her teeth always make me do a double-take, particularly at Tribal Council.
** Credit where it’s due: In a secret scene this week, Monica shows just how deeply she analyzes every move in the game, and while her observations aren’t earth-shattering, they do cast her in a totally different light for me. In her confessional, Monica explains why Laura B telling Vytas he’s the next to go was so utterly unwise: she could understand trying to curry favor if the jury phase of the game had begun, but with nothing to be gained from the gesture (and trust being lost, thanks to the public nature of the revelation), why do it at all?
As much as this scene reveals Monica to be more strategic than we might otherwise believe, there are two problems with it: 1) Monica’s tone of voice all but screams “I have no empathy,” which as I’ve said many times before, is a critical personality trait for a potential winner to possess; and 2) If Monica was going to emerge as a post-merge strategic mastermind, this confessional would have been in the actual episode. Since it wasn’t, I’m guessing that we will be invited to continue seeing her as a pawn rather than a queen.
** That shirt she wears to Tribal Council – you KNOW she picked it because it would glimmer in the firelight. Which may seem like a small thing – but it isn’t. Clothing is just another way to tell a non-verbal story, and Monica’s chosen narrative – in Survivor and perhaps in life – is “look at me.” Even if the other castaways can’t entirely articulate why, they can sense the size of Monica’s ego, and it probably rubs them the wrong way. I may be reading too much into a simple wardrobe selection, but I don’t think I am – the devil and the divine are in the details, and that shirt is symbolic of why I think Monica can’t win this game.
10) … about challenges
From what Tyson said in a secret scene – and what Tina implied back at camp – the immunity challenge wasn’t even remotely close; Tyson CRUSHED her. And yet, the challenge was edited in such a way as to make it seem like the narrowest of victories for Tadhana 2.0. The question we have to ask is why?
The explanation could be as simple as, “We’re producing a competition-based reality show, which, you know, is supposed to be dramatic and exciting and intriguing, right? No one wants to see the Survivor equivalent of the Globetrotters destroying the Generals, so even when a tribe is being annihilated, we try to make it seem like a nail-biter. So back off, Baker, there’s nothing to see here.”
On the flip side, maybe they’re protecting Tina as a character – just as they did with Malcolm in Survivor: Philippines after he choked away a massive lead over Kalabaw in the rice-pot-smashing challenge. When a player goes deep into the game, there’s a narrative to be preserved, and Tina being physically overmatched may not fit the tale they’re trying to tell. If she’s an engineer of the endgame, better for us to see Tina as a sage strategist than a challenge liability.
Whatever the truth, watching the challenges carefully can be enlightening, and often entertaining, particularly if you note when Probst’s belligerent bellowing is done on screen or off. When you can’t see Probst, what he’s saying has, in all likelihood, been added later, and when you can’t see the players, either, those shots are almost always footage of the Dream Teamers testing the challenge. Just another way that the reality of Reality is distorted by producers with agendas.
(On a related note, it would be fun to hear from the players, themselves, re: the challenge edits – what do they think about how these competitions are spliced together to manufacture tension where none truly existed?)
11) Fortunes rising: Katie and Ciera
With what little footage we’ve been given of these two, both in the episodes and in their secret scenes, it’s clear they’re both analytical, strategic thinkers. Indeed, they’re invisible largely because they’re playing the only game that’s available to them – Under the Radar – given the constructs of, and personalities in, this season. Also, with the arrival of the merge, Katie and Ciera now transform from “they’re killing us in the challenges” targets to that most valuable of commodities: endgame goats. Unless something goes horribly awry, they’re both going to be in in the Final 7, and there are a lot of people who have played Survivor who can’t make that same claim.
12) Fortunes falling: Katie and Ciera
Everything that I wrote in #11 is true, and yet none of it matters. Neither of these two can win the game. It’s a shame – I think they both know what they’re doing – but that’s the fate of smart newbies this season. As far as the producers are concerned, it’s like they all attended The Milford School (any Arrested Development fans out there?): These castaways should be neither seen nor heard when there are returning players around.
13) Prediction time:
One look at the press photos of the final pre-merge Redemption Island challenge told me all I needed to know: Laura M is returning to the game.
Now, I’m not saying that the producers chose the challenge because it favored one body type over another – the “who wants it the most” pole gripper has been a mainstay of Survivor for years – but they had to know the odds were stacked in Laura’s favor.
And it’s the best case scenario from a story-telling perspective, isn’t it? John and Laura B are both loved ones whose partners are out of the game, while Laura M is a returning player who can reunite with her daughter. The former two are easily eliminated float votes; the latter can team up and help take down the player who orchestrated her blindside.
So welcome back to the game, Laura M – here’s hoping that you do a lot of damage before you’re sent back to Redemption.
As to who’s leaving this week, I’m going to follow a trail of clues:
** Probst has been teasing a major blindside for weeks now, one so dramatic that it made cameramen – who have seen it all at this point – gasp out loud at Tribal Council. It would have to be a family betrayal, wouldn’t it? And if so, only one of the three remaining tandems has an established conflict at the heart of their relationship: Aras and Vytas.
** The assassination of King Aras narrative has been explored for three episodes. How long can they conceivably delay the payoff? If it isn’t going to happen until F7 or later, why make a big deal of it now?
** In his weekly interview with Dalton Ross, Probst talked about the fate of players who escape Redemption Island: “… the player who returns to the game often dictates which way the game will tilt. Do they become a swing vote? Do they re-enter a former alliance? Or are they a quick vote out and sent right back from where they came?” Given that the RI winner has never dictated the tilt of the game or become a swing vote, I have to wonder if that’s what will happen this time around (which would explain why Probst thinks it’s a possibility).
With all that in mind, here’s what I think is going to happen:
Laura M returns to the game and is overjoyed that Ciera has joined a five-person alliance whose primary target is Aras.
Not content with a 6-5 majority, the members of Tyson’s alliance start recruiting other players; we know that Tyson approaches Monica (the most recent commercials show us this), and I would guess that Vytas reaches out to Caleb and/or Hayden, given their alliance on the original Tadhana tribe.
By the time we get to Tribal Council, Vytas will have crunched the numbers (he’s a math professor, after all), will have realized that there’s nothing to be gained by sticking with the doomed Winners Alliance, and will publicly turn on his brother.
And so Aras, no longer a king, will have his torch snuffed for the first time in his Survivor career… and head to Redemption Island, where he will meditate, with no helicopters overhead, and wonder how Tyson, the comedian turned Cassius, could have convinced Vytas to deliver the most unkindest cut of all.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!
Andy Baker is a Survivor blogger who wants nothing more than to get a back rub from Jeff Probst the next time he's thinking about quitting his column. Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius