One facet of seasons with 6-member tribes that fascinates me is the ever-expanding universe.
The season starts with a bang – the compression of small tribes leads to early combustion – and then, in the next two phases of the game, the constellation of players expands: the two swapped tribes each will have seven members, and the merge – only two or three eliminations away, believe it or not – will have eleven or twelve. Of course, increasing numbers offers more room to maneuver (if you’re at all game-aware like LJ, Sarah, Alexis, Tony, or any of the remaining Brains) and places to hide (if you’re just about anyone else).
In other words, the game is about to change – drastically. Next week’s column will be about looking ahead at the path each individual has to the endgame; this week’s is about looking back at the phase just completed and seeing who has set themselves up well for Phase Two. Being a teacher, I am seemingly unable to evaluate performance without the crutch of grades… and thus what follows is a Pre-Swap Report Card for the cast of Survivor: Cagayan.
Editor’s Note: As I began writing this column, CBS released a spoilerific commercial which revealed the swapped tribes. WHY DO THEY DO THAT?! Yes, I’m aware that it’s not too hard to avoid promos like this one, but I have no willpower where such things are concerned. Anyway, I’ll avoid commenting on the dynamics of the swap until next week (YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HARD THIS WILL BE)…
1) F is for Futility
David: Karma’s a bitch.
J’Tia: Remember three seconds ago, when I said karma’s a bitch? This is who I was referring to.
2) D is for Didn’t Stand a Chance
Brice: On another tribe in another season, Brice is a breakout character. As players and producers alike are fond of pointing out, however, luck is a massive factor on Survivor. Sadly, Brice didn’t have any.
(On a related note: I rarely, if ever, comment on the likelihood of a player returning to play again until after the season is over; castaways need full-season contextualization, and I need distance to provide perspective. That said, my early read on Brice is that he’s one-and-done. Unless, of course, they do a Woulda/Coulda/Shoulda season.)
3) C- is for medioCrity – minus the possibility of endgame emergence
Lindsey: If there’s one player who was cast as cannon-fodder this season, it’s the Hoosier hairstylist. Thanks to extensive casting conversations and detailed psych profiling, the producers knew, or had a strong sense anyway, who Lindsey would be out on the island. Her “authentic self” was guaranteed to create antagonism; she was the flint, forever possessing the ability to start a fire, and the producers filled the game with machetes… it was only a matter of time before sparks were gonna fly.
(Related note: Were I a CBS executive, I’d take everyone in the final round of casting and deprive them of food and sleep for several days, then have them interact with people whose sole job was to piss them off. It’s the only way to see who these potential castaways REALLY are when they’re hungry, tired, and stressed. While it’s impossible to replicate the insanity of Survivor on a set at CBS studios, you should at least approximate the pressure of the game and get a glimpse of who they’ll be on the show…)
Jeremiah: If you listen closely, you can hear a cartoon whistle – much like the one that accompanies Wile E. Coyote plummeting off a cliff – in the distance. Know what that is? Jeremiah’s chances to win this game. When you’re being outmaneuvered by Morgan, you’re doing something very, very wrong. (Survivor Commandment #31: Always be prepared to be confronted after Tribal Council.)
4) C is for true medioCrity
Cliff: He’s had his moment in the sun, using his hoops skills to avoid early elimination (despite not knowing that he was on the chopping block). He might make the merge, but if he was going to be anything more than a number, we would have seen it by now. Uncle Cliffy is the prototypical pre-swap good soldier: help the tribe around camp, contribute in challenges, get along with everyone and survive until the swap. He hasn’t really done anything to establish an endgame resume, however, which means he’s ballast. Once the players who are sailing the ship don’t need him anymore, he’ll be cast aside.
Trish: She’s just like Cliff, only with more Survivor savvy. She definitely benefitted from being on a strong tribe – if Brawn had gone to an early Tribal Council, she and Lindsey could have suffered the same fate as doomed antagonists David and Garrett – but heading into the swap, she’s established herself as a useful, unthreatening follower. She’s more pawn than player, though, which is why her grade is so low.
5) C+ is for medioCrity – plus some entertainment value
Kass: Love her attitude and awareness. While I might have gone with J’Tia over Spencer (assuming that a swap was coming and that J’Tia would need me more than Spencer, whose self-interest and understanding of Survivor strategy will motivate him to seek his own safe harbors), I have faith that Kass fully understood the pros and cons of her decision (she’s about the only one out there who could accept J’Tia’s behavior as an “emotional response”). And if there’s one thing that Survivor juries tend to like, it’s a phoenix rising from the ashes of a tribal conflagration, so Kass – who is not entirely unlike Denise Stapley, winner of Survivor: Philippines – has, because of the futility of her tribe and her own maneuvering within it, safely arrived at the swap with the possibility of a deep run – which seemed impossible only an episode ago. Given that she’s being given a new lease on life, though, why doesn’t Kass earn a higher grade? Because I have a feeling that the other two Brains understand that she’s a threat and will turn on her before she’s able to turn on them (and that has everything to do with how she’s approached the game thus far: too much truth).
6) B- is for Bonny – minus the implication of attractiveness
Spencer: His utterly uninspiring plea to Tasha and Kass at Tribal Council aside, Spencer knows what he’s doing out there, and he’s put himself in a position of power moving forward: he survived the Brain damage, no one will blame him for jumping ship later or sooner, and he’ll make the most of his post-merge mobility as a man without a strong tribal affiliation (assuming he makes it through this post-swap warzone). I’m tempted to give him a much higher grade, but I can’t in good conscience do so, given that the only reason he’s not hanging with Garrett, David, and Brice at Losers Lodge right now is how historically bad J’Tia was at everything Survivor.
7) B is for Brawny, Brainy & Beautiful
Tony: We’re led to believe that he’s the fulcrum between Sarah and Trish, which means he’s important to his alliance (at least, others in that alliance think he’s needed); he managed to turn Uncle Cliffy and Lindsey into targets (no small feat, that); and he managed to find the Hidden Immunity Idol without anyone in his tribe, in or out of his alliance, knowing about it. He’s incredibly well-positioned to survive the post-swap melee; his Sterling Archer Danger Zone (SADZ) awaits him post-merge, when his hyped up meth-tweaker approach to strategizing (WILL HE STOP WAVING AROUND THE MACHETE, PLEASE) will get him targeted.
Tasha: She’s the only Brain who was never in danger, pre-swap, which says a lot about her social intelligence: she knows how to connect with people, and – despite some missteps in her approach to authority (expressing frustration in front of everyone rather than during confessionals) – is a natural and non-threatening leader (she’s also a relentless consensus builder; her desire to talk things through may have rubbed Kass the wrong way, but I bet other players will respond well to that approach). Tasha won’t immediately be seen as a threat heading into the swap – one of the few benefits of being so down in numbers and the taint of tribal ineptitude – which means she should get to the merge unscathed. The reason for a B rather than something higher? She’s established that she believes there’s a way the game SHOULD be played, and that may well come back and haunt her.
Alexis: I have a feeling that if we had a 24/7 Alexis-Cam, we’d see that she’s a lot smarter and more strategic than the edit is leading us to believe. I would guess that she and LJ are having a lot of “what should we do” discussions – there’s no way Jeremiah and Jefra are capable of contributing to those conversations, and they don’t trust Morgan – but we’re not seeing them (other than the vote-splitting plan). The only possible reason for that: Alexis isn’t long for the game, or becomes a non-factor after the merge. Still, I’m going to give credit for the smoke I’m seeing, because I think there’s a fire here; Alexis was never really in danger pre-swap (despite picking up two votes), and she – not Jeremiah – is in the sidekick position with LJ. Not bad for someone being entirely ignored by the edit.
8) B+ is for B/B/B – plus some glimmers of post-merge impact
Woo: To be sure, he talks about Survivor strategy the way a lumberjack would approach thoracic surgery – “I should avoid chopping those big tubes jutting out of the heart, right?” – but at least he’s aware of the fundamentals. He’s wise enough to not directly contradict Sarah when she’s outlining her plan to get rid of Cliff, but also smart enough to know that he was better served by not throwing the challenge. (My opinion: I think Woo would have gone along with the blindside of Uncle Cliffy if they could’ve maintained the appearance of competitiveness in front of Probst and the other players, but when the Brains were so staggeringly incompetent, to continue with the farce would have done more harm than good, so he took matters into his own hands and ended the idiocy.) Anyway, Woo has established that he’s a team player, a challenge beast, and has a rudimentary understanding of how the game works, so he’s in a good spot for a swap (post-merge is another matter, however).
Spencer: Hold on a second – didn’t he already get a B-? Yup. But what can I say, I like the kid. He was dealt a horrible hand at the start, managed to bluff his way to the swap, and now he gets to muck his cards and see what a new deal will bring him.
Morgan: Like many of you, I underestimated Morgan coming into the season; whether she deeply understands the game or simply has extensive mean-girl manipulation training under her belt, Morgan knows how to play people and turn them on one another. What’s hindering her now, though, is the perspective of privilege, the entitlement of attractiveness: she’s used to getting her way, and as a result, she lacks the empathy needed to truly excel at the game. In Survivor, you’re better off as a planet than as the sun, so long as you have moons of your own; Morgan thinks everything revolves around her (when in fact the universe of the game is much larger than any one solar system), while players and people like LJ know that there are larger forces at work, but so long as he’s got a few people orbiting around him, he’ll be just fine. Okay, that’s a flawed and nerdish analogy, but what can I say, I shoulda been on the Brains tribe.
9) A- is for Auspicious – minus the safety that comes with perfect execution
Sarah: She would have earned a full A if her plan to blindside Cliff hadn’t been so misguided. The situation we, as viewers, understand it (which, I’ll admit, is limited by the scope of the story we’re being told):
** The swap is going to take place after one more Tribal Council.
** Cliff is useful in challenges.
** After a swap, non-strategic players who, because of prolonged tribal safety, are starting to feel frisky and are considering self-serving moves tend to revert back to early game form: they cease strategizing and look to others for marching orders.
** The whole idea that Cliff is plotting Sarah’s downfall is utterly laughable; talk to him for five minutes, and you should know that he’s just along for the ride.
** Consider the source: Tony’s body language should scream to Sarah, “YOU CAN’T TRUST ME.”
Add to all of that the various reasons it’s catastrophically unwise to throw a challenge:
** Two new tribe members join the opposition: Mo Mentum and Mo Rale.
** You never want to feed the enemy (should food be part of the challenge equation)
** If you give the other players hope, they’ll start to bond, and those bonds will be much harder to break when you need to split them up after the merge and during the endgame.
** You don’t get to sit as many players in later Immunity Challenges (if there are any)
** You limit your tribe’s ability to dominate the post-merge numbers game (even if you thought Cliff wanted to vote you out, there’s no way he turns down, “We’ll be the Final 6”).
** If the blindside fails, you’re surrounded by players who either want you gone or castaways who no longer trust you – or both.
** If the blindside succeeds, everyone on your tribe now sees you as a threat: not only might you blindside them, but you’re also “Someone Who Makes Big Moves,” and can’t be allowed to make that pitch at the Final Tribal Council.
I’m sure there are many others that I’m forgetting, but I think that’s enough for now. The bottom line is this: To even consider throwing a challenge, there would have to be an extremely specific – and rare – set of circumstances involved, and none of them exist in the pre-swap game.
All of that said, though, Sarah is playing well, and should she make it to the merge, she’ll be in a position to lock horns with the other alphas.
LJ: I waxed poetic about him last week, so I don’t want to embarrass myself by heaping even more praise on him now… let’s just say that with an idol in his pocket (gotta love how he played dumb when Jeremiah found the clue) and with a gravitas the other players clearly respond to, LJ is going to make the merge. He played the pre-swap game as well as anyone this season; so well, in fact, that the only scenario wherein he’d have to worry about the post-swap window is if he’s isolated from his alliance AND he’s on a weak tribe that’s likely to lose more than one out of the next three challenges. The odds of both happening are extremely low (if only because he would provide a lot of challenge strength to whatever tribe he ends up on).
10) Probst Probe: Not since Janu Tornell was bullied into quitting Survivor: Palau have I felt this frustrated by Probst promoting his own agenda at Tribal Council.
Yes, Spencer will likely be better for the game after the swap (although the argument could be made that every time J’Tia felt threatened, she’d lash out in Hantzian ways, which, as we saw in Survivor: Caramoan, would be embraced as ratings gold), but Probst shouldn’t be overtly influencing the jury this way (one could argue that he’s violating the spirit of the laws that govern game shows). I’m sure it’s remarkably difficult for Probst to balance his dueling roles as invested producer and impartial interrogator – especially in the thick of a dramatic and pivotal Tribal Council – but after 28 seasons, he should be above such transparent ploys to shape the story as he feels it should be told.
Because it is impossible to predict whose fortunes are rising and falling without talking about the new tribal configurations – and I refuse to spoil how things shake out for those of you wise enough to avoid the promo (you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din) – I’m going to do something a little different this week…
11) Fortunes rising: Survivor
The big news this week: For the first time ever, Survivor beat American Idol in the ratings. While I think this has more to do with Idol’s decline than Survivor’s resurgence, I do think this ratings reality speaks to Survivor’s longevity and the strength of the core concept; take a bunch of newbies, put them on an island, and let the game unfold organically, and odds are you’ll get a compelling 13-episode narrative out of it. It’s no longer a foregone conclusion that Season 30 will be the end of the line – something that seemed inevitable a year or two ago until a run of good-to-great seasons turned the tide – and I, for one, couldn’t be happier for everyone involved. (And not just because I’ve got a few more shots to get on the show before the fall of Rome.)
12) Fortunes falling: American Idol
Never really liked it much anyway.
13) Prediction time:
I’ll resist the temptation to base my elimination prediction on the make-up of the two new tribes – DEAR LORD THIS IS SO VERY HARD TO DO – and instead point out that there are several storylines which can reach their inevitable conclusions in the post-swap, pre-merge episodes:
Jeremiah: After Morgan threw him under the bus in front of the whole tribe – and he wasn’t prepared to deflect her accusations – Jeremiah’s journey must and will end in defeat; the only question is when. Could be soon.
Alexis: The edit isn’t just hiding her strategic ability; it’s going WAAAAAY in the other direction and augmenting her ignorance (the chicken/egg conversation revolved around her lack of understanding). I don’t see her being a compliant post-merge floater, which suggests that she’ll be a pre-merge casualty.
Cliff: If he was showing even a glimmer of gamesmanship, we’d be hearing from him during confessionals. Heck, if all he did was get dragged to the end, we’d be getting more mileage out of him at this point in the game. Sadly, though, it looks like the best we can hope for is that Uncle Cliffy makes the merge; given that we don’t have a strong sense of how he feels about his fellow players, however – and we need that info to understand how the jury members will vote – it’s far more likely that he’s taken out before the jury phase of the game begins.
Lindsey: She’s talked about quitting. Every scene of her has been unflattering. And she’s likely to react poorly to the stress of a swap. There’s no way she’s around for the long haul. Which is why she’s my pick to go home.
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