It’s usually an exciting day on Survivor when the underdogs find a crack and tip over the majority. This week was no exception, as the overall response to old-Malolo taking over new-Naviti has been fairly positive across the board. The biggest question of the week seems to have been “was this a good move,” and opinions seem to be split wildly, which surprised me. It seemed to me to be evidently a good move, and at first I didn’t quite understand why people were seeing it badly.
That made me wonder – was I just seeing what the show wanted me to see? Am I being results-oriented? Or is this legitimately the good move that I think it is? So with that in mind – on to the ticket:
A curse not reversed (blame Andrew Savage)
From the start, the name Morgan is a bad omen in Survivor. First it was the name of one of what was frankly a really bad tribe. Then the first Morgan vanished very early in the season, to be replaced by the second Morgan—who lasted longer and certainly made more of an impression, but not for any strategic ability. Morgan Ricke seemed like she had some of the tools to be the most successful Morgan.
But, in reality, I didn’t expect her to go far. I thought her swimming skills would mean she would be seen as a challenge asset, but clearly not when they only other name on the table is Wendell. As I noted in our preseason draft, I felt like Morgan missed social cues in the preseason, and clearly she missed a big one here as she felt she had bonded with Libby but Libby genuinely blindsided her. As much as this felt a little soon for Morgan, it didn’t feel a lot soon to me.
One of the more interesting aspects of her removal is that it is now known the Legacy Advantage is out there, but not who has it for sure. I’m hoping that trying to identify the person who has it becomes a genuine piece of the plot.
And the winner is... (a bold prediction)
From original Malolo. Wait, you thought I was going to give you one name? Well... I am, but first I’m going to explain why original Naviti is gone, out for the count, not coming back.
To be fair, five members of the original Naviti tribe haven’t even hit tribal council yet. Despite that, Chelsea hasn’t seen any air time at all, Bradley has only seen time to moan about life, Desiree has been nearly as absent as Chelsea, and Sebastian has been shown to be a character, more dim than with any kind of ability to win the game. On that tribe, only Kellyn is getting any sort of strategic air time, and this week that was to make a pretty standard move seem negative.
All Kellyn did was essentially say “I’d love to work with you, but 5-4 is not the time that’s going to work, sorry.” – and I think that was the right move for her. Players respect the kind of honesty that leaves the door open long term while being realistic about the short term. However, I feel like this scene was made to appear as though Kellyn was cocky (backed up with her confessional about eliminating all the original Malolo’s and being left with only original Naviti). The show painted Kellyn into a strategic hole. She’ll be around a while, but this week really didn’t leave her looking that great.
On the other tribe, Morgan is gone while Angela was out of the loop and didn’t look like she had any kind of chance to win. Domenick and Chris have stories that are all about each other. Domenick is the kind of character type that Survivor loves to give screen time to, and it’s true that he is amassing an arsenal of advantages, but I don’t really get the sense that his story is going anywhere. In fact, after this week, I’m wondering if Chris is going to outlast him. Domenick could still go deep, but I don’t feel like the show is telling us that this is the guy to root for (Domenick has been important to the story and so he’s needed the screen time so far, but he hasn’t been commanding it like Tony did at the same point). Chris’s edit has been extremely unexpected – it feels like he’s getting a hero’s edit, and I’m really beginning to see a scenario in which he is the hero that vanquishes Domenick. But there’s nothing more to his story than that.
That leaves only Wendell, my original winner pick. I think Wendell is the original Naviti who still has the most chance to win, but this week didn’t look great for him. We saw his name thrown around and he didn’t really do anything to influence the fact that it was Morgan and not he who went home. He was blindsided by the result. And we didn’t really see much of his journey at all throughout the episode. I feel like we would have had more of his perspective in this episode if he was ultimately going on to win, although if he gets the opportunity to narrate his feelings about being on the wrong side of the numbers in the next episode – then maybe Wendell is the one with a chance.
But I think what this episode was really about is how Malolo is going to turn out to be one of the “greatest tribes ever” (or at least, that this may be the overall season arc narrative). We’ve heard that idea said in every episode so far, this time by Libby who said they were ‘still growing into’ the label. While it first it seemed like it the show was poking sarcastic fun at Malolo, I’m beginning to think they’re playing it straight. This tribe is going to dominate Naviti. This would mean that Kellyn’s confessional, the one in which she talked about taking out the Malolo’s first, would instead be the ironic ‘how wrong could you be’ moment.
Both camps swamped with Naviti up 5-4, and yet in both camps the entire episode seemed to be told from the perspective of the minority Malolo tribe. It wasn’t even balanced – even stories like the conflict between Chris and Domenick were primarily told through Malolo’s eyes. The stories told from Naviti’s eyes were negative (like how bad the Malolo shelter is). This is a really good sign that original Malolo is where we should be looking.
So then – a quick Malolo power ranking, eight through one:
8) Donathan. Donathan got nice personal content in the premiere, but when the rubber hit the road he was missing for the strategic discussion. I don’t get the sense that Donathan is any more than a ‘character’ who is going to be around deep.
7) Libby. I get the feeling Libby is going to get an Andrea-like edit. She’s going to make some moves and have a number of scalps to her name when all is said and done. But she was invisible in the full two-hour premiere, and that wasn’t a great look. She could just as easily go back to being invisible when her friendship with the person booted isn’t being shown to create doubt about who goes home.
6) Laurel. I want to rank Laurel higher than this. She seems to be involved in all of the right strategic conversations, but we’re also not really seeing her side of the story. Laurel seemed to be the one who picked Morgan over Wendell but she wasn’t really given much credit for it by the show. I hope we get more Laurel development soon.
5) Jenna. Similar to Laurel, just with a little bit more exposure. Jenna remains Stephanie’s calm-headed ally, and that’s a great spot for her right now, but we also need more personal story from her.
4) Brendan. I still don’t think Brendan had the best premiere, but things aren’t looking too bad for him either. Overall, though, I still feel like there’s not a ton there yet to build on.
3) Michael. Michael has surprised me on many levels. He’s coming across as likable, smart, strategic and he’s showing his fan chops. He’s appearing more mature than I expected him to. And now he has an idol. I think Michael is important to the story, and I think he’s going to play very well, but I still don’t think he’s the winner.
2) Stephanie. Stephanie could very well be the winner. There’s a very good shot. But if so, it’s been evident from the very start. I always had a good feeling about Stephanie, and that feeling continues. But, I can’t help but feel like she’s going to be seen for the threat she is and get booted just before the end. That leaves:
1) James. Oh boy, there is a real chance that I am biased here because he’s on Team Ben, and because I’ve been waiting a very long time for the second coming of Yul (although I’m still going to hold out hope for the literal version of this).
But I’m very much liking what I’ve seen of James through three episodes. James was consistently present across the premiere, and seemed to be presented as having strong interpersonal skills (talking to Laurel about Jacob idol hunting, for instance) while also publicly, if accidentally, shedding the appearance of being a threat by being truly awful in the diving challenge. The show then belaboured his own accountability for losing the challenge, spending much more time on it than it felt was warranted (and revisiting it again the moment the new episode started). And then Morgan’s boot was told pretty much from James’s perspective despite the fact it appears to have been a group effort. While people in the audience are suggesting James threat level would be raised as a result, I’m not sure that he will be given the most in game credit for the move right now. In fact, it seems that Libby is the one whose threat level rose as a result. Us seeing it from James’s perspective when we could probably have seen it from Laurel’s or Libby’s is meaningful to me.
Right now, James is reminding me a whole lot of Adam Klein. Adam had a consistency in the edit early in Millennials vs Gen X that I missed at the time—it seemed relatively humdrum and like nothing special was going on, and it probably didn’t help that he was on the bottom. The early part of Adam’s game played out as one in which he created great individual relationships while his public image was being tarred. In the end, Adam was able to sneak through the middle as neither the goatiest player nor the most threatening. James’s story feels like it’s playing out exactly the same way to me, and at this point I feel as though James is head and shoulders above everyone else out there in terms of the care the show has gone to in telling his story.
But first... (why the show wants us to see James’s move as good)
In my opinion, the best way to watch a Survivor episode—at least the first time through—is to take off the analytical glasses and see it the way that the producers meant it to be seen. As I mentioned above, it felt like this episode was told almost wholly from the perspective of the sets of four original Malolo players sent to each tribe. What this meant was that you found yourself rooting for the Malolos to overthrow the majority. You wanted James and Laurel to overthrow Domenick and save Angela. You wanted Steph, Jenna, Michael and Brendan to find an idol. And already the show is already showing it’s hand for next week—as Stephanie is writing the word ‘hope’ in the sand, it’s another clear indication that we are supposed to be rooting for the original Malolo tribe.
It’s no surprise, then, that my original instinct was to see it as a good move. I think that if I am results-based, it will end up being a good move. This is going to work out for James and crew (although, obviously, only for one of them in the end... perhaps it won’t work out so well for Libby).
There’s an extent to which we have to judge a move by what the show is telling us. I’ve always felt that fans are too quick to label something a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ move, as I think many moves made are ‘risky with upside and downside,’ and that’s something difficult to objectively label as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In this case, original Malolo had options, and all of those options came with upside and downside. Knowing what the right move was to make for sure is only something that can be judged in hindsight, and the show is telling us that in hindsight the move was good.
An attempt at objectivity (thinking like Chrissy)
Having said that, making a move in Survivor is about playing the odds. James said the move in this episode was ‘Morgan or Wendell’ and he didn’t mind which. I think he came to the right view.
The first and most important objective had to be to ensure that the remaining four members of Naviti were still in conflict. For this reason, Domenick and Chris should always have been off the board. I’ve heard some people say Domenick should have been the target, but I think he would have been the worst choice possible. Wendell and Morgan may have been able to apologise to Angela and Chris, and say they were only acting under the thumb of Domenick and they need to build a bridge and work together to survive—and there’s every chance it could have worked. Removing Domenick might be good for today, but it wouldn’t solve tomorrow. The same went for Chris, but he was off the table anyway.
The other option was to take out Angela unanimously, but James (correctly) identified that Domenick’s story about having no real idol could well be fake. If you think you’re being sold a story, and that there’s any risk that the other side is planning an idol play, then the one person you definitely can’t vote for is the person they tell you to. James assessed that if they voted Angela and Domenick played an idol on her, one of them would go home. I think this was a very good call, and never mind that Domenick didn’t play the idol—that’s the real results-oriented perspective.
In the end, I think that Wendell and Morgan were the only two options where Malolo could safely vote out someone from the other side, feel comfortable the idol wouldn’t cancel their votes, and ensure that the rift in old Naviti would be too hard to mend. They’ve got at least a 5-3 advantage at this point, and probably have their choice of target out of Domenick and Chris if they go back to tribal again (they’d probably be smartest to pick Chris, but it would depend who is at Ghost Island).
After looking at all sides, I just don’t see it when people say the right move was Angela or Domenick. That’s the right move if your goal is to get idolled out of the game. It’s not the move if you want to take control of the tribe safely.
Then there’s the other argument—that you should immediately treat your new tribe as your ‘real’ alliance and abandon any pretence of staying strong to your original tribe. This is nice in theory, but in reality I believe it really depends on how a swap occurs. In this case, Malolo were down 10-8 and then found themselves down 5-4 on each tribe. It was in Naviti’s interests to keep their options open with Malolo (given they had the genuine option of sticking together or not sticking together), but in reality all Malolo players were left at a very strong numbers disadvantage in the game—original Naviti could easily pick them off without ever truly giving them the chance to get into the ‘in’ crowd. For the Malolos, aligning with Naviti players would leave them with no options at all, forced to go with the flow of the game for a while and hope they could hang on while their original tribe got picked off. This hasn’t ended up working out well for anyone in quite some time—with the Mana tribe in Game Changers the most immediate example to the Malolos' playing. You need to create options before you get a choice. For now, Malolo had only one option, and they took it.
This and That
* With Michael’s idol find and Stephanie writing ‘hope’ in the sand, I feel as though we are being primed to see a successful idol play at new-Malolo. I think we’re likely to see Chelsea, Bradley or Desiree go home as a result. It feels like an opportunity to see Malolo get back on top in both tribes.
* I’ve seen a bit of comment about how the move was bad for Libby, given her bond with Morgan. My own sense is that this bond was well overplayed to create dramatic tension. In reality, I don’t think there was nearly the closeness shown and that Libby probably felt closer to the original Malolos. You only need to look at how Libby treated Donathan at the diving challenge last week, or when he returned from Ghost Island this week, to see how she is close with him. All four of those players had already been working together constructively—it would have been far too early to throw that away. We had a line in the episode where Libby said “I’ll play dumb but I’m not going to be dumb about it.” Libby always understood this wasn’t the time for her to switch it up.
* To those who immediately compared Bradley’s moaning to Anakin Skywalker’s famous ‘sand’ monologue— I tip my hat. That was funny.
* Jacob claimed that he didn’t look that hard for an idol (at least, not for nearly as long as people said). I think that this was somewhat validated this week when the idol turned out to be James Clement’s idol—that’s pretty hard to miss. Despite that, it seemed like it took four people having a decently long expedition to find, so I’d say it was hidden a fair way from camp. Likely to just be the bad lack of exploring a small area thoroughly (such as looking in tree hollows), rather than covering a large area lightly. Poor Jacob, although I think the idol will see better use in Michael’s hands.
* Morgan wasn’t so much Kim Spradlin, but I was getting decent Candice Cody vibes from her. I think she was a really fun character in the end, and it’s almost a shame that she’ll probably be forgotten about far too soon.
* I talked about two possible editing tricks above. The first would be if Chris’s hero edit extends to him beating Domenick. Literally nobody seems to expect this, and yet it seems to be what the show is telling us will happen. The second is naming Malolo ‘the greatest tribe ever’. Survivor has been so good at subversion over such a long period of time that it’s what we’ve come to expect. By playing it straight Survivor can subvert our expectations of subversion, and I think that would be a beautiful thing.
All right, that does it for another week. As always, please comment and tweet at me – tell me that I have my winner pick wrong, that I’ve decided everything far too early, go on! And I’ll reply by reminding you that I picked Chrissy this early too and.... well never mind that.
James has this in the bag y’all—I’ll see you next week!
By day, Ben Martell is a public commercial lawyer from New Zealand.
By night, he moonlights as a self-described Survivor 'expert'.
By day or night, find him on twitter at: @golden8284