There’s a point in every Survivor season, usually right after the merge, when I look at the players, and think, “Can ANYONE win this thing?” This is largely due to the pile of doubts I have about almost every castaway at the halfway point, thanks to their social and strategic mistakes during the pre-merge game. For the rare player who gets this far with a seemingly flawless résumé, it feels inevitable that the group will place a target on his or her back, and snuff accordingly.
And yet, despite compelling reasons to rule everyone out, one of the remaining eleven will, in fact, win the million dollars and the title. Thankfully, the first merge vote often brings with it the rarest of Survivor commodities: clarity. Sure, there are twists and turns ahead, but we’ve got a stronger sense of who’s with whom, don’t we?
More importantly, though, the players themselves got a lot of information at last week’s Tribal, or at least they should have. A large alliance pulled together to split the votes. Three players remain in the minority alliance, at least two of whom are obvious targets. And everyone should have learned a lot from the chaos of the pre-Tribal scramble, the conversation at Tribal, and the hushed whispers during the extended “Live Tribal.”
Frankly, any player that doesn’t have a good idea where things stand — in the short term and probably the long — isn’t paying close enough attention. The merge vote doesn’t always provide clarity, of course; sometimes, there’s a temporary truce, a general agreement to delay the inevitable for a vote, perhaps two. But when Probst reveals a 5-4-3 split, a whole lot of lies and half-truths are exposed. Sure, things may change and often do, but right now, these players have everything they need to chart a course to the endgame (although admittedly, some face rougher waters than others).
So what lessons should everyone have learned? Who needs to get aggressive, and who should take a step back? How is the game likely to flow over the next few boots? Let’s take a look.
If I’m Shan, I’m skipping away from that Tribal whilst whistling a jaunty tune (metaphorically speaking). If she had any doubts about where she stands within her Core Four alliance, she shouldn’t any more. Here’s what she learned at Tribal:
** Liana’s loyalties are no longer split; after openly and ineffectively turning on her former Yase tribemates, she will be attached to Shan’s hip for the rest of the ride.
** Deshawn has been identified as a threat. While this will be problematic if he gets to the end, he’s also a shield and a target as Final Tribal gets closer.
** At Tribal, Danny reminded the remaining players that he is an elite athlete. Won’t be hard to convince everyone that Danny needs to leave before he goes on an extended immunity run.
Truth be told, things couldn’t have gone much better for Shan despite the failed advantage play: She didn’t catch any votes, she’s shaping strategy while not being ID’ed as a power player, and her extended alliance needs her in the short term: if Ricard sticks with the Core Four, they have at least a tie at 10; if Nasser, Erika, and Heather remain on board, too, then they’ll control the game until someone decides to flip it (and that person might be Shan, beating others to the punch). Another thing not to lose sight of: Sydney’s departure gives Danny and Deshawn fewer options; by getting rid of a loyal number, they’re ever more dependent on Shan and her plans.
To be fair, Shan continued to make mistakes last week:
** She underestimated Evvie, at one point insisting that Evvie wasn’t a threat. While that could have been an outright lie to assure Liana that the Yase Three wouldn’t plan around her advantage, it felt like Shan’s genuine read.
** Shan must have signed off on Liana playing her advantage, and I have a hard time believing that Shan was okay with the move failing. They knew that Xander was aware of the advantage; not having a plan in place to counter Yase’s counter (which would have made the Tribal whispering unnecessary) led to the worst possible outcome: advantage burned and two idols still out of their control. To be sure, a lot of this can be attributed to Liana’s myopic fixation on Xander and his idol, but Shan needed to help her alliance be ready for what might happen. The price for not doing so was steep.
** It’s a small thing, but incremental mistakes add up: at the challenge, Shan said, “C’mon, Ricard!” While this is forgivable, given that they’re the remaining two Ua players left, it’s the sort of vocal support that worries new allies. The edit gave us a quick glimpse of Danny reacting to Shan’s encouragement (at least I think it was him). A hint that there are some hard questions ahead, perhaps.
I don’t know that Liana escapes this Tribal Council still being able to play both sides under any circumstances, but things really couldn’t have gone much worse for her: she’s now completely at the mercy of her Core Four+ alliance. If she’s going to have a chance to win the game, she needs to bide her time, let a couple of the Yase players fall, then try to put something together at F9 or F8. But can you see her assembling an alliance with Ricard, Tiffany, Erika, and Heather? And then teaming up with The Smasher and InvisiGirl to get to the end? I can’t either.
A few other notes:
** When people talk about younger players not having enough life experience to navigate the game, what they’re really saying is that kids aren’t as jaded and skeptical as they need to be. Trusting others and having faith in oneself are wonderful qualities in life, but they can be significant hindrances in Survivor. Liana needed to worry more that her former friends were lying to her and that her advantage play might fail. Overconfidence borne of inexperience is a death sentence in this game.
** It would be fascinating to examine the Probstian rhetoric around Big Moves as it has evolved over time. Did it pick up around the time that Probst became executive producer? Or had the disease already started to progress at that point? Whatever the truth, I think it’s safe to say that the cancer has metastasized. Players (particularly the younger and/or strategically uninformed ones) come into the game impatient and wearing blinders: they can’t wait to create a memorable moment, one that will please the producers, even if the decision to do so is horribly unwise. Liana kept telling us: “I can’t wait to use [the Knowledge is Power advantage]” and “I can’t wait to take [Xander’s] idol.” Undoubtedly, the field producers were giddy with the possibilities (it would be interesting to hear their line of questioning, wouldn’t it?), and when they reported back to Probst, he almost certainly smiled smugly. *Sigh*
** Liana told us a few episodes ago that her inability to take out Xander would be her million dollar mistake. We should take her at her word. Add her to the pile of players who won’t be winning.
Since the start of the season, Danny’s been one of my favorite players: In a game that’s largely about deceit and deception, I love a straight-shooter. I don’t think it’s the wisest approach to the game (although a player can get deep with the right alliance), but it’s refreshing, a counter-melody to the chaotic music created by scheming strategists. Give me at least one truth teller every season and I’m a happy camper.
For one week and one week only, though, I’m going to elevate Danny to my Favorite Player Ever. Why? Because, according to Sydney, he called out Probst at Tribal for the Time Turner Twist. Not only did he accuse Probst and production of lying, but he made a strong enough case that Probst was willing to hear him out (to be clear, though, Sydney said nothing about Probst apologizing). Thank you, Danny, for doing what needed to be done.
All that said, I don’t think Danny is going to win the game. Here’s why:
** The edit is indicating that he’s out of the loop, e.g. he didn’t know about Liana’s advantage until Xander told him.
** So far as the onscreen narrative goes, Danny’s not at the forefront of the Core Four alliance. Shan’s the strategic force (we see her telling Liana what to do with the KiA; Danny and Deshawn were nowhere to be seen) ... Deshawn is the self-appointed social player … and Liana was at least attempting to make a move. Where does that leave Danny?
** He is the biggest physical threat in his extended alliance; won’t be long now before his name keeps getting brought up as a potential target.
Deshawn embodied the duality of the game this week: on the one hand, he was outed as a significant threat; on the other hand, he helped guide the strategic maneuvering before and during Tribal (he was even given credit for being the first person to throw out Sydney’s name) and is in a pretty safe spot, at least for the time being. Which is another way of saying that he’s building an endgame résumé, which is both a blessing and a curse.
And so I found it fascinating that instead of trying to reduce his threat level, he leaned into the “Deshawn is a social player” narrative. It makes sense: if everyone sees you as a charismatic, likable guy, trying to deny your threat level will only come off as disingenuous. Why not own it, then? That way, if he’s able to get to the end, he can take credit for it. Not sure I would have complained that this version of Survivor doesn’t suit my strengths, though; while true (twist & advantage-heavy game design can and will thwart even the strongest social strategist), the jury members (everyone sitting there at Tribal other than Sydney) might see it as whining and undercut his arguments at Final Tribal, should he get there. Still, overall, Deshawn is in a reasonably good spot right now: his fellow players see him as someone who could win the game, and he’s in no imminent danger of getting voted out, assuming the current battle lines hold true. Great news to get at this point in the game.
** I love that even when everyone is pointing out that his social game makes him a threat, he can’t help but give Xander and Evvie praise for a well-executed (or at least theatric) move. Again, perhaps not the smartest thing to do under the circumstances, but it confirms that his personality is genuine: this is just who he is.
** While I’m not thrilled that Deshawn semi-defended production’s heavy hand with the Time Turner Twist, it’s never a bad idea to side with Probst and company while you’re in the game.
** I totally understand using the extra vote to make sure Sydney went home. It was his neck on the line if some votes flipped onto Evvie and Xander played his idol. Trust has to be earned at the merge.
From what little we got of Ricard in this episode, he appears to have been welcomed into the Core Four alliance. It’s a marriage of convenience, of course: they need numbers now, but Ricard is far too sharp to believe that any of them — including Shan — will be approaching him with long-term plans. He will need to make a move if he’s going to be around at the end, sooner rather than later.
To be blunt about it, as Ricard goes, so goes this season. If he chooses a safe path, one that leads to him leaving around F7 or so, then we’re in for a distressingly predictable game. If instead he opts to spearhead a counter alliance, then things could get interesting. And is there anyone else who could pull together a curious three-tribe hydra of the remaining Yase players, the Luvu floaters, and him? He’s like the Survivor Punxsutawney Phil: if he sees his shadow and hides, we’re in for weeks of Pagonging. Here’s hoping for an early spring.
6) Erika and Heather
This tandem — and their edit — do not make me optimistic about what Punxsutawney Ricard will see. They’re floaters. Numbers. Pawns. Goats.
Given what we’ve seen of Erika and Heather thus far, is there any reason to believe that they’re willing to flip the game? Perhaps Erika’s “play like a lion” comment offers a reason to be optimistic. But why would either of them take such a big swing (one that would lead to all kinds of uncomfortable camp confrontation) when they can rationalize waiting and watching? And then there’s the edit: if these two were going to make it to the end, Erika’s arc would be portrayed far differently, and Heather would actually be on the show. (Related possibility: One or both of them could end up being taken out by a roll of the Shot in the Dark dice or a post-merge twist … negative edits like Sydney’s and Erika’s, or invisible ones like Heather’s, help “justify” a production-influenced elimination, or at least dampen the reaction from the casual viewing audience.)
Here’s how Erika and Heather are likely to see things: If the Yase players go home one after another, they’re at F8. Then, they’re likely to be courted by a trio of Luvus. Why say no? Suddenly, they’re in the Final 5 … and everyone wants to take them to the end. Next thing you know, they’ve got seats at Final Tribal council, arguing that they should win because no one expected them to get to the end. As ridiculous as that may sound to us, floaters succumb to this delusion season after season after season. Odds are high that these two are no different.
These two are all that stand between us and a dramatically underwhelming endgame. The Smasher and InvisaGirl. Think they have it in them?
Straddling alliances after the merge is a high-wire act: if you swing too far one way or the other, your balance is thrown off … and there’s no safety net down below. But if you pull it off, the jury may reward you. High risk, high reward.
One of the central tenets of alliance straddling, however, is not to be too overt about it. Have conversations at camp. Hold covert meetings during the pre-Tribal scramble. But walk back and forth between groups during a Live Tribal? That feels like a step too far.
While Naseer ultimately sided with the majority alliance, he’s going to be in a lot of trouble once the Yase threats (specifically Xander and Evvie) are gone. There’s no way that the Core Four fully trust him, we’ve been given no indication that he and Ricard have a working relationship, and, despite having been with Erika and Heather from the outset of the game, there’s no support in the edit for a sub-alliance that could reshape the endgame.
It won’t be long now before Naseer and his idol become the target of a split vote, and when that happens, there won’t be much if anything that Naseer can do about it. He just doesn’t have the allies. Perhaps that’s why we saw him making a promise to Xander that they can protect each other: Naseer is going to side with Yase, which ultimately leads to his demise.
8) Tiffany, Xander, Evvie
While the Yase Three undoubtedly left Tribal Council on a euphoric high, reality had to have set in on the walk back to camp. They’re outnumbered. Worse still, everyone in the majority has good reasons to think they’ve got a path to the end.
The likely result of that dynamic? Evvie and Xander are the next two to go. And, while it’s possible that something interesting happens at F9, odds are high that Tiffany would follow them out of the game and onto the jury.
The Yase Three got the clarity they needed at Tribal. The problem is, all they got was bad news.
** I’m assuming that Xander had to officially give his idol and extra vote to Tiffany, with a field producer there as a notary. If that’s the case, and you’re Tiffany, do you see that the ship is sinking, keep the idol and extra vote for yourself, and seek safer harbors? It’s one thing to say at Tribal, “They’re not mine” (a smart move), it’s another thing altogether to give Xander the idol back knowing that your days are numbered if you don’t shake things up.
** As much courage as it took for Xander to tell Tiffany not to play the idol, let’s not go overboard. Worst case scenario, Evvie goes home and he still has an idol. Xander is going to need that idol, both to force the majority to split their votes (which makes it a bit easier to fracture a big alliance) and, eventually, so that he can guarantee himself a couple more days in the game. It’s a long shot to get to the end at this point and he knows it; an idol makes the impossible ever so slightly implausible instead.
** Evvie pitching that Xander should play the idol for them, because that way, they’ll be on the jury — that’s SMART.
** Interesting that the idea to sow chaos was depicted as a solo effort from Xander. We didn’t see him discuss the possibility with Evvie or Tiffany, or enlist their help to spread information (and possibly disinformation). As much as we talk about the Yase Three, they really are playing individual games at this point.
** Tiffany’s edit was infused with a bit more doubt this week: when she joined the majority alliance at Tribal, Deshawn said something to the effect of, “You can’t trust her with this.” Trust … not only is it important in the game, but it’s a loaded word that gets highlighted in the edit when someone has it and when they don’t. Tiffany doesn’t, and it’s starting to feel like her departure from the game will come down to trying to play both sides of competing endgame alliances, and paying the price for her duplicity.
9) Small things
** With the Knowledge is Power advantage out of the game, Deshawn’s extra vote burned, and Shan unlikely to use her idol or extra vote any time soon … is production going to get frisky and put something new into the game? A lot of players haven’t been to Excursion Island yet, and those ship wheels look like they were built for a full season of use ....
** I used to find foot-based challenges absurd. And to some degree, I still do. But when I started to complain and my family rolled their eyes at me, I realized that I was the problem (which is usually how it goes). Pretty much every challenge is ridiculous when you get right down to it … so I’m just going to let this one go from now on.
** When you need a long explainer video at the outset of an episode to explain all of your advantages and remind the audience who has them, your game design is garbage.
10) Probst Probe
In the comment section of last week’s column, we had a brief conversation about this season’s twists and what the number and nature of them says about Probst and production. I’ve been thinking about this off and on all week, and I keep coming back to the idea that Probst has simply been around too long. His priorities have shifted over the years, and he now sees Survivor as a show that involves a game rather than a game that becomes a show.
I often say that Survivor is like life, and that’s true even for Probst: We remember our youth because everything was so new. Eventually, though, the years start flying by and everything becomes a blur. That’s how Probst sees Survivor: I’m sure he remembers Borneo like it was yesterday … and I bet he’d struggle to recall even half of the cast members from Seasons 30-39.
As a result, Probst is no longer looking for great players; in his mind, the show already has enough of those, and just about every new season will provide the fodder they’ll need for returnee seasons (a winner, a journey player, a hero, a villain, a second chancer and/or a game changer). What he wants instead are big moments (which may or may not be big moves) that he can use to hype the season and the episodes within it. Thus, an endless, mind-numbing parade of “shocking twists” and “unprecedented decisions.” Probst now lives in a world of hyperbole, where everything has to be historic; if it’s not extreme, it’s mundane, and if anyone in production suggests something that has even a whiff of old school Survivor to it, that’s the last suggestion they’ll ever make. And you better not whine about it, because the game is a monster, and the monster has to be fed.
But we know who the real monster is. It’s the dimpled charlatan for whom Survivor is a drug. Probst is a junkie who is chasing the dragon, needing more and more and more to get his high. Creating an advantage that forces players to tell the truth? Not enough. Shot in the Dark Dice, prisoner dilemma ship wheels, and Beware idols activated by ludicrous phrases? Getting closer. Lying to players, ripping away immunity from half of them, and having a player depart in the most unfair of ways? Ahhhh, that’s the stuff. All of them together in the same season with the inevitable post-merge additions? That’ll quiet the monster. Until next season.
11) Fortunes rising: Deshawn
Three of the key pieces I look for in the edit every season: when we’re shown players making endgame alliances, when other players identify someone as a threat to win, and when that same someone articulates a game approach that could be at the heart of a Final Tribal Council speech. Deshawn now checks all three boxes: he’s part of the Core Four (who have talked about making it to the end together; we haven’t heard similar sentiments from the Yase Three, the only other alliance of note), he was targeted at the last Tribal Council because he’s been playing well, and he’s hasn’t been shy about possessing a strong social game. While I’m not all in on Deshawn yet, I’m getting there. I don’t think we should be surprised if he makes it to the end and leans into the narrative that his social game is why he should win.
12) Fortunes falling: Evvie
One of their closest allies abandoned and betrayed them. Was called out at Tribal for having told Deshawn about Xander’s idol and for having an alliance (agreement?) with Deshawn dating back to their visit to Expedition Island. Begged Xander to play the idol for them but was rebuffed. Is now outnumbered 8-3. Most likely being targeted at the next Tribal along with someone who has an idol.
Like Probst to players at the merge, the teaser lies: when Next Week On tries to convince us that the upcoming vote will be wildly unpredictable, the opposite is far more likely to be true. What’s probably happening:
** Xander and Evvie are once again the targets.
** The idol complicates things.
** A lot of names are thrown out to obfuscate the obvious: the eight plan to split the vote on Xander and Evvie, with Evvie going home if Xander plays the idol.
One possible alternative: Xander or Evvie wins immunity, forcing a split vote between the one who didn’t win and a harmless decoy boot like Heather.
With eleven players left, including some strong challenge performers, I’m going with someone other than Xander and Evvie winning the challenge. That will be followed by scrambling which makes it look like people might flip (Naseer? Erika?). Add in Xander’s extra vote possibly creating a tie, and perhaps that tie being used to bring a risk averse floater like Heather over to their side, and we have the elements we need for doubt heading into Tribal. We might even get Shan talking about using her extra vote to counter anything Xander might do...
In the end, though, if Xander isn’t wearing the immunity necklace, he’s playing his idol, which means that Evvie will become our first juror and the Mayor of Ponderosa.
That’s it for this week. If you’d like to keep the conversation going, please leave a comment below. One of the best things about True Dork Times is the community of commenters; would love to see some new voices join our diehards!
Baker When he’s not blogging about
Survivor, Andy Baker helps run a Survivor-based LRG and is
podcasting about TV shows. Which is to say he spends
entirely too much time in front of the TV, typing on his
laptop and muttering about bad narrative decisions.
Andy can be found on twitter: @B13pod.